Democracy Is Dying, Again

Democracy Dying Across the Globe

That headline isn’t getting the coverage it deserves, and it’s true around the world. Freedom House, a non-partisan organization based in the US, measures and rates democracies around the entire world. Their data has shown net falls in global freedom every year for the last decade. 2020 has been freedom’s lowest point since the organization was founded in the 90s. I’ll spare you the technical jargon, but their methodology is derived from the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it specifically measures liberties enjoyed by individuals. It rates the implementation of freedoms rather than the written law of them. For example, a fraudulent election would rate poorly because even though by law a country had an election, the individuals did not enjoy the liberty of electing their government. Russia is a good example of a democracy on paper whose people don’t enjoy many liberties. The dirty details are here if you’re curious.

In Poland, the ruling PiS party has turned their former independent judiciary into a political tool by persecuting judges who made unfavorable rulings or criticizes changes to their judiciary.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has consolidated control not only over its government, but over its media and many areas of public life. Freedom House reports that it was one of the most democratic nations in the world in 2005, and this year, it was demoted to a “hybrid regime,” a category for countries it ultimately considers not democracies.

Similarly, several countries in the Balkans saw losses, even as those countries, such as Northern Macedonia and Serbia, join the EU. As the make up of EU countries becomes less democratic, Europe as a whole may follow. Spain, for example, imprisoned several leaders for hosting an illegal referendum on Catalonian Independence. While it may seem reasonable to detain those responsible for trying to rip apart a country, the violence exhibited towards those voters is not. While of course that news isn’t new, it does begin to establish a worrying trend for the most democratic continent.

More recently, France has cracked down on ‘the enemy within,’ referring to radicalized Muslims after a teacher was beheaded for depicting a caricature of Muhammad. The perpetrator had already been killed by the police, so raids are now expatriating Muslims guilty of nothing other than being ‘suspicious.’ In less diplomatic terms, they’re being expelled for thought crimes. As police raid homes, bills are being passed to keep the police from being held accountable by outlawing posting any video of police. Make no mistake, terror attacks from all creeds are deplorable and reprehensible, but when raids and arrests are made on little basis other than what people believe, the government unabashedly encroaches on the liberty it’s sworn to protect and sets a precedent for raids against others with unpopular ideals. I don’t envy Macron as he faces pressure to do more and Muslim countries around the world rally against France for stoking tensions with the Muslim world further. Malaysia’s former Prime Minister accused the western world in being hypocritical and selective when upholding freedom of expression, and he does so with a somewhat compelling argument.

Democracy’s faltering isn’t unique to Europe either. Many countries that are marginally democratic have seen slides into further corruption or authoritarianism.

The election-quagmire in Venezuela has gone so far that the former mayor of its capital, Caracas, says that they’re quickly dissolving as a country and becoming a failed state.

I’ve written about Hong Kong extensively, but the situation still continues as liberties continue to be chipped away. China has reduced the city’s autonomous legislature and now limits those who can run to ‘patriots.

Belarus, which hasn’t had a free or fair election since the 90s, nevertheless has seen unprecedented protests and police brutality over a rigged election. They’ve closed their borders and have been accused of torturing protesters.

In Thailand, the king has steadily taken more power, gained controlling shares of corporate giants, dissolved the prominent opposition party, and bizarrely, rules from Germany. Protests finally erupted in February and quickly escalated, resulting in several arrests and accusations of police brutality. Thailand had already faced a military coup in 2006, and a military crackdown in 2011, which resulted in changes to their constitution, allowing

Kyrgyzstan, one of the only former soviet states that’s a democracy, faced civil strife and contested elections forcing its president to step down – for the third time in 15 years.

In Sri Lanka, their president, Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has gone as far as amending their constitution to give him the power to dissolve parliament and fire the Prime Minister.

Both Myanmar and Mali had a literal military coup. The former after a democratic leader won an election without the military backing, and the latter to resolve increasingly violent protests against government corruption, promising for elections within a ‘reasonable time frame.’ To their credit, this election did occur with a new president being named in September. Myanmar situation is more grim. Their army has killed over 500 protestors, including children, at the time of this writing.

The world’s largest democracy, India, is similarly becoming more authoritarian. I’ve written before on the brutal takeover of Kashmir, but among other concerning practices involve including religion as a criteria for citizenship, a clampdown on dissenting media (often in the form of lawsuits), and allowing unlimited and anonymous donations to political parties, as well as well as an increase in police brutality – another worldwide trend that’s closely intertwined with waning liberties.

And of course at home in the United States’ most recent election, we saw attempts to restrict access to voting, to encourage voter fraud, eager attempts to politicize the courts, and campaigning to remove entire parties from ballots. The president of the United States equivocated on whether he’d endorse a peaceful transfer of power, and subsequently incited an insurrection (despite the politicization of events, his language is clear).

A US Supreme Court Justice refused to endorse a peaceful transfer of power – something explicitly called out in the US Constitution justices are committed to upholding. The only alternative to a peaceful transfer of power is a violent one. Even an election decided by courts would be peaceful as it was in 2000’s contested Gore v Bush, so it’s hard to imagine that those words have any less gravity than an implicit endorsement of civil war or military coup. Even if one wanted to chalk that up to ‘taking words out of context,’ ‘just joking around,’ or otherwise not being serious, others took it as a call to violence. In Texas, a group of pickup trucks hoisting MAGA flags attempted to run a Biden Harris campaign bus off the road.

It would be a mistake to think that these problems will dissipate with the inauguration and presidency of Mr. Biden, and not only because Trump is reportedly considering a 2024 run. The fact is these problems are far more systemic as evidenced by increased rhetoric and protests from Democrats and Republicans with regards to accepting both the results of the 2016 and 2020 election results. In 2016, refusal to accept results was largely limited to citizens, but in 2020, it spread to representatives across all levels of the government. Over 50 lawsuits were filed, some with aims as wild as completely disregarding the vote and assigning Pennsylvania’s electors in favor of Trump. Another lawsuit saw the state of Texas suing 4 states to overturn their election results, and 17 other states signed on their support. The list is extensive and seemingly endless. Lastly, 139 members of congress, just shy of 1 in 3 congressmen, actively attempted to overthrow the election.

It’s difficult to not sound alarmist, but if you live in a democracy, your ability to criticize the government or vote for someone not in power is waning. Perhaps that’s not a concern though. In fact, support for Democracy itself is at an all time low. Polls such as the one linked naturally beg the question, what was the wording? After all, there’s a large difference between being dissatisfied with your particular government and being dissatisfied with the idea of democracy. Both cases, however, bode poorly for stability, and history has shown that democracies die in times of civil strife. That’s what I want to talk about today, why and how democracies of the past have died.

Historical Precedent

Tearing the Republic’s Bonaparte

The French Revolution is largely recognized as one of the most important events in human history, where most of what we recognize as unalienable rights originates. While it’s true that the American Revolution predates the French, the ideas in the American revolution weren’t taken quite as seriously as those in the French. After all, colonies revolted all the time, but the French had been a world power for hundreds of years. What’s particularly interesting and less spoken about, is that mere months after the monarchy was overthrown and the First French Republic instituted, Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew it all and became emperor with the people’s supposed approval.

Napoleon Bonaparte in imperial regalia
Napoleon Bonaparte dressed in homage to a Roman emperor

I was a bit hesitant to include a portion on the French Revolution since revolutions inherently lead to instability and frequent changes of government, but I thought it was particularly interesting as it’s the only other revolution American high schoolers are taught about as it relates dealt with liberty and freedom, yet it descended into a military dictatorship within months. Let’s set the scene:

September 1792, a very bankrupt France found itself at war with Prussia and Austria. In addition to the war abroad, civil unrest abounded. An event formally dubbed the “September Massacre” occurred (though I think riot or even insurrection may be more accurate) where government officials, peasants, and the military broke into a prison and murdered over a thousand inmates. The Legislative Assembly of France (an entity in itself that had only existed for about a year) came together and decided to oversee an election, and determine how to deal with the rampant, uncontrolled and continually escalating violence in the streets. They formed the committee of Public Safety, which infamously began The Reign of Terror. Anyone who was viewed as not fully supportive of the revolution (or maybe someone who looked at the wrong person the wrong way), was arrested and swiftly guillotined.

The Committee of Public Safety was seen as a temporary drastic measure to reel in the chaos surrounding the country from invasions to counter revolutionaries. The granting of temporary powers is by no means extraordinary nor unique to France, but eventually those temporary powers become permanent in the name of safety or security. Extraordinary temporary powers are rarely truly temporary.

In 1794, Maximilien Robespierre was arrested and executed for his role in the Reign of Terror, and a new government was formed, the Directorate. The Directorate was also a short lived government that was overthrown by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte and a few members of the Directorate in the Coup of 18 Brumaire.

Members of the Directorate and Napoleon formed France’s next government, the French Consulate with Napoleon as head of government as First Consul, a term from Roman government. From there it was only 5 years in 1804 when Napoleon would be coronated as emperor.

Napoleon’s ascent to fame as emperor what I really want to hone in on. Napoleon was incredibly popular, and his victories in wars all around Europe brought stability to France. However, some feared that when Napoleon died, a lack of successor would plunge France into chaos…again. Remember that the French Revolution had started in 1789, and was preceded by a period of rampant wealth inequality. By 1804, the revolution was well in living memory, and the Reign of Terror even more so. The fear of chaos was real, and despite having participated in a literal coup, Napoleon and the Senate put the question to the people of France. The turnout was reportedly about 47%, with over 99% voting to make Napoleon emperor. I had some trouble determining whether that was a real result or just a propaganda piece. From what little bits of information I could scrounge up, the result was likely fudged, but not significantly. Note that 47% is similar to turnout in US elections, and oftentimes those who fudge electoral results tend to fudge both turnout AND votes.

Napoleon was thusly crowned emperor by the pope that December, and ruled in his own right until his continued wars with all of Europe finally collapsed, and he was banished to a small island. Per the people’s wish, his son Napoleon II was supposed to ascend to the throne, but the allies against France forbade any of Napoleon’s relatives from holding power in the Treaty of Fontainebleau. On an unrelated note, the original treaty was reportedly stolen in the late 1970s by 2 American professors. It was returned to France shortly after the theft was revealed in the early 2000s.

The most interesting part of my readings on Napoleon was that Napoleon was elected Emperor. The senate, quite literally, wrote in their new constitution, “The government of the Republic is handed over to an Emperor.” Make no mistake that people would willingly trade democracy for stability. They did so in France, and as we’ll see below, they’ll also support whomever promises to improve their lot, regardless of the means pursued to do so.

The Winds Blow Augustus

Perhaps the most famous failure of democracy is that of the Roman’s. Of course, Roman democracy looked a lot different than ones we’re familiar with today. Though if you rewind the clock a couple hundred years, before striking wealth, sex, and race requirements, you may begin to see more similarities. However, as Rome became a superpower, its traditional ideals faltered before being struck entirely when the senate bestowed upon Gaius Octavius the name, “Augustus” (literally, “venerated”), and the democracy that had struggled to survive the civil wars of the Roman Republic was dealt its killing blow.

But democracies don’t just die. Their institutions are weakened by minor assaults that gradually increase in frequency and severity. Octavian/Augustus didn’t just wake up one day and decide he could be emperor. Previously, the Senate had bestowed upon him and two other men (Marc Antony and Lepidus) special powers in the form of the second triumvirate. The first triumvirate (consisting of Julius Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey the Great), however, was unofficial, and merely ‘acknowledged’ rather than enshrined into law. Prior to Julius Caesar, a general by the name of Sulla had been granted an extension of powers by the Senate so he could quell rebellions and turn back the status quo from the chaotic tribunates of Gaius and Tiberius Graccus. (In overly simplistic terms, you could think of each of the two tribunates as a sort of “super-representative” with veto power in a modern senate). What I really want to focus on is how over the course of decades, boundaries get pushed, the audacious becomes expected, and that enables the power hungry to push the envelope just a little further. That story begins with the Gracchi.

The Gracchi brothers often are credited with being the ‘beginning of the end’ of the Roman Republic. Let’s look at the background that lead to their ascension. The latter days of the Roman republic were marred by increasing wealth inequality. The source of the inequality is an interesting problem. Rome’s soldiers were by law required to own land, and the vast majority of them owned small farms. They were what we might think of as middle class. When Rome was small, its soldiers would fight in their campaign, and be back in time to harvest the crops, and have fame and loot to boot. As Rome grew though, its wars took them further away and against larger opponents whose subjugation might take months rather than weeks. By the time the soldiers returned home, their farms were overrun and ruined. Compounding this problem was the importation of slaves.

Before we go too far, I want to do a quick sidebar on slavery in ancient Rome. Slavery in Rome differed in several respects from the trans-Atlantic slave trade we’re accustomed to. Perhaps most importantly, most slaves were taken as prisoners of wars and whether or not you could be enslaved was a concept completely distinct from race. Additionally, slavery could also be used to pay off a debt or as punishment. Lastly, while slaves were explicitly seen as property, it’s worth noting that Romans viewed slavery as “contrary to the natural state.” Thus, it should be of no surprise that a slave could earn their freedom, especially those entrusted with management of an estate or business or those working as an artisan or mechanic. As the fledgling empire grew, several emperors passed laws to protect slaves from the harshest of masters outlawing both murder and separating families of slaves. Lastly, freed slaves were immediately granted all rights of fully fledged citizens, minus the ability to run for office. A freedmen’s child, however, was free to run for office.

Because the primary source of slaves were wars, which Republican Rome was winning left and right, wealthy estate owners could buy more and more slaves to work increasingly large estates. Estates that grew when soldiers returned to ruined farms and were thus forced to sell their homely farm at extremely low rates. Each war fought meant large landowners bought more land from soldiers whose farms were ruined.

There was a land cap on the amount of land an individual Roman could own. It just wasn’t enforced. At first, the rich would acquire multiple estates under fake names, but soon they dropped the pretense entirely. It is into this landscape that the Gracchi brothers are born. The Gracchi brothers, Gaius and Tiberius (you may have realized that those two names are the Roman equivalent of John and Bob), were separated by about ten years and born into a well connected, wealthy family, though technically were plebians. Their father had become famous for his military service and maintained enough relevance and prestige to give his sons a platform.

The Gracchi Brothers

The elder brother, Tiberius, worked his way up through the various ranks of civil service proving himself a talented and capable administrator. Tiberius first began working on his key signature proposal, the Lex Agraria (translated, the Agrarian Law) while serving as a quaestor in Spain. According to Plutarch, “a law dealing with injustice and rapacity so great was never drawn up in milder and gentler terms.” Effectively, he proposed that those who own more than the legal limit of land should have their land purchased from them at value and then given to those who were struggling. No punishment would be ennacted on those who’d broken the law. The rich elites were completely against it and decried Tiberius as seeking to stir revolution and upset the political balance. It wouldn’t be good for Rome! Tiberius retorted,

“The wild beasts that roam over Italy have every one of them a cave or lair to lurk in; but the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else; houseless and homeless they wander about with their wives and children. And it is with lying lips that their imperators exhort the soldiers in their battles to defend sepulchres and shrines from the enemy; for not a man of them has an hereditary altar, not one of all these many Romans an ancestral tomb, but they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and though they are styled masters of the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is their own.”

We might recognize this proposal today as wealth redistribution, and as it is today, then it was also vehemently opposed by the wealthy. It is at this impasse that the Republic began to crack. You see, Tiberius was a plebian, and he had recently been elected as Tribune of the Plebians. If you read my post on protests, you might recognize the position as the one that has ultimate veto power over any law that was proposed. Unlike modern vetos, the veto was absolute. It stopped any law dead in its tracks, and thus was used exceedingly sparingly. When a man named Marcus Octavius refused to allow a vote on Tiberius’ law, Tiberius in turn refused to let any bills be introduced and prohibited the quaestors (kind of like a treasurer) from allowing any money to be spent. He single handedly brought the entire government to a halt. To gain public support, he rewrote his bill striking the provision to pay the wealthy landowners the value of the land thus just taking it and giving it to the poor. Still, Marcus refused to allow a vote.

Thus, a plot formed to kill Tiberius. And he knew it. Tiberius armed himself, and his sword never left his side.

Like all governments, there is a level of trust that’s inherent to the system. That unspoken trust dictates that people in power don’t abuse it and abide by the tradition and framing of the founders. Whether that’s certifying a vote, or only issuing a veto when the situation was dire, the trust always exists and is inherent to all constitutions.

Seeing they were at an impasse, Tiberius tried another tactic. On the next voting day, he pleaded with Marcus Octavian to let the people have the small bit of land in exchange for their toils, and Marcus refused. Seeing no other option, Tiberius then introduced legislation that would overturn their own election. At the next assembly he said, I have the votes to remove you from office. Step down, or we will cast the votes. Again, Marcus refused. The votes were tallied, and Marcus Octavian was removed from office. This was a first for Rome, and it had an important implication.

Roman officials were sacrosanct. In other words, harming someone who was sacrosanct in any way was punishable by death. However, now that Marcus was no longer an official, he was no longer sacrosanct. Tiberius had his men physically drag Marcus out and deposit him into the crowd where he now belonged, but the crowd swarmed him. Tiberius tried to calm them to no avail, and the wealthy rushed to protect Marcus. Marcus barely managed to escape, but one of his servants had his eyes ripped out in the chaos. With the co-tribune gone, and with everyone afraid of the chaos that had just ensued, Tiberius passed his Agrarian law, but he wasn’t out of the woods. The wealthy hated him. One senator in particular, Publius Nasica, resolved to make Tiberius’ life a living hell, refusing to even grant him a tent to work in.

Then however, a miracle occurred.

The king of neighboring Pergamon died, and in his will, he left his kingdom and its wealth to Rome. He believed that Rome was on the verge of invasion (which was probably true), and in doing so, he could avoid the bloodshed of a war and a succession crisis. Tiberius wasted no time drafting a bill that resolved to divvy up the riches of the kingdom straight to the people of Rome, and let the Roman people vote on it, bypassing the senate entirely. Immediately, the senators whipped up theories saying the king had gifted Tiberius a purple robe. That accusation doesn’t make a lot of sense to the modern ear, but he was basically saying that Tiberius was trying to whip up the people to proclaim him king. Kings, and only kings, wore purple robes. The taboo against kingship was so intrenched in Roman society that when Rome descended into autocracy, instead of calling the ruler a king, they called them imperator or princeps just to avoid using the word king, even though emperors would wear purple robes. In a more modern vernacular, the senators were calling Tiberius a dirty communist and a corrupt fascist.

Tiberius’ Murder

Tiberius’ term neared its end, and knowing how many feathers he’d ruffled and how many powerful men wanted him dead, Tiberius decided to break yet another sacred tradition, and ran for a second term in office. This was explicitly illegal, but the voting commenced regardless. Plutarch then writes that on voting day, a senator told Tiberius that the other senators had planned to kill him. Tiberius, alarmed at this, tried to tell the crowd assembled for voting that he was in danger by gesturing to his head. Someone in the back couldn’t hear him, and rushed to the senate building and told them that Tiberius was asking for a crown. This incensed the senate yet again, and this time, they marched down to where the voting was taking place. On the way they destroyed public benches for makeshift clubs. Once there, they publicly beat Tiberius to death, which quickly resulted in a riot of retaliation when his followers saw what was occurring. Tiberius was only 30 years old, and the resulting chaos claimed over 300 souls. Plutarch called the act sedition.

Many more of Tiberius’ followers were tried and put to death or exiled, but Tiberius’ rockstar status lived on. In one trial, one of his followers was asked what he’d do if Tiberius had asked him to set the capitol on fire. He replied,  “If such a man as Tiberius had ordered such a thing, it would also have been right for me to do it; for Tiberius would not have given such an order if it had not been for the interest of the people.”

For what little it’s worth, the senate did then carry out Tiberius’ agrarian reform.

The Republic’s for us, not Forum

Before I get into his brother, I want to note that this act was a complete shock to the Romans. Political violence was a foreign concept to the Romans at this point. Plutarch claims, though he’s likely exaggerating, that the Romans hadn’t seen such violence since they overthrew the Roman Kingdom establishing the Republic almost 400 years prior. Imagine how much more shocking the storming of the US capitol might have been had there never been a civil war, and the last act of political violence was the American Revolution. Political violence may have been more foreign to the Romans than it is to us. Indeed, with Tiberius deposed, Rome would see peace for about 3 years until his brother, Gaius, decided to take up the Gracchi mantel.

Gaius (or Caius) Gracchus was about 9 years younger than Tiberius, and he was a man who held a grudge. Indeed, the senate refused to give Gaius his brother’s body, and instead dumped it in a river. Mike Duncan (author of the Storm Before the Storm) has compared Gaius’ career to a movie sequel. Everything Tiberius did, Gaius did bigger, badder, and wilder. While Tiberius had spoken calmly and with a tempered measure, Gaius often flew off the handle. So much so, that one of his slaves carried a lyre, and plucked a string whenever Gaius needed to tone his speech down.

After Tiberius’ death, Gaius supposedly retreated to private life wanting to escape the chaos of public life until his brother Tiberius appeared in a dream saying, “Why, pray, do you hesitate, Caius? There is no escape; one life is fated for us both, and one death as champions of the people.” Taking this as a sign, Gaius immediately went to work, and he too worked his way up the Cursus Honorum (basically, the defined career path for Roman politicians). The senate began to fear the return of a Gracchi brother. Gaius was serving as a quaestor in Sardinia, and as quaestor, he served the governor. The senate came up with a plan to prevent Gaius from ever running for tribune by extending the governor’s term. By tradition, even if the quaestor’s term was up, he was obliged to continue to serve the governor. Thus, he was kept by tradition to stay out of Rome. Ultimately though, Gaius said to hell with tradition, and sailed back to Rome. In doing so, he confirmed to the senate that he would also look to upend the social order.

Gaius, despite the senate accusing him of stirring up rebellion, managed to clear himself of all charges. He then immediately ran for Tribune, and as a result of his namesake’s popularity combined with the elite’s utter disdain for him and his brother, his run prompted record turn out unlike anything seen in Rome before. Purportedly, so many came to vote for Gaius that there wasn’t enough room in the courtyard to house them all, and so they climbed to the rooftops to watch the proceedings.

Gaius handily won tribune, and continued in his brother’s footsteps by continuing to court the public (or “Assembly”) rather than the Senate to get laws passed. Over the course of Gaius’ tribunate, he touched almost every aspect of public life, and rubbed against the elite every time. The reforms that parallel those today weren’t limited to wealth inequality. Another hard question was that of Italian citizenship. Gaius wanted to grant anyone living within Italy “Roman Rights” as opposed to their current “Latin Rights.” At the time, only those who resided in the city of Rome could vote, so Gaius was not only advocating for further citizenship, but expanding voting rights to those who’d been previously subjected and/or conquered by Rome. Gaius’ reforms didn’t stop there. He added mile markers to Roman roads. He also reformed the military from ways that would seem foreign and bizarre to the modern ear. Previously, if a person wanted to join the military, they’d have to furnish their own equipment, and if they could not, its cost would be deducted from their pay. Gaius’ reforms had the public tax furnish its soldiers’ equipment. This change ultimately would lead to Rome having its first professional army, an uncommon concept in the Classical era. He also fixed the price of grain, and prevented senators from being the only judges in criminal cases. Perhaps a similar change would benefit impeachment trials in the United States.

Gaius Gracchus’ tribunate would come to an end, and like his brother, he knew he was likely in danger. Gaius however, didn’t run for tribune again. However, through a quirk of Roman politics (that may or may not have been intentionally exploited), Gaius ended up being appointed to a second tribunate even though he didn’t technically run. Those that did win a position were able to appoint whomever they liked into empty positions. In Roman elections, a candidate had to secure 51% of the vote – regardless of how many people were running. If the vote was split, the seat was empty. It might be like if more people wrote in a candidate than voted for who was actually on the ballot, and then political parties decided to honor the wishes of the crowd. Through this, Gaius was appointed and served his second tribunate.

Gaius Gracchus in the Forum
Gaius Gracchus in the Forum

Gaius’ second tribunate was every bit as contentious as his first, and of course the senate loathed that this man, intentionally or not, managed to knab a second tribunate, something they’d literally murdered a man for years prior. Gaius went to Africa to oversee the founding of another of colony as part of the agrarian reforms that were still being carried out. When he returned, he’d found that the senators and consuls had made Gaius irrelevant by passing several of the measures he had campaigned on, but never passed, and when he returned to Rome, he found himself irrelevant. Either to maintain power, or to protect himself from the same violence as his brother, he announced his candidacy for an unprecedented third term as tribune.

Gaius barely lost the election, and claimed the election had been stolen from him. Perhaps it was, that much is lost to history. The senate overjoyed with his loss, immediately set out to repeal all the laws that Gaius had passed, including that of Latin citizenship. Latins had come from all over Italy to watch the proceedings under Gaius’ promise of protection, but the consul then forbade any Latin from entering the city. Gaius, incensed, got a mob together to protest the repeal of any of his laws. During the opening ceremony, the person performing the sacrifice was aligned with the senatorial rank, and as he carried the remains away, he proclaimed “Make way for honest citizens, you rascals!” The mob immediately stabbed him.

As a result, the consul declared martial law with the senate’s blessing. Gaius hid for his life, but knew he was done for. The senators demanded he surrender before any talk of mercy began. Gaius rejected the offer and fled into the forest, where Gaius was either caught and killed, or had his slave execute him.

The consul who declared martial law, having received Gaius’ severed head, built a temple to Concordia (the goddess of harmony) on the site where the secession of the plebs had happened years ago. Upon completion, it was soon vandalized with the words, “A work of mad discord produced this temple of Concord.”

If you read this story, and immediately seeing parallels to today’s contentious issues and bombastic politicians, you know why I told it. Things aren’t ever exactly the same, but there’s enough parallels between the DACA Dreamers and Latin Rights or the Gracchi claims of fraud and Trump’s claims of fraud to make one shift uncomfortably in their seat as one recalls the civil wars that soon followed in Rome’s history. I’m not claiming a civil war is imminent, but I do want to point out the flaw in dismissing the past as somehow fundamentally different, or that people are more sensible today. The constant attempts to appeal Agrarian Reform harkens memories of attempts to do the same to the Affordable Care Act. Recent attempts across the globe to claim an election was stolen or fraudulent feel like they were pulled right out of Gaius’ political playbook. I could go on, but the point is clear. Democracy is in danger. If history truly does repeat itself, then we must prepare for what comes next.

Further Reading:

“The Storm Before the Storm” by Mike Duncan

On slavery in ancient Rome

On the Viking’s and the world’s oldest parliament

“Lives” by Plutarch

“Democracy in Retreat” – Freedom House

On Napoleon’s Coup of 18 Brumaire

How Does Plague Affect Society

Coronavirus and The Lighthouse

I’ve put off writing about Coronavirus for a variety of reasons. Everyone’s writing about it; it’s all over the news, and frankly, I’m a little sick of thinking about it. Even so, that doesn’t mean it’s not important. It will rival 9/11 in being the most pivotal event this century (thus far of course), so in a sense, I feel obligated to write about it. However, you don’t need me to tell you that disease is bad, nor that epidemics in the past were worse. As experts spar over whether the peak of the virus was last month or next month, and as presidents, governors and mayors across the world reopen their economies despite warnings from health officials, or outright deny the existence of the epidemic at all, it’s right to be wary. In such uncertain times, The Lighthouse had to consider whether the current epidemic could be responsibly compared to those of the past. Nobody needs to be told about the horrors of Black Death, and so my comparisons here could easily be construed as fear mongering or perhaps worse, making light of the epidemic by comparing it to those that are worse.

With that in mind, one thing I noticed when reading the news is that there’s an aspect that’s more or less being overlooked, and an aspect I’ve spent some time speculating myself about. How will Covid-19 change our society? The only way to get an answer is to ask the question that’s the heart of The Lighthouse: How have plagues of the past shaped society? It’s an interesting question with even more interesting answers.

Before diving in, the last thing I want to note is that sources on past plagues are a bit scant. In some cases, all we have is literally one guy’s record. This is partially because when everyone is dying, and society is falling apart, chronicling the doom is less important than surviving it. Leaders of the time aren’t writing about the near collapse themselves as they do with their successes, but perhaps more importantly, disease begets famine begets war begets destruction. Not always in that order, but always ending with destruction. With that out of the way, let’s dive in.

The History

Plague of Athens

A Crease in the fabric of history

The Plague of Athens is perhaps the earliest recorded plague we know of. It hit its worst point right in the middle of the Peloponnesian War, claiming up to 100,000 lives. 100,000 may not sound like much considering Covid-19 has claimed many times that, but the Plague of Athens took place at a time when the world population is only estimated to have been about 100,000,000. Put more simply, about .1% of the entire world’s population succumbed to it.

Most of what we know about the Plague of Athens is from a guy named Thucydides. Thucydides was a general and historian in ancient Greece, living roughly between 460BCE and 400BCE.  His greatest work, the History of the Peloponnesian War, can still be read in its entirety here.

"Plague of an Ancient City" - A medieval painting believed to depict the Plague of Athens
A medieval painting depicts the Plague of Athens

The plague was bad, as plagues are, but what were the ramifications of it?

There were three big things that came out of the plague. The first was that, as Thucydides himself writes, lawlessness abounded:

Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them. As for the first, they judged it to be just the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing; and for the last, no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offences, but each felt that a far severer sentence had been already passed upon them all and hung ever over their heads, and before this fell it was only reasonable to enjoy life a little.

To compare the George Floyd protests that are rocking the world to the purported lawlessness that occurred during the plague of Athens would diminish, or even trivialize, the message behind the protests. Still, it’s not inconceivable that protests about racial inequality have been agitated or aggravated by a pandemic that’s disproportionately affecting minorities, and while a plurality of protests have been peaceful, they certainly haven’t all been,  and that’s not necessarily the fault of the protesters. Some research has suggested a protest escalating into a riot is at least partially attributable to police arriving dressed for a riot.

As the protesters’ demands begin to coalesce, it’s not impossible that real structural change will follow. See my piece on the Hong Kong protests for historical precedent on the effectiveness of protests.

Secondly, the plague worsened Athens’ position in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, and is largely credited with being a major reason Athens lost. In its loss, Democracy was shattered in the country. Sparta installed an interim government known as the Thirty Tyrants, which carried out a reign of terror. Though counter revolutions ensued, Democracy never returned. Of course, it’d be absurd to claim that pandemics in themselves cost an erosion of liberties. A virus has no preferred system of governance. It’s interesting to note, however, that as the United States arrest journalists for covering protests, there’s a similarity between us and the ancient Greeks who saw their liberties eroded due to something that was aggravated by a pandemic. Perhaps that says more about the nature of humankind than it does about pandemics.

The third thing that happened during the plague of Athens isn’t unique to Athens at all. Athens’ leader, Pericles likely succumbed to it. Plagues throughout all of history never discriminated between the king or the peasant. The Athenian Plague isn’t the only plague that took world leaders.

The Antonine and Cyprian Plagues

A Legion-dary Plague

As Thucydides noted, everyone was susceptible, pious or rotten, rich or poor, and noble or peasant. The plague of Athens likely killed Pericles – Athens’ defender of democracy. About 500 years later, the Roman Empire was seeing an outbreak of its own plague (That’s right; the apex of Greek world and Roman world were further separated than present day and the founding of Jamestown).

The Antonine plague is thought to have been brought to the Roman Empire from soldiers fighting the Macromani near the Rhine and Danube Rivers and the Parthians (modern Iran), though it’s possible that the plagues affecting China in the preceding 20 years had spread to Rome.

The little we know about the Antonine plague comes to us from a guy named Galen. Galen acted in a similar role as Dr. Fauci does – a doctor and official advisor to the government.

Galen’s story starts when the high priestess of Asia Minor sought a new physician to tend to gladiators after their matches. In his audition, Galen sliced open a live ape in front of all the other potential physicians, and asked them to operate the creature. When they refused, Galen performed surgery himself and the ape fully recovered. The high priestess granted him the job and his innovative surgical methods led to renown. When the nearby war in the east likely drove Galen to Rome, Marcus Auerelius took note and appointed him to take care of his heir, Commodus. Galen would outlive Commodus and end up as the physician for Septimus Severus – serving as the imperial physician for roughly 30 years.

A page of the Vienna Dioscurides, depicting Galens
Galens is depicted in the top left on this Byzantine manuscript.

Galen wrote extensively in his time caring for Commodus, and his medical writings would be used for over 1,000 years before they’d be improved upon in the Islamic golden age by Ibn al-Nafis

Galen wrote extensively about the Antonine plague, and modern physicians believe it was one of the first outbreaks of smallpox. The plague, or pestilence as they called it, ravaged Rome for years, at one point killing up to 2,000 people a day just within the city of Rome. For a bit of comparison, Rome had an unusually high population – so high that no city would match it again until the 1800s. It’s estimated that the city of Rome housed about 1 million people. By 2019 estimates of US cities, that would make it the 11th largest city in the United States right between San Jose, California and Austin, Texas.

The Antonine plague is the likely cause for the death of Marcus Aurelius’ brother and co-ruler, Lucius Verus. Covid-19 has also infected several heads of state, including most notably the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.  Other notable figures who’ve contracted the disease include US Senator, Rand Paul; Heir to the British throne, Prince Charles; Iranian Vice President, Eshaq Jahangiri; Prime Minister of Canada’s wife, Sophie Trudeau; likely the late President of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza (officially, he died from cardiac arrest); and most recently, President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro. If the Antonine and Athens plagues should teach us anything, it’s that the elite aren’t immune from disease.

These plagues didn’t just kill rulers though; they fundamentally changed society.

Both Cyprian and Antonine plagues contributed to the rise and dominance of Christianity in Europe. The Bishop Cyprian, for whom the plague is named due to his records, saw the plague as an opportunity for Christians to put their preachings of caring for the ill and helpless into practice. The Pagan community, by contrast, took the apocalyptic plague as a sign of displeasure from the gods and thus required sacrifices that the pestilence had made harder to come by. Christianity exploded during these plagues in the 100s and 200s.

Paganism, which had been dominate in Rome and coincided with a centuries long tradition of deifying each emperor as they passed, began to wane, until Christianity became legal in 313CE and the state religion in 380CE. Consider that both edicts were given by emperors who just a generation beforehand would have expected to be deified to appreciate how quickly this institution changed.

Additionally, the Cyprian plague wrecked Rome’s economy. Compared to the previous century, the price of grain had increased 7,300% over the course of the century. Granted, a century is a long time. For comparison, in 1920 a pound of sirloin cost about 43 cents a pound compared to about $8.48 today. If we had seen the rate of inflation that Rome did during this epidemic, a pound of sirloin would average almost $32 today. These out of control prices led Emperor Diocletian to enact several economic reforms that would sew the seeds of feudal society in the middle ages. I’ll get back to that when we talk about the Black Death.

Antonine Antagonizes An Aggravated Agoge

The other big structural change that the Antonine plague brought was that in military recruitment and maintaining a standard army. The Antonine plague killed up to 25% of the population of the Roman Empire and is a common contender in the long list of things that may have eventually lead to its collapse. A related contender was the resulting decision made to recruit the barbarians  due to man power shortage. A practice that kicked into high gear after the Cyrpian Plague. These “barbarians” (really just non-Romans) were effectively mercenaries. While I don’t want to get into what truly caused the fall of Rome, this practice of hiring mercenaries to fight your wars because you didn’t have enough people far outlasted Rome, and the practice is even used today.  Granted, the Romans didn’t invent this technique, but it was certainly popularized by them, and as a direct result of the plague, this method of military recruitment would dominate Europe throughout the middle ages. As a result, countries often didn’t have standing armies.

Justinianic Plague

 This Just In: Panic

The Justinianic Plague was recently confirmed to be a “first wave” of the black death,  and while exactly how severe this first wave was has recently come under question, there’s certainly no denying it happened. It’s just a matter of whether it was quite as apocalyptic as Procopius and John of Ephesos would have you believe. It’s worth noting that chroniclers of events had habit of exaggerating (or under representing) pretty much everything for whatever agenda they were trying to push. A tactic that might sound familiar today. Procopius in particular had an axe to grind. In his “Secret Histories,” he names his chapters things like, “How Theordora, Most Depraved of All Courtesans, Won His Love” and “Proving that Justinian and Theodora Were Actually Fiends In Human Form.” Turns out accusations of leaders being lizard people aren’t unique to today. You can read his Secret Histories in its entirety online here.

This plague is also what likely prevented Justinian from fully reuniting the Roman Empire. Citizens dying of the plague couldn’t pay their taxes, and when taxes aren’t paid, soldiers can’t be paid either. This lead to an inability to raise the necessary armies to retake the west. Of course the man power shortage effected Justinian’s ability to wage war as well, further increasing their reliance on unreliable barbarian mercs. The dream of a fully united Rome would die with Justinian, as the empire slowly waned over the course of the following millennium.

Similar to the stimulus checks that are being issued around the world, Justinian also issued various tax breaks as well as edicts intended to curb out of control inflation. 

The Justinianic plague reached its full extent in the 530s and 540s. The plague wouldn’t come back to wage chaos on all of Europe for another 800 years.

The Black Death

Of all the plagues in history, this is far and away the worst. It represents one of the only times in all of human history where the global human population actually decreased.  While the majority of deaths were in Europe, the effects were felt on a global scale. As I mentioned in my post on climate change, the death of the Europeans contributed to the downfall of the Vikings as they relied on mainland Europe for trade.

17th Century Plague Doctor
A Plague Doctor

The Bubonic Plague’s biggest legacy though, perhaps, is ending Serfdom. Europe was largely a feudalistic society before the black death hit, and nearly 85% of its population were serfs. Looking back on Serfdom today, it wouldn’t look that different from what we think of as slavery. Of course there was a difference, and an important one to the people of the time, but when you look at the characteristics of Serfdom, it’s certainly not an enviable position.

Serfs were not permitted to leave their lord’s estate and were often treated harshly by their lord with little legal recourse available to them. Because serfs were destitute, they could only provide their lord with rent in the form of work. Importantly, because there were more peasants than there were jobs, this arrangement stuck until the plague flipped this supply and demand on its head. With half of Europe succumbing to the plague, there was now a labor shortage, which gave peasants leverage for better terms, namely cash payment. The peasants being able to pay for their lodging with cash instead of labor upended society as peasants were able to freely shop for the highest bidder. Of course, the higher echelon’s of society in England attempted to stymie the change with new taxes and the Statute of Labourers Act of 1351. You can read it in its entirety here, but in short the king threatened to imprison any peasant who didn’t accept pre-pestilence wages. This edict lead to the Peasant’s Revolt a few years later, which ended with the royal government killing 1,500 of its rebelling citizens.

When the ball starts rolling, it’s hard to roll it back. While serfdom wasn’t completely vanquished, it’s long steady decline was set in motion. This change indirectly lead to the rise of the market economy we see today.

Blind Speculation

Will things ever truly go back to normal after Covid-19 has been neutralized? Probably not, but how different will the other side look is up for debate. However, some of the effects we’re seeing now may permanently manifest.

Coining the phrase, “Cashless Future.”

The US has most recently faced a coin shortage, and Europe, as traditionally cash based as they’ve been, are largely embracing plastic for contactless payment.  Of course, there are large entities whose livelihood depends on a cash based economy, such as Americans for Common Cents, and of course government mints and those employed there. Still, large structural change always encounters resistance, and as the realities of a diseased world manifest, alternatives are embraced. As Emperor Julian the Apostate learned when Christianity was taking over his former Pagan empire, sometimes the current of change sweeps past your dam.

Globalization a World Away

Several giant tech firms are moving to make working remotely a more permanent feature of their workforce. Among the companies that have committed to at least a partial permanent workforce are Twitter, Facebook, Square, Shopify, and Slack. The effects of this are interesting to ponder. If an employee isn’t tied to an office, they’re not particularly tied to a location. If they’re not tied to a location, where might they come from? This could make it easier for current employees to move abroad or for employers to consider hiring internationally. This would apply equally to schooling as school and universities embrace remote classwork. Both could have far reaching effects on culture and language as well when one considers how working hours would change for an average person or what languages might go from a majority to hegemonic – possibly even wiping out lesser spoken languages.

Defund the Police

I may do a deeper dive on this topic specifically as that movement wanes or waxes, but as I mentioned in the beginning, these protests may result in fundamental change in the way our society polices itself. As I’ve hopefully demonstrated above, we’ve seen bigger change in smaller time.

Of course, as I titled this section, it’s all blind speculation. We’re seeing the change happen in slow motion, changes that history books will have reduced to a paragraph a hundred years from now. For now, wear a mask.

Further Reading:

On a timeline of the George Floyd Protests

On how pandemics can shape art

On the relevance of the Plague of Athens and Democracy

On Christians and Plagues

Have the Politics of Territorial Influence Relegated Iraq and Kurdistan to Buffer States?

A Recap

This is the second part of my series on territorial disputes. Last time we looked at some of the territorial disputes across the world and focused specifically on territorial disputes that arose from national identity. Specifically, when members living within one entity identify with another.

Today’s post will continue looking at territory disputes, but these will be more preemptive and abstract in nature. They’ll involve more powerful nations directly  playing a heavy hand in the government of a less powerful state (or entity) in the name of protecting themselves before a threat is realized. We’ll investigate how Russia, Austria, and Prussia’s instincts to partition Poland as well as Rome and the Sassanids playing catch with Armenia closely mirror diplomacy today. Let’s see which disputes qualify:


Who Betrayed the Kurds and the Kurdish State?

A Kurdling Trust in Abbreviations

You’ve likely heard that America recently withdrew its troops from Syria, which Turkey, either honestly or deviously, took as permission to invade Kurdish controlled territory in northern Syria. As with all political events, there’s more nuance than “Turkish bad guys unapologetically  slaughter Kurdish good guys.”

The Kurds have sought to have their own state, Kurdistan, since the close of the First World War. In fact, it had even been promised to them as the Ottoman Empire was dissolved, but scrapped in the 1920 Treaty of Lausanne which defined modern Turkey’s borders. This left the Kurds stranded between five other nations, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and the southern tip of Armenia, relegating them to a minority status in all of them. The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (often referred to as the PKK) formed in the 80s with the goal of setting up a state for the Kurds. In doing so, they carried out attacks on Turkey as well as other nations. The US, the EU, and Turkey all classify the PKK as a terrorist organization.

The PKK however, is not to be confused with the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. The SDF primarily (but not entirely) comprises Kurds from the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. (Both the YPG and PKK take their abbreviations from the Kurdish names.) The YPG is the armed wing of another Kurdish party (the PYD). Turkey would have you believe that the PYD is just the Syrian branch of the PKK, but that’s an exaggeration at best. There are almost certainly links between the two, but how deep those links go is unknown. What is known is that the YPG seized territory for themselves in Northern Syria when the civil war broke out. The SDF (and the YPG by proxy) is who the United States was allied with during its fight against ISIS.

To clear that up a bit, the big takeaway is that the PKK is widely regarded as a terrorist organization that dates back decades. The SDF allied with the US to root out ISIS, and the Syrian Democratic Forces largely comprise Kurds from a group known as the YPG. Because the YPG has sought territory for themselves, Turkey would have you believe that the YPG and PKK are indistinguishable, and while they likely have some ties, it’s a stretch that they’re one in the same. Notably, the US does not support the YPG’s plans for autonomy.

Turkey invaded Syria’s Kurdish controlled territory with the intention of setting up a buffer zone between its own state and what it views as a terrorist state. It also plans to relocate 2 million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees into this buffer zone in a move that some claim mirrors the demographic engineering also occurring within Syria. This buffer zone, Erdogan argues, will help keep Turks safe from terrorist attacks.

When Did Iraq Become a Satellite State?

A Sunniset for Iraq

Both Iran and Iraq have been a defining topic in international news since the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 and even more so since the United States assassinated Iran’s Major General, Qassim Suleimani (I’m going with this spelling as it’s preferred by the Economist, New York Times, Guardian and Foreign Policy, but note that Google and Wikipedia both have it as Soleimani). Each country’s history goes back further, and is also tied with the as of yet non-existent Kurdistan. In fact, all of Iraq and some of Iran are where we find some of humanity’s earliest records and is sometimes referred to as the “cradle of civilization.” The Parthians, Achaemenids, Sassanids, Safavids, and Babylonians all ruled kingdoms or empires that comprised some, if not all, of the territory of both modern day states. While I won’t try to summarize some 6,000 years of history, note that both countries have a shared history and culture, perhaps not too unlike the United States has with the United Kingdom.

Iran’s modern government has been in place since its Islamic revolution in the late 70s, and Iraq’s established their republic in 1958 after overthrowing the Kingdom that the occupying British setup after dismantling the Ottoman Empire.

An Iranian Soldier Wears a Gasmask
An Iranian Soldier Protecting Himself from Chemical Weapons During the Iran-Iraq War

In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran sparking a devastating war that lasted 8 years. This is the war that Suleimani, and many of his contemporaries grew up in. Iraq invaded Iran citing a territorial dispute, but more likely capitalizing on a recently destabilized government and fearing a stronger Iran on the other side. The fear was well founded. Iraq beat the morale out of their own soldiers (literally) while significantly underestimating the resolve of the Iranians, who would purportedly throw their bodies onto barbed wire, so their compatriots could climb across it. As a result, despite the international weapons embargo levied on Iran for taking American diplomats hostage during their revolution (what the movie Argo is based on), Iran held its ground. A ceasefire was negotiated in 1988 by the United Nations after a million people had lost their lives and both countries were weakened and destabalized.

After the death of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent rise of Islamic State, Iran and Iraq’s relationship warmed. They had a mutual interest in keeping IS at bay, and as Iran’s various exports to Iran increased, neither wanted Iraq to destabilize again. However, following the US invasion in 2003, Iran also developed an interest in keeping Iraq weak, so that it could not threaten Iran again. The US and Iran are still competing for influence in Iraq, but the US has all but lost.

Iran’s increasing influence calls into question how independent Iraq truly is. On its face, Iraq is completely independent. It has diplomatic relations with several countries, has its own government, and of course, a sense of national identity. When you look a bit deeper though, the picture is a bit more complex. For example, Iran backed militias are now a permanent feature of Iraq’s military. That of course isn’t a situation unique to Iraq. The United States has provided scores of military personnel, equipment and funding for Europe, but that comes with influence, and just as NATO has helped spread liberal democracies across Europe, prevented further conflict in Europe and with the US, and established the dollar as a global reserve currency, so too has Iran’s military protection afforded safety and economic influence in Iraq.

Iran’s influence goes yet further. The local news projects Iran as the protector of Iraq; Iranian companies pick up the trash in Iraq; Iranian sympathizers get funding for political campaigns, and Iraqi banks are encouraged to hold their funds in Iran. Where the money goes, the power goes. It goes so far that when a member of the Qatar royalty was kidnapped in Iraq, Qatar called Iran to help, completely ignoring the Iraqi government. Iran’s influence is the cause of several protests rocking the country.

There’s a religious aspect too. Iranian’s Shiite Theocracy may come into conflict with Iraq’s significant Sunni minority, which could have many parallels to some of the Protestant-Catholicism conflicts we looked at before, particularly for the Sunni Kurds who operate out of an semi-autonomous region of Iraq, the closest thing the Kurds have gotten to their own state.

This religious aspect is significant as it’s another reason for why Iran is attempting to exert so much influence on Iraq. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been jockeying for the position of regional dominance since Iran’s Revolution, and much like the French Revolution, Iran would like to expand its ideas beyond its borders. This brings it into a conflict with Saudi Arabia, who is the traditional regional power, and is ruled by a Sunni majority. Both nations have engaged in several proxy wars, most notably the Syrian Civil war (along with Turkey and Russia, one of the reasons the quagmire has gone on so long). Influence in Iraq makes Iraq a buffer state between Iran and the Saudis should their proxy-rivalry turn to direct blows.

With Turkey and Iran trying to setup buffer zones and claiming territory, either directly or through severe influence, I wanted to look at some similar instances throughout history and learn how they turned out.

The History

Ancient Arguments around Armenia

That’ll Cost you an Arm-en-a Leg 

Armenia is one of the world’s oldest countries, and has been ruled by more countries than most. It was conquered by the Greek’s Alexander the Great, the Persian’s Cyrus the Great, Rome’s Trajan, the Mongols, the Parthians, the Ottoman Empire, the Russians, the Soviets and was its own kingdom and country. The Armenians most recently got their independence in the collapse of the Soviet Union in what was their second republic, and who knows how many times they’d been independent at that point.

Today I want to focus on the ancient Armenian Kingdom and its relationship with the surrounding powers. Armenia switched its allegiance six times in 46 years. It was nominally independent, but defining independence is a little dicey considering that Armenia had its leader installed by either Rome, Pontus, or Persia for several decades.

Our story here will start with Tigranes the Great. Tigranes came on the scene around the time the Roman Republic was transitioning into the Roman Empire. In fact, he began his reign within a few years of Julius Caesar being born.

A painting of Armenian King, Tigranes the Great - King of Kings
Tigranes the Great of Armenia, King of Kings

Tigranes had actually been taken hostage by the Parthians as a child in 120BCE to put space between the Parthian Empire and subject Armenia as a buffer state between the two. This would be their “Rome strategy” until the end of their dynasty. Tigranes was eventually released and appointed King of Armenia in 96BCE, effectively making him a vassal. Even so, Tigranes greatly expanded his empire and even began calling himself King of Kings, which leads several historians to believe he let conquered monarchs continue to rule their land as vassals making himself literally a king of kings. He also allied with the Kingdom of Pontus by marrying the king’s daughter, Cleopatra. No, not that Cleopatra.

To give you an idea of where exactly in the world we’re talking about, the Kingdom of Pontus was mostly part of modern day Turkey, the Crimean Peninsula and Russia. The Parthian Empire was modern Iran (somewhat literally), but with territory extending into modern Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Armenia was, well, Armenia. Its borders extended significantly farther than present day, and it sat north of the Parthians and east of Pontus bordering the Caspian sea. I made a rough (really rough) sketch of the borders at the time to help illustrate where we are and why Tigranes might seek an alliance with Pontus. It should also help show how important Armenia would be for both Rome and Parthia once Pontus and Egypt became part of Rome:

Middle East Roughly 70BC

In 87BCE Rome began a war with the Kingdom of Pontus who continued to aggravate the Romans by annexing its territory in Asia Minor. These are known as the Mithridatic Wars named for the ruler of Pontus, Mithridates VI. Mithridates had secured an alliance with Tigranes by marrying his daughter to him. In 62BCE, Pompey the Great of Rome invaded Armenia assisted by Tigranes’ own son. Tigranes quickly surrendered and offered huge amounts of wealth in exchange for letting Tigranes continue to rule Armenia, but this time as a client state of Rome. Tigranes would rule until his death in 55BCE having ruled Armenia for 40 years and lived for 85.

Succeeding Tigranes the Great was his son, Artavasdes II. Artavasdes would flip flop between supporting Rome and Parthia several times in his 18 year reign – mostly out of necessity. When Crassus invaded Parthia and was completely defeated, Artavasdes was up against an invading Parthian force. After all, Armenia had allied Rome. This forced Artavasdes to secure a peace, and thus alliance, with Parthian King Orodes. Eventually, Mark Antony would invade Armenia in an act of revenge at Artavasdes’ betrayal, capturing him and his three sons. Antony then marched Artavasdes back in golden chains. Cleopatra (Yes, the famous Cleopatra) executed Artavasdes in 31BCE.

One of Artavasdes II’s son, Artaxias II, managed to escape and fled to Parthia. Parthia’s king then installed Artaxias II on the throne, thus gaining Armenia’s allegiance. Artaxias would rule for 13 years before his death. Artaxias, however, proved to be an unpopular leader, and before long, supposedly, the people of Armenia petitioned Augustus to install another leader into Armenia, and so Augustus installed Tigranes the III, still being held prisoner from Antony’s expedition, after Artaxias’ death. This of course flipped Armenia’s allegiance back to Rome.

Rome would continue to appoint leaders until the death of Augustus in 14CE. In fact, appointing leaders was the duty of future emperor Tiberius. Even so, several of these leaders would be dethroned as the result of native rebellions funded by Parthia. At this point it seems like the record dries up a bit with limited information other than name. The record picks up again with the war of Armenian succession in 58 where one of the weirder agreements over Armenia takes place. Going forward, the king of Armenia would be a prince of Parthia, but the ruler had to be approved by the Romans. This agreement is one of the reasons emperor Nero was so reviled by contemporary Romans. Well, that and the whole burning Rome to the ground thing. Tiridates would be the ruler of choice from 62CE (as a result of the war) to 88CE.

This would be the status quo until Roman Emperor Trajan invaded Armenia because the Parthians installed a king whom the Romans did not approve of. Trajan annexed Armenia in 113, only to have it be relinquished by his successor, Hadrian, just a few years later.

Around this point the Parthian Empire began weakening and the crisis of the third century was just around the corner for Rome. Even so, Armenia would be a point of contention for the successor states of the Byzantine and Sasanid Empire. Armenia underscores how vital a buffer state can be, and how two powers can jockey over position just to fend off the fear of an invasion. Jockeying for influence in Armenia draws parallels to Iran and the United States. It’s a form of politics as old as politics itself.

The Partitions of Poland

We Came, Warsaw, We Conquered

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was once a world power and geographic juggernaut comprising the modern states of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, and parts of Moldova and Estonia.

Their famous Winged Hussars once beat a Russian army that out-manned the Polish 5 to 1 in the Battle of Klushino in 1610, but in just over 100 years, the state would literally be erased off the map and wouldn’t reappear for almost two hundred years.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a dual state. The king of Poland also served as the Grand Duke of Lithuania and had done so for a hundreds of years starting with the marriage of Polish Queen Jadwiga to Lithuanian duke Jogaila in 1386. As time marched forward, this multi-ethnic behemoth of a country began to see its power wane as the power of Russia, Austria, and Prussia began to grow, and by the early 1700s, something had to give.

Polish-Lithuanian at its height
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s borders transposed onto current borders.

Polish-Lithuania’s government at the time could be described as both forward thinking and laughably naive. Their easily corruptible government utilized something called a Liberum-Veto. The idea is that all laws must be passed by the Sejm (effectively their parliament) unanimously. Any single member could strike down an entire piece of legislation. As you can imagine, their Sejm was made up of nobles with a wide variety of sometimes conflicting interests. As time passed, the strength of a veto got even stronger. It would no longer just apply to a law, but it could suspend an entire session, and any legislation that had already passed would become null and void. Foreign powers, particularly Russia, would often bribe members to vote no on any resolution they didn’t particularly care for. Before long, Poland’s central government had lost all its power, and its nobles were bought out by foreign interests. Any attempts to reform and strengthen the country would be vetoed. This lead to an inability to defend themselves, and ultimately the total partition of the state.

The once mighty military of Polish-Lithuania was destroyed in a string of wars with Sweden known as The Deluge in the late 1650s. These wars devastated Poland, literally killing up to a third of the country’s population. While Poland struggled to recover, its neighbors, Austria, Prussia, and especially Russia, strengthened. Peter the Great had modernized Russia and its rise was tipping the balance in Europe.

A series of Cossack rebellions in modern day Ukraine further hindered Poland’s economy and stability, and the subsequent treaties lead to territorial loss, and increased Russian influence when the Cossacks pledged allegiance to the Russian Czar in 1654.

A Winged Hussar flies into battle
The feared Winged Hussars

In 1733 the first war of Polish succession broke out when Augustus the II died. Russia and Austria initially opposed Augustus the III’s ascension, but Augustus the III secured their support by promising Russia and Austria further influence. Specifically, he agreed to install a Russian as a fief and recognize an Austrian treaty that recognized Livonia as Austria’s and confirmed Maria Theresa’s right to rule. Augustus the III fulfilled his promises, and when he died in 1763, Austria and Russia formed an alliance not only to secure the next ruler of Poland, but to limit who could rule and change the laws in Poland. A guy named Stanislaw (whose last name was also Augustus despite bearing no relation to his predecessors) came to the throne who would seek support from France to try to rekindle his country. Stanislaw had been one of Catherine the Great’s many lovers. She’d installed Stanislaw onto the throne because she thought he could easily be manipulated into doing Russia’s building. Ironically, Stanislaw attempted several reforms to strengthen the Polish government, but this resulted in a civil war known as the War of the Bar Confederation and further weakened the state.

France had historical interests in keeping Poland safe from aggressors. In fact, three Polish kings married a French princess, and Henry the III actually ruled Poland for the year of 1573. However, France was careening towards its infamous revolution following their losses in several wars combined with an impending financial collapse. Thus, their interest and ability to protect Poland eroded.

In 1773, Prussia’s Frederick the Great was wary (and by wary I mean paranoid) of the shifting balance of power in Europe against him. Specifically, he feared what an Austrian-Russian war could mean for Prussia. He, somewhat brilliantly, directed their aggression towards Poland. Frederick exhibited extreme distaste for Poles referring to them as “slovenly Polish trash.” In other words, he was super racist. Frederick engineered an agreement for all three countries to simultaneously invade and annex parts of Poland in what’s known as the first partition of Poland (though it’s not clear whether it was initially Frederick’s idea; his brother, Prince Henry’s idea; or Count Lymar’s idea).

Once they invaded, Poland could do little to stop them. Threatened with the utter desolation of their state, the Sejm agreed to the territorial concessions in 1775 causing about 2 million Poles (or about 1/4 of the country’s population) to become Russian, Prussian, or Austrian. This put Stanislaw under greater pressure and further divided opinion of him when he attempted reforms again. Poland managed to sneak in a Sejm when all of Poland’s neighbors were at war. They adopted a new constitution that strengthened and hoped to revive the Polish-Lithuanian State. However, Prussia and Russia feared exactly that, and this caused another invasion in 1793 that lead to the 2nd partition. A rebellion in 1794 against the occupiers lead to the third and final partition. Poland would cease to exist as a sovereign state for 123 years.

After the Napoleonic wars following the French Revolution, Napoleon briefly resurrected the “Duchy of Warsaw,” which was a client state of France in 1807, but after his defeat, the duchy was partitioned again in 1815. Poland would not reemerge until 1918 in the aftermath of World War 1 where Woodrow Wilson advocated for the establishment of a Polish state in his Fourteen Points – a document that would be the basis for the Treaty of Versailles. It was reestablished out of humanitarian concerns, but unfortunately with little concern to strategic geography, which made it easy pickings for the German and Russian invasion of Poland in the second World War. An event that some have called the 4th Partition.

From Poland we see that not only can territorial disputes last centuries, but also that they often can be the result of Imperialism. We also diplomacy as a way to check another nation’s power. Due to the sense of the Polish national identity, we also see that a nation’s borders are sometimes defined by the nationalities residing there than the sovereign state that rules over it, which has ramifications for how we view the Kurds and their quest for Kurdistan.

This is a lot of history for stuff that may only seem tangentially related, but these long-winded stories remind us that territorial disputes almost always have long and complex histories. An aggressor’s intentions might be more nuanced than evil for evil’s sake. Some may be preemptive strikes to reduce the influence of a perceived enemy as we saw with Poland and Armenia, and the Kurds. Others are the results of nationalities lumped together against their wish as we see with the Irish and Kashmiris. I also wanted to illustrate that territory can be effectively seized while leaving the current systems and government in place as we saw with Armenia and initially with Poland. That influence directly mirrors what we’re seeing with Iraq, and the justification is similar to that of Turkey – even if the methods aren’t exactly the same.

Territory isn’t always about imperialism. Sometimes it’s a boundary for an adversary, but of course, that comes at the cost of the right to self determination for a group of people. Might the Kurds still one day see their nation? It took the Poles over a hundred years. The Kurds may still be next.

Further Reading

On the Partition of Poland

On Iran’s Influence in Iraq

On the Benefits of NATO

On the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry

On General Suleimani

Territorial Disputes in Kashmir and Crimea

Disputed Territories of Today

This land is your land. Your land is my land.

Territorial disputes are nothing new to this day and age, but in the age of nuclear weapons, a falling out can have dire consequences. While the disputes in Kashmir, Crimea and Syria are currently flaring up, it’s far from the only current territorial dispute. Let’s talk about what’s occurring in Kashmir, the as of yet non-existent Kurdistan, and elsewhere in the world.

Territorial disputes occur when two or more entities lay claim to one land. Entity might be a vague word, but I want to be more inclusive than using a word like nations. Empires, territories, colonies, even New York and New Jersey fought over territory in their colonial days. Territorial disputes didn’t go the way of imperialism either. There are several swaths of land that are still in disputed jurisdiction. In fact, territorial disputes are so widespread, that I’m breaking this blog post into two sections. This first part will cover territory disputes that arise as a result of national identity. I’ve covered nationalism before as well as how nationalism can lead to independence movements.  Both of these posts were primarily focused on intrastate change, even if that change was a result of external pressure. A person’s sense of national identity, or even ethnicity, may lie with an existing state other than the one you reside in. That’s my focus today.  Here’s a few of the disputes I hope to cover in the first part of this series:

A Crime in Crimea

Insane in the Ukraine

Crimea hit world headlines in 2014 when Russia annexed it. The full story is more (but maybe not much more) nuanced than that. In 2014 the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych had been delaying the signing of an association agreement with the EU that likely would have been the first step in Ukraine joining the EU, which is often a precursor to joining NATO. Ukraine joining NATO – literally an alliance against Russia – is something Russia would take any measure to prevent. Eventually protests broke out across Ukraine trying to coerce Yanukovych to sign the association agreement, but he kept delaying. Before long it had turned into a full blown revolution forcing the Yanukovych to flee to Russia.

Appearances of “Little Green Men,” a moniker for Russian troops,  began in both Crimea and Donbass. Before long, a referendum was held in Crimea that, purportedly, had a 97% vote for joining Russia with an 83% turnout. Of course, those were Russia’s numbers who have had several accusations of vote rigging in the past. Perhaps even worse, the only two options on the referendum were join Russia, or return to the autonomous state of Crimea under its 1992 constitution. Anyone who was happy with the current arrangement wouldn’t have had an option to vote for. Even further, Russia’s human rights council accidentally posted the real results of the election, showing a 30% turnout with only half of those voting to join Russia. Further undermining any claim to legitimacy is simply the fact that the referendum violates at least 3 agreements the Russians signed with Ukraine including the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances for Ukraine, the 1997 Ukrainian-Russian Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership, and their agreement to keep their existing borders of in the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse,

As of today, Crimea is effectively fully integrated into Russia and Russia continues to wage war in Donbass over additional territory to seize. There are over 10,000 civilian deaths, 24,000 civilian injuries, and 1.5 million displaced people as a result of this war, which rages on. NATO has delivered battalions to Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to deter any further incursions by the Russians.

Kashmir in Pakistan, India and China

The Kash Grab

Kashmir’s story has its origins in British Imperial history much like Hong Kong. When India won its independence from the British Empire following the Calcutta riots that left thousands dead, it was broken into two different countries in 1947. Pakistan formed as a Muslim state split into east and west, each side surrounding a Hindu majority (but secular) India.

Each province had been ruled by a prince, and that prince would choose which country to join. Every province but one chose, and you get one guess as to which one. The prince in Kashmir was a Hindu, but he was unique in that he ran a Muslim majority state. Because of this, he chose not to commit Kashmir to either India or Pakistan, and instead remained independent. The Prince, Hari Singh, then signed a standstill agreement with Pakistan, but India refused to sign it. As the rivalry between the new states grew, Pakistan pressured Kashmir to fully join Pakistan. Singh refused, and eventually the Pakistanis invaded. Singh asked India for help, and the reply basically said, you only get help if you join. Singh signed an agreement to nominally join India in the Instrument of Accession, and gained a special status as a semi-autonomous region. This portion of the agreement specifically is what was stripped in August and hit headlines.

The Instrument of Accession triggered the first Indo-Pakistani War in 1947. The UN mediated a cease fire that established borders that were intended to be temporary, but are largely still in effect today. Pakistan claimed that Kashmir had no right to join India due to their standstill agreement (despite pressuring Kashmir to join Pakistan), but more interestingly, an original document of this Accession agreement has never been produced, and the timing of exactly when it was signed in relation to when Indian troops arrived has been called into question leading to an accusation the Singh signed it under duress.

In the following years, China would take a small part of Kashmir from India, East Pakistan would declare independence in 1971 and become what is now Bangladesh, and Pakistani rebels would carry out several attacks that continue to this day and are labeled as terrorist attacks. In the 90s tensions between the states flared up again in an insurgency that left thousands dead. At this point both nations had developed nuclear weapons.

Map of Kashmir

To India, Kashmir is a rightful part of India and was legally turned over to it by its leader, and has spent every year since fending off relentless aggression by Pakistan in the form of wars and insurgencies or terrorist attacks funded by Pakistan, all of which have had significant civilian casualties.

To Pakistan, India’s argument of having Kashmir join them is shady at best. Why couldn’t an original be produced, and why were Indian troops there so soon? Pakistan also has legitimate human rights concerns. Indian forces have raped women,  burned homes, and killed dozens. Unsurprisingly, this has fueled outrage at India, and resulted in Kashmiris asking Pakistan for military training that they happily provide. Violence begets violence.

In August of this year, India sent in tens of thousands of troops, cut internet, imposed curfews, closed schools, and stopped SMS messaging in preparation for unrest before revoking Article 370 that had let Kashmir operate semi-independently for so long. Only in late October did some of these restrictions begin to be lifted. What will happen as Kashmiris are allowed to communicate to each other and the outside world will be worth watching. Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan is urging for UN intervention, and even went as far as writing an opinion piece in the New York Times.

A World Clamoring for Land

Korea, Western Sahara, Somaliland, and Cyprus

While those are the biggest territorial disputes occurring at present, they’re not the only ones. The Korean peninsula has had north and south claim the other since there was a north and south.

The Western Sahara has claimed independence from Morocco that annexed it peacefully in 1975. Most of Africa has acknowledged its independence, yet Morocco has not, and the area is still in dispute.

Cyrpus’ northern territory is claimed by Turkey due to its history in the Ottoman empire and significant ethnic minority of Turks. Of course, Cyprus claims it as its own.

In an even odder dispute, Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in the 1990s. It has its own police, army, elections, enforced borders, and diplomatic relations with the EU, the Arab League, and other countries. It meets all the requirements to be a sovereign state except for one…being recognized as a sovereign state. How have territorial disputes worked out in the past, not only geopolitically, but also for the people who live in these contested territories? Let’s take a look.

Similar Stories in History

The Irish Troubles

The Crown Was Dublin Down on a Partition

Ireland has had a fraught relationship with the crown for, well, basically forever. The island of Ireland is broken into two separate countries. Ireland, which is independent, and Northern Ireland, which is a state of the United Kingdom.


Why then, is the island of Ireland divided between two separate governing bodies? This is certainly a question of how far do you want to go back for an answer – as is a lot of history.

Ireland and England officially joined with the King of Ireland Act in 1541 that made King Henry the VIII the King of Ireland as well. They were still two separate kingdoms, with separate parliaments, but were ruled by one king. They’d technically been kind of united before that due to weirdness with how the Papal states worked and the Norman Invasion, but I don’t want to get into that.

As tempting as it is to cover the religious wars of the 1600s between the Catholic Irish and the Protestant Brits, I want to keep this a bit concise since the other two stories are pretty large. Just know that the monarchs of Britain and Ireland imposed what are known as the Penal Laws to force Catholics to convert to the church of Ireland, which backfired and set the stage for centuries of friction. These laws prevented Catholics from holding office and confiscated their land.

With that background, I’m fast forwarding the to French Revolution in 1789. After overthrowing and establishing their new government, the revolutionaries wanted to spread their ideas of freedom of religion and speech and liberty to the rest of Europe. Ireland felt particularly inspired by these ideas (in particular freedom of religion since the church of England reigned over in a Catholic majority area), and before long a political group known as the United Irishmen formed in late 1791, early 1792. They sought to unite the Catholics, as well as the dissenters (non-Anglican protestants) and became a huge force for Catholic emancipation. This lead to the Catholic Relief Act that let Catholics vote and run for office…but not hold office. This, of course, didn’t mean much for political equality. Meanwhile, the British government expelled condemned the conquests that France was undertaking, and expelled their ambassador. In response, France declared war on Britain.

Now what we have is a group of Irishmen who sympathize with French Revolutionaries and their ideals, and these Irishmen have a king who is at war with France. Things got tense when the King discovered the United Irishmen were plotting with France in 1794, and abolished the group. This stoked the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which was violently put down with the leader’s heads put on pikes. As a result, Act of Union was passed in 1801, which abolished the Irish Parliament and brought Ireland and England ever closer politically, but ever farther loyally. This bill was also passed by the Irish parliament. How you ask? Well, only members of the Anglican church could hold office.

In 1829, Catholic Emancipation was finally passed by fully repealing the Penal Laws, but just 16 later the Irish Potato famine occurred in 1845. During the famine, food exports to mainland Britain actually increased making the situation far more dire than it would have been. This lead to widespread calls for the reestablishment of an Irish Parliament and even Home Rule. That would eventually lead to a full war for independence. Bills for home rule were put before parliament in 1886 and 1893, but were both dismissed. In 1912 it was proposed yet again but opposed by Protestant Unionists (mostly concentrated within a northern area called Ulster) who didn’t want to be ruled by Catholics. These Protestant Unionists, determined to remain part of the United Kingdom, formed a group called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and began importing arms. In response, the Irish Volunteers Force (IVF) was formed and smuggled nearly 2,000 rifles into Ireland. Home Rule was precariously passed as a half measure, but then its actual implementation was suspended when The Great War broke out in 1914. This document also contained a provision for Ulster counties to remain in the UK should they choose.

Taking advantage of the British distraction, a rebellion was planned on Easter in 1916 known as the Easter Rising. The rebellion was crushed over a few days, but 485 people lost their lives, over half of whom were just civilians. Its leaders were executed.

Destruction of the Easter Rising
The destruction of the Easter Rising

The Easter Rising had several implications that can still be felt today (as did the Great Famine, for that matter. Its population still hasn’t recovered.)

First, those who were executed were seen as martyrs, and this kickstarted a nationalist movement, which lead to the rise of the Sinn Féin Party – a left wing party that argued for a united and independent Ireland, and a party that still exists today. The British response had been far too severe, and Ireland’s independence movement gained momentum.

The Sinn Féin party won a landslide victory throughout the non-Ulster counties in December of 1918. They immediately setup an Irish parliament, and in January of 1919 Ireland formally declared its independence. The Anglo-Irish War was on.

The declaration prompted the British Police in Ireland to conduct raids and arrests on members of the Sinn Féin party.

The Irish Volunteer Force became the infamous Irish Republican Army, which carried out a number of guerilla warfare campaigns. In 1920, Michael Collins, a leader of the movement, lead an attack and gunned down 19 suspected British Intelligence officers. In response, the English Police force shot randomly into a football crowd killing 12. This incident was known as Bloody Sunday – not to be confused with the Bloody Sunday in the 70s.

As a result the UK government passed the government of Ireland Act in 1920, which effectively provided home rule, but it also provisioned two different parliaments. One was in Ulster, and one for the rest of Ireland to compromise between the Unionists and Separatist. Unfortunately, the Southern Irish government never functioned.

The Anglo-Irish War eventually concluded with Collins negotiating the Anglo-Irish treaty, which provided for the creation of an “Irish Free State.” The Irish Free State was basically a semi-autonomous realm of the British Empire – a lot like Canada prior to their 1982 Canada Act. The act also granted an opt out for the Ulster counties allowing them to remain fully in the UK if they so wished. The act, while intended to please everyone, made everyone unhappy. Ulster seceded from Ireland immediately afterwards. This gave Ireland its modern borders and sparked the Irish Civil War.

The Irish Civil War was a relatively short lived affair effectively fought between pro-treaty forces and anti-treaty forces backed by Sinn Féin. Those that didn’t like the treaty claimed that Northern Ireland’s secession and an Irish State that wasn’t completely independent violated the ideals of the Irish Republic. The war was won by the pro-treaty forces in 1923, but unfortunately the troubles wouldn’t end yet.

Ireland’s Free State dominion lead a trade war in the 30s, which eventually lead to its status as a fully independent republic 1937 when it drafted the Irish Constitution. However, the tension between the Protestants/Unionists and Catholics/Nationalists would come to a head from the 60s for decades afterwards in what we call the Troubles. The Troubles took over 3,000 lives (over half civilian) as the IRA fought for a united Ireland against those who wished to maintain the status quo – Northern Ireland remaining in the UK.

The Troubles are pretty complicated in an already complex quagmire of events, so I won’t go into the excruciating detail that I did above. However, what’s important to note is that it’s mostly a continuation of the above conflict that started as a Civil Rights movement. The IRA’s tactics turned from guerilla to terrorist bombing locations in both Northern Ireland and Westminster, as well as an assassination plot on Margaret Thatcher. It got bad enough to build walls known as Peace Lines to separate the Protestants from the Catholics, and these can still be seen today.

A Banner and Rubble in Belfast during the Troubles
A banner and rubble in Belfast during The Troubles

The Troubles would cease in the 90s with what’s known as the Good Friday Agreement (why all these events are named after Christian holidays is beyond me). The Good Friday Agreement acknowledged that Northern Ireland is definitively part of the United Kingdom because the majority of people living there wish to be a part of the United Kingdom. However, it also acknowledged there is a plurality of the populace who would like to join Ireland. The agreement set forth that should there ever be a time that the majority of the people in Northern Ireland wish to leave the United Kingdom and join Ireland, they may. This may be why you’ve heard of Northern Ireland’s status during the Brexit negotiations. Ireland is still divided, and while there is peace, it is a precarious peace.

Why The Troubles Matter Today

Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom, especially in its history, has some parallels to modern Crimea. The will of its inhabitants were divided, and its ownership was debated between Ireland and the UK. Additionally, both countries underwent a full revolution for their independence. Nationalities also play a large part in all three conflicts as some of those in Crimea identified as Russian while others identified with Ukrainians. Kashmiris have historically felt an affinity to either Pakistan or India, but are sensing a growing sense of identifying as Kashmiris. Nationalistic ambitions have radically redrawn maps, in particular since the French Revolution. Compromised agreements can certainly secure a peace, but it is imperative to note just how precarious that peace can be. We saw the Anglo-Irish Treaty break into war again within just a few years. That peace was fragile, just as the peace in Kashmir is and any peace agreement in Ukraine would be.

This isn’t the end of my session on territorial disputes. Next time I’ll discuss how some territorial disputes are the result of wanting a buffer zone from an enemy. The idea of a buffer zone is being used to justify Turkey’s aggression against the Kurds in Syria. To understand historical precedents for a “buffer zone” we’ll dive into Polish History and, of course, Roman history.


Further Reading

On the Ukrainian Revolution (requires Netflix)

On the history of Kashmir

A scan of the Anglo Irish Treaty

Images and a history of The Troubles



Extradition in Hong Kong, The Road to China

Tienanmen Square Protests

What’s happening in Hong Kong?

First My Criminals, Then My Heroes

Hong Kong is seeing some of the largest protests in modern history over a proposed Extradition bill between Hong Kong and China, police brutality and a growing fear that Hong Kong is slowly losing its autonomy. Some estimates are as high as nearly 2 million Hongkongers protesting, but that figure is likely exaggerated as it accounts for about 27 percent of the territory’s population. Hundreds of thousands is much more likely. These protests have been dispersed with tear gas and rubber bullets, yet the protestors actions have escalated, some of whom broke into a government building and hung up a British colonial flag.

This controversial bill was put forth by Hong Kong’s own government to resolve a murder case where a Hongkonger murdered their partner while on vacation in Taiwan. Without this bill, proponents claim, they cannot charge the accused. This bill however, grants extradition rights not only to Taiwan, but also to mainland China. Extradition between two parts of one country may not sound so bad in itself, but protesters fear this could be a huge blow to human rights in an otherwise democratic enclave within China.

Extradition is the practice of returning criminals to the country where they broke a law. If I were to murder someone and flee to Canada, Canada would return me because of its extradition treaty with the United States. On its face, this seems like a good thing, but it can be quickly be abused when you think about how the laws of separate countries differ. Because of this, usually only “like-minded countries” sign extradition treaties. Take a look at whom the United States has extradition treaties with. Notice that the vast majority of them are liberal democracies.

Map of countries with a US extradition agreement

When you look at it from this angle, it becomes easier to understand the fears that Hongkongers have. This extradition treaty could potentially force Hong Kong to turn over journalists, protesters, or critics of the Chinese system. Even critics just passing through Hong Kong could be extradited to China.

These protests aren’t the first of their kind either. In 2014 pro-democracy protests galvanized the entire city into what were called the “Umbrella Protests,” named for the umbrellas used by protesters to fend off pepper spray. These protests ultimately gained little for the protesters, and soon enough police had cleared the last of protesters without further escalation.

It’s also worth noting that Hong Kong’s “democracy” is a bit different than our own due to its place within the Chinese sphere. Specifically, all candidates for office have to be vetted and approved by mainland China for office.

Previously, I’ve mentioned a sense of growing nationalism in Hong Kong. This is important context, but perhaps more important is the history of Hong Kong itself. That’s going to make this post a bit unique as we usually look to other parts of the world to understand the current situation, and we’ll do that too, but these protests really have been an inevitability since a treaty signed in the mid 19th century.

Hong Kong’s History

I Sell Drugs to Fund My Tea Problem

In the beginning of the 19th century, international trade had exploded and most of Europe had colonies all over the world. Britain was importing several goods from China, particularly silk and tea. China, however, refused to import anything in return, which lead to a huge trade deficit, which was a problem since England had recently lost its lucrative American colonies and was needing to fund its Industrial Revolution.

In fact, a British ambassador received this reply from the emperor when asked about trade:

Our ways have no resemblance to yours, and even were your envoy competent to acquire some rudiments of them, he could not transplant them to your barbarous land . . Strange and costly objects do not interest me. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on strange objects and ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures

In response, The British East India company (a privately owned company with a standing army and ruled over parts of India that was responsible for bringing fine and exotic goods back to Britain) had the idea to grow Opium in India and smuggle it into China. Opium was super illegal in China. The smuggling was so wide spread that 10-13 million Chinese were addicted to Opium despite the emperor’s multiple edicts against it. To get an idea of that scale, the United States is experiencing a similar Opioid crisis that’s large enough to be affecting its economy and is even be considered a threat to national security. The crisis affects about 1.7 million people. The crisis in China in 1840 affected 8.3 million more people than the US’ crisis today. Given the differences in population, the Chinese epidemic was proportionally a bit larger than that of the United States’, but certainly comparable. The crisis in China hit males particularly hard though, with 27% estimated to be addicted.

In 1839, the emperor wrote Queen Victoria a letter hoping to resolve this matter, but this letter was likely lost in transit. Hearing no response, the Emperor ordered that all Opium be seized from the British ships and thrown into the sea. This was 2.6 million pounds of Opium. The British were probably getting real sick of having their goods thrown in the sea given the Boston Tea Party just over 60 years prior. This incident wasn’t the only diplomatic snafu though. When a British ambassador came bearing gifts, the emperor essentially told him that his gifts (mostly things like clocks, compasses and other inventions) were unwanted because the Chinese had everything they needed. There was also a case where two British sailors drank too much and beat a Chinese villager named Lin Weixi to death. The subsequent arguments over whether to try the sailors over British or Chinese law further degraded relations as did the fact the British eventually released the sailors.

As you might have guessed, tensions exploded in what is now known as the Opium War. The result was similar to that of the Japanese against Mr. Perry a few years down the road. The Chinese weaponry was simply no match for the industrialized British. The war resulted in China ceding Hong Kong and trading rights to the British in the 1842 treaty of Nanking. The squalid island full of piracy and disease didn’t attract many merchants though, and frankly, neither China nor the Brits were happy with the results of the First Opium War. In particular, the Chinese refused to even discuss the legality of Opium – a point the British kept pressing. The Daoguang emperor reportedly spoke of the matter saying, “nothing will induce me to derive a revenue from the vice and misery of my people.” Even so, other western powers managed to secure one sided trade treaties with China as well; these sets of treaties are now known as the Unequal Treaties.

China indignant about being pushed around and Britain still sore over the legality of Opium (arguing that the Chinese should just tax it and make a killing) eventually started the Second Opium War fought between 1856 and 1860. Officially, this was ignited by the fairly bizarre Arrow Incident where a Chinese ship in Hong Kong waters with a Chinese crew was boarded by Chinese authorities and the men arrested on grounds of suspected piracy. This was considered an affront to the British only because it took place in British controlled waters, and they considered it a breach of their extraterritoriality agreement in the Treaty of Nanjing. It may have been a shoddy argument, but it was the casus beli the British needed. Further, the Chinese were also dealing with the massive Taiping Rebellion led by Hong Xiquan, who literally thought he was the brother of Jesus Christ. The year is 1850 AD, and China is some 5,000 miles from Israel, but that’s beside the point. The man led a massive rebellion, sometimes referred to as a civil war, which prevented the Chinese from assembling an appropriate response to Britain’s affront. Eventually, the Brits secured more territory in the treaty of Peking.

The Brits weren’t the only nation getting in on the action. The French joined the war following the arrest and sentencing of a French missionary Auguste Chapdelaine who’d broke the law by preaching Christianity in interior China, which was a serious and well-known no-no. The French used it as their excuse to join the 2nd Opium War.

The treaty of Tientsin opened 11 more ports for trade and allowed the United States, Russia, France, and Britain to “establish embassies” in Beijing, which turned out to require thousands of troops, which proceeded to loot all of Beijing.

Over the next 50 years, the colony of Hong Kong attracted merchants and the resulting population grew so rapidly that the Brits were worried about security and where their population could go, since they were trying to keep it separate from mainland China. They ended up “leasing” more territory from China in 1898, which is now referred to as the new territories. This “lease” was really more extortion, but the Chinese agreed. This lease was supposed to run for 99 years, which was understood to just mean “forever.” This string of unequal treaties are often referred to by the Chinese government as among the inciting events for the “Century of Humiliation.” Every government since has put a focus on modernizing their nation to be competitive with the west. Hong Kong would now look like how we see it today:

Location of Hong Kong and ceded territory

99 years isn’t forever though, and as 1997 approached, Margaret Thatcher and the Deng Xiaoping began to discuss the handover. It was agreed that, for 50 more years, there would be a transitional period where the people of Hong Kong would continue to be able to practice the liberal values and democracies they’d become accustomed to. However, they would ultimately be apart of China – not Britain. This is often known as the one country two systems agreement, and in 2047, it expires and Hong Kong becomes just another part of China.

That brings us to the present. As Beijing continues to chip away at the values that Hongkongers cherish, conflict seems inevitable – though it’s hard to predict exactly how violent that conflict will get. While this conflict is certainly rooted in Industrial and Imperial histories, has there ever been anything like it?

If we cut to the heart of the conflict, what’s occurring is a protest against an unpopular law and an unpopular leader. As we’ll see, there are several notable examples of similar protests reaching all the way back to ancient history.

Similar Stories Through History

The Roman Republic

Can we have rights? Pretty Plebes? 

The Roman Republic is a period of Roman history that many look to for inspiration on governance, and in fact forms the basis of United States’ government. The Republic began around 509 BCE after the Roman king was over thrown and ends in 27 BCE when Octavian defeats Mark Antony, avenges Julius Caesar’s death, and establishes the Roman Empire.

The Roman Republic, however, had a recurring social squabble between two classes of people, Patricians and Plebeians. The Patricians were the class of aristocrats and were, supposedly, descendants from the  Senate that Romulus himself hand picked. Thus, only Patricians were allowed to be senators or hold any high ranking office. When the Roman king Tarquin was overthrown, the Patricians decided to do away with kings altogether (somewhat ironically, it would only be about 500 years before the kings were effectively back as emperors). They replaced the kingship with consuls – two leading men who had veto power over each other, were elected by the Patricians, and were liable for crimes when their office was up. Sounds like a great step in the right direction to avoid the tyranny of despotic kings, right?

Except that the Plebeians, who made up the vast majority of Roman civilization, had no say in either consulship, nor could they even be elected to a voting position. In a situation that might sound familiar to anyone who’s read about a revolution, the Plebeians were taxed, but had no oversight into how their money was spent, and were drafted into wars they had no say in whether they fought. Further, when they were drafted into a war, nobody could take care of their farm. They would go off and fight for Rome, come home to a ruined farm and receive no support from the state. This would force them to take loans they couldn’t repay, and subsequently cause them to be harassed and imprisoned for not repaying the loan. Instead of waging a civil war though, they did something pretty incredible given the year is 493BCE. They organized and protested.

Secession of the Plebeians
Secession of the Plebeians

In a remarkable event that we refer to as the Secession of the Plebes, a Plebeian known as Lucius Sicinius Vellutus advised that instead of leading a violent revolt, they should just leave. That’s what they did. The entire city packed up and left. Literally. Any Roman citizen that wasn’t a Patrician – that includes barbers, accountants, farmers, and importantly, soldiers – united and walked out of their own country. They set up shop on a hill, fortified it, and waited for someone to come meet their demands.

And there demands were indeed met. The senate, fearful of an attack while the populace was away, sent Menenius Agrippa to meet them. Menenius was a well liked man by the people and he prepared an eloquent speech in which he compared the patricians to the stomach and the plebians to the arms and legs. Yes, the arms and legs do all the work to feed the stomach, and at first glance the stomach does nothing but consume the labor of the arms and legs. However, if the arms and legs do no work, then the whole body will suffer because the stomach also provides nourishment to the arms and legs.

His speech was successful and brought the Plebeians to the table. The office of the Tribune was created in which two members from the Plebeian class held an elected office and had the power of veto. They could veto any unjust law being proposed by either the consul or senate. The Plebeians would use this secession tactic four more times in the coming years and in doing so secured various rights, including the right to marry between patrician and plebeian, the return of land that had been seized to pay their debts, and even an upper limit on the amount of land any one person could possess. 

This is certainly a protest ahead of its time as political disagreement nearly ubiquitously resulted in bloodshed. The largest difference here is scale. Rome hadn’t even conquered all of Italy yet and was several hundred years before its peak. This sort of strategy would never have worked once Rome had established its empire. Something more immediately comparable to China would have been if this occurred 400 years later and the entire empire walked out. The amount of civil wars Rome would suffer through in the 200s prove large scale support for a cause isn’t always a problem, but those conflicts also had significant differences in what they were fighting for and the mere fact they were fighting. Hong Kong’s protests have been relatively peaceful. Mainland support for Hong Kong is non-existent, and thus Beijing is eager to paint Hongkongers as terrorists or rioters – phrases that have a connotation of fringe ideology that doesn’t reflect a deeper schism within the unity of their country, a strategy that’s working. 

The English Civil War

Let Me Level with You

It’s easy to think that protests are mostly a modern invention with the Romans being a forward thinking exception, but protests are popular throughout history. In fact, the first labor strike in history happened about 700 years earlier in the Egyptian New Kingdom. Coincidentally, this was near the time of the Bronze Age Collapse. Another protest I’d like to particularly hone in on is the Levellers in Great Britain.

I initially hesitated at choosing another situation involving either Britain or China, but the Levellers seemed particularly apt for the present climate both in Hong Kong and elsewhere. The Levellers were a radical political group in the 17th century who advocated an ideology that would have fully democratized Britain. They gain their name from their opponents who coined the term claiming that the Levellers wanted to level the inequality by abolishing property rights and equalizing all wealth, neither of which were actual goals of the Levellers. If calling a politician a name associated with an unpopular agenda that doesn’t align with their actual goals sounds familiar,  it should.

The Levellers came to prominence within the English Civil War, a conflict started between Charles I and parliament, and in itself was over how much authority the king could wield.

As a little bit of background, King James had united the kingdoms of Scotland and England  (and had hoped to also unite Ireland). However, England’s parliament was a bit stronger legally than Scotland’s, which proved problematic when the King wanted to raise funds for the Thirty Years War because in England taxes could only be levied with parliament’s permission. It was almost literally their only codified responsibility (though they had others, they were less official, and often amounted to petitions, airing grievances, or proposing laws the king could reject). This codified power of Parliament was particularly irksome because James (and his heir Charles) both believed in the concept of Divine Right, which is basically just the idea that God himself chose the king (an idea originally propagated by Roman Emperor Diocletian), and Absolutism, which is basically a fancy word to describe the response, “Because I said so,” to anyone daring to question the king. In other words, the King has absolute power – as you might expect if God Himself appointed you.

King Charles I
King Charles I

Once King Charles had ascended, he was broke from James’ ongoing war (a war he’d tried to prevent by marrying the king of Spain’s sister). Charles tried various sketchy means to raise funds without Parliament including forced loans. When people refused to pay up, he just threw them in jail, which unfortunately still left him without funds and still forced him to call Parliament to get permission for a tax.

Parliament was none too happy about his actions. His jailing of knights and nobles were seen by parliament as a violation of Habeas corpus, and compelled Parliament to produce the Petition of Right. Parliament refused to grant any taxes until the King recognized their petition. The Petition of Right had 4 major clauses that might sound familiar:

  1. Taxes may not be levied without approval of Parliament
  2. Subjects may not be imprisoned without cause
  3. Troops may not be quartered in citizen’s homes
  4. Martial Law may not be enacted during peace time

Charles recognized the Petition but became further frustrated with Parliament’s other grievances, so he dissolved parliament and simply refused to call another one…for eleven years. He thought as long as he could avoid another war, he didn’t need Parliament’s taxes, and thus didn’t need Parliament. However, due to his attempted reform of the church in Scotland (who wasn’t a fan of the national Church of England), a Scottish army invaded, and Charles was forced to call a parliament in 1640 to secure war funds. This incident is known as the Bishop’s Wars, but would be the first in several wars collectively known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. During this and subsequent Parliaments, Parliament recognized they had Charles by his ears and demanded even more recognized powers. Charles refused to grant them. This ultimately lead to the English Civil War.  Loyalists to the king were referred to as the Cavaliers while the “Roundheads” of Parliament were led by a man named Oliver Cromwell.

Cromwell would win, overthrow the monarchy, and establish a military dictatorship as those who win wars “for the people” seem wont to do – see also Julius Caesar, Maximilian Robespierre, Napoleon Bonaparte, Simon Bolivar, or Vladimir Lenin.

The Levellers developed from Cromwell’s Parliamentary army as a faction wanting not only further rights for parliament, but full democratization including universal suffrage and abolishing the House of Lords. (Parliament is composed of a House of Lords and a House of Commons. A big difference between which is that members of the House of Commons are elected whereas the House of Lords are appointed. The House of Lords used to be more powerful than the Commons, which is why the Levellers sought to abolish it.)

Members of Cromwell’s New Model Army came together and published these thoughts in their political manifesto known as “The Case of The Armie Truly Stated.” One Leveller Colonel argues the case for suffrage with their General stating:

“I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he, and therefore truly, sir, I think it is clear to every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.”

This full manifesto angered the Leveller’s senior officers, and the leaders of the Leveller movement, known as Agitators, were invited to debate their ideals in the Putney Debates. The manifesto was brought to the debate and redrafted as “An Agreement of the People.” The Agitators explained their principles and merit against “The Heads of Proposals,” a document that the army had already drafted with demands of King Charles when he was defeated.

Lastly, the Levellers even drafted a petition to present to parliament which garnered signatures from 1/3 of all Londoners. The goals of the Levellers were not in line with Cromwell’s aims. Eventually, the Levellers were kicked out of the army, some court marshaled, and one agitator named Robert Lockyer was hanged. This sudden oppression caused a string of mutinies, the biggest of which was 400-strong and known as the Banbury Mutiny. Cromwell crushed the mutinies and soon after the Leveller’s newspaper ceased publication. The executed leaders are still celebrated today in Oxfordshire on a day known as Levellers Day.

The Levellers on their face bear little resemblance to the Hongkongers, but under scrutiny similarities begin to reveal themselves. Both the Levellers and protesters came to prominence in a turbulent environment. One might say that the protesters caused their environment, but this turbulence is inevitable given only 70 years to lose all the liberties gained over the prior 150. Thus both ​groups are a product of, rather than a catalyst to, their shifting political environments. Both groups were also initially peaceful and distributed information about their cause via pamphlets and brochures. One was violently shut down, and as the Chinese military amasses at the Hong Kong border, it may become another similarity.

Lastly, both groups had similar aims and faced a seemingly insurmountable opponent, whether that’s the whole of China or a divinely appointed monarch. The Levellers’ aims did not come to pass, but the movement did push the national conversation and inspired the populace to keep pushing for liberty. Whether Chinese citizens will make similar strides with the national conversation seems unlikely with the Tienanmen Square protests in recent memory and the effective nature of Chinese media impressing its populace.

Violence isn’t inevitable and can still be avoided, but whether there’s a compromise to be had seems unlikely. The one party two systems agreement is unlikely to be a durable one, and these protests aren’t Hong Kong’s first. As the protestor’s demands grew from simply removing the extradition treaty to full autonomy and democracy, China is less able to cave. Whether China will be able to wait the protests out as they did in 2014’s Umbrella movement remains to be seen.

Further Reading

On a history of extradition

On the various political groups in the English Civil War

On the English Civil War

A Gallery of Hong Kong Protesters

Thanks to Ryanne Laii and for images.

Climate Change Through History

The Spirit of My Law

I want to open with a disclaimer. In my first post,  I promised to keep my blog as politically neutral as possible. However, some issues interplay with politics that aren’t in themselves inherently political. Religion is a great example of this throughout medieval Europe and even today in the Middle East and the Vatican. History can be politicized as well whether that’s downplaying the role slavery had in the American civil war or completely denying a genocide.

Today, I’m tackling another such issue that isn’t in itself political but has become so. That issue is climate change. This blog will keep its promise to remain politically neutral, but the facts of religion, history, and science are not political. The Lighthouse draws the line here: Science tells us what is happening around us and why. Politics is the discussion around what, if anything, to do about it.

A Little Summer Heat, A Little Icecream, and a Little Geopolitical Upheaval

Climate change has been diving in and out of the news for years in various forms, such as  the international signing of the Paris Climate accord, and the United States withdrawing just a few years later. Just recently, a report came out showing Canada is experiencing warming on a scale twice as quickly as the rest of the world. Ireland went as far as to declare climate change a national emergency.

This isn’t a science blog, but I think this concept warrants a quick explanation. Essentially, what regulates our planet’s temperature is a layer of ozone made up of a variety of molecules such as CO2. The sun’s heat hits earth and bounces off the surface. This layer of ozone reflects some of the heat back down to earth. This heat shield keeps the temperature from fluctuating too much between day and night. To get an idea of how effective this is consider that the moon, who has no such ozone, has a temperature that fluctuates between 260 and -280 degrees Fahrenheit on a daily basis (keeping in mind that a day on the moon is closer to 13 Earth days). These same molecules that regulate our heat by trapping and reflecting it back to the surface are released in most human industrialization efforts such as deforestation, manufacturing and burning fossil fuels, which heat our homes and power our cars.

There is little to no doubt the climate is indeed warming. NASA provides data from 6 separate institutions across 3 countries providing temperature data since 1880. This list also contains statements from dozens (possibly hundreds, I stopped counting) of scientific communities from around the globe stating the same. This is a global consensus. If you have further doubts or would like to read more, I highly suggest checking out NASA’s site here. It’s extremely informative in providing both data and explanations.

So let’s ask the million dollar question you all came here for. Has humanity ever had to face climate change before?

It turns out that climate change is one of the leading causes for several of the geopolitical upheavals throughout history. The fall of Rome, the fall of the Maya, the Bronze Age Collapse, the rise and fall of Vikings, the Andean civilization or the Khmer Empire’s fall have all been attributed to climate change. All over the world and all throughout history humanity has fought and lost to the climate.

From Bronze We Came, and to Dust We Returned

The Bronze Age started at different times in different civilizations and locations. We’re going to focus specifically on the near east: modern day Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and Syria. The main players affected were the Egyptian New Kingdom, Mycenaean Greece, the Hittite State, Assyria, Alashiya (ancient Cyprus) and the Minoans.

The Bronze Age started around 3300 BCE in the near east and ended in 1200 BCE in one of the greatest mysteries to historians. Several of the greatest kingdoms the world has ever seen collapsed within just a few years of each other – all of whom have records blaming a mysterious “sea people.” Who these sea people are is a matter of great debate. They may not have even been one homogeneous group. We know that these civilizations were attacked by people who came from the sea, but it’s not clear if these people were from the same country. The sea people that the Egyptians wrote about may have been different from those mentioned by the Hittites.

What exactly caused the collapse isn’t clear, so when I’m stating climate change is the cause, keep in mind that it’s one theory of many. However, it is one supported by compelling evidence. Some other theories include invaders who’d developed iron, while others mention earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, and still others mention internal rebellion or the breakdown of an interconnected trade system. While all of these things certainly happened, whether each of them were the cause or another symptom is difficult to determine.

Here’s what we know. In 1200 BCE, several empires existed with complex international trade agreements. They’d discovered metallurgy, employed administrators and wrote epic narratives. This is the world of Homer’s Odyssey, and when it ended, the world regressed so much that even writing was nearly absent for 400 years. It’s really hard to understate exactly how severe this collapse was. The strongest nations in the world were reduced to little more than rubble.

Below we can see how many major cities were destroyed as well as the route the “sea people” likely took:

The Route of the Sea People
The Route of the Sea People

The most recent discovery of pollen samples (linked above) shows that the area experienced a drought for a 150 year period. This destabilized the region and its trade. The breakdown of international trade made it harder to create weapons. Creating bronze, which was used in weapons, relied on a mix of tin and copper. Tin is exceedingly rare naturally, and archaeological evidence hasn’t definitively defined where the Bronze age civilizations in the Near East even acquired it. We do know there was some in Mesopotamia, so it’s likely that it was traded to these empires. When these sea people arrived, likely seeking food that wasn’t there, they may have plundered trade routes robbing the empires of their tin and thus their ability to defend themselves. Once one empire fell, trade between these empires further fragmented, and it came crashing down like a Jenga tower. One clay tablet we found written by the old king Ammurapi reads:

My father, behold, the enemy’s ships came (here); my cities(?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots(?) are in the Land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the Land of Lycia?… Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.

I want to break this down a bit. This letter was intended to be a response to a plea from Alashiya (modern Cyprus) for help. This plea for aid’s response is basically, “I sent aid to Lycia and Hatti, and now my own city is defenseless against the invaders who are now here.

It is easy to see how widespread the invasions were and how overwhelmed each civilization was by them. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of this is that the tablet was found in Ugarit, Ammurapi’s own city. That means it never even left the city before it was destroyed.

The parallels to our day and time are hard to miss. The reliance on international trade and a key good (bronze or petrol) are imperative to life as we know it. An interruption to such trade can have grave consequences and already has. Not to mention the parallel to blaming invaders such as the sea people for internal problems. Granted, the sea people truly wished to wage war rather than seek asylum, but the comparison still is worth consideration.

The Sea People We Know…or Don’t

The Vikings had nothing to do with the Bronze Age collapse, but their civilization was one that’s often postulated to have been affected by climate change. In fact, the common sentiment has been that they owe their existence to the medieval warm period and their collapse to the succeeding little ice age, but a recent study has called that sentiment into question. To be clear, that’s not to say that climate change didn’t affect the Norsemen, quite the opposite. Rather, the above study simply suggests that glaciers may have been larger than anticipated during the Medieval Warm Period, and thus climate alone may not have been the sole catalyst for their initial settlements or exodus.

Statue of Erik the Red
Statue of Erik the Red

Erik the Red is credited with establishing Greenland in the late 10th century. In 985 he convinced several hundred Icelanders to migrate to Greenland. For the following couple centuries, the Vikings would engage in trade with northern Europe. They were primarily farmers and ranchers, but hunted on occasion. However, when temperatures started to cool in the 12 and 1300s, partly due to Indonesian volcanic eruptions  spewing massive amounts of smoke into the air, Greenland became too inhospitable for cattle. They began hunting walrus more frequently, and eventually it became the backbone of their society. In fact, Walrus tusk became such a luxury good in Europe, it’s likely that Greenland began subsisting not on their own labor, but on trade.  However, as temperatures cooled, as the traditional theory goes, the arctic sea ice increased, which made ship travel more difficult and more dangerous. This bout of climate change is supposed to have occurred in two distinct phases. The first wrecked havoc on their agriculture, and so the Norsemen moved towards the coast to facilitate a greater focus on seal hunting and fishing. However, a second bout in 1425 increased storms in the region, and the recent migration to the coast would have left them extremely vulnerable to nature’s fury.

Things only got worse for the Vikings though. As the age of exploration advanced, elephant tusks from Africa began competing with the walrus tusks, which dampened trade. Not only that, but the black death began ravaging Europe, and though our viking friends were mostly unscathed, their trading partners on whom they relied for subsistence were devastated. The Vikings could simply not survive without trade. However, they may not have been totally extinguished as there’s a marriage record in Iceland of a couple who evacuated Greenland, though whether they came alone or as part of a larger exodus is lost to history. By the end of the 15th century, Norse Greenland was no more.

I’ve been using Norse and Viking somewhat interchangeably, but if you’re familiar with Vikings, you may be confused by that last statement since the Viking Age ended in the 1066 with the defeat of the Vikings in their conquest of England. To clear a few things up, the term Viking, as it’s used today, refers to a type of Norsemen in a specific time period. Not unlike how “Yankee” could be somewhat interchangeable with “American,” but more specifically refers refers to a Union solider in the Civil War period. Viking refers to a person from Scandinavia who went “a viking”  between 800 and 1066. While going viking did often entail violent raids the people have become known for, it was just as often used to establish trade or be hired as a foreign mercenary. After 1066, Viking raids were far less common and the typical Norse pantheon began being replaced by Christianity in pace with the rest of Europe. While the Norse would still exist for a few centuries, they wouldn’t be characterized by the barbarism of the Viking age, and the extent to which they raided and pillaged is often overplayed in modern culture.

The important takeaway from the rise and fall of the Norse as it relates to climate is that even in the absence of invaders, in relative peace time, your trading partner’s demise can mean your own. Climate, disease, and other areas of mother nature can cause a civilization’s downfall from afar. It need not be invaded by hungry interlopers. It can be starved by arid land and a lack of trade. As the climate continues to change, violent storms such as the ones likely experienced by the vikings in 1425 will become more common, and in fact, already are. Lastly, the Norsemen’s demise was a slow burn. The civilization declined over the course of a century. That’s 3-4 generations. The climate becoming inhospitable doesn’t necessarily mean a war for remaining resources. It may happen too slowly to notice the change, with not a bang, but a whimper.

Maya Have a Glass of Water?

When Americans think of the native Americans in Mexico and South America, they mostly think of the Spaniards that all but wiped them off the face of the continent. This is true for the Aztecs and the Inca civilizations. The Maya, however, were far past their peak by the time the Spanish arrived, but when they did arrive in addition to waging war against them, the Spanish destroyed nearly all their records and history. Specifically, a bishop burned every Mayan codex he found to prevent them from practicing their religion.

It may be important to provide a brief distinction between pre-Columbian civilizations in the region. The big ones you’ll always hear about are the Olmec, the Aztec, the Maya, and the Inca. The latter 3 coexisted to some extent. The Olmec, however, rose and fall millennia beforehand. The former 3 all shared neighboring land as you can see in the map below.

Location of Mesoamerican civilizations

The Inca were in South America and had a vast and strong empire when the Spanish arrived. The Aztec and Maya also coexisted, but the Maya were far older and were far past their height as an empire by the time the Spanish arrived. Even so, it still took the Spanish 170 years from their first attempts to conquer them, far longer than the other pre-Columbian civilizations. The Mayan Civilization comprised several city-states, and at its height a population of about 2 million. That may not sound like a lot today, but consider that the population of England in 1085 (about 100 years after the Mayan’s height) was about 3.5 million.

What caused the Maya’s demise is perhaps the most relevant to our case of human caused climate changed as several studies suggest that the Maya’s decline from prominence was due to a drought that was severely exacerbated on by their own logging activities. There’s a wide range of studies on this claim some of which question this assumption, but none I found provided an alternate solution. There are several articles that support it.

The Maya’s incessant deforestation was due to both their rising population numbers and their practice of slash and burn agriculture. While the Maya also practiced much more advanced methods of irrigation, their methods of agriculture could not scale with their population. Slash and burn agriculture is a relatively ineffective way to make infertile land fertile. It consists of chopping down and uprooting any plants in a given area and setting them on fire. The resulting ash will fertilize the soil well enough for farmers to use it for about two years before the nutrients are used up, and they must repeat the process on a new patch of land.

This process works reasonably well for small populations, but it’s easy to see how it would never scale. The ecological problems are vast. Aside from the likelihood of accidental fires, it also releases CO2 in the atmosphere, results in habitat loss for any native species, and can even make the land less fertile and more subject to desertification and water loss.

The Maya’s treatment of their environment may not have been the sole cause of their decline before their encounters with the Spanish, but it certainly exacerbated it. In addition, the scholastic disagreement on exactly how much responsibility the Maya had in contributing to their drought directly mirrors political discourse today. In the end, you may consider that regardless of the role humans have in changing their environment, any action that be taken to help prevent its change may prevent a societal collapse, and I think we can all agree that is something worth avoiding.

Further Reading:

When we almost stopped climate change

On the Fall of Troy’s pertinence today

On the role of climate in the fall of the Western Roman Empire

Independence Movements in the 21st Century

Independence movements are rocking the world right now. The most high profile of these is Britain exiting the EU – colloquially referred to as Brexit. However, it’s far from the only independence movement worth observing right now. Catalonia has denounced Spain and is demanding their independence. Scotland has a growing independence movement to breakaway from the United Kingdom. Hong Kong is experiencing growing support for full independence from China.

Let’s dive into the above movements a little further to understand what’s causing them since they’re all fairly separate movements:

You Brexit, You Buy It.

Why did Britain Vote to Leave the EU? Well, a few reasons. Let’s talk about the EU and its history first. The EU originated with the idea that pooling war resources (steel and coal) would help ensure that France and Germany never went to war again. If economies were interdependent, the reasoning goes, then war is a net negative for all involved. The 6 founding members of this agreement were Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Based on that treaty’s success, they furthered their integration in 1957 by creating the European Economic Community, which allowed for people, goods and services to all move freely across borders. This is the basis for the EU as we know it today.

The United Kingdom wouldn’t join until 1973 after seeing the success and prosperity that followed the removal of tariffs, customs, et cetera of the member states.

In the following years every day citizens would begin electing members of the European Parliament (as opposed to being delegated by the nations themselves) and more importantly, the influence of the European Parliament on individual nations grew.  This growing influence led to a greater concern that Britain was losing her sovereignty, and thus led to a desire for more control.

Support for EU membership has always fluctuated between 30 and 60% among the British populace, which makes claims that the vote’s result was due to a recent surge of xenophobia ring a bit hollow. Regardless, the United Kingdom has always identified themselves as Brits before Europeans, and the surge of immigrants from the EU migrant crisis certainly fueled a distrust of the open borders policy of the EU. The United Kingdom voted to secede from the Union in 2016, and their exit plan is due in just a few days. The UK is hoping to gain more control over their borders and economy despite repeated warnings of the potentially disastrous consequences to their market. Their secession is expected with or without any exit plan unless they renege their exit vote with a second referendum, a growing possibility.

Brexit is threatening to tear apart the UK government. The lack of ability to come to a consensus on what Brexit would mean has already triggered a vote of no-confidence (comparable to an impeachment in the United States) and caused several cabinet resignations. You’ve probably heard of soft vs hard Brexit, and the main difference is just how integrated into the EU Britain would remain. Some countries, such as Norway, pay a lump sum into the Union’s budget for access to the Union’s Economic area, but are not full fledged voting members. This would situation would be similar to the result of a soft Brexit. A hard Brexit would be total and complete withdrawal, which gives Britain the control over its borders it wants, but would also introduce tariffs that non members must pay for trade.

Catalan Can, Catalan Can’t

Spain’s Catalonia is a region with its own language and culture, and is experiencing a growing movement for full independence since a referendum for further autonomy was struck down in 2006. The small region of Catalonia provides over a 5th of Spain’s GDP and tax revenue, and many of the aggrieved Catalans argue that the Spanish government doesn’t use that tax money wisely. Things have only worsened since the 2008 economic crisis, and protests are commonplace.

Catalonia held a referendum for full independence in 2017. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of independence, although turnout was only 43%. Spain not only dubbed the referendum illegal and refused to recognize the result, but violently smashed polling booths, suppressed demonstrations, and injured nearly 1,000 people.

The movements leaders are on trial and some are on the run. The 12 leaders on trial are facing decades in prison, and 10s of thousands of people are protesting in Madrid.

Hong Kong Is China. Or Else.

Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau are all in odd places within the Chinese sphere. China has made it incredibly clear that if any were to declare independence, they would invade straight away. However, that doesn’t stop 1 in 6 Hong Kong citizens from supporting the movement or a mere 3% of citizens in Hong Kong referring to themselves as Chinese – the lowest in 2 decades. Even so, independence is an incredibly taboo topic, and the Chinese government is cracking down. Just recently, Hong Kong itself banned their own independence party known as the Hong Kong National Party, and the Chinese government applauded the decision. Being a member or raising funds for the party is now a crime, one that’s justified by concerns for national security.

Historically, there are a lot of independence movements to choose from. Last time I spoke almost exclusively about post world war II movements, so as tempting as Gandhi’s India was as a topic, I decided to return to my favorite periods of history, antiquity (specifically Rome), the Industrial Revolution and the first world war.

If the Roman Emperor Won’t Protect Me, I’ll Protect Myself.

The role of what exactly government’s role should be is one of the most contentious topics in our time, and that’s not unique to our time either. However, most can agree that if government has only one basic function, it is to protect its citizens from invaders. That’s the one thing Rome could not do in the 3rd century. As a result, the Roman Empire broke into thirds, the Gallic Empire in the west, lead by a great general named Postumus and the Palmyrene Empire in the East, so what set off these independence movements in the world’s greatest empire?

The empire was at war on all sides. A plethora of various Germanic barbarian tribes were invading from the north, the Sassanid Persian Empire was invading from the east, and the emperor simply couldn’t be everywhere at once.

Making matters worse was an ongoing succession crisis. When Emperor Alexander Severus was assassinated by his own troops in 235, it kickstarted a series of usurpations and civil wars lasting most of the century. Each time any general successfully fended off an invading force without the emperor present, his troops would hail that general as emperor. The new emperor would lead his army to confront and fight the reigning emperor causing a cycle of usurpers. There would be 25 emperors over the following 50 years. For context, prior to the crisis of the 3rd century, the average reign of an emperor was 20 years.

So that’s the backdrop, war and a lack of a stable leadership. Each of the following two secessions will be slightly different in character. Unfortunately, much less is known about this period of Roman History than any other period of the Roman Empire. What we do know is that Gallienus was co-emperor with his father Valerian in 268. Valerian was on the eastern front fighting against the Sassanids when Valerian was captured by the Sassanids. The Franks, a tribe beyond the border, used this as a worthy distraction and invaded in the north east. When Gallienus got the word of the new Frank invasion, he was helping Postumus, the governor of Germania Inferior (north west-ish area of the empire), defend against a separate invasion. He left Postumus in charge while he attended to the new invasion.

Postumus successfully repelled this invasion, and Gallienus lost a lot of support for leaving in the middle of a war. This caused Postumus’ troops to hail him as emperor, but unlike many of the previous emperors, Postumus didn’t march on Rome to take power. Instead, he setup shop and created what is now known as the Gallic empire. He would briefly absorb modern Spain into the empire as well. Interestingly, he vowed never to attack Italy, and kept that promise. This ended up allowing Gallienus to focus in the east and gave him a bit of a buffer zone between his Empire and the Germanic tribes, so while his contemporaries damned his memory for never taking it back during his life, it may have objectively been his best move.

Gaul so easily and readily broke away for two main reasons: 1. The military hailed every general as emperor after winning a battle. They were able to do this because it had become increasingly obvious that the military ultimately decided who was emperor despite any formal processes in place. If somebody, such as the senate, disagreed, well the military had all the weapons and was often loyal to the highest bidder. More importantly, 2. The actual emperor’s inability to protect the citizens of Gaul. Postumus’ ability to fend off the invaders in absence of the emperor was a clear sign that the emperor wasn’t needed. They were paying taxes for a protection that couldn’t be provided by Rome.

The Gallic empire would survive several invasion attempts from the Roman Empire to reunite the empire, but the Gallic Empire would last for fourteen years before reunification, and Gallienus would be long dead by the time it was reclaimed. Unfortunately Postumus would also be assassinated, and Postumus’ successors were not nearly as brilliant, which is a large reason it was able to be reclaimed at all.

Amidst all this, the Roman colony of Palmyra was controlling Roman troops under the blessing of Gallienus.  Before long the leader of Palmyra kicked the bucket, and his widow, Zenobia, acted as ruler. Zenobia wanted power, but bided her time and kept up the charade of loyalty to Rome, but when another Germanic tribe invaded, she wasted no time seizing the opportunity and additional territory for herself. The Roman Empire now looked like this:


Gallienus would not be remembered kindly by his contemporaries, but modern historians have taken a kinder view recognizing that the empire at large may have completely collapsed had he not given both regions up. Having a buffer zone to the Sassanids allowed Gallienus to focus his troops on invaders from a specific area.

The Gallic empire would be partially retaken by Claudius Gothicus, and then both would retaken entirely by Aurelian. In both cases, it was not that the empires couldn’t survive on their own, but that they were forcibly retaken. Ironically, the west had only left because that same military force couldn’t protect them. The east, however, left as little more than an opportunistic power grab.

The cycle of endless emperors would be ended by the reforms of emperor Diocletian starting in 286. As a result, the Roman Empire would exist for over 100 years before falling in the west, and would continue on in the east for over a millennium as the Byzantine Empire.

Haitian Revolutions

Haiti was once France’s most profitable colony. Haiti, known at the time as St. Domingue, produced 60% of the world’s coffee, and 40% of its sugar. That profit was only possible with massive amounts of slavery. In 1789, slaves outnumbered non-slaves by a factor of 10-1. Slaves were regularly imported due to conditions being so incredibly inhumane that the slave’s death rate outpaced their birth rate. Slaves weren’t the only ones unhappy with the status quo though. Both plantation owners and a group known as “petit blancs” (basically just poorer whites in service jobs such as a shopkeep) felt disenfranchised because they had no representation in the French government and were forbidden to trade with any country other than France.

Inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, ideals like every man is born equal and that circumstances of ones birth should not determine social ranking, a freed former slave by the name of Toussaint L’ouverture led a violent and bloody insurrection in 1791 that would last 14 years.

Interestingly, L’ouverture is a name given to him by fellow soldiers meaning to convey that Toussaint always found a weakness to exploit, which terrified plantation owners.

The uprising was triggered not only by the French Revolution, but also by a decree which granted freedom to men of color in May of 1791, thus enraging the Petit Blancs. This decree was not enforced in St. Domingue and by August, L’ouverture led a full rebellion that would result in him holding a third of the island in just a few months. In 1793, France issued a proclamation explicitly freeing St. Dominigue’s slaves. In exchange, L’ouverture helped the French fight the British, who’d tried to take the colony, and the Spanish, who owned the eastern half of the island.

That said, L’ouverture’s rebellion was never about independence. That is, until Napoleon came to power. Napoleon fought a lot of wars. Like…a lot. He also needed money to fund those wars, so he attempted to reestablish slavery in St. Domingue. (Quick tangent: the Louisiana purchase was also used to fund Napoleon’s wars.) Napoleon was coy about this, but soon the army of 40,000 made it pretty clear that in 1802, slavery was about to be reinstated. Napoleon still promised he wouldn’t reinstall slavery, but he’d promised the same to other islands where he went ahead and reinstated it anyway.

Napoleon may have succeeded had it not been for yellow fever ravaging his army. L’ouverture was imprisoned , and the rebel forces looked to Dessalines. Dessalines would lead his rebels to their final victory, creating both the Haitian flag and proclaiming independence in 1804. Haiti was the second country to win independence from a European power (the first being the United States), and the world’s first black republic.

What’s particularly interesting about the Haitian revolution is that it didn’t begin as an independence movement. It began as a civil rights movement, and when those rights were granted, then reneged, independence went ahead full swing. It will be interesting to see if Hong Kong takes a similar path if the Chinese government obstructs too many rights. It also bears resemblance to Catalan in that Catalan’s movement began as simply wanting more autonomy rather than full independence. While Haiti likely has less in common with Brexit than the other common stories, an important lesson that we see being repeated is that the denial of a request can lead to the demand of full independence.

Simon Says, “Viva La Revolution!”

Haiti’s Revolutions were an important inspiration for those of Latin America, and our hero of this story, a Mr. Simon Bolivar, will lead Venezuela and other Latin countries to declare their independence from Spain and attempt to form new federal republic. That republic would be the republic of Gran Colombia. Simon Bolivar gave full credit to the first president of Haiti. He even said, “Should I not let it be known to later generations that Alexander Petion is the true liberator of my country?”

Before we dive into that though, let’s talk about the situation in Venezuela. Venezuela was a Spanish colony, not unlike the United States was to Britain just a few years before. Venezuela’s grievances with the Spain didn’t resemble the States’ quarrel with Britain. This article gives a great overview, but in short there’s a few reasons:

Spain wouldn’t allow its colonies to trade with any other country, and trade with Spain was fixed at prices favorable to Spain. Colonial traders would trade with other countries illegally, but even so, having to do something illegally doesn’t beget confidence or trust in your country’s leader.

Spain was also briefly overthrown by Napoleon in 1808 during the Napoleonic wars. I’ll talk more about this later, but put it in your back pocket for now.

Lastly, there was a weird social hierarchy comprised of a Jenga tower of racism. Spain had purged most minority classes from its borders by the early 17th century (with measures such as the Alhambra Decree) but the colonies had not. The colonies were comprised of imported slaves, native peoples, mixed race (broken down in 64ths), Creoles, and Peninsulares in ascending order of social status. Those last two in this case are both of spanish descent, but the former was born in a colony and latter in Spain (the Spanish “Peninsula”). Even weirder, the Spanish crown would actually “sell” whiteness to those hoping to improve their social position. This would repeal certain discriminatory laws that would have otherwise applied. This process was known as gracias al sacar.

All this plus the normal high taxes, mismanagement of the colony, and of course, nationalism.

That’s how Simon Bolivar found his home country when he returned from Europe in 1807. While in Europe he witnessed Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation and became inspired to liberate Venezuela from Spain and to promote liberal ideas (liberal at the time meaning voting rights, freedom of the market and press, etc). Independence had already been a growing movement since about 1800, and in 1806 Francisco De Miranda, a successful general in the French revolution, attacked the Spanish unsuccessfully. He evaded capture and ran for his life. Fun fact, Francisco also took Catherine the Great of Russia as a mistress. Interesting dude.

In 1808 Napoleon began the Peninsular War. This war would see Napoleon betray their Spanish allies and occupy Portugal and Spain, and in the process throw the Spanish king, Ferdinand the VII, in prison. As a result, Simon Bolivar was able to convince the loyalists to declare a provisional independence in 1810 – that is, they vowed their loyalty to King Ferdinand, who was in prison. Effectively, they declared independence from France – since there was no Spanish authority to declare independence from. This satisfied the loyalists who didn’t want to declare independence, but certainly didn’t feel loyal to France. That’s not a good long term strategy since it didn’t look like Ferdinand wasn’t coming back anytime soon, so full independence was declared in 1811. This was known as the first Venezuelan Republic (of more than one, so buckle up). Venezuela was the first Spanish colony to declare independence.

In this first iteration of their republic, slavery was outlawed. Envoys were sent to the United States and Britain. Simon Bolivar actually financed one of the missions to Britain, and in exchange he was, begrudgingly, allowed to come along. He was thought to be a bit young, naive, and hot headed, but Venezuela couldn’t finance the mission on their own, so that concession was made. On this trip, Bolivar ran into Francisco De Miranda and brought him back to Venezuela with him.

The first Venezuelan Republic was not long for this world. An earthquake destroyed the capital city of Caracas in 1812 killing more than 10,000 souls. Spanish priests were able to convince a superstitious population that this was retribution for the crime of declaring independence.  Rebellions broke out and militias allied with the remaining Spanish forces and a couple provinces who were never so fond of independence to begin with. Miranda fought them all to no avail. When Bolivar returned, he did so just in time to see his republic fall. Upset, he handed over Francisco De Miranda to the Spanish forces, who threw him in jail for the rest of his life.

Bolivar was forced into exile in New Granada (modern day Colombia) where an independence movement itself was growing. Bolivar took a post and by 1813, he’d removed most Spanish forces from the area. He led an army back into Venezuela retaking every city on the way in what became known as the Admirable Campaign.  Bolivar was named liberator and dictator of the Second Republic of Venezuela. Make no mistake, Bolivar certainly believed in republican ideals, but he increasingly believed that only he could secure them.

In 1813, the war got ugly. Bolivar issued his infamous, “War to the Death” decree. In essence, he ordered all Spaniards, even civilians, executed. The only way Spanish citizens could be saved were to join Bolivar’s fight for independence.

Around this time the “Legion of Hell,” basically mercenaries, joined the cause with the Spanish. The resulting war became so merciless that cities of thousands were reduced to dozens. Corpses rotted in the street. Not even infants were spared. Joseph Bonaparte was removed from the Spanish throne, and Ferdinand (remember him?) was reinstalled. Spain was able to send an additional 10,000 troops and retake Venezuela and New Granada. In addition, with Spain back under Spanish control, many colonists felt independence was wrong. They had only helped revolt because a French usurper was on the throne, but now that the rightful Spanish king was there? Spanish rule wasn’t what some where upset about. In 1814, Bolivar was again sent into exile, this time to Haiti, and the Second Venezuelan Republic came crashing down.

The war continued with little progress for the next 6 years. Bolivar would be able to secure some more vulnerable territory with the help of Haitian funding (funding only promised on the condition that slaves be liberated – a promise Bolivar upheld), but not his homeland of Venezuela. Then, he had an idea. An audacious idea. An idea only a madman would try to execute, but it had worked before. The Andes are a mountain range just north of Bogota, New Granada/Columbia. Bolivar had the idea to march his army through the Andes and recapture Bogota, not unlike Hannibal did to the Romans centuries ago. It worked, but at a heavy cost. I saw mixed numbers on exactly how many people Bolivar lost, but it was between 1,000 and 2,000. The Spanish were completely taken off guard, and terrified of Bolivar’s decree.

The battle of Boyata was the most decisive battle in Bolivar’s war for independence. Bolivar liberated New Granada. From here, the rest was easy. He quickly liberated Venezuela and Ecuador. In 1819 he formed a united state, Gran Colombia comprising Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, and New Granada (Colombia):

Gran Colombia

Bolivar also sent an army to liberate Peru. The last of the Spanish forces were stationed there. The upper portion of Peru formed a separate state, Bolivia – named in honor of their liberator, and Bolivar was named  its president (even though he was already president of another nation, but you know, whatever).

Unfortunately, like his Republics, Gran Colombia was not long for this world. While Bolivar was off campaigning, each of the regional authorities began consolidating their power either trying to break away or raise their own leader to the office of president. Bolivar needed more power to stabilize the unruly republic and named himself dictator for life in 1828. This only fueled resentment, and eventually forced his resignation from power. In 1830, the Liberator died and with him his dream of a united federation. Gran Colombia dissolved that same year.

Bolivar’s legacy and death live on today as does the resulting strife in Latin America. Even today Bolivia is using his name and claiming that a Colombian political rival poisoned Bolivar,  and Venezuela’s government is on the brink of total collapse and civil war. Even with its problems, Latin America still exhibits more freedom than several parts of the world. The Economist rates Peru, Panama, and Ecuador between a 6-7 on its Democracy scale. The United States sits just below an 8.

What does Latin America’s experience mean for Brexit? It’s hard to say. Obviously the United Kingdom isn’t a colony of the EU, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t parallels. Independence from EU is highly contested just like Latin America’s independence from Spain. This is often a recipe for civil strife – even if a civil war is unlikely. Even so, former prime minister David Cameron believes Brexit would in increase the odds of a European war. Likewise, nationalism was a factor in both Latin America and Britian’s independence movement. Civil strife is a common theme in independence movements. Even the United States went to war with itself less than 100 years after declaring independence. Unlike all of our stories today, Britain voted to leave in a manner deemed legal by all parties. It was a vote to leave, not a rebellion. Independence being declared often leads to war, it doesn’t have to, and luckily Britain is deciding how close to stay rather than how far to go.

Further Reading:
On the Crisis of the 3rd Century

On Simon Bolivar

On the Haitian Revolution

I Only Knocked, and They Built a Wall.

The United States’ Government concluded the longest shutdown in US history (however, it’s worth noting that all US government shutdowns have occurred in the last 40 years). It may shut down again in just a few days. Why have US government shutdowns become so common? Does any other country have this problem? And is it really worth shutting down the government to build a wall? Strangely, modern walls between countries are far more common than you’d imagine, but shutting down the government? Well, not so much.

Government shutdowns are a uniquely American problem. No other country has anything quite as analogous to what occurs in the United States despite China pointing to the shutdown as indicative of the failure of western democracy. No other country faces budget crises because, well, other countries planned for it in their constitution. In America, when a budget isn’t passed by congress and the funding period elapses those departments cease to function. What’s particularly odd is this wasn’t the case until 1980.

Prior to 1980, if congress didn’t pass a budget, nothing shut down. Departments just continued doing what they were doing on the same budget. Not passing a budget was about as common then as it is now. A Mr. Benjamin Civiletti, Attorney General during the Carter administration, put a stop to this reasonable practice with a legal opinion he published in 1980. In his opinion, when no funding bill is passed, there’s no funding. This set the stage for every government shutdown since.

Why don’t other countries have this issue? In most cases, the failure to pass a budget will actually force an instant election to replace the government officials in charge of passing a budget. Sweden narrowly missed this sort of election in 2014. Other countries do have shutdowns, but still pay their workers in the interim. Belgium, for example, went 589 days without a government. However, a temporary government was installed to ensure the country didn’t fall apart in the meantime.

The shutdown today is over President Trump’s campaign promise to build a border wall. For this, he’s requested 5.8 billion dollars, roughly 0.1% of the 4.4 trillion dollar budget. While it is no small number, it is a small portion of the budget. It’s also far less than most estimates, including President Trump’s, to build the wall.

When I sat down to write this post, I really wanted to compare this border wall to the great historical walls such as The Great Wall of China or Hadrian’s Wall. They’re great stories, and there’s a lot to be learned from them, but unfortunately, they have little relevance to modern walls due to our increased means of travel (such as flight), and the fundamental difference in purpose. Ancient walls were built to propel invasions. Modern walls are built to stop immigration and refugees or control movement and passage between states. I set out in search of modern walls with a few in mind, and found several more walls than I anticipated. There are currently 20 border walls between countries, with at least 6 more planned or in construction.

Berliners Become Westerners

The Berlin wall is probably the most well known modern wall. In Post World War II Germany, Germany was divided into 4 distinct districts, each occupied by one of the major allied forces: France, USA, Britain, and the Soviet Union. The Soviets took most of the eastern half, while the remainder was split amongst the other three. However, the German capital of Berlin was located deep in Eastern Germany, so Berlin itself was also split into districts amongst the four as well. Thus, there was a small western enclave in the sea of Eastern Germany:



Under this arrangement, travel was supposed to be free and unrestricted in Berlin. It didn’t end up working out that way though. The western allies poured money into repairing Europe while the Soviets extracted resources from Germany as war reparations. This rebuilding of Western Germany (and western Europe at large) was known as the Marshall plan. This caused far greater prosperity in the west, and as a result, defection from East Berlin to West Berlin was a huge problem for the Soviets. East Germans would simply ride a subway into west Berlin, and then ride a subway into Western Germany, which had coalesced into the Federal Republic of Germany. By 1961, an estimated 20% of the East German Population had defected.  The solution, as you probably guessed, was a wall. Its purpose was to stop people from leaving East Berlin and/or East Germany. They shut down several subway stops that became known as “ghost stations.” The wall was built, almost literally, overnight. On the morning of 8/13/61, East Germans found themselves cut off from the rest of Germany via 100 miles of barbed wire that would eventually become the Berlin Wall.

The wall would be constructed around the entirety of West Berlin (in addition to a separate barrier built between East and West Germany) making it an island. This wall would stand for about thirty years before being torn down in 1989. In the interim, land mines, attack dogs, bunkers, watch towers and a 100 meter strip of sand referred to as “the death strip” were laid down to prevent anyone from crossing. Even so, 5,000 people managed to flee, though thousands more were captured and nearly 200 were killed.  Some of those who escaped were simply working abroad and decided to not go home. However, many were ordinary citizens who swam across canals, dug tunnels, flew over the wall in a hot air balloon, or in one case, stole a tank and rammed it through the wall. And if those security measures weren’t enough, a secret service known as the Stasi was installed with the explicit mission of spying on East Germans hoping to uncover any planned escape attempts.

Of course, this didn’t go over well, and due to growing discontent, the Soviets relaxed visitation restrictions between the two sides on November 9, 1989, but this resulted in massive crowds at the wall. While the guards initially tried to restrain the crowds, it was too late. The crowd began tearing down the wall themselves.

There’s a lot of ways to look at this story. Using the metric of immigration, it did drastically reduce the number of crossings, but it did not eliminate them. It’s also worth noting that this wall’s purpose was to keep people from leaving rather than from entering. That difference is mostly semantic, but it is unique. The Berlin Wall stretched 93 miles and cost 16 million Marks (roughly 21 million dollars after accounting for inflation and currency change). Trump’s proposed wall would stretch about 2,000 miles.

The Wall That Wasn’t

As you may recall from last time, Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, and as a result, gained control of Korea. It retained control of Korea up until their World War II defeat in 1945. In an idea that will sound oddly familiar, in the war’s conclusion, it was decided that Japan’s territories should forfeited and Korea should be occupied by the allies and split among them.  The 38th Parallel was decided on as the split point. Russia took the northern half, and the US took the southern half. Both wanted to install governments that mimicked their respective countries, so Russia created the infamously inaptly named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, while the United States installed the more simply named, Republic of Korea for South Korea.

Korea, feeling a bit nationalistic as one does when one people are divided into multiple states, were waiting for war. In 1950 North Korea invaded and set off the Korean war that would divide the peninsula until today. North Korea, backed by Russia, invaded South Korea. The United Nations backed South Korea and pushed back. China, just coming out of a civil war and needing to unite their people against a common enemy (and what better enemy than those capitalist pigs?) joined North Korea. This also gave the benefit of solidifying China’s new ideology as solidly communist, which would decrease the morale of any remaining domestic, anti-communist forces. It would also provide China a buffer zone, so it wouldn’t share a border with American forces.

In 1953, after three years of bloody war, the border between the two countries ended almost exactly where it started. An armistice was signed. As a result, the border is a 2 mile wide and 160 mile long zone ironically known as the demilitarized zone, or DMZ. It just so happens that the demilitarized zone is one of the most heavily militarized areas on the entire planet. Given that, it may not be a surprise that crossing the border is extremely dangerous. North Korean soldiers are ordered to kill anyone trying to cross. Weirdly, the DMZ is also the 5th highest rated tourist attraction in all of North Korea according to TripAdvisor. 

South Koreans, however, often take in any defecting person, even North Korean soldiers. While defection across the border does still happen, most immigration occurs through bordering China. North Koreans go to China, and then from China to South Korea. About 30,000 North Koreans have migrated using this method. Not long after the Berlin Wall fell, North Korea began claiming that the United States and South Korea had built a wall across the border to divide the Koreans in the late 70s. However, there was little proof other than distant photographs such as the one below:



However, in 2007 Reuters broke that the wall did not exist, and this wall was another odd ploy by the DPKR to rally their people and gain support against the oppressive west.

While there may not actually be a concrete barrier, the DMZ is so heavily militarized there may as well be. Similar to East Berlin, North Koreans are not allowed to leave their country. Anyone doing so risks execution. Even in the face of certain death, people defect every year, though North Korea will not release numbers regarding attempts or successes. We occasionally will get video footage of a lucky (or unlucky) person making an escape.  Even in absence of a full-fledged wall, the US-Mexico border is militarized,  and has become increasingly more militarized since 9/11 – only suffering a brief demilitarization when an 18 year old honor student, Esequiel Hernandez Jr., was shot while herding goats.

Lastly, I want to emphasize that DMZ is the only militarized border, which is what enables swaths of people to migrate through China.

 Gauze on the Gaza Strip

The following story can be a bit of a touchy subject, and it’s a subject rife with misconceptions. Because of that, I’m going to give a little more background than would otherwise be necessary to get to the Gaza Wall.

The Israel / Palestinian conflict is, contrary to popular belief, a conflict that has lasted not thousands of years, but about a hundred years. The Israelites and Palestinians have each separately been in several conflicts, but their current conflict, like all of our stories this time, has its roots in the aftermath of World War II. Maybe a little beforehand.

Prior to the first World War, Jews and Palestinians lived in relative peace within the Ottoman Empire. If you read my first post , you may recall that the Ottoman Empire actually welcomed the Jews in the aftermath of the Alhambra Decree. In the late 19th century, however, a belief known as Zionism began gaining traction amongst the Jewish people. Zionism, in short, is the belief that Judaism is not only a religion, but a national heritage. As such, Zionists wanted their own state where they can be free from the persecution they often faced in Europe. Similarly, the Palestinians were having their own surge of nationalism, which as we learned from last time is a source of conflict.

Jews began migrating into the Ottoman Empire, particularly near Jerusalem due to its significance in the Jewish religion. This was made worse by the fact that before World War I, the British had agreed to help migrate Jews into Jerusalem.

Once World War I did break out, Britain made promises to the French in what was known as the Sykes-Picot agreement. In this agreement, the Ottoman Empire would be divided into spheres of influence between France and Britain. It was carved up with little consideration given to either regional and cultural influences or the Arab desire to self govern. Jerusalem, however, was set to be an international zone. The decree also promised territory for the Jews. When the Ottoman Empire was dissolved in the aftermath of the first World War, Britain facilitated Jewish immigration into the region, and by the rise of the third Reich, the Jewish population in Palestine was 8 times what it was in the 1890s. This was viewed by the local Palestinians as another imperial colonization effort, which lead to wide spread protests and even riots. Of course the holocaust furthered emigration out of Europe and into Palestine, which further strained tensions in the region. In response, Britain put immigration restrictions on the Jews leaving Europe for Palestine, which led the Jews to revolt against the occupying British.

Deciding they were making things worse (and they certainly were), the British decided they should leave after the second World War had concluded. The United Nations declared that Israel would be a nation for the Jews and partitioned out land for the Arabs, but it was divided in a terrible way – because again, nobody knew anything about the demographics or regional considerations. The United States and Soviet Union both recognized Israel, but not every country did. Several countries, but not the United States, recognized Palestine as well. This was how the United Nations divvied up the country:

Note that Jerusalem is still an international zone.

These borders were satisfactory to no one and sparked the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. The British-backed Israelites crushed the Arabs, and I mean crushed them. The Israelites took 60% of the land partitioned to the Palestinians in the above map and forced 750,000 native Palestinians to flee their homes. This exodus is known as The Nakba, or literally, The “Catastrophe.”

In 1964 The Palestinian Liberation Organization was formed becoming both the diplomatic face and the armed rifle for Palestine. It fought for Palestine through both conventional and terroristic means. The PLO was actually regarded a terrorist organization by the United States Government despite having observer status at the United Nations. The United States removed this categorization in the 1990s.

In 1967 the Six Day War was fought – named because of how quickly Israel defeated its enemies proving itself the dominant force in the region. Israel fought against Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and the local Palestinians and crushed each of them – due in part to the western ally backing. At the conclusion of this war, Israel seized territory from Jordan, Egypt and Palestine, some of which it still occupies today. The United States brokered a peace deal in 1978 known as the Camp David Accords. Israel agreed to return the land stolen from Egypt during the conflict. The Camp David Accords were mainly significant in that it fractured the previously united Arab position against the legitimacy of Israel as a nation. Egypt was seen as a traitor to the Arab people and was suspended from the Arab League.

Israel proceeded to prevent refugees from the Six Day War from returning home. In 1971 the United Nations accused Israel of “deliberately carrying out policies aimed at preventing the population of the occupied territories from returning to their homes and forcing those who are in their homes in the occupied territories to leave.”

Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian Gaza Strip led to the first Intifada (Arabic for “Uprising”) in the late 80s. The Intifada was a series of boycotts and protests that quickly escalated into riots. Palestinians demanded that the Jews stop occupying their territory. The Jews responded with overwhelming force. A few hundred Jews and over a thousand Palestinians were killed. Many of those casualties were civilians.

Around this time Hamas was formed. Hamas is an extremest organization that seeks nothing less than the elimination of Israel. In light of the Oslo accords (peace talks administered during the Clinton Administration), Hamas believed that the PLO was too secular and playing soft ball. As such, they tried to sabotage the process with suicide bombings and raids. They were ultimately successful – though it’s worth noting that far right Israelis also fought against the Oslo accords – going as far as to assassinate their prime minister in 1995.

Violence continues on both sides and results in a second Intifada in 2000, one far more violent than the first, resulting in thousands of deaths. This Intifada convinces Israel that peace is not possible. Israel decided that to protect its citizens from these increased bombings, it must build a wall.

That’s right; we finally made it to the wall.

However, they built this wall not around the borders that the UN provided oh so long ago, but into the Palestinian land they occupied. They claimed they were protecting newly settled citizens from the persistent Palestine attacks, but to the Palestinians, this was yet another land grab.

Israel maintains that the wall is not a land grab, and that they would happily negotiate borders. This wall’s intention, like the claimed intention of Trump’s wall, is to protect its people from those with violent intentions.

The wall is a powerful symbol, but unlike the DPRK’s imaginary wall and the Berlin Wall, this wall didn’t separate a people that should be united, but separated a people that wanted to be separate. This wall has been under construction since 2002 and is still not complete. The guarded border is 340 miles long with several gaps guarded by military personnel and has already cost roughly 3 billion dollars. That’s less than 1/5 of the US Mexico border and already over half the proposed cost of the US border wall. Further complicating matters is the terrain. Israel’s wall is mostly surrounded by desert, yet the US-Mexico border is mountainous, which will make it both harder to build and harder to guard.

Even with all the above downsides, it’s hard to argue that Israel’s wall hasn’t been successful.  There’s a lot of caveats to that statement.  However, it’s also worth noting that this isn’t the only wall Israel has built. Israel’s success with border walls has been a frequent talking point for wall supporters, but its walls are not the only factor in Israel’s success in decreasing terrorism.

In Conclusion

If decreasing immigration is your goal, a wall seems like an effective, if exorbitantly expensive, way to do it. However, that doesn’t dive into whether there’s good reason to deter immigration, especially noting that immigration at the Mexico border is at a 10 year low.  Whether or not you want to encourage immigration is a value discussion. A legislative solution may prove as effective, and cost less money and lives in the years to come.

Trump’s wall seems to have a lot in common with the walls above in terms of purpose, though the United States is a very different country than East Germany, the Korean Peninsula, and Israel, and the border Trump hopes to protect is about 8 times longer than the other three combined. Walls and the countries that build them are often disparaged by the international community, and as a world leader, the United States must consider the diplomatic effects of building a wall on a border with their ally.

Further Reading:

On Trump Comparing the US-Mexico border to Korea’s DMZ

On the Palestine-Israel Conflict

On the British Promise for the Jewish Nation

On 3 different walls and their comparison to Trump’s Proposed Wall

On the similarities between the Berlin Wall and Trump’s Wall






You’d Embrace My Sword Before My Culture

Nationalism is on the rise across the globe. It’s responsible for Brexit, the rise of several nationalist parties in Europe, and the trade wars the United States is waging against her foes and allies. It’s a reason for the Arab Spring, the Russian Annexation of Crimea, and the rise of Erdogan in Turkey.

It’s easy to take an abstract concept and blame every bad thing currently occurring in the world on it, so let’s dive into what it is and how exactly it’s affecting our world.

Nationalism, in short, is the elevation of a given people’s culture and heritage above all others. This might be anything from language, history, art, or even forms of governance. It’s a loyalty to the idea that what unites us is heritage, and our heritage is superior. It ties one’s identity not to their family or town, but to their nation. Nationalism is also generally a very modern idea, one that generates from the idea that a state is controlled by its citizens. It’s modern because the idea that control would be in the hands of anyone other than a rich and blood borne aristocracy at best and a unchecked despot at worst is laughable prior to about the 17th or 18th centuries.

What’s particularly important to note is that Nationalism isn’t inherently bad, but it does have a habit of begetting conflict between the nationalists and anyone perceived as “other.”  Nationalism is often divided into two different types, Civic Nationalism and Ethnic Nationalism.   Civic Nationalism is often viewed as a positive, or at least more positive than its alternative. Civic Nationalism is effectively the idea that people are united around their liberal democracy. Ideally, under Civic Nationalism, immigrants need not integrate into the nation as much as exalt the nation’s ideals,  often ideals such as free speech and freedom of religion. This contrasts with Ethnic Nationalism, in which people often unite around their ancestry, language, religion or culture and can quickly give way to xenophobia, isolationism, or at its worst, war.

Nationalism has existed in one form or another since, at minimum, the French revolution, so why is it a big deal now? Let’s take a quick look at some of the Nationalist movements that are taking place right now that I didn’t discuss last time.

This will be a long post, so lets dive in.

The Learned Will Love China

China has never been a bastion of freedoms or human rights, but it has always used Nationalism to cultivate support for the government, and they’re doing so more frequently under Xi Jingping. Xi Jingping has been controversial for instituting several “Patriotic Education” reforms aimed at getting intellectuals to support, instead of criticize, the Communist Party of China. Their schools also routinely ask their parents for photographic evidence that their children are watching assigned propaganda films, and even more ominously, have setup “reeducation camps” for their Muslim citizens. These camps, reportedly, are for captured Muslims who are sentenced to attend without any trial in an effort to teach them the Chinese language and break them of having a belief system aside from loyalty to the CPC.

Propaganda has been a main stay of Chinese Education since shortly after the second World War, but Xi has turned into it with a fairly unprecedented ferocity cultivating a patriotism so fervent and tribal, he’s struggled to control it. When Japan bought a few small and mostly uninhabited islands in 2012, anti-Japanese riots broke out across the country.

India’s Nationalism Takes a Turn

India has a much more optimistic history than most countries when it comes to Nationalism, and a history that, in many ways, mirrors our own. India under the British Empire did not share a language, heritage, or even mutual interests with India. India, unlike the United States, had no sense of heritage from the crown, which gives the same famous declarations from the United States’ independence movement (“There shall be no taxation without representation”) both relevance and bite. Their nationalism was born from a sense of anti-colonialism and a desire for governmental reform.

However, today’s surge of Nationalism has minorities (non-Hindus) worried they may become second class citizens.  As part of this movement, India’s government, elected in 2014, will be rewriting their history books to paint all of its citizens as direct descendants from the first Hindus rather than the multi-cultural and diverse country that it truly is. Their government has two singular missions: Proving the events described in Hindu texts occurred, and that todays Hindus are direct descendants of people from those times. This alone doesn’t sound odd or even that bad, until you read that Sharma, head of their culture ministry wants to “prove the supremacy of their glorious past.”  What this means for Muslims, Christians, or members of any the other diverse religions who reside in India is unclear and unsettling.

Erdogan, My Country’s Gone

In 2004, Turkey began membership talks with the EU. It had a healthy separation of church and state, and, frankly, Turkey had an optimistic future. Unfortunately, in 2016 after a failed coup attempt, President Erdogan began a”Post-coup purge.” Thousands of journalists, policemen, teachers, professors, and politicians were (and some still are) jailed. The New York Times put into perspective exactly how many were jailed. Erdogan even claimed that Europe has failed on Democracy and that journalists are “gardeners of terrorism.

Erdogan used Nationalism extensively to secure his 2016 election bid in an age old tactic – blame others for the problems. Turkey has been pumping money into Muslim religious schools and was even accused of wanting to return to being an Ottoman Sultan. Turkey’s once democratic light is sliding quickly into authoritarianism, and every step there has been justified by claims that the dark and shadowy westerners from Britain, France and the United States have been seeking to wreck Turkey before their glorious rise to global dominance. As cartoonishly exaggerated as it sounds, it’s close to a direct quote.

When Angry People Vote

So what? It’s all talk, you might say. Kim Jong Un has been saying that North Korea’s valiant rise would see the United States fall in fiery ashes for years now. What makes the above any different? I’ve scoured the web for several examples of excessive nationalism, and there are far too many to include here. Wikipedia has a page for 39 countries titled “Nationalism in [country].” This is in addition to dozens more on history, types and ethnic groups.

Let’s take a look at how Nationalism has impacted the past.

Nationalism is often credited with originating in the American and especially the French Revolution. However, we can see similar political movements that are far, far older. One of these is the Jewish Revolt in Ancient Rome.

Yahweh made Man, and a Man-made God.

Most of our knowledge about the Jewish Revolt comes from a guy by the name of Flavius Josephus, who’s definitely a contender for the “most interesting man” award. Josephus was originally a leader during the Jewish Wars, which broke out under the reign of Nero. He was captured by then-general, but would-be emperor, Vespasian. Josephus, now a slave to Vespasian, served as a translator for Vespasian between the Romans and the Jews. He was eventually set free, and then served as an advisor to Rome’s Flavian Dynasty serving emperors Vespacian, Titus, Domitian, and possibly even Nerva and Trajan before deciding that his life really was interesting and writing it all down. You can read his entire body of work online for free here.

To understand the situation in Judea (roughly the area surrounding modern day Jerusalem) and accept the premise that this revolt is Nationalistic in character, it’s important to know the province’s history. Judea revolted against the Greeks and won its independence as its own nation in the Maccabean Revolt in the 160s BCE. Pompey the Great conquered Judea and added it to the Roman Empire around 63 BCE. These people had a common religion, territory and history – something that all nationalists hold dear.

Decades of heavy taxation to fund wars against Parthia and subsequently Mark Antony drove the Jews into poverty.

Then, Emperor Caligula insisted on adding a statue of himself into the Judean temple effectively forcing the worship of the Imperial Cult onto the Jews. As we learned from the Maccabean Revolt, the Jews were ready to die for their religion. An image of Caligula in the temple was nothing short of idolatry, sacrilege, and blasphemy.  This tension between the Roman Imperial Cult who would continue to insist that Roman idols be placed in and near Jerusalem and the monotheistic Jews would divide the two peoples further apart.

Josephus also writes that the Roman Governor Florus ordered his soldiers to plunder their great temple, and when the people of Judea protested, he slaughtered 3,600 men, women, and children. This brought the entire province into a revolt for understandable reasons. The Jews managed to defeat a small army of 6,000 Romans before the Syrian Legion was brought in to crush the rebellion, and crush it they did. They destroyed the temple, plundered the rest of the city and sold thousands of Jews into slavery, many of whom would work on the Colosseum. All of which had a profound effect on the religion.

If we look at the causes for the French Revolution, often the prime example of the beginning of Nationalism, you’ll see a lot in common:

  • Overburdening taxes
  • Inept government
  • Social Antagonism
  • Economic Hardship

While the Jews didn’t necessarily have a united front in terms of what they wanted to achieve (and in fact, that lack of unity may have been a reason the revolt was shut down), they did believe that their government was not representing them, which is often a wick for Nationalism. Many of those who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 voted in hopes of getting one of their own to into the White House to “drain the swamp.” Such a phrase can only catch on in the wake of politicians out of touch with the plight of the commoners. Unlike classical liberal values, the Jews didn’t necessarily want more of a say in government (though you could make the argument that wanting your own government is the same as wanting more of a say), but they did want to be represented  (not to mention avoiding having their temples plundered or their citizens massacred). The revolt was also largely an “us vs them” mentality. Forcing statues of Roman Gods in the city of Jews isn’t too far removed from forcing Muslims to adhere to a dress code that goes against their religion.

The Shogun Show Is Gone

For a more modern and lesser known story of nationalism (and imperialism, colonialism and what could arguably be called state sponsored pirates), let’s examine the collapse of Japan’s Shogunate.

Within the Edo period of Japan, Japan kinda resembled a police state.  To expound on that, the Edo period had several interesting policies that were in contention with most of the western world. Specifically, they were extremely isolationist to the point of literally killing any Christians in Japan and forbidding any foreigners from entering (with the exception of a single Dutch trading post) in an effort to subdue any outside influences. Despite this, the Edo period was, by feudal standards, very peaceful and often considered a golden age of prosperity. They still had an emperor, but the emperor at served as more of a figurehead than anything else. The true authority rested on the highest military ranking official, the Shogunate.

The lack of war meant that constantly mobilized Japan had several Samurai’s with little to do. Most of them were poor as military service is often rewarded in loot, booty, or whatever term you prefer for the spoils of war. Samurais thus subsisted on stipends from their lords, called Daimyō. The Edo prosperity, however, gave way to an increasingly wealthy merchant class that remained stuck on the bottom rung of the social ladder. This sewed discord amongst themselves and the samurai who were now poorer than the merchants who were supposed to be “below them.”

In addition to this internal strife, many Japanese became wary of westerners after seeing what happened to China in the wake of the Opium Wars, which resulted in a humiliating defeat and one-sided trade agreements with Britain and other western countries.

A Mr. Matthew Perry would prove they had every right to be concerned. Commodore Matthew Perry was an American naval officer on a mission, open Japan’s ports. Matthew arrived with several gunboats “asking” that the Japanese open their ports to trade, and if not, well, it’d be a shame if all these canons happened to fire on your antiquated navy and towns.

There are a few reasons why Japanese trade was so important to the US, but it mostly has to do with “Manifest Destiny” (mostly a codeword for Imperialism),  merchants needing a place to fuel up  their steam ships, and other technically innocuous reasons with a specious overtone.

The shogunate saw Perry’s steamboats and realized that Japan could not win a war with America. In addition, many Japanese were seeing a steamboat for the first time, and saw it as a harbinger of impending doom like what had come to China. The following is a Japanese depiction of his boat:


The Shogunate polled his Daimyōs for advice on what to do (a blunder that would break the facade of a strong Shogunate), and received mixed responses, but one that stands out today as perfectly describing the atmosphere comes to us from the Daimyo, Shimazu Nariakira, “If we take the initiative, we can dominate; if we do not, we will be dominated.” 

The Shogun, feeling he had little choice, signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, which was perceived as capitulating to the West. This kickstarted an anti-Shogun movement fueled by an uncharacteristically militant emperor who was beginning to take more of an interest in political affairs than was traditional. Eventually, emperor Kōmei gave an order to “Expel the Barbarians” referring to all westerners. This became a rallying cry of, “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians” and resulted in trade ships being fired on from the coast of Japan. This was all in direct opposition to the Shogunate’s orders, and before long, a civil war known as the Boshin War started and resulted in the Shogun’s resignation and more importantly, the Meiji Restoration.

Fearing colonization by the west and needing a united front, Nationalism was in full swing. Top officials toured the west to modernize all of Japan. Within 40 years, Japan had created a Constitutional Monarchy based on Germany’s government with the emperor at its head, developed universal education, a conscript army, a capitalist model of economy, and even began colonizing land of its own.  The conscript army gave all Japanese a common purpose to fight for, the emperor, something that united all of the Japanese and furthered Nationalism. To give you an idea of how wide and how quickly this shift occurred, take a look at Emperor Meiji in 1872 and sometime in the 1890s:





The colonization took the form of wars, specifically, the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, where they colonized Korea, and the Russo-Japanese war in 1905. The defeat of the Russians in 1905 proved to the West that Japan was now a world power that was not to be reckoned with, and Japan alone on an island would need more colonies for resources to fuel its ongoing industrialization. This string of victories, need for resources, anti-foreign sentiment were all among their Nationalistic motives for the empire of Japan going into World War I.

Bismarck Makes His Mark

The last story of Nationalism I want to tell is that of Otto Von Bismarck and the making of the German Empire.

Germany as we know it today was founded in the late 19th century as Prussia and multiple other German states united into what was then called the German Empire. Prior to this, modern day Germany was a set of separate states part of the Holy Roman Empire, which as Voltaire quips, “was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”

The Holy Roman Empire officially dissolved in 1806 after Napoleon crushed it in his many conquests and annexed parts of their land. The individual states later rejoined, kind of, as a band of states known as the German Confederation. The states were pretty independent, but with a mutual understanding that they would protect each other in case of war. Here’s how the “empire” compared to the German Confederation, whose borders are outlined in red, Prussia is colored in blue, Austria in yellow, and the minor provinces in grey. Note that both Prussia and Austria’s land extended beyond the confederation.



Otto von Bismarck sought to unite Germany fully. He had found himself as chancellor of Prussia, one of the dominate states of would be Germany, and he was concerned about the many Liberal democratic revolutions sweeping through all of Europe, not unlike the Arab Spring of 2011. Let’s just say, he had reason to be concerned.

A more fully realized German unity had been a political topic since the “Empire’s” dissolution. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a German philosopher, addresses the German people in 1806:

The first, original, and truly natural boundaries of states are beyond doubt their internal boundaries. Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself…they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole. Such a whole, if it wishes to absorb and mingle with itself any other people of different descent and language, cannot do so without itself becoming confused.

We immediately see the aura of Nationalism pervading the German people, even in their separate states. Otto Von Bismarck, Chancellor of Prussia, would use the common people’s sentiment to unite them. Important context going forward is that Bismarck was in favor of a “smaller” German empire; that is, one that did not include Austria, and to not include Austria, he’d need to dissolve the German Confederation which bounded all the states, Austria included, loosely together. Austria and Prussia were rivals jockeying for position, so Austria’s inclusion in the German empire may have led to further discord within the unified state. Also of note was that Catholicism was the majority religion in Austria compared to Prussia’s Protestantism, which was a bigger deal before freedom of religion was commonplace.

Bismarck’s desire for a stronger centralized state was also the will of the people’s, who wanted classical liberal rights as well, such as freedom of the press, freedom of religion, democracy, and whatnot. While Bismarck wasn’t a fan of these ideas, he did recognize that a wholly unified Germany could stand its ground against France and other European powers.

To dislodge Austria, he needed a war with Austria, but he also needed a reason, so other states would back Prussia. He was able to secure French neutrality “just in case” a war broke out between Austria and Prussia, and he also approached Italy, who was in the process of unifying herself, and said something to the effect of, “in the total wacko scenario that Austria and Prussia would go to war with each other, would you ally with Prussia in exchange for Venice?” Being that Italy needed Venice for a unified Italy, they agreed. As a pure hypothetical of course.

That pure hypothetical was of course, not a hypothetical. Prussia and Austria had been military allies just 4 years before in a war with Denmark where they liberated two duchies that had been taken from the German people during Napoleon’s conquest. They agreed that the duchies, Schleswig and Holstein, would be split. Austria would rule Holstein, and Prussia Schleswig, both outside the German Confederation. This last part is important.

Soon afterwards, Austria declared that both duchies should be matters of the federation, a clear breach of the treaty. King William, a pacifist at heart, was reportedly in tears at the betrayal. Now agreeing with Bismarck, he prepared for war.

The war known as both the Austro-Prussian War and perhaps more humorously, the Seven Weeks War started in 1866. As you might have guessed by the latter title, Prussia crushed Austria with Italy’s help. As a result of this war, Austria ceded several territories (Venice included) and Bismarck annexed his allies to form the Northern German Confederation. The southern non-Austrian states would remain independent…for now.

France, of course, was unhappy with a larger united Germany. It challenged their dominance in the region, so France, now ruled by Napoleon III, wanted to knock this newcomer down a notch, but neither country wanted to declare war for fear of interference from the other countries of Europe. Bismarck knew if he declared war, Britain would interfere on behalf of France, but if it was France’s war, Britain might just leave them alone. Bismarck managed to trick France into declaring war.

How does one “trick” a country into declaring war? Well, as you might imagine, it’s quirky and complicated, but I’ll try to keep it short.

The Spanish throne found itself vacant, and for whatever reason, they offered the job to Prince Leopold of Prussia. Napoleon the III hated this idea. Being surrounded on both sides by your enemy is generally a recipe for disaster. Leopold ended up declining the offer, but the French pushed it further. In fact, they sent their ambassador to King William asking him to promise to never, ever, consider ascending to the Spanish throne, to which the king responded with something to the effect of, “We already declined. What more do you want? I’m not going to make promises on behalf of my grand children.” King William let Bismarck give this information to the press. Bismarck, through some clever editing, made the scenario sound much more insulting than it was although French translations likely exaggerated Bismarck’s edits. This is known as the EMS telegram.

Bismarck’s edits worked like a charm. France was so insulted by both the rejection of the demand and the flippant dismissal of their ambassador, they mobilized and declared war. Britain stayed out of France’s war, and every German state rushed to Prussia’s aide to fight the warmongering French who couldn’t leave Germany alone. Germans, not Prussians, not Saxons, or any other member state would defeat France. Germans, who had all suffered under the French thumb for far too long would defeat France.

France was absolutely crushed, with Paris itself being sieged. The Frankfurt treaty officially ended the French Republic and acknowledged King William as Emperor of the German Empire. It was signed at Versailles (a location you may recognize as intentional for the signing of the World War I treaty).

The effects of the Franco-Prussian War really can’t be understated. The Italians would be granted the last remaining pieces for a united Italy. It improved the importance of mobility through rails, which Prussia excelled at. It united the Germans through Nationalism and spurred nationalistic ambitions in the French who would seek revenge for their humiliating defeat at the hands of the Germans. Each would gain allies, become overly confident in their ability to wage war until a certain boiling point in 1914.

The Point

Nationalism, while it can serve as a unifying force and a force to modernize a country thrives on the idea of supremacy to a separate group of people and seemingly inevitably leads to war because of its capacity to inflate the confidence of an easy victory over the true horrors of war. Occasionally, the easy victory is achieved. However, when it is not, it can result in a very grisly, pointless, and horrific war.

Further Reading:

On Nationalism’s Origin in Jewish Antiquity  (Requires a free account to read)

On the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate

On The United States Government’s version of Matthew Perry

On the Austro-Prussian War

On Nationalism as a cause for the first world war

Pack Up What Rubble You Love, and Go.

Immigration is probably the world’s most heated topic right now. In the United States, we’re discussing building walls, detention facilities for illegal immigrants, and travel bans. Donald Trump went as far as to praise Mexico after pepper-spraying refugees from Honduras. In Germany, the AfD (an anti-immigration party) has been gaining support, and is now one of the country’s largest parties.  In Italy, the new government recently told illegal immigrants, comprising both refugees and economic migrants, to get ready to “pack their bags.”  The UK, while accepting refugees, has been very stringent about who may be granted asylum and often for only a short time. What’s going on? Why is immigration all of a sudden the most controversial topic around the world, and how has it been dealt with historically?

First, let’s understand what’s happening.


Above I mentioned both South American and Middle Eastern refugees. To narrow the focus a bit, this post will pertain to the Syrian refugee crisis. (Though I highly encourage reading about the crisis in central America.)

The Syrian Refugee Crisis was precipitated by the Arab Spring of 2011.   This event may be the most important political event in the 21st century rivaling even 9/11 in terms of its impact on the world. In short, the Arab Spring was a wave of pro-Democracy protests in northern Africa and the Middle East. Some of these led to positive change, such as in Tunisia, but many more were met with civil war or resulted in autocratic regimes including Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and of course, Syria, who is suffering the worst fate of all. As of this writing, over 5.6 million Syrians have fled their homes. This background is incredibly important because, at least in the United States, a the rhetoric around refugees centers around Muslims, and while it’s true that Islam is the dominant religion in Syria, it is not Muslims who are fleeing the region but Syrians, who are not necessarily Muslim.

Why then, is all the rhetoric aimed at Muslims? Enter IS (more commonly known as ISIS – the Islamic State [of Iraq and Syria]). I hesitate to call IS a group of revolutionaries as that seems to conjure up a certain amount of sympathy, but IS seeks to overthrow the government in Iraq and Syria to establish a Caliphate, a Theocracy not completely unlike the government in Vatican City in that there would be one person who leads the nation at the orders of God. Although the similarities end there. What brings the attention of the world to IS is their brutality and cruelty, which has provoked criticism from Muslims worldwide, literally drawing condemnation from Al-Qaeda.

IS subscribes to a belief first put forward by a guy named Qutb that the West (read the United States and Western Europe) has been persecuting Muslims ever since they dissolved the Ottoman Empire following World War I. As a result, the only way for Muslims to redeem or even defend themselves is through aggression against the west, and anyone, even other Muslims, who disagree.

Part of the core ideology is aggression towards the west and nonbelievers, but IS lack the resources to declare a full scale war (not to mention the legitimacy and sovereignty). Because of this IS has instead engaged in guerrilla warfare tactics on civilian targets (or more generally, terrorism). IS members have entered various countries all around the world most likely as a refugee from one of the war torn countries. Exactly how often this has happened is a subject of intense debate and is difficult to track by its very nature – someone can’t be identified as a terrorist until after an act of terror. Trying to escape your crazy IS uncle means you have ties to IS, but it doesn’t mean a plot to bomb civilians. On the flipside, a Muslim who otherwise may not have bought into the idea that the Western world has been waging war on a way of life, might be persuaded otherwise by the US and Europe’s military presence there, and a subsequent loss of home.

I don’t want to spend too much time discussing how often the above happens, but it’s important to note that while asylum seekers have committed terrorist attacks, so have natives inspired by IS ideology. One study suggests that while foot soldiers have used refugee routes for the purpose of terrorism, IS likely isn’t coordinating an effort to do so.

In short, many refugees are hoping to escape a violent civil war between violent factions hoping to hold onto or change the government. Among these refugees are self-proclaimed members of IS who hope to instill fear, promote terrorism and gain legitimacy through aggression against their perceived enemies.

Has it happened before?

Refugees are a fairly modern concept. While it’s fairly easy to apply the concept retroactively, it’s worth noting that the term wasn’t a legal concept until after World War II. In this definition, the United Nations declared (or perhaps recognized) that all humans have the fundamental right to seek asylum in other countries to escape persecution. This is not to be confused with the terms “migrant” or “asylum seeker.”

An asylum seeker is someone who has applied for refugee status in a foreign country. Refugee status is internationally recognized and protected by international law. All refugees were at one point asylum seekers, but all asylum seekers may not become refugees if their application is denied. Contrasting these two terms is migrant.

A migrant is someone who is leaving their country to better their lives – not necessarily because it’s dangerous to return home.

I found several similar scenarios dotted throughout history. I did quite a bit of reading and briefly outline what occurred and analyze how applicable they might be to our current situation.

The Goths in the Eastern Roman Empire

One of the earliest examples of refugees I could find was in Roman history.

The Huns were a relatively unorganized nomadic people of war that would eventually cause the Fall of Rome. Their origins aren’t particularly clear, but some believed they originate from modern day Kazakhstan. In their ruthless expansion westward, they took a liking to the resource rich lands in modern day Romania, occupied by the Visigoths in 374 CE.

The Goths, a group of Germanic tribes co-led by Fritigern and Alavivus asked the Emperor of Rome, Valens, for sanctuary from the invading Huns. Valens agreed promising both protection and farmland. Some Goths who arrived later were turned away by Valens though by this time their number may have reached as high as 200,000, though that’s likely an exaggeration.

These refugees were admitted with the intention of taxing them, using their labor on farms, and most importantly as auxiliaries in a campaign in Persia, which the Goths agreed to. However, things immediately got out of hand. The refugees were not provided food, and in fact, the food that was supposed to go to them was hijacked by the governor of the area who then sold the refugees dog meat in exchange for their children, who would become slaves.

The Goths and Romans had a somewhat turbulent history having been at war only six years before.  That’s important context to consider, but  it doesn’t change the fact that  refugees were mistreated and their leaders assassinated. This led the Goths to revolt, which is now known as the battle of Adrianople. This battle ended up being Rome’s most crushing defeat since the days of Hannibal.

How similar is it to our current crisis?

It’s hard to say as a lot of the finer details were lost to history. Cultural norms were certainly different. Slavery and military conscription were the norm. However, it is telling that people have asked for asylum in neighboring countries for 1600 years. One might also draw a parallel between the persecution of the Goths and subsequent rebellion to the perceived persecution of Islam in dismantling the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent violence carried out today by IS. Both the Goths and Romans had also been at war in years prior as well. The rationale behind whether to allow immigration however, was not based on whether these immigrants may harm civilians, as it is today, but rather whether the immigrants could work and serve in the military.

The Alhambra Decree

The Alhambra Decree was simply a decree by the government of Spain in 1492 that said Jews could no longer live in Spain. Convert or move.

This was a bit of an extension of a 1480 decree that segregated Jews and Christians. In 1492 it was decided that because “there were some wicked Christians who Judaized,”  Jews and Christians could no longer coexist. The Jews must go. The whole text is worth reading if you feel so inclined.

Many countries had a very different reaction to where these Jews fled to. Perhaps surprisingly, Muslim majority countries such as the Ottoman Empire welcomed them. Other Christian majority countries – in particular Portugal – were less kind. In fact, only 4 years after receiving refugees, the King of Portugal declared his intent to marry the heir to the Spanish throne, Isabella. As a condition of the marriage, Spain mandated that Portugal expel all Jews. In the end, most were tortured into converting to Christianity.

What happened to the Ottoman Empire and Portugal after this? Was there any tangible difference to their economy, safety, livelihood or any other metric based on their treatment of religious refugees?

The Ottoman Empire actually flourished. Jews brought new technologies, culture, and more to the Ottoman Empire and the first printing press was established there by Jews in 1493. The leader of the Ottomans, Beyazit the Just, purportedly proclaimed, “You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!” It very well could be that because the Muslims and Jews had a shared history of persecution from Europe that they were more willing to coexist.

In Portugal, after declaring all Jews must leave, the decision was changed a year later by King Manuel that instead of evacuating, Jews must convert. This decision would lead to the Lisbon massacre, where Catholics beat and burned hundreds of families of recent converts to Catholicism. Not even infants were spared.

Interestingly, after forced conversion, the massacre, and the subsequent forced emigration, many Jews still felt loyalty to the Portuguese Monarch. 

In this case, we do have immigrants who are discriminated against based on their religion, and these immigrants were refugees. These Jews, however, were seen as a legitimate threat to the way of life of Spanish Catholics – hence the aforementioned segregation. A religion threatening your way of life might sound familiar. Donald Trump mentioned Islamic Immigration threatening our way of life during his campaign, so did the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, which gained 5 seats in their most recent election. So did a prominent ally of Italy’s former prime minister. And this is all only in the west, where values of freedom of religion are supposed to reign free. Things are even worse in the east where China has admitted to “reeducation camps” for Muslims. 

There are a lot parallels between the plight of the Jews in the 15th century and Muslims today between relegating a person to one aspect of their identity, and leaving one country only to be persecuted in another. There are significant differences, however, in the role of religion in day to day life. Separation of church and state was still very far off. The Catholic church was intertwined with the government and corruption ran rampant. This corruption would lead to Martin Luther’s 95 theses in following years.

FDR’s Beware of Refugees Speech

The above examples of history fall short in one important aspect, it was a different time. While people often react the same in similar circumstances, it’s not fair to compare conscription in Rome to conscription during the Vietnam war because military service was viewed very differently. Likewise, it may not be fair to compare refugees of the past to refugees of today. However, there are a few modern examples that are strikingly similar to the suspicion held against immigrants from the middle east today. Perhaps most relevant, is Jewish migrants during World War II. Jews during this time were met with equal skepticism. FDR turned away Jewish Refugees by the boatload, fearful of spies entering the country under the guise of being a refugee.

In a speech, he even said:

Today’s threat to our national security is not a matter of military weapons alone. We know of new methods of attack. The Trojan Horse. The Fifth Column that betrays a nation unprepared for treachery. Spies, saboteurs and traitors are the actors in this new strategy. With all of these we must and will deal vigorously.

It would hard to find a more relevant passage from history with regards to the current refugee crisis. It matches the distrust of persecuted religious migrants for fear of harming the nation in which we live.

We’ve all heard about the holocaust, but it’s an important reminder that, like today, no country wanted to accept refugees.

Bosnian War

The Bosnian War was the biggest war I’d never heard of. Whether it’s a product of an America-centric education system when it comes to teaching history, or me sleeping through that lesson is anyone’s guess, but here’s some background in case anyone doesn’t know. Because it’s such a modern example, I think it’s a great fit for a comparison to our modern crisis.

The Bosnian War broke up Yugoslavia, killed well over 100,000 people, involved the first genocide in Europe since World War II, and displaced over 2 million people.  I think that this video does a nice job of summarizing the situation and conflict. While it’s truly much more complicated, in summary, Croatia declared independence. Serbia used what was left of the Yugoslavic army to prevent them from doing so. War crimes, including genocide, were committed. So many people died and were lost in rubble that as of 2017, bodies and remains were still being identified and sent to their respective families.

Whether the Bosnian War was a Civil War or International War is up for debate, and I’m not qualified enough to make an assertion one way or the other.

While refugees from this war weren’t viewed as potential spies,  it’s relevance lies in its recency. The politicians of today were watching the news when these events occurred. In addition, the violence and brutality these refugees encountered is on par with that of IS. Serbian forces specifically targeted homes for destruction to prevent Bosniaks from ever being able to return home.

In addition many of the persecuted were also Muslims. Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were specifically targeted for genocide by the Serbian forces. Trials for these cases ended less than a year ago.

Germany is a focal point then and now, and their response to both crises were quite different. During the Bosnian War, Germany acted much like Portugal after the Alhambra decree in that it accepted refugees, and then shortly after told them to leave despite getting jobs, learning German and attending school. Germany in both cases seemed to be very open to refugees on the onset, and then changed its tone after they began to arrive.

While the level of coordinated genocide isn’t occurring in Syria as it was in Yugoslavia, it might not be fair to say it’s not occurring at all. The brutality, religious persecution, civil war are all the same. The only arguable difference might be the skepticism of the intent of the refugees.

The Effects of Refugees

It’s certainly easy to write a blog about how countries exercise poor ethics for denying refugees. However, the flip side of this coin, and the one that’s often trumpeted by conservative politicians, is the effect and strain that refugees have on the accepting country. In truth, the effect is little understood. One study actually found that the local economy benefited. Essentially, the refugees produced more value than they received in aid.

While the hosting cost certainly impacts the hosting country, it’s worth noting there are several international aid organizations that help offset the cost. Even so, one of the bigger impacts is that on infrastructure and the local ecosystem. A large influx in population means land, fuel, water, food and shelter materials are in higher demand than normal. Sometimes, this can lead to higher development in a given area. Other times, people live in squalid conditions for years afterwards – as Angelina Jolie found on a recent trip to Bosnia where people are still living in near homelessness.

Interestingly, I found that the refugees in Europe and America count for a tiny portion of the total number of Syrian refugees. The vast majority, about 90%, are displaced internally within Syria or neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, or Egypt. Only about 7.6% are in Europe – mostly in Germany, and less than 1% have come to the United States. The United States hosts more refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo than any other nation.

Skepticism of refugees is widespread and eternal. However, the danger they pose has historically been minimal and vastly overstated. It is far more common for the host country to exploit people at their most vulnerable. The effects of hosting refugees are not well understood, and that should inform our dialogue when discussing refugees. However, we should also note when other countries are pulling more than their fair share, and more importantly resist the historical precedent to make the lives of refugees more difficult than they already are. A person whose home was reduced to rubble and fled for their life need not be persecuted in the country they fled to for protection.

Further Reading

On the Arab Spring

On the US definition of terrorism

On the World War II Refugee Crisis

On the current Central American Refugee Crisis

On the 1992 Bosnian Concentration Camps