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 

Who Am I? What is this?

I am Travis Chapman. I’ve long had an interest in history, politics, and writing. I have an English degree from SNHU, and reside in Texas.

In watching the news and reading history books, I see us repeating ourselves time and time again. The faces and technology are different, sure, but the underlying themes are often the same. The Vietnam War caused a refugee crisis not unlike the current Syrian crisis. Migrant crises are far from modern phenomena too. The Alhambra decree forced many Jews from their homes in Spain in 1492. Many of those who fled were either persecuted in their new country (Portugal) or welcomed (Ottoman Empire), and of course the displacement of Jews was a heated topic during World War II.

That’s the spirit of this blog. I will look at current issues, see how similar issues were handled in the past and what happened as a result. Future posts will go in much further detail about context, what was the same and what was different from those scenarios, and how each country handled a situation and the result of it. It will not be looking to convince you of a certain belief, but layout some interesting stories that may help inform your perspective.

A few topics I’m particularly interested in and will likely cover:

  • Immigration
  • Religion’s role in the state
  • Abortion
  • Economic Inequality
  • Nationalism
  • Meritocracy vs Aristocracy

If I’m going to stray into writing a blog that delves into politics, it is only fair that I lay my own biases out before. While I will do my utmost to present things objectively, my experiences and surroundings cannot be fully cast aside, and if they were, I doubt I’d have anything to write about.

I identify as a classical Liberal. While there is a minefield of exceptions to any broad descriptors, in general I lean to the right on fiscal issues and to the left on social issues. That statement should only be used to get an idea of where I am politically, not as an explicit statement for or against any issue.

This blog will source when needed and give links for further reading.

Why Lighthouse? What does that have to do with anything?
I liked the name lighthouse as an apt metaphor for a few things this blog hopes to accomplish:

  1. It’s an obsolete tool that is still being used. Almost all ships today have some form of GPS. Even so, most are still in use at the time of this writing. It’s a failsafe to ensure that if what we rely on today fails, we still can lean on what we’ve used in the past.
  2. It guides lost ships to shore. Unsure how to feel about something? Perhaps history or a new thought can enlighten (haha) you and help you come to a decision.

This blog is a hobby. I will try to write a new post every two weeks, but we’ll see how that works out.