Friday, 28 August 2015

Reassessing Harding and other US presidents and their views on race

When I studied this subject at university I thought American historians were not up to much compared with British ones. It does seem as if judgements by historians on US presidents, and American historians are very keen indeed on awarding presidents marks, are wildly inaccurate.

I read a persuasive article in the New York Times praising Mr Carter yesterday and a very interesting article today in the same paper that praises Warren Harding.
In October 1921, Harding traveled to Birmingham, Ala., where, in a powerful speech to a mixed-race (though segregated) audience, he demanded justice for African-Americans. In the first speech in the South by a sitting president on race, he argued for full economic and political rights for all African-Americans. Pat Harrison, a Democratic senator from Mississippi, was aghast. If Harding’s views “were carried to its ultimate conclusion,” he said, “that means that the black man can strive to become president of the United States.”
This is in sharp contrast to the views of Coolidge and Harding as well as Democrats.  

Wilson of course was a great believer in segregation. Almost all presidents before Kennedy were opposed to racial equality including Lincoln. According to Ronald Kessler, Lyndon Lyndon Johnson told two unnamed Southern governors 

I'll have them nig-ers voting Democratic for the next two hundred years. 
If true this does not mean LBJ was insincere in his views on civil rights. Most African Americans had voted Democratic, in presidential elections, since 1936 and certainly since 1948 so Johnson was not so much winning black voters as losing white ones.

Wilson told jokes about darkies, mimicking their accent, in cabinet. Coolidge thought the Nordic race deteriorated when mixed with other races. Hoover thought 

one white man was worth two to three coloured people even at simple tasks like shovelling. 
Truman, like Wilson and LBJ a Southerner, said he did not care to live near negroes and opposed the civil rights movement, which he considered, perhaps rightly, to have been instigated by communists. 
Buchanan is unjustly maligned. He, rightly in my opinion, thought the Federal Government did not have the authority to prevent the South seceding and his view would have prevented the Civil War. I like Andrew Johnson for wanting to conciliate the South. Despite his racism and belief in eugenics Coolidge was in many ways a good president, who did very little. Hoover was an interventionist in economics who anticipated the New Deal - was this good or bad?

Eisenhower told jokes about blacks that would be considered racist these days but I think he was benign enough. He told Chief Justice Earl Warren that the southern whites 
are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes.
I stumbled today on what to me was news that Eisenhower's mother was of mixed race. I remember Americans have told me that in America, even if you are only one eighth black, you count as black (an octoroon) and that therefore Pushkin, by American standards, was black. It seems that so was President Eisenhower. He was probably an octoroon too.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Finding the open coast in Albania

I stayed three or four miles away from where this picture was taken, in the beach at Durres, a place which was empty coastline in 1998 and now is the great Albanian seaside place, the equivalent in Romania of Mamaia. Why do I hate seaside resorts so much? Because I grew up in one?Yes. Because I hate the masses, because I can't stand families, because I dislike battery farms, because I want hidden obscure things? Because I dislike modern unintellectual unironic normal life?

I came here to escape the heat of Tirana. My desktop tells me it's 19 degrees Celsius in Bucharest which reminds me I came to Albania to escape the heat of Romania.

The hotel I stayed kin one of thousands is full and gimcrack but next door but one was a black of luxury flats with a swimming pool and a nice restaurant. Pasta or risotto with fresh seafood cost less than ten euros with wine and the use of the pool was three euros. Not expensive but I had it almost to myself all day. In case you decided to stay in Durres beach (I don't recommend it unless you like beach resorts full of families) it's name is Alibi.

At 5.30 Tomi picked me up and took me south until the buildings petered out. 85% of the buildings along the coast are illegal. Not only do they not have planning permission but the owners often do not have title to the land which belongs to the state. All along the coast are tunnels and military installations. Albanians when they go to the coast prefer the Ionian sea where the sea or clearer and there are no mosquitoes. The coast south of Durres is popular with middle aged foreigners and the owners of the improvised restaurants and hotels do not advertise them in the Albanian media for fear of attracting the evil eyes of the authorities.
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A solitary fisherman with a net caught nothing, he said.

I had promised Tomi and Osman dinner in Tirana but instead we had a much better one than the best restaurant could have afforded back in town. Freshly caught fish, eaten outside a shack on the beach, a mile from the nearest village - simply delicious. Eaten with good Montenegrin wine. 

We stayed until the mosquitoes arrived and then fled. Tomi never sleeps on the coast here because of the mosquitoes. The hotels in Durres have netting on the windows but eating after dark outside is not a good idea,

I wanted to go to Albania very much in 80s when the whole coast was untouched - of course it was only possible in guided tours watched carefully by secret police but that would have added to the fun. A friend of mine who did this in 1979 said that only very interesting people took such tours - interesting people and Stalinists but Stalinists were interesting too. Albania until 1991 had statues of Stalin dotted around, of course. I left it very late but it is still in this year of grace 2015 an exciting strange place. As Romania was ten or fifteen years ago.

And like Romania ten years ago it has wonderful food, Everything is bio - the tomatoes and onions are poems - the fish and meat is wonderful. 

And people think and talk and behave like human beings in the way they did in Western Europe forty or fifty years ago. How Albanians manage it so close to Greece and Italy I don't know.

Slaughtering lambs on the holy mountain

Today was a really astonishing day which makes me feel I am living in a 19th century lithograph. This is, of course, the ideal for which one travels but which one so rarely attains in our day. The English scholar-gentleman-gypsy. 

Tomi Luzati and Osman drove me from Berat to the annual Bektashi festival on Mount Tomori, where tens of thousands of families of Bektashis come, camp out, sacrifice and eat lambs and pray on the holy mountain. Some bring dead lambs, some buy them live from butchers who slaughter them. Once they climbed or came on horseback, now they come by car. On top of the mountain, the second highest in Albania,  a very holy man is buried. 

Bektashis are Sufis, devoted to the memory of Haji Bektash, a dervish who lived in thirteenth century Asia Minor. His cult was very popular with the Janissaries who were the equivalent in Ottoman Turkey of the Praetorian Guard in the Roman Empire. Like the Praetorian Guard chose emperors the Janissaries chose sultans and in 1827 the Sultan Mahmud II disbanded them. Many of the Janissaries were taken as boys from Albanian families and they sought refuge in Albania. Almost a century later another moderniser, Kemal, expelled the dervish brotherhood (think Greenmantle) from Turkey and they made Albania their headquarters. Albania seemed a natural choice until the Communists took over and in the Cultural Revolution (Albania was Mao's ally) made religious practices illegal.

Tomi, who is one, says Bektashis like rakia, pork meat and enjoying the life. This is his philosophy but another Bektashi confirmed this. Sufism is the mysticism of Islam and it seems in every way more attractive than the dour Calvinism of orthodox Mahometanism. I am sorry to say that there have been no whirling dances in Albania since the Communists took over. Bektashis are Alawites, like President Assad of Syria, although not all Alawites are Bektashis. Their religion is secret in part. A Turkish friend told me that the Alawis have a secret, passed from one to another orally but not written down and my friend had an Alawite friend who revealed it to him: Ali is God.

This, if it is true, and the role of alcohol in their religious rite, might be the reasosn that Sunnis sometimes call the Bektashis 'little Christians'. 

Several years ago an English journalist friend, living in Belgrade, posted on Facebook a picture he took at the festival of a young boy, his cheeks smeared with blood, eating raw lamb. My friend told me that the festival was this weekend but there was nothing about it on the net in English. The travel agency in Tirana said it was not an organised festival, it was not official and they couldn't help me with it or confirm even when it took place. Luckily I found Tomi, friend of a friend, instead.

Tomi, Osman and I drove for an hour through idyllic countryside, the countryside of Greek gods and wood nymphs, till we left the made road and spiralled up the mountain on a track which took another hour of vertiginour views, Tomi told me that in other years the cars get jammed and people have to walk to the plateau where the festival happens. However the Albanian police had said on the radio that there should be no problems this year and we made it all the way. The policemen we met were smiling broadly and wore sunglasses. This year there were no problems.

Lambs, hundreds of them, herded, being slaughtered, being cut open, cooked and eaten. I couldn't help remembering Paul Potter's lines

All over London

There are chickens on spits

And this, say the chickens,

Is their Auschwitz.

I didn't see anyone eating raw lamb, not did the people I spoke to know about this, though the Bradt guide mentions it. Bektashis' foreheads are smeared with the blood of the lamb. I think Armenians sacrifice lambs in a similar way for Easter.

Almost everyone rests content with staying on the plateau where they camp out. Today was the first day but thousands had camped out last night. The more determined used to climb to the summit and this would take some hours. Tomi who has never done this himself had told me this is what I should have to do and I was on for it, though rather dreading it as I am not fit. Instead I got talking to a charming Albanian from islington who works as a beautician in Harrod's and she and her family  took me up in their four wheel drives to the very top. There stands a little hermitage and I was blessed by their charming imam. 

I was happy because I thought I was a traveller not a tourist, a man of letters even, but quite a few of the Albanians lived in Greece, Italy or North London.This is not the hermit kingdom of Hoxha. I missed that.

For primitive man man seeking the transcendent without a revelation, mountains were always very sacred. This religion is much older than Islam of course or any religion that was written down.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Tirana and Tomi

Only a fool goes to Greece or smartly-painted Croatia or Montenegro when, for a short time longer, the real thing exists in Albania.

I decided on Friday that after five weeks of dog days in Bucharest I had to get away. One has to be guided by ones heart and my heart didn't want Malta or Copenhagen or crowded Rome or even cool raining England. I found a very cheap flight - such things used not to exist before Air Serbia became a budget airline - and came to Albania. I have intended to each summer since I first came here eight years ago. For five years I have not kept my promise but now I am thankful to be here. I shall come back each year from now on.

I came without making plans but a dear friend who used to live here put me in touch with Tomi and this proved providential.

Tomi is an architect who works on all sorts of projects for international organisations. He even worked on one about gender equality, a subject he seems to find slightly amusing.  He also dedicates his time to 'enjoying the life' which involves spending much of the summer on the beach or roaming the countryside, often from his kindness showing lucky people round. He bought some wonderful Albanian wine from a shop which the owner of the bar we went to let him drink there - it's better, he explained, than the Italian wines that are just colourings and water. And it really was. The bar was fully of lovely, pretty flirty twenty-something girls - just like Bucharest was while Romanians had to get visas to go to the European Union. Like Romania the girls are comely and the men less handsome.
Tirana is nowadays clean and pretty. An odd achievement since it is the poorest capital in Europe and has grown from a population of 160,000 in 1990 to a million. Old men in dark suits and fezes. Narrow faces. 

I am so lucky. Two weeks ago the temperature was 46 degrees Celsius says Tomi but while I was in Belgrade on my way here the weather broke and it is an acceptable 28 or 30. Nevertheless I decided to stick to my plan to escape to the mountains and the lakes. Tomi decides to take me and show me around.

Tirana at night had an astonishing vibe, utterly unlike anywhere else. Unlike Romania it's effortlessly cool. And it feels exciting. It was eight years ago when I was last in the city and it has even more bars and restaurants. The Italian fascist government buildings painted terracotta and ochre and the cool villas built before the war do not feel like anywhere else, nor the pyramid intended as a mausoleum to the Stalinist Maoist dictator Hozha. I know all the former Communist capitals and it's not like any of them. It's a bit like Turkey I suppose. Balkan certainly but not Yugoslav. Yugoslavia has the ersatz Westernness of a 1970s Yugoslav lounge lizard smoking a Western cigarette and wearing a gold medallion.

Tirana doesn't feel Western unlike the resort of Sarander, opposite horrible, overcrowded Corfu. Sarander is like the South of France. What does Tirana feel like? The imaginary capital of an imaginary country in a good, quirky thriller. That all I can answer.

A postcard from Lin

I am in Lin, a tiny village on the Albanian shore of Lake Ohrid. It has one tiny hotel where village boys drink beer. It has four rooms on the first floor and on the second floor lives the owner and his family. I am the only guest. The lake view from my terrace is as lovely as you can imagine. Sitting by the lake I have it to myself except for a lilting ballad or some folk-pop on the radio and chatter from locals at a table . A fisherman strenuously rows a boat across the dark blue, pellucid water.

Apart from the hotel there is one other place which has six rooms. One narrow street makes up the village and the lake is hidden behind the cottages, coming into sight only for moments.

Tomi said before we got here that Lin was a tourist village. Nothing could be less enticing but it scarcely is. Tourism is just starting and this is actually, I'm ashamed to say, an advantage. It means it has this one restaurant-hotel-bar, opened last summer. Three other places at least are being built. A coach party stopped here and passers by come here for lunch. Like the lovely bays I saw in 2008 that are now ruined this place will lose its charm in five years.

Tomi took me to Podradec a pleasant, well-mannered lakeside resort, Broadstairs not Margate, and then the nearby village of Tushemisht, where we ate fish and drank rakia and some good wine. After lunch Tomi showed me Hoxha's villa, one of three he had in the area, set where a mountain river enters the lake. Newly weds are being photographed. A restaurant with two handsome stuffed bears, one clapping. 

Tomi believes in 'enjoying the life' as he has done since he went AWOL while on a cultural delegation to Athens in the late 1980s and took advantage of perestroika to bed a young Russian girl. No doubt there was much more life to be enjoyed in Pogradec but I do not like resorts and prefer a couple of nights in Lin instead.

I went for a long walk along the lake this morning. Braying donkeys drawing carts full of hay, men picking dates, The whole bourgeois dream of authenticity. Poverty and tradition.

Lake Ohrid has the great advantage of not being warmer than the early 20s Celsius in August and the great advantage, on the Albanian side, of being some where unmediated, uncooked, where one can find oneself. There may be lakes equally beautiful in Sweden but they do not appeal. I am listening to folk music, the jazzed up kind that young Albanians like.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

America in decline

The USA ceased to be a true republic - partly due to the Civil War, partly due to the Second World War and its aftermath. Now like Rome it preserves the republican forms but is an empire - and in decline. Its economy is doing fine, but it is ceasing to be the Protestant country that elected Carter and Reagan. 

Luckily the Constitution preserves some freedoms especially freedom of speech. 

Why is a country dedicated to individualism so conformist?

Who was the best president the USA never had?

Some would say Adlai Stevenson. William Jennings Bryan? Clay? I'd say possibly Goldwater. Lyndon Johnson, who defeated Goldwater, was the most left-wing president. Odd that Goldwater lost the 1964 because he was called a warmonger, in view of Johnson's waging of war in Vietnam. In fact Democrats were always more likely to go to war than Republicans until George W. Bush took up Lincoln's tradition of starting wars. I remember that every British diplomat feared in 2000 that GWB would be an isolationist. If only.

The worst president the USA nearly had was certainly, without doubt, Henry Wallace, who very nearly became president.

Had Roosevelt died in 1944 and Henry Wallace become president he once mentioned that he would have made Laurence Duggan, a State Department specialist on Latin America, his secretary of state and, for his treasury secretary, Wallace said he would have chosen Harry Dexter White. Both Duggan and White were probably communists. Wallace wasn’t a Communist but a naive fool, a dreamer, Graham Greene's idea of an American (and Greene hated idealistic Americans) but he was surrounded by Communists. 

It's interesting that we hear very much about McCarthyism - the brief period when Communists in the USA were under attack. In fact Communists in the USA have been hugely influential - with Wallace and later with Martin Luther King, who had close Communist associates, and the Civil Rights movement.

I think Hoover was a better leader than Franklin Roosevelt and wish he had won the 1933 election. I hate FDR for using the wartime alliance to destroy the power of the British Empire. Hoover felt that Britain and France should not have gone to war with Germany. Had Britain not done so Japan would not have attacked Pearl Harbor and the USA would presumably be isolationist to this day

Sunday, 9 August 2015

The Guardian backed the South in the American Civil War

The Guardian used to me a much better newspaper years ago, when it was liberal in the true sense of the word liberal, before it became social democrat. Reading it yesterday I found that it backed the secession by the South in 1861 and said slavery would 'gradually expire'. As it would have done, of course. 

The great Liberal statesman Mr. Gladstone said the South was 
a nation rightly struggling to be free. 
If only the British had won the war of 1776 with the help of a slave revolt. Washington et al would have been hanged, slavery in the 13 colonies abolished and America would now be part of Canada. 

i am still with huge enjoyment reading War and Peace, where serfs are viewed without sentimentality but serfdom is not condemned either. I should very much like to read Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom by Peter Kolchin. 

Here is a very interesting comparison, by a pseudonymous blogger, between Russian serfdom and  US slavery (and slavery under Stalin), based on Peter Kolchin's work. It includes these insights:

Kolchin makes very clear that Russian serfdom was much more like chattel slavery than its medieval precursor. Medieval serfs existed in much more complex social arrangements and generally had relatively static obligations. Russian serfs were literally owned and far more subject to the whims of their owners. 
Kolchin characterises both American slavery and Russian serfdom as responses by elites on the periphery of the capitalist world to labour shortage coming from demand for products of labour coupled with low population density. In both cases, the cost of coercion ‘paid off’ economically, particularly as there was deemed to be no moral cost. Kolchin has an excellent sense of how differently embedded in their different societies American slavery and Russian serfdom were (for example, the slaves lived in a slaveholder’s world, the serf’s in a peasant’s world; American slaveholders were much more effective and empowered as a social group than Russian serfowners; American slavery was vibrant and expanding, Russian serfdom was a system in decay).

It's interesting to see that US slaves were much better fed than European workers and marginally better fed than workers in the American North.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Red wine is good for you

A Glass Of Red Wine Is The Equivalent To An Hour At The Gym, Says New Study

This is a serious story in the press, I think. Click here and decide for yourself.

I recall that in 1990 a French professor of cardiology said that drinking 'a small amount' of red wine each day was beneficial for the heart. When he was asked what he meant by a small amount he said, 
'Oh, no more than a bottle or so.'
Yet some people, like my sister, deny that the French are the most civilised people in the world. 

Thursday, 30 July 2015

The social media mob loves the hunt as much as Cecil's killer

People who are angry with the dentist who shot the lion think they are being compassionate and don't realise that in many cases they are consumed with hatred. Hatred is an interesting emotion which can be very deceptive, Pacifists, vegetarians, people who are concerned about animals and progressives are prone to hate without knowing it. 

Eighty or ninety years ago, Great White Hunters were heroic figures. Hunting or killing animals that are no threat absolutely does not appeal to me - unlike hunting foxes which is part of the English tradition and very useful but I wasn't aware that things had changed so much until this palaver about Cecil. I thought hunting lions was normal. And in fact it is. They are not a protected species and are killed all the time for sport.

But attitudes change and that's fine.

There is more kindness nowadays towards animals and in general than there used to be and this is good, but also a sense which is very worrying that the difference between man and beast is not absolute.

I feel very sorry for the man who shot Cecil. The internet is alive with whoops of delight from people who say his dental practice will disappear, has disappeared. Mia Farrow, the actress, has posted his address in Twitter and one can imagine him being killed by some American crazy.

The anti-hunters love the hunt as much as the big game hunters but they prefer hunting men not beasts.

(Hemingway said

“There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.” 

That's what the mob on the internet thinks.

I remember reading an Edwardian travel book about South America which referred to rumours that men, 'natives' or Indians of course, had been hunted on occasion instead of wild game. Murder as big game hunting. The book said these rumours were unsubstantiated, but I wanted to know more.

I hope it did not happen. But no-one can ever know.

There is an idea for a book or more probably a film here. Something like Heart of Darkness.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

So what about Cecil?

The anguish all over the social media about Cecil, the popular lion who was shot dead in Zimbabwe with a bow and arrow by a dentist from Minnesota.

It is a non-story which soft hearted soft headed people care a lot about. And it is the silly season. Even so it seems inane. Had this dentist killed a dog would that be as bad? A fox?
Scratch people who are very concerned about animals, like Cecil the lion who was shot dead, and you often find people who don't like people. Hunting lions is permitted and so very many human beings are killed each day, so why the commotion over a lion?
So many people in Zimbabwe live in terrible circumstances, as they do throughout the world, even in Belgrave Square. Zimbabwe, by the way, has the 20th highest murder rate of the 190-odd countries in the world.
I suppose it's because animals are not self-conscious that many prefer them to men. That's the difference - animals, like children, have not eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

What is very important about this story - and oddly enough it is important - is not the death of a lion, painful and illegal though it was but the savage persecution of this man by the mob.This is not just about social media but about the way a mob mentality unthinkingly persecutes. As A.J. Balfour said, society is always persecuting but social media make it very easy to ruin people's lives. Every man his own tabloid newspaper.

In the 1970s and 80s most of the big game in the national parks in Mozambique was shot and eaten. This doesn't outrage me. War, hunger and communism were to blame. Everyone talks about apartheid, never about the suffering wrought by communists in Africa, which was much greater.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Paul Gottfried on U.S. presidents

Paul Gottfried interests me.

He said that, unlike England, with its essentially medieval social structure, America was made by 
Protestant sectarians who neither had nor desired a medieval past and whose descendants have turned into celebrants of progress, commerce and human rights.
He thinks American historians skew their works to favour of modern political agendas. In The Managerial President he notes that 
All the major conflicts into which our leaders thrust us from the Civil War on, with the possible exception of Vietnam, are seen as morally desirable actions. … The U.S. is a land of morally driven, energetic presidents who have made us into the envy and dread of the world.
For such historians Lincoln is their great hero. Naturally they also like Franklin Roosevelt. This is the thinking that led to George W. Bush’s presidency and to Mr Obama’s domestic policy though not his foreign policy.

I have always liked Americans and admired very much about them - they are our children and their role in the world has been a very benign one on balance, but I have never liked American culture and Paul Gottfried explains to me why. 
 Progress, commerce and human rights depress him and depress me. Human rights used to be fine when they meant freedoms, the things protected in the first ten amendments of the U.S. constitution, but nowadays they are largely about restrictions on freedom. Age discrimination, forsooth!

For me, a sense of the past rooted in the middle ages or the ancient world are what makes daily life beautiful. Even in a country like Romania, where I live, which does not have old institutions or many old buildings and did not exist as a state till the 1860s. The absence of a tradition, the absence of a church, the absence of conservatism in the European sense and the absence of anything much to conserve make it very hard for me to love America. But I do love Frank Capra films and Garrison Keillor and the novels of Raymond Chandler.

Paul Gottfried also believes that America, which dominated Europe after 1945 from the military, economic and cultural points of view after 1945, gave Europe in the 1960s the idea that multiracial societies are good. If true it's odd since in the 1940s America was utterly white supremacist.

Professor Gottfried is a small government man. I don't know which side he prefers in the civil war but it seems to me that the USA stopped being a republic with very diffuse power with Lincoln.

Progressives admire Lincoln and think America's intervention in Vietnam was wrong, but the Northern states had a weak casus belli and could and should have avoided war, whereas South Vietnam was fighting something absolutely evil and was fighting in self-defence. But historians are like women. They are attracted to power and success. Had the Third Reich defeated Stalin and made peace with the USA and the UK, American and British universities would have had many fascist academics and very few Marxists.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Would a federal democratic Ottoman Empire work better than Greece?

It would have all the oil. Imagine no Gulf States, no Israel, no Saudi Arabia, no Syria, no Iraq.. Just the Ottomans and Persia. I wonder if my Romanian friends think that would have been better for Romania than Communism. Of course, Wallachia and Moldavia were never really IN the Ottoman Empire.

American presidents who might have become Prime Minister had they been born in England

Could any American president have become Prime Minister had he been born in England? Not many. George HW Bush though could have done so. Hoover too and Taft. 

Would any English Prime Ministers have been American presidents had they been American? I am not qualified to say, but one can imagine Gladstone's Midlothian campaign and appeal to nonconformists being translated into American terms. Lloyd George's brilliance could have made him president too, one more corrupt than Harding and a better war leader than Franklin Roosevelt, to say nothing of the appalling Wilson. 

Would Tony Blair might have been president?  Why not?