An American Spartacus

Recently, a senator claimed he was having his Spartacus moment, indicating that he was going to the mat for some principle, risking being expelled from the Senate because of his unruly behavior.  That was hardly the case.  It turned out to be quite a joke on this “brave” politician, as the supposed confidential information he said he was revealing at his own risk had already been approved to be released.  Hardly Spartacus; more like unintentional, egg-in-your-face comedy.

But there has been a true American Spartacus in our history, even though he himself was not a slave nor a black man.  His name was John Brown, an abolitionist but with a puritanical, visceral hatred of that “peculiar institution,” American slavery.

Financed by a cabal called the “Secret Six,” a small group of well-off abolitionists in New England, John Brown went about acquiring 950 pikes and 198 Sharps Rifles for a planned slavery revolt that was meant to be triggered by his attack on the United States Arsenal in Harper’s Ferry — an attack on a federal facility in order to make a statement but also to acquire even more weapons with which to arm slaves that, he believed, would swarm to such a cause based on the notoriety of seizing such a conspicuous target.  All of this was pretty much identical to the way slaves all over ancient Italy had swarmed to join Spartacus after his initial successes against Roman legions.

John Brown attempted to start a massive slave revolt with a band of 21 souls in the attack on Harper’s Ferry, which included 5 blacks.  The plan was a simple one: to arm the expected throng of rebellious slaves, take refuge in the Blue Ridge Mountains with them, and from there make calculated attacks on slave plantations deep into the South until slavery itself would come crumbling down.

To trigger the tidal wave of rebellious slaves, John Brown sent a party of 6 men — 3 whites and 3 blacks — north of Harper’s Ferry to liberate the slaves in several plantations.  One plantation was targeted in particular, that of Colonel Lewis Washington, the great-grandnephew of George Washington, who had in his possession a sword given by Frederick the Great to George Washington to commemorate the American Revolution.  John Brown intended to use that sword as the symbol of the planned slave uprising.  Lewis Washington, his liberated slaves, and the symbolic sword were all brought back to Harper’s Ferry.  John Brown would brandish the sword during the ensuing siege.

John Brown’s plan was a simple one but also an overly ambitious one, for the anticipated massive response by slaves never materialized — neither slaves nor black freedmen flocked to the cause, as John Brown had expected — and John Brown and his would-be emancipators instead found themselves trapped in Harper’s Ferry by a federal force sent to quell this incipient rebellion, a federal force ironically under the command of Robert E. Lee.

John Brown had asked Frederick Douglass to participate in the attack on Harper’s Ferry, and Douglass has declined, thinking that such an attack was suicidal and the height of folly, but of John Brown, Douglass subsequently wrote: “His zeal in the cause of freedom was infinitely superior to mine.  Mine was as the taper light, his was as the burning sun. Mine was bounded by time.  His stretched away to the silent shores of eternity.  I could speak for the slave.  John Brown could fight for the slave.  I could live for the slave.  John Brown could die for the slave.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of John Brown and his impending execution: “That new saint, than whom none purer or more brave was ever led by love of men into conflict and death,–the new saint awaiting his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious like the cross.

There are many who think the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C.  They are mistaken.  The very first shots were fired at Harper’s Ferry.


John Brown

John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry

“John Brown’s Body” — the Song

Frederick Douglass 1881 Oration on John Brown and Harper’s Ferry

My Story



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If a Nation Catches the Flu

Nations are subject to a particular type of influenza that may be but a brief illness and a fast recovery or may instead imitate the black death visited on the planet in 1919 — a scourge that killed millions.    It all depends on what the leadership decides to do when confronted by this common illness.

That leadership can act like the adult in the room taking steps that will induce an immediate cure so that the nation is unscathed.  Or it can act like an adolescent in the room throwing a temper tantrum, and therefore prolong the illness and seriously disrupt the nation.  Or it can act like the baby in the room balling its eyes out and inconsolable, and bring the nation to its knees or perhaps even destroy it entirely.   The illness, the influenza that nations catch from time to time, on a more or less regular basis, is always the same, but the outcomes can be dramatically different.

So what is this dreaded influenza that affects nations and who are these actors in the play — the adult, the adolescent, and the baby?  The influenza strikes a nation when a large minority of its citizens no longer respects the authority of the central government and so no longer wants to participate as a segment of the nation — they want out, and they are willing to fight for it.

This can happen for a variety of reasons.  There may be a large ethnic minority incompatible with the ethnic majority that rules the country.  There may be a large nationalist minority incompatible with the nationalist group that rules, as in the case where adjoining countries share mixed nationalities.  There may be a large religious minority incompatible with the religious majority that rules.  There may be a large business community whose mode of business is incompatible with the commercial ways of the majority.  There may even be stark cultural differences of the minority that make their members want to break away from the constraints of the nation they find themselves inhibited by.  In short, there are any number of reasons why a minority within a nation can form and ultimately revolt against the rule of the majority.  For a nation, this type of influenza is the nature of the beast — it has happened frequently in the past, it is happening today in the present, and will most certainly continue to happen in the future.

The reason this influenza is potentially so dangerous is that nations are an acquisitive and possessive bunch.  They acquire territory in any number of ways — conquer it (think of Imperial Japan in WW2 or what the United States snatched from Mexico), buy it (Louisiana Purchase, Alaska), or just absorb it — adjoining land.  But once they have it, nations are very possessive and extremely reluctant to relinquish any territory.   The central government’s knee jerk reaction to any such suggestion is to fight first, think last.

So what country would be an example of the adult in the room when a nation was faced with a sudden onslaught of influenza?  There are not that many because of the aforementioned possessiveness but there have been some.  A recent one, Czechoslovakia, comes to mind when one ponders how the adult in the room reacts to a divisive minority that undermines the authority of the central government and so threatens the nation state.  This was the so-called Velvet Divorce because it all happened without a single shot being fired, without a single life being lost.

In what was Czechoslovakia, the Czechs and the Slovaks formed two very distinct ethnic/nationalist groups.  The Czechs dominated the central government and their region of the country dominated the nation’s economy.  Consequently, there was a separatist Slovakian movement to break away from the Czechs.  Fortunately, the Czechs and the Slovaks occupied two very distinct regions of the country so that a clean separation between the two groups was eminently possible.  That’s exactly what happened.  After lengthy but civilized negotiation between the two groups, what was once Czechoslovakia dissolved and became instead, on Jan. 1, 1993, two distinct nations — the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

So what country would be an example of the adolescent in the room when a nation was faced with influenza?  We are witnessing one today in the Ukraine, a nation whose current government came into power as a result of a coup d’etat overthrowing an elected president but one who was acting, not like a Ukrainian, but like a Russian puppet.

Unfortunately, the Ukraine is an example of a country with mixed nationalities with the adjoining nation Russia, that is, there are many Russians living in the Ukraine.  If you look up the demographics of Crimea, you’ll discover that 65.3% of the population is Russian and only 15.7% Ukrainian (based on the 2014 census) — those are the facts.  Russians outnumber Ukrainians in Crimea over 4 to 1.  There are also many Russians living in that little sliver of eastern Ukraine in open revolt.  In short, the Russians in the Ukraine want to have nothing to do with the new Ukrainian regime in Kiev, a regime naturally extremely nationalistic — that is Ukrainian — after the coup to get rid of a leader who was looking out for Russian interests.

Crimea is not that contiguous with the Ukraine, and the demographics are against unification.  And there is the problem that a referendum did in fact vote overwhelmingly to re-unite with Russia — how else could the vote have gone with such a large Russian majority in Crimea?  And of course Russia is now actively guarding their new acquisition, and we know how possessive nations are.  So it appear that the Crimea issue is all but settled, and perhaps that is for the best — for what has happened is certainly the most democratic solution there.  But what about that little sliver of territory in eastern  Ukraine, that sliver that is in open revolt?  Kiev is holding onto it with all the strength of a angry adolescent, for the Ukraine is foaming at the mouth at having lost Crimea, and Kiev will be damned if it loses any more territory.  It will fight to the death to prevent further loss.

But let us take a step back and try to look at this situation with a little more objectivity and detachment.  The so-called “rebels” in that little sliver of territory to the east are willing to lay down their lives to break away from the Kiev regime and the Ukraine.  Their fanaticism to separate from the Ukraine is equal to the fanaticism of the Kiev regime to retain this little sliver of territory, perhaps even more so, as they risk the ultimate sacrifice, while politicians in Kiev, while they may rail against the rebels, do so at a safe distance.

Let us suppose that the revolt is ultimately crushed, and the little sliver of territory remains a part of the Ukraine.  Fine.  But what has Kiev really re-acquired except a significant section of the nation that will be in revolt and simmering rebellion against the central government on a more or less permanent basis — that is, forever.  Is that really a desirable outcome for the Kiev regime?  Is that really in their interest?  The adolescent in the room, the leadership in Kiev, demands this very outcome, even though in many ways it is counterproductive for their regime to have a section of the country forever questioning Kiev central authority.

The solution for this little sliver of territory in revolt in the eastern edge of the Ukraine is an obvious one, and one that would be in the best interest of the Ukraine, Russia, and the Ukrainians and Russian in the Ukraine.  That would be to carve out this little sliver and declare it an independent buffer state between the two giants, the Ukraine and Russia.  The understanding might be that the new buffer state will remain independent for 10 years, and then can hold a referendum to determine whether it will remain independent or join the Ukraine or Russia — there might indeed be serious advantages for the little state to remain forever a buffer between the two giants.  This would be the simple and elegant solution to the problem if there were an adult in the room — but unfortunately there isn’t.

So what country would be an example of the baby in the room when a nation was faced with influenza?  Make that countries, as this is the most common reaction, by far and away  outnumbering the other reactions by 100 to 1.  It is common because here is where the nation’s possessiveness knows no bounds.  Syria is the preeminent current example of the baby in the room; while Yugoslavia and the United States are noteworthy historical examples.

Syria is an example of the country torn asunder by a religious schism, in this case between the Shia regime controlling the government and a sizable Sunni opposition.  In a sense, Syria has been victimized by a much wider Shia and Sunni regional civil war that has been raging throughout the Middle East and North Africa.  The trigger for Syria was the so-called “Arab spring,” where once oppressed peoples revolted against repressive regimes to demand more democratic or representative government.  This was the impetus behind the initial Sunni demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad.

As the demonstrations grew in number and size, the Assad regime became more and more concerned about this threat to its authority, and ultimately struck back with force to suppress the Sunnis and their subversive movement.  We have all heard the oft repeated  cries against Assad that he was “murdering his own people.”  The regime simply refused to even consider any legitimacy in the Sunni complaint or any reduction whatsoever in Syrian territory.  For Assad and his regime — the baby in the room — it was maintain the union at all cost.  And that cost has been enormous, as we have all witnessed, month after dreary month of civil war and mayhem on a large scale.

Perhaps the poster child of the baby in the room was Yugoslavia.  Here was a nation made up of nothing but minorities, and they were legend, and the divisions between these minorities were ethnic, nationalistic, and religious — all three.  So the fuse that lit here, and blew the nation not into two fragments but many was principally ethnic with with nationalism and religion playing a key role, as well.  The disintegration of Yugoslavia resulted in another terrible civil war complete with full-blown genocide of Muslims.  Here there was no adult in the room; there was not even a room, as Yugoslavia the nation never really made any sense in the first place.  What was once one nation called Yugoslavia disintegrated into chaos, but ultimately emerged no less than 2 but as many as 7 separate nations, depending upon how you count them — but not without paying an enormous price in lost lives.

When they fired upon Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor — a clear act of rebellion and secession from these United States — President Abraham Lincoln had a choice to make.  As he put it in a nutshell, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.  I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.  I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.”  He made his choice, and that choice was to preserve the union, to preserve the union at all cost.  The “house” would not be divided — he would see to that.

The South was populated with the same European ethnic groups as the North, practiced the same religions, but it had evolved an entirely different sort of economy based on “king cotton,” which was spurred by the invention of the cotton gin, but dependent upon plentiful slave labor to pick all that cotton.  The slave as property was at the center of the South’s economy and wealth, so that a movement like the abolitionists in the North to eradicate what they considered to be an evil institution struck at the very heart of the Southern way of life.  So as abolitionism grew in the North, so too did a corollary sentiment for secession grow in the South.

It is interesting to compare Lincoln to Assad.  We revere Lincoln but distain Assad,  yet in one respect their goal was identical — to preserve the union at all cost.   Assad is lambasted as a president who would “murder his own people.”  How many times have you heard that repeated?  But if you go back to the Civil War years, there were many also who called Lincoln a “tyrant” and a “butcher,” particular in the South, and even by some critics of the war in the North.  Yes, Lincoln was a butcher of the South who “murdered his own people” — just how many Southerners paid the ultimate price for Lincoln to preserve the Union?   And yet it was preserved, and any number of towns, particularly in the North, renamed a road “Union Street,” to commemorate this achievement.  The possessive state had triumphed.  Lincoln had kept his “house” from dividing, but at what cost?

The American Civil War is by far America’s most deadly war.  Only recently has the total casualty count of all the other wars combined surpassed the number of Americans who  died in the Civil War (620,000), and do not forget that the total population of the United States at the time of the Civil War was much smaller then, merely 1/10 the size of what it is today.  It was an extremely bloody example of what happens when the baby in the room is in charge, and declares that it will preserve the union no matter what the cost.  Did it have to be so?  Did the American Civil War have to happen at all?  Could Lincoln have made a different decision in response to the firing upon Fort Sumter?

Of course he could.  The South, like what happened in Czechoslovakia, could have splintered off and formed a separate nation.  There might have been little to no bloodshed at all.  The downside here is that slavery in the South would then have gone unchallenged, but were its days numbered anyway?  Were the forces of modernity, beginning with the British turning against this peculiar institution earlier in the 19th century, already aligned against slavery so that its days were numbered even in the South anyway?  No one can possibly give definitive answers to such questions, but the questions themselves are valid ones.   Given the truly terrible cost of the Civil War, did Lincoln make the mature decision, that is, the adult one after they fired upon Fort Sumter?

So what can we finally say about this frequent influenza that strikes nations, and can have any of a number of outcomes from relatively benign ones to terrible devastation?  This disease is a kind of model that we can use to assess the health of a nation, to see if there is lurking within it a separatist minority that can threaten the authority of the central government.  The model can even be used to diagnose the imminence of the disease, a disease that may lurk for years before it erupts, but erupt it will.

For instance, there are a number of nations in the Middle East that, surely, show severe symptoms of influenza, and will no doubt succumb to it if not in the short term, certainly in the long term.  These include Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.  In fact, they all share the same issue: the Kurds.  It remains to be seen how each of these nations will react to the influenza when it strikes, whether as the adult in the room, the adolescent, or the baby, but the past experience of how nations have reacted to this disease does not bode well for these nations — or for the Kurds.

Czechoslovakia — Velvet Divorce


Breakup of Yugoslavia


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If you enjoyed the post, you can help me keeping blogging along with just a one dollar contribution. You can contribute more by increasing the quantity — each increase by 1 is an additional dollar. Thanks for your support in this blog-eat-blog world.