What history was made in 2011?

Here are the top news stories of 2011 according to the Associated Press:

1. Bin Laden’s death

2. Disasters in Japan

3. The Arab Spring

4. EU fiscal crisis

5. U.S. economy

6. Penn State scandal

7. Gadhafi’s fall

8. U.S. Congress

9. Occupy protests

10. Congresswoman Giffords shooting

Other contenders: the death of Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs, Hurricane Irene, tornados in he Midwest and Southeastern U.S., the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy

I think we could agree by acclamation that the killing of Osama bin Laden was the biggest news story of the year.  But let’s take a bigger view than this list of mere news items.

What do you think were the most historically significant events of the year?  That is, events that future historians will study because they proved pivotally important in whatever happens next.

 

Ron Paul’s baggage

As a Virginian, my only choices in the Republican primary are Mitt Romney and Ron Paul–the other candidates having failed to get on the ballot–so I am studying these candidates closely.  There would be a certain coolness factor in voting for Paul.  But I’ve got to figure out what I think about his newsletters of a couple of decades ago, with their racist and anti-semitic vibe, as well as his associations with the off-the-wall right.

I know some of you have been discussing this on the “Why I Can’t Vote for Gingrich or Perry” thread, but it deserves its own post.  Paul and his fans have been dismissing the issue as “old news” brought up and answered a long time ago, but lots of us are new to the Ron Paul world, and he had better believe this will be an issue throughout the election.  Here is a summary of what’s out there:

Ron Paul reiterated Tuesday that he did not write a series of newsletters that appeared under his name in the 1980s and 1990s that included controversial comments about African-Americans, including a claim that “[o]rder was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks.”

Asked by CBS News and National Journal if the newsletters are fair game on Tuesday in New Hampshire, Paul responded, “I don’t know whether fair is the right word.”

“I mean, it’s politics,” he continued. “Nobody talked about it for 20 years until they found out that the message of liberty was making progress. And everybody knows I didn’t write them, and it’s not my sentiment, so it’s sort of politics as usual.”

Writing in The New Republic in 2008, reporter James Kirchick revealed some particularly incendiary passages from the monthly newsletters, which carried names like “Ron Paul’s Freedom Report” and the “Ron Paul Political Report.” Many of the newsletters, which were mostly written in the first person and usually didn’t otherwise carry a byline, were reportedly being held in collections of extreme-right political literature.

The newsletters included a criticism of Ronald Reagan for legislation creating a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., who is described as a “world-class philanderer who beat up his paramours” and “seduced underage girls and boys.”

“We can thank him for our annual Hate Whitey Day,” one newsletter said of Reagan, according to Kirchick. The newsletters also claimed that AIDS sufferers “enjoy the attention and pity that comes with being sick,” expressed support for and offered advice to the “local militias now training to defend liberty” shortly before the Oklahoma City bombing, and questioned whether the 1993 World Trade Center bombing “was a setup by the Israeli Mossad.”

Kirchick revisited the newsletters in the Weekly Standard on Tuesday, writing that “Paul’s lucrative and decades-long promotion of bigotry and conspiracy theories, for which he has yet to account fully, and his continuing espousal of extremist views…should make him unwelcome at any respectable forum.”

Kirchick tied the newsletters to Paul’s willingness to appear on the radio program of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has reportedly accused the government of encouraging “homosexuality with chemicals so that people don’t have children.” He noted that Paul seemed open to Jones’ suggestion that the military’s NORTHCOM combatant command is “taking over” the nation.

Paul denied his involvement with the newsletters back in 2008, saying the controversial comments “are not mine and do not represent what I believe or have ever believed.”

“When I was out of Congress and practicing medicine full-time, a newsletter was published under my name that I did not edit. Several writers contributed to the product,” he said. “For over a decade, I have publicly taken moral responsibility for not paying closer attention to what went out under my name.”

via Ron Paul disavows racist newsletters under his name – Political Hotsheet – CBS News.

Paul disavows this kind of talk today, so good for him.  His claim that he didn’t know what was going into his newsletters, though, strains credulity.   It reminds me of the NBA star (I think it was Charles Barkley) who complained about how he was portrayed in the media, referring to his own autobiography.  At the best it would be an outlandish use of ghostwriters, something else I don’t approve of.  But even if he weren’t paying attention, as he claims, I would think that his readers would rise up if the newsletters they had subscribed to under the Ron Paul brand were misrepresenting what they assume he stood for.  (“But we know Dr. Paul admires Martin Luther King [as he now says], so how could he say such things about him?”)  Perhaps he could say that he used to classify people unfairly, but now he has learned to apply the principles of liberty to people of all races and ethnicity.  Something like that.

Then there is his giving a speech to the John Birch Society, the organization that during the cold war interpreted everything in terms of a vast communist conspiracy and that William F. Buckley read out of the conservative movement.  And those kind words for right-wing militias.

The question is, is Ron Paul a right wing extremist?  Now, normally there is a big difference between libertarianism and right wing extremism.  The latter tends to be highly nationalistic.  Libertarians tend to be tolerant of things like flag burning and joining the communist party, expressions of liberty that true rightwingers would be glad to outlaw.

Again, Paul denies that he holds those views in the newsletters.  But then again, John Birchers in their heyday believed that even seemingly good leaders were actually communist infiltrators.  Since they think like that, don’t we need to make sure that they aren’t foisting off a Manchurian candidate of their own?  Sorry–all these conspiracy theories have got me thinking like that!

At any rate, my mind needs to be put at rest about these issues.  I am open to persuasion.  You Paul supporters, help me out here.

Good news on the crime rate

Not everything in our society is going from bad to worse.  Over the last decade, we have seen a dramatic drop in the crime rate, and it keeps getting better.  Charles Lane gives some details:

The most important social trend of the past 20 years is as positive as it is underappreciated: the United States’ plunging crime rate.

Between 1991 and 2010, the homicide rate in the United States fell 51 percent, from 9.8 per 100,000 residents to 4.8 per 100,000. Property crimes such as burglary also fell sharply during that period; auto theft, once the bane of urban life, dropped an astonishing 64 percent. And FBI data released Dec. 19 show that the trends continued in the first half of 2011. With luck, the United States could soon equal its lowest homicide rate of the modern era: 4.0 per 100,000, recorded in 1957.

To be sure, the United States is still more violent than Europe or Canada, and that’s nothing to brag about. But this country is far, far safer than it was as recently as the late 1980s. . . .

We are reaping a domestic peace dividend, and it can be measured in the precious coin of human life. Berkeley criminologist Franklin E. Zimring has found that the death rate for young men in New York today is half what it would have been if homicides had continued unabated.

The psychological payoff, too, is enormous. Only 38 percent of Americans say they fear walking alone at night within a mile of their homes, according to Gallup, down from 48 percent three decades ago. . . .

Lower crime rates also mean one less source of political polarization. In August 1994, 52 percent of Americans told Gallup that crime was the most important issue facing the country; in November 2011, only 1 percent gave that answer. Think political debate is venomous now? Imagine if law and order were still a “wedge issue.”

Did I mention the economic benefits? Safe downtowns draw more tourists for longer stays. Fewer car thefts mean lower auto insurance rates. Young people who don’t get murdered grow up to produce goods and services.

Plunging crime rates also debunk conventional wisdom, left and right. Crime’s continued decline during the Great Recession undercuts the liberal myth that hard times force people into illegal activity — that, like the Jets in “West Side Story,” crooks are depraved on account of being deprived. Yet recent history also refutes conservatives who predicted in the early 1990s that minority teenage “superpredators” would unleash a new crime wave.

Government, through targeted social interventions and smarter policing, has helped bring down crime rates, confirming the liberal worldview. Yet solutions bubbled up from the states and municipalities, consistent with conservative theory. Contrary to liberal belief, incarcerating more criminals for longer periods probably helped reduce crime. Contrary to conservative doctrine, crime rates fell while Miranda warnings and other legal protections for defendants remained in place.

On the whole, though, what’s most striking about the crime decline is how little we know about its precise causes. Take the increase in state incarceration, which peaked at a national total of 1.4 million on Dec. 31, 2008. This phenomenon is probably a source of success in the war on crime — and its most troubling byproduct. But increased imprisonment cannot explain all, or most, of the decline: Crime rates kept going down the past two years, even as the prison population started to shrink. Crime fell in New York faster than in any other U.S. city over the past two decades — but New York locked up offenders at a below-average rate, according to Zimring’s new book, “The City That Became Safe.”

“What went wrong?” is the question that launched a thousand blue-ribbon commissions. But we also need to investigate when things go right — especially when, as in the case of crime, success defied so many expert predictions.

via Taking a bite out of crime – The Washington Post.

Any ideas for why the crime rate has been going down?

Football as the collision of Hobbes & Locke

Gerard Baker of England has become a convert to American football.  He explains why:

In its energy and complexity, football captures the spirit of America better than any other cultural creation on this continent, and I don’t mean because it features long breaks in which advertisers get to sell beer and treatments for erectile dysfunction. It sits at the intersection of pioneering aggression and impossibly complex strategic planning. It is a collision of Hobbes and Locke; violent, primal force tempered by the most complex set of rules, regulations, procedures and systems ever conceived in an athletic framework.

Soccer is called the beautiful game. But football is chess, played with real pieces that try to knock each other’s brains out. It doesn’t get any more beautiful than that.

via Gerard Baker: Football Is Better Than Soccer – WSJ.com.

As the bowl season get under way, let us contemplate the nature of football and why we like it so much.

HT:  Ace of Spades

What’s wrong with Santorum?

Nothing, as far as I can see, from a conservative point of view.  He is under no suspicion of being a closet liberal.  He is a devout Christian, a Catholic but one who seem evangelical.  He agrees with the social conservative agenda.  He has been a champion of the pro-life cause.  He has no skeletons in his closet, as far as I know.   He is also intelligent and articulate.  And yet Christian conservatives–who have been floundering for a candidate–have not rallied behind him, nor have conservatives in general.  Why not?

The only mark against him from those circles, at least that I’ve heard, seems to be that he isn’t inspiring, he sometimes comes across as shrill, he lost a Senatorial election in Pennsylvania, so he probably can’t win the presidency.  But if any of the Republican candidates have a chance, it will be because the public has had enough of Barack Obama.  If it’s Obama who will defeat Obama, campaign charisma from the other side will not be so important.  But the Republicans have to have a credible candidate.

As the various Republican candidates have their turn in the sun as front runner, only to shrivel under the increased scrutiny the person in that position inevitably receives, why not give Rick Santorum a chance?  Does anyone know why the Republican base isn’t rallying behind him, even though he seems to exemplify what that base finds important?

“How Luther went viral”

The Economist tells how Luther, in effect, used social media:

Although they were written in Latin, the “95 Theses” caused an immediate stir, first within academic circles in Wittenberg and then farther afield. In December 1517 printed editions of the theses, in the form of pamphlets and broadsheets, appeared simultaneously in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel, paid for by Luther’s friends to whom he had sent copies. German translations, which could be read by a wider public than Latin-speaking academics and clergy, soon followed and quickly spread throughout the German-speaking lands. Luther’s friend Friedrich Myconius later wrote that “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.”

The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation.

The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in common with today’s online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads. It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation. Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a “networked public”, rather than an “audience”, since they do more than just consume information. Luther would pass the text of a new pamphlet to a friendly printer (no money changed hands) and then wait for it to ripple through the network of printing centres across Germany.

Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.

As with “Likes” and retweets today, the number of reprints serves as an indicator of a given item’s popularity. Luther’s pamphlets were the most sought after; a contemporary remarked that they “were not so much sold as seized”. His first pamphlet written in German, the “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, was reprinted 14 times in 1518 alone, in print runs of at least 1,000 copies each time. Of the 6,000 different pamphlets that were published in German-speaking lands between 1520 and 1526, some 1,700 were editions of a few dozen works by Luther. In all, some 6m-7m pamphlets were printed in the first decade of the Reformation, more than a quarter of them Luther’s.

Although Luther was the most prolific and popular author, there were many others on both sides of the debate. Tetzel, the indulgence-seller, was one of the first to respond to him in print, firing back with his own collection of theses. Others embraced the new pamphlet format to weigh in on the merits of Luther’s arguments, both for and against, like argumentative bloggers. . . .

Being able to follow and discuss such back-and-forth exchanges of views, in which each author quoted his opponent’s words in order to dispute them, gave people a thrilling and unprecedented sense of participation in a vast, distributed debate. Arguments in their own social circles about the merits of Luther’s views could be seen as part of a far wider discourse, both spoken and printed. Many pamphlets called upon the reader to discuss their contents with others and read them aloud to the illiterate. People read and discussed pamphlets at home with their families, in groups with their friends, and in inns and taverns. Luther’s pamphlets were read out at spinning bees in Saxony and in bakeries in Tyrol. In some cases entire guilds of weavers or leather-workers in particular towns declared themselves supporters of the Reformation, indicating that Luther’s ideas were being propagated in the workplace. One observer remarked in 1523 that better sermons could be heard in the inns of Ulm than in its churches, and in Basel in 1524 there were complaints about people preaching from books and pamphlets in the town’s taverns. . . .

Amid the barrage of pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts, public opinion was clearly moving in Luther’s favour. “Idle chatter and inappropriate books” were corrupting the people, fretted one bishop. “Daily there is a veritable downpour of Lutheran tracts in German and Latin…nothing is sold here except the tracts of Luther,” lamented Aleander, Leo X’s envoy to Germany, in 1521. Most of the 60 or so clerics who rallied to the pope’s defence did so in academic and impenetrable Latin, the traditional language of theology, rather than in German. Where Luther’s works spread like wildfire, their pamphlets fizzled. Attempts at censorship failed, too. Printers in Leipzig were banned from publishing or selling anything by Luther or his allies, but material printed elsewhere still flowed into the city. The city council complained to the Duke of Saxony that printers faced losing “house, home, and all their livelihood” because “that which one would gladly sell, and for which there is demand, they are not allowed to have or sell.” What they had was lots of Catholic pamphlets, “but what they have in over-abundance is desired by no one and cannot even be given away.”

via Social media in the 16th Century: How Luther went viral | The Economist.

The article also tells about the role music and visual images (with a shout out to Lucas Cranach), both of which also went viral, in the spread of the Reformation.

Can you envision a time and a cultural context in which this sort of thing–the spread of the gospel–could happen again, now that we really have the technology for it?

HT:  Joe Carter


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