The History of the 20th Century: BBC Propaganda at Its Best

History of the World Episode 8 – Age of Extremes

BBC (2018)

Film Review

This final episode is almost pure BBC propaganda and contains a large number of jingoist assertions that are totally unsupported by historical record.  Age of Extremes covers the rise of Hitler (while neglecting to mention the support he received from Wall Street and German corporations); the founding of the first birth control clinic in Britain by feminist Margaret Sanger and the “sexual revolution” brought about by the birth control pill in the 1960s; Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle for Indian independence; the US invention and deployment of the atomic bomb; the murderous Chinese Cultural Revolution that started in 1967;  the capitalist reforms instigated by Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s; the fall of the Berlin Wall (allegedly ending the Cold War) in 1989; and the defeat of world chess champion Gary Kasparov by IBM computer Deep Blue.

Among the more nauseating claims made:

  • That the US developed and deployed nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki because that was the only way to force the Japanese government to surrender (“Japanese civilians would pay for their leaders’ refusal to surrender”).  Declassified records reveal Japan was attempting to surrender in July 1945 but Truman refused, owing to his determination to intimidate the Soviets by deploying atomic weapons. The deliberate targeting of Japanese civilians (more than 300,000 died within days of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings) was a war crime under the Geneva Convention.
  • That Artificial Intelligence will be as significant for mankind as the agricultural and the industrial revolution
  • That modern day humans live longer, healthier lives than their ancestors.*
  • That despite “altered climate” and mass extinctions “humans have always overcome challenges we are face with and prospered.”**

*This may be true of a few extremely wealthy individuals, but many people of my generation are dying earlier than their parents owing to an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, disease, drug/alcohol addiction, and suicide (US numbers have been high enough to reduce average life expectancy).

**It’s obvious the filmmakers have never read Collapse by Gerard Diamond

Spinsterhood: The Plight of Women Intellectuals

Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own

Kate Bolick

Broadway Books (2015)

Book Review

In Spinster, the author describes her personal journey navigating the conflict many female intellectuals experience between fully developing their creative potential and succumbing to intense social pressure to marry and have children. Most of the book explores the lives of five significant role models – novelist and playwright Neith Boyce (1872-1951), short story writer and journalist Mae Brennan (1917-1993), social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), poet Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950) and novelist Edith Wharton (1862-1937). Tracing the the lives of all five was invaluable to Bolick in her struggle to meet her sexual and romantic needs without making the all-engulfing commitment of marriage and motherhood.

Interwoven among these narratives are important historically data revealing the dramatic change in women’s lives over the last 200 years. For me these sociological pearls were the most interesting aspect of the book.

For example, prior to 1900 the age of consent (for sexual activity) was 10-12 in most states (7 in Delaware), something early feminists campaigned to change to 16-18.

In 1890, 34% of women lived as single women; in 1960 17%; and in 2013 53%. This recent increase in spinsterhood results from a doubling of divorce rates between 1966 and 1979. The divorce rate peaked in 1981, with women seeking most of the divorces. This coincided with their ability to access previously all-male trades and professions. This, in turn, greatly improved a woman’s ability to survive financially outside of marriage.

I was fascinated to learn about “family limitation” – a practice American women engaged in roughly 100 years before the availability of formal birth control. Between 1600 and 1800, married women got pregnant every two years until they died or reached menopause. During this period, average family size was 8.02 children. By 1900, this average had dropped (mainly due to sexual abstinence) to 4 children – by the Great Depression, it had dropped to 3 children. Between the late forties and the late sixties, it rebounded to 4 children, and since the 1970s it has remained at 1-2 children.

 

Emma Goldman and the American Anarchist Movement

Emma Goldman: An Exceedingly Dangerous Woman

Mel Bucklin (2004)

Film Review

Other than the pro-capitalist depiction of the self-governing anarchist democracy Franco and his Wall Street supporters overturned during the Spanish Civil war, most of this documentary is historically accurate. The commentary, in contrast, is sentimental psychobabble and considerably detracts from the film.

The film beings with Goldman’s arrival in the US in 1885 at age 16 – escaping from an arranged marriage in czarist Russia. It would be four years before she connected with anarchists and other radicals in New York City.

The Panic of 1893, in which the US economy nearly collapsed, would launch her into the public spotlight. She led numerous protests marches of unemployed workers and spent a year in jail for incitement to riot. There was a crowd of 2,800 waiting outside the workhouse on her release.

American anarchists were extremely well-organized during a period of massive labor unrest and saw the wisdom of promoting a powerful speaker like Goldman. She believed that America’s founding father had a hidden libertarian/anarchist streak that had been corrupted by capitalism and often quoted from Jefferson and Paine.

In addition to speeches educating people about anarchism (ie replacing the state with self-governing workers committees and cooperatives), she also lectured widely about free speech, equal rights and economic independence for women, free love and birth control (she was sentenced to 15 days in jail for advocating for birth control in public).

She was an enormously popular speaker and received wide coverage in the mainstream media.

She also campaigned heavily against US entry into World War I, and in June 1917 was sentenced to 22 months for conspiracy to violate the Draft Act.

Shortly after her release in 1919 she was deported to Russia along with thousands of other Eastern European immigrants illegally arrested and deported during the Palmer Raids.

For me the most interesting part of the film concerns her meeting with Lenin in 1921.

How Prostitutes and Ex-Slaves Saved Us from the Protestant Work Ethic

a renegade history

A Renegade History of the United States

by Thaddeus Russell

2010 Free Press

Book Review

I absolutely adored A Renegade History of the United States. Historian Thadeus Russell offers a totally unique but compelling perspective on the expansion of personal liberty in the US and other English speaking countries.

Unlike Zinn’s The People’s History of the United states and similar “working class” histories, Russell argues that that most of the person freedoms we enjoy aren’t the result of political movements. In his view they originated from the refusal of renegades, degenerates and discontents to accept the puritanical work ethic the founding fathers tried to foist on us. In other words, we should thank America’s drunkards, prostitutes, pirates, slackers, “shiftless” slaves and juvenile delinquents for the unprecedented levels of personal freedom Americans enjoy.

Parts of Russell’s book really surprised me, especially where he describes the uptight, repressed social conservatives (including Martin Luther King) who led American campaigns for abolition, women’s suffrage, labor rights and civil rights. Despite their high profile campaigns for specific legal “rights,” the leaders of these movements expended enormous time and energy trying to correct the “inappropriate” behavior of the masses they claimed to represent.

The Role of Prostitutes and Ex-Slaves

The unquestioned heroes of A Renegade History of the United States are prostitutes and ex-slaves. In the 19th century the only women who owned property, had sex outside of marriage, performed or received oral sex, used birth control, wore make-up, perfume or stylish clothes were prostitutes. In fact, it was prostitutes who won these and other rights that modern American women take for granted. When women were barred from most jobs and wives had no legal right to own property, prostitutes, especially in the Wild West became so wealthy that they funded crucial irrigation and road building projects. Likewise when most states banned birth control in the early 1800s, prostitutes continued to provide a market for contraceptives that stimulated production and distribution.

The importance of slaves and their descendents in the expansion of personal freedom relates to the tenacious manner in which they preserved a culture characterized by sensuous music, rhythms and dancing in a culture that condemned these activities as depraved and harmful to the work ethic.

Following the Civil War, there was a strong expectation that slaves would renounce these pleasurable pastimes and embrace the work ethic as good American citizens. Many eagerly embraced the discipline and self-denial emancipation demanded of them. Most didn’t.

In 1865 Congress confronted this dilemma by creating the Freedman’s Bureau to train ex-slaves how to become “good citizens.” Most enrolled eagerly, thinking they would be taught to read and write. Instead the classes focused on the ideals the founding fathers had promoted – frugality, self-denial and most importantly a love of work, even poorly paid work, as a source of virtue.

Russell cites letters and interviews with ex-slaves who saw no point in being free if it meant they had to work harder than a slave did. Many northerners, who acquired southern plantations cheaply during Reconstruction, complained that ex-slaves made terrible workers. Not only did they come and go as they pleased, but they demanded days off and refused to work in inclement weather. Many ex-slaves also resisted pressure to adopt legal norms of marriage.

Martin Luther King’s Campaign Against Un-Christian and Un-American Blacks

For me, the most interesting section of A Renegade History of the United States is the chapter about Martin Luther King and his little known campaign to persuade so-called “bad niggers” to embrace the puritan work ethic and cult of responsibility and sexless self-sacrifice that has characterized the dominant American culture.

In 1957, Reverend King launched three projects simultaneously: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), to coordinate a nonviolent campaign to desegregate buses across the South, the Campaign for Citizenship to campaign for voting rights and a church-based campaign to rid African Americans of what King referred to as “un-Christian” and “un-American” habits. In 1957 he delivered a series of sermons condemning blacks who led “tragic lives of pleasure and riotous living” (see Problems of Personality Integration).

In 1958 he wrote articles in Ebony and published his first book, Stride Towards Freedom, in which he claimed black poverty was as much due to laziness and a lack of discipline and morality, as to institutional racism. He also condemned rock and roll.

The Role of Violence in the Civil Rights Movement

Russell also weighs in on what “diversity of tactics” debate that ultimately split the Occupy movement. He lays out compelling evidence that 1) only a tiny minority of southern blacks participated in King’s nonviolent movement and 2) it was “bad niggers” and violence, rather than King’s nonviolent campaign, that won the first major civil rights victories in 1963.