Momentous Monday: Interesting times

There is an alleged Chinese curse that did not come from China at all and which may not have even been meant to be a curse when first mentioned by Joseph Chamberlain. The phrase goes like this: “May you live in interesting times.”

The implication, of course, is that interesting times are dangerous ones.

Right now, in the spring of 2020 C.E., the entire planet is living in interesting times, and I have a feeling that all of human history is going through a process of change that will be marked and noted by historians from here on out.

Congratulations, fellow humans. We are indeed living through a profound moment that will leave a different world behind, and those of us who survive it will be able to tell future generations, “Yeah. I was there. We never saw it coming, but it changed everything.”

At the moment, the day to day changes may seem weird and trivial — or not — but consider this. When was your last normal trip to the grocery store? When was the last time you found everything on your list? Why is there still no goddamn TP?

Or eggs and skim milk — those are the weird shortages, actually, because America just makes so goddamn much of both. Oh, sure, we’re lousy with over-priced “organic” bullshit eggs, as well as 2% and Whole milk, but if you’re into non-fat, you’re out of luck.

And get away from me with recommending any kind of “milk” that didn’t come out of a mammal, because that’s not milk. Coconut, almond, soy, whatever? Yep. Not milk. You’re drinking nut juice.

How does that sound?

Gas prices have dropped but that’s okay, because no one is driving anywhere. Those of us who can work from home are maintaining. Those of us who can’t… well, it’s a whole new world.

Certain people seem to think we can end the American lockdown by Easter, which is April 12. Cooler heads say, “Hell no.” This may go on through May or June, and seeing as how the U.S. suddenly became the most infected country in the world on March 26th, the idea of “It’s all over by Easter” is irresponsible as hell.

And remember that this is a pandemic, as in “It doesn’t just affect your town or county or state or country.” This is worldwide. And, as I mentioned above, this one is going to go into the history books along with some of the greatest hits of Events that Changed Everything.

For example:

476 CE: Fall of the Western Roman Empire. The long-term result of this little collapse was the creation of what would become modern Europe. Freed from the yoke of one oppressive empire, various local tribes — which had been allowed to maintain their culture in exchange for providing fealty, soldiers, and taxes to the mothership in Rome — were suddenly free to discover their own identities.

1206 CE: Genghis Kahn begins his conquest of Asia, and almost takes Europe as well. He wiped entire countries and civilizations off of the map, and changed the course of history in Europe forever.

1492 CE: Columbus is allowed to begin the exploitation of the New World, which will lead to an eventual super power that will basically become the new Roman Empire. In effect, this is the continuation of what the Fall of Rome started in Europe

1776 – 1815 CE: A motherlode, from the American Revolution through the French Revolution and the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. The monarchical system is basically ripped out of power forever. It starts when those pesky colonists (in the land conquered by the Europeans who existed because Rome fell) rebelled against their mother country and won. France followed by rebelling at home and winning, only to wind up launching the next would-be dictator because they let the “party purity” assholes take control of their revolution. That would-be dictator (Napoleon) was defeated by the British, who had lost the American Revolution. Monarchy in Europe was mostly told to fuck off from this point forward.

1917 – 1918 CE: Double whammy of the Russian Revolution and The Great War. The former would lead to the first successful, long-term revolutionary state (France didn’t make that cut for reasons noted above), while the “Great War” would lead to a sequel, WW II, which would lead to all kinds of things, including the Cold War between the aforementioned Super Power and the USSR

1990 CE: The collapse of the USSR, apparently (but not really) ending the Cold War and pushing the U.S. into the number one spot.

2020 CE – ???: Worldwide pandemic and lack of leadership possibly ends in the collapse of the U.S., leaving China as the world’s last super power; and the independent Republic of California as a major player in the world economy, although we could also see the creation of the country of Pacifica, made up of Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and Arizona.

Or… we could somehow manage to get our shit together and survive this whole thing, but I’m not crossing my fingers at this point. We still have to figure out how to have a national election through all of this and, no matter what anyone might think, if the election doesn’t happen, the President doesn’t stay in power.

Rather, his time in office expires on January 20, 2021, along with the Vice President, and the Speaker of the House. Rules of secession would turn the presidency over to the President Pro-Tem of the Senate.

If we still have a government by that point, of course. Enjoy your sheltering in place, and I’ll see you on the other side.

“War is not healthy for children and other living things.” Except…

The title of this article comes from an incredibly iconic poster that was created during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Specifically, it was created by printmaker Lorriane Schneider in 1967, and was inspired by her concern that her oldest son would be drafted and die in a war that many Americans considered unnecessary.

However, the Vietnam War is a strange exception and beginning point for a tidal change in American wars. Post-Vietnam, the only benefits wars seem to have given us are more efficient (although not cheaper) ways to kill people, and that sucks. (Incidentally, the Korean War is technically not a war. It also technically never ended.)

But… as weird as it may sound, a lot of the major wars prior to Vietnam actually gave American society weird and unexpected benefits. Yeah, all of that death and killing and violence were terrible, but like dandelions breaking through urban sidewalks to bloom and thrive, sometimes, good stuff does come in the aftermath of nasty wars. Here are five examples.

The American Revolution, 1775-1783

The Benefit: The First Amendment (and the rest of the Constitution)

By the beginning of the 18th century, Europe was having big problems because Monarchs and the Church were all tied up together, the state dictated religion, and so on. It came to an extreme with Britain’s Act of Settlement in 1714, which barred any Catholic from ever taking the throne. The end result of this was that the next in line turned out to be the future George I, son of Sophia. Sophia, however, was an Elector of Hanover or, in other words, German. Queen Victoria was a direct descendant of George I, and spoke both English and German. In fact her husband, Prince Albert, was German.

But the net result of all the tsuris over the whole Catholic vs. Protestant thing in Europe, on top of suppression of the press by governments, led to the Founders making sure to enshrine freedom of speech and the wall between church and state in the very first Amendment to the Constitution, before anything else. To be fair, though, England did start to push for freedom of the press and an end to censorship in the 17th century, so that’s probably where the Founders got that idea. But the British monarch was (and still is) the head of the Church of England, so the score is one up, one down.

The War of 1812, 1812-1815

The Benefit: Permanent allegiance between the U.S. and Britain

This was basically the sequel to the American Revolution, and came about because of continued tensions between the two nations. Britain had a habit of capturing American sailors and forcing them into military duty against the French, for example, via what were vernacularly called “press gangs.” They also supported Native Americans in their war against the fairly new country that had been created by invading their land. So again, one up, one down. And the second one, which is the down vote to America, is rather ironic, considering that the Brits were basically now helping out the people whose land had been stolen by… the first English settlers to get there.

And, honestly, if we’re really keeping score, the U.S. has two extra dings against it in this one: We started it by declaring war — even if there were legitimate provocations from Britain — and then we invaded Canada.

But then a funny thing happened. The U.S. won the war. By all rights it shouldn’t have. It was a new country. It really didn’t have the military to do it. It was going up against the dominant world power of the time, and one that would soon become an empire to boot.

The war technically ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, but there was still the Battle of New Orleans to come after that, and it happened because news of the end of the war hadn’t gotten there yet. In that one, the U.S. kicked Britain’s ass so hard that they then basically said, “Remember all the concessions we made in that treaty? Yeah, not. LOL.”

In a lot of ways, the war was really a draw, but it did get the British to remove any military presence from the parts of North America that were not Canada, and opened the door to American expansionism across the continent. It also helped to establish the boundary between the U.S. and Canada, which is to this day the world’s longest undefended border. Finally, it cemented the relationship of the U.S. and Britain as allies and BFFs, which definitely came in handy in the 20th century during a couple of little European dust-ups that I’ll be getting to shortly.

The American Civil War, 1861-1865

The Benefit: Mass-manufactured bar soap

Now in comparison to the first two, this one may seem trivial and silly, but it actually does have ramifications that go far beyond the original product itself. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a fan of bar soap now or go for the liquid kind (my preference), because both were really born out of the same need and process.

Once upon a time, soap-making was one of the many onerous tasks that the women of the house were expected to do, along with cleaning, cooking, sewing, canning, laundry, ironing, taking care of the menfolk (husbands and sons, or fathers and brothers), and generally being the literal embodiment of the term “drudge.” But soap-making was so arduous a task in terms of difficulty and general nastiness that it was something generally done only once or twice a year, basically making enough to last six or twelve months.

To make soap involved combining rendered fat and lye. (Remember Fight Club?) The fat came easy, since people at the time slaughtered their own animals for food, so they just ripped it off of the cow or pig or whatever meat they’d eaten. The lye came from leeching water through ashes from a fire made from hardwood, believe it or not, and since wood was pretty much all they had to make fires for cooking, ashes were abundant. Yes, I know, it’s really counter-intuitive that something so caustic could be made that way, but there you go. The secret is in the potassium content of the wood. Fun fact: the terms hard- and softwood have nothing to do with the actual wood itself, but rather with how the trees reproduce. (And I’ll let your brain make the joke so I don’t have to.)

So soap was a household necessity, but difficult to make. Now, while William Procter and James Gamble started to manufacture soap in 1838, it was still a luxury product at the time. It wasn’t until a lot of men went to war in 1861 that women had to run homesteads and farms on top of all of their other duties, and so suddenly manufactured soap started to come into demand. Especially helpful was Procter and Gamble providing soap to the Union Army, so that soldiers got used to it and wanted it once they came home.

Obviously, easier access to soap helped with hygiene but, more importantly, the industry advertised like hell, and from about the 1850s onward, selling soap was big business. There’s a reason that we call certain TV shows “soap operas,” after all, and that’s because those were the companies that sponsored the shows.

World War I, 1914-1918 (U.S. involvement, 1917-1918)

The Benefit: Woman’s suffrage and the right to vote

It’s probably common knowledge — or maybe not — that two big things that happened because of World War I were an abundance of prosthetic limbs and advances in reconstructive and plastic surgery. However, neither of these were really invented because of this conflict, which “only” led to improved surgical techniques or better replacement limbs.

The real advance is sort of an echo of the rise of soap via the Civil War, in the sense that the former conflict freed women from one nasty restriction: Having no say in government. And, as usually happens when the boys march off to do something stupid, the women have to take up the reins at home, and sometimes this gets noticed. It certainly did in the case of WW I, and suffragettes wisely exploited the connection between women and the homefront war effort. Less than two years after the conflict officially ended, women were given the right to vote on August 26, 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Hey! Only 144 years too late. Woohoo!

World War II, 1939-1945 (U.S. involvement, 1941-1945)

The Benefit: The rise of the American middle class

As World War II was starting to move to an end, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 was passed into law. It was designed to assist returning service members via things like creating the VA hospital system, providing subsidized mortgages, assisting with educational expenses, and providing unemployment. It was also a direct reaction to the less-than-fantastic reception returning veterans of World War I had received.

In fact, one of FDR’s goals in creating what is commonly known as the G.I. Bill was to expand the middle class, and it succeeded. Suddenly, home ownership was within reach of people who hadn’t been able to obtain it before and, as a result, new housing construction exploded and, with it, the emergence of suburbs all across the country. With education, these veterans found better jobs and higher incomes, and that money went right back into the economy to buy things like cars, TVs, and all the other accoutrements of suburban living. They also started having children — it’s not called the Baby Boom for nothing — and those children benefited with higher education themselves. The rates of people getting at least a Bachelor’s Degree began a steady climb in the 1960s, right when this generation was starting to graduate high school. At the same time, the percentage of people who hadn’t even graduated from high school plunged.

The top marginal tax rates of all time in the U.S. happened in 1944 and 1945, when they were at 94%. They remained high — at least 91% — throughout the 1950s. Oddly, despite the top rate in the 1940s being higher, the median and average top tax rates in the 1950s were higher — about 86% for both in the 40s and 91% for both in the 50s. The economy was booming, and in addition to paying for the war, those taxes provided a lot of things for U.S. Citizens.

Even as his own party wanted to dismantle a lot of FDR’s New Deal policies, President Eisenhower forged ahead with what he called “Modern Republicanism.” He signed legislation and started programs that did things like provide government assistance to people who were unemployed, whether simply for lack of work or due to age or illness. Other programs raised the minimum wage, increased the scope of Social Security, and founded the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In a lot of ways, it was like the G.I. Bill had been extended to everyone.