Monday, July 31, 2006

July 31

Free-market mystic Milton Friedman, guru of Thatcherism and Reaganism and all of its assorted ills, turns 94 today. Although Friedman is often cited as a "Nobel Prize winner," there is in fact no such thing for economists. Friedman is actually the recipient of a quite distinct honor, the Bank of Sweden Prize in Memory of Alfred Nobel -- an award that is something of an employee-of-the-month trophy for monetarists. Although Friedman claimed some years ago that "my central theme in public advocacy has been the promotion of human freedom," his economic theories led him to support some of the most brutal economic and social transformations of the late 20th century. In particular, Friedman's "neoliberal" perspectives were adopted by the Chilean military junta that overthrew the democratically-elected Salvador Allende in 1973. While Friedman claimed not to have endorsed the coup or Augusto Pinochet's subsequent and abominable rule, in 1975 he made a pilgrimage to Chile and delivered a series of lectures endorsing precisely the sorts of economic "reforms" that Pinochet's Friedmanesque advisers -- the so-called "Chicago Boys" -- had undertaken, including the abolition of the minimum wage, the suspension of labor union rights, the privatization of the state pension system and its industrial base (with the exception of the copper mines, which funded the regime's grotesque military apparatus). Chile's economic fate under the Pinochet, described by Friedman as "miraculous," was catastrophic from 1973 through the mid-1980s, as the national debt soared, income disparities widened, industrial growth slowed to a crawl, and unemployment reached as high as 43%. Meantime, spending on health care crumbled, as cases of hepatitis, diabetes and typhus rippled across the country. Santiago assumed an ignominious position as one of the most polluted cities in the world, as the free market evidently demanded it must.

In May 2002, President George W. Bush honored Milton Friedman at a brief ceremony in the Eisenhower Office Building, where the aged economist was toasted for using "a brilliant mind to advance a moral vision: the vision of a society where men and women are free, free to choose, but where government is not as free to override their decisions." The president then cited Chile and the "Chicago Boys" as exemplars of Friedman's ideas at work in the world.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

July 30

Unruly religious fanatics killed seven members of the Prague city council on this date in 1419. Led through the streets of the city by a priest named Jan Zelivsky, the mob consisted of Hussites, followers of the former priest and University of Prague rector Jan Hus, a heretic whom the Catholic Church had excommunicated in 1410 and burnt at the stake in 1415. Hussites offered the usual litany of complaints against the Church, howling madly against its political hierarchy and impenetrable rituals, condemning its many errors -- particularly those pertaining to the Eucharist. On 30 July 1419, the assembled Hussites demanded the release of several prisoners who had been arrested during similar disturbances a few days before. When the councilmen refused, a 59-year-old one-eyed Hussite militiaman named Jan Zizka ordered the crowd to storm the building. At Zizka's urging, the seven councilors were then defenestrated -- tossed from the windows of the New Town Hall -- on to the spears of the Hussite faithful, who finished the job by dismembering the corpses as Zelivsky called upon the Lord to fill the Hussites with holy fury.

The Prague city council enjoyed its revenge in March 1422, however, when Zelivsky was arrested and decapitated. Zizka himself would become one of the great heroes of Czech history, dying in 1424 during the Hussite Wars. As he lay ill, felled by the plague, the by-now completely blind Zizka asked that his skin be turned into a drum so that he might continue to lead his men into battle even after his death.

Zizka's likeness sits today upon the largest horse statue in the world, a 27-foot monstrosity located on Viktov Hill in Prague.

Friday, July 28, 2006

July 28

The Great Depression descended into state-sponsored violence on this date in 1932, as President Herbert Hoover oversaw the eviction of the Bonus Expeditionary Force (popularly known as the "Bonus Army") from its shantytown on the swampy flats of the Anacostia River, just southeast of the federal core in Washington, DC. The marchers, consisting of 15-20,000 Great War veterans and their families, had come to the nation's capital in June to ask for early payment of certificates worth roughly $1.00 for each day served during the war. The certificates were set to mature in 1945, but the Bonus marchers asked Congress to release the funds more than a decade early, when the veterans needed them most. Although the House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill to grant the veterans their wishes, the Senate defeated a similar measure by an overwhelming margin of 62-18. (The whole legislative drama was irrelevant, as Hoover most certainly would have vetoed any bill that made its way through Congress.) By this point, the BEF had set up a temporary camp on the Capitol grounds, and a number of demonstrators had occupied federal buildings that had been vacated for the hottest part of the summer.

On July 28, Herbert Hoover ordered his attorney general to remove all demonstrators from federal property. Although Hoover evidently did not want the Anacostia Flats encampment to be cleared, Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur, believed that communists were responsible for the demonstrations and that "the [bonus] movement was actually far deeper and more dangerous than an effort to secure funds from a nearly depleted federal treasury." Pursuing the war veterans across the river, MacArthur's infantry and cavalry units (including six tanks) trashed the Bonus encampment, scattering the marchers with fixed bayonets and tear gas, asphyxiating two infants. Hundreds of others were injured, and two veterants were shot.

Time magazine reported on one of the deaths:
When war came in 1917 William Hushka, 22-year-old Lithuanian, sold his St. Louis butcher shop, gave the proceeds to his wife, joined the Army... Last week William Hushka's Bonus for $528 suddenly became payable in full when a police bullet drilled him dead in the worst public disorder the capital has known in years.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

July 27

Dennis Rader, the infamous BTK serial killer, experienced the joy of fatherhood for the first time on July 27, 1975, having already killed two of his ten victims during the previous 18 months. Rader's son, Brian Howard Rader, is equally misfortuned to have shared his day of birth with Alex "Slappy" Rodriguez, one of the most corrosive and unlikable figures in contemporary professional sports -- a man whose only redeeming feature is to have brought a curse upon the Yankees since his acquisition in 2004. Fuck you, A-Rod, you overpaid hack.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

July 26

The Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros I was undone in a most poetic manner on this date in 811 by his nemesis Krum, khan of Bulgaria. Endeavoring to secure the empire’s embattled northern border, Nikephoros had led a massive July campaign into the Balkans, defeating Krum at Moesia and Pliska, the Bulgarian capital. After sacking Pliska and setting it ablaze, Nikephoros I -- unsatisfied with his conquest and refusing Krum’s several offers to negotiate -- regathered his army and marched onward toward Serdica, where he presumably expected more of the same. Pestered along the way by Bulgarian ambushes, however, the Byzantines fell into disarray and soon began a slow retreat through the mountains toward Thrace. On July 26, Nikephoros and his army were destroyed at the Varbica pass, where a massive wooden barricade had been constructed to prevent their further advance. The Emperor was killed along with untold numbers of Byzantine soldiers, many of whom drowned while attempting to flee across a nearby river. Legend suggests that Krum -- wishing to savor the sweet nectar of victory for years to come -- boiled Nikephoros’ skull and lined it with silver, creating a handy and most fearsome wine goblet.

Krum’s efforts would most certainly have delighted Ed Gein, whose Plainfield, Wisconsin home was searched in November 1957 by horrified police, who discovered therein a necklace of human lips, clothing and lampshades composed of tanned human skins, and skulls that had been converted into bedposts and soup bowls. After nearly thirty years of confinement at various Wisconsin hospitals, Gein died of respiratory failure on this date in 1984.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

July 25

On this date in 1969, Edward Kennedy appeared on national television to explain why he had left the scene of an accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne a week before. He was not, the senator insisted, drunk when his car toppled upside down into a pond.

Earlier that day, President Richard Nixon spoke informally to a group of reporters in Guam and outlined a set of skeletal priorities that would soon come to be known as the “Nixon Doctrine.” Elaborating on his stated goal of “Vietnamizing” the disastrous war in Southeast Asia, Nixon insisted that while the United States could not afford to withdraw from the Pacific Rim entirely, “regional pride” and nationalism among American allies would require a more careful approach to foreign policy:

Asians will say in every country that we visit that they do not want to be dictated to from the outside, Asia for the Asians. And that is what we want, and that is the role we should play. We should assist, but we should not dictate.

. . . [As] far as our role is concerned, we must avoid that kind of policy that will make countries in Asia so dependent upon us that we are dragged into conflicts such as the one that we have in Vietnam.

The United States, Nixon explained, would assist its friends in waging war against “internal subversion” but would not “fight the war for them.” In applying the Nixon Doctrine to the American war in Vietnam, the president did so with his characteristic illegality and viciousness. Over the next four years, as the US gradually withdrew ground troops, Nixon escalated the catastrophic air war while expanding it into Cambodia and Laos; he ordered the mining of North Vietnamese harbors and considered bombing its dams; and he presided over the entombment of 20,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Asians, whose deaths forestalled -- for six years at most -- the reunification and Communist takeover of Vietnam.

Meantime, as the forces of “internal subversion” imperiled the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf region, the Nixon Doctrine supplied the rationale for extending billions of dollars in military hardware and training to the House of Saud and the Shah of Iran, whose nations -- gurgling with petrodollars -- were expected to remain obedient, iron-fisted regional proxies for decades to come.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Long Time, No See


I've been thinking about dropping back in for a long time now, but a conspiracy of factors (joined by my own chronic procrastination) have delayed that moment for about two months. For starters, I'm quite surprised to report that parenthood has sapped a tremendous amount of free time that used to be spent reading the news, noodling aimlessly through my blogroll, and trying to maintain this blog's altitude of 100 hits a day. Evidently, sustaining a helpless infant requires a bloody lot of labor. Who knew? And why did no one ever share with me this vital morsel of information as I was squandering my last few moments of unfettered, child-free existence?

I kid, of course. In all honesty, parenthood has offered me more autonomy (and sleep) than I expected. That being said, I can't imagine a point at which I'll have the time or the inclination to work on this blog regularly again. I have no intention of retooling my efforts and becoming a "Daddy Blogger," as I have nothing profound to say about fatherhood and nothing original to note about, say, the jet-stream of material that flows from my child's every orifice. I'm also disinclined to resume my traditional, random bitching and moaning.

Alas, however, I've decided not to euthanize the Axis just yet. For the time being, I'm going to try and continue with the "awful day in history" posts that preceded the baby's arrival in April. I got more pleasure out of writing those entries than anything else I had done in months -- so rather than quit the blogosphere entirely, I'm going to if I can work this gimmick for a few more weeks. It may produce the same effect as Spinal Tap's decision to remake itself as a jazz fusion trio, but we'll have to wait and see.