Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
It may seem strange that the first blog post I write on Antarctica is not about the cute penguins, or the lazy seals, or the majestic whales, or the impossibly desolate landscape with all its pale beauty. Instead I wish to write about its people.
No one lives in Antarctica save a handful of scientists in research stations. But Antarctica is a land rife with human legends. The early explorers were men cut from uncommon cloths. Men like Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, and Roald Amundsen, the contestants in the race to the South Pole in the heroic age of exploration, were remarkable individuals capable of the most romantic feats of courage, whether or not such courage was attended by wisdom.
In 1893, a 32-year-old historian, later of Harvard, presented a paper at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago. His name was Frederick Jackson Turner, and the paper was called “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” The essay turned out to be a seminal one. The “Frontier Thesis,” in which American society is thought to have been shaped by the existence of, and its confrontation with, the frontier became a key concept in the study of American history.
In 2017, the Frontier Thesis is once again full of implications.
On the one hand, Turner’s formulation of the concept of the American frontier is nothing short of racist: “the frontier is the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” The crude dichotomy of US and THEM no doubt captured the thinking of many 19th settlers uneasy about native nations just beyond the frontier. And today it seems to capture the thinking of just as high a proportion of Americans with respect to the outside world.
Now Trump has proclaimed America’s institutional press “enemy of the American people,” using that Bolshevik term that Lenin had used. He ought to say it in Russian, vrag naroda, so that his boss Vladimir can hear him clearly.
But freedom of the press is as American as apple pie. It predates even the founding of the Republic. Indeed, Mar-a-Lago’s war on the media reminds me of the first major test case of press freedom in the Thirteen Colonies, that of John Peter Zenger.
Like Donald’s grandfather Friedrich, Zenger was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States at a young age. Friedrich was 16; John Peter was 13 in 1710 when his family arrived in New York. The government of the colony of New York, in a time more welcoming to immigrants, arranged apprenticeships for all the immigrant children. So it was that teenaged Zenger found himself apprenticed to William Bradford, the first of New York’s printers. Eventually Zenger followed Bradford’s footsteps and became a printer in his own right.
The most interesting thing about The Lord of the Rings is that its chief hero, more than the great Gandalf, more than the dashing one-and-future-king Aragorn, is the diminutive hobbit Frodo, because he can hold the ring of power without being corrupted by it.
At the time of my birth, the country of my birth was a dictatorship. Martial law was in effect. Opposition political parties were illegal. And the sitting president had had the position handed to him by his generalissimo father.
So imagine how I felt hearing the news that this year’s Freedom House “Freedom in the World” report adjudged Taiwan to be freer than the United States. Taiwan, officially still the Republic of China and barely recognized by anyone internationally, scored 91/100 according to Freedom House’s methodology, while the U.S. scored 89.
We owe it in large part to one man.
I didn’t climb Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador, where I was traveling recently.
At 6,263 meters (20,548 ft), Chimborazo is proudly featured on Ecuador’s coat of arms. Besides being the highest mountain in the country, it is also the farthest point on the surface of the earth from its center. Yes, Everest is taller when measured from sea level. But Chimborazo is located on the equatorial bulge (where the centripetal force of the earth’s spinning distorts the planet into an oblate spheroid instead of a sphere), so that its summit is 2.1 kilometers farther from the center of the earth than the summit of Everest.
I didn't climb Chimborazo because I’m no serious mountaineer, not even close, and you have to be one to attempt it.
But Alexander von Humboldt tried climbing it in June 1802.
I shall complete the tetralogy on my time with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia soon enough. But because tomorrow is Inauguration Day, a.k.a. America-Becomes-a-Vassal-State Day, I interrupt the regularly scheduled programming and suggest — however tentatively as though in a late-night college dorm room discussion — new analogies for U.S.-Russian relations and for Mr. Trump.
During the Cold War a favorite comparison of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was to Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War — on the one hand, a raucous democracy prone to hubris, and on the other, a militaristic authoritarian regime. The analogy seemed so appropriate that the American service academies started teaching Thucydides to officers and cadets.
Another celebrated strain of thought (for example, in George F. Kennan’s Sources of Soviet Conduct) was to see the contest through the lens of Alexis de Tocqueville. Back in the early 19th century, in Democracy in America, de Tocqueville had declared that America and Russia “each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world,” so that they were headed toward inevitable contest. And in that contest, America “has freedom as the principal means of action,” while Russia “has servitude.” Kennan extended and revised de Tocqueville’s remarks, concluding that to prevail in the Cold War, all that the United States had to do was to “measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”
I was in Armenia in November and December, which afforded a chance to investigate my favorite mystery from Armenian history. The Mamikonian family arrived on the scene in the late-third or early-fourth century A.D., obscured by the fogs of antiquity. Edward Gibbon described a certain Mamgo who appeared “[a]mong the Armenian nobles [as] an ally” around 286 A.D., although the first Mamikonian lord of whom we have any definite knowledge was Vatche Mamikonian, active in the 330s.
Moses of Chorene, or Movses Khorenatsi, in his fifth century History of Armenia, claimed that back in the second century, two brothers named Mamik and Konak came to Armenia from China. They were half-brothers of “Chenbakir,” an emperor of the Han Dynasty. They had rebelled against their brother and, after defeat, fled to the protection of Parthia or Persia, which sent them to Armenia. The Mamikonians were descendants of Mamik.
Boxing Day marked the 236th anniversary of the birth of Mary Somerville, Scottish scientist and polymath. And it so happened that on the day before that, Christmas Day, pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin, who established the existence of dark matter, passed away without ever winning the Nobel Prize that she probably deserved. I may be a few days late, but it still seems the week to celebrate Somerville’s legacy.
As Maria Popova noted over at Brainpickings, the very word “scientist” was coined for Somerville’s sake, because the traditional phrase “man of science” was obviously inappropriate for a woman. Another phrase by which Somerville was known was “the queen of science.” When she passed away in 1872, the London Post described her as “the Queen of Nineteenth-Century Science.”
When we think of Singapore, we think of the Southeast Asian city state with its gleaming high-rises and strict laws — “no chewing gum!” is what I hear most commonly from people who have never spent time there. Even those who know a few things about Singaporean history and politics usually begin with Lee Kuan Yew, the Chinese-descended, Cambridge-educated lawyer who became the country’s first prime minister in 1959 and led it to independence.
What few outsiders know is that the island just off the coast of Malaysia also has a fascinating Jewish heritage. And before there was Lee Kuan Yew, there was David Saul Marshall.
Standing in the snow in Pripyat, the abandoned township across from the nuclear reactors in Chernobyl, I kept thinking about how apocalypses are alien to the American historical experience.
Perhaps that means Americans have less instinct for how to behave in such a scenario. And presumably this has much to do with American pop culture’s inclination to imagine destruction, whether through zombies or aliens or, representative of a different type of apocalypse, the collapse of a sociopolitical order thought to be stable, through Nazi conquest (The Man in the High Castle), which all of a sudden doesn’t seem altogether fictional.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."