Archive for November, 2007
The two most famous figures associated with the struggle for Indian Independence are undoubtedly Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. However, many others shared the work, and their contribution were crucial even if their names are less well-known. Among these unsung figures is B.R. Ambedkar, father of the Indian constitution.
The Indian constitution is a remarkable document, codifying the founding principles of the world’s largest democracy. In many respects it mirrors the American constitution that it owes so much to, but in others it is an altogether unique document. One of the most unique features of the Indian constitution has to do with a peculiarly Indian issue, the issue of caste.
Ambedkar himself was born into the lowest caste in Hinduism: the “Parjanya” or “untouchables.” According to Hindu tradition, such people are outcasts, condemned to perform nothing but menial work. Ambedkar refused to accept this fate for himself, and single-mindedly pursued his education. He attended the University of Bombay; earned a scholarship to study political science at Columbia University in New York, and studied law at the London School of Economics.
When he finally returned to India he applied Gandhi’s principles of “satyagraha” (or “nonviolent resistance”) to the struggle for the rights of untouchables. “His first victory was to give untouchables in his hometown of Mahad the right to use the main water tank in their town. His culminating victory would be much greater. After India gained independence on August 15, 1947, Ambedkar was appointed its first law minister and the chairman of its Constitution Drafting Committee. Article 17 of that Constitution reads as follows: “‘Untouchability’ is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of ‘Untouchability’ shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.” Though the notion of untouchability may not have entirely disappeared from Indian society, thanks to Ambedkar it has been banished from her laws.
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The Battle of Midway, fought in early June of 1942, was a turning point in the Pacific War. Seven months prior, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese Imperial Army attacked the American naval base in Pearl Harbor. This is the moment that launched the war between the United States and Japan, and Midway was the moment that turned the conflict in America’s favor. However, like the infamous conclusion of the Pacific War – the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the beginning of the war is controversial. Did Japan attack the United States unprovoked, or did FDR press them into attacking?
This issue has been debated for half a century now, but one of the most fascinating exchanges on the subject took place in November and December of 2000 in the letters pages of the Times Literary Supplement. Arguing that FDR provoked the attack was Gore Vidal, novelist, provocateur, T.V. icon, and one of the greatest English-language essayists alive. Arguing that Japan acted unilaterally was Clive James, novelist, provocateur, T.V. icon, and one of the greatest English-language essayists alive. This was going to be an interesting debate.
Vidal’s argument is that FDR was anxious to go to war against Nazi Germany, but couldn’t do so with the entire electorate against him. (After the horrible losses of World War I only two decades earlier, nobody was eager to enter another European war.) The only thing that could draw the US into war was an attack by an Axis Power (Germany, Italy or Japan): if one of the Axis powers attacked the United States, the others would be obliged by the treaty among them to join in that conflict. In other words, an attack by Japan would force a war with Germany. As his primary bit of evidence that FDR was trying to provoke the Japanese, Vidal cites a November 26, 1941 telegram in which the U.S. president issued an ultimatum to the Japanese government: withdraw from China and renounce the pact with the Axis powers, or the United States would continue its oil embargo of Japan. This, Vidal concludes, gave Imperial Japan no option but war. Furthermore, FDR knew exactly what he was doing.
James’ response was thorough and devastating. In his formulation, “Japan was provoked into war by the Japanese Army.” FDR did not demand that Japan withdraw from China; he demanded that Japan withdraw from French Indo-China (today’s Vietnam) which they had invaded the year before in order to block all imports into China. In return, FDR offered to stop interfering in Asian affairs altogether. Furthermore, the Axis powers were obliged to enter into war on each other’s behalf if they were attacked first. If Japan attacked the US unprovoked, Germany and Italy would have no obligation to attack. In fact, Japan did not support Germany against the USSR after Hitler invaded that country during “Operation Barbarossa” in June 1941.
James had a reason to be passionate on this point: a native Australian, he lost his father in the war, and was well aware throughout his childhood that Imperial Japan had its sights set on his home as well. He had another reason as well: Clive James regarded Vidal as one of his greatest influences, and was horrified to see his mentor fall so low. As it happened, Vidal had lower to go yet. A year after the exchange between Vidal and James, the United States was attacked again: on September 11, 2001, in Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., and New York City. Once again, Vidal was there to claim that the U.S. government saw it coming all along.
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Vincent van Gogh, Still Life with Absinthe
In an earlier post about “Edgar Degas and The Green Fairy” The Devoted Intellectual pointed out that absinthe, the famed 19th-century liquor, has been illegal in Europe and the United States since the early-20th century. A shame too, because the science on which the laws was based turned out to be completely bogus. Well, the regulators finally noticed. In a detailed report for the New Yorker magazine in 2006, Jack Turner mentioned an important, (if unsurprising), fact. “Thujone,” the neurotoxin supposedly found in absinthe, did not show up in tests of old bottles. As many had suspected for years, absinthe wasn’t poison.
Since that research became more and more well known, the regulatory picture has changed. Absinthe made according to these old (thujone-free) recipes, is starting to enter the US market legally. Currently, there are two brands available: Lucid (from France) and Kübler (from Switzerland). No doubt, many more options will follow.
For a recent report from somebody who’s tried the new absinthe brands, click here.
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A new edition of The Intellectual Devotional, this time with a focus on American History, is now available in stores. (Click here to order your copy.) As well as continuing to expand on posts from the General Edition, “The Devoted Intellect” blog will introduce and expand on material from the American History devotional. Today’s entry on “Monticello” draws from the new book’s “Art” section.
The extent of Thomas Jefferson’s achievements is hard to fathom: author of the Declaration of Independence, President of the United States, pioneering American wine connoisseur, archaeologist, linguist, and architect. His most famous buildings are his Virginia estate Monticello, the central campus of the University of Virginia, and the Virginia state capital building. And in his final years he began work on a new home: Poplar Forest.
The most important influence on Jefferson’s buildings was the 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. “Palladian” architecture is marked by strict fidelity to geometric forms, something notable in all of Jefferson’s buildings, especially Monticello and The Rotunda on the University of Virginia campus. Poplar Forest is an octagon with a 20-foot cube in the center. Despite its odd shape, it’s a remarkably livable home.
Because it was not one of Jefferson’s most famous buildings, Poplar Forest was neglected for many years. Beginning in 1986, however, the estate has been under restoration. The inner structure was completed in 2001, and the second phase of restoration is scheduled to end next year. Though it still isn’t complete, Poplar Forest is open to the public. To plan a trip, click here.
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A new edition of The Intellectual Devotional, this time with a focus on American History, is now available in stores. (Click here to order your copy.) As well as continuing to expand on posts from the General Edition, “The Devoted Intellect” blog will introduce and expand on material from the American History devotional. Today’s entry on “The Pequot War” draws from the new book’s “War & Peace” section.
The Pequot War of the late 1630′s began the long process of marginalizing Native Americans in North America. Thousands were killed, those who survived were sold into slavery, and the tribe itself was officially disbanded by the Connecticut government. In 1675, King Philip’s War continued this process, and it went on unabated until Andrew Jackson forced the Cherokee to travel the “Trail of Tears” in 1838. Eventually, Native Americans were given sovereignty outside of Federal jurisdiction in tiny enclaves. In 1987, this led to a curious unintended consequence.
One of the most highly regulated industries in the United States is gambling: many states forbid it outright, and others allow it only under strict supervision and in return for extremely high tax rates. But in the 1987 case California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians the Supreme Court ruled that state regulation of Native American gambling unlawfully impinged on the sovereignty of tribal reservations. Because of their unique status, Native Americans were free to operate casinos.
This case was no mere footnote, either. The descendants of those few Pequot Indians who survived the 1636-8 war expanded Foxwoods from a small bingo hall to the world’s largest casino. The state of Connecticut collects 25% of the casino’s revenues, and in 2006 that was over $200 million. After a tragic centuries-long history, the marginalization of Native Americans spawned one of the biggest businesses in America.
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