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Delanceyplace.com End of Year Selections: Terrible Presidents
Today's encore selection -- from One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson. Herbert Hoover went from a spectacular career in mining to international acclaim and celebrity in a war relief effort to derision and blame for the Great Depression:
"Fortunately, America had a figure of rocklike calm -- a kind of superman, a term that he was not embarrassed to apply to himself in private correspondence -- to whom it could turn in times of crisis such as [the Mississippi flood of 1927]. His name was Herbert Hoover. Soon he would be the most derided president of his time -- quite an achievement for someone elected in the same decade as Warren G. Harding -- but in the spring of 1927 he was, and by a very wide margin, the world's most trusted man. He was also, curiously, perhaps the least likable hero America has ever produced. The summer of 1927 would make him a little more of both.
"Herbert Clark Hoover was born in 1874 thirty miles west of the Mississippi (he would be the first president from west of that symbolically weighty boundary) in the hamlet of West Branch, Iowa, in a tiny white cottage, which still stands. His parents, devout Quakers, died tragically early -- his father of rheumatic fever when little Bert was just six, his mother of typhoid fever three years later -- and he was sent to live with an uncle and aunt in Oregon. ...
"Though he never finished high school -- his uncle, disregarding his brightness, sent him to work as an office boy in Salem, Oregon, instead -- Hoover nurtured a fierce ambition to better himself. In 1891, at age seventeen, he passed the entrance examinations for the brand-new Leland Stanford Junior University (or just Stanford as we now know it), which then was a free school. As a member of Stanford's first-ever class, he studied geology and also met there his future wife, Lou Henry, who by chance was also from Iowa. (They would marry in 1899.) Upon graduating, Hoover took the only job he could find, in a gold mine in Nevada City, California, loading and pushing an ore cart ten hours a day seven days a week for 20 cents an hour -- a meager salary even then. That this was the permanent lot for his fellow miners seems never to have troubled him. Hoover was a great believer in -- and a living embodiment of -- the notion of personal responsibility.
In 1897, still in his early twenties, Hoover was hired by a large and venerable British mining company, Bewick, Moreing and Co., and for the next decade traveled the world ceaselessly as its chief engineer and troubleshooter -- to Burma, China, Australia, India, Egypt, and wherever else the company's mineralogical interests demanded. ... After a decade in the field, Hoover was brought back to London and made a partner in Bewick, Moreing. ...
"He would very probably have passed his life in wealthy anonymity but for a sudden change in circumstances that thrust him unexpectedly into the limelight. When war broke out in 1914, Hoover, as a prominent American, was called on to help evacuate other Americans stranded in Europe -- there were, remarkably, over 120,000 of them --and he performed that duty with such efficiency and distinction that he was asked to take on the much greater challenge of heading the new Commission for Relief in Belgium.
"Belgium was overwhelmed by war, its farms destroyed, its factories shut, its foodstocks seized by the Germans. Eight million Belgians were in real peril of starving. Hoover managed to find and distribute $1.8 million worth of food a week, every week, for two and a half years -- 2.5 million tons of it altogether -- and to deliver it to people who would otherwise have gone unfed. The achievement can hardly be overstated. It was the greatest relief effort ever undertaken on earth, and it made him, deservedly, an international hero. By 1917, it was reckoned that Hoover had saved more lives than any other person in history. One enthusiast called him 'the greatest humanitarian since Jesus Christ,' which of course is about as generous as a compliment can get. The label stuck. He became to the world the Great Humanitarian.
"Two things accounted for Hoover's glorious reputation: he executed his duties with tireless efficiency and dispatch, and he made sure that no one anywhere was ever unaware of his accomplishments. Myron Herrick, America's avuncular ambassador in Paris, performed similar heroic feats in occupied France without receiving any thanks from posterity, but only because he didn't seek them. Hoover by contrast was meticulous in ensuring that every positive act associated with him was inflated to maximum importance and covered with a press release."
Today's selection -- from Haunted by Leo Braudy. In James I's England, the witch became a powerful symbol of those hated forces that opposed the king. During the English Civil War, this notion persisted, with the self- described "Witchfinder General," Matthew Hopkins. He was responsible for the hanging deaths of more than 300 women between 1644 and 1646, roughly 40 percent of all witches ever executed in England:
"Maleficium, the usual Latin word for witchcraft, was what witches were accused of, literally 'doing evil,' which often included copulating with the devil, kissing his ass, and other combinations of the diabolic and the sexual that are characteristic of the charge of trafficking with demons. ...
"James I of England ... linked religious subversion with political subversion, usurpation, and the attack on monarchical divine right authority in his book Daemonologie (1597). ... In News from Scotland, published by James in 1591 and reprinted as part of Daemonologie, he details the confessions of some Danish witches that they tried to assassinate him first by poison and then by summoning up a storm to sink the ship in which he was returning to the British Isles from Denmark with his Danish born queen, Anne. ...
"James was a patron of Shakespeare's acting company, and in Macbeth the playwright pays due deference to James's views with the tale of an erstwhile political usurper who dabbles in the black arts to gain his way. That the play was probably written in the wake of the Witchcraft Act of 1604, which broadened earlier laws to include the penalty of death, as well as around the time of the thwarted Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament (1605), suggests that on this occasion (and for the rest of the century) the diabolic forces are to be identified specifically with the Catholic threat to Protestant England.
"The pressures of war, along with the paranoia about one's enemies, created a fertile ground for witch-hunting to flourish. ... In England, for example, during the civil war conflicts in the 1640s between the king and Parliament, a young man in his twenties named Matthew Hopkins, calling himself the Witchfinder General, blazed through the east of England in strongly Puritan areas, accusing supposed witches of a pact with the devil even without evidence of maleficium. By the time he died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-seven in 1647 he was responsible for hanging upward of three hundred women, according to some estimates more than the total of the previous century and a half -- around 40 percent of all the witches ever executed in England.
"In the year of his death, his Discovery of Witches was published, a book that became very influential in the New England witch trials that lasted from the late 1640s to the early 1690s [including the Salem witch trials]. ...
"The whole process [of witch hunts] resembles a kind of social pathology, a safety valve to compensate for fears of the unconventional sexuality of older, no longer fertile women who were without any defined social role and so occupied the bottom reaches of the gender hierarchy. Some of this sense of potential social upheaval lies behind the expanded usage of 'witch hunt' in the twentieth century to mean the search for any who criticize established authority."
Haunted: On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Worlds
Author: Leo Braudy
Publisher: Yale University Press
Copyright 2016 by Leo Braudy
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Today's selection -- from
Rome: The Biography of a City by Christopher Hibbert.
After Rome fell to the barbarians in 476 CE, it went from a city of more than a million people to only a few hundred thousand -- still large by the standards of the middle ages but nowhere near its former glory -- and at its lowest point, as few as 20,000 people. Through this period, Rome was sustained because it was the seat of the pope, and it had all the Church's landholdings and power to collect offerings and sell offices. Places like Florence, Venice and Milan became the important population and economic centers on the Italian peninsula during these centuries. It wasn't until Italy was united as a single country under Vittorio Emmanuel in the 1860s with Rome as its capital that Rome again grew to become one of Europe's largest cities. Perhaps the lowest moment in Rome's history came in 1527 CE, when Pope Clement VII, pursuant to an unsuccessful attempt to limit the power of Charles V (who soon became Holy Roman Emperor), was invaded by his troops, and those troops, after defeating the pope's forces, mercilessly sacked Rome in months of unbridled horror. It was the era of England's King Henry VIII, Martin Luther and Michelangelo. Rome was forever changed:
"Rome was ... at the mercy of the [victorious] imperialist troops. Gian d'Urbina, the cruel and arrogant commander of the Spanish infantry, infuriated by a pike wound in the face inflicted by a Swiss Guard, rampaged through the Borgo, followed by his men, killing everyone they came across. 'All were cut to pieces, even if unarmed,' wrote an eyewitness, 'even in those places that Attila and Genseric, although the most cruel of men, had in former times treated with religious respect.' The Hospital of S. Spirito was broken into, and nearly all those who were cared for there were slaughtered or thrown into the Tiber alive. The orphans of the Pieta were also killed. Convicts from the prisons were set free to join in the massacre, mutilation and pillage.
"The imperialists stormed over the Ponte Sisto and continued their savagery in the heart of the city. The doors of churches and convenes, of palaces, monasteries and workshops were smashed open and the contents hurled into the streets. Tombs were broken open, including that of Julius II, and the corpses stripped of jewels and vestments. ...
"Men were tortured to reveal the hiding-places of their possessions or to pay ransoms for the sparing of their lives, one merchant being tied to a tree and having a fingernail wrenched out each day because he could not pay the money demanded.
Many were suspended for hours by the arms [wrote Francesco Guicciardini's brother, Luigi]; many were cruelly bound by the genitals; many were suspended by the feet high above the road or over the river, while their tormentors threatened to cut the cord. Some were half buried in the cellars; others were nailed up in casks or villainously beaten and wounded; not a few were branded all over their persons with red-hot irons. Some were tortured by extreme thirst, others by insupportable noise and many were cruelly tortured by having their teeth brutally drawn. Others again were forced to eat their own ears, or nose, or their roasted testicles and yet more were subjected to strange, unheard-of martyrdoms that move me too much even to think of, much less describe. ...
"Those who professed to support the imperial cause suffered with the rest, and none was safe from capture and demands for ransom. ... Over two thousand people, more than half of them women, who had been given refuge in the Palazzo dei SS. Apostoli, were made to pay ransom. Most officers had little authority over their men and stood by helpless when they did not condone, encourage or even participate in the atrocities: one German commander boasted his intention of eviscerating the Pope once he had laid his hands on him.
"Some priests were, indeed, eviscerated. Others were stripped naked and forced to utter blasphemies on pain of death or to take part in profane travesties of the Mass. One priest was murdered by Lutherans when he refused to administer Holy Communion to an ass. Cardinal Cajetan was dragged through the streets in chains, insulted and tortured; Cardinal Ponzetti, who was over eighty years old, shared his sufferings and, having parted with 20,000 ducats, died from the injuries inflicted upon him. Nuns, like other women, were violated, sold in the streets at auction and used as counters in games of chance. Mothers and fathers were forced to watch and even to assist at the multiple rape of their daughters. Convents became brothels into which women of the upper classes were dragged and stripped. 'Marchionesses, countesses and baronesses,' wrote the Sieur de Brantôme, 'served the unruly troops, and for long afterwards the patrician women of the city were known as "the relics of the Sack of Rome".' "
Today's selection -- from Chiang Kai-Shek by Jonathan Fenby. In 1947, it looked certain that Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists would triumph over Mao Zedong and the Communists in the battle for China, but mismanagement of the economy and crippling hyperinflation destroyed his chances:
"On 7 August 1947, Chiang Kai-shek flew over the loess country of northern Shaanxi to the town [of Yan'an] where Mao had found his haven at the end of the [now legendary] Long March. The Generalissimo walked briskly through Yan'an, accompanied by a triumphant group of generals led by General Hu Zongnan, the 'Eagle of the North-West' who had ring-fenced the base area during the war with Japan.
"[Hu] had taken Yan'an without a fight -- the Communist leadership had already trekked out. The place was of no importance in itself, and the bleak countryside of northern Shaanxi offered no benefits for the Nationalists. But that meant little beside the symbolism of having forced Mao and his colleagues to flee once more, the Communist leader on a horse while his troops marched round him. Chiang went to see Mao's house and the long tunnel connecting it to Zhu De's headquarters as Nationalist photographers took snaps of poppies and the 'Local Product Company' building to show that the Communists had been dealing in opium.
"A combination of huge forces, American supplies and transport, plus some good generalship in the north had put Chiang in what looked like an unassailable position in the first eighteen months after the end of the war with Japan. Mercenary armies came back under the Nationalist flag. He had the active support of the China Lobby in the United States, combining politicians in Washington, a network of businessmen round T. V. Soong and H. H. Kung, and the influence of [Time magazine and the other Henry] Luce magazines. The Republican, Thomas Dewey, seemed well placed to beat Truman in the 1948 presidential election -- after a visit to America, Chen Lifu told a Shanghai newspaper that this would mean 'extraordinary measures' to send military aid to China. But, as so often, Chiang's position was more hollow than it appeared. By the time he walked through Yan'an, his military fortunes had peaked, and the disintegration of areas under Nationalist control was racing ahead.
"Hyperinflation was destroying the middle classes and honest officials; wholesale prices in Shanghai rose by 45 per cent in a single month. The mother of the author of Wild Swans, Jung Chang, had to hire a rickshaw to carry the huge pile of notes needed to pay her school fees in the Manchurian city of Jinzhou where beggars tried to sell their children for food. Labour unrest grew -- there were 4,200 strikes in Shanghai in 1946-47. In some universities, police agents masquerading as students patrolled the campuses with guns under their gowns searching for subversives. In [Beijing], troops fired on a protest by 3,000 students, killing several. In Kunming, five dissidents were shot by police, and more than 1,000 were held in a jail, pulled out of the cells at midnight to kneel in the gravel yard while soldiers waved bayonets at them and told them to confess to being Communists -- the American journalist Jack Belden added that more than thirty were buried alive. The protests were encouraged by the Communists, but were, above all, a sign of war-weariness and alienation from a regime that had nothing more to offer.
"Not that support for the Communists was as widespread and automatic as subsequent propaganda would assert. The party demonstrated great skill in organising the peasantry, but its revolution was often imposed rather than being the result of spontaneous popular uprising."
Chiang Kai-Shek: China's Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost
Author: Jonathan Fenby
Publisher: Carroll & Graf Publishers
Copyright 2003 by Jonathan Fenby
Today's selection -- from Aurangzeb by Audrey Truschke. For as long as there have been governments, there have been attempts to curb the use of alcohol and other drugs by the masses. They have invariably failed. Aurangzeb, who presided over the greatest territorial expansion of the Mughal empire in India, was one of those who tried:
"Aurangzeb's attempt to reduce the consumption of alcohol across his empire was one of the more spectacular policy failures of his reign. Alcohol was widely condemned as un-Islamic, and Mughal kings had long been lauded across religious lines for encouraging temperance. For example, the Jain monk Shanticandra wrote around 1590 about how Akbar 'banned liquor, which ought to be universally reviled.' Jahangir also claimed to have proscribed alcohol (despite being a prolific drinker himself). The repeated appearance of this ban signals that it was ineffective.
"While he personally declined to consume alcohol, Aurangzeb knew that few of his imperial officers followed his example. Niccoli Manucci --unleashing his characteristic weakness for gossip and exaggeration -- wrote that Aurangzeb once exclaimed in exasperation that only two men in all of Hindustan did not drink: himself and his head qazi, Abdul Wahhab. Manucci, however, divulged to his readers: 'But with respect to 'Abd-ul-wahhab [Aurangzeb] was in error, for I myself sent him every day a bottle of spirits (vino), which he drank in secret, so that the king could not find it out.'
"Aurangzeb's other attempts at censorship, such as curbing the production and use of opium, met with similarly dismal results."
Author: Audrey Truschke
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Copyright 2017 by Audrey Truschke
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