Wednesday, October 28, 2009

History doesn’t repeat itself.

Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” There is truth in that statement. Many times those who are not students of history will say just the opposite. That somehow history will repeat itself if given enough time, say1000 years, and another Hitler or Stalin would arise or another Genghis Kahn would destroy those powers around him or that eventually a Golden Hoard will cover all of Asia and Eastern Europe. Nothing could be further from the truth. The chance of another Civil War occurring in the United States over slavery and state’s rights is almost impossible and going to war with the Canadians as in the War of 1812 is not even practical. However it’s not just the part of the quote “history doesn’t repeat itself…” that is true, but the second part “…it does rhyme” is also applicable. Similar circumstances will bring about similar results. Although Tyrannies were popular from around 650 BCE to 500 BCE in ancient Greece they were never resurrected there and were only used in limited ways in other times.1 In modern times Bonapartism, which is similar to Tyrannies, has many of the same characteristics, such as coming to power as a populist, but it is still not quite the same. Think of it in terms used in the fashion world. In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a fad called bell-bottoms. Today there is something similar called flares. Not exactly the same thing but very similar. Another fashion fad would be the hip-huggers of the 1970s and low-rise jeans that are popular today. The clothes are very similar but not quite the same. As I’ve said, the same sort of thing happens in history.

An example of this loosely speaking “rhyme” in history is the rise and fall of international-states and super-powers. All empires, régimes, dynasties, republics, dictatorships, or commonwealths have a beginning, a period of ascendancy, a period of apogee, and then a period of decline until the entity no longer is powerful or doesn’t exist.2 We find this throughout history from ancient times to today and can pick any time period and find an international-state that has gone through this cycle. Some of the rise and falls are short and rather easy to discern. The German Empire of 1871 to 1918 would be a good example of this. The empire was formed through victories at war and the skillfulness of the Minister President of Prussia and eventually Imperial Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. The German Empire at the time had the leading military in Europe, and was an industrialized nation with natural resources and a growing economy. However, by 1918 the empire was finished because of internal and external forces. Of course the war and the armistice left Germany crippled internationally and militarily with a huge debt. But the internal problems were just as difficult. Germany had a population that was starving because of poor harvests and blockades by the victors that lasted until July 1919. Additionally, the economy was faltering with runaway inflation and the paper currency being devalued.3

Those international-states/empires that have had longer life, at least a couple of centuries, show similar problems. A good example of this is the Ottoman Empire that lasted 624 years. From its infant beginnings in 1299 the Ottoman Empire grew to be one of the largest and most powerful empires in Asia Minor. At one point it contained most of North Africa, Palestine and the rest of the Middle East and a large portion of what was the Persia Empire. It contained all of Anatolia and a large portion of what is known as Romalia reaching up though to Transylvania and Moldavia. Yet by 1923 it was gone. All that was left of the once great Ottoman Empire was the rump state of Turkey, the heart of the empire.

Certainly there were external forces that caused the demise of the Ottoman Empire. The warfare that periodically occurred over the centuries had positive and negative effects on the empire. Certainly in its early years the Ottomans used wars to expand borders through gaining territory in all directions. The 1700s and 1800s were centuries of stagnation and the beginnings of decline. Even though the Ottoman Empire was on the winning side of the Crimean War, it was only because the French and British couldn’t agree on how to beat Russian and divide the empire so they decided to support it. Two wars that certainly affected the empire were the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and World War I. After this the decline was irreversible.

Internally we find there were five major reasons the state declined. First, there was poor leadership. For a period of time the empire had a preponderance of leaders that had little experience and in some cases little ability. Second, the government was marked by bribery, cronyism, nepotism, and positions in government for sale to the highest bidder. This corruption was found in the provincial governments too with greater taxes placed upon the populace. There were also frequent shifts in judicial officials. Third, the military suffered major changes internally. Instead of the onetime handpicked force, the military became augmented with troops of limited ability. This included the use of mercenaries when necessary. Forth, the Imperial economy was suffering. There was severe inflation, the currency was debased and this bred corruption. On top of this there was a negative trade balance with cheaper goods being imported. Finally, there was an intellectual decline.4 This pattern is typical of most major empires/regimes/superpowers from the Assyrians, to Rome, to the Holy Roman Empire and to Bonaparte’s French Empire.

When looking at the United States we see some of the same patterns. I’m not suggesting the US needs to worry about Armageddon being around the corner or that society is slipping into chaos, but we need to remember the rhyme of history.

The external factors can at times be thrust upon us but the US needs to be mindful of entanglements. Of the 1,379,551 soldiers on active duty approximately 27% are around the world in 150 different countries. Large portions of those soldiers are on a war footing in Iraq, Iran, Korea, and even in the Balkans. Additionally, the government is using private military companies and security contractors to perform historically military duties. The US government likes to call companies such as Dyncorp, Titan Corporation, and Blackwater USA private contractors but in reality they are mercenaries. They are hired guns to work for the government in any capacity the government deems necessary. This pattern found in the military is actually an internal factor that is typical in the period of decline for many nations.5

Other internal factors that need to be recognized include executive leadership, corruption in government, the economy and the need for a society to be supportive of higher education. When reviewing these factors in the US today we see problems. Although the executive leadership of the country is stable there seems to be a great deal of legal and illegal corruption in congress. Both houses appear to be overly affected by lobbyists and periodically caught in a scam of one sort or another. Presently we are told the economy gives the impression of rebounding on “Wall St.” but not on “Main St.” Until the middle class recovers and the poor have a safety net little really can occur. The problem with the economy is that it affects higher education also. With loans hard to get many in the middle class will not be able to continue their education. A persistent lack of support for higher education will eventually have an adverse’ effect on society. As Twain said, “history doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme,” even for the United States.

1 Ernest R. Rugenstein, Ph.D., “The Rise of Greek Civilization,” (lecture, World Civilization and the World 1, Hudson Valley Community College, Troy, NY, September 29, 2009).
2 Ibid.
3 Ernest R. Rugenstein, Ph.D., “The Paris Peace Conference and Peace Treaties,” (lecture, World Civilization and the World 1, Hudson Valley Community College, Troy, NY, April 28, 2009).
4 Richard L. Chambers, The Ottoman Empire., 2007. Accessed October 16, 2009.
5 Active Duty Military Personnel Strengths by Regional Area and by Country. Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2007, 309A.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Cultural Look at Indentured Servitude and Student Loans.

In the latter half of the 17th century over 10,000 indentured servants were contracted for destinations that included the colonies and the Caribbean. They came from throughout England with occupations ranging from barbers and brewers to cabinetmakers, boat builders, gunsmiths, and plowboys.[1] Around two-thirds of the emigrating population was shipped to the colonies. This created some colonies with up to 75% of the population indentured.[2] Being under contract meant that the servant agreed to work for usually 7 to 8 years to cover the voyage to the new location. Any additional pay, as such, would be scant and included only room and board. Those who needed it would receive a minimum of training.[3] Although the work was hard the system worked rather well in the early colonial period. However, when large farms and plantations started being viable the system became similar to serfdom.

When investigating indentured servitude more closely we find a group of people who were willing to take a chance to better themselves. These were people who were willing to leave their comfort zone and yet were not only taken advantage of but were treated at times as little more than intelligent animals. True they were brought to their destination as promised and it was no secret that they would have to work the expenses off, pay back the lender as it were. But their treatment, their quality of life, was horrendous. Richard Frethorne wrote to his parents in 1623 and told them of his experiences as an indentured servant. He complained of eating nothing but peas and water gruel on board ship. After arriving he found all he received to eat after a long day of work was a mouthful of bread and water gruel. Meat was almost non-existent and the little they did see they were not allowed to hunt. Frethorne relates that he ate more in a day back home in England than in a week where he was living. In the letter he writes that another person had stolen his coat and all he had were some clothes that were little better then rags and a pair of shoes.[4] As for the others that were with Frethorne, he said any of them would willing give a literal arm or leg to get back to England. Living disabled was worth the price of getting out of their predicament. The work was hard and had none of the modern contrivances of breaks and a lunch hour.[5]

How did it all end? What was the catalyst for change? Bacon’s Rebellion. In Tidewater Virginia large plantations had sprung up on the large expanse of good farmland. These plantations were controlled by an almost aristocratic class and farmed by indentured servants. The problem that eventually surfaced was that no land was available for indentured servants who had paid off their contract, the freeman. In some cases they became worse off than as an indentured servant. Their only option was to move west into Indian Territory. Naturally this did not go over well with the Native Americans in the area and they, as would be expected, evicted the new comers. Killings between the Natives, and the freeman and plantation owners became more prevalent.[6]

Nathaniel Bacon, cousin of the Governor of Virginia by marriage, arrived from England in 1674 and acquired a plantation. After one of his servants was killed by an Indian 1676 he became an Indian fighter and did not discriminate between friendly tribes and violent tribes. After being rebuffed by the Colonial Assembly, Bacon took it upon himself, on July 30, 1676, to unilaterally present the "Declaration of the People” that proclaimed him leader of a provincial band of men who consisted of indentured servants, freemen, and slaves. They attacked plantations and battled Indians for land. Bacon died in October and British troops arrived and brought back order.[7]

The outcome was that Virginia began an expansion policy to gain land for freemen and to accelerate the eradication of Native presence in the west. It also accelerated the implementation of slavery in the plantation system and the codification of chattel laws. It was decided by the plantation owners that slaves were less trouble and in the long run cheaper than the freeman and indentured servant system. The slaves would still work off their transportation cost and then be kept on to make a profit off them.[8]

When I teach I always try to relate an historical situation using a modern example. Naturally all illustrations break down somewhere. So, as I was thinking about this I could see some similarities between this situation and the student loan problems that have become so prevalent since the financial crisis hit.

As in any contract the parties are bound by the agreement. In the case of student loans the financial institution agreed to give the student a certain amount of money to achieve a college education. The amounts vary but it is not impossible to have over $200K in student loans by the time you reach your desired field. In the 1960s & 1970s, a four-year degree from a state school was around $20,000. Students were able, upon graduation, to go out and obtain a fairly good job. Over time they would pay off their student loans. However, this began to change. Schools began to raise their tuition. Of course part of this was daily inflation that had to be contended with and infrastructure repair. But as the tuition went up so did the amount of money loaned out. Included in this scenario is the enticement to get an education and not to worry about the cost. It was possible to borrow $20K to $40K a semester through federal and private loans every year to pay for school. Lenders would ask you if you were borrowing enough.

The system worked well for quite some time. True there was the occasional person who flunked out of school or could not get a job and go into default just as some indentured servants would have a difficult time. However, we begin to see some similarities here with indentured servitude. Just as the servant would acquire funds to get across the ocean the student acquires loans to get through college.

After a period of time with so many in school and most getting at least a bachelor’s degree employers started demanding a B.A. or B.S. for a job. When a minor recession hit or your field seemed to be full, jobs would become scarce. There was still the need to repay the loan. The only solution for some was to go back to school. School would incur more loans but it would post-pone payment until the student was finished. The idea was that eventually the job market would open back up and then those with a master’s degree would have a leg up. This worked at times. In some fields students finished their doctorates and terminated academically hoping that this would increase their chances of getting a position somewhere. Unfortunately the same situation started to occur that we find with the abundance of freeman in the late 1600s. The lack of jobs and the abundance of graduates brought increasing numbers of defaults on loans.

When the financial crisis hit in 2008-2009 schools were churning out graduates in fields that were becoming overloaded. The financial institutions clamped down on loans and many students were caught, unable to get loans. Students were left with only 6 months to find financing or they would have to take a leave of absence to get a job to pay off the loan on an unfinished degree. Those who graduated faced a job market that was trimming redundant jobs and not creating new ones. There are ways of extending payments, or deferring payments but these are of a limited duration. Those who have good jobs and are able to pay on their loans find the payments becoming a larger percentage of their budget as the cost of living increases and their pay doesn’t. Those who can’t find a job or are underemployed have rescheduled loans that will be looming for up to 30 years. Then there are those who were caught in mid-program and have the loans but not the degree because capital dried up.

Although not of the same type or degree we see more similarities between the indentured servant/freeman of the late 1600s and the highly financially encumbered college graduate of 2009. Both lived in a society that had an over abundance of labor with few jobs and a poor outlook for the near future. Both groups had potential and were hard workers, both had a goal for the future. The indentured servant hoped to pay off his/her debt and with his own farm one day, build a life and have a family. So too is the student and college graduate. Both groups find themselves hampered by not their abilities but by external forces. The people of the 1600s lacked land and room to grow inhibiting them from moving forward but still having the debt over their head, or if a freeman, just mere existence. The modern student lacks a job, and in some instances the ability to even finish his/her degree. On top of this there is a looming debt that many are willing to pay off but can’t. If not paid off, the debt will ruin them and eventually limit their growth and the growth of society.

In the 1600s a rebellion, the opening of more land, and a reordering of society solved the immediate problem. The Native Americans suffered the brunt of this new order with many of them dying and their land taken. The pressures for the freeman were relieved and the future of indentured servants was secured. However, it also condemned millions in the future who did the job of the indentured servant to work as slaves.

One wonders what the solution will be to the student loan problem and the ability of students and graduates to repay these loans in the future. Whatever the solution we need to be careful how it is processed. A rebellion seems a little excessive, but we also do not need a solution that will just take care of the present situation but condemns millions in the future. As different as the culture of the late1600s is to 2009, there are a number of similarities between them.

[1] Schifflett, Crandal. Search the Registers of Servants Sent to Foreign Plantations, 1654 - 1686. Virtual Jamestown, 2000. Accessed October 1, 2009. Available from

[2] Barker, Deanna. Indentured Servitude in Colonial America. National Association for Interpretation Cultural Interpretation and Living History Section, March 10, 2004. Accessed October 1, 2009. Available from

[3] Schlafly, Andrew. Indentured Servitude. Conservapedia, November 21, 2006. Accessed October 3, 2009. Available from

[4] Frethorne, Richard. Indentured Servants. Joyce A. Hanson, 2005. Accessed October 1, 2009. Available from /slavery/pages/indentured.html.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Gisolfi, Monica R. Bacon's Rebellion: Colonial Society and Politics. Columbia American History Online, 2004. Accessed October 2, 2009. Available from

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Peacemaker

Living in an urban area one finds different cultures intertwined every day. Albany, a college town as well as the capital of New York, has various provincial and world cultures walking its streets. It is a city that has earnestly tried to integrate the various races that live within its borders. In fact the whole capital region emulates this scenario. I live in Troy. RPI is five blocks away and down the street is a mosque. A few blocks away from there is a synagogue and in the other direction a Fundamentalist Christian church and school. The capital region is an area where many different cultures interact in relative peace and harmony even when some of the cultures are not tolerant of the others. An intolerant culture can hold on to their beliefs but not act out on them. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are mutually exclusive religions where identification with one excludes you from belonging to the other two and yet these groups come together secularly to work on community problems.

During the week of September 21, 2009 a beautiful 150 foot Barquentine rigged Schooner, the Peacemaker, was docked in Albany. A sign was put out front that free tours were offered. Many felt it was connected with the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson sailing up the Muhheakantuck, now the Hudson, in his honor. Apparently once inside you not only received a tour and story about the ship but you were also proselytized into a different culture. The owners of the ship are known as the Twelve Tribes ( The Twelve Tribes origins are connected to the Jesus Movement of the 1970s. It is composed of a number of self-proclaimed primitive Christian communities that renounce denominationally organized religion. Many called them a cult that convinces their members through religious writings and persuasion to give all their possessions to the community and live communally and in submission. Overall this may not appeal to everyone but it does not seem to be especially sinister in light of cults such as Jim Jones or David Koresh of the Branch Davidians.

When you read their religious writings you start to see a picture of a culture that is the antithesis to the cultures around them. Using the Bible as the basis of their teachings women are told be submissive and not to be logical. The Twelve Tribes’ anti-Semitic doctrine speaks to the Jews as being hostile to all men and that the Jews “inherent double fallen nature is a reproach to the Gentiles.” (

In dealing with children their writings detail how discipline is necessary and obedience mandatory. Naturally spare the rod and spoil the child is part of the instruction manual. Interestingly enough within their belief system they feel Abraham Lincoln went against the will of God when he freed the slaves and that slavery was God’s place for the black man in His ordered universe. Of course gays and lesbians are seen as the pariah of God (Ibid.).

Although there is a natural abhorrence to the doctrines and beliefs of the Twelve Tribes one of the interesting aspects is the selectively retrograde culture they have adopted. The group is modern in many ways and yet very fundamental in their beliefs and 19th century in their attitudes and morals. This is different from the Amish who have willingly refused to modernize since the late 1800s and who are typically tolerant of other peoples and cultures. Even they have made some exceptions in the use of modern equipment. They will not drive a car in favor of a horse and buggy but they will use large diesel motors to run their sawmills. The Twelve Tribes pulled themselves out of a modern society and selectively returned to an earlier cultural period. Interestingly one marked with servitude of fellow humans and with an anti-Semitic air.

The presence of the Peacemaker docked in Albany demonstrates just how different cultures can be from each other and still interact in a peaceful albeit flirtatiously antagonistic way. Strangely enough this shows hope in the ability of different cultures surviving and tolerating each other regardless of the variance in their belief systems. If the Twelve Tribes can exist and find safe harbor in Albany with cultures they are not naturally tolerant of then there is hope with other countries and cultures. The different cultures of the Middle East such as Israel and the Palestinians may eventually find tolerance if not peace with each other. There is evidence that it at least could happen. This gives hope to the cultural interaction of the Turks, Kurds, Armenians and others in the area.

Although the name Peacemaker may seem a non sequitur with the doctrines of the Twelve Tribes it may be a foreknowledge of what can occur with the peaceful tolerance of different cultures.