Archive for the ‘The Top 173 Things in World History’ Category

Top 173 Things in World History: #133. The Dutch-Spanish Rivalry

The best part about Uruguay being knocked out in the semifinals of the World Cup was that it guaranteed an all-European final, which pretty much guaranteed a final between countries that, at one point or another, fought each other in a war.

The special thing about the showdown in South Africa between Spain and the Netherlands,* though, is that this is a rematch of multiple wars. And it ain’t no rubber game: The Dutch are going for the sweep.

*Did you know that Holland technically only refers to two counties in the Netherlands? And that it really shouldn’t be used to talk about the country as a whole? But that the Dutch don’t seem to mind because they’re so agreeable? Also, where does the Netherlands rank in terms of countries that require “the”? Do they get past the United States AND the Seychelles?

It started in the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648), in which the Dutch revolted against their distant Spanish leaders because they were being taxed too much. Yawn. The Eighty Years’ War is interesting for only three reasons:

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Top 173 Things in History: #76. Treaty of Tordesillas

Ever since the start of the World Cup, I’ve been waiting for a showdown between Spain and Portugal. But my two-and-a-half weeks of impatience doesn’t even compare to how long the Portuguese have waited for this: It is a chance at revenge 516 years in the making.

It was this month in 1494 that Portugal and Spain decided to update their global colonial claims with the Treaty of Tordesillas, which in principle divided the world between the two Iberian nations. I know, heady stuff, but it’s not like it wasn’t somewhat justified at the time. Columbus had just reached the New World under Spain’s flag, and Prince Henry the Navigator–arguably one of European history’s most famous princes*–had established a strong exploratory culture in Portugal earlier in the century. Amerigo Vespucci, like Columbus an Italian, sailed for the Portuguese and was the first to discover that this South America continent was pretty big, at least from north to south. Continue reading

Top 173 Things in World History: #2. Jesus

I know; I thought he would be No. 1, too. But this is the “Top 173 Things in World History” and not the “best.” And while Jesus may have been the best thing in world history—at least according to me—he didn’t do quite enough to get the top spot. You know, his ministry did only last like a year.

But, regardless where you stand on Christianity and religion in general, it’s difficult to deny the transformative significance of Jesus of Nazareth. He is the most influential individual human being of at least the last 2000 years and probably going back even further, into those years we define by how far they were from his birth. You can interpret that influence as good or bad, but you cannot reject it. Continue reading

Thankful for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving doesn’t quite make the Top 173 Things in World History, largely because I find the Disneyfied idyll of the First Thanksgiving a little dubious.

But, if I were making a list of the Top Holidays in World History, well, it’s tough to put much ahead of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving has a few flaws—I, for one, prefer my holidays to be two syllables or less, thank you*—but they are outnumbered by its two great strengths: food and football. In this way, Thanksgiving is a pretty masculine holiday. We watch the Lions get crushed, we eat a big dinner at like 4 in the afternoon, we root like hell against America’s Team—stopping at halftime for dessert—and then we watch another football game at night.

*At least we don’t speak Spanish, in which case we’d be wishing you a Happy “Día de Acción de Gracias.”

Days don’t get much better than that, and I don’t even like turkey.*

*It’s a long story.**

**Actually, it’s not. I don’t like turkey. That’s the story. Deal with it.

So this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for Thanksgiving—for a holiday where I give nothing and get everything, for a holiday that unabashedly embraces masculinity, for a holiday so good that the Canadians decided to start celebrating it, too.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The Top 173 Things in History: #111. Armistice Day

I will admit that I am liable to overstate things in these History posts: calling the Hyksos the inventors of war, hypothesizing that Sweden was a Charles XII compromise away from becoming the secondary European power of the 18th century, and outright stating that November 9, 1989 was the best day of David Hasselhoff’s life.

Here’s another one for you: November 11, 1918—the date of ceasefire in World War I—was the best day of the 20th century.*

*Germans excepted.

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The Top 173 Things in History: #16. The Fall of the Berlin Wall

A lot of the phrases we use to describe the ends of various injustices are metaphorical. We have to break glass ceilings, tear down barriers, and free ourselves from shackles.

While the Berlin Wall was, in some ways, metaphorical, it was also very real. Unlike the abstract glass ceilings, the wall was very much concrete—in fact, a large collection of it running directly through a major European city. The Berlin Wall was about as subtle as giving a literary character the initials J.C., or, in C.S. Lewis’ case, having a character (without those specific initials) forfeit his life to save those of some children, only to rise from the dead to defeat evil.*

*I highly suggest reading Lewis’ interpretation of his own character in that link.

This is all to say: The Berlin Wall was not subtle. It was totalitarianism and oppression reified in mortar for all to see. It was, as Ronald Reagan said in his famous 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate, a “gash” and a “scar” not just on Berlin, but on Germany and the entirety of Europe. Continue reading

Top 173 Things in History: #168. Ben Franklin’s Alphabet Reform

N.B. This is the first History post that doesn’t rely extensively on Wikipedia. Instead, I’ve done my research for this in 1958’s first book of Daniel Boorstin’s scintillating trilogy The Americans, subtitled The Colonial Experience. The entire text can be found here.

We Americans have pretty much agreed that Benjamin Franklin was a fairly smart guy and probably the closest thing our country has to Leonardo da Vinci. He “discovered” electricity with a kite and all that, inventing the lightning rod and thereby saving dozens of houses from burning to the ground. He drew that “Join or Die” snake to help unite the colonies in the decades before the American Revolution. He came up with bifocals and streamlined the post office and gave some important speeches. In fact, Ben Franklin is so smart that we’ve more or less forgiven him for the positive/negative fiasco regarding electrical charge.

But, as smart as we think Ben Franklin was, it’s not even close to how smart Ben Franklin himself thought he was.

Ben Franklin thought he was so smart that he “conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” From the eighth chapter of his nauseating autobiography:

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Top 173 Things in History: #149. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s Cycles of American History

People can never be fulfilled for long either in the public or in the private sphere. We try one, then the other, and frustration compels a change in course. Moreover, however effective a particular course may be in meeting one set of troubles, it generally falters and fails when new troubles arise. And many new troubles are inherently insoluble. As political eras, whether dominated by public purpose or by private interests, run their course, they infallibly generate the desire for something different. It always becomes after a while “time for a change.”

The Cycles of American History

Before historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.—not to be confused with his father, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.—published The Cycles of American History in 1986, few people recognized that history had a point. Most instead believed that history was composed of unconnected events in the past that had little to no effect on the present.

At the time, historians defended their practice with two famous quotations: 1. Dionysius’s “History is philosophy teaching by example” and 2. Hegel’s “The owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk.” There were, however, several problems with these quotes. First, Dionysius (of Halicarnassus) lived before Jesus and was more a rhetorician than a historian.* Second, Hegel is really, really hard to understand.

*And what forms of history did he really have access to? What could he study? I assume he did all his research in the Library of Alexandria.

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Top 173 Things in History: #146. Shays’ Rebellion

Daniel Shays is living proof that one man can make a difference, provided that man is a veteran of warfare, has easy access to weaponry, and lives in a decentralized state.

Shays’ Rebellion in 1786-87 Massachusetts is by now little more than a sidebar in the formation of America. After all, the rebellion failed, and as we all know, history is written by the winners. But Shays’ influence extends far beyond the Berkshire Hills where his rebellion began. The brief backstory: Shays was a war vet and a farmer. Like most men with that twin designation, he had very little money, and the newly established government had little pity for his situation.

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The Top 173 Things in History: #155. Manifest Destiny

Note the Native Americans and buffalo fleeing the “Westerners.”

Let’s call a spade a spade: Manifest Destiny was a pretty scumbag thing to do.

—Hey, this land you’re on, we’re gonna have to take it.

—But we were here first.

—Yeah, we know that. The thing is, and I know this kind of sucks, but it’s our destiny to have it.

—Your destiny?

—I know, man. We wish it were different, too. But yeah, this is our land now.

This was imperialism at its most boldfaced. Come on, like we even tried to come up with a valid justification? Because let’s be honest: Divine Providence isn’t a valid justification for anything.* This was nothing more than an older brother deciding he wanted the couch AND the remote control. And that’s when being there first or even “calling” it go out the window.

*And I’m the religious one in this group.

And here’s my biggest problem with Manifest Destiny: the syntax. It’s a verb with a direct object, so it sounds ridiculous in sentences. It’s not even like, “Mission: Manifesr Destiny” or “Operation: Manifest Destiny.” Think of it in candid terms by replacing “Manifest Destiny” with “Take Land.” Now try to respect this sentence in a history textbook: “The United States, under the direction of Take Land, expanded westward to the Pacific Ocean.” Impossible.*

*You can make the argument that “manifest” is meant as an adjective, meaning something akin to “evident.” Fine: “The United States, under the direction of Evident Destiny, expanded westward to the Pacific Ocean.” It still sounds terrible.

And I, for one, would never trade proper syntax for Texas.