This book by Tom Head was interesting. These were the passages that stood out to me.
WORLD HISTORY 101: FROM ANCIENT MESOPOTAMIA AND THE VIKING CONQUESTS TO NATO AND WIKILEAKS, AN ESSENTIAL PRIMER ON WORLD HISTORY (ADAMS 101)
“A particularly egregious example of this can be found in the 2006 film 300, based on a 1998 comic book of the same name. It portrayed the Persians as bloody-minded, rapacious monsters and their Greek foes as brave and honorable underdogs. In practice, both civilizations contributed in significant and irreplaceable ways to the world we’ve inherited.”
“Classical Athens wasn’t as militaristic as Sparta, but it was still fundamentally a military culture. Athens did innovate new ways of governing that have taken hold over the past few centuries, but it wasn’t fundamentally a utopia. Yes, the Athenians were technically the world’s first democracy (and for nearly two centuries), but only wealthy male citizens over eighteen (about 15 percent of the population) were eligible to vote. And like most Greek city-states, they practiced slavery on a large scale—something that distinguished the Greeks from their Persian invaders, who had taken formal steps to abolish it.”
“Over the course of this book we’re going to talk a lot about globalism: the tendency countries have to make decisions based on international connections, rather than focusing on purely local or regional issues. Alexander basically invented globalism, and he did it by dominating, killing, and otherwise conquering more people than any human being ever had up to that point. The connections he indirectly created between the countries he invaded are still with us, in very different forms, to this day.”
“The most fundamental tenet of Buddhism is that life is suffering. This is the first of the Four Noble Truths, which state in turn that this pain is caused by desire, that it is possible to learn to let go of desire, and that there is a system of behavior—called the Eightfold Path—that, if followed consistently, will inevitably teach you to do so.”
“THE OBSIDIAN MIRROR We don’t know much about the Mayans’ rise to power, and we don’t know much about why they began to abandon their cities. We do know that for about six and a half centuries, the Mayans were the largest, most powerful, and most thoroughly developed civilization in the Americas. Their art and architecture rivaled that of their European, Asian, and African contemporaries, and their military and economic power was significant. There were still some Mayan settlements when the Spanish invaded the Americas during the early sixteenth century, and there are still people of Mayan ethnicity to this day. But for the most part, daily life in the early Mayan communities remains a mystery to us.”
“THE MECCAN WARS There’s a cautionary tale embedded in the stories of the big three Western monotheisms: be careful who you oppress. The Babylonians oppressed the Jewish people, and the Babylonians fell to the Persians. The same Roman Empire that crucified Jesus ultimately converted officially to the Christian faith. And the Quraysh tribe in Mecca and its allies needlessly harassed a small, harmless religious movement, only to witness that movement raise an army and conquer the entire Arabian Peninsula.”
“the fact that institutions representing a religion founded in the name of Jesus Christ, who opposed both the accumulation of wealth and all forms of violence, were led for centuries by grotesquely wealthy powerbrokers whose ambitions revolved around large-scale violence. CRUSADES OF BLOOD There is a tendency in Western history to portray Christianity as good and Islam as evil, and every historian has to reckon with that tendency. There is no question that both religions have had their share of violent fanatics. There is also no question that, in the Middle Ages, Christianity was by far the more violent and less tolerant of the two.”
“But is it really fair to blame Christianity, or credit Islam, for a pattern of history that predates both religions? The Romans were, after all, hostile toward local faiths that posed a challenge to supremacy of the imperial civic religion, and the Christian empires were—quite consciously and explicitly—inheritors of the Roman tradition. Meanwhile, the Islamic nations of the Middle Ages inherited the culture of the Persian empires—most of which were noted for their religious tolerance, their opposition to slavery, their relatively progressive views on gender, and so on. Taking these histories into account, the Crusades seem almost inevitable.”
“I always tell people that if they want to know about the history of a country, do not go to the history books. Go to the fiction.” —Chenjerai Hove (1956–2015), poet
“Western Europe of the late fifteenth century was drunk on horror. Little more than a hundred years removed from its near extermination at the hands of the bubonic plague and driven by every surviving social hierarchy to bring Christianity to the rest of the world at sword point, it turned its sophisticated trade networks toward new markets and greater profits. Over the next several centuries it would proceed to enslave, kill, displace, or dominate most of the rest of the world. By 1900, Europe claimed power over most of the Americas, over 90 percent of Africa, over half of Asia, and nearly all of Australia and Polynesia. Nowhere was this agenda more evident than in the Americas, where hundreds of indigenous nations—and most of the tens of millions of people who populated them—were wiped out by European colonists. To fully exploit the agricultural and mineral potential of this new world, the Europeans forcibly transported more than twelve million Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to assume new identities as slaves. Millions died in transit. Those who survived the journey but were unwilling to spend the rest of their lives working in the bondage of slavery, an ocean away from their homes and families, were executed.”
“That the heirs of this bloody business would ultimately establish a kind of liberal representative democracy, abolish chattel slavery after a civil war, and play a central role in establishing the international human rights instruments we rely on today should also be no surprise. As you have no doubt already observed so far in this book, humanity’s greatest achievements and its greatest atrocities often come from the same people living in the same places with the same cultural values. And no political institution demonstrates this contradiction better than the American presidency.”
“When Johnson’s successor Horatio Seymour ran for president in 1868, he did so under a chilling ten-word slogan: “This is a white man’s country. Let white men rule.” And for most of the history of the United States, and the history of the colonial Americas before it, they brutally did just that.”
“FRANCE’S CAESAR Napoleon rose to imperial power in much the same way Julius Caesar did: by achieving astonishing success as a military leader, and then using his subsequent popularity to disrupt a tired and unpopular civilian political system. By 1804, General Napoleon had become Emperor Napoleon—though his most successful days as a military leader were ahead of him. Over the next eight years he conquered nearly all of continental Western Europe in the name of France, building an empire that—although not among the largest in history—controlled a disproportionate amount of the world’s trade and economic resources.”
“One of the lasting elements of Napoleon’s legacy was the legal code that bore his name. This most ambitious systematic attempt to create a universal Western legal code since ancient Rome has had a profound structural influence on countless legal codes throughout the world, ranging from the Middle East to Poland to the US state of Louisiana. The Napoleonic division of law into the four categories of persons, property, acquisition of property, and civil procedure still stands to this day, even in many unrelated legal codes.”
“Industrialization had many unintended consequences, among them the exacerbation of an existing technology gap that gave European colonial armies advantages over indigenous armies they sought to overpower. As traditional societies armed with bows and spears bravely faced down hordes of well-organized invaders armed with cannons and rifles, the fight between the empires of the world and their future subjects became less and less fair.”
“Labor Unions Although most of today’s politicians in the western hemisphere tend to dismiss labor unions and disparage worker strikes, it was unions—and the threat of strikes—that gave us the minimum wage, the five-day/forty-hour workweek, overtime pay, holidays, family and sick leave, employee benefits, safety inspections, an end to forced child labor, and many other things. Without labor unions, industrialization could easily have created a feudal society.”
“Enlightenment thinkers were mostly white men who treated reason as a white male attribute and tended not to trust people who weren’t white men to wield its power. And to the extent that this allowed white men to act as if only they could reason gave them a pretense to allow only white men to vote in the democracies that their ideas inspired.”
“How far would you go to make the world run the way you wish it did? For Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, there seemed to be no limit. To serve his vision, he was willing to transform his country into an oppressive police state, starve millions of children, and even have his friends murdered. But he was also willing, once invaded, to stop the fascists—even at the cost of as many as thirty million Soviet lives. Furthermore, during the first years of the Cold War, he was committed to upholding Communist ideology in the face of a prosperous and militarily powerful foe in the form of the United States.”
“The nations that “won” both wars weren’t the countries that actually fought them; they were the agent provocateurs who intentionally escalated them for strategic reasons. History can’t exactly record that the USSR won the Vietnam War, and that the United States won the Soviet-Afghan War, but these were the effective outcomes. They were traps. And the vast majority of their victims were neither US nor Soviet.”
“But the Boers faced a new problem: they wanted a white-run country, and 80 percent of the people who lived in their territory weren’t white. Things came to a head during the 1948 election, when the centrist party led by veterans of the Boer War suggested racial integration and greater civil rights for black South Africans while a new, far-right party advocated taking radical steps in the opposite direction to segregate black South Africans from whites. The Boers chose to take the latter option. The result was a system of government called apartheid (Dutch Afrikaans for “held apart”). The new system of apartheid gave whites unchallenged authority over the operation of the South African government and exploitation of its resources, and criminalized racial integration.”
“The War on Terror (2001–present), initiated by the United States and Britain after the September 11 attacks, demonstrates this tendency in an especially striking way. Because of a series of notorious terrorist attacks over the past several decades perpetrated by Middle Eastern terrorist groups that identify themselves with Islam, Western leaders were able to press the idea that majority-Muslim nations needed to be reformed by the sword—an eerie reverberation of the logic behind the Crusades. The subsequent wars in Afghanistan (2001–2014) and Iraq (2003–2011) have collectively claimed the lives of more than 200,000 civilians, based on the most conservative credible estimates—more than sixty-five times as many civilians as were killed in the September 11 attacks themselves. Emerging regional terrorist groups have, in turn, cited these casualties as a rationale for years of horrific attacks that they have perpetrated against other innocent civilians, and so on. As the Nigerian proverb puts it: “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”
“Nationalism is like cheap alcohol: First it makes you drunk, then it makes you blind, and then it kills you.” —Daniel Fried (1952–), former assistant US secretary of state”
“ECONOMY AND ETHNICITY For most of the past five hundred years, Europe has been the global center of economic and military power. It colonized most of the world and left the rest in fear. Even the United States and Russia, the two global powers that came to dominate the world during the past century, are functionally extensions of European power—Russia straddling the Eurasian border, and the United States as a former European colony. But as the rest of the world develops, Europe’s economic and military advantages will diminish. By 2050, experts believe the world’s two largest economies will be those of China and India. The Global South—Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa—will be economically formidable players on the world stage. Islam will very likely have eclipsed Christianity as the world’s largest religion, and the idea of a “superpower,” a single nation that dominates the world, will have long since become ludicrous. Meanwhile, as native birthrates decline and immigration continues, the United States and Europe are likely to become minority-white by 2050. For many white Americans and Europeans, this amounts to a two-pronged change in their identity: they’re witnessing a decline in their countries’ relative power at the same time they’re witnessing a demographic shift in their own countries away from white majorities and toward more multiracial national identities.”
“TOMORROW NEVER KNOWS Writing of the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities, English novelist Charles Dickens (1812–1870) began his story with something that has become a cliché: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Time, in general, tends to be like that. Case in point: the future is full of joy and promise, and it’ll also kill us.”
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