General

How John Law Enriched Your Vocabulary and Bankrupted Everything Else

Posted in General, On This Day on March 20th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

March 21, 1729:  Hell Gets a Chief Financial Officer

Mississippi Bubble finalWall Street did not pioneer the stock market crash.  No, that distinction belongs to France some 70 years before there was a New York Stock Exchange.  Yet, in a way the Crash of 1720 was America’s fault.   All those French investors were absolutely certain that there were gold mines in Louisiana, and that fortune was just waiting for them.  They had been assured of it by that widely-acknowledged financial genius John Law.

An economist by education, Law (1671-1729) actually earned his livelihood as a gambler; he may have been the pioneer of card-counting.  Law also was a convicted murderer; but since it involved a duel over a woman, the French only esteemed him the more.  The charismatic Scotsman managed to ingratiate himself with the Duke of Orleans and ended up as the comptroller of the French currency.

In that position, Law introduced the use of paper money in France.  The logic of the innovation was impeccable; paper money was easier to handle than bulky bullion and so would facilitate business. Of course, the paper money had to represent legitimate value and be redeemable for a guaranteed amount of gold or silver. However, the French government did not understand that specific principle; the printing presses of the Royal Mint produced reams of increasingly devalued paper.The notes were soon worth one-fifth of their face value.

But Law thought of a remedy for this: offering stock shares whose potential profits would more than compensate for the depreciating currency. At the time France claimed a vast tract of land in North America, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada: 828,000 square miles we know as the Louisiana Territory. Law persuaded the French government to grant him the exclusive mining and trading rights to the territory.  In so vast a territory, there had to be gold and silver mines.  Mexico had them, and the Louisiana Territory was almost next door.  The professional gambler thought he was playing the odds, and he managed to convince the French investors of a sure thing.  They would be fools not to invest in his venture, Compagnie d’Occident.

Their buying became a frenzy; the company’s shares went from 500 Livres in 1719 to 18,000 Livres in 1720.  Besides, as the French investors knew, their money was worthless so why not gamble with it.  The shares of Law’s company seemed preferable to the inflated currency.  However, even if Louisiana had gold mines, the price of the stock had become ridiculous.  And the tottering French economy would certainly not be saved by what Louisiana really had to offer:  crawfish.

The stock collapsed before the year was over, dropping to 300 Livres.  Bankrupt himself, Law found it wise to leave France.   Despite his notoriety–or because of it–he had no trouble finding sanctuary.  Any man who had done that much harm to France was always welcome in Britain.  (And in his flush days, Law  had “secured” a pardon for that murder charge.)  Law resumed his career as a gambler but could not resume his good luck;  he died in threadbare circumstances on this day in 1729.

The French monarchy itself had lost part of the Treasury in the market crash and would never regain solvency. Of course, it would continue to spend money as if Louisiana were made of gold.  (The monarchy’s IOUs finally came due in 1789.)  Historians refer to this scandal as the Mississippi Bubble.

Ironically, while the stock price was surging, the investors thought that they were rich–if only on paper. A term was coined to define the extent of their new wealth: millionaire.

A Compassionate Alternative to Hanging

Posted in General, On This Day on January 25th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

January 26, 1788:  Once You’ve Lost America, Where Do You Dump Your Petty Criminals?

AustraliaIn 1606, Dutch explorer Willem Jansz discovered a large land mass south of New Guinea.  From his tentative exploration, he found nothing to merit further interest.  The land was swampy, and the natives poor and hostile.  It would be another 36 years before the Dutch ventured a second expedition to this land.  Abel Tasman sailed along the western and southern coasts of what proved to be a very large island.  He found the lands there to be arid and uninhabitable.  Yet, however dismal, this territory required some designation on maps.  So cartographers gave it the generic name of Australis, the Latin for southern. 

Not until 1770 did anyone bother to explore the east coast of Australis.  British explorer James Cook found its land to be surprisingly habitable.  The climate was temperate and the soil seemed arable.  Eastern Australis could provide the basic requirements of a European colony.  Claiming the land for Great Britain, Cook named the territory New South Wales.  So Britain now had a distant island that offered a meager sustenance–and that proved exactly what Britain wanted.

In politics and science, 18th century Britain certainly was in the forefront of the Enlightenment.  But that energetic progress did not extend to British justice.  There the gallows was the usual recourse, dispatching thieves as well as murderers.  Still, there was some leniency in the system.  Shoplifters, poachers, prostitutes and debtors really did not deserve to hang.  For stealing food, seven years in prison was sufficient retribution.  The problem was that the prisons were teeming with these petty criminals.  Britain could make better use of them by transporting them to its far-flung colonies.  There, the felons could labor on government projects or be sold as indentured servants, working as slave labor for the length of their prison sentence.  The American colonies had served as a useful dumping ground for these criminals.  Indeed, Georgia had been founded expressly as a penal colony.  However, since 1775, those colonies proved completely uncooperative with any British policies.  With America lost, Britain found a use for New South Wales. 

In December1786, the British government authorized an expedition to establish a penal colony in Australis. Eleven ships–known in Australian history as the “First Fleet”– departed from Britain in 1787.  On board were 772 prisoners, of whom 189 were women, 247 marines as guards, and supplies to sustain the colony for its first year.  Sailing around Cape Horn and through the Indian Ocean, the Fleet reached New South Wales on January 18, 1788.  They first landed at an inlet called Botany Bay but the site lacked a source of fresh water.  Sailing a short distance north, the Fleet found a more promising site for settlement on January 26th.  It would be named for Britain’s Home Secretary:  Lord Sydney.  

The First Fleet would be followed by a Second Fleet, a Third Fleet and eventually no one bothered counting.  Each fleet had a cargo of criminals.  Over the next 80 years 162,000 shackled men and women would be transported to Australia.  Today, the Commonwealth has a population of 22 million.  Four million of them are descended from those convicts,  and January 26th is remembered as Australia Day.

Simon Says

Posted in General, On This Day on January 20th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

January 20, 1265:  The First Meeting of “Talking Place” (You know it might sound better in French)

MonfortIn 1215, rebelling against the repressive rule of King John, the barons of England forced the cowed monarch to sign the Magna Carta, a charter of concessions defining and restricting his power. Henceforth, the King could no longer arbitrarily arrest an Englishman or seize his property. Neither John nor any other English king would again be a tyrant. However, the Magna Carta did not guarantee the king’s competence. The monarch was still free to be weak, inept and reckless; and Henry III–the son of John–fully exercised those dubious prerogatives. In 1264, the barons rebelled again, now to impose some restraining responsibilities on the bankrupt Crown. And the rebels’ leader Simon de Montfort had a remarkable idea to accomplish that: a governing council with elected representatives.

Ironically, the pioneer of parliamentary government had nothing liberal in his pedigree or upbringing. Simon de Montfort was an aristocrat, the son of a warlord who had made a fortune in the Crusades. Nor was Simon even English, but French. France, however, afforded him few opportunities; his older brother would inherit the family estates. But he did have a tenuous claim to an English title. The last Earl of Leicester had died childless, and Simon was his great-nephew. So in 1230 the 22 year-old Frenchman travelled to England to become an Earl.

Thirteenth century England was a feudal society. The King and two hundred nobles ruled four million people. There were some 80 boroughs, their term for cities and towns; London was the largest–with a population of approximately 30,000. Most of the English–at least 80 percent–were peasants. Half of that number were serfs, little more than human livestock. The ruling class and their subjects barely spoke the same language. The French of the aristocracy and the Angle-Saxon of the commoners were gradually evolving into a mutually understood language: Middle English. And on the English throne was the affable catastrophe Henry III.

Simon de Montfort was not the only fortune-hunter at the English court, and most of them were French, too. The king had many Gallic relatives and they all made themselves his guests. But Simon, with his soldier’s bearing, stood apart from the fawning courtiers. Henry was impressed and so granted Simon part of the Leicester inheritance. Montfort could have the lands and income of the earldom but not the actual title. That would have to be earned. The King expected military service, but Simon chose a different type of campaign. Eleanor Plantagenet was an attractive, young woman; she was also the king’s sister. Simon married her, and Henry’s wedding present was the Earldom.

In his rise to prominence and power, the Earl of Leicester earned the envy and enmity of other courtiers. The King could be easily swayed by malicious reports, and so Simon often found himself the victim of the royal whimsy. Although he had certainly proved himself adept at court politics, Simon loathed it. He fled the sordid intrigues by going on a crusade in 1240. At least in the Middle East, his enemies were clearly defined and usually more honorable than English courtiers. He returned to England and the politics a year later, but would always speak longingly of the Crusades and their moral clarity.

When the King summoned the Royal Council, an assembly of England’s leading nobles and prelates, it was sometimes for their advice but usually for their money. The Magna Carta forbid the King from raising taxes without the Council’s consent. Of course, the Earl of Leicester was a member of the Royal Council. He had first been a staunch supporter of the King; that might be expected of a rising courtier and a brother-in-law. Overtime, however, experience and disillusionment turned him into a critic of the King. Henry’s rule was an appalling farce. Royal offices were doled out to corrupt, incompetent favorites. Wars were lost through cowardice and mismanagement. The King bankrupted the treasury pursuing ridiculous schemes; one was a campaign to win the crown of Sicily. And, in 1258, when the King wanted more money for this Sicilian fiasco, the Council not only refused but, led by Simon de Montfort, demanded constraints upon Henry and the reform of the government.

The outraged nobles could not be ignored. Each one had a personal army and their combined might could overwhelm the King’s forces. Intimidated, Henry agreed to abide by whatever reforms would be determined by a special session of the Royal Council. Representatives of the King and the Barons met at Oxford to create a program of reforms. They intended to limit the king’s power and to impose on government officials a standard of ethics and competence. Their proposals are now remembered as the “Provisions of Oxford.”

According to the Provisions, the King would be under the supervision of a 15- member governing council called a “parliament.” “There are to be three parliaments a year…To these three parliaments the chosen counselors of the King shall come, even if they are not summoned, in order to examine the state of the kingdom and to consider the commons needs of the kingdom and likewise of the King.” Note that the parliament would meet, regardless of Henry’s approval. The Provisions also imposed term limits of one year on all royal appointees, and these appointees would have to report to the parliament.

Henry agreed to the Provisions in October, 1158 and then spent the next two years stalling on their implementation. All the while, Henry was corresponding with the Pope, pleading for the Church to absolve him from his pledge. In April, 1261, the Pope did, and now Henry could sanctimoniously reject the reforms. However, the Church had not threatened to excommunicate Simon de Montfort and the Barons; so they could still demand the Provisions. With England verging on Civil War, Henry offered another proposal. King Louis IX of France was renowned for his sense of justice; why not let him arbitrate the dispute. Montfort agreed, putting his faith in the eventual Saint Louis. On this earth, however, Louis was still very much a king, and he was not going to undermine the principles of monarchy. In January, 1264 he decided in Henry’s favor.

The nobles had been outmanuevered but not pacified. They had no alternative but war; but they had no better leader than Simon de Montfort. He was 56 years old, an old man in those times, but still eager to lead this crusade. King Henry and his son Edward were gathering their forces at Lewes, in Southeastern England. Montfort had a smaller army but he knew Henry’s incompetence and Edward’s inexperience. The Earl attacked; by the end of the day, Henry and Edward were prisoners and Simon de Montfort was “the uncrowned king of England.” Henry would remain king, if only in name. The actual power would be in the hands of a triumvirate of regents: Montfort, of course, and his allies the Bishop of Chicester and the Earl of Gloucester.

But Montfort knew that this arrangement was expedient and temporary. There had to be a sound and lasting basis for responsible government. Both the Provisions’ proposed parliament and the Royal Council had been an assembly of aristocrats. Montfort wanted a parliament that drew upon the advice and consent of the commoners. So, he would convene a parliament in January 1265, and he ordered the 37 counties and some 80 towns of England to send elected representatives. It was unprecedented, and many of Montfort’s fellow barons were appalled. Some, including the Earl of Gloucester, would now conspire to restore the King. What happened at Montfort’s parliament? Ironically, we do not know the details of this momentous event. No records have survived. Montfort’s enemies might have destroyed them.

Those enemies were gathering strength. With the help of the treacherous Gloucester, Prince Edward had escaped and now was rallying an army in the west of England. Montfort led an army in pursuit, bringing along Henry as hostage. The Earl camped at Evesham and awaited reinforcements. They never came. Prince Edward, proving himself a bold and capable commander, had destroyed that force and now would surprise Montfort. The Earl was killed, and his body mutilated, its parts sent throughout the kingdom as trophies. King Henry was released from one captivity but placed in another. The real ruler would be Prince Edward. Ironically, Edward was exactly what the defeated Barons had wanted in a king: strong, efficient, and responsible.

He would also prove a statesman. When King Edward I summoned a parliament in 1275, he ordered the counties and towns of England to send elected representatives. A wise king would want the support and the advice of the commoners. So Montfort’s radical idea became the precedent of parliament, and the basis of representative government. Today, a descendant of Edward sits on the British throne, but the heirs of Simon de Montfort–the elected members of Parliament –rule Britain.

You Must Remember This

Posted in General on January 13th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

January 14th

CasablancaOn this day in 1943, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill set the standard for product placement by meeting in Casablanca. Perhaps FDR did owe a favor to Warner Bros., the only Democratic studio in Hollywood. Jack Warner was not deeply imbued with liberal principles; however, he felt compelled to be the political opposite of Republican Louis B. Mayer. Churchill went along with the choice of Casablanca, although he hated being mistaken for Sydney Greenstreet.

While the movie had only been planned as a B-list production, the actual Casablanca Conference was a Hollywood extravaganza. The location alone was thrilling. Here were Franklin and Winston in Morocco, which the Allied armies had just coerced from the Pro-Vichy French. (Warner Bros. would have staged better battle scenes than the French did.) If our leading men could meet in Casablanca, it was reassuringly obvious that that the Allies controlled the Atlantic. You did not see Hitler and Mussolini holding a conference in Havana (and I doubt that Meyer Lansky would have made Hitler feel welcome).

Although the North African campaign was not yet over, an Allied victory there was inevitable. True, the Axis still had four corps in Tunisia, but three of them were Italian and had been trying to surrender since 1941. Despite the proximity of Italy, the Axis was unable to either resupply or evacuate the trapped army there; how many men can fit in a U-Boat? Caught between Allied armies advancing from Algeria and Libya, the remnants of the Afrika Korps and Mussolini’s “Legions of Iron” surrendered in May, 1943.

If the ten day conference at Casablanca was supposed to have a memorable quote, it was “unconditional surrender.” The Allies would accept nothing less. The proclamation was meant to reassure Stalin as well as intimidate Hitler. The Soviet leader had been invited to the conference but he was somewhat preoccupied with an invading German army. The ongoing battle of Stalingrad would turn out to be quite gratifying, but Stalin still needed the Americans and British to open a second front against the Germans.

Of course, the Americans felt ready to land in France; after all the Germans had been such pushovers in 1918. However, the British remembered what pushovers the Germans had been in 1914, 1915, 1916 and 1917; and they definitely had a second wind by 1940. No, the British favored an invasion of Italy; it was conveniently close to North Africa and the Italians were a congenial enemy. Roosevelt agreed. The Second Front would be against the Italians; Stalin must have felt so relieved.

Fools and Their Money

Posted in General, On This Day on January 6th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

January 6, 1721:  The First Government Report on a Stock Market Scandal

South Sea BubbleGreed knows no borders, and 1720 was a vintage year for it.  French investors had succumbed to the prospect of gold mines in Louisiana; for a short while, they had even become rich–on paper.  English investors were envious and eagerly sought a stock that would make them all rich, too.  So they placed their hopes and Pounds in the South Sea Company, a British business that could claim a lucrative privilege.  The Crown had granted the Company a monopoly on trade with South America.  The gold and gems, the spices, even the parrots–all the treasures of a continent–were ceded to the South Sea Company.  Its investors were certain of a fortune.

There was only one drawback to this wonderful monopoly; the wrong Crown had granted it.  Spain controlled most of South America.  The British did not even have Guyana at the time.  So the South Sea Company had to convince Spain to honor the British monopoly, and its timing was not opportune.  Britain and Spain had just recently ended an 11 year-long war;  England’s express aim had been to oust the Bourbon King from his throne.  The South Sea Company evidently hoped that Felipe V had either a good nature or a bad memory.  He had neither.  In fact, Spain restricted the Company’s trade in South America to one ship a year.

Even worse for the Company, the trade proved disappointing.  The British had hoped that the South Americans would want African slaves, but there really was not much of a market for them.  The Spanish already had the entire population of Latin America for serfs.

Those were the dismal facts and mediocre returns on the Company’s ledgers, but the Stock Market could ignore such minor details.  In  January the company’s stock was trading at 128 Pounds, but investors began bidding it up.  In March the stock’s price rose to 330 Pounds.  There was no real reason for that increase, but the gain only incited further demand for the stock.  The other investors couldn’t be wrong, and no one wanted to be the last to buy the stock.  The buying frenzy continued.  By August, the stock price was 1000 Pounds.

Of course, very few people actually had that kind of money; they were buying on credit–which is effortless until you have to pay it back.  Some creditor must have tactlessly asked for repayment, and suddenly no one wanted to pay 1000 Pounds for a 100 Pound stock.  That set off a cascade of selling.  By December the stock price was 124 Pounds.  Reality had its belated say in the market.

Parliament, especially the members who had lost money, insisted on an investigation. The government report was presented this day:  January 6, 1721.  As it turned out, the Company had bribed a number of government officials; apparently Crown monopolies are not granted solely on merit.  The directors of the Company had their estates confiscated; one government official went to prison.  Of course, the Prime Minister promised further reforms.  And with that stern retribution, nothing like this has ever happened again.

Reflecting on the market scandal, Isaac Newton said, “I can calculate the motion of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”  Having lost 20,000 Pounds, he was speaking from experience.

The absurdity inspired Jonathan Swift to write:

The Nation too, too late will find

Computing all their Cost and Trouble

Directors Promises but Wind

South Sea at best a mighty Bubble.

 

And, thanks to Swift, we now describe such financial lunacy as a bubble.

How To Commit a Perfect Crime

Posted in General on December 28th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

December 29, 1170:  Thomas Becket Gets a Halo to Cover a Split Skull

Beckett colorHenry II, King of England and half of France, had an unusual Christmas wish in 1170.  “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”  Four of his barons couldn’t think of a better gift for their king, so they left the medieval equivalent of comfort in a Norman castle, crossed the English Channel, rode to Canterbury and got rid of that turbulent priest.  Evidently, there was only one clergyman who fit that description:  Thomas Becket.

The relationship between the Becket and Henry has long fascinated historians and, since Freud and Kinsey, it has titillated psychologists, too.  The men had been friends.  Becket (1118-well, you know) had also proved himself an excellent and canny administrator, rising in the bureaucratic ranks to be Chancellor of England.  As Chancellor, Becket had been a fierce advocate of the Crown in its longstanding duel with the Church over legal prerogatives and taxes.  (During the reign of Henry’s inept predecessor Stephen, the Church had usurped a number of rights and jurisdictions; Henry really was trying to reestablish the original rights of the Crown.)  But the Church was reluctant to give up even its dubious claims.  So, in 1162 when the Archbishop of Canterbury died, Henry imagined that he had a devilishly brilliant plan.  He would name his pal and partisan Tom Becket to be the new Archbishop.  With his man as England’s primate, the Church finally would cede its usurped rights and properties.  So Henry thought….

But the new Archbishop now had a new allegiance, and he became a zealous defender of the Church.  Becket not merely refused to compromise; he threatened.   The Archbishop would have given out excommunications as if they were alms.  In 1164, negotiators for the Church and Crown reached an agreement known as the Constitutions of Clarendon.  Its terms were to settle the various disputes, generally in the Crown’s favor.  (The Church would return most of its “hot” properties.)  While the other bishops signed the pact, Becket refused.  He deferred his assent, saying that the Constitutions would require the Pope’s approval.

In case you were wondering, Becket had studied law.  He knew how to delay and sabotage with the appearance of utmost propriety.  Who could object to the Pope’s approval?  Of course, Rome was not conveniently close and Pope Alexander III could be difficult to find; he was on the run from the German armies of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.  Becket was prepared to wait but not necessarily in prison; however, that was where Henry intended to send his ex-friend.  The Archbishop preferred an indefinite stay on the continent, first going to Italy and dragging the Pope into the quarrel.

Hounded by German armies, Alexander III really did not need to resolve who got which fen in Dorset.  Yes, in principle he sided with the Archbishop but he saw no need to make the king an implacable enemy.  Alexander III had studied law, too.  The Pope’s compromise was to reject this draft of the conventions and, at the same time, put that annoying Becket on probation.  The Archbishop would spend the next six years in reflection at French monasteries.  So, without Becket’s intransigent presence, the Crown and the Church could continue their negotiations.

But Becket was just as intransigent in absentia.  One can write excommunications as well as pronounce them.  (The Pope was obliged to nullify Becket’s damnations.)  However, in 1170 the Pope and Henry reached a compromise.  Part of the agreement included allowing Thomas Becket to return to Canterbury.  The Archbishop spend his Christmas announcing new excommunications, and you know Henry’s response.

“Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”  Henry said it, but Pope Alexander III was definitely thinking it.  In fact, his Holiness probably committed the perfect crime.  He knew that Becket could drive anyone to murder, and Henry was never a paragon of self-restraint.  Becket gets killed, the Church loses a nuisance and gains a martyr, Henry gets the blame and has to pay off in concessions to the Church.  That is exactly what happened.

As a statesman, Alexander III was one of the greatest popes–and you’ll noticed that he never was canonized.

The Perfect Christmas Gift

Posted in General on December 24th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

Irene's CrownWhat Christmas gift can you give the man who has everything–or at least control of France, Germany and Italy? That was the challenge confronting Pope Leo III. You just couldn’t give Charlemagne a Christmas card. It would only remind the Warlord that he was illiterate. Charlemagne was a widower, so there was no point in offering him a gift card for an annulment. Then Leo thought of the perfect gift for his Frankish friend. True, Leo had to steal it; but a Pope can always absolve himself.

So, on Christmas Day in 800, the Pope proclaimed Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor. Unfortunately, Charlemagne was not pleased with his fancy new title. Western Europe’s King was not ostentatious, and he certainly was uncomfortable with a “hot” crown. The real owner–in Constantinople–would certainly object.

The Pope–looking perfectly innocent, which should be a prerequisite for the job— had an impeccable rationale for his crowning presumption. He had only made Charlemagne an Emperor; the reigning sovereign in Constantinople was named Irene. The Empress Irene was a widow, which she probably arranged; so there was no Byzantine male to contest the role of Emperor. (Irene had a son, but she had him ousted, blinded and killed; to her credit, she never harmed her grandchildren–who happened to be girls–and one would become Empress.)

In proclaiming Charlemagne to be Emperor, the Pope was not criticizing Irene. On the contrary, the Church liked her. When Irene overthrew her son and seized the throne, Pope Leo had congratulated her. That unfortunate young Emperor, like his conveniently dead father, had been proponents of Iconoclasm, a dogma condemned by the Roman branch of Christendom. Irene, however, agreed with the Roman reverence for art; she certainly preferred icons to her family.

Of course, with her aesthetic refinement, Irene would not have appreciated sharing the most prestigious title in Christendom with an illiterate warlord. The Byzantines refused to recognize Charlemagne’s title. Frankly (sorry about that), neither did Charlemagne. To legitimize his Imperial rank–and make an honest man of himself, Charlemagne offered to marry Irene.
The Empress was not flattered or tempted: she declined the proposal.

Given Irene’s family history, Charlemagne probably was lucky. At least, he lived another 14 years. His Empire did not last much longer than he did: squabbling grandsons whose ambitions surpassed their competence shredded it into warring states. For another three centuries however, Byzantium would remain the greatest power (and only civilized one) in Christendom.

Its only rival was, ironically, the Roman Church. When Pope Leo III assumed the right to appoint and crown an Emperor, he had also given the Church the perfect Christmas gift: authority over the temporal world.

None of your gifts will be that good, but try to enjoy the holidays anyway.

The Prime Minister Primer

Posted in General on December 21st, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 7 Comments

December 21, 1804Benjamin Disraeli is born.  Disappointed that that there is no mysterious star or choir of angels, the indignant family subsequently converts to a theology with better pyrotechnics.

My idea of casual conversation would include an allusion to Benjamin Disraeli. My acquaintance’s idea of a response was “Who?”  I hoped that I maintained a stoic mien but my eyebrows might have been doing the semaphores of  “How can you be so stupid?” The acquaintance is Gentile; so she would have been indifferent to the most interesting feature of Disraeli. I just provided her with a brief description of a “British prime minister of the 19th century and a man of extraordinary charm and wit.”

Now, I don’t want to seem like a pedantic bully  (even if I really am) but I think that a middle-aged college graduate should have heard of Benjamin Disraeli. He is not obscure. It is not as if I had belabored the poor woman with such prime ministerial ciphers as Henry Campbell-Bannerman or James Callahan. (And if I had mentioned Andrew Bonar Law, she might have slapped me.)

I realized that Americans’ criterion for historical significance is whether or not it was made into a movie. But Disraeli has been, and he has been portrayed by George Arliss, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Ian McShane. Given Disraeli’s origins, Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller may feel entitled to play him! No, that woman should have heard of Disraeli.

In fact, I think that a number of British prime ministers merit at least a minimum of recognition.

Lord North (1770-1782), the idiot during the American Revolution.

William Pitt the Younger (1783-1801, 1804-1806) if only because Pittsburgh was named for his father.

Earl Grey (1830-1834) because he had such great taste in tea. Yes, really.

Benjamin Disraeli (1868, 1874-1880): He needs no introduction.

William Gladstone (1868-1874, 1880-1885, 1886, 1892-1894): Disraeli’s rival. If Disraeli was Groucho, Gladstone was Margaret Dumont.

David Lloyd George (1916-1922) in case you were wondering who was standing next to Woodrow Wilson at Versailles.

Neville Chamberlain (1937-1940) who is now remembered as an insult and an accusation.

Winston Churchill (1940-45, 1951-1955), the man George Bush claimed to be–give or take the eloquence.

Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990): Disraeli’s politics with Gladstone’s charm.

Tony Blair (1997-2007) if only to prove that you were not completely oblivious.

David Cameron (2010–?)…oh, maybe not.

 

My Hanukkah Medley

Posted in General on December 15th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

Menorah resizedTonight is the beginning of Hanukkah.  Over the next eight nights, we will light an increasing number of candles, probably trying to find a decent song for the Holiday.  You will notice that this was the one miracle that Jesus didn’t attempt; either that or getting rid of the Romans would have converted us.

Jews obviously can write music.  Count the Gentiles of  Tin Pan Alley….That didn’t take long.  Yet, what can explain our inability to write “Rhapsody in Jew” for Hanukkah?  I wonder if it can be attributed to our other great creation:  guilt.  Perhaps we have a belated regret that we didn’t slightly assimilate sooner.  Are we Parthenon-plussed?

 

 

If only we could go back in time.  Imagine me on the steps of the Temple….

Here’s what Hellas has to tell us.

Achilles, Socrates, Ptolemy and Sophocles.

Can William Kristol compare to these?

All we are saying is give Greece a chance.

All we are saying is give Greece a chance.

Why be bereft of these gifts?

Philosophy, comedy, and best of all democracy!

Let’s not dwell on sodomy.

All we are saying is give Greece a chance.

All we are saying is give Greece a chance.

 

And now for my usual pedantics….

The Story of Hanukkah: Hellas, No. We Won’t Go!

In the second century BCJ (before Cousin Jesus), Syria extended far beyond the borders of the country that we know and love. It also included Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon. (Lebanon still may be part of Syria.) This very large kingdom was a fragment of Alexander’s Empire that had been divided among his generals. Seleucus grabbed it, and his ancestors continued to rule it two centuries later.

Seleucus was Greek as was the ruling caste; and these Hellenes made themselves comfortable by recreating the Greek culture in their kingdom. The same was true of the other grasping Greek and Macedonian generals. Egypt, under the Ptolemies, was Hellenized. There were Hellenized satraps in Afghanistan and India. (Even the statues of Buddha started to look remarkably like Apollo.)

A descendant of Seleucus, Antiochus the Third attempted to expand his empire into Greece. However, Rome had the same idea at the same time. Guess who won? The Romans pushed him out of Greece and then defeated him in Asia Minor (190 B.C)

His son Antiochus the Fourth inherited a smaller empire; however, he tried to make it more cohesive by imposing uniform Hellenization. But one province, with a very idiosyncratic theology, did not really appreciate the glories and gifts of Greek civilization.

Who could resist all the enticements of Western civilization? Art, theater, medicine, bathing! Had we been a little more receptive, “Pygmalion” could have been a musical 2000 years sooner.

My ancestors must have been real ingrates. In fact, those Semitic fundamentalists were so unappreciative of imposed western values that they rose in rebellion. (Do you think that history repeats itself?)

The Greeks were then obliging enough to lose the war. This was at a time when the Jews hardly ever won–obviously long before there were Nobel prizes in Economics or Emmy Awards for comedy writers.

In any case, but for Jennifer Aniston’s ancestors, we wouldn’t have Hanukkah as a psychological shield against the veritable avalanche of Christmas.

Edward VIII Becomes Windsor I

Posted in General on December 11th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

December 11, 1936:  A Love Story

BridiccaIt is so gratifying when two rotten people find each other, a true meeting of the heartless. Otherwise, they might be afflicting the lives of more innocuous souls. In the case of Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David Windsor (nee Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) he would have been ruining an entire nation.

If the British throne were reserved for the greatest upper class twit of the day, Edward VIII was indeed the rightful king. He had impeccable taste in clothing and complete distaste for democracy, tolerance, and any other manifestation of intelligence. In fact, he could not even master the well-mannered hypocrisy to mask his royal snits. As the Prince of Wales, he travelled throughout the Empire and generously conferred his racist opinions of the very people he was visiting. When a guest at a home, he expected the hostess to offer to sleep with him. However, he looked so good in his clothing that the infatuated Press and public never cared to delve beneath that dapper surface.

Since women were always throwing themselves at him, it is remarkable that a homely American social-climber made so great an impression on his self-satisfied mind. Bessie Wallis Warfield wanted to rise in the world and had the predatory talent to do it. The impoverished Baltimore girl won scholarships to the best schools, but her aim was not the education but the social contacts. That acquired cachet and its admission into better circles afforded her marriage into the minor gentry; from there, she progressed to a second marriage into the nouveau riche. (Mr. Simpson’s family name was originally Samuels; at least he and his wife had social-climbing in common.) But Wallis Simpson aspired to old money, and the heir to the British throne certainly had that.

They met in 1934, and she quickly established herself as his mistress. No one then or now can explain how a homely, married American could have so completely enthralled the Prince of Wales. His mother, the Queen, conjectured that Mrs. Simpson was a sexual contortionist. (Of course, to Queen Mary, that could describe anything beyond the missionary position.) Others have speculated that Wallis Simpson bullied him and gratified some masochistic quirks. They did share a vicious, selfish nature with a soft spot for pug dogs. We can only speculate. Love is blind, probably from a veneral disease.

After the death of his father in 1936, the prince, now Edward VIII, let it be known that he intended to marry Mrs. Simpson and have her reign as Queen. The British government opposed it. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin could ignore Hitler but not this affront to good taste. Everything was wrong about the twice-married American social climber, including the fact that she had yet to divorce Mr. Simpson. If the King persisted, then Baldwin threatened to resign. Nor was the King finding any support from the royal family; the people who knew him best liked him least.   And the Press too had finally noticed the King’s behavior. His tantrums didn’t wear as well as his clothing.

So, since he could not rule “with the woman I love”, Edward abdicated the throne and left Britain. Wallis finally got a divorce but not a king; she had to settle for a Duke. Nonetheless, the newly-wed Duke and Duchess of Windsor did have friends. American tabloids were touched by such a love story. There also was that nice little Herr Hitler; in fact, he even expressed a hope to put Edward back on Britain’s throne. The Duke and Duchess would frequently express their appreciation of that thoughtful Herr Hitler. (So Winston Churchill put them unofficially under house arrest in the Bahamas.)

But the Duke and the Duchess lived happily–well-dressed, selfish and vacuous–ever after.

This is the anniversary of his abdication. And history remembers it as the only decent thing that he ever did.