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What is History: An Essay, Part I

History is an educated guess on a wing and a prayer.  Mere shadows of the past come to life in history but can shadows be trusted?  Our views of history can be revised, mis-understood or completely wrong.  History can be pigeon-holed and molded to fit an ideology, point of view, or interpretation.  History can drive a nation forward in a singular goal or it can be stripped of all semblance of reality by censors trying to hold back the unfettered truth.  History nearly seems unattainable because of the minefield of bias and ulterior motives it must constantly escape.  Using sound methodology and shrewd judgment, modern historians valiantly attempt to piece together the past in a reliable way only to realize again that history is not static. History remains a half written sheet of paper constantly in the state of revision teetering on a ledge waiting for the latest research, interpretation or trend to whisk it in a new direction.

The elusiveness of history can be the result of many factors.  Often time facts become distorted by individuals wanting to espouse something other than historical preservation.  This makes the truth difficult to pin down.  For example, Robert Williams explains how a photograph taken of a dead civil war soldier at the battle of Gettysburg may not be as it appears. Historians have argued that the soldier died elsewhere and was dragged to this dramatic setting between the famous outcroppings of rocks called ‘Devil’s Den’ on the Gettysburg battlefield (68).   In a possible attempt to make a more interesting picture, the photographer puts in doubt the soldier’s role in the battle, and it possibly compromises the veracity of certain aspects of the battle.  Others have written history riddled with speculation which may help strengthen our understanding of an event’s background but may not bring us closer to understanding the truth (Williams 126).  Others still have written purely fictitious accounts of events which have no basis in reality.  It can be a dizzying prospect for an amateur to wade through the historical claims espoused by various individuals.

Ideological fervor can also lead to a history that supports one point of view or overarching objective at the risk of compromising the truth.  The movement of historical interpretation called metahistory sought to define history in terms of one “all-encompassing meaning” (Williams 20).  In the 20th century, this led to much ideologically driven fervor using history to support one point of view which furthered a particular goal or political agenda such as the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Third Reich or the Marxist view of class struggle (Williams 23).   When history is driven by ideology, it typically judges harshly the opposing point of view while lauding its own.  This can make the truth of history difficult to discover.  Trinh Cong Son was a famous revolutionary song writer of the Vietnamese communists.  He wrote anti-war songs that were popular in both North and South Vietnam.  However, he eventually was arrested and sent to a reeducation camp because he incorrectly spoke of the war with America as a “civil war” (Lamb 109). North Vietnam communist ideology viewed the Vietnam War as the Vietnamese struggle to be free against the American imperialists.  It was a continuation of the colonial struggle to expel the foreigner – something the Vietnamese did many times in their history when attacked by the Chinese, the Mongols, the French and now the Americans.   They would not accept a history of war that described as Vietnamese brother against brother.  That is why when Saigon fell to the communists on that fateful April day in 1975, Colonel Bui Tin, speaking to the south Vietnamese general he assumed power from said, “Between Vietnamese, there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been beaten” (Karnow 684).  All Vietnamese who sided with the Americans were merely puppets in the view of the Viet Cong.  History driven by ideology can have a short selective memory which can distort facts and make the truth more elusive.

The Human Experience of the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War created a surreal environment where normal rules of civility did not apply.  Soldiers had to live with the immediacy of death. This psychological game of trying to cope with war’s grim reality distanced them forever from their former civilian life.  Tim O’Brien in his semi-autobiographical Vietnam War novel The Things They Carried describes a war in which the soldiers would do anything to cope with army life if it meant that they could distance themselves from the atrocities around them.  Euphemisms for death like someone being ‘lit up’ or ‘greased’ were tossed around casually (19).   Death became so much the norm that it seemed like their deaths were ‘scripted’ (19).  They were there to fulfill their roles and one of the more prominent roles of war is death.  They trudged along in the game resigned to their fate whatever that may have been.

The role of fate in the minds of the soldiers on both sides of the conflict played a large role in how they acted and thought.  Truong Nhu Tang in his book A Viet Cong Memoir describes the terror of hunkering down under the relentless B52 bombing raids.   He describes it as an ‘Apocalypse’ where soldiers would scream uncontrollably and lose control of their bodily functions and where guerrillas would suffer nervous breakdowns (123).   However, he describes how eventually the shock of the B52 bombing raids would wear off.  The soldiers began to look at them in irrelevant terms, and they would have a fatalistic attitude that there was nothing to be done except prepare yourself for death (Truong 123).  In this way, survivors were able to view their life in a more serene and philosophical manner (Truong 124).

As the B52 raids played havoc on the psyche of the Viet Cong, the mental state of the American soldier in Vietnam was likewise shredded by what many saw as an illogical struggle against an unseen enemy in a strange and foreign environment.  The Vietnam War had no ‘fronts’.  There was not a Maginot line or 38th parallel.  The enemy could come from any direction, at any time, in nearly any form.  It was more like an endless front.  Bombs and booby-traps were everywhere.   It was impossible to distinguish a common peasant farmer from a Viet Cong insurgent.  This deeply contributed to the fatalistic attitude that a soldier’s life was not in his own hands. O’Brien called these faceless enemies the ‘enemy ghosts’.  Vietnam became a game of hide and seek with boogeyman enemies – only partially seen – slipping in and out under the moonlight – spooking hardened soldiers into ghost believers (192-193).  Even in the daytime, a soldier would tire from the constant snipers.  Or it may be that a soldier could be plodding along a well-known path in a flooded field only to be swallowed up completely by a massive B52 bomb crater which was undetectable under the water (Truong 123).  It was these types of events that made many soldiers feel that everything was out of their control.  Or perhaps more precisely, maybe there was not anything to control in the first place.  Even soldiers who worked in offices in Saigon were never out of danger.  They were susceptible at any moment of any day to a bomb or rocket attack (Karnow 33).

Soldiers coped the best they could.  They laughed at the horror to help lessen its sting.  In one absurd tale, a soldier sings “Lemon Tree” as he pulls the remains of their comrade Curt Lemon out of the tree where an explosion ripped him to shreds (O’Brien 79).  O’Brien writes the story of Norman Bowker and how he almost got the Silver Star for nearly saving his buddy but ultimately watched him slip to his death in a muddy field on the banks of a flooded river.  It is revealed later, however, that it was actually the author who held the leg of the one who slipped away and not Norman Bowker (154).  This clever storytelling technique illustrates the mental games of war.  A horrific incident beyond description seems more palatable when placed at the feet of another.  It was survival instinct which distances oneself from that which makes no sense or which is too painful for a sane person to deal with.

War creates an instinct to survive not only for the soldiers in the trenches or the soldiers humping through the jungle but also for the political figures on a more macro-governmental level.  Politics and war provide a canvass in which survival often becomes the eminent theme even beyond winning or losing. Leaders will manipulate, intimidate, and inspire in order for a nation and its’ soldiers to follow their lead.  Before World War II, Hitler invoked a personalized national pride and insisted that his soldiers swear a personal allegiance to him (Keegan 367).  The American soldiers who went to war in Vietnam certainly displayed a national pride and a willingness to defeat Communism, but when they arrived,  they only saw a political situation that offered the soldiers little hope or honor.  The political players on the American side of the Vietnam War displayed paranoia, deceit, and shrewd political games in order to either keep themselves in power or to sway public opinion in one way or another.

South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky put on a show execution of a Chinese businessman accused of corruption which ultimately provided him with a scapegoat in order to protect himself from his unsavory dealings (Karnow 456).  Ky’s predecessor Khanh did all he could to protect his own authority but did virtually nothing to create a competent administration which would enable the South Vietnamese government to wage war (Karnow 358).  The successive infighting amongst the South Vietnamese government led to massive dissatisfaction among the South’s population.  Coup after coup left the South Vietnamese government in a state of disarray and left America holding the political baggage forcing them to put a positive spin on things for the American people.  The government used the media as a propaganda wing to promote their view of what was happening. For example, the U.S. press gave vivid accounts of the North Vietnamese unprovoked attack on an American vessel even though it never happened (Karnow 386). This made-up event helped speed up the escalation of the war. The media seems to have taken its’ cue from a government which rewarded positive war reports even if they didn’t resemble the truth (Karnow 271).

U.S. President Lyndon Johnson who escalated the war in hopes of stopping Communism from spreading threw in the towel himself deciding not to run for re-election after the devastating “Tet” offensive of Jan 31, 1968.  The coordinated Viet Cong offensive caught the Americans off-guard and drastically turned public opinion against the war leading to the many vocal and intense protests that typified the late 1960s (Karnow 558).  All of this disinformation and backbiting created a cloud of confusion over the whole Vietnam War.  The political in-fighting certainly played a crucial role in the disillusionment of the Vietnam soldier.

The Vietnam soldiers that went home were damaged both physically and mentally.   By 1971, it is estimated that one-third or more of American troops were using drugs (Karnow 31).   There were many cases of soldiers not only disobeying orders but even murdering their superiors with grenades (Karnow 31).   Nearly one-sixth of all Vietnam veterans experienced some form of post-traumatic order (Karnow 33).  It is no wonder that eighty-two percent of veterans believed they were sent into a war which they couldn’t win because the government tied their hands (Karnow 480).  In an environment like this, what purpose could a soldier possibly find?  Nothing but survival.

O’Brien describes war as not being a moral, virtuous, or instructive venture.   He writes, “You can tell a war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (65-66).  This perhaps describes better than anything else the human experience of the Vietnam War.  The war penetrated deeply into the inner chasms of their heart only to find there was nothing there to comfort them.

Shakespeare, Branagh, & the Historical Accuracy of Henry V

Here’s an essay I wrote a short time ago on the comparison of Shakespeare’s drama The Life of Henry V and Kenneth Branagh’s film depiction with a historical description of the battle of Agincourt.  How does the Bard measure up?

Shakespeare’s historical drama The Life of Henry V is a glorious tribute to the indomitable King Henry who rallies the underdog English forces and routes the French in the stirring battle of Agincourt.  Shakespeare’s depictions of the battle of Agincourt and Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Shakespeare’s play uses this historical setting as a way to show admiration of the young courageous King.  To accomplish this, they veer away from the historical record which describes a battle where all the gears of war clicked serendipitously into place enabling the English to pull off an unlikely victory.

Both Shakespeare’s Henry V and Branagh’s film version celebrate King Henry’s heroics in overcoming great odds in defeating the French.  The poetic-license they take with the battle’s historical descriptions is meant to enhance the image of the king.  Shakespeare builds his drama around the antics of the King.   He shows his engagement with the common soldiers by dressing him up in a cloak and having him wander around camp the night before battle to get a feel for how the soldiers are thinking (73).   He has Henry, when faced with certain defeat, give an inspiring speech to his comrades in arms saying how survivors of this battle will look back in pride to see what honor was bestowed on the few of them.  The purposes of these scenes are to build to a dramatic climax with Henry being the motivating factor in victory.

Shakespeare continues to heighten the drama by emphasizing the French army’s confidence.  When the trumpet sounds signifying the start of battle, Shakespeare describes the French leaders as expecting to dazzle the Englishmen with their might cowering them into fear (85).   The French leaders see the English as a rag-tag bunch expecting to be defeated.  They see the ragged banners of the English, the drooping heads of the soldiers and the circling crows waiting to feast off the dead (86).  All of this is to draw the reader into the seemingly hopeless situation which will heap all the more honor and glory on the English once they crush the French in battle.  Of course, these are dramatic ploys to serve the reader and audience but do not accurately portray the field of battle.  For example, battle historian John Keegan describes the first position of the English being two hundred and fifty yards away from the French – a distance in which the archers could begin to rain down their arrows on their enemies (90).  This is hardly an accurate distance that would enable French observers to accurately guess the demeanor and feelings of the English army.

The initial French cavalry charge is one of the most significant moments of the battle of Agincourt, but Shakespeare, perhaps for practical purposes, does not depict it in his drama.  Branagh in the film version shows a depiction of the cavalry charge, but it is quite different from Keegan’s historical analysis.  After the English archers began pelting the French ranks with arrows, the French cavalry charged at the archers on both flanks.  Keegan emphasizes the importance of the wooden stakes which the archers carried with them.   Keegan works under the assumption that each archer, when taking up his battle position, pounded his wooden stake into the ground at the spot where he stood – in staggered rows with about a yard on either side of each of them (91).  The sharpened stakes were tall and meant to injury the charging horses.  This point differs greatly from Branagh’s vision of the battle.  Branagh depicts the wooden stakes in a straight line forming a fence or barrier – one which was not very effective as the French horsemen in the film easily broke right through it.   The stakes are little more than stage props and are not depicted as being crucial to the battle’s outcome.   Keegan contents that if the stakes were staggered, and if the archers were standing dispersed among the stakes, the French cavalry would have charged unknowingly into the spread of pikes which would have devastated their ranks.  At the last moment, the English archers retreated quickly revealing the deadly stakes to the horsemen only when it was too late for them to stop thus causing the maximum amount of carnage (94).

In addition to this discrepancy, Branagh’s battle scenes begin with the clash between the two cavalries. Branagh shows King Henry leading the English cavalry into battle.   He is sparring with his sword in the thick of the battle as exposed to injury as everyone else.  Branagh no doubt portrays Henry in this manner to emphasize Shakespeare’s text.  Shakespeare uses Henry’s inspiring speeches and his decisiveness in dealing with the French herald Montjoy to depict a king who is clearly in charge.  All of the army is rallying behind Henry upholding him as a hero worthy to be followed.  Branagh’s battle scenes give the viewer a similar feeling.  The brave hearted king leads the charge, inspires the troops and is given the honor from the army that is befitting of a king.  Both Shakespeare’s text and Branagh’s visuals bolster Henry’s reputation more than anything else.

The reality of the battle of Agincourt is not so simple to analyze, and certainly King Henry did not single-handedly inspire victory that day.  For one, the king would not have been in such an exposed area of the battlefield.  According to Keegan, the king and his entourage had a lot of movement available to them on the battle field after the hand-to-hand combat was nearly finished; this is when they moved up near the English second line (106).  This hardly describes a king leading the charge into battle which, of course, makes perfect sense.  The front of the battle would be no place for a king regardless of how much courage and fortitude he possessed.   Only after the French cavalry charge was repelled and the hand-to-hand combat had forced the French back would the King have dared to make his appearance in the middle of the field of battle.

Shakespeare omits the particulars of the battle which led to the break in the French line giving no real clues as to why it has given way.  He writes of the French leaders lamenting their losses and contemplating their own suicides rather than to be shamed by such an embarrassing defeat (95).  Even Branagh’s battle scenes leave the viewer wondering why it was so easy for the English to repel the attack if the French had them outnumbered five to one.   Branagh only shows the clash of the two cavalries and then many unarmored archers who begin entering the fighting against the French men at arms.  The reason for victory is not important for Shakespeare or Branagh; they concern themselves only with the outcome.  They want to show the gallant English overcoming great odds to win the day behind the courageous leadership of King Henry.  The particulars are not important.

In contrast, Keegan places the blame of the French defeat on a couple of different factors.  After the initial disastrous clash that the French cavalry had with the archers’ stakes, many of the horsemen found themselves galloping back toward the French infantry divisions (97).  This confusion would have halted the French army in a mass of instability until they were able to continue their march forward.  This extra few moments gave the English soldiers time to prepare for the French attack and gave the English archers the ability to continue volleying arrows down upon them (Keegan 97).    Though the archers could not stop the French advance, they did channel it into a narrower path which would have dire consequences for them (Keegan 98).   Keegan goes onto describe what he calls the crucial development of the battle as being the fact that the movement of the French front became impeded when many of the French soldiers fell down in the heat of battle.   The fallen soldiers literally blocked the rest of the army from effectively moving forward (101).   As the archers from the flanks began to pick off French infantry who had wandered from the line or who were unable to move forward, the killing zone for the English was expanded and the French suffered massive casualties (Keegan 102, 105).

As the battle is winding down, Shakespeare heightens the dramatic effect of the battle scene by showing the French intent on continuing the fight when they realize they still have soldiers on the field (96). Shakespeare then has King Henry noticing that the French are reinforcing their lines which gives the King cause to tell his soldiers to start killing the prisoners (Shakespeare 97).   In actuality, Keegan points out that Henry’s order was more likely a way to threaten the prisoners into submission because he did not want the prisoners to pick up weapons against them if the French did indeed counter attack (112).  At that moment, the French, according to Shakespeare, raid the English supplies, kill the boys who were guarding it, and then steal all the king’s goods while burning his tent to the ground (Shakespeare 97-98).   Branagh’s film shows horsemen breaking through the row of stakes going directly to the supply area where they slaughtered the younger boys who watched over the supplies. Branagh does not show any massacre of prisoners but does show King Henry very upset at the death of the boys.  The historical record of the baggage area being looted indicates that most likely it was due to armed peasants, including three mounted knights from the nearby castle of Agincourt and not the French army (Keegan 84).  Keegan likewise indicates that some of the individuals guarding the supply area would have been killed though there is no indication that they were young boys (84).

Shakespeare’s drama and Branagh’s film emphasize the slaughter of the boys perhaps as a way to justify Henry’s order to kill the prisoners or to vilify the French.  Either way, it leaves the audience regarding Henry as the just king who has defeated the French in a battle of righteousness.  While these versions of the battle may make good theater, they do not stack up well to the actual events of Agincourt.

“Turn the Screw”: Big Business & the Robber Barons

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac got nothing on these guys.  The manipulators of the banking system and real estate market which helped crash our economy in 2008 might actually seem a little tame when pitted head to head with the original Robber Barons.  What do you know about these guys?  Jay Gould, Joseph Huntington, Jay Cooke, JD Rockefeller.  Check them out!

Only a mild examination of the Gilded Age gives many vivid illustrations of how the Robber Barons rightfully earned such a disreputable distinction.  The expansion of the railroad led to numerous opportunities for the quick manipulator and the well connected to promptly abscond with millions of dollars worth of public property and Congress-awarded capital.  In total, over one hundred and fifty million acres of land including all mineral rights were granted to railroad industrialists who split the Wild West with new train routes which connected newly settled California with the east (Josephson 79).  One of the most clever railroad tycoons was Jay Cooke.  He not only was granted public land to build the Union Pacific Railroad, but he also used government loaned capital which enabled him to build railroads while risking any of his own wealth.  As work ensued on the Cooke inspired railroad, the price per mile was eventually raised to such exorbitant heights that when the golden spike was pounded in at Promontory Point there was over fifty million dollars of public funds unaccounted for (Josephson 92).  Another of the railroad barons, Joseph Huntington, would force local towns to pay for the privilege of having their town connected to the railroad while threatening that their refusal would mean another town would prosper (Josephson 84-85).  Jay Gould, perhaps the most talented devious mind of the bunch, illegally printed millions of dollars worth of Erie Railroad stock in order to thwart a take-over by rival Vanderbilt (Josephson 133).

As the railroad changed the way business operated by enabling companies to become regional and then eventually national forces, the great industrial giants brokered shady deals with the railroads in order to gain an inch of advantage over their competitors. J. D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil became a monolith which sought to crush all competition, and he knew that controlling the railroads was a huge part of that.  He forced railroads to agree to offer illegal rebates on freight charges to make his oil the most competitive (Porter 72-73). Once the railroads were in his back pocket, he could as he would say “turn the screw” on competitors either forcing them to sell, to join his syndicate or to be run out of business.  Such tactics produced the giant Standard Oil Trust which boasted control of nearly 90% of the nation’s refined oil by the end of the 1870s (Porter 73). The market was cornered and the government took little notice.

Rockefeller and associates wanted to do away with the speculative nature of oil by controlling output and putting competitors out of business so they could dictate world prices (Josephson 116). The barons of the Standard Oil Trust sat and discussed their business dealings in the same manner as the government’s executive branch would map out the country’s future and set goals for development.  The difference being, in theory, that government officials would be building economic systems which ultimately encourage investment and growth which benefit the entire nation in increased production, wealth-building, and tax revenue.  In contrast, the oligopoly of Rockefeller planned out their attack to benefit their own competitive edge by ruthlessly driving competitors out of business through strong-armed tactics and shrewd closed-door business deals.  Complete control of the market had become the mindset of the day, and the wealthy elite seemed to be able to control it at will – often times illegally.  It was an unsavory business that would create serious doubts in the minds of Americans concerning the nature of big business in America.

Aggression and Primitive Tribes

Resources.  Every country needs them and throughout history, wars have been fought and new lands conquered in the search of resources to power nations.  It’s an issue of great importance in today’s world as one casual glance around the globe will attest. China-Vietnam and the Spratley Islands – the US and its dependence on the Middle East – etc…  Here’s a short excerpt from an essay I wrote about how it all started.

Andrew Schmookler in his treatise on social evolution The Parable of the Tribes describes how early societies expanded their boundaries and extended their sphere of influence in order to overcome a lack of resources which threatened their very existence. As this happened, societies began to be limited by other cultures which were developing in a likewise manner.  As one group armed themselves as a means of protecting their interests, the other groups had no choice but to do the same or suffer the consequences of being destroyed or put under the yolk of another which makes peace an illusion and power a necessity.

The Yanamomo tribes of southern Venezuela have learned this lesson well.  They know the violent consequences of living too close to a neighboring tribe which is why they settled in small villages apart from each other as a means of limiting contact.  They have created a culture which values aggression and teaches every young boy how to be an aggressive warrior in order to earn marks of bravery on their elaborate point system.  This aggressive Yanamomo culture is taught to every subsequent generation in order to protect themselves from outside threats.

To read more about it, see:

John G. Kennedy. “Ritual and Intergroup Murder: Comments on War, Primitive and        Modern”.

Andrew B. Schmookler, Andrew B. “The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution”.

 

Vietnamese New Year & Tet ’68

Happy Vietnamese New Year Everyone!

I enjoyed many Tet holidays in Vietnam visiting neighbors, being stuffed with delicacies by eager grandmothers who wouldn’t be satisfied until I would hold my stomach in agony and beg her not to put more on my plate. (She should anyways.)  Tet is a wonderful time for family and friends to commune and feast while the trials and troubles a a year’s hard work are long forgotten.  It’s a three day non-stop filling of the celebration of Vietnamese life.  It’s a time to remember the past, enjoy the present, and drink for the future.

But for a different generation of Americans, the word “TET” means but one thing – a horrible reminder of the pain of war from 1968.

The Tet Offensive in 1968 changed the Vietnam War, but it didn’t do so in the way you might expect.  Leading up to the Viet Cong attacks on the first day of their New Year, the American people had been led to believe from their government that great progress was being made in freeing South Vietnam from the Communist instigators who had been reeking havoc in the delta and central regions of the country for nearly a decade.  But the Tet Offensive proved once and for all that the reassuring words from Washington via the press corp were hollow at best and possibly down right deceitful.

On the first night of Tet 1968,  the Viet Cong pulled off nearly fifty coordinated and simultaneous attacks which caught the Americans and the South Vietnamese armies off guard.  From the former Imperial city of Hue, to the central highlands where American missionaries were killed, to the fortified city of Saigon itself, these attacks reverberated loudly throughout the country, the world, and especially the American media which drilled home this point to the American people – we were not winning the Vietnam War.

It mattered little that American firepower pushed back every single one of these advances.  That’s right.  America won them all, but the Viet Cong delivered a devastating punch and a massive dose of reality to the American people.   From that point on, cynicism crept in and led to one of the most turmoil filled years in American history, from President LBJ deciding not run for president again, to the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, to the urban riots, the Tet offensive set the stage for them all.

This shows me that above all else, we need government that is checked by an independent news media, driven by principles and not ideological conviction – something today that is certainly hard to find.

Haitian Rara

I wasn’t planning on posting about Haiti again so soon, but I referred to the Haitian rara processionals last week and thought you might like to know a little more about it.  It’s quite interesting.  As always, full documentation available on request.

The culture of the impoverished dark-skinned Haitian majority has thrived, and in its own way has carved out a rich cultural niche which has blended African, European, and native elements.  This has produced a society with syncretic religious and musical traditions from the Carnival rara songs to the hip and trendy nouvel jenerayson.    These many different musical styles have given them an outlet of political expression which would not likely be otherwise possible.   

Perhaps no musical style has emboldened and influenced this poor majority of Haiti more than rara.  Rara music is a diverse palette of rhythms and lyrics passed down through generations.  The rara festival kicks off after lent when the Carnival season in other Caribbean countries is coming to an end.  The rara processionals consist of competing groups of musicians who parade around incessantly, drawing in active participants who gladly join the fray.  This time of year gives the urban poor an extremely important outlet for social criticism.  McAlister refers to rara as a type of “performative orality” which is a complex combination of “verbal wordsmithing, displays of masculinity, and competitive performances of dance and music, all growing out of a religious core” (7).  The organic and grassroots nature of rara cultivates a commonality amongst the poor majority of Haiti.  They may not have political or economic clout, but they have a cultural force in the rara festival which enables them in their own way to remember their tragic past while cultivating hope that someday social justice may be achieved. 

Certain communal aspects of rara make it a powerful force which gives people a sense of belonging even while each musical group goes to great lengths to best the local rara competition.  During the colonial time period when African slaves were used as plantation labor, there would be little opportunity for expressiveness and creativity, so music was one area in which slaves could express themselves; this in turn helped make music one of the most dynamic aspect of Caribbean culture (Manuel).  The many slave communities brought together individuals from various African regions and ethnic groups which then enabled the various music styles and backgrounds to blend together in a unique syncretic way.  One of the characteristics of African music is the way it incorporates collective participation in such a way that the performers and audience seem to blend together (Manuel).  The rara festival is a unique example of this African feature.  McAlister writes of the rara processional that the “distinction between audience and performer is erased as soon as it is constructed” (6).  The audience does not passively watch a performance; they actively join in the dance and sing the songs and become part of the event themselves.   This communal approach to music is a powerful societal force which binds together the poor majority in a glorious strand of Haitian identity – one in which makes society’s elite uncomfortable to say the least. This is perhaps where rara music makes its biggest impact; it has become a method of social criticism even when social criticism isn’t allowed.

The elite of Haitian society have long dismissed rara as a vulgar rural Carnival (Manuel), perpetuated by low-class, uneducated poor. But in rara, the masses have a powerful voice of creativity which can target social ills and address abuses in ways which would not be possible through more traditional means of redress.   McAlister acknowledges rara on one hand to be a nod to Haiti’s tragic past while at the same time being a means for current political and societal issues to rise to the surface.  Behind the cryptic language and religious rituals, the tragic past of the indigenous Taino people is laid bare (McAlister). 

Stalin – the Little Boy

I’m a student of history as many of you know.  I came across this essay I wrote a while back about a little boy called Soso whom the world would eventually know as Joseph Stalin.  I’ll post more later, but I thought you might find this short paragraph to be of interest.  (Full documentation available on request.)

“Stalin was born Joseph Dzhughashvili.  His mother was a devout Orthodox Christian and his father was a cobbler easily taken to drink and violence.  Young Soso, as he was known in his younger years, felt firsthand the wanton brutality of his father’s drunken rages.  He also witnessed the terror that his father held over his mother.  But his father was not the only one who beat him.  His mother also would beat him mercilessly for insolence and disobedience which were frequent character traits of the bitter and difficult young boy (Radzinsky).  In fact the violence that he experienced early in life was a mere foretaste of the life that little Soso was to lead.  He may have had to endure the beatings of his childhood, but he eventually would not allow anyone to get the better of him.  He would back down to no one.”

A Word about Haiti

Recently, I did some research on Haitian ethnomusicology. (Don’t ask!)  If you are interested in Haiti, you might like to read the following short excerpt from an essay I wrote about music’s impact on Haitian culture and history.  This portion is about Haiti’s newest president who came to power in 2011. (Full documentation available on request.)

“In a remarkable turn of recent events, the masses have finally elected one of their own as president.  In the aftermath of last year’s deadly earthquake which flattened the capital and killed in excess of 250,000, Haiti has perhaps experienced the most vivid example yet of how much music means to their cultural identity by electing as President a former carnival singer named Michel Martelly.  As movie or sports stars find traction in political elections in the United States, their cultural counterpart in Haiti would be the musicians who have been piercing the political landscape with social criticism for decades.  Martelly was an extremely popular Carnival singer who was known for outrageous outfits and obscene language during his shows, and he won the presidency in a run-off election in April 2011 by receiving a resounding 68% of the vote (Archibold).   Even more recently, with the approval of the new Prime Minister, Martelly has set the stage for one of the most significant presidencies in Haiti for some time.  He has the unenviable task of trying to jump-start economic growth in the midst of the daunting earthquake recovery effort which continues.

Of course, it is much too early to tell what a Martelly presidency will ultimately look like, but perhaps it will have the look and feel of a rara processional.   Musicians have for decades used their rara Carnival songs to poke fun at the obscene to make people laugh.   They have sung their songs as a way to raise their voice in subtle protest to the injustices around them.  Perhaps no one knows the plight of the poor urban masses better than a Carnival singer.   This may be Martelly’s greatest strength – identifying with the people that he represents. . . .   And so now Martelly stands at the crossroads in Haiti, with a wealth of heart knowledge behind him, and the hope of the nation supporting him.”