WSJ Historically Speaking: When a Monarch Calls It Quits

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Abdication fever is sweeping the royal palaces of Europe. Recently, Spain’s King Juan Carlos became the third monarch in just over a year to renounce his crown. In January 2013, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands declared that she was stepping down in favor of her son, Prince Willem-Alexander. King Albert II of Belgium followed six months later.

Abdication in the old days was usually a prelude to execution. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud (who ruled from 534 to 509 B.C.), is one of the earliest recorded examples of a monarch who was forced to abdicate and still lived to tell the tale. Tarquin was the seventh and last king of the Romans. Burdened by heavy taxes, the aristocracy was already wishing to be rid of Tarquin when his son raped the pious Lucretia. The crime proved to be the catalyst for the birth of the Roman republic.

Tarquin eventually retired to the court of a neighboring tyrant. There, bored and angry, he plotted endlessly to reconquer Rome. Today, if Tarquin is remembered at all, it is by the generations of British schoolchildren who grew up learning to recite “Horatius at the Bridge,” Thomas Babington Macaulay’s stirring ballad on Tarquin’s defeat: “Lars Porsena of Clusium, / by the Nine Gods he swore, / That the great house of Tarquin / Should suffer wrong no more…And how can man die better/ Than facing fearful odds / For the ashes of his fathers / And the temples of his gods.”

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The Sunday Times: Phoney cause of the nipple freedom fighters

Phoney cause of the nipple freedom fightersNew York last week was awash with nipples. Actually, it was a tiny corner of downtown Manhattan. And it wasn’t so much a sea of breasts, as a handful (or an eyeful) of women who went topless in support of a campaign to “free the nipple”. For the uninitiated, #FreeTheNipple, was the brainchild of 29-year-old Lina Esco, who felt it was unfair that men can show their nipples in public in all 50 states, whereas for women it’s a mere 13. Esco struggled in comparative obscurity until her protest was annexed recently by Scout Willis, daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. She is locked in an ongoing struggle with Instragram over the freedom to post naked selfies. The internet company maintains a blanket policy against nude photos as a way of deterring pornographers and paedophiles.

Meanwhile, in Washington, far from the media glare and Scout Willis’s breasts, another struggle for women’s rights was taking place last week. This one, led by Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri and others, is part of a White House effort to stem the increase in sexual assaults across US campuses. Roused in part by a 2007 federal study that revealed a shocking level of violence against female students — 20% are sexually assaulted at some point during their college career — in May the White House appointed a taskforce to confront the problem. In addition to holding hearings on the subject on Capitol Hill, the taskforce is focusing on how to use Title IX, a 1972 civil rights law, to force universities to provide better protection for female students.

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The Sunday Times: Stay silent and soon Amazon will be telling the world what it can read

Photo: Glen Noble

Photo: Glen Noble

One of the greatest monopolies in history was the medieval Catholic Church. Its religious and temporal power was absolute until confronted by an even more potent rival: the printed book. Today, print is once more at the centre of a cultural revolution. Only this time it is not the challenger to a global monopoly but its most successful weapon.

Amazon, founded and controlled by Jeff Bezos, used the humble book to leverage itself into becoming the world’s largest online retailer. It took 20 years for Amazon to emerge as a monopolistic power. Last week, by creating an effective blacklist of authors for use as a bargaining tool against Hachette Book Group, the company showed us how far it would go in its abuse of that power.

The public has only recently become aware of the long shadow war between Amazon and the publishing industry. In February Amazon began quietly “disappearing” certain authors in an attempt to force Hachette into giving larger discounts on its books.

What the public does not know is that the real fight is about kickbacks. How can Amazon make up for the fact that it sells almost all its books at a loss?

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WSJ Historically Speaking: The Great Swindlers

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Great swindles used to have a face or at least a name to vilify. By contrast, our current financial scandals seem diffuse, transnational and as incomprehensible as their acronyms. Libor, ISDAfix and now HFT, or high-frequency trading—all were once regarded as harmless instruments that facilitated the movement of capital. But there was more to them than met the eye. As the best-selling financial writer Michael Lewis, author of the recently published “Flash Boys,” recently said on “60 Minutes,” “The United States stock market, the most iconic market in global capitalism, is rigged.”

Though computers have increasingly replaced humans and business methods have grown more arcane, what links today’s scandals with those of yesteryear is the hypnotizing power of confidence. Violence can force people to act against their instincts, but only confidence can make us override them. Charles Ponzi, whose fraudulent postal-coupon scam in 1919 gave rise to the term “Ponzi scheme,” exuded such confidence that he was still able to attract investors even after he brought down six banks, lost about $20 million and spent 3½ years in prison.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: When Justice Drowns in the Law

Photo: ARTHUR GIRON

Photo: ARTHUR GIRON

In “The Federalist Papers,” No. 62, James Madison warned his readers against drawing up laws that were unnecessarily dense or complicated: “It will be of little avail to the people…if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.”

Congress largely heeded Madison’s advice until World War II, when the average bill was still only 21/2 pages long. But today, 1,000-page spending bills routinely pass through Congress. President Bush’s 2007 budget bill counted 1,482 pages, while the 2010 Affordable Care Act ended up at almost 1,000 pages.

According to Philip Howard, the author of “The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government,” the chief problem with laws that rival “War and Peace” in length is that the rule of law suffers. Instead of being the facilitator for civil society, he warns, the law can become an instrument of paralysis.

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The Sunday Times: The Ugly American inside Obama is wagging his finger at the world

Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Barack Obama began his recent four-nation tour of Asia by having dinner with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Japan’s renowned sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro.

The restaurant has three Michelin stars but only 10 seats and it can take years to get a reservation. The set meal consists of 20 exquisite sushi pieces, each personally cut by 88-year-old chef Jiro Ono. According to a witness, Obama decided he was finished after the 10th and put down his chopsticks.

There are three possible reasons why Obama stopped eating halfway through the meal. 1) The 44th president is severely allergic to raw fish. 2) Obama was frightened of pulling a George HW Bush and throwing up in Abe’s lap. 3) He was, well, kind of full, you know?

I have a strong suspicion that the answer is No 3. Obama has a political tin ear whenever he has to hobnob with foreigners — such as the time he bowed to the Japanese emperor in 2009 only to ruin the gesture by simultaneously shaking hands. Whether it was ignorance or arrogance or a combination of the two, the gaffe pandered directly to the stereotype of the “Ugly American”.

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The Wall Street Journal: The Special Vilification of Female Leaders

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Thirty-five years ago this Sunday, Margaret Thatcher became the first woman to be elected British prime minister. She wasn’t the first woman to be at the head of what had often been “Her Majesty’s Government,” of course, but only Thatcher had fought her way to parliamentary power via a general election. Standing on the steps of 10 Downing Street, she acknowledged the sexual and political revolution that had taken place. To her naysayers, Thatcher offered the famous prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony…where there is doubt, may we bring faith.”

During her 11 years in office, Thatcher repaid her Tory supporters’ faith, eradicating any last doubts that a woman could govern as well as a man. But her wish to bring harmony was in vain. Judging by the names she was called, Thatcher attracted a unique hatred among some Britons that was hard to separate from the fact she was a woman. After Thatcher’s death in 2013, a vociferous minority campaigned to propel the song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” to the top of the official U.K. singles chart. It stopped at No. 2.

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WSJ Historically Speaking:The Verse Heard Round the World

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

April 19, 1775, was a quiet day in America’s Thirteen Colonies—except for a deadly encounter in Lexington, Mass., between about 80 militiamen and 700 British regulars. Neither side had been expecting a fight, and no one knows who really fired the first shot. But accident or no, it set off one of the greatest social and political experiments in history.

The Battle of Lexington was also the inspiration behind one of America’s best-known poems, the “Concord Hymn” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Even those unfamiliar with the poem will recognize the line: “Here once the embattled farmers stood/ And fired the shot heard round the world.”

A single act can indeed change the course of history, and Emerson’s line has often been invoked since the poem appeared in 1837. It is particularly associated with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914 by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. Though powerful forces were already building before the Habsburg archduke’s death, Princip’s shot is widely regarded as the blast that set them free.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: The Lesson of the Last Passenger Pigeon

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

In April 1896, a flock of American passenger pigeons was discovered nesting in a forest outside Bowling Green, Ohio. Once the most ubiquitous bird in North America, the passenger pigeon had shrunk from countless billions to this single of flock of 250,000. News of the find was telegraphed across the country, drawing hundreds of visitors to the area.

By this time, the great bison—a powerful symbol of frontier America—had dwindled from a population of tens of millions to just a few hundred, all in zoos or reservations. Determined to prevent a similar fate for the passenger pigeon, several states had already enacted hunting bans. Seeing the birds gave conservationists hope that the restrictions were working.

Unfortunately, the visitors to Bowling Green weren’t bird watchers but hunters, and Ohio had no such protective laws. They killed the entire flock in a day. Afterward, the train taking the carcasses to sell in New York City derailed, leaving them to rot in a ravine. Eighteen years later, the lone survivor of the species—a female bird named Martha, after George Washington’s wife—died in a cage in the Cincinnati zoo.

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Smithsonian Magazine: The Amazon Women: Is There Any Truth Behind the Myth?

Photo: David Finch/DC Comics

Photo: David Finch/DC Comics

I loved watching the “Wonder Woman” TV series when I was a girl. I never wanted to dress like her—the idea of wearing a gold lamé bustier and star-spangled blue underwear all day seemed problematic—but the Amazonian princess was strong and resourceful, with a rope trick for every problem. She seemed to be speaking directly to me, urging, “Go find your own inner Amazonian.” When I read the news that Wonder Woman was going to be resurrected for a blockbuster movie in 2016, Batman vs. Superman, it made me excited—and anxious. Would the producers give her a role as fierce as her origins—and maybe some shoulder straps—or would she just be cartoon eye candy?

The fact that she isn’t even getting billing in the title makes me suspicious. It wouldn’t have pleased Wonder Woman’s creator either. “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,” declared the psychologist and comic book writer William Moulton Marston, offering a proto-feminist vision that undoubtedly sounded quite radical in 1943. “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are.”

Over the years, the writers at DC Comics softened Wonder Woman’s powers in ways that would have infuriated Marston. During the 1960s, she was hardly wondrous at all, less a heroic warrior than the tomboyish girl next-door. It was no longer clear whether she was meant to empower the girls or captivate the boys. But the core brand was still strong enough for Gloria Steinem to put her on the cover of the first newsstand issue of Ms. magazine in 1972—with the slogan “Wonder Woman for President.”

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