WSJ Historically Speaking: Famous Lost Words

Famous Lost Words“Trigger warning” used to be a clinical phrase in psychiatry. Nowadays, the term has gone mass-market. It is often used in blogs and humanities departments to highlight a text that might upset an unsuspecting reader.

In the not too distant past, going to college meant being exposed to all kinds of subversive, rude and downright shocking literature. This often caused the authorities great unease. Plato (c. 429-347 B.C.) was the first educator to denounce the pernicious effects of the written word on impressionable minds. In “The Republic,” he argued that literature was a breeding ground for immoral behavior. The solution was to keep fiction out of the hands of children (ignorance being the sincerest form of protection). A century and a half later, in 213 B.C., the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang put theory into practice and ordered the mass burning of all books save those on medicine, prophesy, agriculture and a few other topics.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: When Summer Is a Bummer

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Summertime has officially begun. But is it really true, as the George Gershwin song claims, that “the livin’ is easy”?

Benjamin Franklin advised his fellow Americans against seasonal complacency, observing, “Some are weather-wise, some are otherwise.” For many people, summertime means either the threat of floods and hurricanes or the pain of wildfires and droughts. Nothing easy there.

In Britain, however, summertime has always posed a somewhat different problem—more existential than experiential. As with invisible protons, being certain of the existence of the British summer requires a leap of faith. Lord Byron wasn’t convinced, writing, “The English winter—ending in July, to recommence in August.”

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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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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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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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WSJ Historically Speaking: Gambling and Other American Hustles

Photo: PETER ARKLE

Photo: PETER ARKLE

More than 100 million Americans are expected to bet in some way on this year’s NCAA men’s college basketball tournament–proving that the “madness” in March Madness is no mere expression. In 2013, according to Pregame.com, more than $12 billion was bet on the tournament—$2 billion more than on the Super Bowl. Between the slacking off, the drinking, the overeating and the surreptitious score-watching at work, one recent study predicts that March Madness will cost the U.S. $134 million in lost productivity and wages—all this despite the fact that in most U.S. jurisdictions, NCAA tournament pools remain totally illegal.

The U.S. has always had an uneasy relationship with gambling. Internet gambling remained illegal until this year—though that didn’t prevent Americans from spending more than $3 billion gambling online last year, according to the American Gaming Association. This great dichotomy in attitudes has been part of the national landscape since the early settlements in the 17th century. In Puritan New England, gambling wasn’t just a sin but a crime, whereas in the South, gambling was a gentlemen’s sport so long as it didn’t involve cockfighting. In the 1770s, the 13 colonies adopted a more robust attitude: Every one of them resorted to lottery schemes to raise revenue. Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton all benefited from lottery money. Even the Revolutionary War was funded by lottery.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Beware of Astrologers on the March

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

According to the Roman historian Suetonius, an unnamed soothsayer repeatedly tried to warn Julius Caesar that calamity awaited him, famously saying, “Beware the Ides of March.” But March 15 arrived without anything untoward taking place, and Caesar bumped into the soothsayer as he made his way to the Curia Pompeii. “See,” chided Caesar, “the day has come.” “Yes,” came the reply. “But it has not yet gone.”

If the story is true, the soothsayer is one of the few astrologers in history to make a completely clear and unambiguously accurate prediction. But the abysmal record of astrology and its intellectual cohorts doesn’t seem to have dented their popularity. Looking to the stars for guidance is as ancient as the Babylonians, who used astrological charts to help predict the recurrence of the seasons. Every ancient civilization from the Egyptians to the Persians studied the stars, seeing astronomy and astrology as variations of the same pursuit.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: A Brief History of Avoiding Exercise

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Winter storms have become so frequent in the U.S. that they now have names, like hurricanes. This week saw the arrival of Seneca, making for a touch-and-go race about which will run out first: the alphabet or the jet stream. The weather in the eastern U.S. has been brutal enough this year that millions of Americans have been confined to their homes. In a country where, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one in six of us does anything like the recommended amount of physical activity, “Snowmaggedon” is a danger to the country’s health as well as its roads.

The ancients knew well that people will use any excuse to avoid exercise—bad weather, of course, being among the most popular. To counteract the natural human tendency toward inertia, the Greeks had their Olympics, the Chinese their tai chi and the Indians their yoga. The Romans went so far as to make exercise a legal requirement for all male citizens age 17 to 60. With the exception of Thomas Aquinas, who was colossally fat, lack of exercise was rarely a problem in the Middle Ages. Few people had time for aerobics when survival was the order of the day.

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