2020 At Its Mid-Point: “The Disaster Year?”

Why am I writing about the infamous Dutch “Disaster Year,” today?   Though today marks merely the half-way mark of this calendar year, I have a sense that for decades to come, and quite possibly for centuries, this year, Anno Domini 2020, may well be known by an epithet such as “The Disaster Year.”

In Dutch history, the year 1672 has from that time to the present been known as “Het Rampjaar,” “The Disaster Year.”  So many catastrophes and calamities befell the Dutch Republic in that year, that to the Netherlanders of that day and later, the whole year merited the description “Disaster.”  The Dutch today describe their forebears of 1672 as “Het volk redeloos, de regering radeloos, en het land reddeloos;”  “The people, irrational; the government, irresponsible; the country, irredeemable.”  

Prior to 1672, the tiny nation had seemed to be enjoying a charmed and fortunate existence: After decades of struggle, the United Provinces of The Netherlands had finally achieved independence from Spanish rule and in 1648 had secured international recognition as a nation.  Unusually, in an age of emperors and kings and princes, the United Provinces formed a republic to govern themselves; this proved a brilliant boon to the nation.

The governments of monarchs were notoriously bad risks for money lenders, for if a king died in debt, his debts passed with him.  But a republic, well that was another thing all together.  A republic, like a corporation, is intended to be immortal.  This stability also means that a republic cannot simply shed its debts upon the death of a leader.  So the Dutch Republic quickly became known as a uniquely good risk for money-lending.  Basically, the Dutch Republic had a really high credit score, and the result was that it could borrow money far more cheaply than the great kingdoms around it.  Wars cost lots and lots of money.

Thus it was that the tiny Dutch Republic could rival England and France and the sundry German potentates on fields of battle, and utterly outdo these rivals in the commercial arena.  Small though she was, the Dutch Republic in the 17th Century sailed the largest merchant fleet in the world, and a navy that was numerically on par with France and England, and which had by far the fastest, most maneuverable ships.  This is why the reach of The Netherlands extended from the West Indies, where today’s Kingdom of The Netherlands still holds sovereign possessions, to the East Indies and from New York (“Nieuw Amsterdam,” originally) to Cape Town.  Such a trading empire also afforded the ability of the urban middle class of the Dutch Republic to become the wealthiest in the world, allowing them to build comfortable urban residences and to become patrons of a luminous constellation of portraitists and landscape painters of unsurpassed ability so that their compact and efficient homes could be adorned with artworks.

But “Het Rampjaar” changed everything.  In the wake of the Disaster Year, Prince William of Orange and his supporters gained control of the government allowing William to be granted the title of Stadtholder, “keeper of the state,” and act as a de facto monarch.  Though the Dutch Republic was not destroyed — it would officially persist until the time of Napoleon some 130 years later — it became less and less meaningful and finally yielded to a royal kingdom in the early 19th Century, a status it retains today.

So what happened during Het Rampjaar?  In the main, too many wars on too many fronts happened simultaneously.  England, France, and a coalition of German Princes and Electors all attacked The Netherlands, and the invading armies conquered much of the nation’s territory.  Cities were pillaged, immense stores of goods were looted or burned in merchants’ warehouses, people were forced to refugee to safety, and civil disorder completely disrupted normal trade and commerce.  Of particular note is that tensions which had strained the Republic’s politics for generations, the conflicting desires of some to retain their republic, and the aims of others to install a proper royal monarch, exploded.

Johan DeWitt, the “Raadpensionaris” of the Republic (“Prime Minister,” effectively) and his brother were attacked at the instigation of Admiral Cornelius Tromp, by a mob of Orangists — supporters of Prince William of Orange who were in the pay of Tromp — who tore the DeWitt brothers from limb to limb and are said to have roasted and eaten their flesh!  After two generations of unparalleled prosperity and success, the Dutch were unprepared for defeat and temperamentally unsuited to cope with it, and the nation was riven at precisely the time when it could least afford any disunity.

Of course, the Dutch Republic was, in the end, utterly lost, but The Netherlands remains a vital and vibrant nation to this day.  Despite the upheavals of the Disaster Year, the country did not vanish; the people did not fade away.

So, why am I writing about Het Rampjaar today?   Precisely because 2020, may well be long known by an epithet such as “The Disaster Year.”   While the United States of America has not been beset by multiple foreign invaders – thanks be! — we have seen an almost unrelieved stream of incomprehensible crises and often inexplicable action and unfathomable utterances from our leadership at every level. Far worse, in many ways, we have also seen incomprehensible inaction and utter silence from our leadership especially when leadership was most desperately needed. Too, protests against racism have been condemned while undeniable racism has been praised from the very top of our government, and our leadership still declines to take any meaningful action at all. And with every action Americans make being framed as a purely political litmus test, and considerable portion of our population declaring their complete lack of concern for the well-being of others in this country, the pandemic rages unabated. A mask is too much to ask. So, as many urban areas remain tense and volatile, as the international community works to literally isolate the U.S., as the number of cases of COVID-19 continue to rise at alarming rates, and the Butcher’s Bill continues to climb, the nearly 350 year old observation seems, tragically, frightfully fitting:

“The people, irrational; the government, irresponsible; the country, irredeemable.”

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

We can communicate an idea around the world in seventy seconds, but it sometimes takes years for an idea to get through a quarter-inch of human skull. 

  Charles F. Kettering

Juneteenth: A Day To Recommit To Making Freedom A Reality

In America today, June 2020 has been rent by massive outrage and violent protest due to the inescapable fact that in more than a century-and-a-half, so little real progress has been made toward making that freedom a meaningful fact of daily life for millions in this country who are descendants of those who were formerly enslaved, and others. The frequency and the rate at which African-American men die at the hands of police is stunning evidence that there remains a grotesque and shameful, systemic inequality that makes a mockery of the notion of full freedom for all. In an especially egregious example of – to be generous – cluelessness, (or something far more repulsive) a major political rally for a candidate, one who has demonstrated contempt for both June’s protesters and the cause of their protest, was planned for today, 19 June 2020, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which ninety-nine years ago this month was the scene of what is likely the most destructive and deadliest “race riot” in this nation’s history: The Greenwood Massacre.

So it is that we find 19 June 2020 does not arrive in a time where celebration and rejoicing seem apt. We are in a time that demands reflection and remembrance as well as education. And we are in a time that demands action. No longer can “business as usual” continue. I therefore write about the event in 1865 to educate. But I also resolve to work to bring about tangible improvements in the state of this country. Writing is no major action, but helping to educate is a needed step.

One hundred fifty-five years ago today, on this date in 1865, a Monday, Major General Gordon Granger of the United States Army, landed at Galveston, Texas and proclaimed that the Emancipation Proclamation of two and a half years earlier was thereafter in effect in the Department of Texas. Granger posted notice, by broadsheet and by cryer, that the enslaved people in Texas were thenceforth and forevermore free, that the relationship between them and their former masters would be one of “absolute equality,” and that former masters were to become employers while the formerly enslaved were free labor.

The impact of General Granger’s delivery of the news is debated to this day. Accounts differ about the immediate impact; there may or may not have been dancing in the streets and spontaneous revelry that particular day in 1865, though it seems likely. But quite quickly in the years that followed, June 19th, contracted into the euphonious “Juneteenth”, became a day of celebration, feasting, rejoicing and prayer throughout Texas. As formerly enslaved Texans migrated to other states, Juneteenth celebrations and traditions were carried with them.

By the early 20th century, Juneteenth observances had become less common as the generation who had been present in 1865 faded away. But in the 1950’s and 1960’s, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, interest in Juneteenth revived. Today some of the largest Juneteenth celebrations are held far from Texas, in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin! Juneteenth celebrations mark a recognition of the vast difference between a legal status, as when the enslaved people were theoretically freed in 1863, and a real status, as when Union troops arrived in Texas with the news.

I think that Juneteenth is really an appropriate day for all Americans to take note; freedom is truly meant for all people, and it cannot mean much to a free people if they permit or engage in the enslavement of other people. Equally true, is that freedom means little to people for whom the fact of their birth and heritage effectively continues to impose shackles, metaphoric shackles as well as metal shackles, in fact, upon them and their families. It is clear that there is so much work to be done. Freedom can never be taken for granted. It is not enough to speak of it, or even to write of it. Freedom demands our active involvement to address and to resolve the continued wrongs born of an invidious past and nurtured by ongoing indifference.

Therefore, on Juneteenth 2020, take a moment to be grateful for the freedoms we have, and remember they must never be taken for granted. Reflect upon the unspeakable joy that must have been in the hearts of those who were still enslaved when they heard the glorious news that fine June day so long ago, “You are free!” And recognize that the unfulfilled promise of 1865 requires our renewed and vigorous commitment to its realization.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Free at last, free at last
I thank God I’m free at last
Free at last, free at last
I thank God I’m free at last

Free At Last, a Spiritual

Leadership Matters

Throughout the History of The United States of America, through our times of gravest peril as a nation, our country has been blessed with the presence of a leader who was able to rise to the challenge to overcome the difficulties to bring the nation safely through the danger and achieve a successful conclusion. The examples are many.

Even before this nation was a nation, we were astonishingly fortunate to have George Washington step up to the demands of leading the Continental Army against the vastly superior forces of the British Empire. Washington’s particular military skill was to know that winning crucial battles mattered more than winning every battle, and to understand that simply keeping the British forces in the field would wear down the resolve of that mighty Empire. So Washington was able to bring about victory for the cause of independence and to see The United States of America come into being.

But this was not all that Washington was to do for our country, as is well known. When the fledgeling United States was foundering under the ineffective and unwieldy Articles of Confederation, and a Constitutional Convention was called, it was Washington who presided over that fractious body and who ultimately saw the creation of our present Constitution with its carefully crafted scheme of checks and balances to foster liberty and good governance. And of course, Washington finally served this nation as its first chief executive, and established many precedents for the office of President that have served this nation so well for so much of its history.

So ably did Washington serve in these three demanding and difficult roles that upon his death official observances of mourning were decreed not only throughout the United States, but in Paris, London, and much of Europe. Through dangerous and fraught times, and immense, daunting challenges, The United States of America had the incredible good fortune to have a leader who was equal to the need.

When next the nation was faced with a genuine existential crisis in the face of the irresolvable problem of slavery existing in a land which proclaimed its dedication to Liberty, and the perpetual union of states was violently fractured by the slave-holding interests of the southern states, this country was gifted with Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln understood that The United States of America mattered to the world and to world history, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, could not be allowed to vanish from the earth. Lincoln also understood that a nation with so high a calling as that of Liberty could not endure with slavery in its borders.

Through our deadliest, most destructive war, Lincoln provided the leadership and the vision, and inspired the nation’s loyal citizens to commit, even unto their last full measure of devotion, to preserving our union and to doing away with slavery. Upon achieving hard-won victory, Lincoln also exhorted a nation that: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Once again, America was hugely blessed through a time of greatest peril.

Almost seven decades later, The United States found itself in the midst of an economic disaster so great that ever after the term “The Depression” has meant only one such event. So profound was the impact of the economic collapse of the U.S. and its trading partners that one-third of the nation could be described as “ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” The average American’s confidence in the economic system of the United States was profoundly shaken as millions became unemployed, and bank after bank failed, wiping out the life savings of millions. President Herbert Hoover was committed to a laissez-faire, hands-off approach to the economic crisis, and was on principle opposed to government assistance to individuals in any form, and the nation suffered grievously.

In the presidential election of 1932, the country voted overwhelmingly for Franklin D. Roosevelt, governor of New York and possessor of a respected and beloved family name. Roosevelt immediately set himself to the task of addressing the myriad problems that beset the nation, including reassuring the public about the stability of the nation’s banking system. Before his inauguration, Roosevelt announced a “Bank Holiday,” promising that auditors would assess every bank, and only permit solvent, stable institutions to reopen for business. This declaration brought an end to the calamitous bank runs of early 1933. FDR famously accomplished so much in his first three months or so in office that ever since, presidents have been evaluated on their “first hundred days.”

Roosevelt’s strenuous efforts did not bring an end to the Depression, however. As is clear from his second inaugural address, (wherefrom the above observation about one-third of the nation is drawn) the Depression was still in full force in 1936. And, in fact, it was not until the massive economic surge demand for military readiness and wartime production from 1940 – 1945 that the Depression was truly overcome. But by 1939, an even greater danger had arisen.

With the Axis powers waging wars of aggression and conquest across Europe, Africa, and Asia, the United States tried to walk a tightrope of non-involvement, a tightrope walk that proved impossible to continue. In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR rallied an isolationist nation to full wartime footing. Again and again through bad news and setbacks, Roosevelt reassured the country that victory would ultimately be achieved. So much had the nation come to depend upon Roosevelt’s leadership that he was returned to the presidency for unprecedented 3rd and 4th terms. Though FDR died before the final victory was achieved, the United States of America had once more had the great fortune of a leader who was able to guide the nation through dark days and peril to achieve victory.

In times of crisis and peril, in periods of grave, existential threats to the nation, The United States of America has been astonishingly fortunate in its leadership.

I suppose every winning streak must come to its crashing end.

— Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

“The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision.
You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”  —  Theodore Hesburgh

Shielding The Shield

To those of us of a certain age, who vividly recall the civil unrest and social upheavals of the latter 1960s and the early 1970s, one observation seems notable. Despite the cries of “Police brutality!” which punctuated so many of the protests and violent responses of that era, it seems that cases egregious abuses of individuals by police were less prominent, and that cases of police excesses that result is serious bodily harm or even death of those in police custody were less common than they have been in the past three decades or so.

It is, of course, quite possible that reporting and coverage is simply more complete and more thorough than it had been in the past. As became clear with the case of Rodney King in 1992, the widespread availability of video cameras has meant that many actions that were once undocumented have been recorded in ways that drew natural public outrage. While it is true that we must always be alert to the fact that any single video is only one perspective, video evidence is very persuasive, and it could well be that this one technology, which has expanded by multiple orders of magnitude with the advent of smartphones, could explain the more frequently identified cases of official abuse.

However, it is of crucial importance to note a legal development that came about a decade before Rodney King’s high-profile beating at the hands of the LAPD. In 1982, our Supreme Court created a new and broadly applicable doctrine known as “qualified immunity” which broadly protects government officials from being sued to be held to account for their actions which violate Civil Rights and even established law. This doctrine was established in Harlow v Fitzgerald. It has been invoked in hundreds — possibly thousands — of suits asserting official abuse since it was created. An extremely high standard is established in this doctrine. Government officials are generally immune from being sued unless their actions violated clearly established federal law or Constitutional Rights.

This potent doctrine has been increasingly used to essentially excuse even cases of fatal force from police; concomitant with this increased application in cases of deaths at the hands of officials has been an increase in cases of public outrage and protest. One may well wonder: how can taking the life of a non-violent suspect not be a clear violation of an established right? Well, the courts have determined that Life is not a clearly established right, that’s how.

One could be forgiven for imagining that the words of our Declaration of Independence might serve as ample confirmation of a clearly established right to life: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

It can certainly be argued that this declaration is not organic law. It can equally be argued that this declaration is the de facto organic law of our republic ab initio; this is precisely what Abraham Lincoln asserted during his public and political career. Such an interpretation would mean that we Americans of any race, creed, or economic status are by right and organic law entitled to a right to life. From this follows that forcibly depriving anyone who is not acting with deadly, offensive force of life without clear due process is, in fact, a violation of their rights.

But such an interpretation does not currently exist. The deck is stacked. One can readily understand the volcanic frustration of those who see abuses continuing unchecked.

Jamie Rawson
2 June 2020

“I am ashamed the law is such an ass.” — George Chapman, 1598