Thursday, January 29, 2015

The problem of centrism

Earlier this week, the people of Greece gave Syriza, formerly a far-left fringe party, a plurality of seats in their parliament. Syriza is now the leading partner in a coalition government, and its triumph is a testament to the dangers of centrism.

Centrism is an ideology that declares itself to be above ideology. It is an article of faith among centrists that partisanship skews the worldviews of all non-centrists. To a centrist, only centrists understand the true nature of reality, since only centrists are untainted by partisanship. Thus, to a centrist, the ideal type of government would be one where, after an election, the winning side and the losing side get together to negotiate a bipartisan compromise. That way, no matter which side won the election, the same centrist policies would be enacted. It would be the next best thing to not having any elections at all.

Which brings us to Greece. Since the restoration of democracy in 1974, Greece has been dominated by two major parties, the center-right New Democracy and the center-left PASOK. The two parties took turns ruling Greece until the financial meltdown of 2008 caused the country to enter a major recession. The recession meant that the enormous debts that the Greek government had run up during the boom years could not be repaid unless the country was bailed out by the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission (the three of whom are collectively known as the Troika). The Troika insisted that the bailout be accompanied by harsh economic austerity: savage cuts in government spending, in pensions, and in healthcare.

Unfortunately for their country and themselves, New Democracy and PASOK decided that the austerity program ought to be beyond politics, so both parties pledged themselves to support it. Thus, no matter which party won power, the same austerity policies would be enacted. It was the next best thing to not having any elections at all. It was the platonic ideal of centrist government.

Needless to say, Greek voters soon grew tired of voting for two identical parties. The result was that support for both major parties plunged, and fringe parties that opposed austerity suddenly found themselves turning into major parties. The two main beneficiaries of the centrist collapse were Syriza and the fascist Golden Dawn party. The fascists, being fascists, had a tendency to commit political violence, and that cost them support. That allowed Syriza to win big in the last election, and form the next Greek government.

There's another country in Europe where all the major parties have decided to embrace austerity: the UK. And the same thing is happening in the UK that has happened in Greece. The pro-austerity centrist parties are seeing support collapse, and that support is moving to the fringe anti-austerity parties. In the UK's case, the fringe parties that are seeing the biggest gains are the nativist UKIP and the Green Party.

The next elections to the UK parliament are scheduled for May 7.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Short Goodbye

Mark Bernstein is one of the Grand Old Men of the internet, and an editor at Wikipedia. However, despite being both old and white, he has been on the side of the angels on the subject of GamerGate, chronicling the 'gaters attempt to turn Wikipedia into a weapon in their endless, mindless war on women.

Since Clare Hooper has done an outstanding job of summarizing what's happening there, I might as well just steal her summary wholesale:

A very, very brief summary is that the entry on Wikipedia about Gamergate has been the subject of weeks (running into months) of edit wars. It culminated in a decision from ArbCom, the highest user-run body of the site, to ban the five editors who were trying to prevent the page from being rewritten with a pro-Gamergate slant. According to Bernstein’s analysis, sanctions were also applied against some of the pro-Gamergate accounts — but only against a few accounts, and throwaway accounts at that.

Basically, Wikipedia has decided to hand over the keys to the henhouse to the foxes.

I myself have been contributing to Wikipedia for ten years. However, this is just too fucking much. Either the ArbCom is suffering from a massive case of the stupids, or the ArbCom is carrying water for the 'gaters. It doesn't matter which, because either one is reason enough for me to stop contributing.

So that's what I've done. Unless Wikipedia shows a sudden rush of good sense and both completely reverses this decision and issues a sincere apology that actually acknowledges wrongdoing and offers genuine contrition to the many injured parties involved, I won't be back.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Scorpions in a Bottle: He Straddled the Continents

One of the major figures in For Want of a Nail is Bernard Kramer, founder of the business enterprise that bears his name, which grows into the largest corporation in the world by the early 20th century. Yet, for such a central figure, Sobel doesn't actually tell us much about his life. Per Sobel, Kramer was "a German miner who had travelled all over the world searching for wealth". He showed up in California during the gold rush, failed to strike it rich in the gold fields, and went into the supply business instead. "In this way he amassed a fortune, and soon became one of the wealthiest citizens of the state." Kramer served in the California brigades during the Rocky Mountain War with the rank of major, and survived the horrifying Battle of Williams Pass. Sobel also mentions that Kramer "had been raised in a polyglot culture, and was used to mixing with all kinds of people." Five of the twenty-six wealthy California businessmen who formed Kramer Associates in 1865 were Hispanos, including Kramer's brother-in-law. And that's all we know of Kramer's background.

It's time to learn more about Bernard Kramer.

* * *

Few of the prospectors who came to California in the late 1830s and early 1840s were as foresighted, well-prepared, and lucky as John Mason. One who wasn’t was a German immigrant named Bernhard Kramer.

Born in the Kingdom of Hanover in the Germanic Confederation in 1811, Kramer was the son of an instructor at the mining college in Clausthal. Kramer proved to have a gift for languages, and by the time he graduated from Clausthal in 1832, he was fluent in French, English, Spanish, and Italian, as well as in his native German. Kramer set out to travel the world, using his degree as a mining engineer and his linguistic ability to seek wealth as a prospector. Although he was able to make a decent living as he traveled through the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire, India, and Taiwan, great wealth eluded him. He was in Taiwan, prospecting for silver, when he learned of the gold strike in California in 1839. Traveling to San Francisco on board a North American whaling ship, Kramer was able to bribe his way through customs, reaching the gold fields in the fall of 1840. [1]

The pivotal event in Kramer’s life occurred at the Red Dog mining camp in May 1841, when he agreed to return to San Francisco to secure food and other supplies for the miners. The knowledge of Mandarin Chinese he had gained in Taiwan allowed him to strike an advantageous agreement with a Chinese ship captain who had just docked at the city. Kramer was able to sell the Chinese goods at the camp for five times what he had paid for them. From that moment on, Kramer abandoned mining and focused on commerce. [2]

By the time of the outbreak of the Rocky Mountain War in 1845, Kramer (by now calling himself Bernard when among his Anglo business associates, and Bernardo among his Hispano in-laws) had built Kramer Provisions into one of the leading enterprises in San Francisco. When word came of the North American invasion of Mexico del Norte, Kramer used his wealth to recruit and outfit his own company of soldiers, which gained him a captain’s commission from Governor James FitzHugh. A year later, Kramer’s regimental commander, Colonel Carlos Echevarria, recognized that his talents lay in supply rather than field command, and appointed him the regiment’s quartermaster, with a rise in rank to major.

At the Battle of San Fernando, Echevarria’s regiment was able to halt Wilson’s Charge, the furthest penetration west by General David Homer’s army. However, the Mexican forces suffered 4,500 killed and 17,000 wounded in the battle, and were forced to fall back to San Francisco, while the North Americans retreated back to Williams Pass. By October, the California Brigades had been resupplied and brought back up to strength, and General Hernandez was able to lead them east to attack Homer’s men in the pass. Echevarria’s regiment was one of the last to enter the pass, and so was able to maintain a tenuous contact with San Francisco after the winter snows closed the pass, trapping the four armies there.

Kramer’s earlier life as an itinerant miner proved invaluable in helping himself and the rest of Echevarria’s men survive the winter of 1850-51. Kramer was able to organize the men of the regiment into foraging parties, hunting wild game in the pass, and preventing the mass starvation that cost the lives of tens of thousands of other men during the winter. After the death of General Hernandez, Colonel Echevarria succeeded to command of the California Brigades, leading them and the survivors of General Doheny’s army out of the pass after the spring thaw. [3]

The shattering effect of the ordeal on the men of the California Brigades resulted in their discharge from the army in the summer of 1851. However, Kramer’s involvement in the war had not ended. In August, Assemblyman Hector Niles was elected President of Mexico. Like Kramer, Niles was a leading member of San Francisco’s business community, and the two men were acquaintances. After his inauguration in September, Niles approached Kramer to offer him a position as head of the War Department’s Quartermaster Section. Although he was a noted Continentalist who had campaigned against Niles, Kramer accepted, and spent the remainder of the Rocky Mountain War as a member of Niles’ government.

With the coming of peace in August 1853, Kramer resigned from the War Department and resumed his business career in San Francisco. Over the next ten years, Kramer worked tirelessly and ruthlessly to build up Kramer Provisions. In 1861, buying out or bankrupting his competitors, Kramer formed United Dry Goods, the largest commercial enterprise in California. At this point, however, his ambitions to expand his operations throughout the U.S.M. were stymied by the poor transportation links between California and the rest of the country. The California & Jefferson Railroad had never fully recovered from General Parkes’ attacks, and the rest of Mexico’s railroad network was focused on linking Mexico City with Jefferson and with the Chiapas and Durango seaports.

United Dry Goods was not the only California firm suffering from the poor links with the rest of Mexico, and the need to improve them was a constant topic of conversation at social gatherings attended by the state’s business leaders. Efforts to persuade President Conroy to make infrastructure a government priority were unsuccessful. In the end, Kramer and his fellow businessmen decided to finance the work themselves.

At a momentous meeting at the Wilderness Club on April 8, 1865, Kramer and twenty-five other wealthy businessmen agreed to the formation of a consortium to “explore means by which the system of transportation within California, and between California and the rest of the world, might be bettered.” Each member would contribute $200,000 toward the venture, creating the largest pool of capital in the U.S.M.

One aspect of the consortium the new partners could not agree on was a name. The original paperwork referred simply to “the Association,” but suggested names, including United States Transportation, Golden State Partners, and New World Operations, were vetoed by one or another associate. Local newspapers would refer to the group as simply “the Kramer associates,” and by the end of 1865 the name had become permanent. [4]

The first action taken by the new consortium was to buy a controlling interest in the C & J Railroad from original founders Baker and DuForge and carry out much-needed maintenance and upgrades, particularly making the line double-tracked. Plans were also laid for a railroad from San Francisco to Mexico City, and the possibility of a San Francisco-based steamship line was considered. Under the direction of the consortium’s agricultural interests, a state-of-the-art canning plant was built in the Central Valley, the state’s agricultural heartland.

The consortium also considered more far-fetched projects, including a proposal for a lighter-than-air flying machine, submarine cargo vessels, and even rocket-driven trains. The most momentous project, though, proved to be the hiring of Courtney Wymess, the state’s leading mining engineer, to conduct surveys of possible trans-oceanic railroads and canals in Central America.

1. Sonya Parker. Young Kramer: The Early Life of Bernard Kramer (New York, 2002).

2. Elliot Rosen. Bernard Kramer and the California Gold Rush (San Francisco, 2013), pp. 45-58.

3. Timothy Reese. The Businessman at War: Bernard Kramer in the Rocky Mountain War (New York, 1988).

4. Stanley Tulin. The Kramer Associates: Its Origins (London, 1965). Despite the universal use of the name, the company did not officially become Kramer Associates until the merger with Petroleum of Mexico in 1892.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Today in the Sobel Timeline: January 11

On January 11, 1885, Michigan City Mayor Ezra Gallivan criticized the policies of Governor-General John McDowell. Gallivan asked rhetorically why McDowell sought to increase military spending, "since we are not being threatened by any outside foe." Gallivan also asked why McDowell wanted to increase the size of the Confederation Bureau of Investigation "when the dislocations of the early part of our decade have diminished, and our nation fortunately has been spared the pains of our neighbors across the Atlantic."

Gallivan's remarks were reported in the next day's issue of the Michigan City Ledger.

* * *

And so we come to the end of the Johnny Pez blog's Today in the Sobel Timeline feature, which began with this post on January 15, 2014. Why do it? Partly, of course, because it gave me an excuse to blog on a regular basis, which is always important when you've got an always-hungry weblog to feed. Partly it was to provide a new way of looking at Sobel's alternate history, and a chance to reveal the full scope and unique nature of the work. There aren't many timelines where it would even be possible to post a day-by-day account of nearly two centuries' worth of imaginary history. And partly, of course, it was a chance to link back to the Sobel Wiki, and try to drum up some interest in my little geek project.

What will I do now? I suppose I'll get back to work on the sequel, which I have unfortunately let lapse for the last few months. For instance, Sobel was rather sketchy in describing Bernard Kramer's life before he founded Kramer Associates. Something needs to be done about that ...

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Today in the Sobel Timeline: January 10

On January 10, 1926, the United Mexican Party's presidential nominee, Assemblyman Pedro Fuentes, gave a speech in Tampico in which he stated that he considered the manumission and annexation issues closed. From that point on, the campaign between Fuentes and President Emiliano Calles was uneventful, with neither candidate making a major speech.

On January 10, 1935, North American Councilman Bruce Hogg introduced a bill of impeachment against Governor-General Douglas Watson.

On January 10, 1971, Robert Sobel interviewed Kramer Associates historian Stanley Tulin. Tulin discussed K.A. President John Jackson's efforts in the mid-1930 to avert the oncoming Global War. Tulin told Sobel, "From 1936 to 1939, Jackson spent more time searching for a way to peace than in running his companies.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Today in the Sobel Timeline: January 9

On January 9, 1938, North American Governor-General Douglas Watson was nominated for a third term at the Liberal Party's national convention. In his acceptance speech, Watson made it clear that he intended to make the upcoming election a plebiscite for his arms program and internationalist foreign policy. He said, "Only a strong nation can be free and peaceful. If you vote for me, you are voting for the arms program. A vote for my opponent is a mandate for weakness, which would invite aggression and perhaps destroy not only Europe and us with it, but the world."

Watson's remarks were reported in the next day's issue of the New York Herald.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Today in the Sobel Timeline: January 8

On January 8, 1883, North American Governor-General John McDowell gave a speech in Burgoyne attacking his political opponents in the Conservative Party and the People's Coalition, whom he called "men of the past and radicals who would destroy our future, who have hindered every attempt at justice I have made in the past five years." McDowell then listed the bills that had been rejected by the opposition in the Grand Council, saying, "Each of these measures was designed to better the lot of our people. Each, if passed, would have alleviated misery, created jobs, raised wages, or provided cleaner and better places in which our people could live and work. But they have been rejected by the merchants of fear and hate. The people know who their enemies are, and the people will reject them at the polls in February."

McDowell's remarks were reported in the next day's issue of the Burgoyne Times.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter

Will Frederick County Councilman Kirby Delauter sue me for mentioning his name in a blog post?

I guess I'll find out.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Today in the Sobel Timeline: January 6

On January 6, 1916, North American Governor-General Albert Merriman announced that the North Americans who had taken part in the Chapultepec Incident had done so "without the knowledge of this government and certainly without its sanction. Measures will be taken at once to ensure that further incidents involving C.N.A. citizens in Chapultepec and other parts of the United States of Mexico will be prevented. Sobel notes that Merriman's words were carefully calculated to be firm, yet vague. Over the next two weeks, the passports of 10,970 North Americans in the U.S.M. were revoked.

On January 6, 1921, over 10,000 Mexican slaves petitioned President Emiliano Calles to be allowed to remain enslaved. Sobel states that while some of the names were forged, and others were acting under compulsion, a majority of the petitioners felt that under the circumstances, slavery would be preferable to freedom.

On January 6, 1968, former Minister for Home Affairs Grover Speigal gave a speech at the Liberal Party convention denouncing Governor-General Carter Monaghan's policy of disbanding the National Financial Administration. "Should this happen," said Speigal, "the nation will be the province of giant firms, and the freedom of enterprise will be gone, with the others to follow soon after."

Speigal's speech was reported in the next day's issue of the New York Herald.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Today in the Sobel Timeline: January 5

On January 5, 1899, in response to a request from Kramer Associates President Diego Cortez y Catalán, the Japanese government attempted to mediate an end to the Great Northern War between the United States of Mexico and the Russian Empire. Ono Yamashita, the Japanese ambassador to Mexico City, met with Secretary of State Felicio Montoya to ask whether Chief of State Benito Hermión was willing to establish terms for a peace agreement. At the same time, the Japanese ambassador to St. Petersburg, Baron Keigo Kiyoura, spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Prince Pyotr Sviatopolk-Mirsky about possible Japanese mediation.

On January 5, 1926, there was a vitavised debate between Mexican President Emiliano Calles and his United Mexican Party challenger, Assemblyman Pedro Fuentes. Both candidates were wary of appearing too combative, and spoke guardedly about the issue of manumission.

On January 5, 1950, Jeffrey Martin of the New York Herald published a story discussing a recent tour of the Confederation of North America. Martin had taken an extensive tour of the country twelve years earlier, and met again with 476 people he had spoken to during the earlier tour. Martin wrote, "It is interesting to note that of the 295 individuals who told me they planned to vote for Coalition councilmen and so elect Hogg, 203 claimed to have voted Liberal and had supported Watson. They apparently had convinced themselves that they had guilt for the war, and tried to expunge this sentiment with a retroactive PC vote."

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Today in the Sobel Timeline: January 4

Just before dawn on January 4, 1916, several fires broke out in the Negro sections of the Mexican city of Chapultepec, followed by rioting. The police were sent to the area to put down the riot, leaving the city's Federal Prison largely unguarded. At that point, more than 2,000 young people, including many North Americans, stormed the Federal Prison. The external guards were overpowered, and the mob began to batter down the prison gates. Despite being fired upon by the interior guards, members of the mob made it past the guards and into the prison, where they began freeing the 8,000 slaves being tried for treason. The slaves joined the attackers in subduing the remaining guards, then escaped with them into the streets of Chapultepec. Soldiers from Mexico City were rushed to the scene, followed by an investigative team. It was later determined that in addition to 4,000 injured, the attack on the prison cost the lives of 188 guards, 549 attackers, and 429 prisoners.

On January 4, 1955, self-appointed Mexican President Colonel Vincent Mercator responded to economic attacks by Kramer Associates President Carl Salazar by giving a vitavised speech in which he warned that "Mexico's enemies will not go unpunished. We will push in Mr. Salazar's ugly snout, and make him wish he hadn't thought of his slimy plan to destroy us."

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Today in the Sobel Timeline: January 3

On January 3, 1916, the Mexican army troops who were called out to assist police in Chapultepec four days earlier returned to their barracks in Mexico City after calm returned to the city.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Today in the Sobel Timeline: January 2

On January 2, 1942, the United States of Mexico and Japan exchanged declarations of war, one day after a Mexican sneak attack on the Japanese brought both nations into the Global War. Mexican President Alvin Silva insisted that the attack was necessary to forestall a planned Japanese attack on Mexico.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Sobel Wiki Year End Report: 2014

A year has gone by since my last blog post on the general state of the Sobel Wiki. So what's been happening with my quixotic geek project?

In the last year, the number of pages has increased by 130 from 2124 to 2254, and the number of photos by 85 from 436 to 521. For those of you keeping track at home, that's an average of one new page created every 2.8 days, and one new photo added every 4.3 days.

Sadly, the sudden flood of new wiki participants that I anticipated would result from news that I was working on an authorized sequel to For Want of a Nail failed to materialize. Not only that, real life issues have kept my wiki colleagues David Mix Barrington and Christina Taylor from participating, putting me back in the position of being the sole author of new articles.

Despite this, I am undeterred. If nothing else, being the creator and chief administrator of the Sobel Wiki makes me one of the world's leading authorities on Sobel's alternate history, so at least I can claim to be a leading authority on something.

Today in the Sobel Timeline: January 1

On January 1, 1842, Negro slavery was abolished in the Southern Confederation under the provisions of the Lloyd Bill, with the owners receiving compensation of N.A. £32 per slave. Since the bill's passage in May 1840, nearly all the slaveowners in the S.C. had already freed their slaves at a compensated rate of N.A. £35.

On January 1, 1942, the allied nations of Siberia and the United States of Mexico launched a surprise attack against Japan. Military airmobiles based in Siberia attacked the Japanese port of Nagasaki, while airmobiles from Mexican aircraft carriers bombed the Japanese capital of Tokyo.