Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Charitable Hope 

In the Last Emperor there was a scene in which the imperial eunuchs, suddenly out of a job because of the revolution, are dismissed from service. Each one is given a little black bag that contains his balls so that all of them would leave service with everything they came into it with. One hopes that at the end of this election, Trump will have the decency to give Pence, Giuliani, Christie, and Priebus their little black bags....

Monday, September 26, 2016

Description of the World - Part 67

Richard Jenkyns, The Victorians and Ancient Greece (The past is always with us, but it isn’t the same past. I’m still waiting for the publication of The Greeks: Who the Hell Were They? because it’s been a long time since I’ve had any confidence in my ability to distinguish my own blurry view of antiquity from the images in the hall of mirrors. The Greeks themselves began the process of idealizing their own reality in Hellenistic times by selection and editing, and the work of definition and redefinition has proceeded ever since. There’s a heavy element of recursion at work in this process since we not only have a changing view of the Greeks but a changing view of the various takes that have been taken of the Greeks before us and even some appreciation of the effects of becoming aware of the history of the interpretations. Maybe each layer of reflection is only 1/137 as important as the one before—I don’t know if there’s such a thing as the fine structure constant in hermeneutics—but the summed result is an enormous, baroquely complicated object of thought.

Francis L. Wellman, The Art of Cross-Examination, Fourth Edition (I don’t know if I’ve every used the methods suggested in this eminently practical book, but some of the quoted transcripts are memorable. Thing is, though, I found myself sympathizing with the witnesses caught up by the cleverness of the lawyers that crossed ‘em like the paranoid at a commitment hearing who was jollied along for a couple of hours until he was disarmed into simply admitting, “Yes, I am the Christ.” The downfall of Oscar Wilde comes across rather differently now than it must have when Wellman commented on it. Well, I’m guessing that whether you root for the prosectors or defendants on Law and Order rerurns reveals a great deal about a person.)

Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, ed. George Berry (The volume is out of place. I moved it from the other room a couple of weeks ago to check my memory on how the Bible winds up. I had thought that the last verse of Revelation was “Verily, come quickly lord Jesus.” Close but not quite. It’s the next to last verse that testifies (literally) to the impatience of the believers for the end of the world and the language is a bit more indirect than I remembered: “He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” To be fair (or merely accurate), the fact that the Bible concludes with an apocalypse doesn’t mean that Christians always obsessed about end things. Much as the Jews were always nervous about Ezekiel, the Christians, especially the establishment ones, tended to soft-peddle the Revelation of St. John because eschatology is politically dangerous. As Nietzsche knew, religions tend to moderate the craziness that gave them birth, as per the self-sealing radiator theory of the sociology of religion. Unfortunately, religions are as likely to neutralize what was good as what was bad in their origins. The Zen Buddhists say “If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him” The Christians didn’t waste any time when they met their founder on the road.)

Theodore Zeldin, France 1848-1945: Intellect and Pride (This is the first section of the author’s much longer book on France. I read the long version again last year. Oddly, I don’t think I ever got through this excerpt, which I must have acquired in the late 70s. It’s a damning inditement of my character that I find it easier to slog through two fat volumes than to read a shorter work.)

Gordon W. Prange, At Dawn We Slept: the Untold Story of Pearl Harbor(Prange was an obsessive researcher who piled up the materials for this definitive work on the outbreak of war for something like 35 years but never got around to finishing it. Donald Goldstein and Katherine Dillon finalized the book. Prange served as MacArthur’s house historian during the first several years of the occupation of Japan so he had access to huge amounts of information. As with any historical event, there are plenty of things we don’t know about what happened. There aren’t any grand or nefarious mysteries, however. Nevertheless, 700 (or 7,000) pages of documentation won’t convince conspiracy mongers from insisting that FDR let the whole disaster take place as part of his plan to get us in the war. Long before I read Prange, I wondered how anybody could believe that the government wanted half the fleet sunk. After all, a failed surprise attack on Hawaii would have gotten us into the war just as surely as a successful one. That argument didn’t work on my mother, who was sure that Roosevelt and Churchill planned the whole thing.)

Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution, Thomas Carlyle (Long before Hunter Thompson, Carlyle pioneered a style of prose that leaves you out of breath even if you read it silently. Of course this work is especially dash ridden, even for Carlyle, at least in part because the version we have is actually a rewritten work, a long book reconstructed after the original manuscript was accidentally burned up by John Steward Mill’s valet. Some of the mannerisms also hark back to a German writer almost unknown among English speaking people, Jean Paul Richter. A random sample that can stand for many others: “It is the baptism day of Democracy; sick Time has given it birth, the numbered months being run. The extreme-unction day of Feudalism! A superannuated System of Society, decrepit with toils (for has it not done much; produced you, and what ye have and know!)—and with thefts and brawls, named glorious-victories; and with profligacies, sensualities, and on the whole with dotage and senility,—is now to die; and so, with death-throes and birth-throes, a new one is to be born. What a work, O Earth and Heavens, what a work! Battles and bloodshed, September Massacres, Bridges of Lodi, retreats of Moscow, Waterloos, Peterloo, Tenpound Franchises, Tarbarrels and Guillotines;—and from this present date, if one might prophesy, some two centuries of it still to fight! Two centuries; hardly less; before Democracy go through its due, most baleful stages of Quackocracy; and a pestilential World be burnt up, and have to grow green and young again.”  For the record, the day Carlyle describes wasn’t the Fall of the Bastille or even the Tennis Court oath but simply May 4th, 1789, the ceremonial opening of the Estates General. Excitable kid.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

We Have Met the Enemy

Seven years ago I quoted this passage from Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.  Seems like it’s time to quote it again:
“A mixture of gullibility and cynicism had been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think everything was possible and that nothing was true. The mixture in itself was remarkable enough, because it spelled the end of the illusion that gullibility was a weakness of unsuspecting primitive souls and cynicism the vice of superior and refined minds. Mass propaganda discovered that the audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”
That’s very well and calmly said, though it had to help that the fascist nightmare she was writing about was over with when she wrote it. The same ideas probably need to be rephrased now in cruder and more imperative terms, especially for folks for whom the Hitlerzeit is no longer part of living memory. Trump’s transparent lies work because they have a ready audience. It’s hard to con an honest man, but not hard to con 40% of the American population. Trump may be a distorted reflection of the character of half the nation; but, to reverse an old joke of Lichtenberg’s, if an ape is looking out of the mirror, it’s not because an apostle is looking in. Trump doesn’t have supporters. He has accomplices.
Trump isn’t the truth of America, but he’s one of the truths. When people talk about the natural conservatism of the country, they’re really pointing to the deeply entrenched strains of racism and aggressive nationalism that are just as much a part of our heritage as respect for law or generosity towards other people. Conservatives haven’t won elections since Eisenhower because the people are determined to limit the size of government and bolster federalism. They’re voting white. They’re voting for bomb ‘em and take their oil.
That said, pointing out that Trump’s supporters bear the responsibility for Trump is probably not good politics. It’s probably smarter to come up with explanations for why otherwise good people might be tempted to vote for him even though most Republicans and many non-Republicans support him not because they don’t understand what he is but because they damned well do. I just figure we better get used to dealing with the dark side. It’s not going to go away even if Trump loses.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Radical/Reactionary Popular Front

It’s easy to understand why a frustrated and angry man puts his fist through a window. We’ve all had that impulse even if we never acted on it. Understanding this bit of human-all-too-human behavior doesn’t mean we ought to recommend it, though. For example, I get it that for many Trump supporters the ineffable pleasure of giving civilization the finger outweighs the real-world cost of supporting a malevolent clown. That doesn’t make voting for Trump any the less stupid. What’s amazing to me is that many lefties of the pure soul persuasion who bewail this sort of thing in right-wingers don’t recognize that their own political behavior has a similar emotional logic. The diehard Bernie bros who refuse to support Clinton are also indulging in spite. Hard for a politician like Hillary to compete with the ecstasy of the self-destructive gesture when all she has to offer is the prospect of merely doing some good for actual human beings.

You can portray what’s going on with the Trumpsters and the political idealists as a search for transcendence, but only if you count shooting yourself in the foot as an instance of self-overcoming. Unfortunately, it’s really just a form of self-indulgence. There is a difference between the supporters of Donald Trump and the supporters of Jill Stein, of course. The former, like the Southerners who are their spiritual and often literal ancestors, have pretty much decided to be proud for evil. The later, more refined, have decided to advertise their goodness while refusing to do what is right. Both find the prospect of a grand political crackup intoxicating. This isn't the Grail quest. They're just getting themselves off.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Boring Radicalism

Disappointed Bernie fans are threatening to vote for Stein or Johnson or even Trump on the theory that half a loaf isn’t even worth half. Of course some of ‘em have bought into the Republican campaign to demonize Clinton and really think that she’s somehow a crook, but I think the deeper reason for this cunning plan to shoot yourself in the foot is the belief that only some sort of drastic, paradigm change will materially improve the situation. From where I’m sitting, there are two problems with this notion:

1.  An earthshaking comprehensive alternative to the neoliberal version of capitalism is simply not on offer. It’s not just that a really radical reorganization of America’s political economy is not politically feasible. It isn’t just the road to utopia that’s missing. It’s a credible utopia. Sanders may get credit for political courage by calling himself a socialist, but that is really a brag since his politics, considered issue by issue, is at most a not particularly left version of routine social democracy. You hear it said that wingnuts are like the dog that chases the truck, i.e., that they don’t have any idea of what to do if they manage to catch up with it; but the crew at the National Review don’t have a patent on that sort of thing. The Left has been searching for a substantive program for a long time now, but only the crankiest of cranks still thinks that a modern economy can dispense with markets. Nobody with any sense proposes to nationalize the toilet paper factory. Sanders certainly doesn’t.
2.  The absence of a vision of a new political economy doesn’t mean that capitalism in its current form is inevitable. Indeed, to judge by the history of the last two centuries, the one thing that apparently is inevitable is that capitalism will change. We still call it capitalism and will probably call its successor capitalism, but the economy of 2016 is a far cry from the economy of the 1950s with its huge centralized factories. Thing is, though, there is no replacement blueprint. That doesn’t mean that political action is futile, however. What the disaffected Left doesn’t seem to notice is that incremental changes can make an enormous difference, which is why the right, which is clearheaded on this score at least, fights apparently commonsensical measures with such passion. Raising the Federal minimum wage to $12 or figuring out how to make college affordable to people of middling means or increasing Social Security benefits or making the income tax more effectively progressive may not reverse the increase in economic inequality that has marked the last three decades but it will accomplish a great deal more than Jill Stein vapor wear. In fact, if you look at the measures of inequality over the last several administrations, you’ll note that for all its ideological impurity the Bill Clinton administration was actually a period during which the Gini coefficient didn’t rise and the incomes of middle class people did. The countless “little” decisions that a regime makes on a routine basis mattered. And there were also all those judges. If four years from now, the Supreme Court has a liberal majority, the entitlement programs are in good shape, we’ve actually taken material steps to deal with global warming, education has become more affordable, the infrastructure is being rebuilt, our immigration policies have been adjusted to reality, and, above all, if the disaffected two-fifths of the nation calms down, it will seem as if a revolution had taken place and not just to hysterical conservatives.

My overall point is this: incremental reform is not only the best outcome anybody can reasonably hope for at this point; it’s actually pretty radical.

Description of the World - Part 66

Top Shelf

Lord Macaulay, The History of England (Despite the title, this history focuses on the Revolution of 1688 and has little to say about the rest of English history except as prologue or consequence of that “Glorious” event. Hugh Trevor-Roper, who wrote the introduction to this abridged edition, sees the work as an answer to Hume, whose own version of the Revolution was the received Tory view. T-R portrays Macaulay as simultaneously hostile to theory and completely dogmatic. That sounds right to me. Macaulay’s Whiggish narrative of progress is political, not scientific; but his assurance that what he says is transparently right is highly reminiscent of the attitude of the New Atheists, who also think they are simply reporting the facts. Hume, who was a philosopher but not a dogmatist, was more empirical as a historian, which is why he didn’t focus so much on political facts and was accordingly sensitive to the emotional atmosphere of various eras. 

Alev Lytle Croutier, Harem: The World Behind the Veil (Of all the books I’ve bought and pretty much forgot I owned, this must be the most unlikely. Although it is a serious account of the custom, the subject is both exotic and erotic and the book is magnificently illustrated. Nevertheless, I don’t seem to have read it. Opening it at random, I came upon one description of one bathing sultana: “She had an indescribably fine complexion! Like fresh feta cheese….”)
K.N. Chaudhuri, Asia Before Europe (I found my summary of this work on the title page: “some interesting information suspended in a jello of useless theorizing.” I think what especially irritated or amused me (the two things are always hard to distinguish in my case) was Chaudhuri’s rather weird invocation of set theory as “a powerful logical instrument for identifying unities and discontinuities.” I read that and then searched in vain for the payoff. It’s not that you can’t think about such things in terms of sets. You can think of absolutely everything in terms of sets. I have plenty of tolerance for theory, but if you’re going to theorize, theorize. Don’t just throw in a “deconstruction” or two. Claim something.)

Robert N. Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (I was a little surprised when I realized that this book came out over 30 years ago, not that I actually thought of it as newer. It would fit just as well in the 70s or 90s or the aughts or last Wednesday since the conflicts in America between individualism and social responsibility and “the monoculture of technical and bureaucratic rationality and the specificity of our concrete commitments” are enduring tensions and certainly enduring themes, especially among mainstream sociologists. The moralizing tradition of what Bullah calls “social sciences as public philosophy” goes back to Talcott Parsons in this country and to figures like Durkheim in France. I don’t mean to denigrate this preoccupation. A critique of the limits of individualism, both as an explanation of what happens in society and as a basis for ethics and politics is absolutely needed. I just wish it weren’t so infernally boring.) 

Harvey J. Graff, The Legacies of Literacy: Continuities and Contradictions in Western Culture and Society (Graff uses quantitative methods to try to figure out not only how literacy advanced across world history but what literacy (or literacies) amounted to in practice. “Measuring the distribution of literacy in a population may in fact reveal relatively little about the uses in which such skills can be put.” For example, religions often promote literacy so that people can read the scriptures, but that doesn’t mean they want lay people to be able to read critically, and it certainly doesn’t mean they want them to read the wrong kinds of book. Almost all Americans can read, at least at a basic level, but few read more than a single book a year; and, as I’ve been complaining about for decades, college educated people seldom read serious nonfiction books at all. Graff calls the notion that literacy per se changes everything the literacy myth—he wrote a book with that title.)

F.J. Monkhouse, A Regional Geography of Western Europe (Despite the title, this work actually covers only France and the Low Countries as per 1967 or so. Readers of European political, military, and economic history will understand how a book like this can be an absorbing read. I enjoyed it for the same reason I watch the Tour de France. It puts a face on all the names. The setting goes a long way towards explaining the play.)

Monday, June 13, 2016

Colonel Blimp on High Strategy

It's pretty hard to figure out what's happening in a war by reading dispatches, but it sure looks to me that Isis is in serious trouble. The Kurds have expanded along the Turkish border making it harder for new recruits to join the radicals. The Syrian government, backed by Russian air power, is advancing on the Caliphate's capital from the Southwest. Fallujah is under siege, and Mosul is probably next. The combatant in the middle normally has the advantage of interior lines—the ability to rapidly switch forces from one front to another in order to achieve local superiority of force—but moving around Iraq and Syria in high summer is a dubious proposition granted all the planes and drones above. The situation with Isis is rather similar to that of the Confederacy in '64. All the Caliphate can hope for now is that its enemies will have a falling out among themselves or lose their nerve and resort to the really stupid strategy of converting a local insurgency into a global religious war. Jefferson Davis could hope that Lincoln would lose his election. Al Baghdadi can hope that Trump wins his.

If I'm right about this, the terrorist manifestations of the last year are signs of the weakness of Isis, not its strength. The South also resorted to desperate moves towards the end (e.g., General Hood's death march). Shooting up nightclubs is a poor substitute for the establishment of a secure territorial base. It can only work if the opponent panics. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it can’t work.

I’m sure that it will be possible to criticize the American response to Isis in retrospect, but I find myself thinking that our current strategy is beginning to look pretty sensible. That’s a desperate thing to have to write in a blog.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Description of the World - Part 65

John Man, Atlas of the Year 1000 (Things weren’t going swimmingly in Western Europe at the turn of the millennium, but other regions of the Earth were enjoying golden times, the Southern Song especially. The episode that captured my interest in this era, however, was the career of Mahmud of Ghazni who vandalized a good chunk of India in the name of Islam and the pursuit (no fooling) of an immense golden lingam. I know perfectly well that Mahmud was not a typical character, that Muslim invaders didn’t all go in for systematically destroying temples and monuments; but monotheistic religion is a permanent excuse for a certain kind of barbarism and Islam, whose crude purity is so appealing to ferocious young men, has licensed spasms of destruction right up to the demolition of Palmyra. That said, it’s an irony of Mahmud’s career that one of the luminaries of his court was Al-Buruni whose book on the Hindus, called the Indica in the West, is a model for the sympathetic understanding of one culture by another. As Vonnegut used to say, “So it goes.”)

James D. Robertson, The Connoisseur’s Guide to Beer (When the paperback was updated in 1984, there still wasn’t a lot to say about American beer. The revitalization of the Anchor Steam Company went back go the 60s, but Sierra Nevada was only founded in 1980. In those days you were a snob if you ordered Michelob. A good part of the point of this bibliographic exercise is to mark the passage of time—what else are us old men good for, after all—and at least in this one dimension there really has been progress. These days the beer aisle at the local Safeway makes me regret I have but one liver to give for my country. (The organ hasn’t sunk yet, despite the many torpedoes I’ve fired at it.))

Fritz K. Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933 (I don’t necessarily believe that once you’ve bewailed the loss of metaphysiche Gesamtwissenschaft, the next thing you know you’re invading Poland. Nevertheless, if cultural conservatism isn’t responsible for the disaster, the profs didn’t do very much to prevent it. Ringer’s book is a sociology of knowledge study analogous to Pierre Bourdieu’s works on the French intellectual scene (Homo Academicus, etc.), but when I first read it (badly, no doubt), it mostly awakened the personal conflicts I’ve got about a tradition I both respect and distrust. I couldn’t get into the empirical part of it very well because I was looking for a homily. Or maybe, as an amateur player of the glass bead game myself, there was an element in self-flagellation in reading about the despair and protest of these men, this collection of characters who were, for all their accomplishments—and what the world owes German scholarship is seldom adequately recognized to this day—were also a prize collection of stuffed shirts who turned out to be criminally naive about the world. I note in passing that a dear friend of mine inherited Ringer's job at Indiana University. There are always connections.)
Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits, 3rd edition (As much as I like wine, I think I got this book because I like maps even more. I’m a sucker for landscapes with texture, the kind of places where great wines grow—featureless plains, plonk. Even when I was a kid, I associated quality with an intricate setting and not just when it came to wine. It struck me that so much of civilization originated in Greece because of its nooks and crannies. What matters is not the average but the deviations. Even a bug collector can share my taste for fine-grained heterogeneity. California is something of a paradise for entomologists because its innumerable microclimates make it home to an enormous range of endemic species.)