Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Description of the World - Part 48

Fourth Shelf

John Keegan, The Mask of Command (I kept reading Keegan even though he never produced another book with the freshness and virtuosity of the Face of Battle. Writers on military subjects are at risk for becoming hacks. I don’t think Keegan succumbed to temptation in this book, but this brief treatise on military leadership would have been more credible, if less commercial, if he’d written a section on the greatest of 20th Century generals, George Marshall.)

Bernard Bailyn, Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution (I used to be a bigger fan of demographic explanations than I am now, but how many remains a fundamental question in history. The big battalions don’t always win—or starve—but more is usually more. Bailyn's book makes you suspect that a crucial reason why the Colonists won the Revolution was because America received a large infusion of population in the years before Lexington. It wasn’t just numbers. The earlier edition of the huddled masses arrived with a chip on their shoulder. It was like spraying nitro in the carburetor. One of the quarrels between Great Britain and North America was about frontier policy. Parliament wanted to put the breaks on the headlong expansion of settlement into Indian country. The Americans, especially the newest Americans, were looking for room. Bailyn’s books are full of charts and tables; but like Braudel’s works, they are anything but dry and analytic. There’s no contradiction between statistics and an interest in human lives. Every number in the count is a somebody.)

Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings, ed. Roy Basler (I’m not quite ready to write an essay on Lincoln as Raskolnikov, but it is true that the aspiration to become a world-historical individual wasn’t limited to ax murderers. That was just Dostoevsky’s black comedy cover of Hegel’s tune. In an address all the way back in 1838, Lincoln spoke of “towering genius,” which “thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.” I don’t think Lincoln would have cultivated the pose of harmless humorist so assiduously if he weren’t aware that he was a dangerous man, someone whose moral passion depended on an essential supplement of amoral ambition. Somebody suggested to me that Daniel Day Lewis overplayed Lincoln’s sufferings; and it’s true that after seeing the movie, you’re like to find yourself thinking, “Heck, Jesus just had that one bad day…” Reading some of Lincoln’s writings makes you wonder if is there’s such a thing as longing for the cross and feeling guilty about it long in advance of the crucifixion?)

Jack A. Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Modern World (This book attempts to explain “the periodic waves of state breakdown in the early modern world.” The work that operates at the intersection of history, sociology, and political science, a sweet spot to my way of thinking. When I read it, I was impressed with Goldstone’s specific diagnosis of the factors, especially demographic factors, that lead to widespread disorder and misery—this author is not a romantic about revolutions. What upset the historians about the book was its author’s attempt to quantify things, something I had barely taken notice of on a first reading—what he arrived at were something like the figures of merit engineers sometimes use to rank the quality of refrigerators. Since we’re a long way away from being able to do dimensional analysis on history, I tend to ignore such efforts. Anyhow, I thought Goldstone picked up some very important recurring features that lead to failing states and violent revolutions, in particular, the unwillingness of elites to pay the freight for the system even though they depended on it for their own well being. Conservatives are always complaining about high taxes, but inadequate taxation is a central part of the story of the English and French Revolutions and, more recently, of the collapse of the Manchu dynasty. I’ve talked to people who assume that the French kings and Chinese emperors were like the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood movies, perpetually squeezing the peasants. In the real world, it’s the local powers that who do most of the squeezing; and things go to Hell because they aren’t squeezed enough themselves. Another leading indicator is too many well educated people with disappointed prospects—I don’t know if that means that we should expect the Winter Palace to be stormed by unemployed law students this time around, but the impossibility of democratizing privilege is surely a plausible explanation for what happened in 1968. That’s the very short version of Pierre Bourdieu’s take on it. What Goldstone calls “ideologies of rectification and transformation” are also requisite, though he doesn’t believe that which candidate ideology wins out is predictable. Of course all the causes Goldstone identifies have causes of their own: I expect if he rewrote the book today, he’d look more closely at climatic changes as a reason that times of trouble are so often synchronized across countries or ever continents. Of course any work of historical sociology is bound to have implications for the current situation. Looking over my underlinings, I came across a paragraph that perfectly makes a point that I’ve tried to make on countless occasions. I don’t know whether it is where I got the idea or not. The author writes “One clear sign of America’s lack of understanding of the coming crisis is the nature of the debate over the federal budget and budgeting for social security…. the ability to pay off deficits and provide a secure retirement for the baby boomers depends primarily on future U.S. production. No matter how many dollars are ‘saved,’ they will be useless to holders of government bonds or to those receiving social security checks unless the economy is producing enough goods and services for recipients to make desired purchases.” At this point, I usually add a complaint about the superstitious faith people place on the mathematics of compound interest. Same rant though.)
Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: a History of the World, 1914-1991 (This book is almost more of a memoir than a history. It certainly isn’t up to the standard of Hobsbawm’s 19th Century histories, which are exemplary; but Hobsbawm is perfectly aware of its shortcoming. He quotes twelve people’s summaries of the short 20th Century at the outset of the book. I think Franco Venturi’s comes closest to his own: “Historians can’t answer this question. For me the twentieth century is only the ever-renewed effort to understand it.”)

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