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.”)

What Do Republicans Want?

What are policies intended to accomplish? It seems a little naive to take the word of the supporters on that; and even if you aren’t completely cynical about politicians, it’s obvious that a great many proposals are floated for sheerly tactical reasons or to to advertise an attitude rather than directly seek to change the way things are done. Since different segments of political parties and movements want different things from the same policies, there won’t be a single answer in any case. It’s also true that talking about the objective intentions of a class of people in the way the old Marxists used to do is high-handed and also presumes that anonymous social processes have purposes of their own. Still, we can perform the following experiment, which might teach us something even if we understand that it wouldn’t teach us everything. What would you guess the Republicans were trying to do if you simply considered the predicable effects of their preferred policies and ignored their explanations?  In other words, let us play dumb—the other side is free to claim we aren’t actually playing at that. Anyhow, here’s the short list I came up with this rainy morning of policies and their predicable results:

1.  Lower taxes on the rich, weaken unions, oppose raising the minimum wage, etc.: Increased economic inequality
2.  Reneging on the Iran deal: A nuclear Iran and/or another war in the Middle East
3.  Destroying the ACA: Lower life expectancy among the poor
4.  Wage the drug war with increased intensity: Ensuring the profits of the drug cartels by providing price support for illegal narcotics
5.  Outlaw abortion, reduce the availability of contraception, and eliminate sex education: More teenage pregnancy and a larger number of illegal abortions
6.  Take no steps to deal with climate change: Protecting old industries while slowing the growth of new industries

Outcomes aren’t everything. I’m well aware that there are deontological justifications for many Conservative policies, i.e., they’re right just because they’re right, damn it. For example, many, especially in the rank and file, oppose progressive taxation or the whole notion of an income tax simply because they don’t think it’s fair. Overturning Roe vs Wade won’t cut down on the number of abortions, but allowing it to stand strikes makes many right wingers feel like they are complicit in a great crime. That admitted, I do think that it is telling that conservatives care enough about consequences to devise elaborate, implausible theories of how their policies will do the reverse of what it appears they were designed to do. Trickle down economics is so counter-intuitive that it shouldn’t have taken forty years of experience and Thomas Piketty’s 900 pages to discredit it. It’s still around because it’s useful, not because it's cogent. I simply don’t believe Republicans are dedicated to slopping the hogs because they want to make bacon. We know who's running Animal Farm. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Description of the World - Part 47

Ernest Gellner, Plough, Sword and Book: the Structure of Human History (This ambitious book appeared in the late 80s, but I think of it as belonging to a somewhat earlier period, perhaps because I haven’t heard Gellner’s name mentioned much recently or because Gellner’s particular brand of grand sociological synthesis seems a bit dated. Trying to figure out what happened in history is also a preoccupation of mine, of course, so I’m not complaining about the general program. What altitude you chose to fly when you take your panoramic picture, matters a great deal, however, though there may not be a single best choice. I once suggested to some grad students the following exercise: write a one sentence, a one paragraph, a one page, and a ten page history of the human race and then decide which view was the most illuminating. Everybody thought that was an interesting idea, but nobody actually did it. Well, I did write a one-page history of mankind once, though I don’t know where I put it. I do remember my one sentence summary: History is the struggle between elites over who who gets to exploit the others. Of course putting things that way is mostly just an expression of annoyance. It’s rather like Gellner’s tic of calling the powerful of the Earth thugs, which he does quite often. Looking over my marginalia, I find myself thinking that Gellner’s view of the development of human thought if not human society is surprisingly like Comte’s, which may simply reflect the extent to which Comte was simply right, much as we’d like to hope for something more exiting.)

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (I don’t know if it is possible to read a book that has been read as often and as badly as this one. I gave up trying long ago. I didn’t happen upon one phrase in the book that demonstrates that the author’s view of the country is perhaps a bit dated: “…the people are therefore the real directing power.”)

George Pernoud and Sabine Flaissier, The French Revolution (This is actually an anthology of eye-witness accounts. It tends to focus on sensational events, which tends to leave the reader with the impression that the Revolution was all about the Terror. Because other accounts are similarly structured, I suspect most people have a foreshortened view of what happened. The Bastille fell on July 14, 1789. The terror didn’t begin until September of 1783, a full four years later, the equivalent or the full term of an American presidency.)

Iris Origo, The Merchant of Prado: Francesco di Marco Datini 1335-1410 (Dantini was a self-made man who left behind an enormous volume of letters and other records. The book makes an excellent counterpart to Peter Brown’s Eye of the Needle. Brown wrote about how the early Christians dealt with the contradiction between the radical critique of wealth found in the New Testament with the need to incorporate the rich into the church. Origo wrote about how that same resolution or perpetual lack of resolution took place in an individual merchant.)

Paul Fussell, Wartime (Fusell’s book on the first war, The Great War and Modern Memory is a much better known work, and when I think of Fussell I recall an essay he published about Hiroshima, which was not so much an argument in favor of the rightness of dropping the bomb as an avowal of how obvious the decision seemed to him back in ’45 when he was recovering from war wounds and faced with his comrades the prospect of yet more war in a different theater. As a some time copy editor, i’ve recast many thousands of sentences from the passive to the active voice, sometimes more out of the custom and usage of my trade than any serious reason, indeed, in technical writing the passive is more natural than the active because engineers and scientists are more concerned with what objects than subjects. Fussell reconstructs one edit of this sort that did matter. When Eisenhower composed the message he would sent in case the Normandy invasion failed, he originally wrote “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and the troops have been withdrawn.’ He changed that to “I have withdrawn the troops” before he stuck the paper in his pocket. Fussell was a literary critic by trade, an expert on prosody in fact, but he was interested in the ethics of forms, not formalism.)

Pius II, Commentaries, Volume 2 (Before he became Pope in 1458, Pius II started out as the humanist Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini. I’ve got the first volume of these memoirs around here some place. He called them Commentaries in analogy with Caesar’s works, which neither man called histories because they are too unadorned and straightforward to deserve a title reserved for the more artful efforts of genuine historians. Of course it’s the very fact that Pius didn’t strive for elegant effects that makes his account of his life readable to us—he certainly knew how to pile on the rhetoric. This volume, which is mostly about the frustrations of trying to rally the Italians, Germans, and French against the Turkish menace was less entertaining than the first, which includes a memorable account of what it’s like to get elected Pope.)

J. Eric S. Thompson, Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, 3rd edition (This tome is a monument to an influential error. Thompson was the great mavin of Mayan studies for many years, but his belief that Mayan hieroglyphs symbolized ideas instead of words in the Mayan language held back the decipherment of the script for decades. The same seductive error retarded efforts to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Thompson was rather like a later-day Athanasius Kircher on this score, though his work was less fantastic, and he did manage to decode the calendar signs. The physicist Richard Feynman played a minor but genuine role in getting past Thompson’s mistake, a fact duly noted in Feynman’s official obituary and perhaps included because the obituary writer was familiar with the Thompson book, indeed with this very copy, and had been inspired by it into reading up on the subject.)

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Description of the World - Part 46

Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (My first encounter with Himmelfarb was her book on Darwin. She came across as a classic liberal arts idiot in that effort: she simply didn’t get the science involved. That display of ignorance soured me on her far more than her politics or even her role in whelping Bill Kristol, the Bagdad Bob of the American right. I should probably reread this book, which actually has a fine reputation, especially since my knowledge of the first half of the 19th Century in England is not what it should be granted how important those events were. If you read as much as I have, you can begin to believe that you don’t have to figure out where all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle go. You can guess the rest of the picture from the shape of the hole. Unfortunately, that method doesn’t work very well. A modern Tory may well be the right person to consult on the origins of attitudes towards the poor and their identity or distinction from the working class. The timing would be right for me as well since I’ve recently been doing a lot of thinking about the dark matter of human history, i.e., the ignorable, ignored, and largely invisible majority of mankind.)

John B. Wolf, The Barbary Coast: Algeria Under the Turks (It’s more than a little unfair to characterize the North African regimes as republics of cut throats and thieves as the blurb writer did on the back of this book—every sea coast of the early modern world turned out its share of pirates and privateers. The world depicted in this history is nevertheless startling. In the divan or ruling council of the janissary court, it was forbidden to use your fist to make a point, but you could kick or stomp on anybody that offended you, something that happened to a French consul. Mel Gibson would have felt right at home.)

Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World (I believe in reading prefaces because the acknowledgements reveal the exclusiveness and stability of the various invisible colleges that dominate serious thinking. The same names appear over and over. There are other rewards to preface reading, however, including occasional admissions like the concluding comments in the preface to this impressive tome: “For errors of fact and the vagaries of our interpretations, we have no one to blame but ourselves—or rather, each other. One of the joys of collaborations is the almost limitless opportunity it affords for mutual recrimination.” Wikipedia informs me that the authors stayed together for all that. I wrote at the end of the chapter on Bruno, “These historians cheat a bit. Bruno comes across differently in Yates who, of course, is the far greater scholar.” Allow me to recant the ‘of course” if not the whole remark. Despite my snark, I took this book very seriously as witness the great many annotations. Alas, one of the principal reasons I regret not being God is that I can’t remember what I’ve read, even what I read in books I obviously enjoyed tremendously. One line of thought that apparently impressed me was the connection between cities and utopias. The authors quote a declaration of the commune of Brescia justifying a law that forbade the destruction of a building that had been owned by a felon: “Quod civitates facte sunt ad similitudiem paradisis.” — Englished by the Manuels as “For cities are made in the likeness of paradise.” This isn’t just a theological theme—the City of God, the heavenly Zion. The original perfect republic was a city, and the Greeks not only imagined ideal cities, they actually built ‘em—Hellenistic cities were laid out and contrast strongly with other foundations in the same region that simply happened willy nilly. Whether devised by a god or a sage, a utopia is a system created according to a rational plan, never just the happy outcome of an anonymous process.) 

Manilla folder with some assorted writings of mine (Includes a translation of the first act of Macbeth into modern English. There have been many such translations and adaptations, but I wanted to see if I could keep the meter and yet be clear. The main lesson I learned from this exercise is just how easy it is to assume you know what Shakespeare meant in lines you’ve heard a hundred times and perhaps know by heart. Rump-fed ronyon? I came up with fat-assed housewife. Suggestions? A couple of tries were fun to write—or invent. I have no shame—like Wonder Wart Hog, I’m lucky my superpowers don’t include pride. Shakespeare has the Sergeant describe Macbeth and Banquo’s attack on the Norwegians like this:  “As cannons overcharged with double cracks, so they/Doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe:/Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds,/Or memorise another Golgotha…” I managed “There blood still up, they broke heads and carved/Terrible reeking wounds in Norwegian flesh./it was a second Calvary, I tell you, but on that Mountain of Skulls/They were all thieves and died for their own sins.” That has next to nothing to do with the original, but it was fun to write. There are some loose sheets in the folder with some random thoughts, one of which is apropos of all the historiography books I’ve mentioned in this survey: “I rate the ideas and judgments of historians separately because they are the results of contrasting mental operations. Since good historians are often feeble theoreticians, I generally pay more attention to their judgments than their arguments. For that matter, I trust my own judgments more than my deductions, having noticed that my sense of things is a much sounder oracle than any system I ever contrived.” Speaking of unsound system, the last item in the folder is a six page summary of my thinking entitled Descriptio Mundi, not to be confused with the Description of the World.  It reads like a demented Monadology except that the original Monadology was already sufficiently demented for most people’s tastes. Maybe the better analogy would be to the fragments of Heraclitus. After all, I used to be called Heraclitus of Aphasia back in the day. Of course, Heraclitus didn’t set out to write fragments as I do. Saves time. It’s convenient, rather like getting run over by an ambulance. One paragraph that bears on something I wrote about Assmann the other day: “Hegel, among many others, recognized that God was perfectly incomprehensible as a solitary in-itself. Indeed, it is the impossibility of God that motivates the creation. The world has to come into existence so that God could be proleptically posited as its ground and cause. By such means, the theologians postponed atheism for a while.”)