Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Final salute

This photograph from Helmut Kohl’s memorial service in Strassburg immediately struck me as bizarre. Normal by now for America, but bizarre. Does any other democracy — not a totalitarian state or banana republic — have its leader going around playing soldier like this? Of course, the German military people and honour guard who accompanied the coffin to the burial in Germany saluted, but that’s their job. If I remember correctly, it was Reagan — who limited his military service to making propaganda films in Hollywood — who introduced this custom. And I remember very clearly how Bill Clinton was mocked, at the beginning of his presidency, for his supposed incompetence in saluting. He learned, and it’s no surprise that he wants to show that he can still do it. But seeing it on the international stage like this highlights how inappropriate it appears.

Exponential vernacular

Like most mathematicians, I think, I’m irritated by the way “grows exponentially” has come into common parlance as a synonym for “grows rapidly”; whereas exponential growth in mathematics may be fast or slow, depending on the current level of the quantity. This has even crossed into technical discussions, as when I heard a talk by a cancer expert who objected to standard claims that cancer mortality increases exponentially through adulthood — which it does — because the levels actually stay low through the 50s, and so only “increase exponentially” after that point.

Anyway, I was under the impression that the vernacular application of this mathematical concept was fairly recent. So I was intrigued to find the cognate concept of “growing geometric”  popping up in Evan Thomas’s Nixon biography, on the Watergate tapes. In the context of cancer. Used correctly! It’s quite a famous part of Watergate lore, where John Dean refers to Watergate as a “cancer… close to the presidency”.

We have a cancer — within — close to the presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding, it grows geometrically now, because it’s compounding.

The other statement is overridden

Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler used to be the gold standard for political obfuscation, with his declaration (when he had to reverse previous insistence that no one in the White House was involved in the Watergate break-in “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.”

Trump, recognising that his Watergate reboot won’t pull in 21st-century viewers if they have to watch a “third-rate burglary” investigation playing out over 2 1/2 years, is ramping up the malfeasance (Russian espionage! billion-dollar bribes!) and the pace, while still hitting the classic Nixonian marks (asking the CIA to block an FBI investigation!) One place where they’ve been exceeding their originals is in the obfuscatory rhetoric. Following on Kellyanne Conway’s celebrated rechristening of lies as “alternative facts”, we have budget director Mike Mulvaney explaining why Trump’s explicit promise not to cut Medicaid was now being reversed. NY Times reporter John Harwood:

“Overridden”! Like a good reboot, it’s reminiscent of the Zieglerian original, yet somehow punchier, with a novel twist. (Tens of millions of poor people losing access to healthcare. Great cliffhanger!) The critics, though, might carp at them reaching for effect this way on their policy statements, where Nixon himself was pretty solid, leaving perhaps less headroom for further amplification when we get to the corruption charges.

Some are saying the show might not even be renewed for another season.

By the way, I’ve just read Evan Thomas’s biography Being Nixon. I’ve never had much patience for those who claim that Nixon got a raw deal over Watergate — the burglary and cover-up were just the most salient aspect of the presidential malfeasance and abuse of power — but I understand better why many people would have seen his fall as tragic. Great talents that could have served the country well, sadly bonded to a flawed personality that dragged himself and the country into a mire of recriminations.

Comparing Trump to Nixon is deeply unfair to Nixon.

Rejecting Voltaire?

Emmanuel Macron’s election speech was reassuring. Intriguing that he took his long walk to the podium with the European anthem playing, rather than the French. One thing that disappointed me: He rejected fear, lies, division, fatalism, all good things to reject, but I just can’t get behind

Nous ne céderons rien à… l’ironie…

I don’t see how he can claim to be defending the values of the Enlightenment.

The word he used at the beginning interested me:

Je sais qu’il ne s’agit pas là d’un blanc-seing.

I’ve never heard the word blanc-seing before. It’s funny that we use a french phrase, carte blanche, for the same thing.

Das ist bei uns nicht möglich

I happen to have just noticed that there is a new German edition of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. I wonder what motivated it?

I was struck again, in reading Amos Oz’s account of his childhood and family history, how his aunt told of welcoming the prospect of German conquest of her Lithuanian homeland: The Germans wouldn’t tolerate the sort of barbaric chaos that the Jews were subject to. The Germans might be antisemitic, but they had always proved themselves to be civilised and orderly.

Too many people lazily learn the wrong lesson from the inability of Jews and others to recognise the full dimensions of the Nazi menace. The problem, they suggest, often in cheap jokes, is the failure to recognise the profound taint of the German soul. The real lesson should be, it seems to me, you never can tell. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, as they like to say in finance. The Germans descended into the most horrible racist violence in the 1930s and 1940s. Their children and grandchildren have built one of the most securely democratic and humane nations in the world. Britain pioneered annihilationist antisemitism in the Middle Ages, then moved on to a more benign view of Jews as being almost white people, potential allies in subjugating the genuinely inferior races.

Is there anything in the British soul that will make them resist when the EU offends their amour propre and the Daily Mail is baying for mass expulsions? The question answers itself. 

“Up to 500”

I’ve just been reading Laurence Rees’s The Holocaust: A New History. I don’t think there’s much new in the overall picture, but there are certainly many details that I was not aware of. For example, Rees discusses Himmler’s May 1940 memo “Some Thoughts on the Treatment of the Alien Population in the East”.

A large section of the memo dealt with Himmler’s plans to conduct a search among the Polish population in order to find children that were ‘racially first class’ and who ‘came up to our requirements’. These children would then be transported to Germany and raised as German citizens. Himmler believed this policy would not just allow Nazis access to more German ‘blood’ but deprive the Poles of the potential for a leadership class. As for the rest of the Polish children, they would receive the most basic education — taught only to count ‘up to 500’ and to write their own names.

It’s easy to fall into thinking of leading Nazis as ruthlessly efficient master criminals. Reading things like this is a good reminder of the extent to which they were actually kind of erratic and bonkers. It’s a sort of dilettantish megalomania that one sees in certain leaders today as well, with grand ideas that come from manipulating a vague picture of reality, decked out with a few random, nonsensical details. Why “up to 500”? Why not just say, “teach them to count” and leave it at that? How could anyone think that it would be possible to teach people to count up to 500 without learning the general principle of counting further?

This is why historians have emphasised the role of the proverbial Schreibtischtäter, the “desk criminals”, who worked hard to interface the lunacy with the proverbial railway timetables, that can’t be cajoled with blather about national will to power and providence.

Montaigne on random controlled experiments

In the past I’ve read a few individual individual essays by Montaigne, but lately I’ve been really enjoying reading them systematically — partly listening to the English-language audiobook, partly reading the lovely annotated French edition by Jean Céard et al. It’s fascinating to see the blend of inaccessibly foreign worldview with ideas that seem at times astoundingly modern. For example, in the essay titled “On the resemblence of children to their fathers” (which seems to have almost nothing at all to say about the resemblence of children to their fathers), in the course of disparaging contemporary medicine Montaigne suddenly anticipates the need for random controlled trials — while at the same time despairing of such a daunting intellectual project. After acknowledging a few minor cases in which physicians seem to have learned something from experience he continues

Mais en la plus part des autres experiences, à quoy ils disent avoir esté conduis par la fortune, et n’avoir eu autre guide que le hazard, je trouve le progrez de cette information incroyable. J’imagine l’homme, regardant au tour de luy le nombre infiny des choses, plantes, animaux, metaulx. Je ne sçay par où luy faire commencer son essay : et quand sa premiere fantasie se jettera sur la corne d’un elan, à quoy il faut prester une creance bien molle et aisée : il se trouve encore autant empesché en sa seconde operation. Il luy est proposé tant de maladies, et tant de circonstances, qu’avant qu’il soit venu à la certitude de ce poinct, où doit joindre la perfection de son experience, le sens humain y perd son Latin : et avant qu’il ait trouvé parmy cette infinité de choses, que c’est cette corne : parmy cette infinité de maladies, l’epilepsie : tant de complexions, au melancholique : tant de saisons, en hyver : tant de nations, au François : tant d’aages, en la vieillesse : tant de mutations celestes, en la conjonction de Venus et de Saturne : tant de parties du corps au doigt. A tout cela n’estant guidé ny d’argument, ny de conjecture, ny d’exemple, ny d’inspiration divine, ains du seul mouvement de la fortune, il faudroit que ce fust par une fortune, parfaictement artificielle, reglée et methodique Et puis, quand la guerison fut faicte, comment se peut il asseurer, que ce ne fust, que le mal estoit arrivé à sa periode ; ou un effect du hazard ? ou l’operation de quelque autre chose, qu’il eust ou mangé, ou beu, ou touché ce jour là ? ou le merite des prieres de sa mere-grand ? Davantage, quand cette preuve auroit esté parfaicte, combien de fois fut elle reiterée ? et cette longue cordée de fortunes et de rencontres, r’enfilée, pour en conclure une regle.

But in most other experiences, where they claim to have been led by accidents, having no other guide than chance, I find the progress of this information hard to believe. I imagine a man looking about him at the infinite number of things, plants, animals, metals. I don’t where he would start. And when his first whim took him to an elk horn, which might be easy to believe in, he would find his second step blocked: There are so many diseases, so many individual circumstances, that before he could arrive at any certainty on this point, he will have arrived at the end of human sense: before he could find, among this infinity of things, that it is this horn; among the infinity of diseases, epilepsy; among the individual conditions, the melancholic temperament; among all the ages, the elderly; among all the astrological conditions, the conjunction of Venus and Saturn; among all the parts of the body, the finger. And all of this, being led by no argument, by no prior examples, by no divine inspiration, but purely by chance, it must be achieved by the most completely artificial, methodical and regulated turn of chance. And suppose the cure has been accomplished, how could you tell whether the disease might not have simply run its course, or the improvement occurred purely by chance? Or if it might not have been the effect of some other factor, something he ate, or drank, or touched on that day? Or the merit of his grandmother’s prayers? And if you could provide complete proof in one case, how many times would you need to repeat the trial, and this long series of random encounters, before you could conclusively determine the rule.

Trump: The new Caesar?

From Montaigne’s “The story of Spurina”:

Caton mesme avoit accoustumé de dire de [Caesar], que c’estoit le premier homme sobre, qui se fust acheminé a la ruyne de son pays.

Cato himself liked to say that Caesar was the first sober man who ever set out to ruin his country.

16th century rape culture

I was reading Montaigne’s essay “De l’inconstance de nos actions” (On the inconsistency of our actions). As a particularly piquant example of inconsistent behaviour Montaigne tells this tale:

Pendant les débauches de nostre pauvre estat, on me rapporta, qu’une fille de bien pres de là où j’estoy, s’estoit precipitée du haut d’une fenestre, pour éviter la force d’un belitre de soldat son hoste : elle ne s’estoit pas tuée à la cheute, et pour redoubler son entreprise, s’estoit voulu donner d’un cousteau par la gorge, mais on l’en avoit empeschée : toutefois apres s’y estre bien fort blessée, elle mesme confessoit que le soldat ne l’avoit encore pressée que de requestes, sollicitations, et presens, mais qu’elle avoit eu peur, qu’en fin il en vinst à la contrainte : et là dessus les parolles, la contenance, et ce sang tesmoing de sa vertu, à la vraye façon d’une autre Lucrece. Or j’ay sçeu à la verité, qu’avant et depuis ell’ avoit esté garse de non si difficile composition.

During the disorders of our poor country I heard of a young woman very close to where I was staying, who had thrown herself out a window to escape the advances of a piggish soldier who was quartered in her home. Not being killed by the fall, and to complete her task, she tried to cut her own throat with a knife, but was restrained, succeeding only in wounding herself grievously. She admitted that the soldier had imposed himself only by pleas, attentions, and presents, but said she feared he would force her by violence. We see here the words, the demeanour, and the blood all bearing witness to her virtue, a veritable modern-day Lucretia. And yet, I have it on good authority that before and after this event she was a slut who was by no means so difficult.

He goes on to warn his (male) readers not to take any evidence in one circumstance for proof of their mistress’s fidelity in general.

Here we see in pure form the mindset that still exists — perhaps is even still prevalent — and still even pokes out occasionally from judges in rape cases: Chastity is acceptable, even commendable, but it is the only plausible reason for a woman to refuse sex. Once she has given up the claim to refuse all sexual contact, to refuse any particular partner seems like pure tergiversation. Even if it looks like violence it’s not really, since to this way of thinking what looks like violence is really just helping her to overcome an atavistic need to make a public show of chastity. (One is reminded of American officials who claimed that they tortured Muslim prisoners to “help them” fulfill their need to make a show of resistance before they could square talking to the enemy with their religious obligation.)

One hears this often from feminists who lived through the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s: While men experienced the relaxation of public sexual mores as a liberation, women had a much more ambivalent experience. The first step, eliminating the respect for chastity, was experienced by many as a loss of autonomy. Seen from the perspective of the 21st century it looks like a necessary step toward reclaiming women’s right to physical integrity and self-determination, but partly because eliminating hypocritical shield of chastity has forced men and women both to come to terms with what has now come to be called “rape culture”.

Electric guillotines

Just reading The Vanquished, Robert Gerwarth’s history of the violence that followed the ostensible end of the First World War. He has this to say about the atrocity rumours that circulated about the Bolsheviks:

Although the reality of the civil war was so terrible that it hardly needed any embellishment, fantastical stories about Lenin’s regime flourished and drifted westwards: of a social order turned upside down, of a never-ending cycle of atrocities and retribution amid moral collapse in what had previously been one of the Great Powers of Europe. Several American newspapers reported that the Bolsheviks had introduced an electrically operated guillotine in Petrograd designed to decapitate 500 prisoners an hour… The Bolsheviks, or so it was suggested [in the British press], had ‘nationalized middle- and upper-class women, who might now be raped at will by any member of the proletariat. Orthodox churches had been turned into brothels in which aristocratic women were forced to offer sexual services to ordinary workers. Chinese executioners had been recruited by the Bolsheviks for their knowledge of ancient oriental torture techniques, while inmates in the infamous Cheka prisons had their heads stuck into cages filled with hungry rats in order to extort information.

It seems that there are three things that escalate the ordinary horror of despotic violence into extraordinary horror, all of which are touched upon here:

  1. Violation of the natural order, particularly of a sexual nature.
  2. Upwelling of arcane, precivilised, non-European presumptively diabolic culture.
  3. Abuse of modern technological means toward barbaric ends.

I’m particularly fascinated by the last, represented by the “electrically operated guillotines”, which prefigure the genuine industrialised slaughter of the Holocaust. More than the scale of the killing — which could be achieved by other means — it is the industrial precision that unsettles people, and makes the Holocaust unique. Or, perhaps better said, makes us want to see it as unique.

It’s hard to disentangle these feelings about the Holocaust, which is what makes the electric guillotines so useful: It’s not that this would have been all that exceptional, to kill 500 prisoners in an hour, and you wouldn’t need anything as unusual as an electrically operated guillotine. (It’s not even clear to me how electricity would accelerate a guillotine significantly.) But the combination of electricity, then the prime symbol of modernisation, with mass execution, was shocking.

Tag Cloud