Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

A wall with two sides

Right after the EU referendum I commented

Those now entering retirement have locked in promises of high pensions to themselves that no one before or after them will be able to receive…

I can’t help but wonder whether, on some level, the over-60s see the situation they’ve manoeuvred the younger generations into — crumbling infrastructure, insufficient and overpriced housing, excessive pensions that will come at the expense of social spending for decades, and the only solution they can see — since a pension isn’t worth much if there aren’t enough working people to actually provide the services you depend on — is to block off their children’s potential escape routes.

Maybe it’s not about keeping THEM out. It’s about keeping the younger generation IN.

This is, of course, intentionally provocative, and while I believe there’s some truth to it I’m not sure exactly how profoundly I really believe it. But I was reminded of this perspective while reading James C. Scott’s eye-opening “deep history of the earliest states” Against the Grain:

Owen Lattimore… has made the case most forcefully that the purpose of the Great Wall(s) was as much to keep the Chinese taxpayers inside as to block barbarian incursions.

In the latter part of the twentieth century people in the wealthy world got used to the notion that everyone is free to travel, but there is a natural right of nations to decide who to let in — a right granted primarily to wealthy individuals and citizens of wealthy nations. This belief was communicated to me so strongly that when I first encountered the historical fact that passports were originally documents confirming the permission to leave granted by a state to its subject — rather like the travel passes issued to slaves by their owners — I found this intensely shocking, and put it on my growing the-past-is-a-foreign-country list, right next to the Roman practice of “exposing” surplus newborns, leaving them to die or be picked up by other families in need of a slave. Indeed, I just came across this comment in Jill Lepore’s magisterial new one-volume history of the US, on the first US federal laws regulating passports:

In 1856, Congress passed a law declaring that only the secretary of state “may grant and issue passports,” and that only citizens could obtain them. In August of 1861, Lincoln’s secretcary of state, William Seward, issued this order: “Until further notice, no person will be allowed to go abroad from a port of the United States without a passport either from this Department or countersigned by the Secretary of State.” From then until the end of the war, this restriction was enforced; its aim was to prevent men from leaving the country in order to avoid military service.

The fact that the soi-disant German Democratic Republic had built a wall, with armed guards to prevent its own citizens from fleeing was widely seen to fatally undermine that state’s legitimacy. Indeed, the GDR’s rulers themselves seemed to concede this point, as they denied the obvious truth of the wall’s function, designating it in official proclamations the antifaschistischer Schutzwall [antifascist defensive rampart]. (Just by the way, I’ve long been fascinated by the way this word “Wall”, a partly-false-cognate to the English expression for what Germans generally called by the more standard German word Mauer, came to be used as a competing term in GDR propaganda.)

Possibly one effect of rising economic inequality is that freedom of movement will be one of the special privileges that states had been routinely providing to their citizens that will increasingly be reserved to a privileged elite. And like the GDR, states like the UK will assure their citizens that they are not being kept in, but rather, that they are being protected from the barbarian hordes outside.

(Title of this post with apologies to André Cayatte.)

Mission accomplished!

Reading Dava Sobel’s book on the women astronomers of the Harvard Observatory in the early 20th century, The Glass Universe, I was surprised to discover that the first Association to Aid Scientific Research by Women was founded in the 19th century. It awarded grants and an Ellen Richards Research prize, named for the first woman admitted to MIT, who went on to become associate professor of chemistry at MIT, while remaining unpaid. The prize was last awarded in 1932. Why?

[After selecting the winners of the 1932 prize] the twelve members declared themselves satisfied with the progress they had seen, and they drafted a resolution to dissolve the organization. “Whereas,” it said, “the objects for which this association has worked for thirty-five years have been achieved, since women are given opportunities in Scientific Research on an equality with men, and to gain recognition for their achievements, be it Resolved, that this association cease to exist after the adjournment of this meeting.”

Schrödinger’s menu

I was just rereading Erwin Schrödinger’s pathbreaking 1944 lectures What is Life? which is often praised for its prescience — and influence — on the foundational principals of genetics in the second half of the twentieth century. At one point, in developing the crucial importance of his concept of negative entropy as the driver of life,  he remarked on the misunderstanding that “energy” is what organisms draw from their food. In an ironic aside he says

In some very advanced country (I don’t remember whether it was Germany or the U.S.A. or both) you could find menu cards in restaurants indicating, in addition to the price, the energy content of every dish.

Also prescient!

How odd that the only biological organisms that Schrödinger is today commonly associated with are cats…

FDA sample menu with energy content

Prescience and the opposite

I’ve just been reading a book of collected essays by Tony Judt, the wonderful historian of the 20th century who died in 2010. The book was from 2006, and some of his observations seem remarkably prescient, while others… have not aged well.

On the plus side is this, from the introduction:

It was in large measure thanks to the precautionary services and safety nets incorporated into their postwar systems of governance that the citizens of the advanced countries lost the gnawing sentiment of insecurity and fear which had dominated political life between 1914 and 1945.

Until now. For there are reasons to believe that this may be about to change. Fear is reemerging as an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Fear of terrorism, of course; but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one’s daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.

Few democratic governments can resist the temptation to turn this sentiment of fear to political advantage. Some have already done so. In which case we should not be surprised to see the revival of pressure groups, political parties, and political programs based upon fear: fear of foreigners; fear of change; fear of open frontiers and open communications; fear of the free exchange of unwelcome opinions.

Those inclined to see Donald Trump as a sad symptom of decline for what was once a party of Republican giants, would be disappointed (in the extremely unlikely event that they would read this book) by his portrayal of Nixon’s foreign policy — in the context of reviewing William Bundy’s book on the subject — as a first-time-tragedy adumbration of Trumpism:

His criticism concerns deception, and the peculiar combination of duplicity and vagueness that marked foreign policy in the Nixon era. “The essential to good diplomacy,” Harold Nicolson once suggested, “is precision. The main enemy of good diplomacy is imprecision.” And, paradoxical as it may seem, the main source of imprecision in this era was the obsession with personal diplomacy…

[Nixon] was so absorbed in the recollection and anticipation of slights and injustices, real and imagined, that much of his time as president was taken up with “screwing” his foes, domestic and foreign alike: Even when he had a defensible plan to implement, such as his “new economic policy” of 1971…, he just couldn’t help seeing in it the additional benefit of “sticking it to the Japanese”. He warned even his allies against offering unwanted (critical) counsel… He surrounded himself with yes-men and hardly ever exposed his person or his policies to open debate among experts or more than one adviser at a time.

Purely neutral in the prescience-stakes I was amused to be reminded that the phrase “Make America Great Again” appeared as the subtitle of Peter Beinart’s 2007 Bushian-psycho-militarism-but-from-the-left screed.

On the other side of the ledger,

Liberalism in the United States today is the politics that dare not speak its name… Today a spreading me-first consensus has replaced vigorous public debate… And like their political counterparts, the critical intelligentsia once so prominent in American cultural life has fallen silent.

This seems like an accurate portrayal of the universal rejection of “liberalism” in the US in the GW Bush years, and Judt can’t really be faulted for not having predicted that nearly a decade after his death out-and-proud liberals would be battling self-proclaimed socialists for control of the Democratic party, while free-market ideologues would be trying to rebrand themselves as “classical liberals”.

And then, on its own special plane of awful there is his defence of Arthur Koestler against the accusation of his biographer that he was “a serial rapist”:

If Koestler were alive, he would surely sue for libel, and he would surely win. Even on Cesarani’s own evidence there is only one unambiguously attested charge of rape.

I think I have a pretty good memory of cultural change over my lifetime, but still I was amazed to see a smart and humane person — someone who entirely identified with the Left even — suggesting that a man who had violently raped a woman (with other accusations unproven or more ambiguous, or at least nonviolent) had been unfairly maligned by calling him a “serial rapist”. His confidence that the man would have prevailed at an imaginary libel trial is just extraordinary, and even more extraordinary is to consider that under the conditions that prevailed at the time, so recently, he might have been right.

Hannah Arendt on referenda

I decided it was about time to reread The Origins of Totalitarianism. I was pleased to come across her description of the role of referenda, which I have often thought of in the context of recent UK history, but whose origin I had forgotten:

The mob is primarily a group in which the residue of all classes are represented. This makes it so easy to mistake the mob for the people, which also comprises all strata of society… Plebiscites, therefore, with which modern mob leaders have obtained such excellent results, are an old concept of politicians who rely upon the mob.

I was also pleased to see this comment about Jules Guérin, the founder of the French Ligue Antisémite:

Ruined in business, he had begun his political career as a police stool pigeon, and acquired that flair for discipline and organization which invariably marks the underworld.

I think that is all the demonstration required for my honesty and good character.

“When it becomes serious, you have to lie”

I wish I could think of some witty way to frame this, but some comments just have to speak for themselves. I’ve been reading the latest book by my favourite economic historian, Adam Tooze, who has moved from the financial history of the Third Reich and the First World War to examine in his new book the financial crash of 2007-8 and its aftermath. I’ve never had much time for those who see the EU being run by arrogant anti-democratic technocrats. But then we have this remark by Jean-Claude Juncker, then prime minister of Luxembourg and acting chair of the Eurogroup, now president of the European Commission:

Monetary policy is a serious issue. We should discuss this in secret, in the Eurogroup …. If we indicate possible decisions, we are fueling speculations on the financial markets and we are throwing in misery mainly the people we are trying to safeguard from this …. I am for secret, dark debates …. I’m ready to be insulted as being insufficiently democratic, but I want to be serious …. When it becomes serious, you have to lie.

I guess the best you can say is, this is macho posturing of a tax-evaders’ shill trying to show he’s tough enough to sit at the top table of power politics.

In the long dark night of the European soul, even a Luxembourgish prime minister dreams of being Metternich.

What is literature for?

There is an amazing interview in the newest Spiegel with the 99-year-old Traute Lafrenz, the only survivor of the Munich student anti-Nazi resistance group, the White Rose. She has been living in the US for 70 years, and has apparently never spoken publicly about her war experience. (The journalist simply showed up unannounced. When he phoned from the airport she informed him “Frau Lafrenz is no longer living. She died very suddenly.”)

I was struck by one exchange, about a teacher she had, in Hamburg, who was arrested by the Gestapo and threatened with execution for “premeditated corruption of youth”. She was commenting on her disappointment with a fellow student — who happened to be the later Chancellor Helmut Schmidt! — who declined to speak up for her.

Laf­renz: Ab 1935 ver­an­stal­te­te sie heim­li­che Tref­fen mit uns. Wäh­rend das Land im Gleich­schritt mar­schier­te, ent­ar­te­te Kunst und ver­bo­te­ne Bü­cher ver­brann­te, lud sie uns ein, ge­nau die­se Bü­cher mit ihr zu le­sen. Tuchol­s­ky, Kaf­ka, Erich Käst­ner. Das war, wie ge­gen das Böse ge­impft zu wer­den.

SPIEGEL: Kul­tu­rel­le Bil­dung hat Sie im­mun ge­macht?

Laf­renz: Auch Adolf Hit­ler war Bü­cher­narr. In sei­ner Pri­vat­bi­blio­thek stan­den 16 000 Wer­ke, er konn­te Shake­speare oder Nietz­sche ver­eh­ren und trotz­dem Mil­lio­nen Men­schen ver­ga­sen las­sen… Viel­leicht braucht man Em­pa­thie, da­mit Schön­heit et­was in ei­nem aus­löst. Je mehr Bü­cher ich las, des­to mehr mach­ten sie Front in mir.

Lafrenz: From 1935 she held secret meetings with us. While the land was marching in lockstep, burnt forbidden books and deviant art, she invited us to read precisely these books. Tucholsky, Kafka, Erich Kästner. That was like being vaccinated against the evil.

SPIEGEL: Cultural education made you immune?

Lafrenz: Even Adolf Hitler loved books. There were 16000 works in his personal library. He could worship Shakespeare or Nietzsche, and still have millions of people gassed… Maybe you need empathy, before beauty can have an effect on you. The more books I read, the more they created a conflict for me.

Volkswillen and Parliament

Brexit started with rhetoric about unelected Eurocrats thwarting holy parliamentary sovereignty. Now, faced with opposition to her Brexit plans in Parliament, Theresa May

insisted “the government’s hand in the negotiations cannot be tied by parliament”, adding that she would not countenance any amendment that would allow parliament to “overturn the will of the British people”.

I am reminded of this comment by German political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, shortly after the Brexit vote:

Dazu gehört in gewisser Weise ein Taschenspielertrick: Zunächst sagen sie, es gebe einen einzig wahren Volkswillen, der sich gar nicht irren könne. Dann behaupten sie, dass dieser Wille bisher von den Eliten unterdrückt und nicht gehört worden sei. Und schließlich, dass sie selbst nichts weiter täten, als diesen Willen zur Geltung zu bringen. Sie setzten nur um, wozu ihnen das Volk den Auftrag gebe.

Underlying it is a sort of sleight of hand: They start by saying, there is only a single popular will, that can never be wrong. Then they say, this will has been repressed and silenced by elites. And then, finally, that they themselves are doing nothing but to give effect to that will. They are just fulfilling the task assigned to them by the People.

The meaning of “is”

One of Bill Clinton’s most famous contributions to the political lexicon is

It depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is.

This was his defense from the accusation of having lied when he explicitly said, of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky,

There is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship, or any other kind of improper relationship.

It was immediately obvious that there was something strange about his somewhat tortured insistence on the present tense, where what he was asked to deny was in the past. Of course, we know that he was trying to be extremely clever in making a statement that was literally true, while seeming to deny an accusation that he knew to be correct.

Now Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has spoken out, not in his own defense, but in defense of the president:

“In all of this, in any of this, there’s been no evidence that there’s any collusion between the Trump campaign and the President and Russia,” he said. “Let’s just make that clear — there is no collusion.”

Is he being ironic?

Less than zero: A new reckoning

One of the most important lessons I ever learned about capitalism and the nature of wealth I learned from Donald Trump. And now I discover that I was entirely misled, at least as regards Trump’s particular role.

As I discussed in a post a couple of years ago, back in the 1990s I read a newspaper article about Donald Trump’s most recent bankruptcy, and was struck by the fact that, despite having vastly more liabilities than possessions, Trump was still treated as a wealthy man, and not worse than a pauper. And his creditors were willing to come to an arrangement that allowed him to live a rich-man lifestyle, if somewhat less opulent than before. I understood that to mean that modern capitalism makes debt almost as valuable as property, that the person with a billion in debt and the person with a billion in property are considered to be much more similar to each other than either is to the one who has neither debts nor wealth.

Now, having read several books on Trump, including most recently Seth Hettena’s Trump/Russia: A Definitive History, I see that this beautifully esoteric interpretation must yield — at least in the case of Trump — to a simpler and crasser interpretation: At various stages of his career Trump has been propped up by criminals who found the Trump Organisation, and its self-absorbed empty-headed chief, too useful as a cover for moneylending — first for the New York mob, then on a larger scale for Russian oligarchs and criminals from the former Soviet Union — to let it fail. In some sense, this is the value of debt: When there are large numbers in play, it’s easy to hide smaller numbers, just as long as you can come to an agreement to keep the flow going. And it does take a special kind of person to have managed to accumulate that amount of debt in the first place, making Trump’s debt truly a rare and valuable commodity.

I’m perfectly willing to accept a certain claim of innocence, that Trump believed all along that the fact that he kept managing to steer around failure demonstrated nothing but his unique genius. It reminds me of Hitler’s famous comment “Ich gehe mit traumwandlerischer Sicherheit den Weg, den mich die Vorsehung gehen heißt”: I follow, with the certainty of a sleepwalker, the path that Providence has laid out for me.

That narcissistic naïveté probably was, and remains, his most useful quality. First time tragedy, second farce.

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