The alternative to NATO

Apologists for Putin’s Ukraine atrocity point to NATO’s eastward expansion as the original sin that provoked Russian aggression. Proponents of Western innocence argue that this is a matter of autonomy of independent states whose need for the protection of the NATO alliance has been confirmed by Russian aggression not only against Ukraine, but also against Georgia and Moldova. Realism wouldn’t allow expansion to include former Soviet republics (except the Baltic states), they argue, but Western Europe had an obligation to go as far as it could to defend newly aspiring democracies.

In this telling, NATO has done as much as it could, taking on the burden of defending Poland, Hungary, etc. It explicitly decided not to make a commitment to Ukraine, and so has no moral obligation there — though it has gratuitously chosen to go beyond any obligation in assisting in the current crisis. But I’ve just been wondering… I haven’t heard any discussion of the alternative to NATO expansion. I don’t know what was realistic at the time, but I could imagine that following a rejection for inclusion in Western defense arrangements, the non-Russia former Warsaw Pact might have formed some kind of defensive alliance of their own, aimed at deterring Russian aggression, but sufficiently separate from NATO as to be recognised as a neutral buffer. These countries collectively have comparable population to Russia, and significantly higher GDP.

In this telling, NATO would bear significant responsibility for the current plight of Ukraine, not because it provoked Russia, but precisely because it couldn’t afford to provoke Russia too much. This led it to absorb Ukraine’s natural allies into an alliance that could never plausibly include Ukraine. It is then plausibly the fault of NATO expansion that Ukraine seemed to Putin a tempting target, defenceless and alone.

The shared guilt of empire

Sunday I went to a small demonstration in support of Ukraine, in Radcliffe Square in Oxford. One of the speakers recalled his experience hearing about the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, and himself being in Prague in 1968. The point being, the Russians are at it again, just like then.

But I couldn’t help but think, the invasion of Hungary was ordered by Khrushchev, who grew up in Ukraine. This is how it is with empires: No one has clean hands. The victims find their way to service of the empire, not actually to positions of power among the perpetrators. The same way, the Scottish and the Irish like to see themselves as victims of English colonialism, but their forebears were also fighting for and even leading the armies of British conquest.

pro-Ukraine demonstration

Is science fiction the first draft of history?

I’ve just been reading a science fiction novel from 1998, Das Jesus-Video, by the German author Andreas Eschbach. It concerns a group of archaeologists in Israel who stumble upon what appear to be the remains of a time traveller from the near future who travelled back 2000 years with a video camera in order to film the crucifixion of Jesus. The dig is funded by an American mogul who is hoping that this discovery can be monetised to save his business empire, that has never been on sound financial footing. And in contemplating this he is obsessed with the example of another failed businessman from recent history:

Das mahnende Beispiel, das ihm immer vor Augen stand – so sehr, dass er sich allen Ernstes schon überlegt hatte, ein Bild des Mannes auf seinem Schreibtisch aufzustellen –, war das Schicksal eines längst vergessenen Immobilientycoons der achtziger Jahre, ein Mann namens Donald Trump, der jahrelang von den Medien als Wirtschaftswunderknabe und Erfolgsmensch hochgejubelt worden war, so lange, bis er es selber geglaubt hatte und leichtsinnig geworden war. Manche sagten später auch »größenwahnsinnig« dazu, und viele von denen, die das sagten, hatten zu denen gehört, die ihn beklatscht hatten, als er noch ganz oben zu stehen schien. Sein Sturz war schnell und grausam gewesen – Banken hatten ihre Kreditzusagen zurückgenommen, Investoren waren ausgestiegen, Projekte gescheitert – und er war sehr, sehr tief gefallen, war fast völlig von der Bildfläche verschwunden.

[The cautionary tale that always hovered before his eyes – so much so that he had seriously considered keeping a picture of the man on his desk – was the fate of a long forgotten property tycoon of the 1980s, a man called Donald Trump, who had been wildly celebrated in the media as a brilliant success and Enfant terrible of business for so many years that he came to believe it himself, and became reckless. Some even called him “megalomaniac”, even when these were some of the same people who had applauded when he seemed to be on top. His crash was abrupt and grisly – banks revoked his lines of credit, investors pulled their money, projects collapsed – and he had fallen very, very far, indeed had almost completely disappeared from the scene.

“Long forgotten” \_(ツ)_/

Self-deconstructing clichés: Polymeter edition

For earlier editions of this occasional series, see Weight-loss edition, Supreme Court edition, Europe edition, Bill of Rights edition, open door.

I remember very clearly when the figure of speech “the mother of all X” came into English. It was during the first Gulf War, and Saddam Hussein gave a speech threatening the US-led alliance with “the mother of all battles” should they have the temerity to attack. I recall how the phrase was so strange that an area expert spoke on television, explaining that this was the literal translation of a somewhat flowery Arabic expression, used to evoke an exceptionally strong superlative.

Because, the thing about mothers is that they are a) important, and b) unique. Which makes it surpassingly odd that Trump propagandist and still-congressman Devin Nunes some time ago, in the context of Trump’s first impeachment trial, referred to the allegations against the president as

“one of the mothers of all conspiracy theories” to imagine that “somehow the president of the United States would want a country he doesn’t even like … to start an investigation into Biden.”

To paraphrase an old saying, “a victory has a hundred fathers, but a conspiracy theory has a hundred mothers”, apparently.

Last and First Antisemites

There’s something fascinating about 19th and 20th century English antisemitism. In continental Europe hatred of Jews was seen as fundamentally political, hence controversial, and was viewed with some distaste by many bien-pensant intellectuals.

Not so in England, where anti-Semitism was never so passionate or violent, but also never particularly controversial until the Nazis went and gave it a bad name. It’s all over the literature, hardly seeming to demand any comment, as I noted with some surprise a while back about the gratuitous anti-Semitism in The Picture of Dorian Grey.

Anyway, I just got around to reading for the first time Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. It’s a remarkable piece of work, barely a novel, giving a retrospective overview of about a billion years of human history from the perspective of the dying remnant of humanity eking out its last days on Neptune. And the early parts, at least, are blatantly antisemitic. Chapter 4 tells of a time, still only thousands rather than millions of years in our future, when all racial and national distinctions have vanished through intermixing of populations and the creation of a world state. There is just one exception: the Jews. They are still there, defining themselves as a separate “tribe”, that uses their native “cunning” — specifically, financial cunning — to dominate their weaker-minded and less ruthless fellow humans:

The Jews had made themselves invaluable in the financial organization of the world state, having far outstripped the other races because they alone had preserved a furtive respect for pure intelligence. And so, long after intelligence had come to be regarded as disreputable in ordinary men and women, it was expected of the Jews. In them it was called satanic cunning, and they were held to be embodiments of the powers of evil… Thus in time the Jews had made something like “a corner” in intelligence. This precious commodity they used largely for their own purposes; for two thousand years of persecution had long ago rendered them permanently tribalistic, subconsciously if not consciously. Thus when they had gained control of the few remaining operations which demanded originality rather than routine, they used this advantage chiefly to strengthen their own position in the world… In them intelligence had become utterly subservient to tribalism. There was thus some excuse for the universal hate and even physical repulsion with which they were regarded; for they alone had failed to make the one great advance, from tribalism to a cosmopolitanism which in other races was no longer merely theoretical. There was good reason also for the respect which they received, since they retained and used somewhat ruthlessly a certain degree of the most distinctively human attribute, intelligence.

The poisoned roots of German anti-vax sentiment

I’ve long thought it odd that Germany, where the politics is generally fairly rational, and science education in particular is generally quite good, has such broad acceptance of homeopathy and a variety of other forms of quackery, and a special word — Schulmedizin — “academic medicine” — to express a dismissive attitude toward what elsewhere would be called just “medicine”, or perhaps “evidence-based medicine”. I was recently looking into the history of this, and found that attacks on Schulmedizin — or “verjudete Schulmedizin” (jewified academic medicine) — were as much a part of the Nazi state science policy as “German mathematics” and “Arian physics”.

Medicine in the Third Reich remained a weird mixture of modern virology and pseudo-scientific “racial hygiene”. The celebrated physician Erwin Liek wrote

Es ist mein Glaube, dass das deutsche Volk berufen ist, nach und nach eine ganz neue, rein deutsche Heilkunst zu entwickeln.
(It is my belief, that the German people has a calling, gradually to develop a pure German art of healing.)

Liek was appealing for a synthesis of Schulmedizin with traditional German treatment. As with Arian physics*, and the Nazi state was careful not to push the healthy German understanding so far as to undermine important technology and industry. But the appeal to average people’s intuitive discomfort with modern science was a powerful propaganda tool that they couldn’t resist using, as in this 1933 cartoon “The vaccination” from Der Stürmer that shows an innocent blond arian mother uncomfortably watching her baby being vaccinated by a fiendish Jewish doctor. The caption reads “This puts me in a strange mood/Poison and Jews never do good.”

1933 Cartoon from Der Stürmer: Blond German mother looking concerned as a beastly Jewish doctor vaccinates her baby. Caption: "This puts me in a strange mood/Poison and Jews are seldom good."
1933 Der Stürmer cartoon “The vaccination”.

Today’s anti-vaxers fulminating against Schulmedizin and the Giftspritze (poison shot) are not necessarily being consciously anti-Semitic, but the vocabulary and the paranoid conspiracy thinking are surely not unconnected.

* Heisenberg was famously proud of having protected “Jewish physics” from being banned at his university, considering himself a hero for continuing to teach relativity theory, even while not objecting to the expulsion of the Jewish physicists, and agreeing not to attach their names to their work. Once when I was browsing in the science section of a Berlin bookstore in the early 1990s a man started chatting with me, telling me that he had worked for decades as a radio engineer in the GDR, and then going on to a long monologue apropos of nothing about how wonderful Heisenberg was, and how he had courageously defended German science during the Third Reich.

Gender and the Metropolis (algorithm)

I’ve always heard of the Metropolis algorithm having been invented for H-bomb calculations by Nicholas Metropolis and Edward Teller. But I was just looking at the original paper, and discovered that there are five authors: Metropolis, Rosenbluth, Rosenbluth, Teller, and Teller. Particularly striking having two repeated surnames, and a bit of research uncovers that these were two married couples: Arianna Rosenbluth and Marshall Rosenbluth, and Augusta Teller and Edward Teller. In particular, Arianna Rosenbluth (née Wright) appears to have been a formidable character, according to her Wikipedia page: She completed her physics PhD at Harvard at the age of 22.

In keeping with the 1950s conception of computer programming as women’s work, the two women were responsible, in particular, for all the programming — a heroic undertaking in those pre-programming language days, on the MANIAC I — and Rosenbluth in particular did all the programming for the final paper.

And also in keeping with the expectations of the time, and more depressingly, according to the Wikipedia article “After the birth of her first child, Arianna left research to focus on raising her family.”

Jack and the Beehive

It suddenly struck me that the English word beanstalk and the German word Bienenstock (beehive) sound powerfully like cognates, even though they are not. There are quite a lot of faux amis between English and German, and they are usually cognate, even when the meanings are radically different — as between the English fabric and the German Fabrik (factory), or the English stuff and the German Stoff (fabric). They have a common root, from which they have evolved differently. Even the bizarre Gift meaning “poison” started out as something given, a dose of medicine (dosis also from the Latin root for “given”).

But beanstalk and Bienenstock are both compound words made up of parts that both seem like they could be cognates, but actually are unrelated. That beans and bees are unrelated is unsurprising. It took me a bit of work to convince myself that stalk is etymologically unrelated to Stock, which is indeed cognate to the English stick. The roots are quite different: Stalk from Old English stale, meaning a handle or part of a ladder; Stock originally a branch or a treestump, presumably then a stump that houses bees, either naturally or agriculturally.

Early Trumpist medical treatments

And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute! And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it would be interesting to check that.

When Donald Trump used a Covid-19 press briefing to recommend injecting disinfectants to kill viruses within the human body, people reacted as though this were entirely unprecedented. But it wasn’t, entirely. From Frank Snowden’s Epidemics and Society:

Of all nineteenth-century treatments for epidemic cholera, however, perhaps the most painful was the acid enema, which physicians administered in the 1880s in a burst of excessive optimism after Robert Koch’s discovery of V. cholerae. Optimistic doctors reasoned that since they at last knew what the enemy was and where it was lodged in the body, and since they also understood that bacteria are vulnerable to acid, as Lister had demonstrated, all they needed to destroy the invader and restore patients’ health was to suffuse their bowels with carbolic acid. Even though neither Koch nor Lister ever sanctioned such a procedure, some of their Italian followers nevertheless attempted this treatment during the epidemic of 1884–1885. The acid enema was an experimental intervention that, in their view, followed the logic of Koch’s discoveries and Lister’s practice. The results, however, were maximally discouraging…

Apparently it’s a not uncommon response on someone first learning of the germ theory of disease.

Count no statue happy…

Count no man happy till he dies.

Sophocles, Oedipus the King (trans. Robert Fagles)

Must no one at all, then, be called happy while he lives; must we, as Solon says, see the end? Even if we are to lay down this doctrine, is it also the case that a man is happy when he is dead? […] for both evil and good are thought to exist for a dead man, as much as for one who is alive but not aware of them; e.g. honours and dishonours and the good or bad fortunes of children and in general of descendants.

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 1 (trans. W D Ross)

In all of the discussion of racist statues one fundamental point is rarely mentioned: Above all, public statues represent the unwillingness of “great men” to simply go away. Those who bestrode their narrow world like a Colossus are loath to let death remove them from the scene, so like the stuffed dodo in a diorama they have their effigies propped up in the public square.

While they lived they received the adulation of the crowds, and the opprobrium of their opponents. If the great one’s supporters need a public icon as a focus for their devotions, the icon will have to continue to participate in the hurly-burly of public life, including the scrutiny of their lives and deeds brought on by shifting ethical standards. If Winston Churchill were alive today he would rightly have paint and rotten tomatoes flung at him by those appalled at his racist ideas and actions. Reasonable can believe that his near-genocidal actions in Bengal, among others places inhabited by darker-skinned people, are more significant than a few well-crafted speeches that bucked up the spirits of the Island Race. Reasonable people did think so during his life. The place where one is beyond praise or blame is called the grave, and no one is suggesting disinterring WC’s bones — though an earlier generation of Tories did exactly that with Oliver Cromwell, after the tide of history turned against him.

His supporters are welcome to hide his statues away in private shrines, or public museums. If you put them up in public you have to accept that people are going to continue to engage with them. Sometimes angrily. Sometimes disorderly.