Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘history’

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.

“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.

Truth and reconciliation

Senator Lindsey Graham has lamented the chaotic way that old accusations of sexual abuse are resurfacing to derail men’s careers.

“If this is enough – 35 years in the past, no specifics about location and time, no corroboration – God help the next batch of nominees that come forward,” he told reporters. “It’s going to be hard to recruit good people if you go down based on allegations that are old and unverified.”

I think we can all agree that the current haphazard approach to reporting, investigating, and punishing sexual violence from the distant past, with mores changing and memories fraying, is not ideal, not for the victims, not for justice.

Ultimately, I think what we need is a Sexual Truth and Reconciliation Commission (STaR Commission). As in post-Apartheid South Africa, the Commission would be empowered to offer amnesty to offenders in exchange for confession of all sexual offenses, and full and frank accounts of the facts from the period of the War on Women.

Of course, before we can have the Truth and Reconciliation, we need first to overthrow the old regime of gender-apartheid and hold free and fair gender-neutral elections. That will be some time yet. By that time, we can hope that computer technology will have progressed to the point that it will be possible to store and distribute the complete record of the crimes.

Kavanaugh’s evil twin and the Hitler diaries

I was in high school when the Hitler diaries flashed across the media firmament, and I was fascinated by the eagerness with which so many responsible people accepted as plausible what were quickly unmasked as transparent frauds. An important selling point was the observation that the diaries never mentioned the extermination of the Jews, and I remember very specifically an article in Time magazine that teased the possibility that Hitler himself may not have known of the extent of the Holocaust, with speculation by historians that underlings may have acted on their own. I had an insight then about what would motivate people to seek out evidence that someone they “know” — even if knowing them only by their reputation as a famous monster — was innocent of an important crime. Just by learning about a historical figure we inevitably develop some psychological identification with him, he becomes one of our acquaintances, and then to mitigate the cognitive dissonance we are attracted to exculpatory evidence, even better if it is such as tends to diffuse responsibility rather than creating other specific monsters.

The writer Richard Marius once told me that after he had written his biography of Thomas More, where he had to come to some resolution on the purported crimes of Richard III, and decided that Richard was guilty of everything, he got harassed by people calling themselves Ricardians. They insisted that the criminals were Henry VII, or Edward Tyrell, or some anonymous unknowable others. Again, Richard III is a famous villain, but since he is famous, people identify him, and want to believe him not such a villain.

The French aphorism tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner goes deep. Bare familiarity is enough to create a motivation to pardon everything.

I see a connection to the way conservatives jumped at the theory that Christine Blasey Ford had indeed been sexually assaulted, but that she had mis-identified Brett Kavanaugh as the perpetrator. This doesn’t change anything about the number of evil people in the world, but it renders them anonymous. (Ed Whelan crossed a line when he went full Ricardian and accused a specific classmate of Kavanaugh’s. In principle, this serves all relevant purposes of the free-floating accusation, but by libelling a specific private citizen it created too many other complications and even, dare I suggest, moral qualms.) (more…)

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.

The EU OS

Twenty years ago I had a short visit from a college friend* who had just discovered the technical utopia. Completely enthralled. The Internet was going to upend all power relations, make all governments irrelevant, make censorship impossible. I was fascinated, but I did ask, How is The Internet going to clean the sewers?

But there was something else that intrigued me. He was very much on the nonscience side as a student, but he had just been learning some programming. And he had discovered something amazing: When your computer looks like it isn’t doing anything, it’s actually constantly active, checking whether any input has come. The user interface is a metaphorical desktop, inert and passive until you prod it, but beneath the surface a huge amount of complicated machinery is thrumming to generate this placid illusion.

I thought of this when reading The European Union: A Very Short Introduction. The European Union is complicated. For instance, in EU governance there is the European Council and the Council of the European Union, which are distinct, and neither one is the same as the Council of Europe (which is not part of the EU at all). There is a vast amount of work for lawyers, diplomats, economists, and various other specialists — “bureaucrats” in the common parlance — to give form and reality to certain comprehensible goals, the famous “four freedoms” — free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour. The four freedoms are the user interface of the EU, if you will, and the

There’s a lot of legacy code in the EU. In the absence of a further world war to flatten the institutions and allow a completely new constitution to be created, EU institutions had to be made backward compatible with existing nation states. There is a great deal of human work involved in carrying out these compatibility tasks. When people complain that the EU is “bureaucratic”, that’s more or less what they mean. And when they complain about “loss of sovereignty” what they mean is that their national operating system has been repurposed to run the EU code, so that some of the action of national parliaments has become senseless on its own terms.

Some people look at complicated but highly useful structures with a certain kind of awe. When these were social constructs, the people who advised treating them with care used to be called “conservatives”. The people who call themselves Conservative these days, faced with complicated structures that they can’t understand, feel only an irresistible urge to smash them.

* German has a word — Kommilitone — for exactly this relationship (fellow student), lacking in English. Because it’s awkward to say “former fellow student”.

The past isn’t even past

I was slightly perplexed by this statement by the PM’s spokesman about the defense minister’s misbehaviour:

He did say the prime minister believed her defence secretary was right to say sorry for repeatedly touching the knee of Julia Hartley-Brewer, a journalist, during a dinner. “He has been clear he apologised for something that took place in the past – it is right that he apologised in relation to that incident,” the spokesman said.

He added that the prime minister did not approve of Fallon’s behaviour towards Hartley-Brewer in 2002 but said the case was in the past and would not be taken further.

I’m wondering, what is the role of the repeated phrase “in the past”? There seems to be an attempt to excuse the behaviour, to say it’s not worthy of punishment, because of its pastness. How far would this go? “Your honour, I would like the court to consider that the murder of which my client is accused (and for which he has apologised) took place in the past, and should not be taken further.”

Update: Fallon has resigned. Apparently some of his inappropriate behaviour was not quite so distantly past…

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.

Tactfully

The Guardian reports on UK government posturing to back out of its financial commitments to the EU, ahead of next week’s formal collapse start of the Brexit negotiations:

The EU scrutiny committee chairman, the Conservative MP Sir Bill Cash, urged the UK negotiators to point out during the talks that the UK wrote off half of Germany debts after the second world war, and as a result did not owe the Germans anything politically or legally. 

Cash said the UK had been “net contributors for many decades” and the “massive contributions” paid to Brussels would offset any divorce fee demanded by officials. He urged the government to remind Europe’s leaders of the 1953 London debt agreement, “where Germany, for all its malfeasance during the second world war” and unprovoked aggression, had half its debt cancelled.

Cash said that given Germany’s dominant role in the EU, it might be worth “tactfully” reminding people “that there is a realistic position here that we really don’t owe anything to the EU, whether it’s legal or political”.

Well, that already sounds pretty tactful to me, backing out on financial commitments to all of Europe because of Germany’s “malfeasance” in the first half of the 20th century. It’s funny that the British didn’t mention how strongly they felt about this back when they were applying for membership in the EU. You would have thought their memories would have been fresher.

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. 

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