Thursday, April 10, 2014

To Brandeis University

What has happened in the last several days concerning your sudden withdrawal of an honorary degree for a defender of the liberal arts, of the Enlightenment, of reason, of Western Civilization and the rights of man and woman--based on the hurt feelings of the votaries of mysticism and statism who never lift one finger to replace a Middle East dictator but with a Shariah toting madman--has been sad to watch. Ayaan Hirsi Ali represents all that is heroic and could be in the world--a woman of independent mind who held her family and culture and childhood religion to the lights of truth and justice. What you have done is embolden the forces of darkness and relativism. You have made it harder for people to speak out against violence and intimidation and you have done so in the heart of an institution that should care about freedom of speech and human dignity more than most.

I am very disappointed and saddened.


Dr. Alexander V. Marriott
Assistant Professor of History
Wiley College

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Guest Submission: The Problem with Today's Digital Freedom Fighters


Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, and an endless list of digital vigilantes have come to dominate the news as of late. They profess to be righting wrong by violating laws—laws which should not exist in a free and just society. Manning released video of American helicopters killing Iraqi civilians and Snowden revealed what many Americans have long feared – that the United States government was capable of and is spying on the American people. These two men have quickly become heroes to some and villains to others. Without question the United States has entered into a precarious era of balancing the government need to protect its citizens while maintaining secrets from foreign and domestic threats. The problem is that security policy should be set through the democratic process and not by high-minded vigilantes who would destroy the nation’s defense capabilities while trying to allegedly protect individual liberty.


Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning violated oaths and agreements made with the people of the United States by releasing secret information. They state that not to do so would have been an abdication of a greater responsibility they had to their fellow citizens and “humanity.” Both believe they had witnessed something illicit and unjust and took it upon themselves to correct this wrong by revealing documents considered classified, as they were sensitive to the National Security of the American people. These are the facts of the case for which there is no dispute. The question that needs to be asked is this: does an individual American have a right to violate laws meant to protect national security in the name of what they personally consider to be, national security?

 
While the stories of Snowden and Manning do indicate a government whose obsession with maintaining its own secrecy while denying privacy to others, there is a troubling pattern emerging--that of technologically adept altruists who feel it is their duty to reveal what they believe to be government and private malfeasance. Snowden states that he leaked the documents because the “public needs to decide whether these programs are right or wrong.”[1]

 
Snowden is correct that the extent of the spying on American citizens was “unknown,” but the suggestion that there was no oversight is incorrect. Information on all of these programs was readily available to inquisitive members of Congress, federal courts, and the Executive branch. Furthermore, American citizens have had 12 years since the implementation of the Patriot Act to elect individuals to Congress and the presidency to restrict the government’s broad powers – knowing for the most part what they were. Except for Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky, most of the Post 9-11 officials have been lukewarm on civil liberties. The only person who comes out of this scandal looking like a “liar,” who has hidden an aspect of his policy beliefs from the American people is President Obama – but what else is new?


While President Obama campaigned on the promise of ending surveillance programs, he has since decided it was valuable in whatever he calls “the war on terror.” (I think it is now called: “Our On-Going Gentlemanly Row on Terror”) The revelation that President Obama, like the president before him, oversees a branch of government that has the ability to spy on every single American should have come as a shock to no one. This should only come as a lesson to Democrats that their president is just as lousy at guarding against excesses as the Republicans. While it has been entertaining to see President Obama’s hypocrisy brought to light and to watch Congressmen and Senators act like Captain Renault of Casablanca, (“I am shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on here!”) nothing has or will come of this save embarrassing the United States and exposing an expensive and formerly secret weapon. The result will be, just as every Liberty loving American fears, a spying mechanism that is countered by our enemies (As indicated by this recent story from Wired magazine) and whose only remaining target is the everyday citizen. All Edward Snowden has done is to waste a considerable amount of taxpayer dollars and instigate the NSA to make the program more robust and more secret at great expense.  

 
It is fair to say that Snowden’s actions have faint similarities with those of whistle-blowers, who generally are protected from prosecution for bringing illegal dealings to the proper authorities. This is not what Snowden did. Instead of bringing what he believed to be a severe violation of both the separation of powers and the rights of American citizens to the attention of a Congressman, an attorney, or court’s officer, he released American intelligence secrets to the foreign press. He also took more information on intelligence operations with him to Hong Kong and then Russia, continuing to discharge more secret information on the way that was not directly pertinent to the privacy of American citizens and pertained directly to foreign surveillance methods used on the Europeans, Chinese, and Russians. The first action may be considered an attempt on the part of a conscientious citizen to roll back the national security state and protect individual liberties, but the subsequent releases qualify as blatant espionage.

 
The same goes for Bradley Manning who admittedly released embarrassing State Department secret cables--many of which he did not even bother to read--because he resented how the United States government treated gays like himself. Manning’s petty act of revenge was both a violation of his sworn oath as a United States service member and another blatant act of espionage against the United States. That he stole and published random classified information to the “World” and not to any particular country does not make his action any different than any other spy working for a foreign nation.[2]

 
Is Edward Snowden really concerned with the “liberties” of individuals while aiding foreign governments like China who steal from American companies and wage a cyber war against the United States? Perhaps he believes the Russian government, that imprisons domestic protestors and murders foreign dissidents, has secrets worth protecting? This all smacks of a person with a misguided savior complex who believes that the path to reform is embarrassing the United States on the world stage and hoping for revolution. The reasoning and arguments put forth by both of these men are incredibly similar to those of the lone Anarchist who assassinated William McKinley, Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz believed that McKinley had violated American principles in his war on the revolutionaries in the Philippines and represented an expansion of imperialism. He shot McKinley believing that murdering a “tyrant” would encourage an Anarchist uprising. Czolgosz never bothered to contemplate the idea that in a democratic country revolutions are not waged with bullets, but with ballots.

 
What Czolgosz, Manning and Snowden all seem to have forgotten is that the United States relies on elections, courts, and checks and balances to right the wayward ship. Every one of these individuals could have voted, participated in, and advocated during one of many elections if they wanted pro-privacy, anti-war candidates. This would have allowed them to maintain the oaths and agreements they made to protect the United States and its secrets. Being part of the intelligence structure, they would have had the knowledge base to know where the real pitfalls and incursions were and pursued legislative and democratic methods to achieve the goal of resolving them. Instead they aspired to be treated like martyrs of the hypocritical “Great Satan,” by our enemies, all the while fixing nothing.

 
While I believe that Snowden and Manning are criminals who unapologetically violated their oaths - and Manning’s court martial happens to agree with me – that does not mean that I discount the need for government whistleblower reform. President Obama has been waging a war on leakers, so long as said leaks do not make him look good like those that revealed foiled Al’Queada plots in Yemen. His ability to wield the bureaucratic and access nightmare that is classified materials to hide his own failings (See: Benghazi) and to use laws associated with classified materials to punish legitimate criticisms of his policy failings presents a real threat to the separation of powers, national security, and the liberties of individual Americans.

 
Do I want government spying on American citizens to end? Of course I do. The excesses of the Patriot Act were apparent to most Americans the day someone finally sat down to read it. What is the value of knowing what books people are reading? After 9-11 that only book that seemed pertinent to that particular attack was the Qur’Ran. The only person who might benefit from producing a report of books American citizens are buying is the guy who sells the government its paper. If there is a source of corruption, I always assume it is that guy.

 
Should we being having this discussion? Definitely. Should Edward Snowden get a pass because the public agrees with his outrage? Of course not. We are a nation of laws. If you disagree with said laws you still have some options denied to most of the rest of humanity: work to change them, emigrate, or revolt.  

 
Should there be legislation to protect government whistleblowers that reveal troubling Top Secret information to Congressmen and Senators so they can make informed decisions? Yes. But should Snowden and Manning be treated like heroes for releasing sensitive information for the “sake of the world?” No. Should they be prosecuted for violating the trust given to them by the American people? Yes. Will we continue to see more people like Snowden and Manning who feel alienated by a political system where elections steer policy and not vigilantism? Definitely. 

 
The current battle for electronic privacy is an important fight, if not the most important, being waged by the State and those who seek to limit its power. The United States government, has long made a habit of listening in on conversations, telegraphs, phone calls, and Internet messages of its citizens. The extent to which this should be permitted in a republic that guarantees a reasonable right to privacy is a delicate balance between elected officials, law enforcement, voters, and the courts. It is not an area that should be settled by megalomaniacal altruists who play God with computer code and think it entitles them to play God with America’s national security and justice systems.

 
-- Daniel P. Roberts

[1] Barbara Starr, Man Behind NSA Leaks says he did it to safe guard privacy, liberty, last modified June 23, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/10/politics/edward-snowden-profile
[2] Ali Mohsin, Bradley Manning justifies his actions by a desire to spark a debate, February 28, 2013, http://www.dailypressdot.com/bradley-manning-justifies-his-actions-by-the-desire-to-spark-a-debate/758357/.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Stay Cool with Coolidge? The Real Legacy of "Silent Cal"

A Review of Amity Shlaes’ Coolidge (New York: HarperCollins, 2013)

Presidential biography season is well under way. The last several years have seen several new studies of George Washington, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. These and other Presidents have long been the recipients of copious attentions from biographers, but not all Presidents are so fortunate. Some, like Chester A. Arthur and William Henry Harrison, scarcely ever receive any book-long treatment at all. Most Presidents see a new biography every decade or so. And so, one of this year’s most talked about and, quite possibly, best-selling biographies, is now before us—Amity Shlaes’ Coolidge, a prequel/follow-up to her blockbuster reconsideration of the Great Depression and New Deal, The Forgotten Man (2008).[1]

 

Whenever any writer—historian or not—decides to write a long examination of the life of a man as famous as Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), the thirtieth President of the United States, and a man about whom numerous studies and biographies have already been written—including Robert Sobel’s Coolidge: An American Enigma (1998), Robert H. Ferrell’s The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge (1998), and David Greenberg’s Calvin Coolidge (2006)—they must justify or explain what new needs to be said. Why now? Why Coolidge? Coolidge, of course, wrote his own discursive account of his life and work while leaving the Presidency—The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge (1929)—and his life and Presidency became the subjects of writers and biographers of all stripes as soon as his main achievements, economy in government and the booming economy, were blown to bits by his immediate successors. One such account appeared in 1938, from the Kansas newspaperman William Allen White, A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge. According to White, studying Coolidge was the fodder of a historical sleuth: “My hypothesis is this: That in the strange, turbulent years that brought an era to a close a man lived in the White House and led the American people who was a perfect throwback to the more primitive days of the Republic, a survival of a spiritual race that has almost passed from the earth. The reaction of this obviously limited but honest, shrewd, sentimental, resolute American primitive to those gorgeous and sophisticated times—his White House years—furnished material for a study of American life as reflected in American business and American politics, which I hope may be worth the perusal of readers who would understand their country in one fine, far day of its pomp and glory.”[2] Coolidge has remained an interesting part of American culture—playing the same role for most Americans’ conception of the 1920s that Eisenhower plays for the 1950s—that of the paternal quiet old man, trusted by most, liked by more, but not extremely well known.

 

Coolidge, despite the perception of being remembered by few, has never been long out of the spotlight. The New Dealers came to power—and stayed in power—largely on a strident critique of the 1920s and early 1930s—the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover years. The synthetic works of John Kenneth Galbraith are nothing if not a formalized and intellectual trashing of notions of “throwbacks” like Coolidge. An affluent society like the one Coolidge presided over had to be willing to “do more” not less, said the New Dealers. When Ronald Reagan seemingly dusted Coolidge off the floor of forgotten history, he was actually scooping him from a partially covered grave of remembered and much battered villains.

 

According to Amity Shlaes (syndicated columnist for Bloomberg View and winner of the Hayek and Bastiat Prizes for journalism—as well as a trustee of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation), a new biography of the Vermont born and raised Amherst graduate who became Governor of Massachusetts, national prominence from ending the first major attempt of an urban police force to strike, and then the Vice-Presidency and Presidency is warranted because of what we might learn of the possibilities for our own problems.

It is hard for modern students of economics to know what to make of a government that treated economic weakness by raising interest rates 300 basis points, cutting tax rates, and halving the federal government, so much at odds is that prescription with the antidotes to recession our own experts tend to recommend. It is harder still for modern economists to concede that that recipe, the policy recipe for the early 1920s advocated by Coolidge and Harding, yielded growth on a scale to which we can aspire today.[3]

Certainly, on the face of it, a man who directed—or helped direct—the reduction of the national debt from $28 billion to $17.65 billion (a 37% decrease that if replicated at this exact moment would bring the national debt of the United States from $16.74 trillion to $10.55 trillion) seems to have answers for today’s problems.[4] But the curious thing about Shlaes’ biography of “Silent Cal” is that there are virtually no answers. This is, I believe, not her fault, but rather is related to issues which she only peripherally examines but fundamental to explaining the very real oddity that White identified—that the same nation which elected Harding and Coolidge also elected Franklin Roosevelt to office more times than his three predecessors put together.

 

Part of the problem arises from a methodological issue prevalent among many modern biographers—David McCullough, Ron Chernow, and a great many other of the most able practitioners—a blurred chronological focus on nearly everything. Biographers, unless they purposely set out to write an intellectual biography or a “life and times” of their subjects, often try to give a Herodotean survey of all the facets of the men and women they examine. This means that often as much attention is paid to private personal incidents and relationships as are given to large public episodes and events. Only a brave soul will make the difficult editorial decisions in a one volume biography to pass over or minimize the truly less important events and incidents of a life and withstand the waves of criticism that will arrive from editors and reviewers. Also lost are the grand meta-historical issues related to the biography of a man—such as his philosophy and political thought, that require chronology to be sacrificed for the sake of thematic continuity and examination. These issues are not unique to Shlaes’ account of Calvin Coolidge by any means, but they are certainly not solved and make the answers she hopes her account can provide elusive, if not entirely absent.

 

A couple of examples from Coolidge’s life and times will illustrate why a purely chronological account of his life is insufficient for getting at anything resembling useful answers in today’s political climate—and also leaves any uninformed reader with surprisingly little understanding of what was going on in the 1920s (or 1910s and 1930s). Take just the language of political description: conservative, liberal, Progressive, Republican, Democrat, etc. The Republican Party, and Coolidge himself, were the primary incubators of late nineteenth-century Progressivism particularly under such party standard bearers as Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, James G. Blaine, Thomas Reed, and Theodore Roosevelt. It was not until Southern populism and Midwestern agrarianism under the likes of William Jennings Bryan offered the Democratic Party an avenue to outflank the GOP for the Progressive vote between 1896 and 1912. We see this in Shlaes’ writing, for instance in a passage on Coolidge’s self-conscious marshaling of his achievements as Governor of Massachusetts: “Many Republicans believed that for a politician to survive he must remain progressive. ... He asked his assistant, Henry Long, to compile a list of progressive legislation he had signed. The laws ranged from a plan regulating weekly pay for injured employees in case of partial incapacity to minimum wages for scrubwomen.”[5] How do we square this with later comments such as: “Then came another thought that was uniquely Coolidge: “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones.” He was, like McCall, beginning to see the extent of the damage that bad legislation could do;” or, “But when it came to the substance, Coolidge was ambivalent; he still considered himself a progressive. That spring he voted for women’s suffrage, the state income tax, a minimum wage for female workers, and salary increases for teachers, thereby preempting territory before Democrats or other new candidates might get to it;” or, “Price controls didn’t work now, either. In addition to respect for the reign of law, the law of markets. “Isn’t it a strange thing,” he asked Barton, “that in every period of social unrest men have the notion that they can pass a law and suspend the operations of economic law?””[6] The most Shlaes can muster for us as far as relates to Coolidge himself is an evolving attitude on economic regulation that was a cornerstone of early twentieth century Progressivism—and its modern analogue.

 

This evolution, we are told, is generally away from the regulatory state of Franklin Roosevelt and even Herbert Hoover, but then we have to deal with serious problems in that interpretation. One, not covered (or only very quickly) by Shlaes, is President Coolidge’s ease with regulating new technologies—airplanes, cars, and radio. Another is President Coolidge’s firm embrace of protectionism. This was not from lack of inquiry about the results of tariffs—in fact Shlaes keeps some of the leading thinkers of the period perpetually in the background of her narrative, as shown in this passage: “Coolidge rated (William Graham) Sumner “on the whole sound.” But Coolidge was not ready to sign on to Sumner’s philosophy: “I do not think that human existence is quite so much on the basis of dollars and cents as he puts it. ... He nowhere enunciates the principle of service.””[7] Shlaes, while offering an explanation for Coolidge’s adherence to protectionism rooted in his New England experience, is unsympathetic to his conclusions. But how did Coolidge and Republicans square protectionism—which Shlaes correctly points out hurt the farmers of the Midwest and drove increasing numbers of them into the arms of free-trading Democrats—with such notions of government as: “The most important thing now was to free the individual, for, as Coolidge said, “It is our theory that the people own the government, not that the government should own the people.””[8] The people own the government to partition trade advantages among regions of the country?

 

How about Coolidge’s signing of one of the worst legislative landmarks of the 1920s, the Immigration Act of 1924 (that excluded “undesirable” Japanese and Chinese immigrants entirely from legally moving into the republic and essentially ended most Eastern and Southern European immigration): “Coolidge was willing to go along with restrictionists. “I am convinced that our present economic and social conditions warrant a limitation of those to be admitted,” he wrote. But he was not hostile to immigrants already in the United States. And he was especially concerned at the widely supported Japanese exclusion provision that many congressmen hope to make law.”[9] Her take on this is that Coolidge was log-rolling in order to get his Republican majorities in House and Senate to go along with tax cuts and economizing in government—but lost is an explanation for why a disconnect existed between Coolidge and his majorities on that point in the first place. Why did Coolidge allegedly have to trade his signature on bills he might otherwise have vetoed—this is Shlaes’ implication, but only for the diplomatic danger of angering the Japanese, which is exactly what occurred—in order to secure passage of tax cuts and economizing in the wake of a war prosecuted and managed by Democrats? No clear or obvious answer emerges.

 

We might be further confused from the seeming bifurcation of the Republican Party in spite of the argument proffered from Shlaes of Coolidge’s immense popularity and of his policies. For instance, while Hoover swept into the Presidency promising to continue the Coolidge policies, it is clear from Shlaes’ recounting that many Republicans—including Hoover—had major disagreements with Coolidge, as we can see from this passage that makes obvious that Franklin Roosevelt’s activities were neither unpredictable nor even unique to his partisan identity: “Many Republicans, including [William] Borah, were plotting to move the party to the left; Borah had allowed he might back George Norris, who sought federal ownership of hydropower.”[10] Hoover, whom Shlaes argues Coolidge did not like—despite keeping him in his Cabinet and deploying him to advantage during natural disasters—was not adverse to these “elastic” notions of government power and intervention. That Robert La Follette (1855-1925) bolted the Republican Party in 1924 to run as the Progressive Party’s candidate against Coolidge did not necessitate a divorce between the GOP and Progressivism—which is why La Follette completely failed to replicate the split Theodore Roosevelt caused in the election of 1912.

 

What is truly interesting about Coolidge and the period of American politics that he inhabited and represented, the roaring twenties and Prohibition—it is nearly unaccountable how little discussion there is in this biography about Prohibition, the enforcement of which fell mostly heavily on Calvin Coolidge and that greatly expanded the pernicious tentacles of Federal power to every corner of the nation through the enforcement carried out by Federal agents largely under the authority of J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation—was its transitional nature. The great “flip” in the roles of the political parties was occurring and maturing during this very period—though the truly interesting part of the tale was on the Democratic side and we get very little of that here. Coolidge, while a “throwback” in some regards, was mostly a “throwback” to what the Democratic Party used to be under the auspices of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and Grover Cleveland—and even there only in part. Coolidge’s record of cutting the Federal Budget, the debt, and the size of the Government workforce (there is a difference between that and restraining its power and scope, which Coolidge achieved very little towards) was and is admirable, but as Shlaes makes clear—as she must—this was ephemeral. Hoover blasted these achievements into bits immediately and Franklin Roosevelt so obliterated any trace of them that observers had to wonder how the same country had elected Coolidge and Roosevelt only eight years apart.

 

So what are the answers? How do we now take anything of value from the story of Calvin Coolidge and cutting the budget and debt—other than simply knowing it was once done? What did Coolidge cut and why? What did he see as government’s proper role and why? How did he square either of those answers with his own actions in office which sometimes tended toward greater liberalism and sometimes towards the greater statism on the horizon? Did he renounce the Progressive wing of his party or any of its standard-bearers? How did he square Theodore Roosevelt’s notions of government activism with his own? Or is the better question: Did he have to do so? The greatest reason why we cannot cut our humongous budget deficit (one of the book’s funnier passages relates to Coolidge’s angry frustration with the advent of a $37 million deficit at the end of his term) let alone reduce our mind-boggling national debt, relates to the widespread acceptance of a notion of government interventionism that Coolidge did, indeed, have issues with.[11] But does his story offer us an antidote to that acceptance—based in notions of “service” that Coolidge may have agreed with in large part? Did he ever articulate a full-throated case against economic interventionism? Or a defense of limited government—why it was necessary and what it was meant to do? So far as anyone can tell from Shlaes’ book, the answer is no—and that is the correct answer. Why, then, write a straight biography of such a person if the goal is offer some path to future prosperity and economic growth? The heavy lifting of the changes necessary to preserve liberty and fiscal sanity has to be done with ammunition a bit more potent than simply pointing to a brief transitional period in American political history—after a war and major military build-up (the disconcerting thing here is that Shlaes could have written a similar account of Harry Truman’s Presidency in more ways than just that point)—where the budget and national debt were reduced. Coolidge running for President today would lose because he would react in horror to the post-World War II welfare state consensus, the precise reason why Alf Landon, Wendell Wilkie, and Thomas Dewey all lost the elections of 1936, 1940, 1944, and 1948. Only when General Eisenhower moved the party progressively and firmly into the wake of Franklin Roosevelt’s “bold experimentation” did the Republican Party re-emerge. Even the great Coolidge booster, Reagan, was a Roosevelt man in the 1930s.

 

Americans are all New Dealers now. Coolidge’s encomium to Vermont recounted in the book during his visit to the State of his birth after a natural disaster is hardly understandable now: “I love Vermont because of her hills and valleys, her scenery and invigorating climate, but most of all I love her because of her indomitable people. They are a race of pioneers who almost impoverished themselves for a love of others. If ever the spirit of liberty should vanish from the rest of the Union, it could be restored by the generous store held by the people in this brave little state of Vermont.”[12] If we are waiting for liberty’s defense to emanate from the state of Bernie Sanders, Pat Leahy, and Howard Dean we are in serious trouble. Coolidge, of course, did not live to see or offer an alternative to the New Deal—but he saw it coming and offered nothing to stop it except Herbert Hoover, whose rise could not have happened without Coolidge’s patronage and withdrawal from office.

 

That Coolidge was an interesting figure with laudable ideas, goals, and achievements is undeniable—and Shlaes’ biography reminds us all of that and informs those new to him of it—but that has always been the case while never promoting any of his ideas in contemporary policy debates. While the American people continue to demand their cake after the eating, on the dime of whatever despised minority getting the short-end of the stick, the good that Coolidge did will continue not to live after him. That disposition and attitude has to be countered by an antipode that did not exist in Coolidge’s day and one that Coolidge may very well have disagreed with—a bold defense of liberty, economic and personal. A defense of liberty and capitalism as the only moral system in the world—a system based on defending individual rights from the initiation of force as the reason, the only reason, for government to exist. Only as such ideas begin winning the debate for the consciences of the American people, can the role of government contract and, with it, our never-ending budget deficits and unfathomable sea of national debt.


-- A republican


[1] Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008); Amity Shlaes, Coolidge (New York: HarperCollins, 2013).
[2] William Allen White, A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge (The Macmillan Company, 1938; Easton Press reprint, 1986), v-vi.
[3] Shlaes, Coolidge, 12.
[4] Ibid, 349, 419.
[5] Ibid, 177.
[6] Ibid, 110, 114, 191.
[7] Ibid, 192.
[8] Ibid, 318.
[9] Ibid, 268.
[10] Ibid, 395-396.
[11] Ibid, 428.
[12] Ibid, 430.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Nicholson Baker is Blowing “Human Smoke” Up Your ......


A Review of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008)


If there is one common thread throughout Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, it is that Nicholson Baker is a pacifist. Baker is so pacifistic that he refuses to clearly state any thesis whatsoever, leaving the reader to wind their way through the chaotic and contradictory incidents he uses to make his point: simply, that “hurting people is bad.” Baker, and those who find Human Smoke moving or, in the case of atheist magician Penn Jillette, “devastating,” argue that this is a dramatic style, a way to engage the reader and provoke debate. I would argue that it seems to be a charlatan’s empty ploy to present their narrative as authentic, when it is actually a shallow and dishonest representation of complicated human events. In fact, the only stated argument found anywhere in the entire book is in the synopsis on the back, which claims Human Smoke is “a moving indictment of the treasured myths that have romanticized much of the 1930s and ‘40s.” Alas, Baker never provides us with the myths he is seeking to refute; only the juxtaposition of events he thinks demonstrates moral equivalency between Axis and Atlantic Allies. By doing so he is dishonest by omission and anyone with even a basic understanding of WWII history cannot help but wonder whether Nicholson Baker did so out of staggering ignorance or for the insidious purpose of denigrating those who fought to save Western Civilization.

 

Because Human Smoke has no clear written arguments - only insinuated ones - I am forced to try and explain what Baker is trying to say, rather than appeal to his own well stated aims. The primary argument of the book seems to be that pacifism is moral perfection. Those who refused to commit themselves to the folly of collective security agreements, arms races, and building planes, such as the pacifist outliers of pre-WWII, are not the cowering, naïve, and anti-Semitic masses that Baker believes historians have accused them of being. Rather, they are the Cassandra’s who fought against a tide of capitalism, governmental folly, and suicidal national pride. To prove this, Baker quixotically appeals to organizations like the Nye Committee or individual examples like Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Ghandi, who just so happen to have been naïve anti-Semites. Baker escapes this uncomfortable reality, in his own estimation, by pointing out that “warmongers” like Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt also espoused their own brand of patrician anti-Semitism. According to Baker, Churchill and Roosevelt followed the same logic as the pacifists. The agreed, he contends, that Germany was only trying to do something about its “Jew problem,” because there actually were too many Jews. What Baker fails to appreciate is that the moral difference between the two groups became apparent when Hitler began killing people. The “warmongers,” Churchill and Roosevelt were prepared to do something about it, while Ghandi suggested that the Jews should publicly sacrifice themselves to the fire.

 

Baker is correct to show that not all pacifists went around claiming that Jewish banking interests, or Jewish communists depending on which party line they towed, were the source of international tension. Some, like the members of the Peace Pledge Union, were so committed to peace they even signed up for a membership card—a membership card being the internationally recognized declaration that I care about this enough to fill it out and buy a stamp. But alas, Baker’s continued emphasis on showing that the sale of armaments between nations was tantamount to treason and that global capitalistic enterprise played a role in the making of the war itself smacks of the same inane logic held by the likes of those on the Nye Committee and Lindbergh. I hate to burst Baker’s bubble, (no, wait, I don’t), but the Soviet Union, which he glaringly leaves out of the first 200 pages of the book save for a reference to starvation in the Ukraine, was selling armaments to Germany as well. They also invaded Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, all of their own volition, without the encouragement of bankers or airplane manufacturers. At no point does Baker even attempt to make a critical appraisal of the Soviet Union and its murderous campaign of purges. It is only spoken of as a looming menace that leads Winston Churchill into saying positive things about Benito Mussolini.

 

Ironically, none of this compares to Baker’s maniacal dishonesty and apologist nonsense as it pertains to his claims that the blame for the war lay with the Allies and Axis equally, and that neither held any moral high ground. Serious historians have argued that had the Allies been more committed to their collective security agreements, or if the United States had used more diplomatic savvy, war might have been averted. Baker, on the other hand, has decided that the keys to avoiding war were the very same arguments made by fascist apologists at the time and since. For the Germans it was the mystical attraction of Hitler. The German people, degraded by a savage blockade of Winston Churchill’s design, driven to desperation by punitive inflation, and seeking to restore a sense of pride in themselves, decided to embrace Nazism and, with it, the crazed plans of Adolf Hitler. Left out and forgotten is that millions and millions of German citizens joined the Nazi party of their own volition, chose repeatedly to do nothing about its excesses, that millions of others participated in the orgy of violence on both the Western and Eastern Fronts, and benefitted from racial subjugation and murder of their fellows.

 

The shear stupidity of moral equivocation between Germany and the Allies is only superseded by Baker’s malicious fraud as it pertains to the origins of the war in the Pacific. On this front, Baker repeatedly insinuates that the United States, by selling arms to China and displaying disrespect for the Japanese natural desire for security in their own sphere, invited Japanese aggression. While fanatical racists within the Japanese government have used this argument—claiming that the Naval Treaty between Britain, America, and Japan was a national insult—any secondary reading into the topic, outside of Japan, would reveal that this was merely propaganda meant to boil the blood of the fanatical Japanese officer corps. Were Baker not so obsessed with demonizing Winston Churchill for the naval blockade of Germany he might have mentioned that the Japanese had a history of attacking other countries in an effort to solve issues associated with their defective command economy and internal political problems. He might have mentioned the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 or perhaps the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, or their attack on the Soviet Union in 1939. Perhaps having some knowledge of these events might have offered perspective on the perceived need to prepare for further Japanese aggression by the United States. But this would require the sensible application of context, or the desire to mention it. As for selling planes to China up until the mid-1930s, the United States had been selling steel and oil to Japan at the very time they were massacring Chinese civilians. The Imperial Government only ever took issue when the materials stopped flowing, which did not occur until the United States government had had enough of supplying rampaging Japanese armies.

 

There is one positive aspect to the book, and that is Nicholson Baker’s frequent references to the tragedy of Jewish refugees as they struggled to extricate themselves from the clutches of the Nazis. He is right to portray the leaders of the Western world as craven and stupid for blocking the flight of people in mortal jeopardy. But, again, Baker contradicts himself by placing Ghandi and the pacifists as exemplars, all of whom argued that Herr Hitler could be reasoned with long after he had begun imprisoning and murdering his political and social enemies. Worse still is Baker’s suggestion that the Madagascar Plan was a reasonable thing the Germans considered for the nearly 4 Million Jews they held in the New Reich (Western Poland, Bohemia, and Moravia). There are no Holocaust historians who assert this was ever a realistic plan under any circumstance.

 

Baker’s primary, most inane, and asinine argument in Human Smoke is the notion that pacifism in the face of murderous Fascism, or Communism (there are very few differences), is something to be applauded. There is an apt poem that starts, “They first came for the Jews,” and ends with “then they came for me.” In the case of the Second World War, it is worth noting that while FDR might have let Hitler come for the Jews, he didn’t wait till the Fuhrer came around for the American people to start helping bomb Hitler’s sick regime out of existence, and for that he deserves at least some credit. But beyond Churchill and Roosevelt, Baker fails to realize that while Ghandi might laud the idea of men walking unarmed into bullets and gas chambers, he did so in the relative safety of waging a campaign for national rights against Churchill’s British Empire that would never even attempt exterminating India’s people. The Jews of Europe were struggling for their very lives against an enemy that sought to annihilate them.

 

In the end there is little that can be done to convince someone like Baker that it is better to kill than be subjugated, murdered, or suffer the murder of your loved ones and friends. All I can do is present an alternative stories to Baker’s bleak morally bankrupt universe. Although I find his style of hundreds of short snippets to be monotonous and boring, I think I can improve upon them and refute Baker with the right set of examples:

Marion Pritchard, a Dutch social work student who had been imprisoned and tortured by the Nazis joined the Dutch Resistance. She spent several years of her life rescuing Jewish children from almost certain murder at the hands of the Nazis. While hiding Jewish children, a Dutch Nazi led the Germans to their hiding spot. During the first inspection the children weren’t found, but the Dutch Nazi returned later to discover the children. Marion Pritchard shot the man dead to protect the young souls that relied on her. It was 1942.[1]

*          *          *

Private Angelo Antonelli was born a peasant and found himself drafted into the Italian Army in WWI. He served in Libya, Italy’s colonial possession. His service was a miserable experience, where he was subjected to poor pay, draconian discipline, and insulting classism. Rather than join the popular Socialist and Fascist movements that plagued Italy in the wake of the First World War, Angelo moved to the United States to make a home for his wife, and new born son. In 1924 he suffered the loss of his entire life savings, then deposited in the Dresdener Bank. In the wake of a personal catastrophe that drove many middle class Germans to Nazism, Angelo continued to work tirelessly to bring his family to America. When the Great Depression hit, he worked harder, all the while emphasizing the promise of America, its culture of freedom, naming his second son Americo in 1930. He never made excuses and never demanded that his fellow men be subject to the whims of the state.

*          *          *

In 1945, Paul Tibbets flew the B-29 bomber Enola Gay for the express purpose of dropping the single largest explosive ordnance yet known to man, the Atomic bomb. After millions of man-hours of work, years of research, infrastructure construction, and the creation of new and unheard of technological advances, the scientists in Los Alamos, New Mexico, discovered how to split the atom, releasing unheard of amounts of heat, light, and energy upon the surface of the Earth. Tibbets was widely recognized as a hero already, having flown 25 missions during the early stages of WWII over Germany. There he saw hundreds of his fellow American bomber crewmen and fighter pilots killed trying to disrupt the sophisticated industrial machine being used by the Nazi empire to murder its neighbors.

 

On August 6, 1945, Tibbets found himself on a similar mission, but free of much of the danger he and his fellow bomber crewmen faced early in the war. His B-29 flew higher and faster than anything the Japanese employed. It was the uncontested master of the skies in the Pacific and had been for much of 1945.  The Japanese Army still controlled enormous swaths of land, still held millions of slave laborers in a state of starvation, and after weeks of unrelenting bombing by the B-29, still refused to surrender. That morning Paul Tibbets and the crew of the Enola Gay dropped a bomb that produced heat found only on the surface of the Sun on the people of Hiroshima, Japan. He did so not out of cruelty, nor some desire to benefit from the production of arms. Paul Tibbets dropped the bomb for the same reason he dropped every other bomb he had ever been ordered to, in the hope of bringing swift completion to a conflict that killed over 100 million people, a conflict started by gangs of murderers and thieves for the purpose of enslaving humanity.

 

Every day, a pacifist, believing that it is morally right to accept slavery, mass murder, and tyranny, calls Paul Tibbets a psychopath, a cog in a conspiracy of morally ambiguous violence, and a mass murderer. I would only tell that person that when they find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun, their family and friends subject to the whims of madmen, they should consider that were there more men like Paul Tibbets, madmen would find no quarry and far fewer victims. 

 
-- Daniel P. Roberts

[1] Deborah Dwork, Voices and Views: A History of the Holocaust (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), 45

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Putting the small "r" back in republican

For those of you who have loyally or critically followed the ups and downs of "Alexander Marriott's Wit and Wisdom" for any of the past ten years, first let me extend my sincerest and most heartfelt thanks. I am glad that you found some value, however irregularly, in my occasional musings and, I like to think, occasional insights. Second, I will keep all of the old posts up in the archives of this new blog so that anything of the previous writings that were of use or interest can continue to be of use and interest to you and any new readers who stumble along and get bored with the issues of the day.

For everyone, this blog has been reconceived and reborn under a new name and a new mission. Whereas before I blogged mostly to vent or for my own studied amusement, now I am transitioning into something mostly, if not completely, different. This blog, now called "THE rEPUBLICAN OBSERVER," (more on that in a moment) will feel and sound very similar to the old blog (I have not changed my philosophical, moral, or political outlook in any major respect), it will take on a more regular, professional, and high-toned voice. Why? Well, the previous blog was a child of an undergraduate imbroglio and remained afloat as an avenue to occasionally pursue ideas or thoughts in the manner common on many blogs--occasionally well thought out and composed, but just as often poorly executed and managed.

The new mission is to apply my expertise as a scholar, researcher, and thinker to various problems of the day--focusing particular attention on issues that involve the cross-section of history and ideas. These are more numerous than you might, at first, think and many of my most recent posts in the old blog give an indication of the sort of work you should expect in the new blog. Why the small "r" in "rEPUBLICAN"? Simply, first and foremost, so that this blog is neither confused with, nor assumed to be sympathetic to, the modern Republican Party. There was no easy way to invoke this meaning (without using a different, less precise, word) than to simply capitalize every letter except the "r." Republicanism was, and is, a set of radical ideas and ways of thinking that predominated briefly in 17th century England, before refinement in the American colonies during the 18th century Enlightenment, famously eventuating in the American Revolution and the American Constitution. That is, of course, the severely truncated and simple version of the story, but it will suffice here.

Those who know me, and the old blog, know that my politics would not be called conservative by Rick Santorum, the late Robert Bork, or Sean Hannity; they would also not be called liberal by Al Gore, Harry Reid, or Chuck Schumer. No libertarian in a movement largely dominated by the acolytes of Ron Paul would be interested in my affiliation either (and the feeling is very mutual). The best way to describe the political philosophy that will come through in this blog is to reference at least two traditions--one very old and largely dead, the other relatively new, alive, and very controversial. The first is what is now called "classical liberalism" (it was once, simply, "liberalism") and was the social, economic, and political thought of men like William Graham Sumner, David Ricardo, William Gladstone, etc. Liberals were once the dominant force in the Western world--the heyday of the 19th century. At their best, they pushed for freedom of trade, freedom of the seas, peace, commerce, and enlightenment--also the fair and free government of men and the honest and equal application of law. Civil society reached its apex under their tutelage. Sadly, today, it is largely saddled with the prejudices of an era that it had no more to do with than you or I and that, more than any other single force, it was concerned with destroying. Liberalism did not invent racial prejudice and imperialism (those existed in the 16th and 17th centuries, if not earlier) but because some putative liberals were racists and/or imperialists, latter-day Marxists of all stripes have never stopped castigating the movement as moribund and fundamentally unjust.

The second tradition relates to the philosophical elucidation and correction of classical liberalism's real and myriad deficiencies and errors (what is the moral case for self-interest and capitalism, for example? John Stuart Mill spent a life trying to make "utility" the answer to that question and died a defeated fatalist muttering the bromides of socialism). This was achieved by the twentieth century's most unique, provocative, and ingenious philosopher, Ayn Rand. More critical for this blog than the moral case for capitalism and free government, however, are the epistemological insights to be gained from a study and understanding of Objectivism. Reality exists whether we gouge out our eyes to avoid seeing it or not--and we can, with our senses and our reason, evaluate it, categorize it, know it, and understand it. This is a truism of the modern world as regards things like medical science--a fact so implicitly acknowledged that every post-modernist in the country is clamoring to make the certainty of life-saving great technology their own undeniable "right" by the fiat of the state. But it is no less true in the world of the human sciences--the humanities. As much as we hear--and if you listen, the chorus is deafening--that certainty is impossible, that everything is a social construction, that opinions are all there is, this is not the case. Ideas and institutions either comport with evidence and the one and only reality from which all evidence derives or they do not. A is A. If Rand did nothing else for humanity, saving reality and reason from an epistemological dungeon would be enough to enshrine her in the pantheon of great thinkers.

Now that you have some, albeit rather vague, idea of where this blogger comes from and what he is doing, the stage is set for commencement. At least once a week, a new essay will appear here, exploring and documenting some major issue of note and concern. Any and all comments are welcome and appreciated. Please feel free to recommend the blog to any and all comers. If anyone would like to discuss running any of these writings elsewhere, please feel free to contact me at alexandermarriott@hotmail.com. Also, if an issue arises or you think there is a story I would like to write about, feel free to contact me for those as well.

One final thing. As an homage to the men whose pictures border the words of this blog, the revolution they began and won, the republic they founded and protected, I will sign all of my own writings as, "A republican." To adopt a pseudonym familiar to the readers of 18th and early 19th century letters--Cato, Junius, Publius, etc.--would be off putting and forced. To modernize the names from their classical source material, instead opting for Gibbon or Darwin or Edison or Galt, would similarly ring hollow in the modern ear and offend the modern eye. Rather, in keeping with the simplicity of life, form, and the political ideal of the early days of the American experiment--as well as the common bedrock of a people's limited consent that was (and is) the foundation of all legitimate government--"A republican" hits all the correct and proper notes. My identity is well enough known for anyone to suspect me of trying to stay mysterious or affecting a disguise. Owning and running this blog, and being responsible for producing everything on it will, I hope, allow a minor indulgence from my readers for one inoffensive and minor conceit.

To another ten years, at least!

-- A republican