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  • On Losing Our “Moral Compass” in Syria

    Posted on February 13th, 2016 Helian 2 comments

    It’s important to understand morality.  For example, once we finally grasp the fact that it exists solely as an artifact of evolution, it may finally occur to us that attempting to solve international conflicts in a world full of nuclear weapons by consulting moral emotions is probably a bad idea.  Syria is a case in point.  Consider, for example, an article by Nic Robertson entitled, From Sarajevo to Syria: Where is the world’s moral compass?, that recently turned up on the website of CNN.  The author suggests that we “solve” the Syrian civil war by consulting our “moral compass.”  In his opinion that is what we did in the Balkans to end the massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo.  Apparently we are to believe that the situation in Syria is so similar that all we have to do is check the needle of the “moral compass” to solve that problem as well.  I’m not so sure about that.

    In the first place, the outcomes of following a “moral compass” haven’t always been as benign as they were in Bosnia and Kosovo.  Czar Nicholas was following his “moral compass” when he rushed to the aid of Serbia in 1914, precipitating World War I.  Hitler was following his “moral compass” when he attacked Poland in 1939, bringing on World War II.  Apparently it’s very important to follow the right “moral compass,” but the author never gets around to specifying which one of the many available we are to choose.  We must assume he is referring to his own, personal “moral compass.”  He leaves us in doubt regarding its exact nature, but no doubt it has much in common with the “moral compass” of the other journalists who work for CNN.  Unlike earlier versions, we must hope that this one is proof against precipitating another world war.

    If we examine this particular “moral compass” closely, we find that it possesses some interesting idiosyncrasies.  It points to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with using military force to depose a government recognized as legitimate by the United Nations.  According to earlier, now apparently obsolete versions of the “moral compass,” this sort of thing was referred to as naked aggression, and was considered “morally bad.”  Apparently all that has changed.  Coming to the aid of a government so threatened, as Russia is now doing in Syria, used to be considered “good.”  Under the new dispensation, it has become “bad.”  It used to be assumed that governments recognized by the international community as legitimate had the right to control their own airspaces.  Now the compass needle points to the conclusion that control over airspaces is a matter that should be decided by the journalists at CNN.  We must, perforce, assume that they have concocted a “moral compass” superior to anything ever heard of by Plato and Socrates, or any of the other philosophers who plied the trade after them.

    I suggest that, before blindly following this particular needle, we consider rationally what the potential outcomes might be.  Robertson never lays his cards on the table and tells us exactly what he has in mind.  However, we can get a pretty good idea by consulting the article.  In his words,

    Horror and outrage made the world stand up to Bosnia’s bullies after that imagination and fear had ballooned to almost insurmountable proportion.

    Today it is Russia’s President Vladimir Putin whose military stands alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army. Together they’ve become a force no nation alone dares challenge. Their power is seemingly set in stone.

    It would seem, then, based on the analogies of Bosnia and Kosovo, where we did “good,” that Robertson is suggesting we replace the internationally recognized government of Syria by force and confront Russia, whose actions within Syria’s borders are in response to a request for aid by that government.  In the process it would be necessary for us to defeat and humiliate Russia.  It was out of fear of humiliation that Russia came to Serbia’s aid in 1914.  Are we really positive that Russia will not risk nuclear war to avoid a similar humiliation today?  It might be better to avoid pushing our luck to find out.

    What of the bright idea of replacing the current Syrian government?  It seems to me that similar “solutions” really didn’t work out too well in either Iraq or Libya.  Some would have us believe that “moderates” are available in abundance to spring forth and fill the power vacuum.  So far, I have seen no convincing evidence of the existence of these “moderates.”  Supposing they exist, I suspect the chances that they would be able to control a country brimming over with religious fanatics of all stripes without a massive U.S. military presence are vanishingly small.  In other words, I doubt the existence of a benign alternative to Bashar al-Assad.  Under the circumstances, is it really out of the question that the best way to minimize civilian casualties is not by creating a power vacuum, or by allowing the current stalemate to drag on, but by ending the civil war in exactly the way Russia is now attempting to do it; by defeating the rebels?  Is it really worth risking a nuclear war just so we can try the rather dubious alternatives?

    Other pundits (see, for example, here, here, and here) inform us that Turkey “cannot stand idly by” while Syria and her Russian ally regain control over Aleppo, a city within her own borders.  Great shades of the Crimean War!  What on earth could lead anyone to believe that Turkey is our “ally” in any way, shape or form other than within the chains of NATO?  Turkey is a de facto Islamist state.  She actively supports the Palestinians against another of our purported allies, Israel.  Remember the Palestinians?  Those were the people who danced in the streets when they saw the twin towers falling.  She reluctantly granted access to Turkish bases for U.S. airstrikes against ISIS only so she would have a free hand attacking the Kurds, one of the most consistently pro-U.S. factions in the Middle East.  She was foolhardy enough to shoot down a Russian plane in Syrian territory, killing its pilot, for the “crime” of violating her airspace for a grand total of 17 seconds.  She cynically exploits the flow of refugees to Europe as a form of “politics by other means.”  Could there possibly be any more convincing reasons for us to stop playing with fire and get out of NATO?  NATO is a ready-made fast track to World War III on behalf of “allies” like Turkey.

    But I digress.  The point is that the practice of consulting something as imaginary as a “moral compass” to formulate foreign policy is unlikely to end well.  It assumes that, after all these centuries, we have finally found the “correct” moral compass, and the equally chimerical notion that “moral truths” exist, floating about as disembodied spirits, quite independent of the subjective imaginations of the employees of CNN.  Forget about the “moral compass.”  Let us identify exactly what it is we want to accomplish, and the emotional motivation for those desires.  Then, assuming we can achieve some kind of agreement on the matter, let us apply the limited intelligence we possess to realize those desires.

    Morality exists because the behavioral predispositions responsible for it evolved, and they evolved because they happened to promote the survival of genes in times radically different than the present.  It exists for that reason alone.  It follows that, if there really were such things as “moral truths,” then nothing could possibly be more immoral than failing to survive.  We would do well to keep that consideration in mind in determining the nature of our future relationship with Russia.

  • On the “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys” of World War I

    Posted on May 31st, 2015 Helian 2 comments

    More than a century has now come and gone since the start of World War I.  Numerous books and articles have been published to mark the centennial, often differing sharply with each other in their interpretations of the events and personalities concerned.  My personal favorite is The Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark.  I’ve been reading quite a bit of the source material myself lately.  As I speak German, these have included memoirs of many of the key players on the German side.  In reading his book, I noticed that Clark was very familiar with everything I’d read.   I also noticed that everything I’ve read was a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the material he quoted in detail.  Clark also generally refrains from categorizing every historical personality as either a “good guy” or a “bad guy.”  I avoid reading histories written by journalists, because so few of them manage to avoid this moralistic pigeonholing.   It’s much easier to understand historical events if, as Clark puts it in his introduction, one “remains alert to the fact that the people, events and forces described… carried in them the seeds of other, perhaps less terrible, futures.”

    Not everyone agrees with Clark.  Even a century later there are others, even among professional historians, who remain obsessed with the question of “war guilt.”  For example, John C. G. Röhl, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Sussex, recently published a life of Kaiser Wilhelm II, in which he insisted that Germany’s last Kaiser managed to concoct World War I almost single-handedly.  I’ve also seen several articles, such as this one that appeared on the conservative Australian Quadrant website, that are still harping about “German militarism” as if the war had ended yesterday.  If the Quadrant author is to be believed, the “ideological and cultural pathologies” of Wilhelmine Germany were direct forerunners of Nazism.

    I doubt it.  Germany could certainly have broken the chain of events that led to war.  So could Austria-Hungary, and so could Russia.  The question of who, among these three, not to mention the other belligerents, was really the chief culprit was hardly as obvious in the days immediately preceding the clash of arms as the historians of the victorious powers so often asserted when it was over.  Writing two days after Russia had begun her “partial” mobilization in response to Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia, Lord Bertie, at the time British ambassador in France, wrote in his diary,

    It seems incredible that the Russian Government should plunge Europe into war in order to make themselves the protectors of the Servians.  Unless the Austrian Government had proofs of the complicity of Servian officials in the plot to murder the Archduke (which they did, ed.) they could not have addressed to the Servian Government the stringent terms which the Austrian Note contained.  Russia comes forward as the protectress of Servia; by what title except on the exploded pretension that she is, by right, the protectress of all Slavs?  What rubbish!  And she will expect, if she adhere to her present attitude, France and England to support her in arms.

    A day later he wrote,

    I cannot believe in war unless Russia wants it.  The Military party in Germany may think the present moment more favourable for Germany than it is likely to be later, when the reforms in the Russian Army will have been carried out and the strategic railways, converging on the Russo-German frontier, will have been constructed, but I cannot think that the German Emperor and his Government desire war.  I do not believe that they were accessories before the fact to the terms of the Austrian Note to Servia.  If, however, the Emperor of Russia adhere to the absurd and obsolete claim that she is protectress of all Slav States, however bad their conduct, was is probable, Germany will be bound to support Austria, and France will have to help Russia.

    In fact, that’s exactly how it looked to Kaiser Wilhelm himself.  As he noted in his memoirs, it was clear that if Germany fulfilled her treaty obligations to defend Austria against a Russian attack, it would certainly bring France into the war.  The Germans knew they would be facing a two front war, and reacted accordingly.  He also confirmed Bertie’s surmise about the conflict between the German civil and military officials in the days leading up to war.  In his words,

    The foreign office… was so hypnotized by the idea of “peace at any price,” that it completely ruled out war as a possible element of Entente policy, and was therefore unable to correctly assess the signs that war was possible.  Therein lies yet another proof of Germany’s desire to preserve the peace.  This attitude of the foreign office gave rise to certain contradictions between it and the General Staff and the Admiralty, who gave warning as their duty required, and advised preparations for defense.  These difference persisted for some time.  The Army could never forget the fact that it was the fault of the foreign office that they had been surprised.  And the diplomats were piqued that war had come in spite of their efforts.

    The memoirs of the Kaiser and some of the other key players in the war and the events leading up to it are often dismissed with a wave of the hand as mere justifications after the fact.  In fact, while self-justification is a typical motive, memoirs can’t simply be invented out of whole cloth, and invariably reveal a great deal about the character of the authors, regardless of how they choose to construe the facts.  Wilhelm was no angel.  He was paranoid, a narcissist, became an anti-Semite, especially after the war, and had an unfortunate penchant for bombast and bluster.  However, he was not the rabid warmonger portrayed by Röhl and many others, either.

    Perhaps the most damaging indictment of Germany was written by her ambassador in Great Britain before the war, Prince Karl Lichnowsky.  His assessment, currently available under the title, The Guilt of Germany for the War of German Aggression, pointed out the folly of Germany’s crash naval building program in alienating England.  He saw the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, as a man dedicated to preserving the peace, and an honest broker in his dealings with Germany and the other European powers.  Grey had suggested a conference of the powers, similar to the one that had preserved the peace of Europe during another spat over the Balkans a couple of years earlier, as a way to avoid war.  Lichnowsky considered Germany’s decision to refuse this offer suicidal, and a major contributing factor to the onset of war.  His assessment of Grey and British policy in general was probably a great deal more accurate than that of the Kaiser and the German foreign office.  Their paranoia about the supposed perfidious, anti-German intrigues of England’s King Edward VII and his foreign secretary is evident in the Kaiser’s as well as several other memoirs.  However, in spite of that, one cannot simply ignore the reply of von Jagow, German foreign secretary at the time, which is also included in the volume referred to above.  According to Jagow,

    We could not agree to the English proposal of a conference of Ambassadors, for it would doubtless have led to a serious diplomatic defeat.  For Italy, too, (Germany’s ally at the time in the Triple Alliance with Austria, ed.) was pro-Serb and, with her Balkan interests, stood rather opposed to Austria… The best and only feasible way of escape was a localization of the conflict and an understanding between Vienna and Petrograd.  We worked toward that end with all our energy.

    In retrospect, this “way of escape” may have appeared a great deal more “feasible,” in view of the fact that the actual alternative turned out to be Germany’s crushing defeat in the World War, but that outcome did not yet seem inevitable.  In fact, Germany did seek to localize the conflict, as is evident from the source material.  As for the German naval building program, I doubt that its aim was really to outstrip or seriously threaten British domination of the seas.  Again, one cannot simply dismiss what has been written about the subject on the German side.  According to the one man most often associated with the program, Admiral von Tirpitz, Germany’s battle fleet was necessary in order to protect her coast against a combination of France and Russia or any other two naval powers other than Great Britain.  She never aimed at more than an 8 to 5 ratio of naval power in favor of England, and would have been satisfied with 3 to 2.  There is no credible evidence that Tirpitz or the Kaiser aimed at anything beyond this.

    There is a great deal of additional material in Tirpitz’ memoirs of interest to students of events leading up to the outbreak of war.  For example, he could not understand why Germany had not simply mobilized in response to the Russian mobilization, and left the moral odium of an actual declaration of war to its enemies.  In his words,

    Did not (German Chancellor, ed.) Bethmann really consider the enormous disadvantages which were created for us by our not leaving the act of declaration of war to the enemy?… my feelings revolted at our having to assume the odium of the attacking party in the face of the world, on account of the jurists of the Foreign Office, although we could not at all intend to march into Russia, and although we were in reality the attacked party.  I therefore asked the Chancellor, as the meeting broke up, why the declaration of war had to coincide with our mobilization?  The Chancellor replied that this was necessary because the army would immediately send troops over the frontier.  The reply astonished me, because at the most it could only be a question of patrols.  But through these days Bethmann was so agitated and overstrained that it was impossible to speak with him.  I can still hear him as he repeatedly stressed the absolute necessity of the declaration of war, with his arms uplifted, and consequently cut short all further discussion.  When I asked Moltke afterwards the actual relation between the crossing of the frontier and our declaration of war, he denied any intention of sending troops over the frontier forthwith.  He also told me that he attached no value to the declaration of war from his own point of view.

    Thus the riddle, why we declared war first, remains unsolved for me.  It is to be assumed that we did it out of formal legal consciousness.  The Russians began the war without any declaration, but we believed that we could not defend ourselves without such a statement.  Outside Germany there is no appreciation for such ideas.

    That’s for sure!  In retrospect, it’s hard to find fault with his reasoning.  Unfortunately, I can’t write a complete history of the start of World War I in a blog post.  Suffice it to say that I agree with Clark that the notion that it was all Germany’s fault, with Kaiser Wilhelm the “bad guy” extraordinaire, is nonsense.  There was plenty of blame to go around.  What’s the point?  I suppose that I tend to be dubious of the value of morality tales posing as history.  In reality, there are no good guys and bad guys.  The terms “good” and “bad” are artifacts of the human tendency to attribute objectivity to moral judgments.  In fact, they do not exist as things-in-themselves, but are better understood as subjective impressions in the minds of individuals.  I read history to gain an understanding of why things happened the way they did, and what motivated individuals to act the way they did.  That information is often lost in works that seek to portray certain individuals as “good,” and others as “bad.”  Understanding of real human beings and the complexity of human motivations and behavior are sacrificed when one seeks to create a collection of wooden puppets that all fit neatly in one of these two moral pigeonholes.

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  • Warmongering at “Der Spiegel?”

    Posted on August 23rd, 2013 Helian No comments

    Pity the poor President.  He can’t do anything right!  Or at least not according to Der Spiegel.  After furiously condemning him for lethal drone attacks, murdering civilians in Afghanistan, and personally eavesdropping on German phone conversations via a direct line from the NSA, the editors are now upset with his pusillanimous lack of warlike spirit in Syria.  In an article on the Spiegel website entitled “Barack Obama’s Syria Policy:  President for Procrastination and Delay,” Washington correspondent Sebastian Fischer dolefully informs us that after not one, not two, but three really serious, we mean it this time, warnings from Obama, Assad blew him off and attacked his own people with chemical weapons anyway.  Assad “gives a whistle” about US threats.  Wringing his hands, Fischer wonders, “How can this be?  Is Obama too weak?”

    It would seem so, as Fischer continues, “Particularly alarming for Obama:  The indifference of the dictator Assad isn’t an anomaly.  The US President isn’t getting through to Egypt’s military, either.  He can warn and scold as much as he wants, but the new rulers in Cairo pay no attention to him.  And what of Russia’s President Putin, the only one who might still have a shot at reigning in Assad?  He’s done his best to show how unimpressed he is with America.”   Spiegel’s man on the spot goes on to tell us that, “In Washington, this kind of impotence is received with bitterness.”  Ending his piece with a bit of humor, Fisher writes, “On Wednesday Obama’s press secretary was asked just where the President’s ‘red line’ was located in the case of Egypt.  ‘Well,’ joked Josh Earnest, ‘I didn’t bring along my red pencil.'”

    Aficionados of US-German relations will remember wistfully how we were assured at the end of the Bush Administration that the advent of Obama would usher in a golden age in relations between the countries.  I can assure the lay reader that the honeymoon has been over for a long time.  Readers of German who need a good laugh should look at the comment section after the article.  In keeping with the time-honored German tradition when it comes to articles about the US, it contains numerous revelations of various “plots” by our government, many of which are mutually contradictory, yet, we are assured, “proved” by oodles of evidence.  In this case, the commenters are as full of novel insights as ever.  One HäretikerX assures us that Obama is a “Bush puppet.”  Ihawk explains that any intervention in Syria “must and should be under the leadership of Russia,”(!) apparently because Syria belongs to the Russian sphere of influence.  Eppelein von Gailengen chimes in, “A toothless tiger has come undone.  That’s especially true of Obama and his policy.  No bite, no concept of the future, no recovery in the job market as a result of a lack of any economic growth worth mentioning.”

    Well, what of it?  Should we write off Germany yet again?  Far from it, dear reader!  Even at the peak of the latest high tide of anti-Americanism in Germany at the end of the Clinton and start of the Bush Administrations, when the media there from right to left was full of furious anti-US propaganda every day, and it was often difficult to find anything on the Der Spiegel website about Germany because of the number of incredibly vile, hatemongering, foaming at the mouth attacks on Amerika, there were always a few decent and honest German bloggers and commenters who defended us.  As a good atheist, I can only say, “God bless them!”  It seems to me there has always been more of that type in Germany than in any other country, and especially more than in the US.  Now there seem to be more of them than ever.  Here are some examples from the comment section of Fischer’s article:

    From a Spiegel reader on Facebook:

    When the US attacks, bad!  When the US doesn’t attack, bad!  As far as some people are concerned, America can never be in the right, and is always responsible if anyone is killed.  What about Europe and its responsibility?  Oh, right, European politicians don’t have a clue.  Well then.

    From eknoes:

    According to the comments in forums like this, Obama is a “toothless tiger” if he doesn’t do anything, and “interfering in the internal affairs of other states” if he does.  As far as the usual Spiegel commenter is concerned, he can never do anything right.

    From Ruhepuls:

    When the American’s play “big brother,” and intervene – if necessary with armed force – in some conflict, then they are accused of striving for hegemony (imperialism).  But if they stay out of it, then they are accused of failing to use their power to pursue “humanitarian” goals.  What the heck!  No matter what the Americans do, it’s always wrong!

    From omarius:

    So this time the Americans are standing aside… and they still can’t please anyone… apparently the professional leftists have discovered a problem that doesn’t have a political solution.^^

    …and many more similar entries.  Write off the Germans?  I don’t think so.  Taken one commenter with another, they’re saner than most.

  • Artifacts of the Defenders of the Faith

    Posted on September 26th, 2012 Helian No comments

    Pundits on the right have been less than pleased by what they view as a timid defense of freedom of speech and appeasement of radical Islamists by both Obama Administration officials and public intellectuals on the left in the wake of the murder of Ambassador Stevens and the accompanying violence in the Mideast.  See for example, this piece by Ann Althouse, and this by Victor Davis Hanson.  If the wobbly stuff emanating from the L.A. Times, The New Republic, and MSNBC is in any way representative, they have a point.  In fact, the Left in the US and Europe has been exchanging admiring glances with the Islamists for some time.  It’s not surprising.  Following the collapse of Communism, radical Islam is the only game in town if your tastes run to extreme ideologies and you like to imagine yourself as a savior of the world.  Unfortunately, it takes a very flexible intellect to abandon the ideological shibboleths embraced by the Left for the last couple of decades in favor of a misogynistic and fundamentalist version of Islam.  Hence, the love affair has been carried on from a distance for the most part.  If it’s any consolation to Professors Althouse and Hanson, things have been worse.  Much worse.

    It’s instructive to occasionally step back from the flood of information about current events that constantly pours in over the public media and look at the equivalent sources of information and opinion from times gone by.  Consider the first half of the 1930’s, for example.  The Great Depression had a strong tendency to adjust the attitudes of the public intellectuals of the day.  Many of them were also fascinated by, and strongly supportive of, the totalitarian regimes that had recently appeared on the scene, some leaning to the Communist and some to the fascist variants thereof.  I found interesting examples of both while thumbing through an old copy of The Atlantic Monthly.

    The issue in question, dated November 1934, began with a piece by Vincent Sheean entitled “Youth and Revolution.”  I highly recommend Sheean’s books, such as Not Peace but a Sword and Personal History to interested readers.  Sheean was an excellent writer and journalist, and had a knack for turning up at key places just as events that shaped history were happening.  He was also a forerunner of what a whole generation of later journalists became; a self-appointed champion of noble causes who saw the world in stark black and white, with few shades of grey in between.  He had no illusions about Hitler at all, and witnessed and wrote about Nazi brutality against the Jews at a time when many “experts” who should have known better were dismissing such stories as “atrocity fables.”  Hitler was a “bad guy.”  Stalin and the Bolsheviks, on the other hand, were “good guys.”  When it came to the bloody deeds of the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, Sheean didn’t miss a trick, but was strangely blind to the ample evidence of similar mayhem available at the time if the perpetrators happened to be Communists.

    In the article he wrote for the Atlantic, Sheean describes a trip to China in 1927.  To set the stage historically, he arrived in China during the Northern Expedition, in which Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek triumphed over a coalition of warlords and succeeded in uniting most of the country in 1928.  Nanking had fallen to them in March 1927, a couple of weeks before Sheean arrived, and tensions between Chiang and the Communists in the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) were coming to a head.  They would soon culminate in Shanghai Massacre and the purge of Communists from the party which, until then had been supplied with arms and money from the Soviet Union.  The Soviet envoy, Mikhail Borodin, was allowed to “escape” from the country.  Here are a few excerpts from Sheean’s article:

    The moment of triumph was inevitably the one in which the two elements among the Cantonese victors would separate.  Genuine revolutionaries – those who wished to change the conditions of life in China, and not simply the forms or names of government – found themselves obliged to cling to the Left Wing of the Kuomintang, in which Russian influence was paramount.  The others – those who took part in the revolution for their own advantage, or were prevented by the tenacity of middle-class ideas from wishing to disturb the established arrangement of wealth – collected around the treasuries of Shanghai and Nanking, under the patronage of the Chinese bankers of those cities and their new ally, Chiang Kai-shek.

    …the difference between an academic acquaintance with Communism and an actual perception of its spirit is very great.  The step required to pass from the first state to the second is so easy that it may be accomplished in a moment, and so difficult that it may involve the effort of a lifetime… but when the step has at last been taken, the barrier passed, we enter a world in which all parts of the structure of existence are so related and harmonized, so subjugated to a sovereign system, that its ordered beauty and majesty give us the sensation of a new form of life, as if we had moved off into space and taken up our abode, for a time, on another star… The world of Lenin (which is, in effect, all around us) can be entered in a moment, but only if the disposition of circumstances, persons, influences, can conquer the laziness of a bourgeois mind.  The required combinations occurred for me at Hankow, and were given force and form, particularly, by Michael Borodin and Rayna Prohme (Russian editor of the left wing Kuomintangs newspaper).

    Borodin, a large, calm man with the natural dignity of a lion or a panther, had that special quality of being in, but above, the battle that seems to me to deserve, in itself and without regard to the judgment of the world, the name of greatness… As I knew him better I perceived – or, rather, he showed me – how his political philosophy made breadth and elevation inevitable in the mind that understood it.  He was an Old Bolshevik.

    Such were the musings and reminiscences of a “mainstream media” journalist in 1934.  As the reader will gather, Sheean was singularly ill-equipped intellectually to give his audience a balanced view of the Stalinist regime in Russia, or an understanding of the real nature of Communism.  I encourage anyone who thinks he was the only one writing the sort of stuff cited above in 1934 to look through a few of the intellectual journals of the time.  The question among many of the authors who contributed to them was not whether capitalism was dead, but which flavor of socialism would replace it, and whether the “inevitable” transition would occur violently or not.  For the record, Borodin disappeared into the Gulag in 1949, and died in captivity in 1951, having escaped that fate much longer than most of the old Bolsheviks.  The current state of the “worker’s paradise” in China should be familiar to most readers.

    Apologists for the other brand of totalitarianism extant at the time, fascism, were fewer in number, but hardly uncommon.  One of them, William Orton, a professor of economics at Smith College, contributed an article to the Atlantic entitled “New Wine in Germany.” It soothed readers’ “irrational” fears about Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime that had seized power in that country in January 1933.  Orton had no more problem with Hitler’s suppression of “bourgeois” freedoms than Sheean had with the suppression of those freedoms by the Communists.  He wrote at a time when much of the propaganda about atrocities perpetrated by the Germans in World War I had been debunked, spawning an attitude among intellectuals that all reports of atrocities were to be taken with a grain of salt.  This instance of “learning the lessons of history” was particularly unhelpful at a time when the Communists and Nazis were competing for the title of greatest mass murderers of all time.  The many eyewitness reports coming out of Germany and the Soviet Union were dismissed with the sage observation that, “It’s necessary to break a few eggs to make an omelet.  Orton applied this logic to the violent Nazi persecution of the Jews that Sheean, among others, had already described in great detail.  Here are some of the things he had to say about the “New Wine in Germany.”

    It is not difficult, after three thousand miles of travel in Germany, to recognize in one’s mind a certain general impression; but it is almost impossible to convey that impression in speech or writing.  One has the sense of a tremendous spiritual or psychological fact – overwhelming in its magnitude, urgent in its significance.  But since the ingredients of this fact are primarily neither personal nor political, it eludes the scope of both the ordinary news story and the ordinary article.  Perhaps the film could do it justice.

    A sound film, of course, it would have to be.  Drums – no, not the drums first.  Silence – the silence that surrounds a great ship coming into harbor; and, somewhere up above, a band playing the new national anthem, the ‘Horst Wessel Lied’ – a fine music, reserved, steady, powerful in its measure, swinging out in the sunshine over the massed decks, over the narrowing water, over the crowded dock, over thousands of arms held motionless in the splendid gesture of the Fascist salute.  Swing the camera along those lines of hands, held tense, not flaccid; close up to the faces; look at the lips, look at the eyes, shining, shining…

    Confronted by this transition from party to government, British and American opinion exhibits a reluctance to face the facts that amounts to a positive refusal.  Atrocity stories are played up, blunders magnified, oppression emphasized, …until a fair estimate of Hitler and his system is out of the question.  There was the same display of stubborn short-sightedness in regard to the Italian and the Russian revolution, but in neither case was the myopia as acute as in this one.  The roots of the disease must be exposed, since it renders a realistic attitude to modern Germany impossible.

    Evidently Orton considered himself just the man to cure the “myopia,” and convey a “realistic attitude” about Hitler.  He continues,

    Germany is completely united in the determination to assert her equality of status with other powers; she has the means to do so, and there exists neither the right nor the possibility of preventing her.

    Whether we will or no, we must take the risk of believing in the German people.

    Germany has no present desire to provoke a war; and she has given certain tangible evidences (as Mussolini did not) of this fact.  Hitler said, a few weeks ago, that ‘no colony was worth a single German life.’  His lieutenants have repeatedly said that with the return of the Saar there will remain no further cause of quarrel with France.  There is good ground for accepting these assurances.  But more weighty evidence is supplied by the ten-year treaty with Poland and the agreement recently concluded by Danzig with that state.  To anyone who knows at first hand what conditions are like on the eastern border, those two settlements are an impressive demonstration of the will to peace.

    Anti-semitism had been a problem, but Hitler had wisely put a stop to it:

    Anti-semitism got altogether out of hand; until, when Streicher’s organ, Der Stürmer, attacked the President of Czechoslovakia, that too had to be temporarily suppressed.

    It was with such stories of Hitler’s “will to peace” and his “suppression of anti-Semitism” that Orton reassured and “enlightened” the  great democracies on the eve of the greatest existential struggle in their history.  It is not recorded that he suffered any ill consequences for this “service.”  As far as one can tell, it was forgotten, and he continued as a respected professor at Smith until his death in 1952.  Searching the Internet, one learns that, “Russell Kirk praised Orton as a “humane economist,” “at once liberal and conservative,” seeking to “liberalize and humanize the Dismal Science.”

    In a word, conservatives frustrated with the Left’s flirtations with radical Islam should take heart.  Things have been worse.  At the moment, at least, the United States and the European democracies don’t face an immediate threat to their existence.  Meanwhile, there is no reason to believe that we will not continue to be “enlightened” about similar threats as we move into the future.  Whether such “enlightenment” will be a significant contributor to our eventual downfall only time will tell.

  • A European Liberal Interprets the French Election

    Posted on May 7th, 2012 Helian No comments

    Jakob Augstein is the quintessential European version of what would be referred to in the US as a latte Liberal.  Heir to what one surmises was a significant fortune from his adopted father, the Amerika-hating founder of Der Spiegel magazine, Rudolf Augstein, he nevertheless imagines himself the champion of the poor and downtrodden.  His writing is certainly not original, but he is at least a good specimen of the type for anyone interested in European ideological trends.  His reaction to the recent election in France is a good example.

    As those who occasionally read a European headline are aware, that election resulted in the victory of socialist Francois Hollande over his austerity-promoting opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy.  While certainly noteworthy, such transitions are hardly unprecedented.  No matter, the ideological good guys won as far as Augstein is concerned.  He greets Hollande’s seemingly unremarkable victory with peals of the Marseillaise and Liberty leading the people:

    It is not just a piece of political folklore that France is the land of the revolution.  No other European country has such a lively tradition of protest.  La lutte permanente, the constant struggle, is part and parcel of the French civilization.  In France, the centralized state historically formed an alliance with the people against feudalism.  Now the time has come for that to happen again.  The fact that the French picked this particular time to vote a socialist into the Elysee Palace is no coincidence.  A revolutionary signal will now go forth from France to all of Europe.  The new feudal lords who must be resisted are the banks.

    Great shades of 1789!  Break out Madame Guillotine.  What can account for such an outburst of revolutionary zeal in response to what is ostensibly just another garden variety shift from the right to the left in European politics?  It is, of course, “austerity,” the course of belt-tightening prescribed by Sarkozy and his pal, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, for Greece and some of the other more profligate spendthrifts in the European Union.  Has austerity worked?  Augstein’s answer is an unqualified “No.”

    …Can one overcome a recession by saving?  The answer is:  No.  those who save during a recession deepen the recession.

    I personally rather doubt that anyone knows whether austerity “works” in a recession or not.  Modern economies are too complex to simplistically attribute their success or failure to one such overriding factor and, in any case, serious austerity measures haven’t been in effect long enough to allow a confident judgment one way or the other.  Certainly the opposites of austerity, such as the recent “stimulus” experiment in the US, haven’t been unqualified successes either, and have the disadvantage of leaving the states that try them mired in debt.

    No matter, Augstein goes on to teach us some of the other “lessons” we should learn from the events in France.  It turns out that some of these apply to Augsteins’s own country, Germany.  The German taxpayers have forked over large sums to keep the economies of Greece and some of the other weak sisters in Europe afloat.  Germany’s robust economy has served as an engine to pull the rest of Europe along.  German’s should be patting themselves on the back for their European spirit, no?

    Not according to Augstein!  As he tells it, what Germans should really be doing is hanging their heads in shame.

    The Germans are poster boys of the market economy.  Never have interest rates been more favorable for Germany.  It’s a gift of the market at the expense of the rest of Europe.  She (Merkel) isn’t concerned about the European political legacy of Adenauer and Kohl.  Those are such western ideas, that mean little to the woman from the east.  Driven by cheap money from the international finance markets, the German export industry has scuttled European integration – and Merkel lets them get away with it.

    Ah, yes, the socialists of the world have no country.  We’ve heard it all before, haven’t we?  If you’re successful, you must be evil.  The proper response is guilt.  Poor Germans!  They just can’t ever seem to catch a break.  Somehow they always end up in the role of villain.

    According to Augstein, without the support of France, Germany and her “saving politics” are now isolated in Europe.  What’s that supposed to mean?  That Germans are now supposed to fork over even greater funds, this time with no strings attached in the name of “European integration?”  If I were a German taxpayer, I know what my response would be:  “Let the other Europeans spend and spend to their heart’s content, just as long as they don’t reach into my pocket to do it.”

    Well, we’ll just have to wait and see how this flight back to socialism turns out.  Who am I to say?  I’m no economist.  There’s an election in Germany next year.  If the socialists return to power there as well, things might really get interesting.  We’ll finally find out just how European socialists plan to go about ending austerity after they’ve run out of other people’s money to spend.

  • On the Afterglow of Historical Fairy Tales

    Posted on February 13th, 2012 Helian No comments

    We are fortunate to be living in an age in which historical source material is becoming increasingly abundant and difficult to destroy, because we are also living in an age that has been prolific in the rearrangement of historical fact to suit ideological ends.  I just ran across yet another data point demonstrating the process whereby the myths created in the process are transmogrified into “historical fact.”  It turned up on Atomic Insights, a blog penned by nuclear power advocate Rod Adams.

    The reason this particular “historical fact” turned up in one of Rod’s articles is neither here nor there.  As far as I know he’s perfectly sound politically, and has no ax to grind outside of his nuclear advocacy.  It was apparently reproduced without any malice or intent to deceive as a “well known fact” in an article about the mutual hostility of the U.S. and Iran.  According to Rod,

    On the other side of the issue, Iranians date their hostility to America to 1953, when the United States CIA took actions to stimulate the overthrow of the democratically elected leader named Mohammad Mosaddeqh. Our main beef with him was the fact that he had decided that the oil and gas under his country actually belonged to the people, not to the companies that had arranged some sweet deals during a colonial era. When he moved to nationalize the oil reserves, the UK and the US took action to install a dictator who was more compliant with our “interests.”  That part of the controversy is pretty well known and discussed.

    In fact, that part of the controversy isn’t discussed nearly enough.  If it were, this version of “history” would have been relegated to the garbage heap long ago.  I wrote a series of articles debunking it some time ago that can be read here, here and here.  The “official” version of this particular historical fairy tale, entitled All the Shah’s Men, was written by New York Times reporter Steven Kinzer, apparently in the proud tradition of Walter Duranty’s glowing accounts of Stalin’s Russia.  Kinzer’s “history” was based largely on a CIA source document, which is available to anyone on the web.  Evidently he assumed no one would actually bother to read it and the other easily available source material, because the idea that they “prove” the great Mossadegh Coup myth is palpably absurd.  The CIA activities described were so dilettantish they wouldn’t have seriously undermined the flimsiest of banana republics, not to mention Iran.  On the very day that the coup happened the supposedly miraculously effective CIA plotters in Tehran, convinced that the coup had failed, sat meekly on the sidelines, taking no significant role in directing events whatsoever.  To believe the claim that their actions were undertaken solely to mollify evil US and UK oil and gas cartels it is necessary to willfully blind ones self to the possibility that Communist aggression ever actually existed or that the US government ever honestly believed that it was a threat at the time.  Of course, I cannot prove that I am any less prone to historical distortions than Mr. Kinzer et. al.  However, I can suggest that anyone interested in the facts read the source material.  It speaks for itself.  I suspect that anyone reading it with an open mind will conclude that his yarn about the mind boggling effectiveness of the great CIA plot and the reasons it happened are baloney.

    That hasn’t prevented these myths from gelling into historical “facts.”  Rob’s blog is hardly the only place you’ll find similar disinformation.  The more a given myth serves ideological ends, the faster the gelling process proceeds.  In this case it was doubly effective.  It stroked the egos of the CIA supersleuths who had no trouble convincing themselves that they really had “killed seven at one blow,” and it also had just the right “anti-imperialist” touch for the ideologues of the left.  But heaven forefend that you should take my word for it.  Look for yourself.

    One could cite many other similar instances of rearranging history.  For example, there’s the old southern schoolmarm’s yarn about how the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, the anti-nuclear activists’ yarn about how the atomic bomb had nothing to do with ending World War II, the Nazi yarn about how the German army lost World War I because it was “stabbed in the back” by revolutionaries on the home front, and so on and so on.  One often hears the old bromide that “history is written by the victors” from the creators of these fantasies.  That may be, but in all the cases cited above, and many more like them, there is no lack of source material out there for anyone interested enough to dig it up and read it.  In the case of the Civil War, for example, it reveals that common people in the north thought it was about slavery, common people in the south thought it was about slavery, foreign observers uniformly concurred it was about slavery, and southern politicians made no bones whatsoever about the fact that it was about slavery in their declarations of secession.  Under the circumstances, based on the unanimous testimony of the people who actually experienced it, I tend to believe the Civil War was, in fact, about slavery.  If you make the effort to “go to the source” with an open mind, you’re liable to find a lot more fossilized historical “facts” that aren’t quite what they seem.

  • 1848 in the Middle East

    Posted on February 18th, 2011 Helian 2 comments

    Ever since the fall of Louis Philippe’s July Monarchy set off a round of sympathetic insurrections in Europe, revolutions have tended to appear in waves.  The recent uprisings in the Middle East are no exception.  The reaction to them among liberals and conservatives will be familiar to anyone who experienced the cold war.  In those days, conservatives tended to support “anti-Communist” dictators against popular uprisings, and liberals tended to support the “democratic movements” against these “corrupt dictators,” even if their leaders happened to be Pol Pot or Ho chi Minh.  Now, thanks to the Internet and other modern means of spreading the word, the related narratives on the left and right are similar, but more uniform, pervasive, and predictable than ever. 

    In the case of Egypt, for example, conservatives seldom write anything concerning recent events there without raising the specter of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Liberals, on the other hand, are cheering on the insurgency, scoffing at the suggestion that it could ever be hijacked by Islamist radicals.  For the most part, the proponents of the two narratives possess little or no reliable information on the balance of political forces in Egypt, and certainly not enough to support the level of certainty with which they represent their points of view.  As with earlier revolutions, the notion that even the best informed human beings are sufficiently intelligent to reliably predict the eventual outcome is merely another one of our pleasant delusions. 

    In fact, the belief of the vast majority of those on either side of the issue that the point of view they support with such zeal was arrived at independently via the exercise of their own intellectual powers is also a delusion.  The utter sameness of these “independent opinions,” as like to each other as so many peas in a pod, and their almost inevitable association with an assortment of other “independent opinions” of like nature, demonstrate their real character as ideological shibboleths that define the current intellectual territory of the in-groups of the left and the right. 

    What, then, of Egypt?  Who can say?  The political history of the Middle East, the rarity and evanescence of democratic governments in the region, the traditional role of the military as a quasi-political party holding all the trump cards, and the lack of experience in or ideological attachment to popular government do not encourage optimism that a modern democratic government will emerge from the current chaos.  Still, as noted above, none of us has the intellectual horsepower to predict with certainty what will happen, although of all the guesses being made, some of them will surely be lucky.  One can only suggest to the Egyptian people that, given the outcome of some of the other “popular movements” that were greeted with similar euphoria during the past century, it would behoove them to be very careful whom they allow to lead them.

  • START and the Resurrection of the Reliable Replacement Warhead

    Posted on November 18th, 2010 Helian 4 comments

    The Reliable Replacement Warhead is a really bad idea that never seems to go away.  Congress has wisely condemned it, and it was explicitly rejected in the nation’s latest Nuclear Posture Review, but now the RRW has popped up again, artificially linked to the New Start arms control treaty, in a couple of opeds, one in the New York Times by former UN ambassador John Bolton, and another in the Wall Street Journal by R. James Woolsey, former arms control negotiator and Director of the CIA.  Bolton writes, “Congress should pass a new law financing the testing and development of new warhead designs before approving New Start,” and Woolsey chimes in,

    …the administration needs to commit to replacing and modernizing our aging nuclear infrastructure as well as the bombers, submarines and ballistic missiles – and the warheads on them – that provide our ultimate guarantee of national security. The Senate’s resolution of ratification should, for example, require the president to commit to specific modernization plans so we can be sure these programs will have his full support. The administration has particularly resisted warhead modernization, beginning with its Nuclear Posture Review last year. This led 10 former directors of the nation’s nuclear weapons labs to write to the secretaries of Defense and Energy urging them to revisit that misguided policy. The secretaries should commit to doing so.

    In fact, one hopes they have enough sense not to follow that advice.  What Bolton and Woolsey are referring to when they speak of “modernizing” weapons isn’t the continued refurbishment of old weapons, or the adding of new conventional packaging around them, as in the case of the B61-11, to make them more effective for earth penetration or some other specific mission.  They are speaking of a new design of the nuclear device itself.  At the moment, the RRW is the only player in that game.

    Going ahead with the RRW would be self-destructive at a number of levels.  In the first place, it’s unnecessary.  There is no reason to doubt the safety and reliability of the existing weapons in our arsenal, nor our ability to maintain them into the indefinite future.  A reason given for building the RRW is that low yield versions could be designed that would be “more effective deterrents,” because enemies would consider it a lot more likely that we would actually use such a weapon against them, as opposed to our existing high yield weapons.  The problem with that logic is that they would be right.  Given the alacrity with which we went to war in Iraq, it is not hard to imagine that we would be sorely tempted to use a mini-nuke to take out, say, a buried and/or hardened enemy bunker suspected of containing WMD’s.  Any US first use of nuclear weapons, for whatever reason, and regardless of the chances of “collateral damage,” would be a disastrous mistake.  It would let the nuclear genie out of the bottle once again, serving as a perfect pretense for the use of nuclear weapons by others, and particularly by terrorists against us.  Those who think the Maginot line of nuclear detectors we are installing at our ports, or the imaginary difficulty of mastering the necessary technology, will protect us from such an eventuality, are gravely mistaken. 

    The building of a new weapon design would also provide a fine excuse for others to modernize their own arsenals.  It is hard to imagine how this could work to the advantage of the United States.  Our nuclear technology is mature, and it would simply give the lesser nuclear powers a chance to catch up with us.  More importantly, it would almost inevitably imply a return to nuclear testing, thereby negating a tremendous advantage we now hold over every other nuclear power, namely, our above ground experimental (AGEX) capability.  In the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Z pulsed power machine at Sandia, the DAHRT radiographic test facility at Los Alamos, and a host of other experimental facilities, we possess an ability to study the physics that occurs in conditions near those in nuclear detonations that no other country comes close to matching.  It would be utterly pointless to throw that advantage away in order to build a new nuclear weapon we don’t need.

    It does not surprise me that 10 former directors of the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories signed a letter calling on the Secretaries of Energy and Defense to revisit our RRW policy.  It would certainly serve the interests of the nuclear weapons laboratories.  It is much easier to attract talented physicists to an active testing program than to serve as custodians of an aging stockpile, and new designs would mean new money, and the removal of any perceived existential threats to one or more of the existing labs on the basis of their redundancy.  The problem is that it would not serve the interests of the country. 

    Let the RRW stay buried.  The nuclear genie will return soon enough as it is.

  • Bush? No, I Don’t Miss Him Yet

    Posted on June 21st, 2010 Helian No comments

    Oh, I agree, Obama seems inept, weak, and lacking in any detectable skills as a leader. But was Bush really all that much better? He certainly didn’t stop the cancerous growth of big government. He launched a completely unnecessary war of aggression in Iraq, freeing the country of a bloody dictator in the process. For that, most Iraqis are probably more or less as grateful as the journalist who threw his shoes at W. The war cost us and continues to cost us blood and treasure that we can ill afford. He got us into another war in Afghanistan that was certainly more justifiable, but failed to take the perfectly sound advice of Donald Rumsfeld to pack up and leave quickly when it was over. Instead, we embarked on a neocon’s wet dream of “nation building,” with the predictable result that we are still bogged down there, with the left and right in cordial agreement that we face almost inevitable defeat.

    Other than that, as the recent “peace flotilla” stunt reminded us, he completely failed to understand the burgeoning threat of a resurgent and politicized Islam that has now become the main contender to fill the ideological vacuum left by the demise of Communism. The evidence is all still out there on the Internet. For example, he strongly backed Turkey’s entry into the EU, as can be seen in this story that appeared in the Washington Post back in October, 2006. Fortunately, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel had other ideas.  (Of course, the Turks, with one of the fastest growing economies in the world, are probably jumping for joy that they didn’t stumble into the EU’s economic black hole, but that’s another story.)  Read the article, and you’ll see how thoroughly Bush was bamboozled by Turkey’s Islamist prime minister Erdogan.  It was “in our interests” for the rapidly radicalizing Turks to become a part of Europe. The U.S. and its Turkish “strategic partner” were “focusing on ways to counter extremism.” Bush nodded sagely as Erdogan inveighed against the use of terms like “Islamic terrorism.”

    In a word, I wouldn’t exactly put nostalgia for Bush in the U.S. in the same category as nostalgia for Stalin in Russia, but it still doesn’t make a lot of sense. The choice between Bush and Obama is basically the choice between being internationally hated or internationally despised.  Take your pick.

  • Palestinian “Victims” – Bill Maher Gets It

    Posted on June 15th, 2010 Helian No comments

    The dead tree media and the rest of the vanilla left used to support Israel – before they cleaned their enemy’s clocks in 1967 and 1973. That made it difficult to strike pious poses as Israel’s “saviors.” After all, the Jews could defend themselves. Ergo, they switched sides to the Palestinians, who made much better “victims.” If your whole ideology is about ostentatious displays of superior righteousness, that’s all that matters. There’s no more intellectual depth to their hatred of Israel than that. Once the “victim” was identified, rational analysis of the conflict became superfluous. All that remained was to rationalize a forgone conclusion, and indulge in the usual orgy of self-righteousness.