There’s been a lot of chatter on the Internet lately about MSNBC host Krystal Ball’s “re-interpretation” of Animal Farm as an anti-capitalist parable. The money quote from her take in the video below:
At its heart, Animal Farm is about tyranny and the likelihood of those in power to abuse that power. It’s clear that tendency is not only found in the Soviet communist experience. In fact, if you read Animal Farm today, it seems to warn not of some now non-existent communist threat but of the power concentrated in the hands of the wealthy elites and corporations…
As new research shows that we already live a sort of oligarchy that the preferences of the masses literally do not matter and that the only thing that counts is the needs and desires of the elites, Animal Farm is a useful cautionary tale warning of the corruption of concentrated power, no matter in whose hands that power rests.
Well, not exactly, Krystal. As astutely pointed out by CJ Ciaramella at The Federalist,
This is such a willfully stupid misreading that it doesn’t warrant much comment. However, for those who haven’t read Animal Farm since high school, as seems to be the case with Ball: The book is a satire of Soviet Russia specifically and a parable about totalitarianism in general. Every major event in the book mirrors an event in Soviet history, from the Bolshevik Revolution to Trotsky fleeing the country to Stalin’s cult of personality.
Indeed. Animal Farm’s Napoleon as the Koch Brothers? Snowball as Thomas Picketty? I don’t think so. True, you have to be completely clueless about the history of the Soviet Union to come up with such a botched interpretation, but, after all, that’s not too surprising. For citizens of our fair Republic, cluelessness about the history of the Soviet Union is probably the norm. The real irony here is that you also have to be completely clueless about Orwell to bowdlerize Animal Farm into an anti-capitalist parable. If that’s your agenda, why not fish out something more appropriate from his literary legacy. Again, quoting Ciaramella,
What is most impressive, though, is that MSNBC couldn’t locate an appropriate reference to inequality in the works of a lifelong socialist. It’s not as if one has to search hard to find Orwell railing against class divisions. He wrote an entire book, The Road to Wigan Pier, about the terrible living conditions in the industrial slums of northern England.
Not to mention Down and Out in Paris and Londonand four volumes of essays full of rants against the Americans for being so backward about accepting the blessings of socialism. Indeed, Orwell, has been “re-interpreted” on the Right just as enthusiastically as on the Left of the political spectrum. For example, from Brendan Bordelon at The Libertarian Republic,
Leaving aside the obvious historical parallels between Animal Farm and the Soviet Union, the inescapable message is that government-enforced equality inevitably leads to oppression and further inequality, as fallible humans (or pigs) use powerful enforcement tools for their own personal gain.
Sorry, Brendan, but that message is probably more escapable than you surmise. Orwell was, in fact, a firm supporter of “government-enforced equality,” at least to the extent that he was a life-long, dedicated socialist. Indeed, he thought the transition to socialism in the United Kingdom was virtually inevitable in the aftermath of World War II.
In short, if you’re really interested in learning what Orwell was trying to “tell” us, whether in Animal Farm or the rest of his work, it’s probably best to read what he had to say about it himself.
Secretary of State John Kerry appeared quite concerned about global warming during a recent visit to Indonesia, telling students,
The bottom line is this: it is the same thing with climate change. In a sense, climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even the worlds most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.
A bit later, Harry Reid and his fellow Democrat senators pulled an all-night talkathon to sound the climate change alarm. According to Reid, climate change is “the worst problem facing the world today.” All this left reporter Susan Davis at USA Today scratching her head:
The Democratic effort is cause for some confusion because these senators are calling for action in a chamber they control but without any specific legislation to offer up for a vote, or any timetable for action this year.
As noted at Hot Air, the talkathon and Kerry’s bloviations were nothing but PR stunts:
In other words, this is nothing but a stunt — and transparently so. Senate Democrats control all of the Senate committees, and what comes to the Senate floor. Boxer herself is the chair of the committee on environmental affairs, and could push through legislation any time she wants to the floor.
In other words, it’s business as usual when it comes to environmental activism. The pose is everything, and the reality is nothing. The reality is that Kerry, Reid, and the rest are transparently indifferent to the problem of climate change, except as it serves them as a political tool. If they really cared about it, they would have put a stop to illegal immigration long ago. The carbon foot print per capita of the United States is four times that of Mexico, and the ratio is much greater for most of the other countries of origin. If they really cared, they would put a stop to Nuclear Regulatory Commission stonewalling of innovative nuclear plant designs, not to mention grossly excessive litigation hurdles for plant construction. If they really cared, they would get behind the shale-energy revolution which has cut 300 million tons of US greenhouse gas emissions by replacing heavily polluting coal with natural gas, a contribution greater than that of all the worlds solar and wind power installations combined. In other words, they don’t care.
It’s sad, because climate change actually is a potentially serious problem. Kerry is just blowing hot air himself when he makes statements like,
We should not allow a tiny minority of shoddy scientists and science and extreme ideologues to compete with scientific fact.
The idea that someone like Kerry could distinguish “shoddy scientists” from “scientific fact” when it comes to climate change is beyond ludicrous. What qualifies him to even make such a statement? Certainly not the faintest understanding of current climate models. The most powerful computers on earth couldn’t even come close to achieving a deterministic solution of the problem. It involves billions of degrees of freedom in atmospheric and ocean conditions, and the necessary initial conditions are mostly either unknown or of limited accuracy. The only way we can even begin to address the problem is with serious (and potentially inaccurate) data interpolation, and probabilistic computer models, the equivalent of “throwing dice” on a vast scale to see which numbers come up. The statistical noise alone in such models renders it impossible to speak of “scientific facts” when it comes to climate change, but only a range of possible outcomes. In other words, Kerry’s crude “alarmism” is an easy mark for the climate “denialism” on the other end of the ideological spectrum. That’s too bad, because denying that any problem exists is just as bad as demagoguing it.
We may not be able to speak of “scientific facts” when it comes to climate change. We do know, however, that solar radiation passing through a simplified model of the atmosphere and striking an “average” patch of the earth’s surface will raise the temperature of that atmosphere in proportion to the concentration of greenhouse gases. The best computer models we have are not perfect, but they’re not useless either, and they predict that significant warming will occur over the coming decades. In other words, we can’t speak of “facts” or certainty here, but we can say that there is a substantial risk that significant human-induced climate change will occur. The effects might be benign, outweighed by the same factors that have driven variations in the earth’s climate throughout its history. They might also be disastrous. Given that earth is the only planet we have to live on at the moment, it seems foolhardy to rock the boat.
Under the circumstances, Kerry, Reid, and the rest might want to think twice about the value of crying “wolf” to score cheap political points, when it’s clear that they have no intention of seriously addressing the problem. Particularly at the end of a 15 year pause in the rate of increase of global temperatures, the result, already much in evidence, will be an increase in cynicism and skepticism that the problem is real. The resulting reluctance to sacrifice other priorities to address it may come back to haunt the alarmists if, as the boy in the story discovered, the “wolf” turns out to be real.
What to do? Some of the most effective solutions are precisely what the alarmists who bray the loudest don’t want to do. End significant immigration to countries with the most emissions per capita, for one. Lead in the introduction and adoption of more efficient and safer nuclear technologies and the expansion of nuclear capacity instead of blocking it for another. Instead, the wildly misnomered “Greens” in Germany are shutting down the nuclear plants in that country, with the entirely predictable result that Germany is currently planning to build 26 new, heavily polluting, coal-fired power plants to replace them. Divert heavy subsidies for existing solar and wind technologies to investment in green technology research and development. As those famously “green” Germans discovered once again, taxing the poor to finance the solar energy hobbies of the rich in a cloudy country whose capital lies above the 52nd parallel of latitude is a dubious proposition. The cost of electricity there after years of massive subsidies to solar and a nuclear shutdown is now twice as high as in heavily nuclear France. As noted in an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the burden of these skyrocketing costs is falling disproportionately on the backs of those least able to afford them.
Beyond that, we might want to get serious about finding another habitable planet, and developing the technology to get there. We’ve been doing a lot of rocking the boat lately. It would behoove us to have an alternative in case it eventually tips over, and the sooner the better.
Morality exits because of evolved behavioral traits. They are its ultimate cause. Without them, morality as we know it, in all of its various complex manifestations would cease to exist. Without them, the subjective perception in the brains of individuals of such things as good, evil, and rights would disappear as well. We perceive all of these as objects, as independent things-in-themselves, because individuals who perceived them in that way were more likely to survive and reproduce. However, they do not exist as things-in-themselves, a fact that has led to endless confusion in creatures such as ourselves, who are capable of reasoning about these nonexistent objects that seem so real.
It follows that, in spite of the legions of philosophers over the centuries who have presumed to enlighten us about the objective “should,” such an entity is as imaginary as unicorns. There is no objective reason why individuals “should” do anything in order to embrace good and reject evil, because good and evil are not objects. The same applies to the State. From a moral point of view (and it can be assumed in what follows that I am speaking of that point of view when I use the term “should”), there is no objective reason why the State should act one way in order to be good, or should not act another way in order to avoid evil. When an individual says that the state should do one thing, and not another, (s)he is simply expressing a personal desire. That, of course, applies to my own point of view. When I speak of what the State should or should not do, I am merely expressing a personal opinion, based on my own conjecture about the kind of state I would like to live in.
In the first place, we can say that there is no essential connection between the modern State and morality, because no such entity as the modern State existed during the time over which the behavioral traits we associate with morality evolved. However, a State that does not take morality into account is unlikely to be effective at achieving the goals its citizens have set for it, because it is the nature of those citizens to be influenced by moral predispositions. If a sufficient number of them perceive that the State is acting immorally, or violating what seem to them to be their rights, they may resist its laws, or rebel.
If the State is to act “morally,” does it follow that there should be an establishment of religion, whether of the spiritual or the secular variety? Based on the empirical evidence of our history, and what I know of human behavior, it seems to me that it does not. The value to the state of an established moral system lies in the potential of welding all its citizens into a single ingroup. It seems plausible that a single ingroup would be more effective at achieving the common goals of a State’s citizens then a collection distinct ingroups, each of which might perceive one or more of the others as outgroups. In such cases the expression of hatred and hostility towards the outgroup(s) would likely be disruptive.
Unfortunately, established moral systems throughout history have all tended to be unstable and counterproductive. From the time Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire until the final fall of its Byzantine remnant, there was constant strife between Trinitarians and Anti-Trinitarians, iconodules and iconoclasts, those who accepted the Three Chapters and those who condemned them, etc. Later attempts to preserve single ingroup orthodoxy spawned the massacre of the Albigensians, the long decades of the Hussite wars, the century of intermittent warfare between the Catholics and the Huguenots in France, and many another bloody chapter in human history. Established religions became instruments of exploitation in the hands of the powerful, resulting in the bloody reprisals of the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, etc. A problem with established religions has always been that people cannot change deeply held beliefs at will, and they resent being forced to pretend they believe things when they don’t. Typically, force is necessary to suppress that resentment, as we have seen in modern Iran. The “right” of Freedom of Religion” is basically a recognition of these drawbacks.
The more recent secular religions have fared no better. The two most familiar examples of the 20th century, Communism and Nazism, for example, both found it necessary to brutally suppress any opposition. The “great rewards” of such religions, whether in the form of a utopian classless society or a Teutonic golden age, are worldly rather than in the great beyond, and eventually become noticeable by their absence. All moral systems have outgroups as well as ingroups and, in the case of the secular religions, these also tend to be worldly rather than spiritual. In the case of the Communists and the Nazis, this led to the mass slaughter of the “bourgeoisie” and the Jews, respectively, robbing the State of many citizens, who often happened to be among the most intelligent and productive. It would seem that these two dire examples would be enough in themselves to deter us from any further experiments along similar lines. Remarkably, however, as those who have read the books of the likes of Sam Harris and Joshua Greene are aware, we continue to cobble away on new “scientific” versions, seemingly oblivious to the outcomes of our past attempts.
As an anodyne to all these problems, the philosophers of the Enlightenment sought to limit the power of the State by establishing Rights, such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc. While these Rights are not things-in-themselves, they are perceived as such. Though they are merely subjective constructs, they can still acquire legitimacy if they are generally accepted and hallowed by tradition. Democracy was held forth as the proper vehicle for promoting these rights and guarding against the abuse of power by autocratic rulers. As implemented, modern democracies have hardly been perfect, but have been more stable than autocratic forms of government, and have often, although not invariably, survived such challenges as hard economic times and war. However, their drawbacks are also clearly visible. For example, recently they have been powerless to resist the massive influx of culturally alien populations that are far more likely to be a source of future civil strife if not worse than to be of any long term benefit to the existing citizens whose welfare these democratic states are supposed to be protecting. They benefit elites as a source of votes and cheap labor, but are likely to be harmful to society as a whole in the long term. In short, the jury is still out as to whether the post-Enlightenment democracies will eventually be perceived as Good or Evil.
It is not clear what if any alternative system might actually be better than democracy. The Chinese oligarchy has certainly had remarkable success in expanding the economic and military power of that country. However, its legitimacy is based on its supposed representation of the bankrupt, foreign ideology of Marxism. In spite of that, in a traditionalist country like China it may hold onto “the mandate of heaven” for a long time in spite of the glaring contradictions between its supposed ideology and its practice.
In general, “virtuous” states – those free of corruption, that do not cheat or steal from their citizens, and that are effective in enforcing laws that are perceived as just – are more effective at promoting the common weal than their opposites. Heraclitus’ dictum that “character is destiny” likely applies to states as well as individuals. I personally think that states are far more likely to be “virtuous” in that sense if their powers are carefully circumscribed and limited. Whenever new moral systems are implemented, “scientific” or otherwise, those limits tend to be dissolved. When it comes to the State, it is probably better to think in terms of “Thou shalt not” than in terms of “Thou shalt.” Two that come to mind include Thou shalt not kill (except, as Voltaire suggested, in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets), and Thou shalt not torture.
It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good. The government shutdown is making life miserable for federal employees and government contractors, but it’s the greatest show on earth for students of human nature. Ingroup/outgroup behavior, first described in formal academic terms by Sir Arthur Keith, Freudianized by Ardrey as the Amity/Enmity Complex, and probably the most important “root cause” of human warfare throughout the ages, can be observed in its crudest forms on both the left and the right of the ideological spectrum. As Keith put it,
Seeing that all social animals behave in one way to members of their own community and in an opposite manner to those of other communities, we are safe in assuming that early humanity, grouped as it was in the primal world, had also this double rule of behavior. At home they applied Huxley’s ethical code, which is Spencer’s code of amity; abroad their conduct was that of Huxley’s cosmic code, which is Spencer’s code of enmity.
To judge by the partisan political blogs, Keith’s early humanity was quite successful in passing those traits along to later humanity. Typically, commenters in such forums are firmly convinced that the “others” are not just misguided and mistaken. They are perceived as disgusting, stupid, and deliberately evil. For example, from the comment section of the left wing Talking Points Memo in response to an article about who’s to blame for the shutdown,
The hillbilly homegrown terrorists know what they’re doing, and the whole point is to shut the country down and cause pain for the people they don’t like (aka “other Americans”).
Republicans don’t believe in polls. Or science. Or math. Or medicine… I’m not really sure what they do believe in besides the “invisible hand” of the market and the concept that an “invisible man in the sky” has chosen them specifically to spread gun-love and lecture poor people, minorities and women on why they are inferior.
Republicans hate the black man in the White House and that hatred trumps everything else. They will force default just to spite us.
170 years ago it was whether a certain race of people should be enslaved; today it is whether our entire population should be shackled and softly enslaved by an overly oppressive government.
My (grand)father’s Democrat Party didn’t have Marxist garbage like Van Jones nor feral types like Alan Grayson. Since I would never answer to such garbage we’re back in 1850’s America.
I do think a tipping point has been reached when you have the specter of the federal government literally barricading (a deliberate solecism on the right, playing on the President’s name) state roads, to prevent people from getting a view, a corrupt attorney general literally stepping into states, to disallow them to institute basic voting safeguards. A labor department literally blocking the gates of a company in South Carolina, because they didn’t pay proper respects to another political group. This government is harming real people now, for no more reason than thin skinnedness and spite.
Notice the symmetry? As usual, both sides can see the other’s spite and hatred, but not their own. For example, from the Powerline comments,
Conservatives think that liberals are wrong, but liberals think that conservatives are evil.
Readers of Jonathan Haidt’sThe Righteous Mind will recognize his “inner lawyer” at work here, busily rationalizing moral emotions. As usual, Haidt’s “rational tail” is hard at work wagging the “emotional dog.”
We are less than a year away from the centennial anniversary of the start of World War I, and there are some interesting commonalities between the shutdown and that conflict. Since humans were/are involved in both conflicts, it is not surprising to find the human traits associated with status seeking and dominance figuring as important factors in both. Students of history will recall that the relevant suite of emotions went by the name of “honor” in World War I. Prior to that conflict, Austria-Hungary had directly challenged Russia by annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. Russia, recently weakened by the 1905 Revolution and defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, had been forced to back down, and was perceived, both by herself and others, as having acted weakly. In 1914, Austria challenged Russia again, mobilizing against her ally, Serbia, and shelling Belgrade. This time, however, Russia was determined not to lose face. Her leaders imagined all sorts of dire consequences if she backed down again, ignored the immeasurably more dire consequences of not backing down, and ordered their own army to mobilize. That got the ball rolling in Germany, and the rest is history.
In the last government shutdown during the Clinton Administration, the Republicans also backed down, in part because of polls showing the public blamed them for the mess, and were humbled just as the Russians were in 1908. Now the Republicans face their own 1914. In what they probably perceive in more or less the same way as the Russians perceived the shelling of Belgrade, their political enemies forced through a program they bitterly opposed without a single Republican vote. Now they, too, refuse to back down, and the Democrats are just as determined not to lose face. One must hope that the outcome won’t be quite as drastic for the Republicans and Democrats as it was for Russia and Austria-Hungary.
As I was going to and fro on the Internet, and walking back and forth on it, I stumbled across a site that has made the content of every issue of H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury available online. It’s a wonderful resource if you’re interested in the politics, history, literature, etc., of the 20’s and 30’s, or just want to read something entertaining. The Sage of Baltimore was a great editor, and he won’t disappoint. He was at the helm of the magazine from the first issue in January 1924 until December 1933. The site actually includes issues up to 1960, but the content went downhill after Mencken left, and the Mercury eventually became something entirely different from what he had intended. Many other interesting periodicals are available at the site, as well as books and videos. You can visit by clicking on the hyperlinks above or point your browser to:
Herbert Spencer was one of the most important and influential intellectuals of his day, yet little more than 30 years after his death, Talcott Parsons could ask, “Who now reads Spencer?” One could cite many plausible reasons for the precipitate decline in interest. I suspect his thought was too politically loaded at a time of great intellectual ferment in the realm of political ideology. As a result, he attracted many enemies among those who considered his work incompatible with their own pet theories. Perhaps the most damaging accusation was that Spencer was a social Darwinist. The grounds for this charge were flimsy at best, but since Spencer was no longer around to defend himself, it stuck. There is an interesting discussion of the matter on his Wiki page.
Spencer was not infallible. For example, though he was a strong evolutionist, he favored a Lamarckian version of the theory over Darwin’s natural selection. However, our species is not noted for its infallibility, and the fact that Spencer made mistakes is more a reflection of the broad range of his thought than of the caliber of his intellect. People who never speculate never make mistakes. Spencer did speculate, and some of his thought was profound indeed. Robert Ardrey, never one to be unduly influenced by the opinions of others, noticed, pointing out that Spencer coined the terms “code of Amity” and “code of Enmity,” referring to what are now popularly known as in-groups and out-groups, nearly a century before the academic and professional experts in human behavior caught up with him. There was another subject regarding which, in retrospect, he was a true prophet; his analysis of revolutionary socialism, which later became known as Communism, presented in his introduction to a collection of essays entitled A Plea for Liberty.
Milovan Djilas also knew something about Communism, having been a Communist for a significant part of his adult life, and an influential one at that. From 1945 until 1953, he was one of the four most powerful men in Tito’s Communist regime in Yugoslavia. However, Djilas had a strong sense of intellectual honesty, a great drawback for a Communist ruler. It inspired him to write a series of critical articles in the Yugoslav Party organ, Borba, followed in 1957 by publication of his great classic, The New Class, an indictment of Communism still strongly marked by the author’s tendency to think in terms of the Marxian dialectic. His final work, The Fall of the New Class, published in English three years after Djilas’ death, and written after the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, may be considered his post mortem on his old ideal. In comparing Spencer’s predictions with Djilas’ documentation of what actually happened, one begins to understand why the former’s contemporaries were so impressed with him.
For example, Spencer pointed out that Communism was anything but “scientific.” It was merely the speculation of Marx and others reformulated as a system. That system, however, had never been tested in practice. In his words,
Iron and brass are simpler things than flesh and blood, and dead wood than living nerve; and a machine constructed of the one works in more definite ways than an organism constructed of the other, – especially when the machine is worked by the inorganic forces of steam or water, while the organism is worked by the forces of living nerve-centers. Manifestly then, the ways in which the machine will work are much more readily calculable than the ways in which the organism will work. Yet in how few cases does the inventer foresee rightly the actions of his new apparatus! Read the patent-list, and it will be found that not more than one device in fifty turns out to be of any service. Plausible as his scheme seemed to the inventor, one or other hitch prevents the intended operation, and brings out a widely different result from that which he wished.
What, then, shall we say of these schemes which have to do not with dead matters and forces, but with complex living organisms working in ways less readily foreseen, and which involve the cooperation of multitudes of such organisms? Even the units out of which this re-arranged body politic is to be formed are often incomprehensible. Everyone is from time to time surprised by others’ behavior, and even by the deeds of relatives who are best known to him. Seeing, then, how uncertainly one can foresee the actions of an individual, how can he with any certainty foresee the operation of a social structure?
In The Fall of the New Class, Djilas describes what actually did happen when Marx’s “patent” encountered the real world:
But communism took a vow, so to speak, that all its prophecies, all its ideals, would turn into their diametric opposites just when Communists thought these prophecies and ideals might actually come true. So it was that with the coming of Communists to power the working class and communism drew apart from one another, became alien. It did not happen uniformly, and it took various forms. By and large, this coincided with the metamorphosis of the Party bureaucracy into a privileged, monopolistic stratum of society. A special elite – the new class.
Spencer had foreseen just this alienation of the workers and emergence of the New Class with uncanny accuracy. For example,
Already on the continent, where governmental organizations are more elaborate and coercive than here, there are chronic complaints of the tyranny of bureaucracies – the hauteur and brutality of their members. What will these become when not only the more public actions of citizens are controlled, but there is added this far more extensive control of all their respective daily duties? What will happen when the various divisions of this vast army of officials, united by interests common to officialism – the interest of the regulators versus those of the regulated – have at their command whatever force is needful to suppress insubordination and act as ‘saviors of society’? Where will be the actual diggers and miners and smelters and weavers, when those who order and superintend, everywhere arranged class above class, have come, after some generations, to intermarry with those of kindred grades, under feelings such as are operative under existing classes; and when there have been so produced a series of castes rising in superiority; and when all these, having everything in their own power, have arranged modes of living for their own advantage: eventually forming a new aristocracy far more elaborate and better organized than the old?
Almost uncanny, when one recalls this was written in 1891! As Djilas put it in retrospect more than a century later,
The transformation of the Party apparatus into a privileged monopoly (new class, nomenklatura) existed in embryonic form in Lenin’s prerevolutionary book Professional Revolutionaries, and in his time was already well under way. It is just this which has been the major reason for the decay of communism.
Spencer foresaw Stalinism, not as a mere aberration, a form of bureaucratic parasitism that Trotsky fondly hoped the workers would eventually throw off, but as inherent in the nature of the system itself. Noting the many forms of bureaucratic tyranny already existing under capitalism, he wrote:
What will result from their (the bureaucracy’s) operation when they are relieved from all restraints?…The fanatical adherents of a social theory are capable of taking any measures, no matter how extreme, for carrying out their views: holding, like the merciless priesthoods of past times, that the end justifies the means. And when a general socialistic organization has been established, the vast, ramified, and consolidated body of those who direct its activities, using without check whatever coercion seems to them needful in the interests of the system (which will practically become their own interests) will have no hesitation in imposing their rigorous rule over the entire lives of the actual workers; until eventually, there is developed an official oligarchy, with its various grades, exercising a tyranny more gigantic and more terrible than any which the world has seen.
One can imagine the Communist true believers, equipped with their batteries of Marxist truism, shaking their heads and smiling at such hyperbolic alarmism. No doubt they would have found it a great deal less amusing from the later vantage point of the Gulag. As Djilas put it,
Thus he, Stalin, the greatest Communist – for so everyone thought him save the dogmatic purists and naive “quintessentialists” – the incarnation of the real essence, the real possibilities, of the ideal – this greatest of all Communists, killed off more Communists than did all the opponents of Communism taken together, worldwide… Ideology exterminates its true believers.
A Plea for Liberty, the remarkable little volume in which Spencer set down his sadly unheeded words of warning, is available online, along with his autobiography and many of his other works. They may be of some interest to readers who are jaded by the latest nuances of the terrorist attack in Benghazi, or bored by the effort of staying up-to-date on how close we are to stumbling over the “fiscal cliff.”
The election is history and the unlucky soothsayers I referred to in my last post are eating crow. To paraphrase Billy Joel in one of his songs, “they didn’t have quite enough information.” For the edification and amusement of my readers, here are some of Tuesday’s losers.
Noted Republican strategist Karl Rove. He thought the polls suggested that more Republicans and fewer Democrats would show up to vote than in 2008. He was wrong.
Fox News talking head Dick Morris. He didn’t think as many minorities and single women would show up as in 2008. Here’s his alibi for the day after.
In an article entitled, “Reflections on Mittmentum,” the ever hopeful Roger Kimball, who blogs for PJmedia, wrote the day before the election,
My own sense of the matter, as I have said here on many occasions, is that Mitt will not only win but win handily. The final tally, I suspect, will show Mitt the victor with something like 330 electoral votes.
But I misread and misread badly both the mood of the country and the depth of support for Obama’s failed policies. I will doubtless get around to rejoining Ron in the battle, but a little hiatus for reflection will not come amiss.
That is certainly a sentiment his fellow prophets will agree on. Soothsayers over the water also got their comeuppance on Tuesday. Christopher Carr of Australia’s conservative mag, The Quadrant, had assured his readers,
On November 6, 2012, Mitt Romney will be elected President of the United States by a comfortable margin. It will not be a cliffhanger, despite the chorus of conventional wisdom.
Carr added that, because of his choice of Paul Ryan as a running mate, and his strong performance in the debate, Romney’s victory was assured. In his post mortem after the results were in, he sadly concluded,
Mitt Romney played Mr. Nice Guy. President Obama played the demagogue. But nice guys finish last.
In Germany, Der Spiegel’s token conservative pundit, Jan Fleischhauer, also had it wrong. In an article entitled “Bad, Bad Romney,” a satirical dig at the usual German version of reality in which the Republicans are bad guys and the Democrats good guys, he writes,
In the media the battle for the White House is already decided; Mitt Romney… has no chance. Unfortunately, wishful thinking isn’t much help in a democracy. The Republicans may not have the press on their side – but they have the numbers.
Not one to dwell on his mistake, Mr. Fleischhauer penned another article entitled “Our Obama-Love is Infantile” a couple of days after the election analyzing the “root causes” of German anti-Americanism. It was probably more useful to his readers, noting, for example, that Germans have been hopefully and confidently predicting the downfall of the United States for the last 40 years. In fact, it’s probably been longer than that. I note in passing that, in reading the many comments after the articles on the U.S. elections on German webzines, there are a lot more Germans pointing to the faults of their own country and condemning the ubiquitous destructive criticism of the United States than there were, say, ten years ago. The usual received wisdom according to which the U.S. is the decaying embodiment of evil imperialism, run by shadowy financiers, and inhabited by Bible-thumping Christian versions of the Taliban, is still there in abundance. However, more nuance is gradually being added by those who ask questions such as why, if we are so evil, and Germany such a paradise, so many Germans are looking around for the best shortcut to a Green Card.
One thing that both the lucky and the unlucky pundits will likely agree on is that the electorate is fractured along racial and gender lines as never before. Political ingroups in the U.S. are rapidly becoming less defined by ideology, and more defined by demography. Romney won the vote of white males over thirty by a massive majority. Obama won the black, Hispanic, Asian, and single female votes by similarly huge majorities. His majorities trumped Romney’s. It seems that similarly constituted Democratic majorities will continue prevail more frequently than not in national elections for a long time to come. To the extent that political and economic issues mattered in this election, they mattered less in their own right and more as cultural attributes associated with race and gender than in past elections. The Benghazi debacle was a huge deal for white males over thirty. It was a non-issue for young black women.
In an article entitled “Hitler’s Second Front,” that appeared in the November 1942 issue of the Atlantic Review, one T. H. Thomas confidently predicted disaster for the British forces in North Africa. In his words,
Roughly speaking, Rommel is sixty miles or so away from winning the war. There looms up close at hand the prospect of a decisive victory – one which would involve an irreparable disaster to the Allied conduct of the war.
In the mustering of forces for this battle, the enemy has now the advantage of position. At one time British convoys could still take the direct sea route to Alexandria, but German dive bombers then appeared over the central Mediterranean. By now it has actually become Mare Nostrum. The British forces in Africa and the British fleets had no planes with which to strike back in kind. British factories do not produce them.
British tanks were hopelessly outclassed by the Germans:
These actions (earlier fighting in north Africa) also brought into the field German medium tanks armed with 75’s (i.e., 15 pounders) against British tanks carrying nothing larger than 2-pounders. The effective range of the German guns is said to be over three times that of the 2-pounders. This contrast has dominated the fighting in Egypt since that day. The British 2-pounder is an excellent tank against infantry positions. In the naked landscape of Libya, mechanized warfare develops the situation of duels between tank and tank, or tanks against anti-tank artillery. On this footing, the heaviest British tanks were hopelessly outranged.
Victory, was out of the question for the British. It was merely a question of hanging on for dear life until the various nostrums proposed by Mr. Thomas could be applied:
The narrow front at El Alamein has become the keystone of the whole arch of Allied resistance east of Suez. Here, as on every other front, the pressing task is to avoid defeat – the question as to how the war is to be won does not yet arise.
As it happens, on this day 70 years ago, just as Thomas’ prophecy of doom was appearing on the newstands, the question of how the war was to be won did arise. Rommel’s “hopelessly superior” forces had been smashed by a British offensive after nearly two weeks of brutal fighting. The remnant was in speedy retreat, leaving Hitler’s Italian allies, who had fought well at El Alamein, helplessly mired in the desert without food, ammunition or fuel. Quoting from the Wiki article on the battle:
It had not been the first time that the Allies had had numerical superiority in men and equipment in the Western Desert, but never had it been so complete and across all arms. Furthermore, in the past—except in field artillery—they had struggled with the quality of their equipment. But with the arrival of Sherman tanks, 6-pounder anti-tank guns and Spitfires in the Western Desert, the Allies at last had the ability to match the opposition.
Allied artillery was superbly handled. Allied air support was excellent in contrast to the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica which offered little or no support to ground forces, preferring to engage in air-to-air combat. This overwhelming air superiority had a huge effect on the battle…
In the end, the Allies’ victory was all but total. Axis casualties of 37,000 amounted to over 30% of their total force. Allied casualties of 13,500 were by comparison a remarkably small proportion of their total force. The effective strength of Panzer Army Africa after the battle amounted to some 5,000 troops, 20 tanks, 20 anti-tank guns and 50 field guns.
So much for Mr. Thomas’ prophecies of doom. The Atlantic described him as follows:
A military hitorian who served with distinction on the staff at GHQ in the First World War, T. H. Thomas is well qualified to appraise the developments of the war.
I have no information on what became of him after he penned the article, although I didn’t put a great deal of Google time in searching for him. If he had written the same stuff in Germany or the Soviet Union, no doubt he would have been shot as a defeatist. However, the Allies were remarkably tolerant of pacifists and defeatists during the war. I suspect that such tolerance played a major role in the rapid collapse of France, and may have cost Hitler’s other enemies dearly if he had not been so completely outmatched by the forces arrayed against him. Be that as it may, there were many other T. H. Thomases writing similar disinformation about Hitler and the phenomenon of Naziism, the likelihood of war, the probable outcome of the war, etc., during the 30’s and 40’s. I know of none whose careers suffered significantly as a result. Apparently they just swept their past mistakes under the rug, and kept writing more of the same.
Fast forward 70 years, and a new generation of pundits has been busily enlightening readers as to the reasons why either Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney will inevitably win the election. Half of them, more or less, will be wrong, and the other half, more or less, will be lucky. Given the number of pundits and the laws of probability, a random few will be very lucky, predicting not only the outcome, but the exact tally of votes in the electoral college. No doubt these lucky ones will be celebrated as geniuses, at least until the next election. Except for Cassandra, successful fortune tellers have always prospered. However, those who put too much faith in them would do well to recall the example of Mr. Thomas.
As I noted in another post a couple of months ago, Benjamin Franklin wrote the following to his friend, the great financier of the Revolution, Robert Morris, in December 1783, while Minister Plenipotentiary of the infant United States in Paris,
The remissness of our people in paying taxes is highly blameable, the unwillingness to pay them is still more so. I see in some resolutions of town meetings, a remonstrance against giving Congress a power to take, as they call it, the people’s money out of their pockets, though only to pay the interest and principal of debts duly contracted. They seem to mistake the point. Money justly due from the people is their creditor’s money, and no longer the money of the people, who, if they withhold it, should be compelled to pay by some law. All property, indeed, except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, his matchuat, and other little acquisitions absolutely necessary for his subsistence, seems to me to be the creature of public convention. Hence the public has the right of regulating descents, and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it. All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual, and the propagation of the species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of; but all property superfluous to such purposes, is the property of the public, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may, therefore, by other laws, dispose of it whenever the welfare of the public shall desire such a disposition. He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire, and live among the savages! He can have no right to the benefits of society, who will not pay his club towards the support of it.
Today such a comment would position Franklin as a radical well to the left of Paul Krugman, but, so far as I can tell, neither Morris nor the editor of the American Quarterly Review who published the letter along with a number of other interesting pieces of diplomatic correspondence 50 years later, thought the comment in the least extreme. That may be because it seemed so out of the question at the time that anyone would be seriously inconvenienced by such a doctrine. The U.S. government, both in Franklin’s day and 50 years later, was both miniscule and frugal by today’s standards. As Franklin put it in another letter written in 1778 to a couple of Englishmen who had sent him an insulting missive ridiculing the very possibility that the American colonies could survive as an independent republic,
The weight, therefore, of an independent empire, which you seem certain of our inability to bear, will not be so great as you imagine; the expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small. A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed, determining, as we do, to have no offices of profit, nor any sinecures, or useless appointments, so common in ancient or corrupted states. We can govern ourselves a year for the sum you pay in a single department, for what one jobbing contractor, by the favour of a minister, can cheat you out of in a single article.
Obviously, he was not looking ahead to the day when we, too, would become an “ancient and corrupted” state with a budget that dwarfs anything ever heard of in 1778. An interesting aspect of Franklin’s first quote above is his discussion of rights. He believes that the state, or at least a democratic state, has a right to take at need whatever property a person has over and above that necessary to preserve life and support the family. I doubt that many citizens of the United States today would agree that such a right exists. This begs the question of how and if rights may acquire legitimacy.
In fact, rights are like good and evil, in that they can never acquire objective legitimacy. They have no independent existence other than as the perception of phenomena that occur in the brains of individuals. As such, it makes no sense to ask whether they are legitimate or illegitimate, justified or not justified. There can be no basis for making such a judgment for things that are the outcomes of mental processes of individual brains. There is no way that they can jump out of those brains and become things in themselves. It is no more possible to assign qualities such as legitimate or illegitimate to them than to a dream. Franklin was therefore wrong to claim that “the people” have a right to confiscate wealth without qualification, and his modern day opponents would be equally wrong to claim that individuals have a right to keep a greater share of their wealth than Franklin admits. Such claims assume the independent existence of rights. However, they have no such existence. The drawing up of lists of rights, whether human or animal or otherwise, are efforts in futility unless the nature of rights is properly understood. It is impossible for them to be self-evident. To the extent that they exist at all, they exist as conventions within groups, and they are effective only to the degree to which they are accepted and defended.
When people are asked to explain why they believe some right or moral judgment is legitimate, they commonly respond either by citing the authority of a God, or by claiming that they would serve some greater good. In the first case, one is simply arguing that absolute power and legitimacy are interchangeable. The second amounts to basing one good on another good, which, in turn, can only be justified by citing yet another good beyond it. One can continue constructing such a daisy chain of goods ad nauseum, but no link in the chain can ever stand by itself. The qualities “legitimate” and “illegitimate” are irrelevant to the moral intuitions of individuals because it is impossible for those intuitions to acquire such qualities.
I do not claim that human societies can exist without such concepts as “good,” “evil,” and “right.” I merely suggest that they are likely to be most effective and useful in regulating our societies if they are properly understood.
H. L. Mencken, the great Sage of Baltimore, edited the American Mercury from its inception in January 1924 through the issue of December 1933. It was always a worthwhile read while he was at the helm, published without pictures except for the advertisements, two columns to a page. There were articles about politics, science, religion, the arts, and whatever happened to strike Mencken’s fancy, along with occasional poems and short stories. Mencken continued the fascinating monthly review of newly released books that he had begun in The Smart Set, which he had edited during its heyday with George Jean Nathan. Every issue of the Mercury included an “Americana” section, made up of unwittingly comical extracts from newspapers and magazines across the country, and usually including a slap or two at the Ku Klux Klan, at least until that organization’s power and influence began to wane. Indeed, while he never patronized them, few if any individuals did more to promote respect for African Americans than Mencken. He frequently published the work of W. E. B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, Carl van Vechten, and many other black intellectuals. However, he did not alter the typically snide and sarcastic attitude he reserved for everyone else when speaking of them, and so was later condemned for “racism.” No good deed goes unpunished.
The final issue of the Mercury with Mencken as editor was as irreverent as the rest. There was an article entitled “Musical Slaughter House,” by one Edward Robinson, identified as “a piano teacher from New York, who condemned attempts to nurse The Metropolitan Opera through the Great Depression by appeals for charitable donations, noting, for example, that,
The list of the company’s productions would alone earn complete damnation in the eyes of even moderately civilized music-lovers, for the essential artistic contribution of the Metropolitan has been to preserve operas like “Aida” and “Pagliacci” from an oblivion that should have been theirs on the night they first appeared.
There was a piece on the radical socialist paper, The Masses, by journalist Bob Brown, with the less than complimentary take-off on its name, “Them Asses.” Brown occasionally wrote for The Masses, and his article is actually quite complimentary, at least by the standards of the Mercury. There were some fascinating vignettes on the workings of a radical sheet during the heyday of socialism, and biographical sketches of editor Max Eastman, a confidante of Trotsky, and other contributors.
Mencken was one of the foremost unbelievers of his day, so it was only fitting that his final edition of the Mercury should include an article about atheism. Entitled “Atheism Succumbs to Doubt,” its theme was that atheist activism was on the decline for lack of opposition. Noting that,
Not one believer in a thousand appears to know the difference between the Nicene and the Athanasian creeds. To the overwhelming majority Christianity is simply a ritual associated with sacred concerts on Sunday and chicken dinners at irregular intervals, the whole sustaining a variety of more or less useful funds and institutions.
The author concludes,
The faithful of romantic inclination dabble in theosophy or Bahaism. Are they excommunicated? Nay, even the village atheist would be welcomed into the fold if he’d be willing to subscribe to the Y.M.C.A. and hold his tongue. So the God-Killers marching forth to battle nowadays find the enemy’s camp deserted, Daniel’s lions dead of old age, and the Shekinah departed unto the Ozarks.
He makes the intriguing claim that American infidels had been vastly more robust and influential 50 years before, in the heyday of the great atheist speaker and writer, Robert G. Ingersoll.
It was not always thus. The God-Killers of half a century ago were taken seriously and took themselves seriously… In those days hundreds of atheistic pamphlets were published and sold in the United States. They bore such titles as “Why Don’t God Kill the Devil?” “The Myth of the Great Deluge,” “Where Is Hell?” “Death-Beds of Infidels,” “Faith or Fact,” “The Devil’s Catechism,” and “When Did Jehoshaphat Die?” John E. Remsburg, author of the last-named, proved by the Bible and arithmetic that this King of Israel died on sixteen different dates. Today nobody knows or cares that Jehoshaphat ever lived.
Fast forward another 75 years, and another crop of “God-Killers” has appeared on the scene, commonly referred to as the New Atheists. As readers of The God Delusion, penned by Richard Dawkins, one of the most famous of the lot, will have noted, he cannot turn his gaze our way without imagining an “American Taliban” behind every bush, and is as innocent of any knowledge of this flowering of American atheism as a child. Perhaps some nascent Ph.D. in history should take the matter in hand and document the doings of the “God-Killers” of the 1880’s, not to mention their rise and fall and rise again since the days of such famous infidels as Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson.
Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany at the end of January, 1933, and Mencken, who was known as a Germanophile, took up the phenomenon of Nazism in the “Library” section of his last issue. Noting five titles on the subject as “a few of the first comers among what promises to be a long procession of Hitler books,” he proceeded to outline the implications of the rise of Hitler a great deal more soberly and presciently that most of the journals of the day. Typical of the stuff appearing at the time was a piece that appeared in the Century some months earlier whose author, rich in the wisdom of journalists, assured his readers that there was not the slightest reason to be concerned about Hitler or the hijinks of his followers. Mencken was not so sanguine. Echoing what John Maynard Keynes and many others had foreseen immediately in 1919, he wrote,
The most surprising thing about him (Hitler) it seems to me, is that his emergence should have been surprising. He was, in fact, implicit in the Treaty of Versailles.
He goes on to note some inconvenient truths about Hitler’s anti-Semitism that are as true now as they were then:
His anti-Semitism, which has shocked so many Americans, is certainly nothing to marvel over. Anti-Semitism is latent all over Western Europe, as it is in the United States… (The Jew) is an easy mark for demagogues when the common people are uneasy, and it is useful to find a goat. He has served as such a goat a hundred times in the past, and he will probably continue in the role, off and on, until his racial differentiation disappears or he actually goes back to his fatherland. In Germany, as in Poland, Austria and France, he has been made use of by demagogues for many years, precisely as the colored brother has been made use of in our own South.
Germanophile or no, Mencken has no illusions about what the rise of Hitler may portend, and doesn’t mince words in explaining it to his readers:
In such matters what is done cannot be undone; the main question, as I write, is how long the orgy will last, and whether it will wear itself out or have to be put down by external force. If the latter is resorted to, and it takes the form of military pressure, we are probably in for another World War.
During the entire decade he was editor, the Mercury reflected Mencken’s own cynical attitude, sometimes insightful and sometimes shallow as it was. Then, as now, authors craved seeing their work in print, and adjusted the style of the stuff they submitted to suite his taste accordingly. As a result, the paper always had a distinctly Menckenian flavor during his reign. In his final editorial, we find Mencken at his most optimistic, assuring his readers that nothing would change:
In case there be any among those readers who fear that the change of editorial administration will convert the magazine into something that it is not they may put their minds at ease. In its basic aims and principles there will be little change. Hereafter, as in the past, it will try to play a bright light over the national scene, revealing whatever is amusing and instructive, but avoiding mere moral indignation as much as possible.
The Mercury was to be taken over by Henry Hazlitt, who “was my first and only choice for the post he takes, and I am completely convinced that he will make a first-rate magazine.” Alas, it was not to be. Hazlitt didn’t see eye to eye with the publisher, and resigned within four months. The Mercury was taken over by Mencken’s former assistant, Charles Angoff, and took a sharp turn to the left. After the fashion of the political and intellectual journals of the time, it became a forum for authors who were cocksure that the demise of capitalism was just around the corner, and differed mainly in the degree of mayhem they deemed necessary for the inevitable transition to socialism. There were several similar jarring changes before the final demise of the paper in 1980.
No matter, the Mercury of Mencken’s day is as fascinating as ever for those seeking relief from the unrelenting political correctness and overbearing piety one often finds in its modern equivalents. There are usually a few copies available on eBay for interested readers at any given time, although prices have been trending upwards lately.