The Mathematical Experience: Yes. So much yes.

Pictures of famous mathematicians or the mathematically inclined. Looks like maybe Pascal, Einstein, someone Greek (Archimedes?), and Newton. One of the reasons I’ve always had difficulty with mathematical proofs is that they’re presented as final, finished works of art — or, to use a perhaps better metaphor, they’re presented as magic tricks, where at the beginning the magician says, “I’m going to do this one weird thing with the birds and the scarves. Grant me this one thing; you’ll see later on that it makes sense.”

So it is with proofs. In mathematical analysis you see all the time some construction like, “let ε equal some weird value”. You ask, “Why the hell would I set ε to that?” By the end of the proof, it turns out that this funny value of ε is exactly what you needed to make the proof complete in an aesthetically pleasing way. Or the proof will involve some specially constructed infinite series. And I haven’t had the intuition to construct these funny things on my own. It just takes practice, of course, but that’s another part of math phobia that many, many people — myself very much included — feel: “I’m just not good enough at math to get this, so practicing isn’t going to be worth it.” This is, of course, ultimately self-defeating. Nevertheless, many people feel the same way.

The Mathematical Experience tackles all of this head on. And I think it finally sealed the deal with me — finally established its greatness — with one chapter that tries to map out how mathematics is actually built. That is, when mathematicians are trying to find a proof of something that may or may not be provable, how do they go about doing it? They experiment. They play around. They come up with examples and counterexamples. And in one chapter, structured as a dialogue with their own students, Davis and Hersh play around with a small-scale mathematical hypothesis that nonetheless reveals a lot about how real mathematics is practiced.

The experiment starts with the observation that numbers ending in the digit 2 are divisible by 2. Are any other numbers like this? Well, it’s true of 5. Let’s call this property “magicness”. 2 and 5 are magic, for short. Are there any others? Is 4 magic? Quick counterexample: 14 ends in 4 but is not divisible by 4, so 4 is not magic. Perhaps only for the sake of completeness, let’s say that 1 is magic. Looks like 1, 2, and 5 are the only magic numbers less than 10. Now what if we look for all magic numbers, whether or not they’re less than 10? Davis and Hersh run through several beautiful pages, all in the form of a dialogue, wherein they chase this notion of magic numbers seemingly as far as it can be chased.

What’s most marvelous about this is that they’re doing mathematics as humans do it. This is one of the few times in my life when I’ve seen mathematical proofs that have felt like humans could have constructed them. To use a different metaphor: normally proofs feel to me, the mathematics student, as though I were a student in a sculpture class, plopped down in front of Michelangelo’s David. “Here,” says the teacher. “This is sculpture. Now you know.” I so rarely get a picture of mathematics the way the young Michelangelo presumably experienced sculpture: with a lot of false starts, a lot of tiny slabs of marble on the floor, a lot of chisels slammed to the floor in frustration, and the frequent feeling that he would never make a proper sculptor.

Of course Michelangelo just kept working at it. Here I’m reminded of something that Ira Glass mentioned when my partner and I saw him in Boston a while ago: you get into this business — Glass meant the business of making art, but it carries over virtually without change to mathematics or science or any other creative endeavor — because you have taste. You see a startling result in mathematics or a beautiful piece of writing, and you say, “I want to make one of those myself.” Since you’re smart, and since you have taste, you also see right away that the math or the writing that you’re currently able to produce is way down here (mime a hand down by your knees), while the thing you aspire to is way up here (reach far above your head). That gap infuriates you and often leaves you dejected.

The solution is, of course, to keep working to narrow that gap. Some people, maybe most people, give up before they’ve closed the gap. But the answer is to keep working at it.

Of course, then, the counterargument is: maybe you aren’t any good at it. Maybe you in fact don’t have it in you to ever close that gap. I knew from a pretty early age that I would never be as good at basketball as Michael Jordan, because of certain fundamental biological limitations: I wasn’t tall enough or muscular enough, and my eyesight has always made coordination difficult. Perhaps I was also missing the math gene.

I’m not a teacher; I don’t know how to reinforce the self-confidence of students who legitimately do have mathematical talent and convince them to keep striving. A couple approaches occur to me. One is to do what karate teachers in the U.S. do: give students steady recognition that they are advancing (white belt, blue belt, etc.). Another is to try different approaches to presenting proofs; among these approaches is the approach of play, or experimentation. Play and experimentation are where Davis and Hersh shine. The slogan might be “Real Mathematicians Play”.

In my experience mathematical pedagogy as she is actually practiced doesn’t feature much play. Davis and Hersh give any number of reasons for this, at least one of which hadn’t occurred to me: the professor himself or herself (and yes, I did have at least two female professors of mathematics) may be almost as scared of the material as you are. He or she may be keeping just barely ahead of it, and may be terrified to veer from the formally perfect proof that he or she has just read in the textbook. A willingness to experiment, to play, to end up at dead ends and then back into a solution, is risky. You might fail. You might show yourself to be nearly as intimidated as your students. You might lose the godlike status normally accorded to you by standing in front of the class. Whereas presenting the ironclad proof — the marble sculpture — and delivering it with utter confidence, is a certain path.

Davis and Hersh make mathematics into a human science. Of course it always has been, but I’ll be damned if I’ve seen much at all of that in my mathematical education. What I’ve always wanted out of mathematics is to be taught the intuition, which is one of the parts inside of the human that can find ways to an argument. Intuition is the thing which tells you, “I don’t really know the answer, but something tells me it’s over here.” It’s the thing that tells you, “What you’ve just said doesn’t sound like it could be right.” My experience of mathematical education has, seemingly, been long on formal proof and short on finding solutions in your gut that lead you to the formal proof. The Mathematical Experience suggests that I’m not alone on this, and that at least a couple mathematicians would like to restore the humanity to mathematics education. This book is a pure delight.

Philip Davis on the Γ function

Brief description of some recent Brownian motion through books:

A little while ago I read Morris Kline’s Mathematics for the Nonmathematician, which I loved. Somewhere within it, he sang the praises of Philip Davis’s The Mathematical Experience; I think Kline said that Davis’s book was the greatest book ever written on the experience of doing mathematics. So I filed it away on ye olde wish list.

So we come to today, when I find myself bored with all the books available to me. This happens occasionally. The usual trick out of this is to read something by John McPhee. (I’d recommend The Curve of Binding Energy, about nuclear weapons manufacturing and the men who do it. I’d also recommend Uncommon Carriers, about the people who carry packages for us. I would also recommend almost everything else by McPhee, though I couldn’t get into his geology books. Perhaps I’ll give them another try because, outside of Annals of the Former World, he’s batted 1.000 with me.) Without any McPhee (that I hadn’t already read) to hand today, though, and having not found him in my wish list, I looked for something that a) would likely grab my interest and b) was available at the beautiful Cambridge Public Library. The Davis book satisfied both criteria (as did Lives of a Cell), so I went to pick it up.

My memory called forth a book called The Undecidable: Basic Papers on Undecidable Propositions, Unsolvable Problems and Computable Functions, which I thought might be by the same Davis. (Turns out it was Martin Davis.) This led me to ask the Wiki about Philip Davis. Turns out he won a prize for “an outstanding expository article on a mathematical topic”. Turns out that paper is a historical profile of the Γ function.

The paper is just so fun and engagingly written, and it makes me all the more excited to dive into The Mathematical Experience. Anyone with some college calculus under his or her belt, and some interest in the history of mathematics, will love Davis’s paper. I highly recommend it.

Daniel Imhoff, Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill

Green background, yellow-rimmed red letters, and a fist wrapped combatively around a fork

The annual farm bill, in one way or another, governs the most important thing a government could control: the health of its people. It controls matters all the way from the crop (via subsidies, conservation incentives, etc.) to the plate (the school lunch program and food stamps). So it impacts, directly or indirectly, the health of our waterways, soil erosion, and childhood obesity.

Unfortunately, the book is written in such a leaden fashion, while trying so hard not to be leaden, that your attention would best be directed elsewhere. As I read it, I kept thinking of how much better — how much more visceral — The Third Plate was. It’s hard to tell what Food Fight wants to be: it’s got the page layout of something that wants to be a coffee-table book, but the language of academics who’ve been reluctantly drafted into writing for newspapers.

There are many other books in this same field, if not ones that focus so specifically on the farm bill. The place to start, as I will never tire of telling people, is either Pollan’s Omnivore's Dilemma or Nestle’s Food Politics. And when you finish with Food Politics and find yourself depressed that lobbyists have captured the USDA and FDA, move on to Nestle’s What To Eat, which walks with you down the grocery aisle and helps you make decisions in the presence of this fallen world. Or read The Third Plate if you want a chef’s perspective on it — specifically the perspective of a chef who gets out in the world and buries his hands in the soil. Different angles on the same problem, all of them delightfully readable.

But I’d skip Food Fight. Either you don’t know the issues, in which case Food Fight is the last book that will help interest you in them; or you do know the issues, in which case it’s a particularly dreary recitation of facts that you’re already familiar with.

A thought prompted by the iPhone 6

…particularly this 240-fps video shot with the new camera: how long will it be until we have full Edgerton-quality videos? That’s thousands of frames per second. Is something like that achievable on mobile hardware? I have no idea what’s feasible. But I hope, given their basically infinite pile of cash, that Apple is investing money on projects like this that are just cool as hell.

Nancy Horan, Loving Frank

Sepia-toned background. Rectangles marked out on the wall, like the boundaries of corn fields. Shadows cast onto the rectangles. Something-something Frank Lloyd Wright.

Oh, how I hated this novel. It is truly one of the worst novels I have ever read. I am ecstatic upon having finished it. I hated it so much that I hardly want to write anything about it, so as to get the gross flavor out of my mouth as soon as possible. The Bookslut does the needful on this pile of garbage.

The basic gist of the book is:

Mamah: “Oh, Frank Lloyd Wright, you are such a genius, and so different from the drab conformity that I have come to know in my existence as a mother! My husband is actually a great guy. Too bad he’s not a genius on your level. Let us sex.”

Frank Lloyd Wright: “Yes, I will do sex. Mamah, you are so intelligent. We have such conversations, you and I. I know that this will not be clear to anyone else, so I will explain that we have such conversations, you and I.”

Mamah: “Okay. I am glad you said that.

“Also, how do I, as a woman, live a full life with a career while still honoring my commitments as a mother? Maybe I should go work for famed feminist writer Ellen Key in Sweden.”

Frank Lloyd Wright: “Okay. This will be good for you, up to the point that it turns out she thinks your main responsibility is to your kids. I would think that would be upsetting to you.”

Mamah: “Probably! But no matter. I will continue writing for her, even though she lies to me and cheats me out of the money she owes me. Also, you lie to me a lot.”

Frank Lloyd Wright: “Yes! But this has something to do with the inner strivings of my soul.”

Mamah: “Okay. [Dies.]“

Seriously. Awful book. I advise you to read the Wikipedia entry on Mamah Borthwick, then pad out every event you read with a few dozen pages of “she probably thought” or “what must it have been like” or “she smelled the dogwoods, which reminded her of”s. You will have constructed something at most half as awful as the paint-by-numbers horrorshow that is Loving Frank.

P.S.: In some ways this novel reminds me of Umberto Eco’s essay on how to recognize a porn movie. “To put it simply, crudely, in porn movies, before you can see a healthy screw you have to put up with a documentary that could be sponsored by the Traffic Bureau.” Loving Frank really is that leaden.

John Lewis, Walking with the Wind: a Memoir of the Movement

The top 85% of the page or so is taken up with a picture of a young Lewis looking down and to the right, seemingly lost in a very serious thought. The bottom 15% has armed police officers on the left pointing their guns and truncheons at well-dressed black men on the right, while a crowd looks on from a parking lot behind.

Such a beautiful book: engagingly written, heartbreaking, frustrating, inspiring, and educational. You won’t find — or I, at least, haven’t found — a more ground-level view of the civil-rights movement from someone who actually lived it. When Lewis is out there on the ground, getting punched and kicked by citizens and police, you’re there with him. When his heart is broken by the death of his mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King, you feel it with him. When, mere weeks later, he’s in California with Robert Kennedy, and Kennedy in turn is assassinated, you feel a light inside yourself going out. And when a nation of black people runs out of hope and turns to violence, you, like Lewis, can understand why. Maybe you don’t agree with the turn to violence, but you understand that eventually something was going to have to change — and if the U.S. government wasn’t going to solve the problem, people were going to take matters into their own hands. And so they did. The dissolution of the SNCC, and its turn away from Gandhian methods, was tragic but probably inevitable.

The final chapter is about the world we live in now. Many people believe the civil-rights movement has run its course. Most everyone has lost faith in our leaders. Lewis’s answer is the same now as it’s ever been: organize. Get out there on the streets. Fight for what you know is right. Don’t back down. Realize that you’re in a long struggle, and be patient for results. It’s exhilarating. It’s overwhelming. And it often moved me to tears. This is a great book by a great man.

A question prompted by John Lewis’s Walking with the Wind: a Memoir of the Movement

The top 85% of the page or so is taken up with a picture of a young Lewis looking down and to the right, seemingly lost in a very serious thought. The bottom 15% has armed police officers on the left pointing their guns and truncheons at well-dressed black men on the right, while a crowd looks on from a parking lot behind.

I may write a full review of this amazing book when I’m done with it in a few days, or the following may do the trick. But for now I have a strategic question, which I’m sure labor unions and civil-rights organizers have answered many times in the past. At the risk of dramatically oversimplifying, the strength of the civil-rights movement and of labor unions comes from two sources: the power of groups rather than individuals, and attention from the media. Lewis inspiringly explains each of these sources of power throughout Walking with the Wind, but he doesn’t go into much depth, so far as I can tell, on the obvious question: if everyone is aware that these are its sources of power, then the obvious responses are to divide the movement and to cut out the media. So why didn’t this happen?

Specifically, imagine if civil-rights marchers hadn’t been taken off to the same prison, where they could coordinate their responses together, sing songs together, and provide each other moral support. Even imagine if they were taken to the same prison but held in separate cells. Yet time and again, that seems not to have happened: the marchers were kept together, and in their unity they found their strength. The police, at least thus far in the narrative, didn’t seem to realize that disunity was their ultimate weapon. Only one time thus far have they kind-of-sort-of figured it out, namely when the marchers demanded complete racial integration of lunch counters in Nashville, and the authorities countered with, essentially, partial integration. Some of the old guard took the bait, and there was a moment of ideological disunity within the movement. Splitting groups by ideas is useful, and I’m sure it’s part of a long historical tradition of dividing and conquering. What I’m wondering is why the authorities didn’t physically separate the movement.

Part of the answer might be that, in the presence of a modern media environment, such separation is impossible: if you drag protesters off to separate jails, the cameras will be following you the whole way.

Another answer might be that the authorities, along with the rest of white society, just could not — intellectually and emotionally would never be able to — respond to the movement in this sort of strategic, thoughtful, rational way. This answer seems right to me, actually: in its Gandhian way, the movement killed the authorities with love. Look your attacker in the eye while he’s smashing your skull. Try to talk with your assailant so that you can humanize him and, even while every fiber of your being screams out to treat him as the enemy, remember a newborn baby who at one time was innocent. Empathize with him and pity him: it’s not him whom you loathe, but rather the society that turned that innocent child into the monster who’s putting out a cigarette on your neck.

The movement knew the goals it was after and calmly pursued them; the authorities and the segregationists knew only rage. To ask the South to coolly reply to the movement’s unity by disuniting it is to expect calm rationality where none existed and where none could exist. Given time, perhaps the South could have formed a strategy to effectively combat the movement on its own terrain. But as it happened, the movement’s strategy had paid off before the South could stop it.

If I’m reading Lewis right, the movement’s strategy — the Gandhian strategy — explicitly foresaw this outcome. As the book unfolds, I suspect Lewis will tell us that the movement was working great until those untrained in Gandhian methods joined in. When calm is deliberately arrayed against rage, the rage can only increase and consume itself. When the movement understandably grows impatient with the slow pace of change and it starts to be rage against rage, then that is an entirely different battle with a very different end.

I’ve read books before, like Nixonland, that described the movement from a more synoptic historian’s perspective; Walking with the Wind is the first I’ve read from the perspective of a man whose actual head fell under the actual truncheon. It’s gripping and impossibly moving.

P.S.: Ah. Turns out that Lewis addresses exactly this strategic aspect in the chapter called “Raise Up The Rug”.

Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World

Three gentlemen walking down the street, with a crowd of lesser gentlemen behind them. The frontmost gentlemen are all wearing top hats and carrying canes. The front gentlemen, from left to right, are presumably Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson.

I’d like to make a meta point, first, about this book. As the years pass after some important historical event ends or some world-historical person dies, it often becomes irrelevant what the actual facts of the matter were. Thomas Jefferson is a great example of this, as Merrill Peterson made clear in his masterpiece The Jefferson Image in the American Mind: Jefferson-the-real-person matters much less than Jefferson-the-idea. Jefferson-the-idea changed with the times: depending upon the country’s mood, sometimes he was vilified as a Communist atheist, whereas at other times he was held aloft as the very father of liberty. Jefferson-the-idea had very little to do with Jefferson-the-real-person. Or rather, Jefferson-the-real-person had so many sides that people could choose the one they wanted to emphasize as attitudes shifted.

So it is with the end of World War I. I could argue — not sure if I would, but I could — that the widely believed story of the Versailles Treaty is more important than the actual facts of the matter. The standard story of Versailles would seem to track Keynes’s version pretty closely: Germany was never going to be able to pay the reparations imposed upon it, and the collapse of German democracy followed inextricably. The signing of the Versailles Treaty was a grievous error with world-historically catastrophic consequences.

Margaret MacMillan’s main response to this in Paris 1919 is to widen the lens a bit from just Versailles, to include everything else that was happening a few kilometers away. Practically the entire world was being reborn in Paris that year: Japan wanted the bit of China that Germany had had its hands on; the Austro-Hungarian Empire needed to be divided up; the Ottoman Empire was teetering and finally allowed to fall; Poland had spent centuries being torn between Russia and Prussia and wanted its chance at becoming a living, breathing, independent state; speaking of Russia, the Empire had just ended and been replaced by Lenin and friends; there was this new thing called Czechoslovakia in the making; and of course the West was just learning that the Middle East might have some important resources. The question that year wasn’t just how to punish Germany; it was how to shape a whole new world.

Petitioners of all sorts showed up in France to plead their cases. Germany’s overrunning Belgium had started the Great War, so Belgium believed that it had a special need for security. France had lost well over a million of its citizens, and it demanded a buffer between itself and Germany; this demand was, of course, perfectly reasonable given the centuries of animosity between the nations. And then one ethnic group after another took Wilson’s principle of “self-determination” to heart and believed that it deserved its own nation. Before considering Versailles, consider the unavoidably conflicting demands from each of these groups. Consider, behind each of them, the constituencies back at home: the French citizens understandably thirsty for blood, the British eyeing the French with suspicion and unease dating back at least to Napoleon, or for that matter the Americans who for centuries had taken George Washington’s words to heart:

Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world…

Americans wished very much to return to this tranquility.

Finally, consider the time-sensitivity on resolving all of these conflicts and settling the German question once and for all. The Allies had not occupied Germany, as they were to do after World War II. And the soldiers were already demobilizing, heading home by the thousands every month. The longer the negotiations took, the weaker the Allies’ bargaining position would become and the less willing the folks back home would be to send their children back to Europe. Time was of the essence.

Bear all of this in mind, says MacMillan, when you read Keynes’s description of the negotiations. You’ll recall Keynes’s vivid portrayals of Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Wilson: Clemenceau the Bismarckian French patriot, eager to destroy Germany in repayment for the Franco-Prussian War by which Bismarck birthed the modern German state (Clemenceau was 30 when Paris was under siege and Napoleon III fell); Wilson the naïve, moralizing Calvinist preacher, walking into the negotiations with his principles under his arm, absolutely outgunned at every turn by the wily Frenchman; Lloyd George the unprincipled schemer.

Were the Paris negotiations a failure? You can imagine any number of ways to answer that question. Did people believe at the time that they were a failure? Well, some did and some didn’t. Let’s even suppose that everyone did; even then, maybe you want to be asking a counterfactual, namely: was any other better outcome from the negotiation even possible? That counterfactual (like all counterfactuals) is probably unanswerable.

MacMillan gives answering that counterfactual her best shot, I’d say, and convinces me that probably nothing better was possible. There were too many moving parts, and too many petitioners with too many conflicting demands; there was just no way to make anyone else happy.

But again, to an extent it doesn’t matter whether the outcome was “actually” satisfactory. Consider just the issue of German reparations payments, which totaled 132 billion marks in 1919 (somewhat less, MacMillan notes, than what France paid Germany at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, when the French economy was quite a lot smaller than the post-Great-War German one). MacMillan says that historians have reconsidered whether German reparations were really as crippling as Keynes, and the Germans themselves, made them out to be at the time, but then MacMillan is also quick to note that the Germans certainly believed the reparations were crippling, and Hitler exploited this belief when he campaigned on nullifying the Versailles Treaty. (As of 1950, Meinecke was still calling out the reparations payments, along with the Jews’ rapacity, as a cause of German woe.)

What we really need is a Jefferson Image in the American Mind for World War I: a study of how the war has been perceived, and how that perception has affected subsequent reality. MacMillan’s book is probably as close as we’ll come to that goal in my lifetime: it’s a stunning combination of the facts as they were understood while the negotiations were ongoing, of how the reality was perceived later on, and of how the history played out in the decades that followed. There’s basically one chapter per involved nation (Japan, China, Turkey, etc.), each of which ends with a couple paragraphs noting how the 20th century worked out for Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Syria, and the rest. Spoiler alert: it often didn’t work out very well.

Whether Europe, the Middle East, and Asia could have been carved any better at the joints to avoid the nightmarish century that followed is an inherently impossible question, but MacMillan’s attempt at answering it is magisterial.

Friedrich Meinecke, The German Catastrophe

A Reichsadler on a flaming red background -- essentially as though the German Reich is being torched.

I picked this book up because Pflanze mentioned it in his biography of Bismarck. The question that anyone had to ask after World War II was whether Bismarck planted the seeds for Hitler’s later rise to power, and apparently Friedrich Meinecke — an esteemed German historian whose life stretched from the creation of Germany under Bismarck to its downfall under Hitler — had asked this very question. I assumed that a historian (of all people) in the immediate aftermath of the collapse (of all times) would have some morally and intellectually probing thoughts on the matter.

It’s really sad that he doesn’t; I hate to say it, but The German Catastrophe is nothing so much as a work of moral cowardice. Germany — no, Germans — had just thrown the full power of the modern industrial state at the task of destroying human beings; this calls for an exhaustive moral accounting, which Meinecke is simply not willing to provide. The German people, he tells us, were fundamentally good, and he knew all along that they would emerge from the Hitler disaster. To the extent that he seeks out answers, he finds those answers in chance and historical contingency. If Hindenburg had not named Hitler chancellor, the Nazi movement might have faded out on its own. If Hindenburg’s mental faculties had not been on the decline, he might have been a stronger leader. And so forth.

I’m not denying the importance of chance in history. But if you’re going to pin the 20th century’s most important event on chance, you had better convincingly argue that you’ve excluded all other avenues first, and Meinecke doesn’t do this. He certainly doesn’t take the time to explain why Bismarck’s state is not at fault; he’d rather venerate the man and the Prussian state than study its failings in any depth. To the extent that he mentions Jews at all, it is to hint — none too subtly — that their own greed after World War I may have drawn the German people’s ire.

I’m also not singling out Germans as history’s most barbarous people, nor am I singling out the Holocaust as the only historical event that requires deep soul-searching. The United States still doesn’t appreciate the effects that slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, restrictive covenants, and the rest of the arsenal of racism have on the everyday lives of black people. We still don’t appreciate how deeply the legacy of slavery is baked into the very basic structure of our society, and we live in a land where actual legal slavery is nearly a century and a half behind us; you’d think we’d have the appropriate objectivity at this remove. So I can certainly understand why a German historian within five years of the end of the war would be unable to study his homeland’s destruction with probing detachment.

Which is why Meinecke’s book, written in 1950, is better viewed as a balm to wounded German souls while their country was still under Allied occupation than as a serious work of history. He meant to tell the German people that they were fundamentally good and that they would soon recover. Viewed as a homily, it may have had the intended effect. Viewed as a work of moral discovery, it is appalling.

Tiny, ever-so-brief note on Ferguson, by way of George Orwell

The issue was clear enough. On one side the C.N.T., on the other side the police. I have no particular love for the idealized ‘worker’ as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.

– George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia