David Rieff, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies — March 26, 2018

David Rieff, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies

Yellow background. All text in black, other than the word 'Forgetting', which is in silver

I don’t really understand why this book was written. I’m entirely open to the possibility that I’m a bad reader, but it feels to me like this book has a very simple premise that was monstrously over-written. On the ‘simple premise’ angle: the premise is that there’s a difference between “history” (the stuff that happened), and “memory” (how we think about history, particularly how we think about it as a society), and that it may be better for us if we could learn to forget about our historical grievances. Not only that, but we often misuse history in dangerous ways, such that there’s no necessary connection between history and memory.

On the ‘monstrously overwritten’ side:

And regardless of whether we completely accept Freud’s generalization, we hardly need a profound insight into human nature to understand that to remain productive—and possibly even to stay entirely sane—we human beings need to behave as if the era in which we are fated to live and die and, after we have been extinguished forever, a relatively short period of the future to come about whose essential characteristics we feel that the present allows us to foresee would be recognizable to us were we to be resurrected at some more far-off point in the future.

That sentence needed an editor. So does a lot of the book.

It’s not hard to argue that a little selective amnesia about our history, and a little reframing of our memory, would help everyone. The most striking examples of mis-framed history in Rieff’s book are Osama bin Laden’s declaration that the modern West’s war on Islam is just a continuation of the Crusades, and the Israeli government’s habit of identifying any opposition to the current Israeli government as objectively pro-Holocaust. The past has been weaponized in defense of a modern ideology. As Rieff puts it:

And on the other side there is Tony Judt’s far more pessimistic suggestion: “Maybe all our museums and memorials and obligatory school trips today are not a sign that we are ready to remember but an indication that we feel we have done our penance and can now begin to let go and forget, leaving the stones to remember for us.” Judt recalled that during a visit to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, he saw “bored schoolchildren on an obligatory outing [playing] hide-and-seek among the stones.” And he argued, “When we ransack the past for political profit—selecting the bits that can serve our purposes and recruiting history to teach opportunistic moral lessons—we get bad morality and bad history.” To which one should add: we also get kitsch.

The nut of the whole book, I think, comes when Rieff writes that “remembrance is about self-love, and self-recognition, which means more often than not that it is little more than the present in drag.” Everyone loves that Santayana quote about remembering the past, but Rieff’s point—and I think it’s a correct one—is that too often we’re not remembering history; we’re remembering what we want to remember to serve ideological ends. So by all means let’s study history; but let’s be careful about the uses to which we’re putting our memory.

Duff Cooper, Talleyrand — March 21, 2018

Duff Cooper, Talleyrand

Portrait of Talleyrand, presumably when he was at the peak of his fame, power, etc.

This book is entertaining in its way, if the sort of entertainment you enjoy is watching 18th-century French gentlemen have a lot of sex with other 18th-century French gentlemen’s wives. In a word, it’s catty. So when Cooper tells us that “Napoleon was quick to realise that there was one man in Paris whose support was precious and whose advice was invaluable,” implying that Talleyrand was that man, we have no reason to believe him; we’ve spent the book up to that point merely watching a man examine French society with amusement and, we gather, keep most of his thoughts to himself.

Of course Talleyrand must be an amazing character: he wore all manner of different hats under all manner of different régimes, during the most tumultuous decades of France’s existence, without once nearing the guillotine. He represented the clergy when the Estates-General were reconvened for the first time in 161 years, and arranged the Civil Constitution of the Clergy that did so much to divide France and—along with his marriage—did much to alienate Talleyrand from his Church. As the Revolution was happening he was part of the French diplomatic mission to England, then was expelled and left for the United States, now a man without a home. He returned and orchestrated Napoleon’s coup of 18 Brumaire, then served as Napoleon’s Foreign Secretary. Napoleon eventually soured on him—in Cooper’s telling, mostly because Napoleon became an autocrat who couldn’t tolerate Talleyrand’s differing views—and eventually Talleyrand worked to undermine the Emperor and arrange his defeat before the assembled might of the European powers. When the great powers met at the Congress of Vienna to rearrange the map of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars, Talleyrand represented France, and—according to Cooper—did much to ensure that his nation wasn’t dismantled. Under Louis XVIII, Talleyrand was effectively the Prime Minister. In retirement, he was the wise old man of French diplomacy, all-seeing, all-knowing, dropping witty apothegms hither and thither. Moments before his death, he re-established ties with the Church, apologizing for the folly of his youth during the Revolution.

Such is the outline that most everyone would have going into this book; and with this outline in mind, you can’t help but expect some plasticity of morals on Talleyrand’s part. How else do you explain his ability to please so many diverse masters? The easiest answer is probably that he unerringly knew which way the wind was blowing, and always remained one step ahead of the latest calamity. Was this just the luck of the draw? Was Talleyrand just one of those men who, through some inexplicable fluke, got more than the usual portion of foresight? Cooper is not really the man to answer these questions. Instead he seems driven to counter what I imagine is the historical image of Talleyrand, namely the amoral practitioner of realpolitik. In Cooper’s telling, instead, Talleyrand is a veritable rock of principle: from the reign of Louis XVI, through Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna, and on through the Restoration of the Bourbons, his fixed star is a broad European peace. This is why he consistently (says Cooper) advises Napoleon against European conquest, but eventually the inertia of the Emperor’s string of victories becomes too great to resist.

Maybe this is all true. And maybe, in the same vein as A People’s History of the United States, the existing story of Talleyrand’s scheming and duplicity is so widely and unquestioningly believed that someone like Cooper needs to, at least, put a thumb on the other side of the scale. Like Zinn’s book, though, Cooper’s can’t be used as your sole historical source; it’s too obviously got a story to tell, and is too obviously unwilling to admit deviations from that story.

It’s a shame, because when he sets his sights on explaining some abstruse matter of foreign policy, Cooper can do very well. Witness this description of Talleyrand’s advice to Napoleon as the latter negotiated terms with Austria after the latter’s defeat:

Austria must be compensated in the east for all she forfeits in the west. Moldavia, Wallachia, Bessarabia, and part of Bulgaria will increase rather than diminish the power and prestige of the Habsburg Empire, which in the future will stand with its back towards Europe and its face to the East, thus acting as a bulwark to protect western civilisation from the aggression of Russia. The latter, faced by so powerful an antagonist on her western frontiers, and knowing that behind that antagonist there stands her still more formidable ally, will also be driven to look eastward for expansion, where she will find herself hampered by the oriental possessions and ambitions of Great Britain. So Russia and Great Britain, the two most dangerous enemies of France, would be set to grapple with one another in Asia, and Europe would be left in peace.

Incidentally, I’ve always found the great-power calculus hard to understand. For reasons that I also don’t understand, the calculus of “If we do this, then Austria will react in this way, which will trigger Russia to react in this way, [etc.]” always seems more intricate than the present-day diplomacy calculus. I don’t know why that might be, or even whether it’s true; it might be a bias in favor of believing that today’s situation is inherently less complicated than a more-distant thing that I would have understood perfectly well had I lived it.

In any case, Cooper does a great job on the occasions when he chooses to explain this calculus. But the quoted passage is one of the few where he really tries. Much of the rest of the book is either the clear-eyed Talleyrand seeing what others don’t, effortlessly parrying every challenge, or he’s seducing another mistress. And for Cooper, that is basically that.

We’re left with no real knowledge of psychology, or of the precise mechanics of surreptitious language. Take this, for instance:

‘Sire, it is in your power to save Europe, and you will only do so by refusing to give way to Napoleon [said Talleyrand to Czar Alexander]. The French people are civilised, their sovereign is not. The sovereign of Russia is civilised and his people are not: the sovereign of Russia should therefore be the ally of the French people.’ He went on to explain and develop this statement.

A natural question for any reader is how Talleyrand decided to take such a risk with a foreign power. This was arguably treason, and one imagines that Napoleon would have beheaded his Foreign Secretary for such an insult. So what preparations, exactly, did Talleyrand take to ensure that these words stayed between him and the Czar? Cooper doesn’t say.

I don’t think that’s accidental. Cooper is at his happiest when he’s presenting Talleyrand as preternaturally gifted at the art of subterfuge. I find it maddening. Maybe it is, indeed, a pure gift, but Cooper never gives us reason to believe so. It’s asserted, essentially, without being defended, which is the recipe for much of the book.

I think Cooper is in it for the naughty bits. He could have dug deeper on those parts, while still providing his reader with a psychological education—here, for instance:

Caroline Murat, who was probably Metternich’s mistress at this time, seems to have been his informant.

Well, that’s interesting. It raises a load of questions. For one: if everyone is having sex with everyone else, and (seemingly) everyone knows this, and if even great statesmen are apparently not immune to sexual persuasion, then how does that change what people say to each other? This only reinforces my question from above: how does Talleyrand know whom to trust? How does he know that, say, Alexander isn’t sleeping with someone who’s sharing the goods with Napoleon? Again, Cooper doesn’t say. He walks right up to a great opportunity to paint the backdrop of early-19th-century politics, then steps back.

On the other end of the spectrum from this Cooper book is, say, the three-volume Otto Pflanze biography of Bismarck, who is a comparable historical character in many ways. Pflanze’s biography maybe goes into excessive detail about the exact choice sets available to Bismarck at a given moment, though his leitmotif is that Bismarck always consciously left two or more options available to him in any given scenario. So at least Pflanze has a structure to hold together the map of Bismarck’s delicate schemes. More like Cooper is Steinberg’s more-psychological biography of Bismarck. Both Pflanze and Steinberg are worth reading in their own ways.

I guess Cooper is good for the outline, but I’m going to look elsewhere for a real biography of Talleyrand.

Some more recent reads — March 1, 2018

Some more recent reads

  • Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus

    Central thesis is that when people at the time spoke of the 1950s, and when we think about it today, we envision a level of consensus that wasn’t there. Or maybe the consensus was there, but lurking underneath were forces that would soon tear the country apart. We imagine consensus taking the shape of Dwight D. Eisenhower, everyone’s favorite avuncular picture of 1950s America. Just outside the frame were those who thought Truman and Ike had sold us out and “lost us China”; they thought Truman’s recalling General MacArthur was an act of treason. The conservative movement was brewing. William F. Buckley’s National Review was forming. The Birchers and the rest of the crazies were just starting to froth.

    In all of this, Perlstein makes Goldwater out to be a reluctant—really, shockingly reluctant—avatar of the movement; he’s an emergent property of it, rather than a moving force within it. We think of Goldwater today as a lunatic, if we think of him at all; we think of the Daisy ad, of the “Goldwater Rule” which tells professional psychiatrists that they are not allowed to diagnose public figures from afar, and of the trouncing Goldwater experienced at LBJ’s hands in 1964, and that’s that. Perlstein’s Goldwater is much more interesting. He’s less a person than a whirlpool spinning faster and faster, drawing in all the flotsam of the conservative movement as activists discover that they’re not alone. He’s a symbol of a movement. As the race for the Republican nomination in 1964 heats up, all the Ike-style conservatives—Nelson Rockefeller; Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.; William W. Scranton—get knocked out as conservatives realize that what they want is a true right-winger, leaving a reluctant Goldwater on top.

    Then Goldwater, of course, is roundly defeated. And that’s it for the conservative movement, right? The final few sentences of the book are just devastating. Just outside the margins of the book are Richard Nixon, preparing once more to reenter the political scene, and, of course, Ronald Reagan. And Perlstein hits us with this:

    Arthur Schlesinger put it most succinctly of all in volume 4 of his magisterial History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-1968: “The election results of 1964,” he reflected, “seemed to demonstrate Thomas Dewey’s prediction about what would happen if the parties were realigned on an ideological basis: ‘The Democrats would win every election and the Republicans would lose every election.’ ”

    At that there seemed to be nothing more to say. It was time to close the book.

    Perlstein’s later books, Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge, map out the conservative movement through the rest of the 20th century. I’ve read the former but not the latter. The Nixon book is basically sympathetic to conservatives in the 1960s: they’re watching their cities burn, and they really hate the hippies, and here comes a presidential candidate who pours on the gasoline. At times the Nixon book gets a little too gleeful in its jabs at the hippies; it’s not that Perlstein himself feels any vitriol towards them, it’s just that he seems to believe their voices have been systematically minimized by a press that wants to impose a certain narrative on the ’50s and ’60s. The ’50s were the decade of boring American consensus, and the ’60s were the decade when “everyone” supported the expansion of civil rights to African-Americans. Perlstein helpfully muddies the waters in these books. And he’s a first-rate storyteller.

  • Jennifer A. Doudna, A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution

    Central thesis: CRISPR, within a shockingly short period of time, has made gene editing possible, and has in fact made it possible to edit the germ line of the species. Within not very long at all, we’ll be able to dictate the future course of human evolution, and we need to think very hard about what we’ll do with that power.

    The bulk of the book is given over to a detailed scientific explanation of how the CRISPR method, which the author pioneered, works. I wish I could tell you that I understand the underlying biology well enough that I could answer questions beyond those immediately addressed in the book, but I don’t. This isn’t Doudna’s fault: she needs to start with the central dogma of molecular biology and work her way from there to technologies that didn’t exist until just a few years ago, and onward into (only mildly) speculative sections about where this technology is headed in the near term. She can’t be expected to teach any of this material in much depth. Nonetheless, she deserves kudos for trying.

    She clearly believes that the possible upsides of this technology demand that it be given a fair hearing, and not be rejected out of hand in the same way that, say, GMOs have been. Indeed, I left her book wondering if opposition to GMOs is fundamentally irrational. I’ve had a hard time arguing the anti-GMO case for a while: how does it differ, really, from ordinary artificial selection (that is, breeding species and culling the offspring that don’t match the traits you’re looking for)? The answer is actually not that hard, though: there comes a point when a technology allows species to change so fast that it’s not merely a difference of degree from the technologies that preceded it, but a difference of kind. Raising cows to adulthood, checking their mass, keeping the more-muscular ones, and killing the scrawny ones takes time. Editing their genes to remove whatever makes them scrawny takes less time. Using CRISPR speeds up gene editing by orders of magnitude. Eventually there comes a point when society demands that a technology be slowed down, lest it have effects that we’re unable to control. This is not unreasonable.

    At the same time, one of the arguments in favor of CRISPR gene editing is that it’s more precise and narrowly tailored than existing methods. Diseases that result from a change in a single gene can be fixed by editing that single gene. The analogy I think of here is to vaccination: anti-vaccine people often complain that the vaccine load on their children is too high for their developing immune systems to handle, to which doctors respond that the number of proteins in modern vaccines is lower than the number when our parents were kids. The drugs have gotten better, so the immunological load is lower. (See this World Health Organization page for a related argument.) The same may be true of CRISPR: maybe it’s actually a safe technology. I trust Doudna on this, but again I need to understand the biology better before I feel confident asserting my own opinion here.

    Occasionally Doudna wanders into topics that make me uneasy, because she could be read as ignoring broader systems:

    Another example of livestock gene editing comes from a Minnesota company called Recombinetics, which achieved the remarkable feat of genetically modifying cows to prevent them from growing horns. The company’s goal was to obviate the cruel but widespread practice of cattle dehorning, a common procedure in the U.S. and European dairy industries. Horns make handling confined animals dangerous for farm workers and can also pose a risk to the cows themselves. Food producers typically remove horns at a young age by burning off horn buds with a heated iron, causing tissue damage and a significant amount of stress and pain for the traumatized calves. In the United States alone, well over thirteen million calves are dehorned every year.

    At one level, I couldn’t object to this: if we could prevent 13 million cows from being cruelly dehorned every year, then why not? On the other hand … doesn’t something just feel uncomfortable to you about this? The ability to use gene editing to turn cows into more-perfect vessels for conversion into beef feels uncomfortable to me. I don’t have a particularly good argument for why genetic de-horning wouldn’t be a strict improvement over the world as it is, but all arguments like this made me uneasy.

    On the other hand, her basic argument for using CRISPR to solve human diseases is simply that we would be irresponsible if we didn’t try. Over the next decade or so, it seems inevitable that we’ll identify more and more diseases whose origin is a change in one or a few genes, and we now have the technology to fix those genes immediately. If we could end the agony of Tay-Sachs, or the slow deterioration of Parkinson’s disease, we arguably must and undoubtedly will try to do so.

    This makes me think that I’d like to read a book cowritten by Doudna and, say, an ecologist and an ethicist, because she hasn’t really established her bona fides as an honest broker for ideas outside of molecular biology. When she writes, for instance, of the Jurassic Park concept, that “de-extinct species could badly disrupt ecosystems they’re released into,” the reader has to wonder why de-extinct species are so much different in this regard than genetically modified non-extinct species. The idea of genetically modifying mosquitoes bearing malaria, for instance, so that their offspring are infertile makes me uncomfortable. Shouldn’t we be concerned about the unintended consequences of a significant change to a species at the bottom of the food chain? (Makes me wonder why conservative economists, who are the first to argue the evils of unintended consequences in public policy, aren’t manning the ramparts about this kind of widespread biological change.)

    It’s hard not to make a quick jump from Doudna’s book to the realm of science fiction. The next step is to make changes to the germ line, so that changes to an existing organism’s genes are passed on to its offspring. After that, use CRISPR and related technologies to make multi-gene changes. Soon enough, identify genes that can be flipped to improve human intelligence. More speculatively, and further along in time, you can imagine a combination of genes and embryology such that the offspring is better able to manipulate his or her own germ line. So now, not only is the offspring the beneficiary of genetic changes, but the offspring can accelerate genetic changes as time goes on. The sci-fi ending of this would a biological analogue of the Singularity—only this is runaway biological improvement, rather than runaway technological improvement. Someone must have written this.

    CRISPR does feel like a really big deal. Doudna’s book is a good place for a general reader to start, and I intend to chase down some of the references to see if I can make head or tail of them.

  • Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

    Central thesis: nations become possible only when a shared language becomes possible—a language which defines us and them as separate entities. When Latin was a shared language across many countries, Latin could not define nations. Then came the vernaculars:

    elevation of these vernaculars to the status of languages-of-power, where, in one sense, they were competitors with Latin (French in Paris, [Early] English in London), made its own contribution to the decline of the imagined community of Christendom.

    When the Spanish language bound both metropolitan Spain and its foreign territories, those within the empire could define themselves as Spaniards even if they weren’t in the mother country. The Spanish government’s unwillingness, then, to allow its subjects abroad to be “true” Spaniards—to serve, for instance, in the Spanish government—hastened the formation of, say, a Filipino identity. The existence of the common language, then, defines a nation, and then the needs of a colonizer define “real” and “fake” members of that nation.

    The final piece that starts the formation of a nation is the newspaper. The newspaper joins us all in space: suddenly we can envision an entire nation of people reading the same news at the same time, and we can conceive of “the Spanish nation” or “the Filipino nation”. Anderson says that the very concept of a people who could be conceived as a whole, spread across a geographic area, is just not in evidence in literature up to the modern era; it took the newspaper for us even to conceive of a nation existing across space at a given moment in time. I find this notion fascinating. A lot of the rest of his writing is academic and leaden and leaves me bored; sometimes, though, as in this newspaper example, it’s genuinely interesting.

    The newspaper can also create unity out of vernaculars where there previously had been none. In many ways, “France”, “Germany”, and “England” are fictitious concepts, hewn—sometimes violently—out of mutually non-comprehending sub-nations. Think of the English subjugation of the Irish and the forcible destruction of their language. Think of the “langue d’Oc” in southern France and the “langues d’oïl” in the north. Think of the Bavarians in Southern Germany and the Prussians up north, fused only by Bismarck’s genius and a war against the French. The newspaper is another source of unity for a nation: as Anderson puts it, “Speakers of the huge variety of Frenches, Englishes, or Spanishes, who might find it difficult or even impossible to understand one another in conversation, became capable of comprehending one another via print and paper.”

    Indeed, often written languages (most importantly in the form of newspapers) were some of the only things binding people across a vast geographic expanse: a factory-owner in Lille and a factory-owner in Lyon “had no necessary reason to know of one another’s existence; they did not typically marry each other’s daughters or inherit each other’s property. But they did come to visualize in a general way the existence of thousands and thousands like themselves through print-language.”

    Over time, we come to define the nation by its language, even though what makes England England is not English: George I didn’t speak English (he was brought over from Germany, which is not a small part of Thomas Paine’s critique), nor did William the Conqueror. The entire English system of inherited power descends from a non-English conquering thief, yet most of the nation surely identifies itself as people who speak English by definition. The community first imagines itself into existence via the written word, then invents a fictional history for itself, whereby it has been English back into the unknown mists of time.

    The ideas in Imagined Communities are interesting and, as I write them out, seem to me worth reading. The presentation is academic, however, and not in a good way. I’d recommend reading Gellner instead, if you must choose just one.

  • Martin Luther King, Jr., The Radical King

    I had loved everything I’d ever read or heard by King, but I was not prepared for the greatness of this book. Please, just go read it.

  • Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution

    Why did no one tell me that de Tocqueville is this good? This book ends before the start of the French Revolution, and deliberately so: Tocqueville wants to argue that all the seeds which we believe were planted during the Revolution were actually planted by the ancien régime. The centralization in Paris came about during the reigns spanning from Louis XIV to Louis XVI. The expansion of economic liberty to the peasantry, while it didn’t live up to Adam Smith’s standards, was certainly light years ahead of the rest of Europe (“Nearly all the soldiers in the armies of Maria Theresa and Frederick were absolute serfs”). Indeed, the growing freedom of the countryside was a precondition for the eventual Revolution: as Tocqueville puts it, “Had the peasantry not been landholders, they would have paid no attention to many of the burdens laid by the feudal system on real estate.” That is, freedom begets a demand for more freedom.

    Meanwhile, the French government centralized power in Paris, such that the intendants in the provinces were aware of their powerlessness. Having centralized power so much, the government became an island in a sea of enemies.

    So what we were left with, on the eve of the Revolution, was property rights against a backdrop of feudalism, plus a centralized tyranny. Peasants can go a couple directions, says Tocqueville:

    When the rural parish of the Middle Ages was removed beyond the reach of the feudal system and left uncontrolled, it became the New England township. When it was cut loose from the seignior, but crushed in the close grasp of the state in France, it became what remains to be described.

    And of course, famously, pre-Revolutionary France was a thicket of taxes and exemptions from taxes. According to Tocqueville, this was another way in which the central government left itself with no friends: everyone was his own isolated parasite, interested in preserving his own caste’s needs without paying attention to anyone else’s. By the time the pre-Revolutionary society ended, there was virtually no society worth the name left to preserve. And in large part this resulted from a French royal plan to divide and conquer:

    all the errors, all the fatal prejudices which I have sketched, owed either their origin, or their continuance, or their development to the exertions made by most of our kings to create distinctions of classes in order to govern more absolutely.

    Here again Edmund Burke appears, only to be knocked down a moment later. It’s worth quoting at some length, just because the writing is so beautiful and so modern:

    “What!” cried Burke, in one of his eloquent pamphlets, “one can not find a man that can answer for the smallest district; not a man who can answer for his neighbor. People are arrested in their houses for royalism, for moderation, or any thing else, and no one ever resists.” Burke had no idea of the state in which the monarchy he so deeply regretted had left us. The old government had deprived the French of the power and the desire to help each other. When the Revolution broke out, there were not ten men in the greater part of France who were in the habit of acting in concert, in a regular manner, and providing for their own defense; every thing was left to the central power. And so, when that power made way for an irresponsible sovereign assembly, and exchanged itaformer mildness for ferocity, there was nothing to check or delay it for an instant. The same cause which had overthrown the monarchy had rendered every thing possible after its fall.

  • Jeffrey Rosen, Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet

    This is the sort of Brandeis hagiography you’d write for a high-school civics class. I do not endorse.

  • William A. Birdthistle, Empire of the Fund: The Way We Save Now

    This documents plainly that we, all of us, are terrible at picking stocks. It breaks down, methodically, piece by piece, how the various relationships within a given mutual fund are formed, how conflicts can enter into those relationships, how each piece is regulated, and how the regulators can be (perhaps are) captured.

    I find the book’s conclusions, though, confusing, and at variance with what I took to be the book’s main thrust. What I took away from the middle 80-90% of the book was that there are many ways for small-time investors to be screwed by mutual-fund companies; that 401(k) plan administrators introduce another place where screwing can happen; and that the SEC hasn’t always been on the side of the little guy. The usual places of respite that a million and one investment guides have given are

    1. always buy index funds
    2. use the lowest-fee funds you can find
    3. when you’re young, fill your 401(k) with equities; as you age, fill it with bonds.
    4. target-date funds help a lot here.

    Birdthistle’s book goes through those systematically, and points out that there are still lots of places where the little guy can get screwed, even if he follows each of them. So it surprises me to reach the end of the book and not see the conclusion that maybe people’s retirement savings shouldn’t be privately managed at all. Why is Social Security not the obvious answer? Three related points:

    First, Birdthistle is sanguine about the prospects for the Thrift Savings Plan, managed by BlackRock, but it’s hard for me to understand why; the rest of his book, up to that point, isn’t meant (by my reading) to build anyone’s faith that a private mutual-fund company will unfailingly work in its customers’ best interests.

    Second, I’m surprised that Social Security didn’t come up more often in the book—particularly since, according to the GAO, “About half of households age 55 and older have no retirement savings (such as in a 401(k) plan or an IRA)” and since, according to the SSA,

    Social Security was the major source of income (providing at least 50% of total income) for 47.8% of aged beneficiary couples and 70.7% of aged nonmarried beneficiaries. It was 90% or more of income for 20.7% of aged beneficiary couples and 42.6% of aged nonmarried beneficiaries.

    Maybe Empire of the Fund was meant to help out only those aspiring retirees who already have significant assets in 401(k)s. If so, fair enough, but it seems to me that it aspires to more. It seems to want to improve the lot of all retirees, which is why it endorses changes in SEC transparency rules, and endorses a “driver’s license” for those who opt not to use the default 401(k) options that their employers provide.

    But maybe Social Security is just out of scope for this book. If so, again, fair enough. It just surprises me. If what most of us should have is an inflation-protected low-fee annuity with some benefits for our surviving spouses, then Social Security already provides that. Its absence from Empire of the Fund is a little glaring.

    I need to emphasize that I really liked Birdthistle’s diagnosis of the problems with existing mutual funds and 401(k)s. Those problems, though, remind me of an acquaintance’s old quip that “capitalism picks its nose like this” (illustrated by reaching one’s right hand around the back of one’s head to pick one’s left nostril). Having just gone through a really enlightening exercise about the flaws in mutual-fund regulation, Empire of the Fund seems to say, “We should be picking our noses like this instead” (illustrated by reaching one’s hand up between one’s leg and bending down one’s head to effect the picking). Why not pick our noses directly?

  • John Pfaff, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform

    Central thesis: for all the focus on private prisons, overly punitive drug laws, and nonviolent Federal crimes, most prisoners are in state prison for violent crimes. Hence actually solving the problem of mass incarceration in any meaningful way will involve making some hard choices. It won’t be a matter of just letting unobjectionable nonviolent offenders out of jail, and it won’t be a matter of just shutting down private prisons and shifting those inmates back to public prisons. We will actually need to make the argument to the public that some violent inmates need to be released, which means we need to make the argument that releasing them is better than keeping them in prison, that there are better ways to keep the public safe than by putting violent criminals behind bars, etc. These are hard arguments to make. And for whatever reason, criminal justice in the United States feels like a ratchet: no one ever won an election, it seems, by demanding greater leniency toward violent criminals. (To read: some work on why the U.S. has this ratchet but Europe seemingly doesn’t. Maybe this paper?)

    This whole argument stands, of course, against Michelle Alexander’s book. Pfaff’s argument seems quite rigorous to me, and less visibly grinding an axe than Alexander’s. But I’d be curious to read Alexander’s retort, if she has one. She and Pfaff both want to dramatically reduce the number of people in prison, and address the disproportionate impact that mass incarceration has on the African-American community (worth your time: Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress). They just differ on methods … actually, maybe they don’t even disagree on that. Again, Alexander has an axe to grind, and certainly Pfaff wouldn’t disagree that freeing nonviolent drug offenders would be a good thing. Alexander’s work is more explicitly political, in the sense that freeing nonviolent drug offenders feels like an easier lift. Maybe we start with Alexander’s “quick fixes”, then move on to Pfaff’s harder solutions.

    And while we’re at it, let’s never disenfranchise prisoners. As Alexander rightly points out, the formerly incarcerated face huge challenges even after they leave prison. Getting a job is hard enough for them; let’s not also deprive them of the right to participate in a democratic society.

  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

    Better, even, than advertised. Do go read it. (And maybe watch the show? I dunno; I’ve not seen it.)

  • George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (reread)

    I read this either just before or soon after traveling to Catalonia, having previously read it at least a decade ago. It stands up to repeated reading. Orwell documents the Spanish Civil War from the ground level, when the entire spectrum of the left, from liberals to socialists to Communists, fought against incipient fascism. I felt particularly moved by Orwell’s feelings after leaving the front and returning to a proper cup of tea in London. I can’t imagine that feeling of rootlessness.

Recent reads, January/February 2018 —

Recent reads, January/February 2018

bad math graphics. I guess it's polyhedra being sucked into topological 'holes'?

  • David Richeson, Euler’s Gem: The Polyhedron Formula and the Birth of Topology

    Pretty cool book, much of which was lost on me; it’s a popular-ish math book, and I think I placed too much emphasis on “popular” and not enough on “math”. The secret of reading math books is that you don’t read them like you’d read a novel. You need to sit down, do proofs, write code, come up with counterexamples, try to visualize things, etc. I couldn’t do this when I was lying on the beach.

    Regardless, even at the fairly shallow level at which I approached this book, there’s a lot of interesting stuff. The book centers on the Euler characteristic, the very beautiful observation that any convex polyhedron (think cube or pyramid) which has V vertices, E edges, and F faces satisfies V-E+F=2. This is the earliest example of what we now call a topological invariant — a property of a mathematical object that remains unchanged even if you distort the object in various approved ways, like stretching. Other topological invariants include the genus of a shape, i.e., the number of “holes” it has, which is how we end up with the notion that a coffee cup and a doughnut are topologically identical: you can deform the one into the other without tearing, and the number of holes remains the same.

    Topology is, in this way, a “global” view of a shape, but the global view can be used to prove theorems about local attributes of that shape. The book contains some elegant proofs that use the Euler characteristic, for instance, to prove theorems about the interior angles of a polygon, or to prove that there exist only five Platonic solids.

    The book contains applications, too, not just examples from the domain of pure mathematics. Here it samples from graph theory, which is a branch of mathematics you touch every time you use Google Maps, and from differential equations, which are the lifeblood of physics. One of the more famous topological results proves that every continuous function on a space that’s topologically equivalent to a sphere has a fixed point — a consequence of which is, for instance, that at any moment there is always at least one spot on the earth at which the wind is not blowing.

    I need to reread this, and reread it better. The author’s appreciation for the beauty of his subject is palpable. I saw him speak recently at an MAA event in D.C., where he went over some of the classic mathematical impossibility results; a book is apparently forthcoming. If it’s anything like the other work I’ve seen from Richeson, it’ll be a must-read.

funny cartoon image of a stereotyped 1950s family in a stereotyped 1950s car driving through a floral arch with Hebrew lettering on it

  • Rachel Kranson, Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America

    This is a fascinating look at American Jews’ discomfort with their increasing affluence after World War II. The shtetl looms large in American Jewish ideology: when they were poor, goes the mythology, they had more character, built a stronger community, and paid more attention to religious studies; American affluence made them lazy and weak. At the same time, American Jewish identity drew heavily on Lower East Side socialism — another identity that had a hard time surviving as American Jews grew wealthy and moved out to the suburbs. And the part of Jewish self-identity that centered around Jewish intellectualism suffered as Jews headed into “the professions” and became grubby company men.

    One of the allures of the new state of Israel, then, was that Jews could return to a tougher, more authentic version of Judaism. The stereotype of American Jews as weak and nerdy could be replaced by the stereotype of the Israeli soldier. Hence the allure of the Birthright trip to Israel, and of the kibbutz.

    The idea of the shtetl’s being baked deeply into Jews’ self-image is fascinating to me. I wonder whether similar “life was better when we were poor” ideas exist in other religions. Does the Irish-American self-image, for instance, contain a belief that they were more authentically Irish when they were suffering during the potato famine or traveling to the United States in steerage?

    Kranson embeds this Jewish conversation in a broader conversation, happening at the same time, about postwar conformity and suburban homogenization. Outside of Jews, did any other ethnicities address this conformity by venerating the poverty and suffering from their recent pasts?

    Overall, this book is a fascinating look at what happened to Jews as consumerist 20th-century America closed in on all sides.

    (Full disclosure: Professor Kranson is a friend of mine. I would have found her book delightful even if she weren’t.)

some generic nature scene

  • George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

    I don’t get what the fuss was about. This was the It Book of 2017. In it, we see Lincoln visiting his dead son’s body as it awaits burial, the ‘bardo’ being a waiting room for souls on their way from this world to the next. The souls arrayed around him flit about, discussing what will become of little Willie Lincoln. Eventually … without giving anything away, the souls decide that something must be done to ensure that Willie leaves the bardo and enters his permanent afterlife, and A Man Learns To Move On.

    This book is trying and failing to do something. It’s some combination of sci-fi/fantasy, an attempt at being affecting, and a bit of silliness (the souls sometimes engage in frenetic group copulation). I found it deeply pointless.

the top-left and bottom-right quadrants of a circle, for some reason

  • R.R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution

    This is certainly the best book I’ve read thus far on the (low point of the) French Revolution, namely what we today call the Great Terror. On the one hand, it doesn’t skimp on moral censure against the Committee of Public Safety, which famously made such liberal use of the guillotine. On the other, Palmer takes care to note the very real threats that the Republic was under from all its neighbors, who thought France’s chaos and weakness gave them a lovely opportunity to invade. At the same time, the country was by no means internally unified: the famously Catholic French did not all support nationalizing church property and building a new currency on the stolen lands. Much of western France was in an armed uprising against the Revolution. So the twelve members of the CPS were trying to re-establish a government in the Weberian sense: a monopoly over legitimate violence in a defined area. Under the circumstances, I can understand why they’d see no difference between ideological disagreement and treason. It’s a short jump from there to the revolution’s devouring its children.

    My historical imagination runs into a bit of a wall right there. Because identifying ideological disagreement with treason is interlaced with some ideas of Rousseau’s, which were thick on the ground at the time. As any number of authors have mentioned (I think here of Russell’s History of Western Philosophy), Rousseau believed in something called the “general will,” which was not to be confused (I gather) with anything so earth-bound as a poll of the real people’s opinions. Instead, the general will seems to be some spiritual, almost Platonic, aspect of an idealized people. By definition, the will of the people was indivisible. Says Palmer: “It was a cardinal principle of the Mountaineers (and of the Girondists, too, who in their time had been Jacobins and were still Rousseauists) that the people, the real people, could not be divided in its will.”

    I have a very hard time understanding what that could possibly mean, or why — if I attach a reasonable meaning to it — anyone could believe it. If “the people” means … well … the people, then anyone who has ever interacted with other human beings will recognize that disagreement happens (even within one person!); wills are divided. If, on the other hand, “the people” means something more idealized, then why does it matter what this idealized people believes? That way lies Cartesian parody.

    You can see how this notion of The People (capitalized) could lead to a lot of people (lowercase) losing their heads. Again to quote Palmer, “Robespierre easily identified with foreign conspirators anyone who deviated from the program of the Mountain.” If the French People is, by definition, as one, then disagreement with the French People is, by definition, anti-French.

    I need to get inside the heads of these people. I need to get inside the head of Robespierre, in particular. How does this sort of ideology begin? How do others become part of his movement? They can’t all be insane. They can’t all be power-mad.

    In any case, Palmer tackles the twelve in the CPS as well as you could hope for: a single chapter for each of the twelve, each of which is a vigorous character study. And the characters—the haughty, incorruptible Robespierre, whom I can only imagine with his lantern jaw raised heavenward; the fiery ideologue Saint-Just; the great orator Danton; Carnot, the engineer of the revolution—are all worthy of these sketches. The French Revolution, if nothing else, is a gripping story. And the CPS, in particular, needs a sympathetic reading, which Palmer provides.

    Finally, Palmer’s attitude reminds me a lot of E.P. Thompson—specifically Thompson’s refusal to reduce all human action to the mechanical, ineluctable movement of the dialectic. Thompson and Palmer are both humanistic, in the sense that they believe the goals of people and of movements matter. This might be the ultimate source of their historical imagination, their sympathy, their attention to detail, and their eye for storytelling. It makes their books a pure delight to read.

Some painting of 1848, I think. Prussian? I'm too lazy to go look it up.

  • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto

    Hard to think of anything to say here that you don’t already know. Maybe the only point worth emphasizing is how much Marx and Engels admired what the English bourgeoisie had accomplished in such a short time.

Hardly more than the words in the title on the cover. Actually, one more thing: a small orange band, running horizontally from the right side of the cover to maybe 90% of the way across, to tell us that this is a publication of Monthly Review Press Classics

  • E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays

    The title essay is a sustained attack on the Marxism of Louis Althusser, about whom I knew nothing when I started the essay. It’s more sarcastic and vitriolic than some of the other Thompson I’ve read, but the heart is the same: a belief that humans matter, and that anyone who tries to reduce social movements to mere abstract social forces is doing violence to the movements. Here Thompson goes a step further, denouncing Althusser as a barely closeted Stalinist, when the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Khrushchev’s “cult of personality” speech of the same year should have permanently emptied the world of Stalinists. Thompson ties the evils of Stalinism, in part, to the mechanistic view of history, which turns individuals into mere cogs in a machine. If people don’t matter, and if history is going to move according to its own logic, then the blood drains out of the movement and it hardly matters whether we liquidate the kulaks.

    At the base of Thompson’s alternative view is his understanding of class, about which he writes in The Making of the English Working Class:

    I do not see class as a “structure”, nor even as a “category”, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships. … class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.

    You can see how this understanding of class would shape his understanding of everything that rides on top of it. If classes aren’t immutable or predefined, then the movements of people into and out of classes, and their understanding of who stands against them, are also not immutable or predefined. To my eye, understanding class in this way leads to a much more supple and rich eye for history. Indeed, The Making of the English Working Class itself wouldn’t have had much at all to say if it had flattened the English working class along Althusserian lines.

    The other essays in the collection are bound by a similar humanism. “Outside The Whale” begins with someone else’s sarcastic description of a speech by Bertrand Russell, in which the 83-year-old Nobel laureate pleaded with the public to vote Labour in order to prevent nuclear annihilation. It continues into George Orwell’s scorn for anyone, it seems, who feels that anything in this world matters. Thompson is on the side of those whose conscience still burns.

    In “The Peculiarities of the English”, Thompson defends his countrymen against those orthodox Marxists who fault the country for ideological impurity. Again, this is of a piece with the book’s general iciness toward continental-European Communists, whose theory didn’t account for the humanitarian disasters of actually existing Communism. French Marxism, in Thompson’s eyes, was intellectually corrupt and had managed, besides, to weaken real labor movements.

    It’s a beautiful, engaging book, though I admit that a lot of it was taking place on topics about which I know nothing (beyond what Thompson educated me on). The only Marx I’ve read is the Communist Manifesto (see supra), and dribs and drabs here and there (e.g., “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”). I’ve not read Marx enough to know which ideas were his, and which were inventions from later on.

    Though I’m not sure whether it matters who invented what; as a general matter in my life, I’m inclined to think it doesn’t matter. To take a totally unrelated topic: it doesn’t really matter whether Jesus’s teachings were a misreading of Judaism, or whether modern Christian practice was a misreading of the New Testament, or whatever. At one level, sure, it matters intellectually that someone misread a book and built a movement from that misreading, but by this point the movement is more important than the “true” meaning underlying the text. Fussing over true original meanings is both fundamentalist and utterly beside the point.

    So I’d like to read Marx, not to understand what “true Marxism” is, but just to understand the conversation. Then maybe I’d read Althusser, though Thompson certainly suggests that leaden philosophical French prose is not for the faint of heart. Or maybe I’d read others for whom Thompson has more respect. The point is just to get into the conversation; outside of that conversation, Thompson doesn’t make much sense. I suspect he’d want me to engage with the texts and then get back to him, and so I shall.

A painting of someone -- maybe a goddess? -- in the middle of battle holding aloft the tricolor

  • Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man

    I read this as a followup to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, as indeed it was; I read it also as the foundation (so E.P. Thompson tells me) for a good century of British labor-movement mobilization. It’s hardly a close call: Paine got the better of this argument with Burke.

    When he’s not defending tradition for its own sake, recall, Burke is telling the French that their king isn’t such a bad guy. Paine begins by demolishing that point, like so:

    Every place has its Bastille, and every Bastille its despot. The original hereditary despotism resident in the person of the king, divides and sub-divides itself into a thousand shapes and forms, till at last the whole of it is acted by deputation.

    The French system of government wasn’t just corrupt at its head; corruption had worked its way into the remotest tendrils of the empire. Hereditary monarchy was the original sin that led to all the others. Hereditary power bore no connection with merit:

    the idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges, or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet laureate.

    Hereditary monarchy, in England as well, had become a device for impoverishing the people in order to fatten Walpole and his cronies:

    In reviewing the history of the English Government, its wars and its taxes, a bystander, not blinded by prejudice nor warped by interest, would declare that taxes were not raised to carry on wars, but that wars were raised to carry on taxes.

    So Paine’s book wasn’t just a defense of his brethren across the Channel; it was a sustained attack on the wisdom of any inherited monarchy at all. And pace Burke, this wasn’t a matter of airy theory overturning a system that had generally worked well for centuries; it was a matter of unaided human reason, available to everyone, finally realizing that the emperor wore no clothes:

    certain am I, that when the people of England come to reflect upon them they will, like France, annihilate those badges of ancient oppression, those traces of a conquered nation.

    No wonder Burke was terrified. According to Thompson, the entire English ruling class shook at the earthquake Burke initiated.

    Stylistically, too, Paine is running circles around Burke:

    How dry, barren, and obscure is the source from which Mr. Burke labors! and how ineffectual, though gay with flowers, are all his declamation and his arguments compared with these clear, concise, and soul-animating sentiments! Few and short as they are, they lead on to a vast field of generous and manly thinking, and do not finish, like Mr. Burke’s periods, with music in the ear, and nothing in the heart.

    I’m genuinely curious if anyone found himself or herself convinced, in the late 18th century, by Burke as against Paine. From this vantage, a couple hundred years on, that would be hard to believe.

    I wonder, finally, whether Paine’s book initiates a particularly “American” style of writing, as against Burke’s late-18th-century British style. The Burkean style is one I’ve always had a hard time stomaching: rather than go from fact to fact and then jump to an abstraction, it basically starts and ends in abstractions. I’m sure there’s empirical Hume out there, for instance, but the habit of dealing in pure abstractions—about the nature of man or what have you—drives me a little mad. I’m much happier with the Paines of the world.

A great many African-American people sitting on their front stoops and hanging out of balconies, presumably in some big urban neighborhood (Harlem, maybe)?

  • Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

    Absolutely gripping, and indeed “epic”, story of African-Americans’ Great Migration from the South to the industrial cities of the North, stretching from World War I through the mid-1960s. Wilkerson tells this story through four specific people—selected from among hundreds of people whom Wilkerson interviewed—who made the journey from the South to Los Angeles, to Chicago, and to New York. Through Wilkerson’s storytelling, I was there with them as they told only one or two people about their plans to leave their homes—keeping the story quiet so that they wouldn’t be lynched on the way out of town. It made for almost unbearably tense reading.

    There are some ground-level details that I never would have thought about, had I not read Wilkerson’s book. For instance, trains traveling south to north would eventually reach a point where segregation ended. Going north to south, blacks who had been sitting comfortably among whites would now need to move into segregated passenger cars; the switch would happen right around Washington, D.C., the unofficial boundary of Jim Crow. This is just an impossibly odd transition, and it’s hard to imagine decades of American life during which it was treated as a frustrating but regrettable necessity.

    The book’s strength is in the personal stories, though it also takes some time in each chapter to scale out and examine what was happening nationwide. I could have appreciated some more on, say, redlining in the north, or white flight, but those would have made this a much different book. As it is, Wilkerson’s ability to keep the macro and the micro in focus at the same time is a great feat—as when she describes a black man’s creation on a small scale of a labor union within a single orange grove, which he can do because so many blacks have left the South that few are left behind who are willing to do agricultural work.

    There may be other books that cover other aspects of the Great Migration, but it’s hard to imagine Wilkerson’s book ever being surpassed in its storytelling ability. And as those who were alive during the Migration slowly disappear, her book may turn out to be the last great oral history of the era.

William C. Davis, Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee–The War They Fought, the Peace They Forged — February 28, 2018

William C. Davis, Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee–The War They Fought, the Peace They Forged

Excellent simultaneous biography of Grant and Lee, emphasizing—in fact maybe relying exclusively upon—contemporaneous sources. I’ve read lots of late-twentieth-century books about the Civil War and about Grant, as well as Grant’s own memoir from the final weeks of his life, but none that tried so hard to avoid letting hindsight bias creep into evaluations of their subject.

Davis methodically follows Grant’s and Lee’s slow and (in retrospect) inevitable path toward collision. Grant comes from a relatively prosperous background but is widely viewed as a failure almost until his 40th birthday. Lee, I knew, came from the ancient Lee family of Virginia, but I wasn’t aware just how close to royalty he was: “Light-Horse Harry” Lee—the man who declared George Washington “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”—was Robert E. Lee’s father. He was also, by the time of R.E. Lee’s youth, dissolute and penniless and something of a disgrace. Some Psych 101ing is perhaps inevitable here: R.E. Lee’s famed upright carriage and military bearing drew from a deep well of order and discipline, which the younger Lee may have adopted to counter the chaos in his upbringing.

Intentionally or not, most of Davis’s coverage of Lee seems to center on his personality and his godliness. Lee does not seem to have been a happy man. And throughout his life, he insisted that those around him shoulder their burdens and place faith in God’s hands. At some abstract level I understand this: God’s gonna do what God’s gonna do. But I wonder what effect this sort of thought has on a general, whose role, I thought, was to ensure that God’s will lined up with his soldiers’ aims. I really don’t get what’s happening here:

Their bondage was a “painful discipline” [said Lee] sent by God to prepare them for eventual freedom. In other words, slavery was their duty. Only God, not men, could free them, and it would come sooner “from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery controversy.”

“God” doesn’t do anything, as I understand this. God acts through man. And if man chooses to free the slaves, isn’t that God acting through man? Or is that, somehow, man undermining God’s will? As a non-religious person, I can only throw up my hands and roll my eyes at this kind of argument.

As has been well-rehearsed by now, the South’s goal was easier than the North’s; all the South wanted was to inflict enough losses on the North that the North would decide to stop fighting and leave the South alone. The North, by contrast, was an invading army, and by war’s end it was restructuring the entirety of the Southern economy via the Emancipation Proclamation and the arming of black soldiers. While the South’s goal may have been simpler, it of course had a much bigger challenge: the North had the industrial might and more soldiers. Lee would always have to act boldly and take great risks, or else he was certain to lose. Or so Davis tells us; to my eye he didn’t go into much detail about Lee’s bold strokes. Instead I imagine a very morose man sighing as he surveys his battlefield and his steadily shrinking armies.

Grant, on the other hand, has come down through history as something of a schlub, and I have to think that this is a result of Lost Cause ideology: the South may have lost, but they were always the greater gentlemen, and Grant a mechanized butcher. The positive side of this has become the Northern image of the man: schlub though he may be, and sparing in his words, he brought modern warfare to the United States. Without glamor and without Lee’s dignified affect, he got the job done. It’s good American stereotype, no?

When I’ve spoken to people in recent years about anything I’ve read on Grant, those who have any opinion about the man normally ask, “Wasn’t he a corrupt drunk?” So any book about Grant needs to address his putative corruption, and his putative drunkenness. It sounds like drink was a legitimate problem of Grant’s, at least on a few occasions, and that one of his devoted staff made it his mission to keep Grant on the wagon. Davis is pretty punctilious in laying out the occasions when Grant had too much to drink; if he was exhaustive about it, it wasn’t a real problem. It wouldn’t surprise me if Grant’s reputation for drunkenness was a result of both the generally fervid press atmosphere during the Civil War, and the Lost Cause movement afterward.

As for his corruption: at least a few authors I’ve read by now have commented that Grant let untrustworthy men into his orbit far too often, and took far too long to eject them. But there seems to be little evidence that Grant himself was at all corrupt.

Davis can’t help, I think, but side with Grant. To this reader, who has some glaring pro-Northern biases, and who’s really charmed by Grant, I can’t help but find him the more interesting character. Lee has certain weaknesses of character that show up throughout his campaigns—foremost among them, perhaps, being his inability to confront people directly. This sort of thing happens over and over again throughout Davis’s joint biography:

Avoiding conflict once again, the general asked the president to send Hill an order. A day later, Lee asked Davis to remove Hill’s department from his command so he would not have to deal with him again.

That is, rather than directly fire General Hill, General Lee had the President of the Confederacy redraw the territory that Lee controlled, so that he wouldn’t have to work with Hill anymore.

Grant also comes across as having had a more modern understanding of how to run an organization. He was better at delegating, made great use of his personal and general staff, drew on his experience as quartermaster to ensure that his soldiers’ bellies were always full, and wrote clear, concise memos that left no doubt what his subordinates were supposed to do. Whereas Lee feels plucked directly from a West Point whose military education stopped with the lessons of Bonaparte—e.g., a fetish for massive, decisive battles.

Throughout, Davis’s delivery is concise, fast-moving, and brief without sacrificing either detail or storytelling. It’s really quite an achievement.

I have questions about how telegrams worked during the Civil War, and I vote — February 27, 2018

I have questions about how telegrams worked during the Civil War, and I vote

Some questions prompted by William C. Davis’s excellent Crucible of Command (to which I was directed by Prof. Joan Waugh, whose own book about the postwar image of U.S. Grant is well worth reading):

Whenever books about the Civil War say that Grant telegrammed back to Halleck or Lincoln or whomever, I wonder specifically how that worked. Did they go to a specific telegraph office? Did it have physical wires running to another specific telegraph office? How did one telegraph office know which next hop to pick to get their telegram to the White House? Did they encrypt their telegrams? If they were encrypted, did they use some nonsense encryption like a basic substitution cipher? If they weren’t encrypted, what guarantees did they have that their telegrams wouldn’t be intercepted?

If Lincoln wanted to reply to Grant, how did he know where to send his telegram to? Did Grant have to tell him “write me back at Cairo, Illinois”?

If the South wanted to interrupt the flow of telegrams, did they just have to blow up telegraph offices? Cut wires? Did the Union patrol every foot of wire? If they couldn’t patrol every foot of wire (as I imagine they couldn’t), did they at least have some quick way to identify where breaks in the wire happened? If every telegraph office was directly connected to one or more other telegraph offices, then an easy way to check whether a nearby telegraph office was un-blown-up would be to send the neighboring telegraph office a heartbeat message (i.e., “hey, you there?”) every so often. If they don’t get a response, then run along the wire between this station and the neighboring station and check for breaks.

How about kidnapping telegraph operators, or just holding them at gunpoint, or getting spies to go work at the telegraph office? Were telegraph operators vetted for their loyalty to the Union?

A quick bit of Googling turns up this book, which probably answers all my questions and then some. Nice.

Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class — January 31, 2018

Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class

One of your classic nameless Dover book covers that looks like nothing so much as Victorian wallpaper
The essential premise of this book is quite brief, so I’ll try to be brief in my treatment of it.

In brief, Veblen says that people do a lot of things purely as a way of demonstrating that they have wealth. In communities of a small enough size, you spend lots of time around your neighbors, so you can demonstrate your wealth through the conspicuous display of wasted time: you’re so wealthy that you can spend much time doing nothing. Beyond a certain level of wealth you can take this to the next remove: now you can hire servants whose role in life is to do nothing. So now you’re so wealthy that both you, and those you pay, can do nothing.

One next step from there is to develop behaviors that you could only have learned if you had ample time to waste. Hence table manners. Hence the learning of dead languages. Hence the observance of a certain formality in writing, as opposed to the use of a vernacular that keeps up with modern usage. All of these, to Veblen’s eyes, are mere conspicuous demonstrations of wealth.

In a larger society where you have less time to associate with more people, you demonstrate your wealth through the possession of useless goods rather than by publicly wasting time. Hence cars, fancy homes, fancy clothes, etc. Hence heavy, expensive silverware, when cheap aluminum stuff would do just as well. The belief that the expensive stuff is fundamentally better, says Veblen, is baked into society’s most basic norms, which result from the more fundamental belief that that which makes you appear wealthy is better.

The norms start from the top and radiate down through the servant class; Veblen was writing in 1899, when presumably servants were part of the picture. Recall that Julia Child felt it necessary to explain that her book from the early 1960s was for the “servantless American cook”. Nowadays I don’t think the qualifier would be necessary. But the story can still be saved: were Veblen writing today, I imagine he’d say that the norms percolate down from the highest income classes. Somewhere in Theory of the Leisure Class, he writes that you have to reach the class that’s living at the bare subsistence level before you find people who truly do nothing to demonstrate their wealth. In all other classes, at least some fraction of our assets is dedicated to conspicuously proving our wealth.

With that observation in mind, Veblen really does make you question a lot of the way you perceive the world. Take this, on religious ceremony:

whoever comes into the presence should come cleansed of all profane industrial features in his apparel or person, and should come clad in garments of more than everyday expensiveness; that on holidays set apart in honour of or for communion with the divinity no work that is of human use should be performed by any one.

The point here is that we are required to dress before the Lord in clothing that is markedly different from the sort of grubby clothing we’d wear if we were doing work. But why? As a non-religious person, I would assume the answer is something vague like “to demonstrate respect.” This just knocks the question down a level: why is it considered respectful to wear our best clothes? To Veblen the answer is that the Christian God has been adapted to fit our norms: just as our most powerful men are our best-dressed, and their servants are required to be well-dressed as a public display of their master’s wealth, so we are required to stand in a relation of servitude toward Him. And the priest is required to wear clothes that are egregiously over-decorated, to perform services in a building with a lot of extra ornamentation. Why? Again, naïvely, I would say something about how all this ornamentation is some kind of an offering before God. Veblen would say that it’s just another manifestation of conspicuous consumption. And it’s hard to think of a reason that doesn’t sound like a disguised form of conspicuous consumption. Why, for instance, isn’t a humble church with a humble pastor wearing simple clothes allowed?

Really, I think the answer is that it is allowed. I’m thinking of Karl Malden’s character from On The Waterfront, or of any number of famously humble little churches in any number of famously adorable American small towns. Or are those, rather, proof of Veblen’s contention that a community will spend a significant fraction of its margin above subsistence on conspicuous displays of wealth? The smaller the community, the smaller the margin, and the correspondingly smaller the church. But the church will never be allowed to be as shabby as the least among us.

As a good Popperian, I look for cases by which Veblen can be proven wrong, rather than ones by which he can be proven right. I think refutations would have to come from a place like this: a place where a community could choose to spend its margin above subsistence on conspicuous displays of wealth, but doesn’t. Or it would have to come from challenging what he perceives as a conspicuous display of wealth, but we’d perceive as something which is valuable in its own right. To Veblen’s eyes, much of what we perceive as the beautiful or the intellectual is just the disguised display of wealth. One needs to argue against Veblen that the study of some things is just beautiful in itself—mathematics, for instance, or poetry, or sculpture. These are not just disguised wealth. They may result when society is able to climb above mere subsistence, but that doesn’t mean they’re tantamount to a display of that margin above subsistence.

I’m thinking here of a friend’s gloss on Aristotle from some years ago (which, if I weren’t lazy at the moment, I would chase down to an actual Aristotle citation): if I do thing X in order to achieve thing Y, then Y is the more important thing. (This is my gloss on my old memory of my friend’s gloss, and my friend was working on a Ph.D. in Greek philosophy, so any errors here are quite likely mine.) So if I study Newtonian mechanics in order to put planes in the air, the flight is the more important thing; the mechanics is a tool rather than an end in itself. And why do I fly? To travel and see other countries. So perhaps the travel is the higher good. But why travel? To learn new cultures. So perhaps learning about cultures is the higher good. And so we travel upward, until we reach some activity which is the final end, which is not used as a tool in the service of anything else. Those activities which serve no end but themselves are the highest. This might be the tradition from which Godfrey Hardy was drawing when he wrote approvingly, in A Mathematician’s Apology, that no one would ever be able to find a use for the number theory to which Hardy devoted his life. And he must have been quite miffed when cryptography turned up a use for number theory a few decades later.

All of which is to say both that I think we need to take Veblen seriously, and that there’s a danger that he’ll venerate only those things which are in some sense obviously useful, because only those things which are obviously useful have any grounds to call themselves “actually” beautiful; the rest are figments of our wealth-obsessed imaginations.

Veblen’s book does come at the world from an economic perspective that tries to build a world fit for industrial production, whence I conclude that this sort of utilitarian focus on the useful might actually be Veblen’s goal. One problem with the leisure class, says Veblen, is that they’re insulated enough from economic forces, and (practically by the definition of the class) from the need to do useful work, that they’re not required to change with the times. So the leisure class is almost necessarily the conservative class. Their manners, and their understanding of the good, will necessarily be somewhat stuck in the past. They hold back the economy from its full dynamism.

In particular, the leisure-class display of wealth is a holdover from an earlier—Veblen calls it “predatory”—era in human history when the prominent display of one’s wealth was the way by which society advanced. Cultures have moved on and grown denser, and nations have industrialized, and we’re now in an era when collective activity will move society ahead. The predatory habits are a drag which the conservative leisure class carried with them into modern life.

The leisure class’s conservative norms then percolate to the rest of society, because the wealthy are the models for what what the lower classes view as right behavior. So these predatory habits, ill-fitted as they are for modern life, make their way into the rest of society.

Leisure-class conservatism harms the rest of us in another way, says Veblen: by sucking wealth from the lower classes, such that they don’t have the time to do anything more than earn a subsistence living. To quote Veblen: “The accumulation of wealth at the upper end of the pecuniary scale implies privation at the lower end of the scale.”

This is unclear along a few dimensions. First, we should immediately reject a zero-sum model of the economy, which seems to be what Veblen implies here. Second, it’s not clear that the poor are so unable to fight against the predations of the upper classes; if I got anything from E.P. Thompson, it’s that those in the real flesh-and-blood working class can understand the class structure and their place in it more than theorists often give them credit for.

Veblen’s argument can withstand these objections. It can also survive the deletion of his rather eye-roll-inducing argument from evolution (something about ethnicities, in which the phrase “dolichoblond” turns up for the first time in my reading life), which I’d prefer to just pass over in silence.

Veblen’s argument ends with this, which I swear is self-referential:

English orthography satisfies all the requirements of the canons of reputability under the law of conspicuous waste. It is archaic, cumbrous, and ineffective; its acquisition consumes much time and effort; failure to acquire it is easy of detection. Therefore it is the first and readiest test of reputability in learning, and conformity to its ritual is indispensable to a blameless scholastic life.

That is, the most prominent day-to-day proof of our good breeding, hence our wealth, hence our ability to waste time on truly useless pursuits, is adherence to the canons of proper English grammar. The ultimate such proof would be a rather archaic grammar that carries out-of-date norms forward into modern use … Veblen must realize that he himself is the ultimate exemplar of this conservatism. This is the man who writes that

the classics have scarcely lost in absolute value as a voucher of scholastic respectability, since for this purpose it is only necessary that the scholar should be able to put in evidence some learning which is conventionally recognised as evidence of wasted time; and the classics lend themselves with great facility to this use. Indeed, there can be little doubt that it is their utility as evidence of wasted time and effort, and hence of the pecuniary strength necessary in order to afford this waste, that has secured to the classics their position of prerogative in the scheme of the higher learning, and has led to their being esteemed the most honorific of all learning.

Or maybe this is just what everyone in 1899 sounded like. I, instead, prefer to imagine that Veblen, while making a serious point about the structure of human society, decided to have some fun and take the piss out of conservatives, sportsmen (nothing is more conspicuously useless than riding a horse), religious figures and, finally, himself.