The Long View 2003-01-16: Plan B

It might seem that I am giving John a hard time about being wrong about the Iraq War with the benefit of hindsight, and after he is dead and cannot defend himself. In reality, I completely agreed with John at the time [and Jerry Pournelle], so I am trying to understand why I was wrong too.  We have ended up with an interesting natural experiment here. At the time, in early 2003, John thought that failing to invade Iraq would led to a state of affairs much like North Korea at the time, an obnoxious state that had to be placated because of its possession of nuclear weapons.

Twelve years later, North Korea is still obnoxious, and is attempting to increase their ability to threaten their neighbors with submarine launched missiles. Fortunately, the North Koreans don't actually have submarines capable of carrying missiles, so this threat is pretty useless at present.

Iraq is a huge mess, and now it is clear that Iraq never had the means to develop nuclear weapons, so that is a failure on two counts. There has been a great deal of concern that Iran might try to develop a nuclear weapon, but I can't really see the problem. India and Pakistan have managed not to nuke each other, and they hate each other at least as much as the Israelis and the Iranians do. Iran and Israel don't even share a border, which makes problems far more likely.

A nuclear Iran might be a bigger problem for the Sunni US client states in the Persian Gulf, but then I also see that bit of inter-religious rivalry as none of our business. All in all, maybe an unmolested Iraq [and Libya, and Syria], even if the nuclear thing had been real, would have been better than what we ended up with. Stronger states, even if unjust, at least kept a lid on the chaos we see now. If a decadent state is one that wills the ends but not the means, what is a state that keeps doing the same thing over and over even when it isn't working?

Plan B
 
Let us assume that the Bush Administration is reined in by the international community. The UN weapons inspectors in Iraq are permitted to pursue their inquiries until the end of the summer, perhaps until next winter. The US is prevailed upon to negotiate with North Korea. Maybe the US even resumes oil shipments to keep the lines of communication open. What happens then?
First, any hope of a non-nuclear Islamist front disappears. The US would be unable to keep an invasion force in the Middle East until the end of 2003, much less to redeploy one if the current forces are withdrawn. This would be partly because of the cost of logistics and partly because of the upcoming presidential election, but chiefly because such regional support as there is for an invasion would have evaporated. The bluff of the US would have been called. The states of the region would be scurrying to accommodate themselves to Iraqi hegemony. Iraq would have a deliverable bomb by the end of 2004. The UN arms inspectors will express surprise.
Meanwhile, in East Asia, just as the US is withdrawing from the Middle East, North Korean nuclear capacity would have developed from two experimental devices to a usable arsenal, including missiles that can certainly hit Japan and probably parts of the United States.
There will then be a brief period of alarms and crises: perhaps an oil embargo, perhaps an artillery bombardment of Seoul. Before very long, though, a nuke will go off in a European or American city. Then several things will happen.
On a theoretical level, the hypothesis on which the great international institutions are based will have been refuted. The UN was founded on the idea that a system of consultative, collective security makes the world a safer place. Within a few years of a retreat from Iraq, however, it will be clear to all that the collective security system actually made the situation far worse. The wars of retaliation and preemption to follow would, nominally, be undertaken by an alliance rather than by the US alone, but the alliance would work outside the UN system. Like the alliances that won the First and Second World Wars, this one would function as an emergency executive, with little regard for existing institutions or international law as it appeared at the beginning of the 21st century.
 
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What I have outlined here is not an optimal scenario. However, even if the current balancing act between Iraq and North Korea can be brought to a successful conclusion, we have to face the fact that the international system is decadent. I use this term in the sense proposed by Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence: a decadent society is one that wills the ends, but not the means. One way or another, we will get to the ends for which collective security was supposed to be the means. The problem is that there is a great deal of sentiment for taking the worst way possible.
 
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Speaking of blocked societies, I just finished Jonathan D. Spence's Treason by the Book, which deals with a hapless conspiracy against the Qing government of China in the early 18th century. The scope of the book is smaller than Spence's God's Chinese Son, but then not many historical events were as big as the Taiping Rebellion.
Treason by the Book recounts an incident in which the emperor decided to deal with rumors about his government by a policy of "transparency." Government printers published an anthology of all the documents relating to the investigation of some rather naive conspirators, and the emperor made a great show of clemency. Meanwhile, he took the opportunity to suppress a whole literary tradition based on the writings of a Ming loyalist. (The loyalist's works, awkwardly enough, were standard texts for students preparing to take the civil service exams.)
We learn quite a bit about Manchu China from all this, down to the distribution list of the Capital Gazette, the imperial version of the Federal Register. However, Spence has managed to turn a bureaucratic case-study into a gripping mystery story. It is not giving away the ending to mention that one of the things we learn is how a legal system works that lacks the concept of double jeopardy.
 
* * *
We have more Fortean phenomena: this time it's a ghost ship, an abandoned commercial fishing boat off the west coast of Australia. In point of fact, since the vessel in question sailed through pirate-ridden waters and the crew was quite capable of deserting in any case, it would take a certain skill to make the incident into a great mystery. Arthur Canon Doyle himself had a hand in making the legend of the Marie Celeste, but where is his equal today?

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The Long View: God's Chinese Son

If you have ever wondered why the Chinese Communist Party was so harsh on Falun Gong, it was probably the memory of the Taiping Rebellion. That war is one of the deadliest in recorded history. Taking the low estimate, 20 million people were killed in China during the Taiping Rebellion. To put that in proportion, the low estimate for World War II is 40 million, in a world with about double the population. Except that was spread out over half the world instead of focused just in Southern China. Depending on the estimates, somewhere between 10-35% of the Chinese population was killed by famine, pestilence, or war.

I have often said that the twentieth century was a particularly horrible century, but there were hints of what was to come much earlier if only we had known what to look for. The Taiping Rebellion, like the American Civil War, was part of the dress rehearsal for the First and Second World Wars.

One significant difference with the wars of the twentieth century was the way in which the Taiping Rebellion was religiously motivated. Much like the contemporaneous Second Great Awakening in America, the Taiping Rebellion affected so many people because the religious movement underlying it was deeply popular. In a way, I think we no longer really know what a popular religious revival really looks like, and how drastically it can change society. Popularity in early twenty-first century America is something ephemeral: all the rage this week, and next week we all move on to something else. There are revolutionary movements, but they lack popular support. Imagine if the Occupy Wall Street movement had actually had the support of a broad swath of middle America, instead of mere toleration?

God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan
by Jonathan D. Spence
W.W. Norton & Company, 1996
400 pages, $27.50
ISBN 0-393-03844-0
 
The Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864 was a millenarian war in the literal sense of the term. Inspired and led by the visionary Hong Xiuquan, it was a campaign with the ultimate goal of establishing the Kingdom of Heaven everywhere on earth. It very nearly succeeded in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty, which had ruled China since 1644. It was the most devastating conflict of the nineteenth century. The figure usually given for the number of deaths is twenty million. Most of these were civilians who died of famine or pestilence caused by the back-and-forth struggle of Taiping and Imperial Chinese forces. A large percentage, however, were casualties of battles comparable in size to those of the contemporary Civil War in America. Millenarian insurrections have not been rare in human history, and the nineteenth century was particularly rich with them. Few if any, however, have matched the Taiping in size, sophistication and degree of success.
This account of the Taiping movement by Jonathan D. Spence, a Sterling Professor of History at Yale, is a rare delight. Spence is a veteran sinologist, notable for maintaining his critical integrity in a field traditionally marred by political kowtowing. The literature on the Taiping is understandably considerable, and a book on the subject could easily become distended into a general study of Chinese culture or of millenarian movements. Spence keeps close to the narrative history, giving just enough background information on Chinese (particularly southern Chinese) folk customs and religious beliefs to make the story comprehensible. The result is an account that is objective but sympathetic to the principal figures. The book is short on analysis and uses speculation only to cover inevitable gaps in the sources. All in all, this is a very good way to cover a large subject.
In outline, at least, the history of the Taiping resembles the history of the Third Reich in its melodramatic simplicity. A prophet of humble birth had a vision. After a time of confusion and war, he formed a little cult. At first obscure, the cult suddenly became a crusading army, the Kingdom of Heaven on the march. In a few years they seized the second city of the empire and continued to expand militarily even as they established the divine order on earth. The millennium turned out to be a nightmare, however, a totalitarian state racked by bloody purges. As his competent ministers died or fled, the prophet increasingly lost touch with reality. When he died, isolated in his palace during the final siege of his capital by the resurgent forces of the old order, the Kingdom of Heaven collapsed. In China and in Europe, the drama took just over half a generation to enact.
That is the outline. This is what actually happened.
In 1836, a twenty-two year old village school teacher, then named Hong Houxiu, came to Canton from his home about fifty miles to the northwest to take the provincial civil service examination. While there, he picked up some literature being distributed by an American missionary, including translations of some of the apocalyptic texts of the Bible. By his own account, he was not much interested at the time and did not give the material more than a glance until the summer of 1843. He took his exam and failed it, something not at all unusual the first time out. [David Nivison’s fascinating biography, “The Life and Thought of Chang Hsueh-ch’eng (1738-1801)” (1966) is in large measure the tale of a very intelligent man who spent half his life failing standardizd tests.] He came back next year for a second try and failed again. He took this failure rather harder. Indeed, he became so gravely ill that his death was expected. That was when he had his first visions.
The extent to which the Taiping movement can be considered a form of Christianity has vexed the study of the subject since rumor of the movement first emerged from Guangdong Province. The content of these first visions, at least as originally reported, is more consistent with the popular Chinese supernatural than with Christianity. Hong ascends to heaven, which is ruled by a venerable old man with a golden beard. The old man has a wife and eldest son. The King of Heaven seems little different from the Jade Emperor of traditional belief, who is actually a human being who had attained immortality thousands of years before. Hong is told that he himself is this figure’s second son, and that he must return to earth to fight the unspecified “demons.”
After his visions, Hong made a slow, somewhat alarming recovery. He spoke much of his place in the cosmic hierarchy and his mission on earth. He called himself, among other things, “Son of Heaven in the Age of Great Peace.” This age is the “Taiping,” literally “High Peace.” In Chinese historiography, it could be used to characterize either notable dynasties of the past or hoped-for periods in the future. [For a general study of the pursuit of paradise in Chinese history, see Wolfgang Bauer’s “China and the Search for Happiness: Recurring Themes in Four Thousand Years of Chinese History” (1976)] Hong changed his given names to Xiuquan, to emphasize the syllable “quan,” meaning “fullness.” The change also removed the syllable “huo,” meaning “fire,” which contradicted his surname, Hong, meaning “deluge.” This latter term is familiar from popular Taoism as a metaphor for revolutionary transformation. [Note, for instance, the title of Han Suyin’s fawning biography, “The Morning Deluge: Mao Tsetung and the Chinese Revolution 1893-1954” (1972).] Eventually Hong calmed down, however, returning to his duties as a teacher and householder. He even began studying to take the provincial examinations again.
The history of China in that era did not conduce to these peaceful pursuits. The Opium War between Great Britain and the Qing government began in 1839. When it ended in 1842, western access to Chinese ports was greatly expanded and the Chinese government was humiliated. The cities of the central Chinese coast were more affected by the war than was the more southerly Canton, whose magistrate contrived to maintain an uneasy truce with the British. Nevertheless, even in Hong Xiuquan’s backcountry village, people were aware that cities had been shelled and the armies of the central government defeated. The Qing Dynasty lost face not only because it lost the war, but because the Manchu rulers, suspicious of their Chinese subjects, undertook pacification campaigns to terrorize them into continued loyalty. Complicating things for Hong was the fact that he was a Hakka, a member of an ethnic group that had migrated from north-central China about 150 years before. While considered Chinese, they were still looked at askance by the people who had been in Guangdong before them, and tended to take the brunt of ethnic and economic hostility in difficult times.
The Taiping movement is perhaps evidence for Michael Barkun’s famous thesis in “Disaster and the Millennium” that millenarian movements tend to follow catastrophes, in part because the catastrophes make the end of the existing order of things more plausible. In any event, it was in this time of persecution, of wars and rumors of wars, that Hong got around to reading the tract he had brought back from Canton in 1836.
The tract in question consisted of translations by a Chinese convert named Liang Afa, a printer by trade, of selections from Genesis, Isaiah, Matthew’s Gospel and parts of the Book of Revelation. They were accompanied with commentaries by the author, not all of them distinguishable from the biblical text. Nevertheless, the tract gave Hong the key to understanding his vision. He understood that the King of Heaven in his vision was in reality God the Father, and that his eldest son was Jesus. Further, he understood that he was Jesus’s younger brother, with a mission of his own. He was to establish the “Kingdom of Heaven,” which had been translated by the term “Taiping.” (Literally, the “Heavenly Kingdom” is “tianguo,” a term Hong also used and which eventually eclipsed Taiping as the term for his regime.) He was to do as Jesus had done: preach and teach, and drive out demons. In the beginning, at least, Hong seems to have had no notion that his path would lead to civil insurrection.
Thus, Hong’s career as a prophet really began in 1843. He preached to the people of his own village, not without success, though it cost him his teaching job for a while. He went on a journey of evangelization into neighboring Guangxi province, where he gained adherents more well-to-do than his neighbors. He returned home as his disciples spread his word into the more remote parts of Guangxi while he devoted himself to writing. In 1847 he traveled to Canton and studied for a while under the irascible American missionary Issachar Roberts, who introduced him to more of the scriptures in translation. Returning home yet again to more unsettled conditions, he headed north and east to the Thistle Mountain region of Guangxi, a poor area with a large presence of Hakkas. Between 1847 and the year 1850, when the Taiping rebellion can be properly said to have begun, something remarkable happened.
Hong’s original society of “God-worshippers” was not a very alarming organization, either doctrinally or behaviorally. It had an original liturgy, including weekly “baptisms,” and scriptures consisting of Hong’s writings and excerpts from the Bible. It enjoined a rather Confucian morality with certain Christian additions. Its theology was monotheistic, but not platonically monotheistic. Hong always insisted on the literal corporeality of God, since his visions had been of a corporeal being. He also never accepted anything like the orthodox account of the Incarnation. In terms of Chinese metaphysics, in which form and substance were a familiar antimony, it would have been perfectly possible to sinicize the Christology of the Nicene Creed by saying that Jesus was the divine substance (qi) in human form (li). Hong’s Christian sources, however, either did not think to make this distinction or did not understand it themselves. Essentially, Hong replicated the Christology of the fourth century heresiarch Arius, who held that Jesus was simply the highest of created beings. Hong’s only innovation was in designating himself as the second highest created being. Only later, when Hong had installed himself as an alternative emperor, did he come into contact with theologically sophisticated missionaries. By then his ideas and his regime had hardened, and so he called on the missionaries to conform their theology to his. This attitude did not help his relationship with the European powers based on the coast, who would eventually cooperate with the Qing regime in bringing down the Heavenly Kingdom.
In some ways, Taiping history was like the development of a normally harmless bacterium that unexpectedly rages out of control in a weakened body. Law and order were breaking down in the already remote and loosely governed regions of Guangxi in which the group flourished. This was partly an effect of the Opium Wars. The British had made great progress toward driving the powerful pirate organizations from the South China Sea, with the unanticipated result that the pirates moved up the rivers and began to terrorize the interior. Also increasingly active were the Triad Societies. These had been formed in the eighteenth century by various malcontents. In part they were a native resistance to the Qing that hoped to reestablish the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which had preceded the Qing invaders. On a more practical level, they constituted a formidable system of protection rackets. In times of disorder, they tended to descend into mere banditry. In such a situation, Hong’s new converts were not the only group organizing itself for self defense. The decisive factor in turning the Taiping from a religious group to a rebellion may have been the fact they were among the targets when the forces of law and order attempted to reassert control.
The Taiping God-worshippers had originally obeyed the injunction to “fight the demons” by instituting a campaign to stamp out pagan cults. This began modestly enough by vandalizing small Buddhist and Taoist shrines. It was this sort of activity that first brought the Taiping to the unfavorable notice of local magistrates and gentry, who began to take limited measures to control the new cult. These progressed from admonitions and appearances in court to executions and coordinated attacks against Taiping villages. As Qing armies, present in the region primarily to fight the river pirates and the Triads, increasing played a role in attempting to suppress the Taiping, the Qing Dynasty soon became the chief manifestation of the demons who had to be fought. By the end of 1850, the Guangxi bases of the Taiping were surrounded and untenable, but the movement was growing and dynamic.
Persecution of this sort was just what they expected. The process of alienation, perhaps, was not altogether different from what happened when the Bureau of Alchohol, Tobacco and Firearms laid siege to the compound of the Branch Davidian cult at Waco, Texas, in 1993-94. The very fact of the enemy assault was proof that the time had come to establish the Kingdom of Heaven. Moving north along the rivers, not just an army set out to establish it, but a new millenarian nation.
To some extent, this new stage in Taiping development resembled the Long March of the Chinese Communists 90 years later. Both involved the movement of whole communities. Both were in part inspired by ideologies imported from the West and adapted to local conditions. The crucial difference is that, whereas the Long March was a strategic retreat in search of a wilderness base, the Taiping were moving from relative wilderness toward the centers of civilization. Also, the organization of the Taiping fighting forces, in contrast to those of the Communists, was based on armies described in the Chinese classics, as was the ministerial system of the government the Taiping later formed.
Less generically Chinese but more peculiarly Hakka was the role of women in Taiping society. The Hakka did not bind the feet of their women, for instance, and generally Hakka women had more autonomy than had been usual in China since the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Taiping expanded the role of women further. Women served in the army and civil service, always in their own units. Indeed, in the final stage of the Taiping state, Hong’s palace bureaucracy consisted almost entirely of women. This partial suspension of gender roles is often a feature of millenarian groups worldwide.
A related feature of Taiping discipline was the strict separation of the sexes. Except for Hong and his subordinate “kings,” strict celibacy, even between husband and wife, was supposed to be the rule until the Kingdom of Heaven was finally established. (In practice, the rule was relaxed as soon as the Taiping became more secure.) Much has been written about whether the endorsements of celibacy in the New Testament should be understood only as a provisional morality adopted by endtime communities. In the case of the Taiping, that is just what it was.
The Taiping gained in numbers and skill as they moved, becoming a formidable amphibious force. Some cities they bypassed and some they sacked. The decisive point in their strategic fortunes was their entry into the littoral of the Yangzi River. The forces of the Qing were bewildered and overwhelmed, and in the spring of 1853 Hong’s people took the great city of Nanjing. This became their capital, where they began to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
Heaven on earth, as it would be so often in the 20th century, was a kind of “war socialism.” Essentially, the organization of the army was transferred to civil life, so that land was distributed and communities organized pretty much the way the army was. Traditional Chinese models of the perfect society are almost wholly agrarian; other trades are regarded as essentially parasitic. Though not ignorant of the new economic institutions being established in the coastal cities, Taiping economic measures encouraged land reform and discouraged almost everything else. In Nanjing itself and the other cities that would be firmly under Taiping control for some years, normal market activity was more or less prohibited. Nevertheless, the initial entry of the Taiping into a new area was often welcomed by the peasants, since the local gentry would flee and their humbler neighbors could divide up the refugees’ goods and land.
Although the Taiping government was in principle structured according to the ancient “Rites of Zhou,” Hong’s real ministers were five “kings” he had appointed. Although his rule was based on visions, he did not have them regularly himself. For many years, he was willing to defer to those of his associates who did. Two of his kings issued frequent shamanistic pronouncements as “the Voice of Jesus” and “the Voice of God..” On the march north, the Voice of Jesus fell silent from a sniper’s bullet, an incident that inspired the Taiping to sack their first city. The Voice of God, however, Yang Xiuqing, continued to relay rather sound divine guidance until his murder in 1856. The problem was that, as a source of continuing revelation, his position was gradually eclipsing that of the Heavenly King Hong himself. The silencing of the Voice of God instituted a period of extremely bloody internal fighting among the Taiping, by the end of which Hong had managed to rid himself not just of Yang’s supporters but also of his assassins. The problem for the Taiping movement was that, in large measure, he had also succeeded in ridding himself of any key official who was not an idiot.
After taking Nanjing, the Taiping for several years made thrusts to the south and north, but without a clear strategy. Their attempt to take Peking, for instance, actually reached the suburbs of the city. It then petered out for lack of reinforcement, and their army was annihilated. Perhaps the strangest thing about this strange period was the survival of the Qing Dynasty. The Taiping Rebellion was the largest of their problems, but not the only one. There was another popular revolt, of the Nian, going on in eastern China at the same time. Moreover, in the late 1850s the Qing government somehow contrived to fall into hostilities with the Western powers again. In 1860, an Anglo-French force actually took Peking.
The dynasty survived because of the resilience of local institutions, particularly in central and southern China. Where imperial armies were not available, local gentry would raise their own. Local initaitive of this type prevented the Taiping from making any permanent gains when they again turned their attention to their own southern homeland, and helped to raise the forces that would ultimately destroy them.
The Qing government was corrupt, cruel and obviously doomed. [As John King Fairbanks notes in his “China: A New History” (1992), the morphology of the Chinese dynastic cycle is quite real, an effect he was inclined to attribute to autohypnosis.] Such dynasties in the past had often been overturned by insurgents intent on reestablishing Confucian virtue. These insurgencies might be led by men of little education. It was normal for such movements to contain some millenarian elements. [See, for instance, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s remarks in his “Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years,” on the role of that Chinese perennial, the White Lotus Society, in the popular movement that established the Ming Dynasty.] Popular insurgents could end an incumbent dynasty and establish their own if they won over the educated gentry by manifesting the intent to reform government along traditional lines. This was precisely what the Taiping could not promise to do.
Hong had originally been merely critical of Confucian ideas in certain details. By the time the Taiping were on the march, however, he had denounced the whole Confucian canon as demonic, despite the fact his system of government was informed by his own classical education in that canon. For the local people who made traditional China work to accept the legitimacy of Hong’s dynasty, they would have had needed to jettison everything they had ever thought of as good and true. Indeed, they would have had to reject the theory of government on which their notion of legitimacy rested. A more traditional Taiping movement might have rallied all of China against the alien Manchu government. As it was, their influence extended no further than their armies, and their armies increasingly lived by pillage.
One of the ways in which the Taiping were thoroughly traditional was also one of the things that doomed them. The principle leaders of the Taiping movement, including Hong himself, had actually had a fair amount to do with European missionaries and merchants. They could distinguish one kind of foreigner from another, for instance, which was sometimes more than the Qing government could do. The foreigners in Shanghai at the mouth of the Yangzi were anxious to learn more about this new movement as soon as it established itself in Nanjing. The notion of a Christian empire in the heart of Asia was, after all, redolent of the legendary Kingdom of Prester John. Hopes were raised for the rapid evangelization of China. As it was, the French and British and Americans who made the trip up the Yangzi found a government anxious for their aid but willing to treat with them only as vassals. The notion of diplomatic equality has been a rare one in Chinese history, something resorted to only by regimes in extremis. The Taiping did not regard themselves as weak. Indeed, they may have regarded themselves as the end of history.
Negotiations did not go well. They were not aided by the campaign of one of Hong’s more enterprising generals to strike east and achieve direct communication with Shanghai. When the Taiping actually attempted to take the Chinese portions of the city in 1860, the Europeans began to fight them. Having achieved a new round of concessions from the Qing, the Europeans became their open allies. The most famous manifestation of this alliance was the “Ever Victorious Army” led by the British commander Charles Stuart Gordon. [It is interesting to note that this strange man was destined to die twenty years later at the hands of another and more successful millenarian revolt, the Mahdi’s jihad in the Sudan. For an account of the Mahdi and Gordon’s unhappy end, see Thomas Packenham’s “The Scramble for Africa” (1991).] The French, not to be outdone, supplied their own “Ever Triumphant Army,” which unlike Gordon’s force was still in the war when the Heavenly Kingdom was finally put down in 1864.
Nanjing in the final years of the regime was becoming a deserted city. Ordinary economic life had never been permitted by the Taiping within its walls, though small markets had flourished outside. However, as Qing armies and local militias moved through its hinterland, the provision of the city became more and more precarious. When the city was finally besieged, Hong was asked what the people should do in the emergency. On the basis of the Book of Exodus, he advised them to eat manna. This he interpreted to mean stray weeds that grew in the streets and waste places of the city. He began to eat this diet himself. Whether for that reason or for some another, he died on June 1, 1864. Although large Taiping forces still fought in the south, they had been unable to beak the siege. On July 19, Qing forces blasted a breach in the wall of the capital of the Heavenly Kingdom and began unsystematically putting the population to the sword. A few weeks later, Hong’s son and heir apparent, who had contrived to escape the sack of the city and make his way back to Guangxi, was captured, tried and executed.
The Taiping movement thus did not end the Qing Dynasty. Indeed, the regime entered a period of macabre “reform” that did not end until its final overthrow in 1911. However, perhaps the matter is not so simple. In all of Chinese history, the Taiping movement most closely resembles the Yellow Turban rebellion, which began in 184. Another millenarian outbreak but of purely Taoist inspiration, it aimed at overthrowing the Latter Han Dynasty, the political regime that capped Chinese antiquity in much the way that the later Roman Empire capped the antiquity of the ancient Mediterranean. Like the Taiping, the Yellow Turbans were put down. However, as was also the case with the Taiping, the regime they attacked came to an end a few decades later with the abdication of the last Han emperor in 220. A Dark Age followed. So, if you will, whereas the Yellow Turbans were a harbinger of the end of the ancient phase of Chinese history, the Taiping were a warning that the “modern” phase of the same civilization did not have long to run. What has been happening in China since then is, no doubt, part of another story.
No historically-informed American can read about the Taiping episode without a sense of the uncanny way it resonated with developments in America during the same period. The missionaries who gave tracts to Hong in the 1830s and taught him in Canton in the 1840s were moved by the fires of the contemporary Second Great Awakening in America. This strange movement of the spirit, comparable in some ways to the 1960s, would spawn the women’s suffrage and antislavery movements. It featured the Millerite Movement that so powerfully convulsed western New York State in the 1840s with the expectation of the imminent Second Coming. It sent the persecuted Mormons on a migration to found their own divinely-ordered country in the western desert of North America at roughly the same time that the Taiping were fighting to establish theirs on a crusade through central China. (Salt Lake City was founded in 1847). In the opinion of many historians, it was one of the underlying predispositions to the American Civil War itself, a conflict that from first to last had apocalyptic overtones for its participants.
Naturally, this is not to suggest that the Second Great Awakening caused the Taiping Rebellion. It is hard to think of more peculiarly American phenomena than the Awakenings, phenomena dependent for their gestation on local culture and history. [For an assessment of the role of the Awakenings in American history, see William Strauss and Neil Howe’s “Generations” (1991).] Still, we are presentd here with the sort of cross-cultural parallel that makes it hard to explain history as the determinsitic outcome of concrete conditions. Rather, as in cases of “parallel evolution” in biology, we seem to be dealing with a kind of accident that actively seeks for places to happen.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: From Dawn to Decadence

Jacques Barzun's masterwork is an intellectual roadmap to the Western mind, although its structure is not systematic. Rather, Barzun simply writes about the people and things he found interesting. Since he had a very broad and capacious mind, this amounts to just about everything of importance, but from sometimes unusual points of view. Barzun is famous for saying that Western Civilization has entered a period of decadence, but he used this as a technical term. He meant that the great burst of energy that started the Renaissance has dissipated, and now our civilization wants the same things we have wanted for the past 500 years, but are no longer willing to do the things that are necessary to achieve those things. Decadence means willing the ends but not the means, and in and of itself is not a moral judgment. Barzun's own thesis has now become one of the intellectual superstitions he worked to demolish.

Barzun's massive intellectual history is one of the great syntheses to appear in English the late twentieth century, this despite the fact that Barzun was born in France. A similar work of lesser scope is Paul Johnson's Modern Times. Earlier examples include Willem Van Loon's The Story of Mankind and Fletcher Pratt's Battles that Changed History. These are the works that you should read if you want to understand the grand sweep of history in the West over the last 500 years.

Another similar work that I cannot recommend is  Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. This book was recommended to me by my high school American history teacher. I started to read the book, and near the beginning, Zinn claimed that during the Revolutionary War, the rate of illegitimate childbirth was similar to what you saw after the failure of The War on Poverty in the 1960s. This seemed deeply wrong to me, but I didn't know the reason why until fifteen years later. Until the Civil War freed them, the children of slaves were counted as illegitimate, no matter what the actual status or intentions of their parents were. Every single birth to a black slave woman could be considered a bastard in law. Thus, Zinn's statement was accurate, in a legally defensible way, and also completely misleading. At the time, I was suspicious, but I had no proper basis for criticism. It just seemed wrong somehow. Zinn's book has long been popular, but other historians seem not to have respected his work. Now that I know the truth, I find that I am far more sympathetic to those who claim they have been wronged, without the ability to articulate the wrong. History is not written by the winners, it is written by the articulate.

In total honesty, I tried to pick up From Dawn to Decadence once, and failed, but I intend to attempt this book again. There have been eight years since my last attempt, so I think I may be more prepared this time. I suspect this book is worth the effort because both John and Jerry Pournelle have recommended it. In general, I have found their recommendations trustworthy.



From Dawn to Decadence:
500 Years of Western Cultural Life
(1500 to the Present)
by Jacques Barzun
HarperCollins, 2000
877 Pages, US$36.00
ISBN 0-06-017586-9


"From Dawn to Decadence" is one of those wonderful books that cannot be categorized. Some reviewers have compared it to "The Education of Henry Adams," the great intellectual autobiography that seemed to sum up the last fin-de-siecle. The comparison does no injustice to either work, but it would be entirely apt only if Henry Adams had lived to be 500. Jacques Barzun was born in 1907, and so has lived through a remarkably large slice of the period he covers, but even he did not know Descartes personally. Nonetheless, in some ways "From Dawn to Decadence" reads less like a history than it does like a personal memoir, with people and topics selected chiefly because the author is interested in them. The effect is delightful, though sometimes a little disorienting. Perhaps the one thing you can say for sure about "From Dawn to Decadence" is that it provides the most cheerful explanation you are ever likely to get for why Western culture is ending.
Jacques Barzun really needs no introduction. Anyone interested in William James, the great Romantic composers, the role of race in historical writing or a dozen other subjects has already encountered him somewhere. (A book he co-authored with Henry Graff, "The Modern Researcher," sticks in my mind after 25 years as a philosophy of historiography disguised as a reference guide.) In "From Dawn to Decadence," he manages to touch on just about all his life-long interests, and without turning the book into a mere anthology.
The format is loosely chronological, with the great era of the post-medieval, "modern" West divided into several lesser ages. The whole text is broken up into digestible chunks of commentary and biography. We get assessments, sometimes quite idiosyncratic ones, of almost all the great names of the modern era, but many of the biographies are of persons the author deems worthy-but-obscure. Some of these subjects really are virtually forgotten, such as the ingenious 18th-century polymath, Dr. Georg Lichtenberg. Others are just a bit neglected, such as the senior Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Barzun manages to praise this physician and essayist while barely mentioning the senior Holmes's jurist son.) A particularly entertaining feature of the book is the brief, apt quotations set into the margins. Had it not been for "From Dawn to Decadence," I would never have known that Thursday was bear-baiting day at the court of Elizabeth I.
The format of "From Dawn to Decadence" does have its drawbacks, notably the minimal amount of political and military narrative. In fact, the author routinely makes unexplained allusions to people and events that may no longer be common knowledge. (Do undergraduates today know what Stanley said to Livingston? I'm afraid to ask.) And then there are the fact-checking lapses inevitable in a work of this scope. These will allow readers to entertain themselves by looking for mistakes. More than one reviewer has noted that modern calculus does not use Newton's notation, as Barzun says, but that of Leibniz. However, this review may be the only place you will read that those long-range shells the Germans fired at Paris (and Barzun) during the First World War did not come from Big Berthas, but from Krupp's Pariskanone.
Parlor games aside, the author corrects errors that are far more important than the ones he makes. He points out, for instance, that, no, M. Jourdain did not speak prose, and that Moliere knew this as well as anyone. He reminds us that it is anachronistic to suppose that Galileo was tried because the Inquisition believed the Copernican model threatened man's place in the universe. With a note of exasperation, he observes that Rousseau's works can not be made to say that Rousseau was a revolutionary who wished mankind to return to a state of nature. Intellectual superstitions of this sort are probably immortal, but it is a good idea to try to correct them at least once every 500 years.
While a book as genial as this one can hardly be accused of promoting anything as crudely Germanic as a theory of history, nonetheless it does outline a general shape for the last half-millennium. According to Barzun, the West has been working out a cultural impulse that it received in the Renaissance, an impulse that had become exhausted by the end of the 20th century. This impulse was not an ideology or an agenda, but an expandable list of desires. Particular forms of them can be detected throughout all the cultural and political controversies of the great era. The names of these desires are helpfully capitalized wherever they are mentioned, so that EMANCIPATION is graphically shown to play a role in every major controversy from the Reformation to the woman's suffrage movement. Another example is PRIMITIVISM, the perennial impulse to return to the original text, to the early constitution, to the uncluttered state of the beginning. Other trends of the modern era have been informed by the desires for ABSTRACTION, REDUCTIVISM and SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS. Ideas like these can hardly be said to have been the motor of Western history, but looking for their various incarnations over the centuries does make it much easier to view the era as a whole.
Barzun laconically informs us that late medieval Europe was a "decadent" society. I myself had thought that Richard Gilman had permanently retired that word with his study "Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet," but Barzun may persuade readers that "decadence" is neither a moral category nor a bit of implicit vitalism. Rather, Barzun says, the term "decadent" may properly be used of any social situation that is blocked, where people entertain goals for which they will not tolerate the means. Decadent societies tend to become labyrinthine in both their cultures and their styles of government, as people create small accommodations within a larger, admittedly unsatisfactory context. Decadent periods can be sweet, as Talleyrand remarked of pre-Revolutionary France, but partly because they are obviously ephemeral.
Decadence may end in the explosion of a revolution. Barzun narrows the meaning of this over-worked term, by defining it as the violent transfer of power and property in the name of an idea. Revolutions are great simplifiers that pave over the labyrinths and open up possibilities that were unimaginable just a few years previous. There have been four of these revolutions during the modern era, each more or less defining an age. There was the religious revolution of the Reformation, which first stated themes that would recur through the rest of the era. There was the monarch's revolution of the 17th century, in which the aristocracy was tamed and large, centralized states began to appear. The monarchs, of course, got their comeuppance in the liberal revolution at the end of the 18th century. Most recently, every throne, power and dominion was shaken by the social revolution at the beginning of the 20th.
Barzun seems to believe that the twentieth century was so traumatized by the First World War that it was never able to fully exploit the positive possibilities in what he calls the "Cubist Decade" that preceded the war's outbreak. Rather, the Age of Modernism (not to be confused with the modern era) largely confined itself to analysis and destruction. Thanks to the First World War, the more distant past became unusable: the sense of living in a completely new age left the past nothing to say. No restraints remained on the expression of the desires that had characterized the whole modern era. The result was that, by century's end, the chief remaining impulses in Western culture had developed to a theoretical maximum. So ends an age.
This conclusion would be depressing, if it were not so obviously where we came in. Barzun notes that, at the end of the fifteen century, some people held that the sixth millennium of the world was about to end, and history along with it. As is often the case with this kind of sentiment, the people who shared it were on to something, if the end of history is taken to mean the end of history as they knew it. Barzun ends the book on a note of hopeful speculation. He looks back from a more distant time on our immediate future, which he supposes will be an age when history will wholly disappear even from the minds of the educated. Indeed, so completely will the modern age be forgotten that its rediscovery will have an impact quite as revolutionary as the impact that classical culture had on the late medieval world. The result, Barzun hopes, will be another renaissance, when the young and talented will again exclaim what a joy it is to be alive.
Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly
This review originally appeared in the November 2000 issue of First Things.

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The Long View 2003-01-09: The Imperial Gazette Speaks

While criticism of the Iraq war is now commonplace, still only cranks seriously contest the way the United States conducts its global business in any systematic way. Everyone simply assumes this is the way it has to be, and most of the arguing is about who is going to be in charge and what goals they should be pursuing. I think this speaks to John's vision of the world as being largely correct: we really are approaching the point where some kind of universal state will again emerge, and right now the United States is acting as the executive of that embryonic state.

The Imperial Gazette Speaks
 
No doubt The New York Times thought that it was being very provocative when it ran that cover story, American Empire (Get Used to It), in its Sunday magazine on January 5. Written by Michael Ignatieff of the Kennedy School of Government, the article (which is actually titled "The Burden") makes the argument that the United States is already running a global empire, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. There are two points about the piece that bear mentioning.
The first is how little fundamental criticism it occasioned. Although some people did take issue stridently with Ignatieff's ideas about the Israeli-Palestinian issue (which are in fact a little flaky), I have yet to see much comment to the effect that the US lacks the capacities Ignatieff claims. There has also, so far, been a dearth of serious moral arguments against global empire. Indeed, such discussion as there has been simply presents shades of opinion in favor of it. The extreme wings of apologetics for empire are represented by Robert Kaplan, a Realpolitiker, and Peter Singer, a liberal the bleeding from whose heart could not be staunched by Senator Frist himself. (Singer might deny that what he is advocating is an empire. Hah.)
The most interesting thing about The New York Times piece, however, was Ignatieff's ignorance of the typology of empires. What is happening to the world now is not like the imperialist rivalries of the 18th and 19th centuries. To the extent there is an American Empire, it is not of the same type as the British Empire. The American Empire (and the tag "American" may not stay with it permanently) is the early stage of what Toynbee called a "Universal State." Put briefly, a Universal State is the final condition of an international system. Universal states are assembled by hegemons, but are made possible by exhaustion. Essentially, sovereignty becomes too much trouble, so the members of the system cede most of it to an imperial center, which soon loses its national character.
Samuel Huntington made use of the concept in The Clash of Civilizations, though he was inclined to think that the Universal State of the West would not be global. I also ran across the use of the concept in a planning paper for the Canadian military. On the whole, though, there seems to be little appreciation, even among the advocates of global empire, for just how different a Universal State is from the empires in the earlier stages of a civilization's history. They are, for instance, much longer lived: generally about 500 years. Why? Because they are legitimate. Alexander's empire rested solely on force, so it shattered at his death. The Roman Empire, in contrast, lasted through crisis after crisis. It lasted because it represented universal justice, however imperfectly. This is the one valuable point in Empire, the otherwise execrable book by Hardt & Negri.
 
* * *
Two minor points:
The comparison between the United States and Rome has always been overdone. In some ways, the West today looks less like the late Hellenistic world than it looks like the late Era of Contending States in Chinese history. The faceoff between the US and the EU bears comparison to the conflict between the states of Qin and Qi: the argument is about legitimacy. Of course, in other ways the present situation is unique, and for the better. The West is actually more adept than other societies at substituting veiled threats and peaceful competition for actual war.
Finally, if the concept of a Universal State does regain the currency it had in the 1950s, this time there will be some confusion with this quite different usuage:
 
Definition: A state in an alternating Turing machine from which the machine accepts only if all possible moves lead to acceptance.
You read it first here.
 
* * *
Unlike some bloggers whose URLs I will not mention, I try not to flack reflexively for the Bush Administration. Nonetheless, I must register a protest against the made-for-television movie, The Crooked E, which appeared on CBS on Sunday. The screenwriters' attempt to identify the Bush Administration with the shady practices of the spectacularly failed Enron Corporation is a new low in media partisanship for the Democrats.
The book on which the program was supposed to be based suggested that Enron had had too much influence over both the Clinton and Bush II Administrations. In the movie, all the references to the Clintons were deleted. In fact, the whole decade of the 1990s was deleted. The movie starts with the founders of Enron at a barbecue in Texas, clacking their mandibles in glee over the deregulation of the energy market by the Reagan Administration. The story then jumps to 2001. A junior executive, who had been present at that barbecue as a boy, is starting work at Enron. We are never actually told just what business Enron was in. The exposition gives the impression that Enron mostly sold insurance to manufacturers of poisoned food. There is a reference to some member of the Bush Administration every five minutes
This is not to say that the producers were incapable of subtlety. The actor who played the junior executive (Christian Kane, I think) is a graduate of the WB network's camp-supernatural industry. In the series Angel, he played a junior attorney at a law firm that catered to the well-to-do damned. He had pretty much the same job at Enron.
 
* * *
Speaking of the damned, reports of uncanny events continue to surface, despite the efforts of well-meaning authorities to suppress them. First it was raining fish. Then it was spider webs. Now it's dragon's breath. Where will it all end?

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The Long View: The Ethics of Globalization by Peter Singer

It is a bit of an understatement to say that Peter Singer isn't one of my favorite philosophers. I do have to give the man credit for rigorous intellectual consistency however. He pursues the implications of his positions with single-minded determination. And since his starting points are largely those of the guiding spirit of the age, events keep catching up with his formerly extreme positions as the inevitable logic of those premises win out over ordinary human hypocrisy and moral squeamishness.

John's interest in reviewing this book stems from his interest in Universal States, polities like the Roman Empire and Han China, that occupy the ground state of the system of nations, a condition the world falls into when the energy to maintain a different system is no longer available.

Since we are nearing the time when this state of affairs is likely to occur again, it is worth looking back into history to see what happened before. There have been at least two bursts of cosmopolitanism in the West in the last two thousand years. People ask the same kinds of question in each such age. It is worth at least looking to see what they came up with.Unfortunately, it seems that is exactly what Singer did not do.

One of the most interesting sections here is John's critique of Singer's attempt to apply Rawlsian fairness in a truly global, universal fashion. It is worth re-quoting the argument in full:

In support of this proposition, Singer deploys some of those fables of utilitarian calculus that have become his trademark. They run like this: You are walking across a park on your way to deliver the prestigious Acme Lecture on Fine Ideas, when you see a small child fall into a well. There is no one else around to help. Do you rescue the child, even though that might make you miss the lecture, or would you continue punctually on your way to further burnish your academic career? (Well, would you? Would you?) Singer insists that people in developed countries are in exactly the same relationship to starving children in developing countries as the Acme lecturer was to the child down the well. Just as he could have turned aside, at real but bearable cost to himself, to save that child, so people in rich countries should sacrifice the luxurious excess of their standard of living in order to end hunger and disease in developing countries.

There is something to be said for this. In the last fifteen years, this argument has if anything gotten more popular. I suspect this argument wouldn't have near as much force in the Western mind if it weren't a retelling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, but dressing it up as modern philosophy allows us moderns to feel good about being moved by this example.

Unfortunately, the analogy to the people who do need help in the world is imperfect. If we were to extend the analogy a bit, what we see in most places of the world that need help is that the park is a sovereign nation, and the people of the park elected a man who turned into a tyrant, and he tossed the child down the well because the child's father was an opposition leader. And when we ship food to the park, the leader gives it to his cronies and lets the rest starve. We can send in a punitive expedition to kill the leader, but if we leave someone similar just takes his place. If we stay and try to impose some kind of good government, some fraction of the locals inevitably hate us and push back violently.

Not as pithy, but closer to the truth. There is something of this lurking in the background of Singer's argument, because he isn't an advocate of national sovereignty when it leads to human rights abuses. The really strange thing is that something like Singer's argument is exactly what led us to intervene in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 under W. I don't think anyone would plausibly consider Singer and George W. Bush to be intellectual bedfellows, but on this issue they are.

What I find so fascinating about John's support for the Iraq War is that many of his own arguments told against him. The argument John marshals here against Singer is that there is a countervailing principle of moral philosophy to the duty to help another human in distress: one should mind one's own business. To treat another human being as having moral agency is to respect the choices they make for themself, or themselves, even if it is objectively a mistake. This principle is buttressed by ordinary human ignorance. Usually, we lack appropriate knowledge to meddle in other's affairs in a helpful way.

As I keep pointing out, the giant mess the United States has made out of Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya and Egypt and Ukraine ought to be sufficient to remind us there really are lesser evils.

One World:
The Ethics of Globalization
By Peter Singer
Yale University Press, 2002
235 Pages, $21.95
ISBN 0-300-09686-0
Readers will be shocked to learn that “A Theory of Justice,” John Rawls's immensely influential general theory of ethics, has nothing to say about the rights and duties of individuals outside their own societies. In “One World,” the noted ethicist Peter Singer tries to close this global deficit. According to Singer: “The twentieth century's conquest of space made it possible for a human being to look at our planet from a point not on it, and so to see it, literally, as one world. Now the twenty-first century faces the task of developing a suitable form of government for that single world.”
There are in fact good reasons to believe that the world is moving toward the condition that Toynbee called a “universal state.” This prospect does raise ethical questions, both about whether people of good will should support the process, and about how such a state should be governed if it does arise. Singer's historyless treatment of the subject manages to miss most of the real issues. It does, however, suggest some principles that could turn the later 21st century into a planetary nightmare.
“One World” began as the Dwight Harrington Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy, which Singer delivered at Yale in November 2000. The topical justification for the book seems originally to have been the great anti-globalization demonstrations that began with “The Battle in Seattle” in December 1999, when a meeting of the World Trade Organization was met with protest and riot. The book has four themes: One Atmosphere (concerning the environment, especially global warming); One Economy (free trade, especially the operation of the World Trade Organization); One Law (chiefly the duty of humanitarian intervention); and One Community (how foreign aid relates to the general duty to relieve the condition of the poor).
The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon intervened during the lectures' transition to book form. The author's attempts to accommodate the new situation suggest a determination not to be distracted from his pet ideas. The One Atmosphere section begins with a grotesque comparison between the attack on the World Trade Center and the probable effects of emissions from SUVs. Singer asserts that, although the attack was spectacular, the emissions will result in global warming that will kill far more people. Both, he tells us, are examples of areas that require global governance, but global warming is clearly closer to his heart. “One World” is, to a large extent, just another instance of the relentless moralization of environmental issues.
Why should this be? Regarding global warming in particular, I suspect it's because the phenomenon makes such a wonderful unifying principle. Almost all economic activities have some implications for greenhouse-gas emissions. Economic growth, of course, is easily linked to issues like population control, which has a bearing on the global distribution of wealth.
The whole exercise is rather like a game we used to play in college: “What does that have to do with the price of milk?” The idea was to show how anything at all could be shown to have some bearing on that question. Consider, for instance, the surface temperature of Mars. That is obviously related to solar output, which is related to the weather on Earth, which is related to the price of cattle feed, which is obviously related to the price of milk. QED
Similarly, global warming can be used to show that just about anything people do or say has a global ethical dimension. I am inclined to think that global warming is a real phenomenon, and that emissions of greenhouse-gases occasioned by human activity are an important contributing factor. I also know that the projections of how global warming will affect human life in the coming decades are too speculative to take seriously. Global warming is not the key to a master philosophy.
Regarding the world's One Economy, Singer is not much distressed by the prospect that the World Trade Organization might undermine national sovereignty. What disturbs him is that the WTO does not use its position as an international gatekeeper to impose universal environmental and labor standards. The WTO's charter does in fact allow a member state to discriminate against goods that are produced in ways that violate the state's policies in these matters, but the WTO regards such claims skeptically. There is good reason for this. Domestic producers often use environmental and labor arguments to suppress competition, and the same devices are easily deployed against foreign trading partners. Singer, nonetheless, criticizes the World Trade Organization for leaving most environmental and labor standard issues to be settled in other forums.
The WTO was in fact designed to deal strictly with trade issues. The idea was to allay the fears of critics that the WTO would otherwise become too powerful. Good intentions rarely go unpunished.
The section that deals with One Law has the most to say about the mechanisms of global governance (or, to put it bluntly, world government). The occasion for these reflections is the need to ensure that national governments are not allowed to inflict gross and systematic human-rights abuses on their subjects. Singer maintains, plausibly enough, that humanitarian interventions against criminal governments are a duty of the international community, even if that means modifying or dispensing with the principle of state sovereignty.
The idea that sovereignty needs to be limited is scarcely new, and in fact the principle of sovereignty has been in decline since about 1900. A thought that never occurs to Singer is just why the international institutions created to replace it have so often made things worse. It is pretty clear, for example, that the collective security regime of the League of Nations inhibited the ordinary Great Power diplomacy that might have prevented the Second World War. More recently, we know that the spread of weapons of mass destruction has occurred largely under the cover of ineffective international inspection. As for military interventions to prevent massacre, they generally occur when the United States, and more rarely other states, can be shamed into using their own forces to take action. Never one to be deterred by reality, Singer wants the veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council to be eliminated. It is hard to see why any power would maintain a usable military establishment if the power lost control of it to an international body. He does suggest that a truly global military should undertake duties of this sort, but he does not explain why an international army would work better than other international institutions.
In this as in other contexts, Singer has nothing but bile for the United States. How dare the US insist that its nationals be excluded from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court? How dare the US insist on the maintenance of the Security Council veto? Such things are simply instances of might rather than right, Singer insists.
Well, no. In the international system as it has actually evolved, the US performs many of the functions of an executive. In many ways, the US at the beginning of the 21st century was less like a sovereign state and more like an international utility. It would be odd if the US did not have special “constitutional” status.
In the section on One Community, Singer attempts to expand Rawls's ethics to fit the globe. Rawls did treat international relations in “The Law of Peoples,” of course, but Singer quarrels even with the title. By Singer's account, it is a violation of Rawls's principles to allow nation states to play any analytical role in our ethical calculations of what we owe to others.
John Rawls famously laid it down that “fairness” for a society would consist of those rules we would choose “in the original condition,” before we knew what position luck would give us. Thus, for instance, we would choose that the handicapped be cared for, since we might belong to that group ourselves. According to Rawls, we would be more interested in preventing possible misery than in ensuring that we could enjoy the maximum possible luxury, so we would want a political and economic system that promoted the redistribution of wealth.
Rawls did not apply these principles between societies. Societies, and particularly states, owe each other duties and should live in a law-governed way. However, in his scheme of things, individuals in one society just do not have the same obligations to people in other societies that they have to people in their own. Singer will have none of this. For him, which society you are going to belong to is one of those things you don't know in the “original condition.” Surely you would want a reasonable standard of living wherever you happened to be born in the world? Thus, fairness requires that we value those near to us and those far from us in the same way. Inequalities of wealth between different parts of the world are therefore intolerable.
In support of this proposition, Singer deploys some of those fables of utilitarian calculus that have become his trademark. They run like this: You are walking across a park on your way to deliver the prestigious Acme Lecture on Fine Ideas, when you see a small child fall into a well. There is no one else around to help. Do you rescue the child, even though that might make you miss the lecture, or would you continue punctually on your way to further burnish your academic career? (Well, would you? Would you?) Singer insists that people in developed countries are in exactly the same relationship to starving children in developing countries as the Acme lecturer was to the child down the well. Just as he could have turned aside, at real but bearable cost to himself, to save that child, so people in rich countries should sacrifice the luxurious excess of their standard of living in order to end hunger and disease in developing countries.
Singer is willing to allow some scope to the principle of “partiality.” It is not irrational or unjust for us to take special care of friends and family, he will allow. Friendship and family rank among the great goods of life. However, these considerations do not affect the general principle that we owe a duty of aid to everybody. Now that technological advance has made it possible to carry out that duty, we are morally obligated to create the global political institutions that can do so.
Let me suggest that there is a fundamental ethical imperative to mind your own business. To some degree, simple respect for the moral agency of others requires that you let them make their own mistakes. Just as important, though, is the fact that other people know more about their affairs than you do. Despite his long list of occasions when humanitarian intervention was justified, Singer never quite comes to grips with the fact that the direst poverty in the world is not caused by a lack of foreign assistance, but by the crooks who run the local government. The simple transfusion of goods and foodstuffs from one society to another can make things worse. There is a literature about how food aid has destroyed local agriculture in some instances.
Singer is willing to allow that his global ethics does not answer the many prudential questions that arise whenever we design a given aid program. His chief concern is to establish the principle that some aid is always owing, and only special circumstances may excuse us from not rendering it in a particular instance. The fact is, though, that equally compelling principles tell us something else: first, do no harm.
“One World” does not purport to describe a full system of global ethics. Nonetheless, it does suggest many ideas that are systemically significant, though not perhaps for the reasons the author imagines.
For instance, the willingness of philosophers to use a speculative rhetorical device like global warming illustrates a characteristic failure of modern philosophy. Writing in “First Things” (February 1994), Paul Zaleski describes a little test he sometimes gives his students. He asks them to rank an odd assortment of things, such as “mouse,” “bag,” “man,” “angel,” “the sun,” “crab,” “the Taj Mahal,” “the Idea of the Good,” and so on. From a traditional metaphysical perspective, the top of such a list might be “the Idea of the Good,” or possibly “man.” His students, however, for the most part head the list with “the sun,” apparently on the principle that solar energy makes all the other items possible. Philosophical treatments of environmentalism often reason the same way. The mere size of the biosphere seems to be a sufficient substitute for metaphysical priority.
Perhaps more seriously, Singer has fits of evolutionary psychology. He tells us that there may well be a human predilection to genocide, inculcated in us by evolution. He also tells us that, just because there is some common human impulse to do something, the predilection cannot be adduced as a "reason” in an ethical argument. Thus, though we may have a natural tendency to favor our blood relatives, that is not a justification for doing so. The only ethics we need take seriously are those based on “reciprocity,” on some version of the principle that we should do to others what would want them to do to us.
This doesn't really work. No doubt, in the hypothetical pre-natal state envisioned by Rawls, we would make rules to assign goods on a reciprocal basis. However, the source for those goods will be intuitions and impulses, which Singer assumes arise from evolutionary history. Some ethical systems have criteria for judging nature, but Singer's does not appear to be one of them. Judging from “One World,” at least, it is not clear why the “findings” of evolutionary psychology could not be used as the desiderata for Rawls's utilitarian calculus. Such a philosophy could become a real global menace.
Singer also has his Marxist moments. He has the odd idea that the issues he raises are entirely new, and are simply the ideological consequences of new technology. He seems quite unaware that the political theory and personal ethics of the Middle Ages was “international” to a degree that the modern world has not yet recovered.
Happily, there are other paths to a global ethics. Reflection about “cosmopolis,” or “All under Heaven,” is as old as philosophy. This is not a subject where we need to start from the “original position.”
 
 
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

 

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The Long View: Perverse Predictions

On the other hand, here are some predictions John got eerily right. John wrote this post at the beginning of W's presidency, but he could have just as easily been describing President Obama.

Perverse Predictions: You can read about the future here; just try to look surprised when it happens.
======================================
The notorious journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, had this pithy advice just after the Murphy's Law Election: "Get familiar with Cannibalism." Mr. Thompson's views were predictably extreme, especially the part about roving "gangs of organized Perverts." Nonetheless, his analysis does reflect a widespread concern about the ability of the new president and congress to function.
These worries preceded the election. David E. Sanger's essay, "Who Needs the Next Four Years?" (The New York Times, November 5), argued that the political process has been encouraging the American people to live in fantasy land. According to Mr. Sanger, "Even the optimist-in-chief, Bill Clinton, has remarked to his staff about the huge gulf between what the candidates have been talking about (prescription drugs, tax cuts, secure retirement) and the kind of issues consuming him in his last days in office (terror attacks, a Middle East blowup, Balkan hatreds)." In other words, it's nice if the president cares about primary school education, but it has little to do with his job.
Columnist Peggy Noonan had this to say about what that job will be in the next four years: "Half the foreign and defense policy establishment fears, legitimately, that the Big Terrible Thing is coming, whether in India-Pakistan, or in Asia or in lower Manhattan."
Unfortunately, according to David Brooks (The Weekly Standard, November 20), "[t]his country is tied." He points out that not only was the presidential race essentially a draw, settled by luck, but the Senate and the House are balanced. (The Senate perfectly so, the House with a trivial Republican majority.) This happened because of the studied refusal by both sides to appeal to principle. Instead, the campaign was pitched to consumers, as represented by an entrenched network of special interests: "Watching the two candidates speak about their rival plans was like watching an ad war between cellular phone rate plans."
While some see this stand-off as a move to the center by both sides, Mr. Brooks says the reality is rancorous stagnation. "Indeed, the two great armies have now developed a symbiotic mutual-bogeyman relationship." Even worse, terms like "coup d'etat" have spread from the world of conspiracy theorists to mainstream political discourse. In such an atmosphere, it is hard to see how ordinary government is possible, much less long-term thinking.
Nonetheless, what is hard in theory may be easy in practice. The title of a column by Richard W. Stevenson sums up this school of thought: "The Politics of Surplus Cut Across Partisanship" (The New York Times, November 19). While acknowledging that bipartisan agreement on issues such as Social Security reform is very unlikely in the new congress, he suggests that the same will not be true of fiscal policy. Gridlock in an era of surplus works differently from gridlock in an era of deficits. During the last legislative session, the president and congress overcame their differences by throwing money at them. This practice ate up a third of the then-projected $2.2 trillion surplus for the next ten years, but the projection for the surplus has meanwhile been substantially raised again, leaving yet more room for maneuver.
In this scenario, even an economic downturn becomes good news. Those who are avid for tax cuts will be able to have them, since the economy will need stimulus and the Federal Reserve will no longer be raising interest rates. Increases in defense spending will not be a problem. Neither, for that matter, will expenditures for things like transportation infrastructure. Indeed, the record of the last congress suggests that the real impediment to the reconstruction of the air-transportation system is no longer money, but the lead-time for new projects.
The opposite extreme from the get-used-to-cannibalism school is the notion that everything will be just fine, because Bill Clinton will remain in office, at least in spirit. John F. Harris summed up what may be the emerging consensus in an article entitled "Next President May Find Resiliency" (Washington Post, November 24).
The idea is that President Clinton also faced what in effect was a deadlocked congress, but showed how to navigate the situation successfully. The president is the national tie-breaker, after all, and there is a buffet of backed-up legislation that would enhance his popularity. Certainly the poll-tested issues that took up so much time during the election, such as a "patients' bill of rights" for HMOs, lend themselves to compromises that would leave everyone looking good.
Suppose the mood on Capital Hill remains rancorous. The president still has quite a bit of autonomous authority. He can set the national agenda through speeches, executive orders and vetoes. Even if congress does not go along, he can often establish the criteria by which a congress will be judged.
While there is something to be said for this argument, we must remember that President Clinton maintained his popularity at very high levels by conducting what the Weekly Standard called a "doll house" presidency. When his administration had to abandon major new programs after losing congress in 1994, he turned to small, largely symbolic initiatives. While the presidential endorsement of nutrition labels on juice cans was perhaps an extreme example, it is true that President Clinton spent much of his time on matters that were more popular than important. Even these he often promoted through a strategy of "triangulation": part of both parties in congress were portrayed as extremists, while only he stood at the sensible center.
I suggest that the incoming president will not need these tawdry devices. The administration will be characterized by issues with a foreign affairs component, the area where the president's own power is greatest. The balance in congress, far from hampering him, is more likely to free him.
 
End
 
This column originally appeared in the January, 2001, issue of Business Travel Executive. Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-01-01

Happy New Years' 2003.

In retrospect, I think John was a lot better at understanding domestic politics [given his interests, this probably extends to the English-speaking countries, or even the whole of the West in some cases] than international relations. The predictions he made here are almost the exact opposite of what happened, except for the one about ballistic missile defense.

2003: Deal With It
 
Prescience is cheap. Just look here if you don't believe me. The problem with 2003 is that the future has arrived. What do you do when years of forecasts and scenarios become present realities? The problem is not prediction, but management.
 
* * *
It is some evidence that we have entered the sort of crisis period that Strauss & Howe call a Fourth Turning that even the reactionary Left has given up on trying to just get back to normal. Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangel (for whom I have always had a soft spot) recently proposed to reinstate the draft. This could be the beginning of something. By the congressman's own account, the point of a draft would be to make the military less usable, since even the children of members of Congress would have to fight. (One might also note that the US needs a mass army of riflemen about as much as it needs mounted cavalry.) However, his proposal also has a universal national-service component, for those who can't or won't serve in the military. For better or worse, that latter aspect actually has some appeal across the political spectrum. The next step in the evolution of American liberalism will be an appreciation of the possibility that winning the war could advance the liberal agendas far better than losing it.
Some throwbacks to '90s thinking continue to appear, of course. President Clinton's first Secretary of State, the hapless Warren Christopher, said in an editorial in yesterday's New York Times that Iraq should go on the back burner, while the US deals with the new crisis on the Korean peninsula. His reasoning is that the Executive Branch can handle only one crisis at a time. During the Carter Administration, Christopher served as an undersecretary in the State Department, where he helped manage the crisis occasioned by the Iranians' seizure of American diplomats. He offers this reminiscence:
"I recall how this relatively confined crisis submerged all other issues for 14 months, including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan."
This makes Christopher even less sanguine than Henry Kissenger. Kissenger used to say that the US could not handle more than two crises at a time, because there is no room for more than two sets of maps on the table in the White House Situation Room.
Actually, there are many reasons why the Carter Administration is looked back on as an era of awesome incompetence, but map space is not one of them.
* * *
As for wars and rumors of wars, I will make no predictions, but I will state some contingencies that might become relevant by the summer:
* The hard part in the Middle East would come after the occupation of Iraq. The US military would then share borders with Iran and Syria, both of whose regimes are in need of changing. Iran is a sophisticated country with a lively civil society (you can tell by their much admired film industry); the Iranians will probably do the job themselves, once they see the way history is going. Syria, in contrast, is a dreary tyranny. Like Iraq, it is ruled by the stultifying Baathist Party. It is also the proximate supporter of the world's most virulent terrorist organizations. (Iran is the ultimate supporter, but that's another issue.) One war of liberation could quickly lead to another.
*During the First Gulf War, the North Koreans amused themselves by partially mobilizing, just so the US would not forget about them. They imagine they are doing no more now, but they may not have read Strauss & Howe; the US becomes a different country during eras like this. Although North Korean political culture does not seem capable of diplomacy, it will be necessary to go through the motions for the first half of this year at least. It would be reasonable to expect that the US will accelerate the deployment of every class of missile defense.
For what little my opinion is worth, I am inclined to think that any major terrorist strikes in the West will energize people, at least in America, to support the conventional wars more strongly. The publics are quicker to see the relationship between terrorist organizations and rogue states than are the editorialists. There will be little patience for the argument that the imminence of attacks against Iraq or Syria provoked the terrorism; despite the long reign of the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction, international blackmail remains unpopular.
Finally, here is a speculation even more unfounded than what I have said above. If crowds cheer in the streets of Baghdad as American tanks parade through the city, if it becomes apparent that the regime changes are in fact wars of liberation, then maybe the locus of legitimacy will shift a little for the world's cosmopolitans. They will scarcely abandon the UN and the World Court, of course. However, they may start to think of the US as a feature of the cosmopolitan system, and not just as a sovereign state distended beyond all reason. Since American cosmopolitans are influential beyond their numbers or desert, the effect on US domestic politics would be startling.

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The Long View: Time on My Hands

In this last of three posts on the Spanish Civil War, John ties together history, alternate history, and the strange bedfellows that politics makes.

I've mentioned before that John wasn't really a fan of Ronald Reagan. He lays out his case for that here. Yet for all that, he didn't hate the man out of proportion to his actual deeds. From the way some people talk, you would think President Reagan had hooves. Peter Delacorte, the author of the book John reviews here, seems to have disliked Reagan enough to written a fantasy about writing him out of history.

What makes the book interesting, and what ties it to the previous posts is the way in which the favored side of the author in the Spanish Civil War correlates with his opinion of American domestic politics. It shouldn't be especially surprising that partisans of the Republican side in that war were generally against the Republican party in America, given the general shape of politics in the Western world. What is more interesting is you can see how the propaganda written by authors like Hemingway in the 1930s is still influencing people sixty years later.

The Spanish Civil War was my introduction to the identity politics of language, and you can see a bit of that poking through here. The way in which Franco suppressed the Basque language, and regional dialects of Spanish in favor of Castilian, is representative of the way in which nationalism on the whole has had a tendency to impose national identity by force.

In the script with which I am familiar, nationalism is a right-wing phenomenon, and so the abuses of power associated with nationalism are used as talking points by the left. There is at least some truth to this, but it is also an oversimplification. Delacorte seems unfamiliar with the actual tendencies of the Spanish Republicans to purge anyone insufficiently enthusiastic about the cause, and one suspects the course of nationalism in Spain would have been much the same if they had won, just with a different set of victims.

Time on My Hands: A Novel with Pictures
by Peter Delacorte
Scribner, 1997
$23.00, 397 Pages
ISBN: 0-684-82651-8
 
Alternative History in More Ways than One
 
 
If you found a time machine and were of a mind to lessen the total sum of human misery in the 20th century, what would you do? Most people, myself included, would say they would do something to stop Hitler. Actually, I have this all worked out. When Hitler was a street artist in Vienna, he once secured an interview with a famous set designer for the Vienna Opera to talk about becoming his assistant. Operatic set design, unlike architecture or academic painting, was something that Hitler might actually have been good at. However, young Adolf was too shy to keep the appointment, though he got as far as the bottom of the set designer’s front steps. All a time traveler would have to do is meet Hitler earlier that same day, buy him some strudel and generally buck up his courage so he keeps the appointment. Then, provided he got the job, everything would be fine. Unfortunately, this hypothesis is hard to test, since I have so far been unable to build or buy a time machine, or at any rate one that works.
The premise of “Time on My Hands” is roughly similar to my idea for what to do about Hitler, with the difference that the leader who needs to be stopped is Ronald Reagan. In 1994, an American travel writer named Gabriel Prince meets a hale old physicist named Jasper Hudnut in the National Technical Museum in Paris. After sounding Gabriel out about his politics, Jasper reveals that he has found a time machine (actually two, but he lost the first one in 1952) and that he wants him to return to Hollywood just before the Second World War to prevent Reagan from entering on a political career. As Jasper points out, Gabriel need not kill Reagan (whose name was pronounced “reegan” in those days and whose nickname was “Dutch”). All he has to do is deflect Reagan away from politics.
Gabriel is, of course, persuaded. In the immemorial tradition of time travel and alternative universe stories, he is “down on his luck” when the offer of adventure presents itself. In the classic pulp stories from the 1930s, time travelers tended to be Depression-era college boys desperate for a summer job who answer a mad scientist’s “Help Wanted” ad. (One suspects that this convention reflected the actual condition of the authors.) Gabriel in this book has a good job writing for a travel guide. In fact, a running gag through the book is that he describes all restaurant meals as if for a formal review. However, his girlfriend had just left him for a malodorous French intellectual, which serves just as well as a reason to leave.
Returning to California in 1938 (earlier than he planned; the time machine is a cranky twenty-second century prototype), Gabriel soon establishes himself as a screenwriter at Warner Brothers and in the affections of Jasper’s long-dead starlet cousin. Dutch Reagan is a young contract actor at the studio who does serials and supporting roles in B movies. He is a hard man to dislike, friendly as a puppy and nearsighted as a mole. His only flaw is a tendency to rattle on about baseball and his support for the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War. He and Gabriel soon become fast friends. Reagan is a hardworking actor, well-suited to supporting dramatic roles and light comedy, but Gabriel is determined to make him into a star by writing the perfect vehicle for him. This is not as hard as it sounds, since Gabriel is familiar with all the great screenplays of the ensuing decades. After all, John Wayne was not much of an actor either, but he benefited throughout his career from excellent screenplays. (Might there have been a President Wayne if he had starred in “Bedtime for Bonzo” and was not taken seriously thereafter? Nah.)
The novel is taken up with many of the complications that plague all time travelers, including mechanical problems, irascible people from the future and an utter inability to make sense of temporal paradoxes. (Of all science fiction writers, Isaac Asimov probably came closest to a consistent description of time travel in the novel “The End of Eternity.” Poul Anderson’s “Time Patrol” stories come second.) Gabriel’s particular problem is that both Reagan and Jasper’s cousin keep having fatal accidents early on in the alternative histories his interventions create. Thus, he has to keep going back to amend his amendments. None of this is really resolved by the time the book ends. (In 1952. I think.)
Now, there are many good reasons to read this book. It is written the way that novelists write when they start writing screenplays, with great slabs of dialogue that would make a movie unwatchable but that can make a novel sparkle. There is a disarming description of the informal, factory-like Hollywood film studio industry of the late 1930s (which provides many of the “pictures” of the book’s subtitle). Nevertheless, what I found most interesting was the mental universe of the author, Peter Delacorte (who has written extensively on show business). Apparently, in the alternative reality where he lives, the Reagan Administration was obviously the greatest disaster to befall the world in recent decades. In that world, Reagan did only harm both domestically and abroad, and just about everyone wishes that the whole thing had never happened. If Delacorte had argued for this interpretation of the 1980s, “Time on My Hands” would have been more plausible but far more tedious. As it is, simply by leaving his own biases unexamined, he has described a version of history far more alien than the histories generated by his characters’ tinkering with the past.
Because of problems with the time machine, we don’t get to see how removing the Reagan Administration from history affects the 1990s. We do, however, get a quick look at 1984 in the waning days of the second Carter Administration. The Cold War, it seems, had already ended, quite without an American military buildup. Nuclear weapons have been eliminated. The US is friendly with Cuba and socialist Nicaragua. The Soviet Union did not disintegrate and no rabble of newly independent states spread across Eurasia. We don’t get a good look at how things went economically and culturally, but doubtless they went much more smoothly than they did in the real 1980s. Former California governor Jerry Brown is the federal Secretary of Education, for instance, which is an improvement right there.
No writer is on oath when describing an alternative history. You have to fudge some things anyway if you are going to tell why the world turned out differently. Nevertheless, “Time on My Hands” does present some things in such a way that one really does wonder what universe it was written in. For instance, whatever else you might say about Presidents Nixon and Ford, they hardly represented the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party. In fact, the chief single reason that Ford was not reelected in 1976 was that he had failed to secure the support of the real right-wing, which was led by Ronald Reagan. Remove Reagan from history, and all things being equal you have probably ensured that Jimmy Carter would have lost in 1976. More disconcerting, perhaps, are Gabriel’s remarks in 1938 to the effect that what was at stake in the Spanish Civil War was Franco’s monolithic view of Spain, versus the open and diverse view of the country espoused by the Loyalists. Even with the perspective of the late 20th century to aid him, he still disparages the suggestion that the Loyalist government was in fact controlled by the Communists. Promoting diversity? Spanish Communists? I kept expecting the Gabriel character to be disabused of views like this by meeting some real Communists, such as the ones the real Ronald Reagan encountered as president of the Screen Actors Guild who did so much to make him rethink his political sympathies. However, nothing of the sort happens. One is left with the sad conviction that the author really believes this sort of thing.
I have never been much of a fan of Ronald Reagan. Certainly I voted against him in 1980. His eight years in office were indeed characterized by neglect of some core functions of government. Many of his appointments were appalling. His advisors had a shaky grasp of what constituted legal behavior in office. Nevertheless, it cannot be argued, as Gabriel asserts, that Reagan simply did nothing as the world changed in dramatic ways. The fact is that, for better or worse, the changes occurred because of what his administration did, and that his administration did pretty much what he himself intended it to do, his carefully cultivated reputation for disconnectedness notwithstanding.
Ronald Reagan began the necessary and long-postponed program of deregulating large slices of the nation’s economy. This produced costly chaos in many industries (the big example being the savings-and-loan business) and a regional economic depression in the Midwest. Still, seen from the perspective of the late 1990s, these policies were a considerable success. Certainly they reversed the qualitative edge briefly enjoyed by the economies of Japan and Europe. He continued President Carter’s military buildup (begun after the invasion of Afghanistan) until it was plain to the Soviet Union that they could not afford to compete with the United States militarily. The Soviet decision to end the Cold War could not have been made any earlier than it was, since the last of the gerontocrats had to be given a turn in office before Mikhail Gorbachev became Party General Secretary in 1985. Had the liberal Left been in power in the US at that time, the Soviets would, of course, have had no reason to make it. To argue otherwise is merely perverse. Finally, if Reagan did not quite end the 1960s, he at least started the process of cultural rollback that gathered momentum in the 1990s and is likely to prove wholly successful early in the next century.
It is perfectly true that Ronald Reagan for the most part presided over these things rather than administered them. In many ways he was the Wizard of Oz, who ruled through smoke and mirrors. This is perfectly consistent with maintaining that the Wizard was a pretty canny character without whom the story would not have ended as well as it did. In a way, this view of Reagan is more consistent with the time traveler’s mission in “Time on My Hands” than it is with the traveler’s own assessment of Reagan. If Ronald Reagan really was just a genial ventriloquist’s dummy in the hands of California reactionaries, as Gabriel and Jasper repeatedly assert, then one suspects that any dummy would have sufficed. Only if he possessed some substantial qualities would it have been necessary to seek to deflect his career. However, unless someone else has more luck finding a time machine than I have had, it is much too late to mitigate the continuing effects of his presidency.
Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Last Crusade

This is not a review of the third Indiana Jones movie of the same name, but rather of a recent history of the Spanish Civil War by Warren Carroll of Christendom College. Carroll is a partisan of the Carlists, one of the factions that made up the Nationalist side In that war. Carroll does his best to paint the Carlists in the best possible light, but that war was just too awful to be edifying.

The Carlists are among the great losers of modernity. Not only did they never even come close to restoring their preferred successor to the Spanish throne, but they found themselves a junior partner in the rightist coalition that won the Spanish Civil War, without much influence during or after the conflict. The Carlists still exist as a party in Spanish politics, but without much success.

In his now alternative history, the CoDominium, Jerry Pournelle used interstellar migration as a safety valve that allowed the malcontents and the dispossessed to escape their failures on Earth. The Carlists were among these, and in the short story, His Truth Goes Marching On, Pournelle revisits the Spanish Civil War as future history. Written in 1975, but set in 2077, this story exhibits the curious stasis of the twentieth century. In some ways, nothing of importance really changed in the twentieth century. The same ideological conflicts were fought out again and again, without an enduring resolution. Thus when the Bureau of Relocation starts dumping the Earth's poor and unwanted on the Carlists to buy more time for Earth to avoid revolution, the same right/left traditional/progressive conflict is setup that happened in Spain in the 1930s. It seemed plausible in 1975, and it still seems plausible in 2015. We are still reading from the same script, after all this time.

The Last Crusade
by Warren H. Carroll
Christendom Press, 1996
$7.95, 232 Pages
ISBN: 0-931888-67-0
"There are no neutral books on the history of the Spanish Civil War," Warren Carroll tells us in his Introduction to this brief treatment of the subject. His book is, as he promises, certainly no exception. Carroll is the founder and former president of Christendom College of Front Royal, Virginia, one of the more successful of the small liberal arts institutions founded in the past quarter century to promote Great Books and conservative Catholicism. He is the author of numerous works on twentieth century politics and church history, including the only modern account of the Monophysite controversy in my experience to exhibit real partisan heat. Perhaps predictably, whatever sympathy he has for the Republic is easily restrained.
Nevertheless, it would be too simple to describe this book as pro-Nationalist. The insurgents in the Spanish Civil War, like the supporters of the government they were fighting, comprised several major factions, from genuine fascists to traditionalist monarchists. Carroll is partisan for a division of the latter called the Carlists, who were chiefly based in the province of Navarra in northern Spain. The losers in another, far less devastating civil war sixty years before, the Carlists combined support for an improbable pretender to the Spanish throne (vacant in any case since the founding of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931) with what appears to have been a Catholic integralist approach to social theory.
At a popular level, opposition to the Republic was in large part a reaction to the regime's anti-religious policies. (Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, outrage over the Republican government's indifference to the freelance church-burning and priest-shooting by radical socialist factions that broke out after the murky election results of 1936). This was the sort of sentiment which the Carlists were well-placed to organize. However, though the movement contributed elements of the Nationalist program both during and after the war, they were never in any position to dictate policy, much to Carroll's chagrin.
The book is most concerned with the first six months, from the raggedly-executed coup by the Nationalist generals in July of 1936 to the successful defense of Madrid in November and December by Republican forces. While the latter was, of course, a notable defeat for the Nationalists, Carroll's book does not read that way. The narrative is built around the siege of the Nationalist garrison in the Alcazar citadel of Toledo and its relief by Franco's forces, apparently just in the nick of time. The diversion of those forces to Toledo is sometimes credited with losing the Nationalists the battle of Madrid. The advantage to telling the story from the garrison's point of view is that few participants in war make such sympathetic subjects as people under siege. In any case, the rescue of the garrison did a great deal for Nationalist morale.
Partisan historical accounts like this are often valuable. Carroll evinces a quite literal take-no-prisoners attitude, which may do more to illustrate the spirit of both sides to the conflict than an extended discussion of its merits would have. Besides, partisans know things you would not otherwise hear about. It was news to me, for instance, that Franco was flown from the Canary Islands to take charge of the insurgent army in Spanish Morocco by an English plane and pilot, arranged through the good offices of English Catholics. I was also surprised to learn that the Vatican did not recognize the Nationalist government until August of 1937, despite the fact the Republicans murdered 12% of the total number of Spanish clergy. The delay was due to the fact the Church had not been suppressed in the Basque provinces of the Republic, and the Vatican was leaving its options open until the Nationalists conquered them.
It is remarkable to read an account of societal collapse in the 1930s that does not mention the economic depression. More specifically, it is remarkable to read an account of the Spanish Civil War that does not mention Guernica. Still, the book is not pure propaganda, since it does cite facts contrary to its thesis. Carroll characterizes the war as, literally, a crusade, and takes every opportunity to recall the 700-year long Spanish Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors. Nevertheless, he does not conceal the fact the army that Franco led to the relief of the crusaders at Alcazar was largely a Moorish force. Well, Carroll observes, these were pious Muslims.
Carroll's theological approach to the war actually makes it difficult for him to critique the Republican side coherently. The whole of it appears to him as a uniform blackness of apostasy and malice, every part of which merits condemnation equally. While it is true that the Republic seems, on the whole, to have been a pretty creepy polity, still distinctions should be made. The most ferocious and least defensible elements on the Republican side (to the extent they were on anybody's side) were the anarchists. They were chiefly responsible for the wave of murder and arson that moved the Right to revolt in the first place, and they maintained a reign of terror in the areas they controlled until their suppression by other elements on the Left. The same fate befell the Marxist but non-Stalinist POUM party, whose persecution by the Communist Party in communion with Moscow seems to have simply emulated the purges going on in the Soviet Union at the same time. There were moderate socialists, though their organizations were so infiltrated by the Comintern agents and sympathizers that their independence was in fact nominal. (The Socialist and Communist youth groups, for example, merged three months before the war broke out.) Supporters of parliamentary democracy were present, but futile and anachronistic.
The Republican government itself, if by that you mean the premier and the cabinet, was a nominal affair throughout the war, whose actual conduct was in the hands of individual ministers and political factions. While it is reasonably clear that the Communist Party controlled the conduct of the war after the International Brigades played such a signal role in the defense of Madrid in late 1936, the argument is still made that the regime as a whole was not Communist in character until at least that point. If that is the case, then it was a government not under effective communist control that shipped most of Spain's considerable gold reserves to the Soviet Union in October of that year, never to be seen again. Maybe they were just stupid.
Despite Carroll's best efforts, there is nothing edifying about the Spanish Civil War, either with regard to its conduct or its outcome. Franco's government continued shooting people until 1959 for their support of the Republic. Of course, there would have been nothing edifying about it had the other side won, either. Whatever you can say about the Spanish Left, they were certainly no less relentless and vindictive than their Rightist opponents. Furthermore, a leftist regime in Spain might have given the Germans all the incentive they needed to invade the country when they were through with France. The British would have lost Gibraltar, which might have lost them the Mediterranean, which would probably have lost the Allies the war. The actual Crusades so beloved by Carroll did not lack for atrocity and cruelty, but they still had many positive aspects. Regarding the Spanish catastrophe of 1936 to 1939, however, all you can say is that the less bad side won.
This article originally appeared in the September 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Please click on the following line for more information:
Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: If the Loyalists Had Won the Spanish Civil War

Orwell with POUM

Orwell with POUM

Here the first of three essays by John on the Spanish Civil War, covering both the history, and the alternative history of an in-edifying episode in a terrible century. That war was was the trial run for World War II, and perhaps in a way even the Cold War. In the near term, the two sides aligned clearly with the Fascists and the Communists, but the coalitions on both sides offered enough of an appearance of political breadth that almost everyone felt like they identified with a side. Even now, there are no impartial accounts of the war. There were just too many awful things, done by both sides, and in the full view of the international press, providing endless opportunities for axe-grinding and score-settling.

The Republicans won an early and enduring victory in the propaganda war in the English speaking world. The Republicans cast the Nationalists as reactionary and backward, and the progressive press in the West amplified this theme. Writers and journalists clearly favored the Republican cause, and some of them, such as George Orwell, would lend more than their pens to the cause. For Orwell, firsthand experience with Stalinist purges tempered his enthusiasm for the cause, but others such as Earnest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn would become lifelong partisans of the Republicans, their struggle rendered inexpressibly romantic by defeat.

The impression the Republicans made on the Western intelligentsia probably contributed to the glamour the Soviets enjoyed both during and after WWII. At the time, the Soviet Union really did seem like the wave of the future, and many of the best and brightest in the West were open advocates for the Soviets. This kind of environment facilitated the formation of networks of Soviet spies, especially in the United States and England. Some of these spies, like Ted Hall or Kim Philby, were we placed to steal valuable secrets. Many others, like Hemingway, were just dilettantes.

The preference of the press for the Republican side probably helped give the Soviets an advantage in the Cold War, but what if the propaganda had been even more successful? Despite the support of the Italians and the Germans for Franco's Nationalists, Franco chose to stay neutral in World War II Here, John imagines what might have been if the Republicans had managed to garner a bit more international support, or avoided killing a brilliant general for being the wrong kind of socialist, thereby turning the tide in their favor. How might the Second World War have turned out differently if the Communists had secured an early victory in Spain?

If the Loyalists Had Won the Spanish Civil War.....
The Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 was one of the great dramas of the 1930s. I use the word "drama" advisedly, since the debate and propaganda campaigns about the war became the substance of much of the political and intellectual life of the West during the years the war was fought. In the progressive literature of the period, the war was a morality tale of good defending itself against evil, of fascism against democracy, of the Enlightenment against Catholic obscurantism. The war became a counter in the political struggle between the international communist movement and the more loosely organized cause of fascism. In the publishing industry and the better magazines, the Loyalists won the propaganda argument, but on the ground the Nationalists won. In this note, I would like to suggest some ways that history, and particularly the course of the Second World War, might have been different if the Loyalists had won.
A full description of the origins and course of the war is unnecessary here. The questions involved are also still controversial. Suffice it to say that, after a decade of seesaw election results, a Popular Front government finally came to power in Spain, but with a very narrow majority. The Front sought to be inclusive of the Left, from Anarchists to Social Democrats. The Front, however, was more and more controlled by the Communists. In any event, having achieved a narrow victory, the government undertook a radical land redistribution. Elements of the Front, particularly the Anarchists, began some spontaneous redistribution of their own, and the government did not attempt to protect life and property. Clerics and Church property were particularly subject to assault. These events caused the Spanish African Army under General Francisco Franco to stage a revolt. The rebels became the Nationalists. The legitimate government refused to yield, however, and the conflict became an elaborate civil war. The Nationalists received aid from the Italian Fascists and the Nazis, including some troops and airmen. The Loyalists received material aid from Soviet Russia, but on ruinous financial terms. They were also assisted by volunteer legions from many countries. The resources of the two sides were not terribly unequal. However, the Nationalists had most of the experienced officers. Also, the Communists in the Popular Front carried on a small-scale version of the purges then occurring in the Soviet Union, directed against the other Leftist parties. This degraded the fighting capacities of the Loyalist armies, which were organized along political lines. The Loyalists were overwhelmed a few months before the Second World War started. Generalissimo Franco surprised everybody by remaining neutral in that conflict.
A Loyalist victory is not hard to imagine. Franco was a competent rather than a brilliant general. The accident of a military genius on the other side might have altered the outcome of the war. So might have more generous support from the Soviet Union. The Communists might have deferred their own political agenda until after the war was over. Neither side had any difficulty obtaining arms they could pay for; France, which had a Popular Front government too in the 1930s, might have offered arms on credit. Alternatively, an effective League of Nations embargo would have redounded to the Loyalists' benefit, since they controlled most of the country's manufacturing capacity. So, let us assume that by the end of spring, 1939, the Nationalists are forced to finally surrender, and Franco goes into exile in Argentina.
One thing that I think would have been inevitable is that the Soviet Union would, in effect, have a colony in the Western Mediterranean. The front-and-purge policy the Communists used against their rivals in the Loyalist camp was not very different from the one they used in Czechoslovakia just after the Second World War (except, perhaps, that it was much bloodier). Stalin was at all times of two minds about what he wanted to happen in Spain. While he wanted to humiliate the Italians and the Germans, he also had doubts about whether another Communist state so far from his borders was a good idea. He knew that such a state would be difficult for him to control, and that it would offer an alternative focus of loyalty for Communist parties around the world. The Soviet Union's subsequent problems with Yugoslavia and China show that these fears were well founded. However, it would have taken years for a rift to develop. The Spanish Communist Party was devotedly pro-Soviet. The new state would have needed Soviet material support. With the growing threat of a Fascist war, a near-term split with Moscow would not have been in the cards. Spain would become for the USSR something like what Cuba became in the 1960s and Nicaragua in the 1980s.
The French would not have been pleased by this turn of events. French governments have traditionally alined themselves with whatever regime ruled Russia in order to counterbalance the powers of Middle Europe. They would have found this harder to do, however, if the Russians acquired a base adjoining French territory. The advantage to a Russian alliance, after all, is that Russians are too far away to be a menace themselves. There was no way the French could have thrown their support to Germany. It would have been politically impossible, and it would have been strategic suicide. However, the proximity of Soviet Spain would have made France much more reluctant to engage in any major war, anywhere. It is not just that Spain could eventually become a military threat. The Communist Party in France would have been so emboldened by their southern colleagues' success that would have started looking for revolutionary opportunities. A lost war, or even a stalemated war, would do just nicely. Knowing this, the French government would have been much less likely to declare war on Germany in 1939 after the invasion of Poland. Indeed, it might not have been possible to do so, since the Hitler-Stalin Pact was in effect, and the French Left would have made quite a fuss about entering the war, even if they hoped to benefit from the outcome.
Thus, one result of a Loyalist victory could have been that Hitler would not, at the outset, have had to fight a war on two fronts. If the French did not declare war, the British could not have, either. Where would they have put their army? In his pre-war alliance negotiations with Mussolini, Hitler seemed to be contemplating a general war for 1942 or 1943. He would have been able to pick a fight in the West at his leisure, probably much better prepared than he was in 1939. In this war, the desperate French might have accepted an alliance with Soviet Spain, provided Stalin relented. Certainly Spain would have been a reasonable base for the French to retreat to, after losing Paris. Even if Soviet Spain had chosen Franco's policy and attempted neutrality, it is unlikely that Hitler would have accepted it. He could not have. His goal in World War II was the conquest of Russia, something he could not have accomplished with a Soviet ally in his rear. The conquest of Spain could have been part of his initial western campaign, or it might have waited a year or two, but it would have been inevitable.
A Nazi campaign would have had several things working against it. For one thing, the supply lines were long enough to create formidable logistical problems, never the strong suit of the Nazi military. Assuming the English were still in the war, Hitler, like Napoleon, would have found just how accessible Spain is from the sea. On the other hand, the Spanish Soviet government would have been unlikely to be very popular by this time, assuming it had continued with the process of Stalinization. If the Germans concluded their campaign by taking Gibraltar, whose British base was (and is) a long-standing affront to Spanish pride, the Germans could have been accepted as liberators. The loss of Gibraltar could have cost the British effective control of the Mediterranean. The resupplying, not just of Egypt, but of India and Australia, would have become immensely more difficult.
In sum, then, a Loyalist victory in the Spanish Civil War could have lost the Allies the Second World War. I, for one, find this conclusion paradoxical.
Any other ideas?
 
[If you liked this piece, you might also be interested in taking a look at a revew of The Last Crusade, a history of the Spanish Civil War from a Carlist perspective.]
Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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John J. Reilly's The Long View reposting project, 1 year in

I have now posted a year's worth of John's blog, The Long View, in a little over a year of my own time. It really is like being re-acquainted with an old friend. Reading John's blog gave me a lot of pleasure over the years, and it is almost as much fun the second time around. He got some things right, and some things wrong, but it is fun and informative to look back on someone who shaped how I think so much.

I have also heard from two of John's three sisters, thanking me for remembering him.  I am always touched when I hear from someone who knew John better than I. That is what makes this all worth it.

I managed to get a year's worth of blog posts in 14 months, plus some of John's essays from 1996-2002. There are a few lingering essays from that time frame that still need to be re-posted, so I will get on that forthwith.

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site