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    Wednesday
    Oct082014

    The Long View: Woodrow Wilson: A Biography

    Wilsonian is a term not often used to express admiration or approbation, but perhaps President Woodrow Wilson deserves another look. This is a fine piece of mild historical revisionism, putting Wilson in historical context, something the man himself would appreciate. How many of us now remember that before Wilson was elected to the presidency, he was generally considered a conservative? He was also a best-selling author and the first President from the South after the Civil War. He was a preacher's son, and his oratorical style exemplified that background:

    [T]he man whose faith is rooted in the Bible knows that reform cannot be stayed, that the finger of God that moves upon the face of the nations is against every man that plots the nation's downfall or the people's deceit; that these men are simply groping and staggering in their ignorance to a fearful day of judgment.

    Wilson was a passionate advocate of state's rights, even to the point of risking war with Japan over a California law preventing Japanese from owning land. Wilson also re-segregated the civil service, appointing Southern whites to positions held by black Republicans under Teddy Roosevelt. These acts are not surprising given his Southern birth, but the label of "Progressive" can easily confuse us today.

    Even Wilson's most [in]famous accomplishments, the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, could perhaps be considered something of a success. The League implemented the Treaty, and then closed up shop when that task was accomplished. Even though the United States never joined the League, most of its goals were accomplished, and it had the form that Wilson intended for it; by and large, Wilson got what he wanted at Versailles.

    Eerie, in retrospect, is this quotation from his whistle-stop tour to advocate for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles:

    You are betrayed. You fought for something that you did not get. And the glory of the armies and navies of the United States is gone like a dream in the night, and there ensues upon it, in the suitable darkness of the night, the nightmare of dread that lay upon the nations before this war came; and there will come some time, in the vengeful Providence of God, another war in which not a few hundred thousand men from America will have to die, but as many millions as are necessary to accomplish the final freedom of the peoples of the world.

    A presentiment of doom was common in fin de siècle Europe, but this is a disturbingly accurate prediction of the rest of the twentieth century. In many ways, Wilson set the tone for the American century, in concert with his predecessor Teddy Roosevelt.

    Some of the premises from which Wilson operated perhaps were ill-considered, but his projects often had the right goals in mind. Both the premises and the goals are still with us, no matter how little regard we have for the man who fostered them.

    Woodrow Wilson
    A Biography
    By August Heckscher
    Charles Scribner's Sons, 1991
    745 Pages, US$35.00
    ISBN: 0-684-19312-4

     

    Reviewed by
    John J. Reilly

     


    Since the end of the Cold War, it has become a commonplace to say that the two great revolutionaries of the 20th century were Vladimir Lenin and Woodrow Wilson, and that of the two Wilson has proven to be the more successful. Nonetheless, Wilson has become an oddly disliked figure. The term "Wilsonian" is often used as a derisive synonym for "utopian," and the man himself is recalled as a hectoring minor prophet, too inflexible even to see his pet nostrum, the League of Nations, through to ratification by the United States Senate. This biography of Wilson, written just as the Cold War was ending, puts some of the grosser calumnies against Wilson to rest. Readers should note that the biographer is a fan: August Heckscher is a former president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Still, the book at least touches on the failures as well as the successes of Wilsonianism. We also get personal information essential to understanding Wilson, especially his medical history. More important, though, the book gives us a starting point to discuss an issue that Wilson first broached and whose relevance has only increased since this biography was published: the relationship between democracy and world order.

    Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was born "Thomas Wilson," a name that he would gradually drop as his education advanced, though there were always a few friends who called him "Tommy." The place of birth was Virginia. He would become the first president from the South after the Civil War, after having experienced defeat and then occupation in the aftermath of that conflict. In Heckscher's account, however, Wilson was an eccentric Southerner. All four grandparents were born abroad in Scotland or Northern Ireland; his mother came from Scotland. His family on both sides were Presbyterians. Many of his relatives, including his father, were ministers. Old-fashioned Presbyterianism has a reputation as one of the more somber versions of Christianity, but the Presbyterianism of the Wilson family was neither gloomy or old-fashioned: this reviewer was reminded of the minister's family in Norman MacLean's novel, A River Runs Through It. As the biographer puts it:

    Indeed, the religious faith the young Wilson derived from his father's teaching was not the sort manifesting itself only in dark moments, but grew stronger in times of confidence and elation when God's watchfulness seemed to be validated by outward experience. The coming together of worldly good fortune with a feeling of inner blessedness could make the Presbyterian of liberal faith, as it made Wilson in his happiest periods, a charismatic figure.

    Actually, if one is looking for literary analogues to Wilson, one might consider the young H.P. Lovecraft. Both had boyhoods given over to fantasy and dreaming, and both were generally thought to suffer from some mild disability. Both would also acquire a taste for writing self-consciously archaic prose, which Wilson would employ in his popular histories. (The biographer thinks those works, such as A History of the American People and George Washington, were terrible potboilers, but they did sell well). One major difference was that young Lovecraft was precocious, while Wilson did not learn to read until he was nine; debate continues about whether Wilson was dyslexic.

    A greater difference was that Wilson's father did not die young, but saw Wilson through undergraduate school, law school (Wilson practiced law for only a few months), and then graduate school. The bulk of Wilson's academic career was spent at Princeton University, which was still called "The College of New Jersey" when he entered as a sophomore. He would teach at Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan University (in Connecticut), and at Johns Hopkins, where he also did his graduate work in the newest German methods of historiography, but he returned to Princeton and would eventually serve as its president from 1902 to 1910. His career as a young scholar coincided with an expansion of higher education in the United States unmatched until the 1950s. Wilson frequently received invitations to teach at, and sometimes even to head, new universities in the Midwest. He was tempted by these offers, but seemed to understand that his chance of influence in his own lifetime required that he not stray too far from the Boston to Washington DC corridor.

    Though he trained as a historian, Wilson's academic reputation rested on his work as a political scientist. His first book, Congressional Government (published 1885 and still in print) deplored the eclipse of the executive branch in the years after the Civil War and argued for more effective government through greater cooperation between the president and Congress. Indeed, Wilson seemed sometimes to argue for something like a parliamentary system. His desire for more effective government was characteristic of the Progressive Era in which he played so conspicuous a part. The sentiment was remarkably nonpartisan: progressives were Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal. The progressive agenda was variable, expanding from a core of issues that all sane people saw had to be addressed to more speculative issues with even more speculative solutions. The reformers' to-do list ran from reform of the banking system to female suffrage to ending child labor, and on through assuring the safety of the food supply and the criminalization of the recreational use of narcotics, not to mention the breaking up of business monopolies and the public ownership of utilities and even of the railroads. Wilson once deplored the fact that the term "socialist" had been appropriated by an eccentric school of economics, since obviously all public policy should be concerned with the good of society as a whole. In Wilson's sense, a policy of lowering tariffs to promote competition (something he did during his first term as president) could be characterized as "socialist."

    Towards the end of Wilson's career, Oswald Spengler would predict, in characteristically cryptic fashion, that the final public morality of the West would be something called "Ethical Socialism." Spengler was no doubt thinking of Bismarck's social policy, but the term far better fits Spengler's contemporary, Woodrow Wilson.

    Theodore Roosevelt is the contemporary to whom Wilson is most often compared, but there are stronger parallels (or at least it seems to this reviewer) between Wilson and Oliver Wendell Holmes. They shared an organic view of historical development and a fundamentally historicist metaphysics. The organicism no doubt puts them in the great conservative tradition of Edmund Burke; indeed, during his academic career, Wilson was generally regarded as a conservative. As a historian, Wilson favored narrative that attempted to recapture the texture of the period under discussion. (In this he anticipated the historiography of people like R.G. Collingwood; Wilson even attempted to employ the prose style of the period he was writing about, with results that were not invariably happy.) However, for Wilson there was a characteristically Progressive Era twist to the historical cast of mind. Burke emphasized the incremental and non-programmatic development of society as part of an argument against projects of social engineering. Wilson, in contrast, looked to organic models of change for an argument that change is possible, even mandatory.

    The author notes Wilson's antipathy to the philosophy of Jefferson the Founding Father (though he gave high marks to the record of Jefferson the President). From this we may surmise that Wilson disliked Jefferson's appeal to universal, ahistorical, self-evident truths. This is very much the view that Holmes held toward natural law, and particularly to attempts to impose any theory of pre-existing, non-textual rights through constitutional judicial review. As a practical matter, these concerns met: Holmes spent much of his career as a jurist trying to persuade the courts not to strike down the social legislation that people like Wilson were enacting. Holmes argued that it is fundamentally lawless for the courts to overturn laws on behalf of "rights" not found in the text of the Constitution. This issue would surface again, in another context, in the later 20th century.

    The parallels to Holmes should not be overstated. Holmes was an agnostic Social Darwinist who adopted historicist pragmatism as the last resource against nihilism. In Wilson's view, both business and government had an essentially moral basis. Wilson needed historicism as a medium through which Providence could transform the world. If Wilson rejected the idea of primordial self-evident truths, that was because he believed the future could do better. Though the term does not occur in this biography, Wilson seems to have been a postmillennialist of a very thorough and sophisticated sort. The complaints heard in the early 21st century that the government of the United States is being theocratized in an unprecedented fashion must contend with statements like this from Governor and then President Wilson:

     

    [T]he man whose faith is rooted in the Bible knows that reform cannot be stayed, that the finger of God that moves upon the face of the nations is against every man that plots the nation's downfall or the people's deceit; that these men are simply groping and staggering in their ignorance to a fearful day of judgment.
    Sometimes, according to the author, Wilson seemed to think there were two kinds of law: law that simply codifies the facts of society as they exist, and law that runs ahead of the facts to fix the moral parameters of the living generation. Where Wilson differed from Lenin, and for that matter from contemporary and later exponents of the "living constitution," is his insistence on fostering revolution through legislation enacted by democratic means.

    If the biographer is to be believed, Wilson displayed a taste for social revolution even as president of Princeton, but in a characteristically Wilsonian fashion. His first concern was to raise academic standards. As a college administrator, he set his face against preferential treatment for athletes (and, perhaps not incidentally, undertook to suppress the riot and vandalism for which the burgeoning college populations of the day were notorious). He attempted to bring the system of elective courses under control. Students should have some control over what they studied, but he insisted that every course of study include some exposure to the whole field of learning. Despite his training in German historiographical methods (or perhaps because of it) he opposed the attempt, then very popular, to make the liberal arts conform to the methods of the physical sciences. He shared Matthew Arnold's insistence on the priority of liberal learning.

    The revolutionary element appeared in Wilson's plan to suppress Princeton's famous "eating clubs," or at least to diminish their importance to a point where they would no longer be the organizing principle of undergraduate life. The eating clubs, Wilson argued, were the preserves of the very rich. Their existence tended to divide the student body on a class basis. Wilson's remedy was to reorganize the campus on the basis of residential quadrangles, which would function something like the system of residential houses at Harvard. In a not unrelated move, he wanted to incorporate Princeton's new graduate schools into the body of the campus. Wilson argued the merits of the arrangement for the coherence of the university. He also made clear his desire to prevent rich alumni from controlling the development of the new schools: Princeton had been offered large gifts conditional on the new schools being located in palatial campuses of their own, far from the main body of the university.

    In carrying out his academic initiatives, Wilson honed his practice of turning controversial questions into matters of principle, with himself occupying a moral high ground from which there could be no retreat. This worked better with some issues than with others. His reform of the curriculum was well received. As university president and as lecturer, Wilson was wildly popular with the students, even the ones in the eating clubs. Long after his tenure as president, the quadrangle plan was carried out. The graduate schools, however, are still over the hills and far away.

    Wilson did have flaws. His marriage to Ellen Axon ended only with her death in 1914 (they had three children: all daughters). We are assured that Wilson's reputation as a womanizer was grossly exaggerated, but there is good evidence for one affair toward the end of Wilson's time at Princeton, during the long, separate vacations that the Wilsons were in the habit of taking:

     

    These complex relationships show the dualism that often characterized Wilson. He could appear to be different men, the one scarcely aware of what the other was thinking. Thus he seems never to have felt the need to make a choice between [Ellen] his wife and Mary Peck. The same post that in 1909 carried from Bermuda letters to Ellen that might have been those of a bridegroom to his bride, carried to Mary passionate assurance of how ardently she was missed.

    One cannot help but note the same duality in Wilson's dealings with Germany in 1918. In one telegram, he might offer to serve as a mediator between the Central Powers and the Allies; in the next telegram, he might write as a belligerent who required the capitulation of his interlocutor. One cannot also help noting how often this strategy worked, on the public and private level.

    In any case, as a political scientist and a lecturer on government reform, Wilson developed a national reputation of a size that even the politicians noticed. Thus came the invitation from the Democratic Party bosses of New Jersey to run for governor of the state, an eminence to which he was duly elected and served from 1910 to 1912. His platform as a candidate was typical of progressives of both parties: direct election of United States senators, a worker's compensation system, primary elections to select party nominees for almost all offices, the creation of commissions to regulate public utilities. There were differences in emphasis in the bipartisan progressive movement of the time. At first, for instance, Wilson was skeptical of such progressive measures as the referendum and recall elections. Not until he became president did he support suffrage for women, and he never endorsed the prohibition of alcohol. Wilson believed as much as Theodore Roosevelt in the need to expand the functions of government, but he took longer to come to the conclusion that these functions had to be exercised at the federal rather than the state level. Only reluctantly did he abandon the view that business monopolies could be broken up through ordinary legal processes, rather than preserved and regulated in the manner that Roosevelt pioneered.

    Wilson's election to the presidency in 1912 capped the strangest presidential campaign in the 20th century. The Republican Party self-destructed when former president Theodore Roosevelt, denied the Republican nomination, ran as the candidate of the Progressive (or Bull Moose) Party. The incumbent president, Robert Taft, seems to have stayed in the race as the Republican candidate to ensure that Roosevelt would not win. Meanwhile, many progressives who might ordinarily have voted for Wilson voted instead for Eugene Debs, the candidate of the Socialist Party, who received almost a million votes. Wilson actually received fewer popular votes than Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan did in 1906, when Bryan lost. Nonetheless, not only was Wilson elected, but his party controlled both Houses of Congress.

    Wilson adopted the term "The New Freedom" to describe his program. As the biographer points out, it had a substantially different coloration in his first term from his second. During the first four years, Wilson was concerned with institutional reform. He got Congress to create the Federal Reserve System, which gave the United States a central bank for the first time since the administration of Andrew Jackson. This measure made the financial system less disaster-prone (although, as later events would prove, not disaster-proof). Perhaps more remarkable to contemporaries, he succeeded in lowering tariffs and reforming the tariff system. He did this despite the vampiritic flocks of lobbyists the issue attracted to Capitol Hill, much as business taxes do now. Wilson created the Federal Trade Commission to take some of the responsibility for anti-trust regulation from the Justice Department.

    A worldwide recession was starting as Wilson took office, but despite the increase in unemployment his administration was seen as competent and effective. He won reelection in 1916 by a narrow but respectable margin. He had planned to devote his second term to what we would now call "social issues": an eight-hour day; an end to child labor; provision for cheap credit to farmers. He did make progress towards these goals. He also intervened in some major labor strikes in a way that reassured the labor unions that the federal government was on their side. However, regarding Wilson's domestic initiatives, one must note that his record on racial issues was appalling from first to last, even by the standards of the time. During his first term, the federal bureaucracy began to be racially segregated. Far from extending patronage jobs to black Democrats, which he had hinted in 1912 that he might do, he routinely appointed white southerners to jobs that had been held by black Republicans appointed by Roosevelt and Taft. Wilson declined to tell California that its new legislation barring Japanese from owning land was plainly contrary to United States treaty obligations. In effect, he risked a war with Japan to support a doubtful interpretation of states' rights.

    Wilson had not even mentioned foreign affairs in his first inaugural address. His appointments in this area suggested that it was not one of his priorities. William Jennings Bryan was his first Secretary of State; Bryan was no fool, but he did serve grape juice rather than wine at diplomatic receptions, and his pacifism made him increasingly irrelevant as relations with the Central Powers deteriorated. He would eventually resign, to be replaced by Robert Lansing, a lawyer with a better education and a smaller imagination.

    Actually, Wilson's foreign troubles began long before the First World War. His administration found itself called on to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate revolutions; or perhaps better, revolutions that marked important social transformations from mere changes of dictators. Wilson did not always do this well, particularly with regard to Latin America, and most especially with regard to Mexico. Wilson wanted to see land reform in Mexico in order to ensure the survival of electoral democracy, so he often found himself supporting the more radical alternative against the party with the better chance of maintaining stability. The policy backfired badly when Poncho Villa, whom Wilson had once supported, began making raids into the United States.

    Wilson would later identify the Russian Revolution as a "deep" revolution. He deplored the Bolshevik turn that the originally liberal revolution of 1917 took, but believed that it was just a phase, like the phases of the French Revolution. He had no patience with the English, and especially the French, proposals to back counter-revolutionary forces in Russia, though some Americans were among the Allied troops sent to guard facilities in Russia from the Germans.

    From the outset of the First World War, it was Wilson's position that the strategic interests of the United States lay with an Allied victory, or at least with a conclusion to the fighting that did not diminish the roles of France and Britain in the world. A decisive German victory, he thought, would require the United States to militarize on a permanent basis, a stance Wilson believed incompatible with the institutions of American government. However, the perhaps unfortunate slogan of his 1916 election campaign, "He kept us out of war," was perfectly sincere. The optimum outcome was "peace without victory," resulting in a situation in which the differences between the great powers could be settled by arbitration. The process of arbitration, Wilson also immediately surmised, would have to be permanent, requiring a permanent international institution to coordinate a permanent peace. Even when the United States became a belligerent in 1917, Wilson was very slow to attribute the principal blame for the war to Germany. Neither was he ever altogether willing to abandon the hope of acting as the intermediary between the two sides and negotiating a peace on neutral principles. Wilson's unilateral issuance of the 14 Points as a statement of war aims reiterated this aspiration.

    Strange as it may seem for a southerner, Wilson's model throughout the war was Abraham Lincoln; and moreover, the mystical Lincoln of the Second Inaugural Address. In that statement, Lincoln prescinded from a discussion of the merits of the arguments made by either side for fighting the Civil War. Instead, he directed the nation's attention to the inscrutability of Providence in the course of the war and its effects. Neither side got what it expected or what it desired. Lincoln then spoke of a postwar America reunited "with malice toward none, with charity for all."

    Few nobler words have ever been spoken by a statesman. However, what Wilson the war leader never entirely took on board was that those words had been spoken after victory for the North was assured. It also bears repeating, perhaps, that Wilson's notion of a postwar settlement was implemented more fully than Lincoln's ever was, but the post-Versailles peace of Europe was at least as unsatisfactory as America's Reconstruction Era.

    The 14 Points had not been issued in a vacuum. There had been quiet diplomacy at the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918 that suggested a negotiated peace might be possible. The 14 Points specified the withdrawal from occupied countries, forbade crushing indemnities to be laid on either side, and sought to dampen the ambition to acquire new colonies by reconceptualizing the colonial empires as a system of trusts for the benefit of their peoples. Meanwhile, there would be an orderly transition to self-determination by the small nations of Europe. All these good things, of course, were to be overseen by a League of Nations. Lincoln could not have done better. However, the magnanimity of Lincoln's Second Inaugural evaporated when the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk were announced. Though the terms were not uniquely harsh for a country as badly defeated as Russia had been, they showed that Germany had no intention of helping to create the world of neutral principles that Wilson envisioned. Wilson's reaction to this rebuff (and of course to the Germans' offensive that spring, which sought to win the war outright) reflected an essential feature of liberalism even at its finest: the enemy was not simply criticized, but delegitimized. The war could now be prosecuted without restraint, because the German Empire had, in effect, seceded from rational humanity. Wilson would again offer to intercede for Germany, but only on the condition of the end of the regime that had distained the principle of universal justice in the form of the 14 Points.

    We see this same evolution in Wilson's own position toward his domestic opponents. Here is a vintage Wilson rejoinder, from as early as the election campaign of 1916, to a telegram from an irate Irish American who accused Wilson of Anglophilia:

    I would feel deeply mortified to have you or anybody like you vote for me. Since you have access to many disloyal Americans and I have not I will ask you to convey this message to them.

    The worst excesses against civil liberties during Wilson's Administration occurred after his major stroke when he we was no longer running his own government, but perhaps there really was less place for dissent in Wilson's scheme of things than was in Jefferson's theory of natural rights, or even in Holmes's pragmatism. There came a point in any controversy with Wilson in which to oppose him was to oppose History. Wilson made it his business to ensure that history won.

    This biography points out that Wilson got quite a lot of what he wanted at the Versailles Conference in 1919, especially during the first session. The League of Nations itself was much as he had proposed it. It was made integral to the Treaty of Versailles (the League Covenant is articles 1 to 26 of the treaty). He certainly succeeded in preventing the French from turning the League into an anti-German alliance, and he helped limit the dismemberment of Germany. He had some success with regard to colonial questions: the European empires at least made their territorial acquisitions in the form of League trusteeships; the Japanese were harder to restrain. His greatest single failure was in connection with reparations to be paid by Germany, especially the open-ended reparations that the Conference initially contemplated. It is not true that there was no negotiation with Germany over the final form of the treaty; Wilson was instrumental in getting the terms clarified, and in some instances mitigated, in response to the German protests at the first draft. However, he opposed a renegotiation of the treaty. He was not unduly concerned with the details of the treaty: its terms would take years to implement, and its more irrational features could be rectified through negotiation under the supervision of the League. That was not so different from what actually happened, but the League turned out to be less important than he had hoped, in part because the United States never joined.

    The biographer's account of Wilson's doomed attempt to get the Treaty of Versailles ratified by the United States Senate may strike some readers as revisionist, though in fact the information is not new. The Democratic Party had lost control of Congress in the elections of 1918 (partly because Wilson was suspected of being soft on Germany), so Wilson's strategy seemed to have been to take a maximalist stand to limit the concessions he might have to make later. Publicly he said that the treaty had to be approved without amendment or reservation, on the grounds that the treaty could not be renegotiated and the Allies would regard conditional approval as a rejection. Privately, however, he prepared a draft of acceptable reservations and gave it to Senate minority leader, to be presented to the Senate only on the president's instruction. Some senators were in fact proposing amendments that were designed to kill the treaty, but some proposed reservations simply clarified that the League Covenant did not override the Constitution of the United States, particularly with regard to the power of Congress to declare war. Such reservations would have been well within the limits of diplomatic practice. With modifications, in fact, the League seemed to enjoy majority popular support.

    Nonetheless, there was opposition among isolationists in the West and Midwest against the League in any form, and Wilson felt that he could not proceed to concessions until it was clear that he had the public unambiguously behind him. So, he undertook the famous whistle-stop tour of 1919, stopping at places large and small to deliver jeremiads like this to increasingly enthusiastic audiences:

     

    You are betrayed. You fought for something that you did not get. And the glory of the armies and navies of the United States is gone like a dream in the night, and there ensues upon it, in the suitable darkness of the night, the nightmare of dread that lay upon the nations before this war came; and there will come some time, in the vengeful Providence of God, another war in which not a few hundred thousand men from America will have to die, but as many millions as are necessary to accomplish the final freedom of the peoples of the world.

    Strong stuff, and it seemed to be working. However, it was obvious to those around him that Wilson was falling apart. He had actually suffered some minor strokes as early as his tenure as president of Princeton, and there had perhaps been another two incidents during the Versailles Conference. Under the unrelenting stress of the Western Tour he began to seem almost like the politician in the film The Candidate, who is reduced to incoherence in the later part of his campaign. Wilson started saying things that were not his policy, such as that reservations to the treaty were the same as amendments and both were unacceptable. In any case, he eventually suffered a major stroke (another parallel with Lenin, actually). The League campaign lapsed because Wilson was no longer able to negotiate with the Senate and would not allow others to do so for him.

    Not long after the death of his first wife, Ellen, Wilson had created a mild scandal by marrying one Edith Bolling Galt. Edith Wilson is sometimes said to have been the first female president of the United States, because her control of the presidential sick room gave her effective control of the government. This exaggerates her role. Certainly she diminished the influence of Wilson's gray eminence, Edward Mandell House (best known by the courtesy title "Colonel House"), and of and Joseph Tumulty, Wilson's secretary and political advisor from Jersey City. However, as the biographer points out, neither Edith, nor Secretary of State Lansing, nor the relentlessly unassuming Vice President John Mitchel, ran the government during the last year and a half of the Wilson presidency. After some weeks, Wilson was able to conduct carefully controlled courtesy interviews, but he could do little work beyond saying "no." He did understand his condition. He confined most interaction with the executive departments to occasional advice, which he left to the discretion of the cabinet secretaries. In the case of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, his lack of oversight was to have very unfortunate results.

    After leaving the White House, Wilson recovered somewhat. He was able to greet visitors, make a few public appearances (especially on Armistice Day), and even to make a few speeches. He carried on a limited correspondence (he still typed, though less well than formerly) and published one essay on the theme that the way to combat Bolshevism was to reform capitalism. When he died in 1924, he was scarcely a forgotten man, but one with an ambiguous historical reputation. He and Edith are buried now in the nave of Washington Cathedral.

    Judging by this biography, Senate approval of the Treaty of Versailles was a far nearer thing than we usually imagine, so much so that we must ask ourselves whether it would have made much difference if Wilson had completed his Western Tour and reached an accommodation with the Senate. The idea of a permanent body to administer the terms of a complicated multilateral agreement is far from utopian. The Congress of Vienna, which settled Europe after the Napoleonic Wars, continued after a fashion as the Concert of Europe to oversee the peace. The Concert was an alliance rather than a perpetual diplomatic conference like the League, but the principle was not so different. Wilson, by the way, despised the Congress of Vienna: an odd assessment, considering that the Viennese settlement was far less vindictive than the Treaty of Versailles would be.

    The addition of the United States to the League would have augmented its capacities, and maybe also its sphere of attention (certainly the League would have paid more attention to Latin America and to East Asia). However, it is hard to believe that the effectiveness of the League would have been fundamentally increased, or that World War II would have been prevented. The harsher features of the Treaty of Versailles had already been renegotiated by the time the wheels started to fall off the international system in the 1930s. In any case, it simply was not true that the United States was an isolationist power in the 1920s. The US was deeply involved with the Bank of England in managing the world's monetary system; there were even quite a few US military interventions. US interest in international cooperation waned during the 1930s, and there is no reason to think that US membership in the League would have altered that trend.

    Indeed, one might think of the League as a relative success whose posthumous reputation was blackened by comparison with the rhetoric of its founding. The League was created to oversee the implementation of the treaty of Versailles. Within a dozen years the treaty had been implemented or was obsolete. Soon thereafter the League went out of business. Is that really so surprising?

    But what of the high hopes that accompanied the founding of the League? Wilson's arguments for the League echo Immanuel Kant's proposal for "perpetual peace" guaranteed by a universal confederation of liberal republics. Wilson's logic also reflects the Augustinian principle of the Tranquility of Order. As Wilson put it:

     

    The world can be at peace only if it is stable and there can be no stability where the will is in rebellion, where there is not tranquility of the spirit and a sense of justice.

    There is some sense in which this has to be true: no order, including a world order, is going to be durable unless the people who live under it accept its demands and benefits as legitimate. No doubt, in the working of the Providence in which Wilson set so much faith, some such legitimate world order will eventually appear. The problem is the premise that the predicate of legitimacy is neutrality, that no just order may retain historically conditioned content, or perhaps may not even serve any moral principle. Oddly enough for a philosophy named after a man with such a lively appreciation of historical context, Wilsonianism makes the organic the enemy of the just.

    Again, there are parallels between Wilson's thought and that of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Holmes famously asserted that law should be made for the "bad man," for the subject who could not be expected to act from higher motives, but would do whatever he could that did not incur legal sanction. This is a clarifying principle that has its uses. However, taken literally, it would mean that everyone subject to the law would have to be treated as a potential criminal. Similarly, Wilson's hope that the peace after the First World War would be a peace without victors might have odd implications if it were made a universal principle. A world without victors would, in effect, be a world in which every country was treated as a conquered country. Whatever was not mandated by the universal consensus of neutral principles would be forbidden. Opposition to the consensus would be delegitimized, in much the way that the government of imperial Germany was delegitimized by its refusal in early 1918 to accept Wilson's offer of arbitration on the basis of disinterested reason.

    These criticisms do not mean that Wilson's goals of effective government and universal peace through justice are either misguided or unobtainable. They do suggest that some of the basic premises of this enterprise need to be rethought.


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    Monday
    Oct062014

    Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen Book Review

    Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen
    by H. Beam Piper
    Ace Books, 1965
    192 Pages; US$0.40

    I picked up this volume because it was mentioned in Armageddon: There Will be War volume VIII. Pournelle cited Piper as a great influence on his own work, especially his Janissaries series, and included in volume VIII was a sequel to Piper's trandimensional adventure story written by John F. Carr and Roland Green. That story was pretty good, so I picked up the original to see what it was all about.

    I'm glad that I did. Piper told a great story, full of humor and action, but it is clear that he knew a great deal of history and science as well. Calvin Morrison is a Pennsylvania State Trooper who finds himself accidentally transported into an adjacent timeline by an industrial accident of a more advanced civilization, in the same place but another when. He immediately finds himself embroiled in a war between princes, and makes himself useful due to his interest in chemistry, military tactics, and industrial organization. He fights. He loves. He wins.

    For a nerd like myself, this is a fun kind of counterfactual speculation: how could you shape the world differently if you knew all the secrets of modern science in a pre-modern world? There are a lot of ways to do this kind of story. Twain decided to go with a rather cynical satire. This is straight-forward adventure with a heavy dose of history and engineering. In addition to Jerry Pournelle, S. M. Stirling is a modern example of this same kind of story, which is immensely fun, and I also find very educational.

    For example, I wondered once what kind of civilization you could rebuild following a technological disaster like the Carrington Event. Nearly all of our advanced technology could be destroyed by a sufficiently powerful solar storm. It turns out that Stirling's novels of the Change have asked almost exactly that question. I wish I had read Stirling sooner, I would have found some answers I was looking for.

    This is hard scifi at its best. You take an insight about how the world really works, and you follow the implications in some interesting and otherworldly setting. In this case, it happens to be the Fourth Level, Aryan-Transpacific sector, Styrphon's House sub-sector. Since Piper lived and died at the height of American civilization, the gifts he brings are the first-fruits of industrialization, plus a boundless confidence in the methods of sociology and anthropology, unleavened by any fears of ecological or cultural collapse. If you want to try the latter, Stirling has explored that space pretty well.

    While you can clearly see the influence of Piper on later authors, there are interesting differences as well. Religion plays a very different role on Tran than it does in the Stryphon's House sub-sector. Each author has their own take on what really makes the world work, and I've enjoyed them all so far.

    I was saddened to learn that Piper took his life shortly after he wrote this book. It is a cracking good yarn, and I would have liked to enjoy more stories of Lord Kalvan. John Carr and Roland Green wrote several more books following on this one, one of which is the short story that brought me here in the first place. I'll pick up the sequels, with the expectation of a homage, true to the spirit of the original.

    My other book reviews

    Friday
    Oct032014

    CrossFit 2014-09-29

    Bullfrog

    7 minutes

    • 40 single unders
    • Ascending ladder power snatch [85#]

    Score: 5 rounds plus 22 reps

    Friday
    Oct032014

    CrossFit 2014-10-01

    Bench and burn

    Bench press

    • 10/8/6/4/2
    • 115-125-135-140-145F

    Burner 3 rounds

    • 250m row
    • 25 kettlebell swings [1 pood]
    • 250m row
    • rest 1 minute
    Friday
    Oct032014

    CrossFit 2014-09-24

    Beretta

    Do five burpees every minute on the minute while doing:

    • 20 squat thrusters [65#]
    • 20 hang power cleans
    • 20 push presses
    • 20 overhead squats
    • 20 front squats

    Time 12:55

    Friday
    Oct032014

    The Long View 2002-05-21: The Office of Evil

    The Oatmeal clearly agrees with JohnOne notable disagreement of mine with John was the competence of the terrorists who struck the United States on 9/11. I'm sure lots of people, especially at the time, saw bin Laden as a terrorist mastermind, but in retrospect it seems like he got lucky. It is probably the kind of books I read, but a real mastermind would have followed up with something else a little sooner. There certainly were some foiled plots that made it into the news after 9-11, but most of the subsequent attacks were in other countries, such as the London subway attacks, the Beslan school hostage crisis and the Bali nightclub bombing.

    It is at least conceivable that the vast new powers given to the American intelligence agencies after 9/11 have kept us relatively safe, but I'm not terribly impressed by this idea. The rate and scale of pre- and post-9/11 terrorist activity seems about the same in the wider world. And most of that activity happens in Third-world shitholes, just like it always has.

    The Office of Evil

    Thomas Friedman suggested in the New York Times of May 19 that we could use an office like this. The column in question, "A Failure to Imagine," was actually a backhanded exoneration of the Bush Administration for failing to take more radical action last summer, when there was an uptick in information from intelligence sources suggesting that an major attack from Al Qaeda might be impending. He rightly points out that the sort of imagination needed to consider suicide attacks seriously is rare in America. He was probably kidding when he said that a special bureau might be created to cultivate malice at that level, so we are not blindsided again. Most of Friedman's piece, however, is devoted to bemoaning the Administration's "failure to imagine good," meaning in this case the mobilization of youth for progressive causes and the institution of a post-fossil-fuel industrial revolution.

    Thomas Friedman is not the stupidest man who ever lived, but he does not seem to grasp how far from "over" the 911 era is. He has company, of course. The Democrats last week jumped on some quite minor disclosures of internal intelligence documents from just before the attacks to go into full Watergate mode. "What did he know and when did he know it?" they demanded to know, reacting to word that the president received a rather anodyne analysis last August that suggested some sort of attack might be in the offing, perhaps involving airline hijackings. The answer to the question, of course, is "not enough" and "too late," for which the Administration is indeed to some degree at fault. Ironically, the partisan way in which the question was raised seems to have done those who raised it more harm than good. In any case, those who look on 911 as a lost opportunity of some sort can take heart. Similar opportunities may come along any time now that they could find just as useful, assuming they survive the attacks.

    One need not be altogether cynical to surmise that the latest statements coming from the Administration about new threats for the near future are colored by the desire to change the subject from the Democrats' implied accusations of negligence. However, there is no reason to think that the new threats themselves are imaginary: stories about terrorists having recently been brought to the US in cargo ships, for instance, appeared before last week's disclosures. So did the reports that shopping malls could be in particular danger. Actually, cynicism might be in order if you thought that the president's partisan opponents knew about the new dangers. Did they take care to get their accusations on record before possible new attacks? That way, they could position themselves for this fall's Congressional election, when they might raise questions about the Administration's competence. But no, that way madness lies.

    We do seem to be moving into a new situation. Al Qaeda has a track record of launching simultaneous attacks against large, geographically distant, landmark structures. These attacks are made with novel tactics determined by the nature of each target, at intervals of from several months to over a year. The new pattern of terrorism in the Middle East, however, as developed in the intifada against Israel, involves numerous attacks at short intervals. They follow one or two patterns, and they are intended to create casualties. It is reasonable to expect that a synthesis of these methods will be deployed in the United States, by an alliance of hitherto only loosely connected groups. Places of mass public accommodations have been mentioned as possible targets. So have such structures as high-rise apartment buildings, where preparations might be made over time. For what little it's worth, I doubt that landmarks or the transportation systems are very attractive targets anymore. Then again, that's what people said about the airlines until last September.

    Public reaction to new attacks could differ significantly from last year's. For instance, it will be clear that government has only limited ability to protect the people from attack, even when government is paying attention. The Administration would be criticized, not for over reacting in terms of new security measures, but for having done too little. Additionally, depending on where the attacks take place, they could disabuse some parts of the country of the impression that the 911 war is primarily a concern of the Northeast.

    We might even get a bit of a social revolution, though maybe not the one Thomas Friedman was thinking of. Nicholas Kristof, another New York Times columnist, has a piece today entitled "Following God Abroad." It's a glowing report on the new political engagement of American evangelicals, who have been energized by 911 and by the threat to Israel. Kristof praises their practical foreign assistance projects and keen interest in the defense of religious liberty internationally. As evangelists, they are, naturally, evangelizing, and not least in NGO Land:

     

    "The evangelical movement encompasses one-quarter of Americans and is growing quickly. One measure of its increasing influence is that a newsstand in the United Nations has carried the Left Behind series of religious novels by [Jerry Jenkins and] Tim LaHaye. These books, which have sold 50 million copies so far, describe the battles that precede the Second Coming, and there is indeed a United Nations connection: In the novels, the Antichrist is the secretary general."

    Speaking of Left behind, I finally got around to seeing the movie version, by the Lalonde brothers of Cloud Ten Productions. The authors were displeased with the quality of the film, and it does in fact seem to be the kind of thing that HBO produces for broadcast during the summer, when few people are likely to watch.

    One thing that struck me about the film was the number of pets. After the Rapture, the world was filled with despondent dogs sitting by the empty clothes of their departed masters. While I recognize that this idea would be theologically awkward, I could not help but think how much more affecting those scenes would have been had there been empty collars and dropped leashes lying next to those abandoned clothes.

    The cats would have been left behind for the Tribulation, however. They would have worn little red capes and sprung about in evil glee, knowing that their hour had come.


    Why post old articles?

    Who was John J. Reilly?

    All of John's posts here

    An archive of John's site

    Thursday
    Oct022014

    The Long View 2002-05-14: Thanks & Goldhagen

    I used to support John by buying on Amazon through his site. All of his Amazon links and such have been stripped away, although you can still buy his books. If you still want to do something for him, pray for him. It is what he would have wanted.

    For a while, he was an independent scholar, and he updated his blog frequently. After a few years, he got a regular job, and only updated on the weekend, but I found that I enjoyed what he had to say even more when I had to wait for it.

    Thanks & Goldhagen

     

    Before I forget again, I would like to thank those of you who have been chipping money into the Amazon Honor System boxes on this site. The system does not tell me who you are, which is probably just as well. I hope you are getting notes of gratitude. These are sincere, even if they are sent automatically. Thanks to the rest of you, too. Feedback and visit-counter clicks are not quite the same as wire transfers, but they are very much better than nothing.

    Thanks are also in order to Ronald J. Rychlak, for his rejoinder in the June/July issue of First Things to Daniel Goldhagen's notorious piece in the New Republic, "What Would Jesus Have Done?" In that article, Goldhagen accuses Pius XII of silence and inaction with regard to the Nazi persecution of the Jews. In fact, he repeats just about every claim ever made against Eugenio Pacelli, regarding his career before and after he became pope. Some of his accusations are even posthumous. My reaction was that Goldhagen's article was a poor interpretation of the historical record, but I did not quarrel with most of Goldhagen's facts. Rychlak has gone a long step further. He shows that Goldhagen systematically misstated the record, suppressing information contrary to his thesis and distorting the information he does cite.

    It is hard to know where to start. Contrary to what Goldhagen says, the Vatican protested early and often about the deportation of Jews from the occupied nations of Europe. The list of protests includes diplomatic representations to the governments of France, Slovakia and Croatia. The protests to the Vichy government were met with threats. Nonetheless, when the French bishops publicly protested, Vatican Radio broadcast the text for days. Goldhagen, of course, tells us specifically that the Vatican was silent about that protest.

    Goldhagen says that the Nazis did not actually carry out repraisals for protests to their Jewish policy or the euthanasia program. This is simply wrong. When Cardinal Galen protested the killing of the handicapped, the German government did not arrest him, but it did arrest dozens of clergy from his diocese. This kind of thing happened routinely whenever the government was criticized. Also, contrary to some accounts, the euthanasia killings did not stop, though they were no longer done publicly.

    Frankly, in the controversy about the attitude of the Vatican toward the Jews during the Nazi era, I never thought the Concordat with Hitler's new government was particularly significant; treaties like that are too routine to signify anything. Be that as it may, Rychlak points out that the Concordat was not the first treaty the Nazis signed, as Goldhagen said. He misstated a secondary source. The Concordat was the first bilateral treaty the Nazi government concluded, but that government had already signed some important multilateral agreements.

    It might be said in Goldhagen's behalf that the piece in the New Republic was at least nominally a long review article of secondary sources, on which he was dependent. Maybe when his own book on the subject comes out later this year, he will have done his homework. Well, maybe he will, but he seems to be doing now what he did with his sources in Hitler's Willing Executioners, which also rested on tendentious use of secondary sources.

    Goldhagen must have the opportunity to defend himself. However, as things stand now, we have to ask whether his behavior goes beyond mere mistake. Can Goldhagen's work in this be compared to that of Michael Bellesiles's book, Arming America?

    As every history buff in America knows, that book argued that the widespread use and ownership of guns is a fairly late development in American life. The author based his argument on statistics found in old records from local court houses. The problem was that, since his thesis touched on how we should interpret the Second Amendment today, several historians took the trouble to check his primary sources. They found that he seems to have routinely mischaracterized the sources the other historians could find. The really disturbing element, however, was that they could not find much of the material he claimed to have used, even though it was supposed to be on the public record.

    Goldhagen has not quite reached that point, if only because he has yet to publish original research on Pius XII and the Holocaust. Should he proceed with his plans to publish, we may be sure that his work will receive the closest attention.

     

    * * *

    Speaking of unscrupulous authors, I should mention that I have an article in the June/July First Things, too, a review of Robert Kaplan's Warrior Politics. As per FT's eminently reasonable author's contract, I will be able to put the review on my website after 90 days.


    Why post old articles?

    Who was John J. Reilly?

    All of John's posts here

    An archive of John's site

    Wednesday
    Oct012014

    The Long View: Fascism: A History

    Calling one's political opponent a fascist is still a popular political slur, but the actual occurrence of fascist ideas on the Right remains somewhat unclear. John was undubitably correct to note that the rise of popular parties on the right in Europe has mostly been tied to immigration, and also that anti-semitic ideas and Holocaust denial do have genuinely popular appeal nearly everywhere [not only on the Right].

    John also notes that the world has in some ways only just returned to the conditions that prevailed before the Great War. International finance, and the relations between nations are beginning to relax again after the extended crisis that started in 1914, and only truly ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The interesting question for us is: how will it be different this time around?

    Fascism: A History
    By Roger Eatwell
    Penguin Books, 1996
    $14.95, 404 pages
    ISBN: 0-14-025700-4

    One More Time?

    "Fascism is on the march again. Its style may at times be very different, but the ideological core remains the same -- the attempt to create a HOLISTIC NATIONAL THIRD WAY [Italics in original]...[A]n ideology that places so little emphasis on constitutions and rights, and so much on elite-inspired manipulation, must always be mistrusted. Beware of men -- and women -- wearing smart Italian suits...the aim is still power, and the fantasy of the creation of a radical new culture."

     

    ----"Fascism," page 361

     

    This is the very alarming conclusion of this general history of fascist ideology by Roger Eatwell, a Reader in history at the University of Bath. It is all the more alarming because this is not a very alarmed book. Certainly it is free of "anti-fascism," which in this context often means the sort of Marxist analysis that assumes the whole political spectrum beyond the radical left is fascist in some imprecise but irredeemable way. What we do get is a brief description of the common intellectual heritage of fascism from the late nineteenth century, plus short histories of the fascist movements in Italy, Germany, France and Great Britain. The sections dealing with fascism in these countries after World War II, and especially the more recent New Right, are the most interesting in the book.

    Since we are not dealing with a partisan tirade here, it is genuinely disturbing when Eatwell ends the book by suggesting that, though fascism died in a sense in 1945, it may well be about to experience a resurrection in time for a bright future in the 21st century. Whether this hypothesis proves correct or not, still this analysis does illustrate yet another way in which Western civilization at the end of the twentieth century has returned to many of the problems that faced it at the century's beginning.

    The ideological component of fascism has often been neglected in favor of psychohistories of fascist leaders and morbid prose poems about national character. This is understandable, since one of the defining features of fascism is ideological syncretism. Usually, this has meant combining "socialism" with some form of nationalism, but even this minimum requires qualification. The study of fascist ideology is made even more difficult by the fact it was most systematically expressed where it had the least influence, in France and Britain. (Eatwell is not an admirer of British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, but he does give him credit for producing the best thought-out fascist party-platform. The best platform so far, that is.) In any case, at the local level, fascism often had little theoretical content, beyond the privilege of beating people up with impunity. Nevertheless, fascism does have an intellectual history, and the phenomenon as a whole is not so diffuse as to defy definition.

    Fascism would not have been possible without Friedrich Nietzsche. There has been no lack of anti-theistic philosophers both before and after Nietzsche, but he is almost alone in honestly facing the consequences of living in a world in which everything is permitted. Most thinkers have sought to preserve some fragment of the intellectual structure that depended from the hypothesis of the Christian God, and so they appeal to reason or history or science. Nietzsche would have none of it. If the skies are really empty, then there are no imperatives. There is, however, life, which in the case of human beings expresses itself not just as biology but as the will. Now Nietzsche, unlike Schopenhauer and unlike many of his own followers, recognized the will is itself a composite entity. It is not a primary physical force, and it is not a god. It does, however, actually exist, and its exercise is all the meaning that life can ever have.

    The proposition that the meaning of life is the exercise of the will leads to two kinds of conclusions. The most obvious, and the most popular, is the cult of cruelty. Naturally, the street-fighters who normally figure in the public activities of successful fascist parties are rarely well-read in the literature of philosophical nihilism. Nevertheless, even the nihilist violence of the German SA and the Italian "squadristi" chimes with high theory. Fascism promotes ruthlessness for the same reason that it promotes conspiracy theories: for a fascist, nothing is going to happen unless some will makes it happen. One suspects this consideration is also a factor in the usual fascist suspicion of free markets.

    The other conclusion to which an ontology of the will leads is the transformation of politics into art. Whole societies become instruments for the expression of the will of elites, or often of a single great individual. In fascist theory, this is all that politics ever was, no matter what purportedly disinterested purposes the ruling elites of the past believed they served. The difference that Nietzsche made was that this reality could become conscious.

    Fascism is not quite coincident with the great man theory of history. Since human beings are social animals, the will is to some extent a social phenomenon. Thus, reality is an intersubjective construct, a fable that people make up amongst themselves. The construct is not entirely arbitrary. Most fascists have also posited a strong racial or biological element conditioning the way that leaders and their peoples behave. Still, even in highly racialized forms of fascism, the leader stands to the people as the will stands to the individual. Politics, then, is not an arbitrary art, but an art whereby the leader makes the unconscious will of the people explicit.

    In addition to Nietzsche, the other seminal influence on fascism whom Eatwell discusses at length is Georges Sorel. Now Sorel is remembered as the chief theorist of socialist syndicalism, and like Nietzsche his thought has influenced people who are not fascist by any definition. Nevertheless, he seems to have been a primary source of the nuts-and-bolts of practical fascism, which was chiefly concerned with integrating restive populations of industrial workers into fragile national communities. (The widespread use of the word "community" to refer to classes of people who could not possibly know each other is mostly Max Weber's fault, though to me it has long carried fascist undertones. Well, that is another story.)

    Sorel's socialism was of the sort that combined plans for the betterment of the masses with considerable contempt for their intelligence, indeed contempt for almost everything about them as they actually existed. Sorel believed that the masses could be integrated into a social force only through slogans and myths. Sorel's favorite myth was that of the "general strike." Actual general strikes, in which the whole of a country's organized labor force walked off the job at the same time, have been tried a few times, with mixed success. The myth of the general strike, however, is like the vision of Judgment Day. It is the goal in whose name organizers organize, it is the reason to pay union dues. It is an ultimate threat, like the strategic doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, that creates a world by defining its limits. It is not entirely dishonest; the leaders may believe it in a heuristic sense. Such subtleties, however, are not for the people they lead.

    Perhaps the most striking thing about the political systems of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy was precisely their use of myth and symbol. (As Salvador Dali once remarked, Nazism was essentially surrealism come to power.) The widely-bought if sparsely-read "Myth of the Twentieth Century," by the Nazi Party ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, seems to have used "myth" in a Sorelian sense, the myth in this case being the origin of the Aryan race in Atlantis and its leading role in later history. More generally, both the Nazi and the Italian Fascist regimes seemed to be exercises in government by grand opera. (Götterdämmerung and Don Giovanni, no doubt.)

    The myths used to organize the elites were not necessarily those provided for the masses. The Nazi leadership in particular cultivated a sort of occultism (though if figures like Julius Evola are any indication, this enthusiasm was not absent from Italy, either). The people, however, were pushed with more conventional forms of nationalist xenophobia and pulled with quite prosaic promises of economic improvement and social welfare (promises on which both regimes could in large measure deliver). This difference of integrative principles was consistent with the fascist notion of society as an organic entity. Organism implies differentiation, so it was only proper that elites and masses be organized through different means.

    Was antisemitism an integrating myth for the people? Certainly this was not the case in Italy, where fascism made much of cultural chauvinism but tended to mock biological racism. It was only in the late 1930s that Mussolini promulgated anti-Jewish legislation in order to please Hitler. The legislation was never as harsh as that in Germany, and was in any case ignored by the people and the government with some enthusiasm. (This changed after the Allied invasion of southern Italy in 1943, when Mussolini became a puppet ruling a rump-state under German control.) As for Germany, there is little evidence that antisemitism ever added to the Nazis' popularity. Certainly the Nazis downplayed the Jewish theme when electoral victory became a real possibility after 1929. While it is true that surveys taken after World War II showed high levels of antisemitic feeling in Germany, this is as likely to have been an effect of the Nazi regime as one of its causes. The truth of the matter seems to be that, if antisemitism was a Sorelian myth, it a myth embraced by the elites rather than the masses.

    England and France both had proto-fascist and self-consciously fascist movements between the wars. Eatwell notes the many writers with fascist leanings in France during this period, some of whom, such as Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, commanded large popular followings in the 1930s. (Charles Maurras and his Action Française were too traditionally conservative to quite qualify as fascist.) As a serious political movement, French fascism needed the Popular Front politics of the Left to fight against, and so it pretty much collapsed along with the Popular Front government in the mid-'30s. English fascism started off just after the First World War on a disarmingly dotty note, with a tiny party that advocated, among other things, lowering taxes on gentlefolk so they could reduce unemployment by hiring servants. However, the movement was dominated in the 1930s and after the war by Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists. Mosley, not unlike Churchill, was a black-sheep establishment figure, an institutional outsider but not quite a mere eccentric. He maintained a measure of credibility quite late into the decade; he was even briefly touted by the press-lord Rothermere. Still, in neither France nor England did any fascist party come within shouting distance of playing a major role in national government, much less of inaugurating a fascist revolution. Eatwell emphasizes two key reasons why they did not go the way of Germany and Italy.

    The first major difference was that Britain and France had respectable national right-wing parties during the 1920s and '30s, while Germany and Italy did not. In Italy, a proper conservative establishment never got a chance to form. To a large extent, the Kingdom of Italy had always been something that northern Italians did to southern Italians (and this without the blessing of the Church, which was still annoyed at the way the Papal States had been annexed in 1870). Therefore, the local notables who might have formed the backbone of a conservative party were alienated from the national government. In Germany, of course, the old establishment had been discredited by the war. The lack of responsible right wings meant that irresponsible persons in these countries had a chance to fill the political space such parties normally occupy. The opportunity came when the narrowly-based political establishments appeared to be incapable of dealing with a national crisis.

    For France and Britain the interwar years were for the most part dreary decades, but in neither country were they attended by a general sense of social crisis. France, despite the proliferation of socialist theorists of all descriptions and the growing strength of the Communist Party, seems to have been singularly immune to Red Scares. Unemployment was muted even during the Depression, partly because the country was still so rural that unemployed industrial workers simply went back to the land. For England, the '20s was in many ways the more troubled of the two decades, with intractably high unemployment even during good times and the General Strike of 1925. In the '30s, on the other hand, the effect of the worldwide depression was not nearly as severe as in other countries, and for much of the decade the economy was conspicuously innovative and dynamic.

    Italy's crisis came early. In the years between the end of the war and Mussolini's March on Rome in 1922, revolution was in the air, particularly in the rural areas of the north. As in Spain during the prelude to that country's civil war in the '30s, local socialist governments were often uninterested in protecting private property from seizure by workers. Right-wing terror squads, usually led by strong-men without any particular ideology, also enjoyed official indulgence in some regions (as well as a measure of popular support). Mussolini, a sophisticated socialist with anti-clerical leanings, came to power by organizing the strong-men and convincing at least a section of the establishment that he could bring social peace. When he first met the king to demand the primiership, Mussolini wore a fascist uniform. For the second meeting, he wore proper morning clothes.

    Hitler wore morning clothes, too, when he went to see President Hindenburg to be sworn in as chancellor 11 years later. Germany's crisis was far more a matter of economics than Italy's had been, though exasperated by the fact the legitimacy of the Weimar Republic was even more fragile than that of the Kingdom of Italy. Eatwell takes us through a quick review of the "Who Was To Blame" literature regarding Hitler's final ascension to the chancellorship. He finds little merit in the theory that Hitler (or Mussolini, for that matter) was essentially a tool of big business. What he does suggest is that the acquiescence of a weak establishment was a necessary precondition for such an improbable figure to be appointed head of a government.

    Since the early 1930s, there has never been another coincidence of a weak establishment, a crisis, and a group of men with the proper ideological predispositions necessary for the formation of a fascist state. Franco's Spain was not fascist because Franco was not an artist, but a cop (or, as they used to say in my old high school, a "Prefect of Discipline"). The rulers of Vichy France, for all their authoritarian tendencies, were hardly in a position to view themselves as bold supermen. After the war, fascism was an enthusiasm only of cranks everywhere in Europe except in Italy, where the former regime never lacked for a small party of defenders. (Mussolini's widow got a regular ministerial survivor's pension.) Until the end of the Cold War, this looked like it would be the state of things for the foreseeable future. The problem with the end of the Cold War, of course, was that it made the future much less foreseeable.

    In the 1990s we have seen a historically fascist party, led by Gianfranco Fini, achieve junior-partner status in an Italian government. (The party he leads changes names. Not long ago it was "The Italian Social Movement." Latterly it has been "The National Alliance." The Communist Party of Italy has undergone similar mutations in nomenclature, and also claims to have mellowed ideologically. Maybe they have.) Jean-Marie Le Pen's "Front National" in France seems to have a lock on from 15% to 20% of the vote. In Germany, in contrast, the party system has rebuffed the attempts to organize New Right sentiment. (This is not the case in Austria, where Jörg Haider's "Austrian Freedom Party" has polled up to 28% of the vote.) Throughout Europe, just as after the First World War, small groups of violent youths with proto-fascist leanings became conspicuous. Perhaps the most alarming thing we have discovered about the German Democratic Republic is that it did not so much extirpate Nazi ideas among the people as preserve them in ice, like dinosaurs in a science fiction movie that wreak havoc when defrosted.

    One may, of course, quarrel about whether the European New Right as a whole should be consider proto-fascist, or crypto-fascist, or even fascist at all. Still, the deeper you look into any of these organizations and their leaders, the less comforted you are likely to be.

    On a popular level, the issue which has the most resonance for the New Right is immigration. Everywhere in Western Europe (and in much of the United States), ordinary people are spooked by changing demographics. They are also alienated by the tendency of establishment opinion to dismiss this concern as mere reflexive racism. Persistent levels of high unemployment, often seen as a function of the presence of too many foreigners, similarly undermines the credibility of the governments of the major European states. Issues like this, however, are not the stuff of which revolutions are made, fascist or otherwise. Additionally, while right-wing leaders are at pains to keep themselves free of the least taint of racism in general or antisemitism in particular, the fact is that at ground level their organizations are, for the most part, virulently antisemitic. There is a significant public for Holocaust-denial theories. However, in no country are such things electorally useful.

    The distinctive thing about fascism, however, is that it has always been a doctrine for masters rather than followers. Eatwell has some very alarming things to say about the growth of "up-scale" fascism, of ideological resources for people who either belong to existing elites or would very much like to start one. This has been made immensely easier, at least in my own view, by the spread of relativist philosophies in the Nietzschean tradition in the last quarter of the 20th century, particularly at the elite schools. No matter the intent of the instructors, it always seemed singularly ill-advised to me to tell young people, who by virtue of native intelligence and social position were going to wind up running a fair slice of the world anyway, that life was really just about power. There is always some danger they might believe it.

    A sentiment that seems to find increasing currency is what might be called "Euro-fascism." While fascist parties between the wars built their followings on nationalistic platforms, still from the very beginning fascism has always had a universalizing streak. Nietzsche pronounced himself a "good European." In these days when political theorists speak in terms of the clash of civilizations, New Right theory seems to be moving in the direction, not of renewed hypernationalism, but of an integrating theory for the European Union. Eatwell notes that the EU as it stands is a disedifying entity, run by bland bureaucrats who are most concerned with setting standards for bottled jam. Current plans for future integration will go no further toward turning Europe into a true political community (that word again). Eatwell asks whether anyone is ever going to be willing to die for the Bundesbank. Maybe what Europe needs is a Sorelian myth to hold it together. Work is in progress.

    So, are we really just back where we started at the beginning of the 20th century, waiting for some crisis that will delegitimize the existing establishments and start the ball rolling again? One way to look at the 20th century is as one long recoil from the process of globalization. It was only in the 1990s, for instance, that international capital flows again reached the levels relative to the economies of the major countries that they had reached before the First World War. Similarly, it is only recently that international trade in general became as important as it was around 1900. What happened thereafter was that the governments of the leading nations sought to gain unprecedented control of their countries' destinies. Partly this was accomplished by war, partly it was accomplished through the creation of command economies. Stalinism was simply Lloyd George's "War Socialism" made permanent, something that happened in greater or lesser degree throughout the West. In every case, the goal was to replace the power of capital with the power of the will, whether the will was that of an electorate or of a would-be Nietzschean superman. When, starting in the 1980s, the military and economic systems of command began to be relaxed, the world economic system began to look again something like the way it had looked before these measures were implemented. The process of globalization began again. So did the attempts to stop it.

    It would be wrong to say that all attempts to stop globalization of economics and communications and culture are fascist. Most resistance to universalism comes from a positive desire to preserve local identities and traditions. Such things may or may not be worth preserving. The balance between the local and the universal is not something that can be dictated categorically. Fascist nationalism, in contrast, was perhaps just an improvisation, made necessary by the fact that nations states were the largest units that fascist elites could hope to control. At a deeper level of fascism is the ideal of the universal empire, of the whole world subject to a single will. The goal is repeatedly deferred only because it is obviously so much harder to achieve.

    Fascist statecraft is by its nature manipulative, a game that elites play with deluded masses. The fascists in the '20s and '30s did not come to power by promising to create a society beyond good and evil. They did it by promising people things that really were good, such as safe streets and private property and a country with a culture they could recognize. The opponents to fascism too often fell into the trap of opposing these things simply because the fascists endorsed them. This is an important point for the world's liberals (or progressives, or whatever they call themselves locally) to keep in mind. As for the conservatives, they must beware of the company they keep.



    This article originally appeared in the November 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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    Tuesday
    Sep302014

    The Long View: Gödel: A Life of Logic

    Kurt GödelI like to think that I am re-posting all of John's blog as some sort of service to humanity, but really I just enjoy rediscovering gems like this one. John's review of a biography of Kurt Gödel has been definitive in shaping my opinions about AI and computation.

    In short, I don't think strong AI is possible, and this is the true explanation why computer scientists have spent the last seventy years looking for it without finding it.

    Roger Penrose famously criticized strong AI in his book The Emperor's New Mind. Wikipedia's summary claims that so many eminent scientists have criticized Penrose's position that it is effectively refuted, to which one might reply, "OK, when where are all the AIs?"

    I think Penrose truly fails by looking for the mind in physics. He is really just embodying the spirit of the age, but it is a sad thing to see when he was perceptive enough to notice that the essence of thinking, abstraction, is not algorithmic.

    There really is a similarity between what minds do and what computers do, but the real similarity makes AI less likely instead of more. Computers are the instantiation of the immaterial forms of Plato [thereby proving Aristotle right]. Ross's conference presentation also illustrates the dangers of treading outside one's field. I do it, I like to do it, but I am always aware that I can sound just as silly to others as they sometimes sound to me. Ross makes an off-hand comment in his presentation about the deadliness of dioxin, which was quite the trendy toxin for a while. Then the Russians tried to poison the Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko wtih dioxin [a preview of the recent unpleasantness], presumably under the impression that it was exceptionally deadly, only to find that all it did was give him a bad case of acne. Oops. Maybe that was just a clever counter-intelligence ploy in the wilderness of mirrors, like the time we sold the Russians faulty gas equipment.

    I'm not an expert in toxicology, but I at least need to know enough to be able to accurately communicate with the experts so I can demonstrate the products I design are safe. Dioxin isn't nice stuff, but the dangers were wildly overblown.

    This was also the beginning of the end of my interest in Neal Stephenson's books. His environmental thriller Zodiac featured a plucky band of environmental crusaders who thwarted a plot to dump dioxin in Boston Harbor. I already knew that dioxin wasn't all it was cracked up to be, and once I noticed one that was a little off, I started to notice a lot of things that were a little off. Oh well.

     

    Gödel
    A Life of Logic

    by John Casti and Werner DePauli
    Perseus Publishing, 2000
    210 Pages, US$25
    ISBN 0-7382-0274-6

     

    Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) was the mathematician and logician whose now famous incompleteness theorem easily ranks among the most uncanny products of the notoriously uncanny first half of the European 20th century. This very brief book by two computer scientists does try to fit Gödel into the world of scientific Vienna in the1920s and 30s. (The book started life as a program for Austrian television: there is a great deal of talk about mysteriously undecidable recipes for Sachertorte pastry.) The authors are more concerned, however, to explain the theorem itself, its relationship to the idea of computability, and the connection all these things have to such questions as the feasibility of artificial intelligence and time travel. This is an unmanageable amount of ground to cover, and the treatment is uneven. Still, simply addressing all these topics between two covers is an accomplishment. The authors provide a blessedly brief, ten-item reading list for those who want to look more deeply into the separate areas covered.

    Gödel was born in the town of Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic, to a family that had grown wealthy from textile manufacturing. The Gödels were German-speaking. The authors tell us they were not Jewish, but we learn no more about confessional affiliation, beyond the fact Kurt was anti-Catholic all his life. Gödel entered the University of Vienna to study physics, but switched to mathematics after a few years. He soon became a member of the Vienna Circle, the influential group that sought to reduce all philosophical questions to problems of language.

    Like Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who were more loosely associated with the Circle, Gödel's membership probably helped him most by providing fodder for criticism. Indeed, few thinkers have ever been less interested than was Gödel in closing down metaphysics. If mathematical Platonism were a religion, Gödel would have been Billy Sunday, his American evangelist contemporary. For Gödel, mathematical objects were as "given" as lumber. They are just another kind of semantic content of sentences. What Gödel did in his proof, the first published version of which appeared in 1931, was to show the weakness of syntax, the system by which semantic content is ordered. The incompleteness theorem shows that there are propositions that we know to be true, but that are nevertheless logically unprovable. A slightly more rigorous formulation is that any logical system at least as complicated as arithmetic will be incomplete, because it will be able to produce statements that cannot be proven or dispoven within the terms of the system. The natural languge versions of the "Liar Paradox" are of this nature.

    While Gödel was thinking these deep thoughts, the politics and economy of the German-speaking world were going to hell in a hand-basket. The failure of the Austrian bank, the Credit-Anstalt, in the same year as the publication of the theorem is usually blamed for blowing up the already stressed European financial system. Austria's First Republic, created when the Habsburg empire disintegrated after the First World War, collapsed into rule-by-decree in 1933. Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938. (This happened, it must be said, with the approval of most Austrians.) The Second World War began in 1939.

    Gödel divided his time in those years between Vienna and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, New Jersey. The Institute, acting in large part under the influence of John von Neumann, served through most of the'30s as a haven for scientific refugees from Europe. Gödel was not neglected. He was offered and took several temporary appointments, but he kept going back to the University of Vienna. Although too unworldly to have ever engaged in politics, he did lose his license to lecture, the Privat Docent, because of his connection with the Vienna Circle, which the Nazis regarded as too Leftist and too Jewish. However, he applied for and actually received a new license as a Docent of the New Order. It was only in 1940, when it was apparent he would be drafted, that he left Austria for good. He and his wife traveled east by train across the Soviet Union, then to Japan, then to the West Coast of the United States, and then to Princeton. His wife, Adele, did not like New Jersey, but they stayed permanently.

    There are many legends about Gödel's antics at Princeton. This book gives us only a few of the best-known ones, such as how Einstein himself had to help calm Gödel down when the latter went to take the oath of citizenship. (It seems that Gödel had found a logical flaw in the federal constitution that would permit the creation of a dictatorship, and he insisted on telling the judge.) The most surprising thing to me, however, was that Gödel was actually a conscientious faculty member. His flaw was that he tended to obsess about the work of any committee on which he sat.

    Although Gödel continued to produce significant mathematical results during his time at Princeton, he was never again as productive as he had been at Vienna. (His wife called the Institute "an old-folks' home," and she may have had a point.) In any case, his interests turned increasingly to philosophy. Gödel famously constructed an ontological proof of the existence of God (he was a great admirer of Leibniz, who had a proof of the same type), and an independent proof of personal immortality. (Karl Popper had one of these too, by the way.) We are told that Gödel was also interested in "the occult," but are given no specifics.

    Gödel was paranoid, convinced that someone was trying to poison him. He therefore always made a great fuss about eating. When he died of what his doctor called "malnourishment and inanition," he weighed just 60 pounds. On the other hand, he also suffered throughout his life from some obscure gastro-intestinal disorder, so it is possible that an underlying basis for this behavior was simply never diagnosed.

    Why should we care about crazy old Kurt and his annoying theorem? For one thing, it's immensely practical. The theorem, and Alan Turing's related Halting Problem that was developed at about the same time, are key to our understanding of what computer programs can and cannot do.

    Perhaps the most interesting such question, covered at length in this book, is whether it is possible to construct an artificial computer intelligence. In "The Emperor's New Mind" (1989), Roger Penrose revived an argument based on Gödel's theorem against the possibility of an algorithmic machine mind. To put it briefly, Penrose pointed out that people can spot "Gödel sentences," true but unprovable propositions, that computer programs cannot detect. Thus, he reasoned, whatever else the human mind is doing when it spots these sentences, it is not computing. Refutations of Penrose are usually variations on the idea that Gödel's theorem applies only to consistent systems, and human beings clearly do not think consistently.

    I should note that I find this argument mysterious. If human minds are being inconsistent when they do advanced mathematics, then how do we manage to reach the same conclusions consistently? In any case, even the most committed Artificial Intelligence believers have mostly abandoned the idea that a program for an artificial intelligence can be written. Now they hope to create Darwinistic, self-programming systems that will organize an intelligent entity spontaneously. Good luck.

    Gödel's theorem serves in popular culture as a symbol of the supposed irrationality of reality. As the authors note, the theorem tends to be dragged out these days to "hit people over the head" with. The authors are too polite to point out that this most subtle of logical arguments is often employed by persons who cannot make any logical argument at all. Nonetheless, it is clear that the theorem and the body of study it make possible are philosophically important, though people differ on just why. For me, the theorem is good evidence that the limits of language are not the limits of knowledge, or even of reason, broadly construed. This suggests that the world is objectively knowable. Surely this is a good thing.

     


    Copyright © 2000 by John J. Reilly


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    Monday
    Sep292014

    The Long View 2002-05-02: Bill Clinton in 2005!

    Another Constitutional law post from John. Since I'm not a lawyer, I'll refrain from commenting on the technical merits of his proposal other than to say it seems plausible to this non-specialist. I also think I remember a joke making the rounds a while ago about how W. was still eligible to run for re-election in 2008 since he wasn't really elected the first time.

    Bill Clinton in 2005!

    They tell a wonderful story about Kurt Gödel, the greatest of 20th century logicians. He fled Europe during World War II, and when he went to take the oath of U.S. citizenship before a federal judge, Albert Einstein himself came along as a witness. The judge chatted with his prominent visitors before the ceremony, unfortunately. Alluding to the collapse of law in Nazi Germany, the judge remarked that the Constitution prevented anything like that from happening in the United States. "Not true!" Gödel replied, and explained that he had found a logical flaw in the Constitution that could be used to found a dictatorship. It took Einstein two hours to calm him down.

    Say what you like about the Clinton Administration, it did at least provide an eight-year tutorial in aspects of constitutional law that almost no one had ever heard of before. Indeed, the Clinton's still have that effect, even though they left the White House almost a year and a half ago. Liz Smith, the gossip columnist, aired an argument in her column of May 7 for the proposition that Bill Clinton really could serve a third term. The notion is that, if Bill Clinton were elected vice president, presumably as number two on a Hillary ticket, he could succeed her if she did not serve out her term. Liz Smith has no pretensions to constitutional scholarship, and it is not clear who suggested the idea to her. Nonetheless, the argument is plausible.

    The Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1951, in the aftermath of the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the only president to break with the tradition of the two-term maximum. (He sought and won four terms in office.) Common knowledge has it that the Constitution now prohibits anyone from serving as president for more than two terms. However, the Amendment does not quite say that:

    Section 1. No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once. But this Article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this Article was proposed by Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this Article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.

    Note that this text does not address how long one may be president, but simply how one becomes president. It forbids anyone to be "elected" more than twice. Succeeding to the office is another matter, however. This provision does not, by its terms, forbid someone who has already been elected president twice from becoming president if the incumbent should die or resign. I might also remark that not only vice presidents can succeed to the presidency; a two-term president emeritus might be anywhere in the line of succession.

    The Twelfth Amendment defines the operation of the Electoral College and how Congress should choose a president if the College does not give any candidate a majority. A seeming objection to the possibility of a president-for-life is offered by the last sentence of the Amendment, which says:

    But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President.

    At the time the Twelfth Amendment was ratified, the terms of eligibility in question were clearly those set out in Article II, Section 1, Paragraph 5, which require that the president be a natural-born citizen, at least 35 years old, and a US resident for at least 14 years. The Twelfth Amendment adds a further requirement that the president and vice president not be "inhabitants" of the same state. Did the addition of the Twenty-second Amendment add to the eligibility requirements?

    Not by the letter of the text. The Twelfth Amendment is about how presidents are elected, not about who can serve. All we are told about "eligibility" is that it is the same for the vice president as for the president. If succession by a two-term president is possible under the Twenty-second Amendment, the Twelfth does nothing to change matters. But might the Twelfth Amendment make a former president ineligible to run for vice president? Probably not, because no provision of the Constitution makes someone who has been twice elected president "ineligible for the office of President." The Constitution simply forbids such a person to be elected yet again. If there is no such ineligibility for a president, then there is none for a vice president.

    Even if my interpretation of the text were the only possible one, that would not settle the issue. A look at the statutory history of the Twenty-second Amendment might show that its drafters and the legislators who voted for it were all intend on ensuring that no one would ever again be president for more than eight years. In that case, a court asked to apply the Twenty-second Amendment would probably look to the intent of the Amendment, rather than to its literal terms. Of course, legislative history might also show that the drafters and ratifiers meant to leave open the possibility that an experienced gray head could serve again as president, presumably in some emergency when the government had been decapitated. When they spoke of "election," maybe that is what they meant.

    The only place to look for precedents would be the states. I am not a great fan of term limits in any form, but many states have them. It is quite possible that just the question we have been considering has arisen before. State court decisions interpreting such statutes would not be binding on the federal judiciary, of course, but they might be persuasive. From what little I recall about the subject, I believe that the states have tended to interpret term limits narrowly rather than broadly. In other words, if an incumbent makes a plausible argument for why a term limit should not apply, the courts will usually accept it.

    I doubt that the particular anomaly we have been considering is the one that Kurt Gödel was thinking about. I am also pretty sure that Bill Clinton has no intention of running for vice president in 2004, or in any other year. Still, it may someday be important that the rules for succession to the presidency are looser than those for election. Constitutional law is full of surprises.


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