Retreat to Move Forward

I confess to having a strong antipathy to smart phones.  I know that they have their good uses.  But I am bewildered as I see people bring them out at various times and places.  I wonder what has become of us.

Now, I also realize a large amount of hypocrisy on my part.  I should also ask what has become of me.  I don’t have a smartphone . . . but I love my iPod, and I check my email too much.  In my mind, if technology had stopped advancing after Apple came out with its 160 GB iPod classic, I would be content.  But even if I am right that our prolific use of smartphones do us harm, what can be done?  After all, retreating from them seems impossible, and time marches on.  To stop advancing technologically would condemn us to economic stagnation.  To actually prevent technology from further advancing would probably require a government more powerful than would be good for us.

So it appears that we’re stuck.

But, maybe not.  The premise of Noel Perrin’s Giving up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879 is that a people can halt a certain kind of technology without radically changing their society.  While certain particular features of Japanese society allowed for this, Perrin states rightly that this example disproves certain well-entrenched ideas about technology and progress, among them:

  • That one must “keep up with the Jones'” to have a successful society
  • That technological progress comes as a whole and not in parts.  In other words, many falsely assume that to halt “progress” in one area will prevent advances in other areas.
  • That halting progress will put a society irrevocably behind other societies.  Instead, when Japan did decide to adopt modern weapons in the late 19th century, they very quickly caught up to others and soon posed a significant military threat.

So first we can examine why Japan could nearly eliminate guns from their society, and then secondarily, we can consider its possible application for us.

I initially assumed that Japan’s restrictive trade practices limited their contact with firearms from the start.  Not so — in fact they made significant use of firearms well into the 1560’s, and European traders remarked quite favorably on their quality.  We might also assume that Japan had a low-level of technology in general, but again — not the case.  To quote Perrin,

Japan had already reached a high level of technology.  Her copper and steel were probably better, and certainly cheaper, than any produced in Europe.  Despite enormous shipping costs, the Dutch found it profitable to send Japanese copper 10,000 miles from Amsterdam.

. . . In iron and steel Japan could undersell England, the recognized leader of European producers.  [Japan also] led the world in paper products.  For 200 years they were the leading manufacturer of weapons.  These were top quality weapons, too, especially the swords.  It is designed to cut through tempered steel, and it can . . .

In a country often experiencing some kind of conflict at some point, they well understood the value of rifles.  But by the end of the 16th century Japan decided against all forms of military mechanization so successfully that they generally disappeared for 250 years.

Of course others in Europe saw the problems with firearms.  Martin Luther said that, “Cannon and firearms are cruel and damnable machines.  I believe them to be the direct invention of the Devil.”  But Germany went on to become the pre-eminent arms manufacturer.  Many French aristocrats inveighed vociferously against the impersonal nature of such weapons, as well as the fact that their introduction would broaden war beyond the aristocracy.  But they too followed the general trend.

Certain factors within Japan made it more likely that they would have success while Europeans failed.  Being an island did not hurt.  Their demographics also played a role.  In France, for example, the warrior aristocracy represented about .1-.2% of the population.  In Japan that number reached close to 10%, which gave them that much more influence.   Japanese swords also had such a high quality that the difference in effectiveness between a sword and a 16th century gun was less than in Europe.

But Perrin argues that the main factor lies in the role of the sword in Japan.  In Europe some swords had religious and symbolic significance, i.e. King Arthur’s “Excalibur,” or Roland’s “Durendal.”  But in Japan, the sword almost literally represented the soul of warrior for every samurai.  Swords were an extension of the self.  Making them obsolete would in effect, make themselves obsolete.  They would have no purpose as they would have no identity.

Perrin relates an interesting story along these lines.  One group of samurai besieged the castle of another warrior.  Eventually it became obvious that the besiegers would win, whereby the besieged asked for a conference.  He explained to his attackers that he had several swords inside that he wished to preserve from destruction.  Would the attackers agree to receive the swords and preserve them?  And so, the defenders, with solemn ceremony, transferred the swords to the attacking army and then retreated back into the castle.  After which, the attackers set fire to the estate and all those inside perished.

Many aristocratic warriors in Europe and Japan detested firearms because it made combat itself impersonal and unredeemable.   We see many examples of dialog during combat in the Arthurian tales, but it seems the Japanese took this to another level.  Perrin gives us one such example, as Warrior ‘X’ tried to behead Warrior ‘Y’ unsuccessfully, who was wounded and exhausted.

Y: Are you fluttered, sir?  You see you have no success.  Look, I wear a nagowa (an iron neck collar).  Remove it, and you can cut off my head.

X: (Bows to “Y”) Thank you sir!  You die an honorable death.  You have my admiration!

One could even argue that Japanese warriors sought not so much victory, but an honorable death.  Firearms dramatically increased the chance that you would die without an honorable end, without a chance to “fly the flag” at the last moment — however much it increased your chances of victory.

Early Japanese firearm manuals acknowledged this and more.  To fire guns well, such manuals stated, one even had to put the body in “demeaning,” inelegant postures.  For the Japanese, the gun represented not just another weapon, but another view of humanity.

Firearms returned late in the 19th century.  Ironically, Admiral Perry told them that if they wanted to keep others like him away, they would need more modern weapons.  Japan then turned on a dime and within a generation had a respectable military force.  Within two generations they posed a grave threat to the most modern of militaries and nearly conquered all of Asia.  The absence of mechanized weapons for three centuries put them at no real disadvantage once they determined to catch up.

One of the oldest tropes in the history of History is historians wishing for bygone days of yore.  But I think our worries about technology go far beyond nostalgia.  Advancement is now so rapid that we have no time to contemplate or evaluate the role of technology in our lives.  We have to ability to develop “social antibodies” to the problems with technology.  As such, we have within the last 10 years become utterly dependent and quite possibly addicted to the internet.  Paul Graham, the innovator behind Reddit, Dropbox, and a variety of other programs, writes,

. . . And unless the rate at which social antibodies evolve can increase to match the accelerating rate at which technological progress throws off new addictions, we’ll be increasingly unable to rely on customs to protect us. Unless we want to be canaries in the coal mine of each new addiction—the people whose sad example becomes a lesson to future generations—we’ll have to figure out for ourselves what to avoid and how. It will actually become a reasonable strategy (or a more reasonable strategy) to suspect everything new.

In fact, even that won’t be enough. We’ll have to worry not just about new things, but also about existing things becoming more addictive. That’s what bit me. I’ve avoided most addictions, but the Internet got me because it became addictive while I was using it.

Do we have any hope of emulating the Japanese and pausing our technological growth?

A few other random examples of at least halting technology exist (such as Elizabeth I preventing indoor plumbing), but I can’t think of another example of a society moving “forwards,”* then “backwards” with the adoption of certain technologies.  Japan’s insular geographic position helped them, as did their demographics, governance, and culture — and I find these last two most significant.

Americans rarely acknowledge the fact that aristocracies come with some benefits, or at least, alternative possibilities.  Japan’s warrior elite had the political and social status to make the ban stick.  Add to that the pull of a unique and deeply distinctive Japanese culture, one that perhaps approximated that of ancient Egypt in its power to unify a large mass of people in a particular way of life (another geographically insulated civilization).

We have no geographic isolation.  Nor does our culture have anything close to Japan’s gravitational pull, i.e. — our capital exports little more than bureaucracy to the rest of the country.  And finally, our democratic system has something close to a zero-percent chance of desiring, or certainly enforcing, such a return to earlier ways.  Self-denial simply has very little place in democratic cultures.

Now I think it’s time for me to check my email . . .

Dave

 

Matt Zoller of RogerEbert.com writes,

We’ve become a one-handed species. We keep one hand in reserve for taking out a wallet, digging in a purse, swiping a Metrocard, helping up a person who’s fallen on the sidewalk, whatever. The other hand is for Making Sure We Got This.

I know, I know. This has been going on for a few years. It’s not a news flash; it’s who we are as a species. I’m Grandpa Abe Simpson yammering about onion belts. I should climb onto the ice floe and shove off. Or say, “Oh yeah, things change, technology changes, it’s no big deal” and quit complaining.

But I think it deserves ongoing consideration and argument, because it’s everywhere.

Is it merely different from, but in no way inferior to, older forms of participation, as people who are addicted to doing it tend to claim when they read pieces like this one? I have no idea. Only a cognitive researcher could say with any authority. But it’s a major and visible change. It’s species-wide.

And I’ve personally not heard any convincing arguments against the idea that it means we have become, in some basic way, detached from our own existence; that life itself is becoming a supplier of material for Instagram, Flicker, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and the like, rather than a thing that happens to us, and that we absorb with our bodies and minds, not with our phones.

*I think it would be a nearly impossible to construct a good argument that mechanized weaponry represented an advance for civilization.

 

 

12th Grade: From Nation to Market, from Family to Individual

Greetings,

This week we looked at the transition from the ‘Nation-State’ to the ‘Market-State,’ with all its attendant implications.

The ‘Nation-State’ (1914-89) was the era that you and I grew up in.  Sometimes its easy to assume that our experience is somehow universal, but in fact that America was different than the America of Thomas Jefferson, and the America of our children will be different as well.

What characterizes this era?

We see here that, in Bobbitt’s words, “Government’s are responsible to and for the people.”  In contrast to Washington, Jefferson, etc., whereas before, people found their identity in ‘the state,’ now ‘the state’ finds its identity in ‘the people’ (my thanks to Addison Smith for this insight).  Gone is the more aristocratic, patriarchal attitude of the founders.  One can see beginnings of this shift in Jacksonian Democracy.  The closing of Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address’ puts forward a new basis for government’s relationship to the people.

Essentially, the Nation-State will end up creating a sense of unity and community.  Many of us remember growing up playing with kids from ‘the neighborhood.’  ‘We are the World,’ and ‘Hands Across America’ were major cultural phenomena.  We listened in with all our friends to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 to see what the #1 song was for the week.

Politically, if we are a family, we take care of the family.  So programs like Social Security to take care of the elderly and Welfare to care for the poor make sense within this rationale.  Iconic presidents on both sides of the political spectrum arise like FDR and Reagan that can rally the whole nation behind them.

It is easy to romanticize this era, and it has many strengths.  But this was also the era of ‘Total War,’ for if whole populations make up ‘the State,’ then whole populations can be the targets.  The horrific devastation of World War I & II come out of this mentality.  Also, mass groups define themselves at times by who is outside the group as well inside.  So the Nation-State era also experienced terrible levels of ethnically motivated violence of which the Holocaust is only the worst example.

The ‘Long War’ of 1914-89, like all epochal conflicts, inevitably forces states to innovate.  And so they did.  The weapons that won this war (nuclear weapons, the computer, international trade) just as in the past, ended up destabilizing the nation-state order and helped bring about our current one, what Bobbitt calls the ‘Market-State.’

We might contrast the two orders by recalling some common experiences then and now.  In the Nation-State, you had to go to a few centralized locations to ‘consume culture,’ for example.  If you wanted to hear a couple songs from an artist, you had to buy the whole album.  If you want news, go to one of the 4-5 major outlets, most of which said much the same thing.  It was the era of the ‘water-cooler’ show, where everyone tuned in to see the Cosby Show, for example (‘Seinfeld’ may have been the last show truly like this).

Now, thanks to technology, identity politics, Vietnam and Watergate, among many factors, we have many more choices.  We can individualize our lives in ways not possible even 15 years ago.

I wanted the students to think about the implications for modern America, and the modern state in general.

First, we noted that governments now have a much harder time controlling the message they want heard. Government’s simply won’t be able to mobilize mass opinion as they could before.  The Arab Spring is one example of this, but there are countless other smaller ones.  Note the leaking of the Abu Ghraib scandal, for example.  Perhaps a downside to this is that with the wealth of options available, we never have to listen to the ‘other side’ if we don’t want to.  Might this contribute to the current rancor in politics today?  Both Bush and Obama have been compared to Hitler, which in my opinion does not foster healthy, responsible debate on their relative merits.  Still, every president or senator is bound to have plenty of critics.   In one sense then, governments have much less power than they used to.

But on the other hand, technology puts a tremendous amount of information at the government’s disposal.  What will happen to the concept of privacy, for example?  The globalized market de-emphasizes territorial boundaries among states.  In the same way, traditional notions of private and public boundaries are also changing.  Will our interpretation of the 4th Amendment also change?

Regardless of where we might stand on these developments, we must avoid a) Vainly wishing for a mythically pristine bygone era, or b) Assuming that every change is inherently good because it is change.  The Market-State, like any other model, will give and take away, and we need to be discerning to maximize its strengths and minimize its weaknesses.

Dave Mathwin

12th Grade: From State-Nation to Nation State

Greetings,

This week we continued looking at the development of states, attempting to make the connection between the various elements in society that propel change.  We looked this week at the ‘State-Nation,’ and the ‘Nation-State.’

Th ‘Territorial-State’ (1648-1776) was a conscious move away from the monarchical ambition and religious motivated violence of the previous era.  They sought order, symmetry, balance, and proportion.  This required careful international diplomacy, and sought to prevent any inward social upheavals, for good or ill.

A variety of factors lead to the breakup of this constitutional order.  For one, the Enlightenment grew stale and begged for a more ‘Romantic’ counter-reaction.  But perhaps more than that, the expansion of Territorial States stretched the logic of their identity based on contiguous property (and not ideology, which travels in the minds of men).  The French-Indian War is perhaps the most striking example of a Territorial-State conflict that gives birth to the ‘State-Nation’ here in America.

The French-Indian War created a sense of identity, a sense of a ‘people’ in the English North American colonies.  This ‘people’ would naturally now not want to be treated as pawns in an international game.  They would inevitably demand rights, and this is at least part of the roots of the conflict between the colonies and England.

A look at the Declaration of Independence and Constitution gives us insight into the emerging world of ‘State-Nations.’

  • We have the basis of the particular relationship between government and the people rooted in universal ideas (all men are created equal)
  • We have recognition that the ‘people,’ not territory or states, are the basis for political power, i.e. “We the people. .  .”
  • At the same time we still have a somewhat aristocratic, paternalistic attitude towards ‘the people.’  Government was responsible “for” the people, but neither George Washington, John Adams, Robespierre, or Napoleon would have thought in terms of government “by” the people, or “of” the people.

Napoleon is a great example of someone who understood how the socio-political landscape had changed, and understood how to take advantage of it.  The French Revolution destroyed not only the aristocracy, but the professional army led by aristocrats.  Napoleon had mass, energy, and ideology at his disposal, but lacked the well drilled and trained armies of the rest of Europe.

With a “people” now organized in France to form a “nation,” Napoleon could mobilize more support for his campaigns.  He had the supplies, backing, and motive to take his army far (we are liberators of the oppressed).  His took this energy and channeled, achieving superiority of mass at points of his choosing.  This rag-tag ball of energy created by the French Revolution and harnessed by Napoleon made quick work of the rational, balanced, symmetrical, and aristocratic armies of Europe.

But then a curious thing happened.  The countries Napoleon occupied inevitably brought with them the ideology and ‘constitution’ they espoused.  If France was so great, why couldn’t Prussia or Austria be great too?  If they wanted to resist, they would need to raise a new army rooted in this new sense of solidarity, this new sense of a ‘people.’  The old aristocratic officers had been discredited by their initial defeat at Napoleon’s hands.  The armies that defeated Napoleon from 1809-1815 from Spain to Russia, from Prussia to England, were in sense, Napoleon’s accidental creations.

Napoleon’s success and ultimate failure have many lessons.  For our purposes I want the students to see how elements of society fit together and in a sense, carry the same message.  Different ideas and actions create new social and political contexts.  Without awareness of the ripple effects of these changes, nations will end up behind the 8 ball, much like Spain of the early 17th century, France and England in the late 18th century, the Austro-Hungarians in the early 20th century, and so on.

We discussed in class the various ways the transition from these two state models might manifest itself.  The “State-Nation” built itself on universal ideas, (i.e. “all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.”)  These grand, sweeping ideas have their incarnation in Beethoven’s music, for example.

But the music of the next model, the “Nation-State” reflected different values.  It was more group oriented, so the music aimed not everywhere but for the broad middle, creating more “popular” and “accessible” music.

Later we had. . .

And then. . .

The ‘Nation-State’ (1914-89) was the era that you and I grew up in.  Sometimes its easy to assume that we experience is somehow universal, but in fact that America was different than the America of Thomas Jefferson, and the America of our children will be different as well.

What characterizes this era?

We see here that, in Bobbitt’s words, “Government’s are responsible to and for the people.”  In contrast to Washington, Jefferson, etc., whereas before, people found their identity in ‘the state,’ now ‘the state’ finds its identity in ‘the people’ (my thanks to Addison Smith for this insight).  Gone is the more aristocratic, patriarchal attitude of the founders.  One can see beginnings of this shift in Jacksonian Democracy.  The closing of Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address’ puts forward a new basis for government’s relationship to the people.

Essentially, the Nation-State will end up creating a sense of unity and community.  Many of us remember growing up playing with kids from ‘the neighborhood.’  ‘We are the World,’ and ‘Hands Across America’ were major cultural phenomena.  We listened in with all our friends to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 to see what the #1 song was for the week.

Politically, if we are a family, we take care of the family.  So programs like Social Security to take care of the elderly and Welfare to care for the poor make sense within this rationale.  Iconic presidents on both sides of the political spectrum arise like FDR and Reagan that can rally the whole nation behind them.

It is easy to romanticize this era, and it has many strengths.  But this was also the era of ‘Total War,’ for if whole populations make up ‘the State,’ then whole populations can be the targets.  The horrific devastation of World War I & II come out of this mentality.  Also, mass groups define themselves at times by who is outside the group as well inside.  So the Nation-State era also experienced terrible levels of ethnically motivated violence of which the Holocaust is only the worst example.

The ‘Long War’ of 1914-89, like all epochal conflicts, inevitably forces states to innovate.  And so they did.  The weapons that won this war (nuclear weapons, the computer, international trade) just as in the past, ended up destabilizing the nation-state order and helped bring about our current one, what Bobbitt calls the ‘Market-State.’

We might contrast the two orders by recalling some common experiences then and now.  In the Nation-State, you had to go to a few centralized locations to ‘consume culture,’ for example.  If you wanted to hear a couple songs from an artist, you had to buy the whole album.  If you want news, go to one of the 4-5 major outlets, most of which said much the same thing.  It was the era of the ‘water-cooler’ show, where everyone tuned in to see the Cosby Show, for example (‘Seinfeld’ may have been the last show truly like this).

Now, thanks to technology, identity politics, Vietnam and Watergate, among many factors, we have many more choices.  We can individualize our lives in ways not possible even 15 years ago.

I wanted the students to think about the implications for modern America, and the modern state in general.

First, we noted that governments now have a much harder time controlling the message they want heard. Government’s simply won’t be able to mobilize mass opinion as they could before.  The Arab Spring is one example of this, but there are countless other smaller ones.  Note the leaking of the Abu Ghraib scandal, for example.  Perhaps a downside to this is that with the wealth of options available, we never have to listen to the ‘other side’ if we don’t want to.  Might this contribute to the current rancor in politics today?  Both Bush and Obama have been compared to Hitler, which in my opinion does not foster healthy, responsible debate on their relative merits.  Still, every president or senator is bound to have plenty of critics.   In one sense then, governments have much less power than they used to.

But on the other hand, technology puts a tremendous amount of information at the government’s disposal.  What will happen to the concept of privacy, for example?  The globalized market de-emphasizes territorial boundaries among states.  In the same way, traditional notions of private and public boundaries are also changing.  Will our interpretation of the 4th Amendment also change?

Regardless of where we might stand on these developments, we must avoid a) Vainly wishing for a bygone era, or b) Assuming that every change is inherently good because it is change.  The Market-State, like any other model, will give and take away, and we need to be discerning to maximize its strengths and minimize its weaknesses.

Men Behaving Badly

Byron Farwell’s The Great Anglo-Boer War offers an intriguing glimpse into the waning days of Victorian England, deals with some difficult moral dilemmas, and entertains with good writing and good stories.  When one combines the myopia of Victorian Brits and the self-righteousness of the Dutch Boers, it can lead, if nothing else, to entertaining reading.  The whole episode reminded me of the failed Rob Schieder TV show Men Behaving Badly.   I saw exactly 0 episodes of this show, but I do remember the promo, which had Schieder’s character standing by a sink full of dirty dishes.  He narrated,

What does a guy do when all of his dishes are dirty?  Well, the way I see it, he could a) Buy more dishes, b) Rent another apartment, or c) Find suitable dish-like replacement from your natural surroundings (holds up a frisbee).

My guess is that was about as good as the show got.

Who is one to root for in this conflict?

On the surface, you have an imperial nation at the high-water mark of its power, fighting in land not their own against a group of rag-tag farmers who only wish to be left alone.  Our underdog instinct wants to kick in, but then we remember the Dutch Boers woeful mistreatment of the indigenous local African population and back off on any potential support.  So perhaps we can root for the Brits?  After all, “Empire” is not, or should not be, a dirty word in and of itself. Sometimes empire-states can serve the common good.  And one can make a legitimate argument that England’s empire on balance did more good than harm, where no such argument exists for say, the French or Germans.

But then you see their reasons for their fight against the Dutch, and you throw up your hands.  The British and the Dutch had their separate spheres of influence in South Africa, and managed to tolerate each other.  But then miners found gold in the Dutch portion and a variety of treasure-seeking Brits came to seek their fortunes.  The Dutch understandably did not embrace their presence.  Almost exclusively they farmed and cared nothing for mining.  They had a narrow, pious view of how life should be led that did not mesh well with the more rambunctious materialistic miners.  Some kind of conflict between them would be inevitable.

The British couldn’t face the idea of their citizens not getting the royal treatment.  Without citizenship, the miners naturally could not vote, and the Dutch passed a law aimed squarely at the miners making the residency requirement for voting 14 years.  The British were outraged, and some minor scuffles ensued, followed by negotiations.  The Dutch agreed to lower the residency requirement to seven years, two shy of the five years the British wanted.

It took someone like Foreign Secretary Alfred Milner to make this difference into a war.  A brilliant scholar, perhaps his German ancestry led him to develop an outsized passion for all things British, especially the Empire.  Was it his mixed ethnic background that subconsciously put so much racial language into his speech?  He once stated,

I believe in the British race.  I believe that the British race is the greatest governing race that the world has ever seen, and I believe there are no limits to its future.  It is the British race which built the Empire, and the undivided British race which can alone uphold it. . . Deeper, stronger, more primordial than material ties is the bond of common blood, a common language, a common history and traditions.”

His Credo, published posthumously, somehow unfortunately only added to his popularity. . .

I am a Nationalist and not a cosmopolitan …. I am a British (indeed primarily an English) Nationalist. If I am also an Imperialist, it is because the destiny of the English race, owing to its insular position and long supremacy at sea, has been to strike roots in different parts of the world. I am an Imperialist and not a Little Englander because I am a British Race Patriot … The British State must follow the race, must comprehend it, wherever it settles in appreciable numbers as an independent community. If the swarms constantly being thrown off by the parent hive are lost to the State, the State is irreparably weakened. We cannot afford to part with so much of our best blood. We have already parted with much of it, to form the millions of another separate but fortunately friendly State. We cannot suffer a repetition of the process.

As an aside we can see that the Nazi’s did not invent all of their horrible language about “race,” and “blood.”

To our point, with this attitude Milner could make a mountain out of a molehill.  His extreme sense of British dignity could be quite easily tweaked.  When some in England felt that with the concession of the Boers war could be avoided Milner stated, “No no no.  If enforced rigidly their government would be able to exclude anyone they deemed undesirable.”  As Farwell noted, why Milner thought that the sovereign Dutch state could not exclude people they deemed undesirable implied that the Dutch had no sovereignty where England was concerned.

Milner’s counterpart Joseph Chamberlain also saw these minor disputes in absolute terms.  He argued for war as well, stating,

We are going to war in defense of principles, the principle upon which this Empire has been founded, and upon which it alone can exist.  The first principle is this–if we are to maintain our existence as a great power in South Africa, we are bound to show that we are both willing and able to protect British subjects everywhere when they are made to suffer injustice and oppression.  The second is that in the interests of the British Empire, Great Britain must remain the paramount Power in South Africa.  [The Dutch] are menacing the peace of the world.

That last sentence is almost breathtaking in its foolishness.  How could a small group of Dutch farmers who denied British citizens the vote in Dutch elections and taxed them 5% on their profits menace the peace of the world?  Not unless the British see their own peace as the world’s peace, or their own inability to get their way everywhere as tantamount to a rupture of “world peace.”

I could not bring myself to root for the British.  Even British opponents of the war, like Major General William Butler, show this same insufferable posture.  Butler forecasted many troubles the British faced in the war, and afterwords commented, “I was able to judge of a possible war between us and the Boers with a power of forecast of a quite exceptional character.”

The war progressed in the way we might expect.  The rugged South African terrain gave the Dutch farmers plenty of hiding space, and British arrogance and unfamiliarity with their surroundings made for a few massacres.  The Dutch were better shots and had better rifles.  But then, British persistence kicked in.  They poured in more money, more troops, and even had an upswing in Victorian enthusiasm, and eventually wore the Boers down.  They took pages out of Sherman’s book by burning crops and farms (they targeted more broadly than Sherman did) and starving troops in the field.  They anticipated the Nazi’s not only in racial language, but also in the use of concentration camps.

But the peace settlement showed that England had only won battles, and in fact, lost the war.  They could not stay in South Africa, and eventually the Dutch gained their complete independence.  As for “upholding British prestige,” the Germans did not think much of it and thus crashed through Belgium in 1914.  So England lost what it both indirectly and directly fought for within a few years of the war’s conclusion.

What lessons can we deduce from this conflict?

1. The expansiveness of late-stage empires

The end of the Victorian era saw a huge expansion of the the Empire.  As the reign waned, they had to loosen their belts.  The same happened, albeit with less success, under Louis XIV in France, and with Augustus’ bid to get into Germany at the end of his life.

I have no good explanation for this.  My only stab might be that when we get older, we don’t really change, but our characteristics come into sharper focus, be they good or bad.  The same might hold for civilizations at the end of epoch. Expansive minded rulers might take a while to find their sea legs, but then once they/the civilization have made their characters, their expansive nature could accentuate itself more and more as time went on.

2. The Persistence of the Armies of Empire

The British troops showed remarkable tenacity and a passion for glory, much like the Roman army in its heyday.  Mounting British casualties early on did nothing to abate this.  I think we can say that rather than the expansiveness creating the armies, the armies provide the possibility of it in the first place.

3. Empires in their late stages make mountains of molehills

Pericles did this with the Megaran Decree, and Victoria did it in South Africa.  To some extent, Napoleon did this with Russia.  When empire-states do this, they always justify their extreme action under the aegis of defending their reputation throughout the world.  For them, their action proves their vitality, but in reality, it may only prove that they have grown old, cranky, inflexible, and overly touchy.

4. The futility of force alone

On certain extreme political ends, some might say that, “violence never solves anything.”  This is quite obviously untrue.  But violence alone, apart from any other political or moral power, will rarely solve problems, especially for the aggressor far from home.  The British experience in India should have taught them this lesson, for they established themselves there with very little force, and rarely had to use it to stay.

Milner wanted to make South Africa something of a second India, but their brutal tactics could never win over the local population.  The Dutch never wanted to be British the way some Indians did.  Even many Indians that eventually fought for independence used their British educations to do so.

I like the ‘Redux’ version of Apocalypse Now, and I think this scene sums up in some ways the position of the Dutch and the British.

Like sand falling though our fingers, South Africa slipped away despite their military victory.

The American “Prestige”

 

In our senior Government class, we spend a good amount of time discussing the question, “What is America?” throughout the year.  The question is deceptively simple, and we have a difficult time answering it.  We discussed Book 1, Ch. 4 from The Prince recently in class, and it spurred some interesting discussion.

The text reads as follows . . .

Why The Kingdom Of Darius, Conquered By Alexander, Did Not Rebel Against The Successors Of Alexander At His Death

CONSIDERING the difficulties which men have had to hold a newly acquired state, some might wonder how, seeing that Alexander the Great became the master of Asia in a few years, and died whilst it was yet scarcely settled (whence it might appear reasonable that the whole empire would have rebelled), nevertheless his successors maintained themselves, and had to meet no other difficulty than that which arose among themselves from their own ambitions.

I answer that the principalities of which one has record are found to be governed in two different ways: either by a prince, with a body of servants, who assist him to govern the kingdom as ministers by his favour and permission; or by a prince and barons, who hold that dignity by antiquity of blood and not by the grace of the prince. Such barons have states and their own subjects, who recognize them as lords and hold them in natural affection. Those states that are governed by a prince and his servants hold their prince in more consideration, because in all the country there is no one who is recognized as superior to him, and if they yield obedience to another they do it as to a minister and official, and they do not bear him any particular affection.

The examples of these two governments in our time are the Turk and the King of France. The entire monarchy of the Turk is governed by one lord, the others are his servants; and, dividing his kingdom into sanjaks, he sends there different administrators, and shifts and changes them as he chooses. But the King of France is placed in the midst of an ancient body of lords, acknowledged by their own subjects, and beloved by them; they have their own prerogatives, nor can the king take these away except at his peril. Therefore, he who considers both of these states will recognize great difficulties in seizing the state of the Turk, but, once it is conquered, great ease in holding it. The causes of the difficulties in seizing the kingdom of the Turk are that the usurper cannot be called in by the princes of the kingdom, nor can he hope to be assisted in his designs by the revolt of those whom the lord has around him. This arises from the reasons given above; for his ministers, being all slaves and bondmen, can only be corrupted with great difficulty, and one can expect little advantage from them when they have been corrupted, as they cannot carry the people with them, for the reasons assigned. Hence, he who attacks the Turk must bear in mind that he will find him united, and he will have to rely more on his own strength than on the revolt of others; but, if once the Turk has been conquered, and routed in the field in such a way that he cannot replace his armies, there is nothing to fear but the family of the prince, and, this being exterminated, there remains no one to fear, the others having no credit with the people; and as the conqueror did not rely on them before his victory, so he ought not to fear them after it.

The contrary happens in kingdoms governed like that of France, because one can easily enter there by gaining over some baron of the kingdom, for one always finds malcontents and such as desire a change. Such men, for the reasons given, can open the way into the state and render the victory easy; but if you wish to hold it afterwards, you meet with infinite difficulties, both from those who have assisted you and from those you have crushed. Nor is it enough for you to have exterminated the family of the prince, because the lords that remain make themselves the heads of fresh movements against you, and as you are unable either to satisfy or exterminate them, that state is lost whenever time brings the opportunity.

Now if you will consider what was the nature of the government of Darius, you will find it similar to the kingdom of the Turk, and therefore it was only necessary for Alexander, first to overthrow him in the field, and then to take the country from him. After which victory, Darius being killed, the state remained secure to Alexander, for the above reasons. And if his successors had been united they would have enjoyed it securely and at their ease, for there were no tumults raised in the kingdom except those they provoked themselves.

But it is impossible to hold with such tranquillity states constituted like that of France. Hence arose those frequent rebellions against the Romans in Spain, France, and Greece, owing to the many principalities there were in these states, of which, as long as the memory of them endured, the Romans always held an insecure possession; but with the power and long continuance of the empire the memory of them passed away, and the Romans then became secure possessors. And when fighting afterwards amongst themselves, each one was able to attach to himself his own parts of the country, according to the authority he had assumed there; and the family of the former lord being exterminated, none other than the Romans were acknowledged.

When these things are remembered no one will marvel at the ease with which Alexander held the Empire of Asia, or at the difficulties which others have had to keep an acquisition, such as Pyrrhus and many more; this is not occasioned by the little or abundance of ability in the conqueror, but by the want of uniformity in the subject state.

Machiavelli’s distinction helps make sense of other historical events.  We can look, for example, at Napoleon and Hitler’s invasion of Russia/Soviet Union.  At first glance, Russia must have seemed akin to Persia in Napoleon’s eyes.  After all, Czar Alexander I certainly looked like most other autocrats in history.  But . . . for most of Russia’s existence it resembled France.  Tales in the old Russian folk-epics reveal a shaky relationship of the people to their ruler, but more importantly, old Russia had several distinct provinces/cities that competed for precedence and had their own history and identity.  Napoleon found Russia easy to enter but hard to hold.  The Nazi’s found the same true even 130 years later.  When force no longer sufficed to hold the Soviet Union together ca. 1989-91, the old identities resurfaced almost immediately.

“Never get involved in a land war in Asia,” also has some of the same logic behind it.  A country like China has the appearance of resembling Persia, just as Russia did.  But most of China’s history reveals competing provinces, dialects, and an uncertain relationship to the emperor until later in its existence.

So we asked the question, “Which kind of kingdom is America?”  Does it resemble France, or Persia?  One clue to this question is to look at Persia. In contrast to Russia, China, or France,  did not have a long, zig-zag run-up to the height of its power.  Their civilization had a jump-start, meteoric rise under Cyrus the Great, who immediately set a pattern of charismatic dominance over the whole of his empire.  In future generations the Persians took their cue it seemed almost entirely from future dynamic leaders like Darius.  Their reliance on this pattern shows even in the failed rebellion of Cyrus the Younger, who fit this mold of dynamic leader better than his brother Artaxerxes II.  The fact that he almost succeeded with no other claim to rule besides his personality says a lot about Persia.

Some students thought that America had a beginning akin to that of France or Russia.  We had different colonies in different parts of the Atlantic coast that developed entirely apart from each other.  These colonies came together only to fight against a common enemy, but essentially remained separate kingdoms until sometime after the Civil War — perhaps not even until into the Great Depression.

The majority thought otherwise.  True, the first colonies hardly interacted with one another, but they came to America with similar purposes from similar cultures.  At the core, they were about the same thing, which is why the French-Indian War could so easily unite them and start us thinking about the “people.”  When examining the history of China, Russia, or France one sees a host of regularly occurring rivalries, small conflicts, and so on.  But America we only see one big blowup  — the Civil War.  The Civil War showed that obviously, we differed on much.  But it was the kind of big blowup that occurs in families, when often unity exists. It was the exception that proved the rule.

I acknowledge much merit in the “France” argument, but in this case I sided with the majority.  Tocqueville noticed back in the 1830’s the tendency towards centralization in our democratic experiment, and the already growing power of the majority.  He wrote,

The very essence of democratic government consists in the absolute sovereignty of the majority; for there is nothing in democratic states that is capable of resisting it.

We have different political opinions, but in no political election is any fundamental question of identity at stake.  Many rejoice/lament the election of a particular president.  But whoever may win the election, the next day our lives remain unchanged.

In Book Five of his Poliitcs Aristotle speculates that democratic constitutions* remain most safest when threats to said constitution remain either far away or very close.  The first seems obvious.  When nothing threatens us we live at ease, and it’s easy to have peace with others.  A very near threat like an invasion would bind us together quickly.    This kind of threat might also be merely an obvious one, like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which immediately united a divided country in the war effort.

The in-between threats, however, pose a real challenge.  Since the danger is neither obvious or near, we can easily divide not just on how to respond but whether or not to respond.  We might think of the Vietnam War as an example of this, and sure enough, it brought on significant internal changes to our constitution.  The “War on Terror” fits into a similar mold. Should we intervene here or there?  Should we increase surveillance or not, what about privacy rights, and so on.  And, true to Aristotle’s form, we see increased political polarization with this “intermediate” threat.

But our class speculated on exactly what an “invader” — whatever form that might take — would find.  Once Cyrus the Younger died in the Battle of Cunaxa his cause died with him.  Once Darius III died, Alexander had essentially conquered Persia.  But at what would America’s enemies take aim?  Not the president, surely, for at any given time half the country will not like him.  Not the capital, either.  As the British discovered in 1813, burning D.C. did little to aid their war effort.  One could hypothetically detonate a strong EMP in the atmosphere to knock out our electrical system.  But that would take out any first or second world country and so that answer lacks enough specificity to the United States.  This “absolute sovereignty of the majority,” would be hard to pin down.  Where is it?  And how would one attack it?  Get too close, and the unity of the people to defend their “constitution” would quickly emerge.

The “prestige” in magic is the trick’s big reveal, and of course sometimes what is revealed is nothing at all.  This would happen perhaps to an invader, who might never find the rabbit inside the hat.  Rather, as Aristotle suggests, and the experience of Rome certainly plays out, democracies will be far more likely to erode themselves from within as opposed to without.

Dave

 

*By “constitution” he does not mean merely a written document, but our way of relating to one another in general.

 

 

12th Grade: The Changing State of Nations

Greetings,

Towards the end of this week we began preparation for our look at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 by examining how nations change over time, and why.

To help guide us we will be using Philip Bobbitt’s framework from his book, “The Shield of Achilles.”  I have picked this because we need to have some kind of general categories to work from, and Bobbitt provides them, though one can debate his specific conclusions.  One of the strengths of Bobbitt’s work for our project is that he is more concerned with showing the possibilities than arriving at specific conclusions.  Bobbitt chose the title because he wanted to emphasize the connections between various aspects of society, and he refers to the famous shield given to Achilles by his mother Thetis.  We might expect that the shield would have military insignia exclusively, but in fact that shield had depictions of numerous scenes of life in general, as the diagram shows.

I want the students to see these same connections.

Bobbitt makes several points worth noting.

  • Many historians will seek for the one defining turning point in the history of the western idea of the state.  Bobbitt points out, rightly I think, that there are many such turning points in history, and that we are in the midst of one now.  By understanding how these changes happened before, we can better prepare for our own future
  • People remain who they are from birth, but the way they relate to the world will change over time.  For example, as a young boy I thought of myself as a future NFL wide receiver.  What if I still thought of myself that way?  What if I left my job, trained hard, and showed up at Redskins training camp next year hoping to make the team?  This would be silly, but also destructive.  What would happen to my family, for example?  So too, nations must accurately assess their own identity and match it to the reality they face.  When nations fail to do so — when their concept of their own identity does not fit well with reality, that nation suffers.
  • Bobbitt also encourages us to see the various state models over time as opportunities.  Often people, like nations, get stuck wishing and acting based on a bygone past.  How much better if we could accept things we could not change and make the most of them?  What are those things that can be changed, and things that cannot?  How should we act and plan accordingly?

We proceed recognizing that elements of a state’s internal order (politics, economics, culture, military, etc.) will all share a common rationale.  When we looked at the “Territorial State” (1648-1776) model we saw its origins in the rejection of the “Kingly State” (1588ish-1648) and its identity.

The Kingly state built itself around the king.  The “bigger” the king, the grander the people.  So, for example, the French took pride in the fact that Louis XIV could eat far more than other men.  It made him seem larger than life, and this in turn spilled over into the people.  Frequently other monarchs of this era (like Henry VIII, Elizabeth I) pictured themselves in outsized proportions.

If the king’s religion formed the religion of the people, than those that did not share in that religion must either have second-class status (like Catholics in England, or Protestants in France) or be banned entirely from participation in the state.  Furthermore, the wars of the state could in theory be universal in scope, because religion is not bound by geography.

The transition to the “Territorial State” came about due primarily to the physical and moral exhaustion brought about by the wars of religion.  Now states feared above all “enthusiasms,” or anything that might upset the apple cart.  Now rulers sought to keep wars local and short, because the only justification for war had to be acquisition of contiguous territory.  The universal ambitions of previous monarchs made no sense anymore.

The age of the Territorial State is the age of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, with a focus on what can be known and measured.  Economically, the “mercantile” philosophy dominated the era, with its strict control on imports.  Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations would do much to undermine this philosophy, and coincidentally, appeared at the same time as the American Revolution.

This transition can be seen visually:
The ‘Kingly-State’ King, Louis XIV, where the “bigger” kings are, the more power they have (notice how Louis seems to say, “Look at me in all my glory!”):
The ‘Territorial State” King, Frederick the Great (notice that does not seek to reveal himself to the painter–he almost turns himself away):
‘Kingly State’ Architecture:
‘Territorial State’ Architecture:
This is a tough concept, but I hope the students will get the hang of it.
Dave Mathwin

The “Great Man” Theory of History

The book “Blood and Iron Origin of the German Empire As Revealed by the Character of Its Founder, Bismarck,” by John Hubert Greusel is not so much a biography of Bismarck as it is a pean to an idea, an homage to a theory of History.

Historiography has its fashions just like other disciplines.  In the late 19th century the “History is Made by Great Men” theory gained prominence among a certain set.

To best of my knowledge, the theory runs something like this:

  • Existence, political or otherwise, is about struggle for survival and little else.
  • Civilizations have moral codes to help check our naturally competitive instincts, and these serve a good purpose — most of the time.  But times arise that call for a transcending of such codes.  We don’t like to admit it to ourselves, but the vast majority of us lack the strength of will and purpose needed to accomplish what needs done.  Society craves champions.
  • “Great Men” arise to meet such a challenge.   Such men have vast intellects and plentiful energy.  They can mold the minds of men and make Lady Fortune their mistress.  Their grand vision naturally requires sacrifice, but they sacrifice themselves most of all to their ideals.  They sacrifice the prevailing mores of the time to this ideal as well.  Their “greatness of soul” excuse all their crimes and vices, some of which are only mere convention anyway.
  • Such “Great Men” are beloved by some, hated and reviled by most others.  Inevitably, “lesser” men gang up on them and bring them down, but the “Great Men” manage to have the last laugh.  They gain immortality by their deeds and the impact they leave behind.

Colonel Jessup believed in this theory. . . (warning: language)

Historians typically use a few different people to expound this philosophy.  Julius Caesar fits the bill, as does Napoleon, who said, “The world begged me to govern it.”  Some write about Alexander the Great this way, a man with a vision of the brotherhood of man, only to face betrayal from his own army.  Hannibal gets this treatment too, as his own government first would not give him reinforcements and then after the war betrayed him to of all people, the Romans.  At least Hannibal, unlike Napoleon, Caesar, and Alexander, got a noble death by his own hands.  He remained “unconquered.”

Bismarck most definitely could be written about this way, and that is how Greusel treats him.

Fashions change of course, and historiography changed.  By the mid-20th century historians had stopped focusing on the great men and swung the pendulum to examine culture, environment, and the everyday (think Fernand Braudel).  Interestingly, the “Great Man” approach coincided with the advent of Nietzche’s philosophy of the “over-man” and the heyday of imperialism. Historians’ focus switched as empires collapsed and the civil rights movement began.

First, a word about Greusel specifically.

His writing has an endearing quality, because he cannot contain himself.  He gets carried away with his subject, with both Bismarck and the Idea.  Each page has multiple exclamation points to accompany the exalted language.  A typical paragraph might look like . . .

And here is Bismarck, striding over the plain of Sedan.  Look at his steps, like a Colossus!  His face — o his face! — triumphant in his glory.  But look close.  Is that a tear in his eye?  A tear for the slain, the cost of victory?  Weep, o weep Bismarck, if you must, but not here, not now. Watch him suppress his anguish, for what is the cost?  This is Germany’s hour!  Watch Bismarck complete the triumph.  For he will drink champagne — yes champagne! — right in Versailles where Louis XIV looked with eagle eye over his foppish band.  Bismarck guzzles the liquid, as he guzzles glory!  For here we have a man who loves and hates like no other!

Entertaining in doses, but not entirely informative.

Greusel does not entirely gloss over Bismarck’s faults, but he keeps returning to the idea that, “You need Bismarck on that wall, you want Bismarck on that wall!”  Germany needed united, after all, and it took a force of nature to overrule a pathetic Parliament and outmoded provincial princes.  Thus Bismarck fulfilled, “the secret yearning of the Teutonic Heart,” (his words, not mine) and the immensity of the task meant that immense deeds needed done, and lesser men must give way to The Deed.

I’ll give Greusel credit for this: he does not hide his thoughts in flowery prose.  He has no qualms with making his views obvious, such as his intolerance for weakness or the “pettiness” of democracies.  His heroes are the Great Men, who serve the god Will, embodied in the German national consciousness.

I have profound antipathy for the “Great Men” theory of History for many reasons, but we must first understand its appeal.  We admire strength because we do need it at times.  Part of us can’t help but agree with Colonel Jessup.  Certain times call for clarity of vision and courage to make difficult decisions when all others see a foggy grey landscape.  The question is, what kind of strength do we need?

With that in mind, problems with the theory abound:

  • The theory absolves one of responsibility.  Bismarck’s individuality gets merged into something resembling Fate.  For all of Greusel’s croonings about how Bismarck was a “man” his treatment of him abstracts Bismarck to the point where he no longer is an individual, but a Type.  As a colleague of mine rightly pointed out, a great gulf exists between the Great Men and Biographical approach to History.  The biographical approach values their subjects as men/women, rather than seeing them through the lens of imagined archetypes.
  • This absolving of responsibility allows the characters of this treatment (Napoleon, Alexander, etc.) to indulge via proxy in childish shifting of blame.  “It’s not my fault!  He did it!”  Again, not particularly manly.
  • The theory has no appreciation for anything like moral strength, or the power in humility.  The growth of the Church within the Roman Empire, or the Civil Rights movement stand as clear examples of the power of humility.  Selfishness and pride get pride of place with “Great Men.”
  • Great Men adherents tend to think that force is always the correct solution.  Napoleon may have been right that Europe needed unity, and that every war between European nations had the character of a civil war.  But his conquests provoked far more war than existed previously.  Bismarck wanted to Germany to unite, and I suppose that Germany had a right to unity if they mutually desired it.  But Bismarck did not want unity through a democratic process.  He wanted to create Germany through the forge of blood and iron.  Only in that way could he serve his god.
  • The theory predicates itself on the unremitting “struggle of life.”  But if History means looking at actual people in time, we should ask if “struggle” defines human existence.  Obviously struggle is part of life, but it also seems like most of the time people watch tv, hang out with friends, read books, visit relatives, etc.
  • Not so much on the theory but on Greusel specifically — why exactly did Germany need united, and why did it need to get that unification at the expense of a patient democratic process?  Greusel never addresses this question directly.

Historian Herbert Butterfield commented,

It is easy to make plans of quasi-political salvation of the world. . . .  And when such plans go wrong, it is easy to find a culprit–easy for the idealist to bring out from under his sleeve that doctrine of human sinfulness which would have been much better to face squarely and fairly in the first instance.  At a later stage in the argument the disillusioned idealist trounces the people who opposed him, brings human wickedness into the question as a deux ex machina.  . . . And now he discovers human wickedness with a vengeance, for on this system the sinners are fewer in number, and thus must be diabolically wicked to make up for it.  Nothing more completely locks humanity in some of its bewildering predicaments and dilemmas than to range history as a fight between the righteous and the wicked, rather than seeing initially that human nature–including oneself–is imperfect generally.

Greusel wrote in 1915, when Germany looked like it might “fulfill its destiny on the world stage.”  The sad irony of this book is that Germany’s worship of force led them to near annihilation over the next 30 years.  Beware of calling forces to your aid you call you cannot control.  Their gods Will and Force turned out to be demons.  St. Augustine commented in The City of God, referring to the Romans folly of adopting the gods that could not save Troy,

For who does not see, when he thinks of it, what assumption it is that they could not be vanquished under vanquished defenders, and that they only perished because they had lost their guardian gods, when, indeed, the only cause of their perishing was they chose for themselves protectors condemned to perish.

Finally Greusel’s abstraction of Bismarck has him overlook aspects of the man that don’t fit his theory.  I’m no great fan of Bismarck, but after 1871 he showed a measure of restraint in foreign policy.   He thought imperialistic ventures foolish and self-defeating, for example.  Germany only embarked on extensive colonialism as he lost power in the government.  Was this a “conversion experience” that Greusel overlooked, or is Bismarck just more complicated that he lets on?  I suspect the latter.

Therefore the book, while entertaining in parts, may reveal more about Greusel than Bismarck himself.