Music Covers and “Renaissances”

One of the ways I think you know you may have hit upon a good theory is if it applies to a variety of areas of life.  If a historical theory holds water, it will do so by revealing something about the human experience in general, not just particular time periods.  Toynbee really impressed me with his theory of how civilizations interact across time, and this article got me thinking about how Toynbee’s theory of “Renaissances”  might apply with artists who cover other people’s songs.

As Toynbee elucidated, not all renaissances are created equal, with some giving life, and others taking it.  Music fans know that not all music covers have the same impact.  Some stink while others succeed.  But why?  Can we apply any general principles to our investigation related to our study of civilizations?  What makes for good or bad cover songs?

One of Toynbee’s theories is that interaction between two living civilization will bear more creative fruit than interactions between live civlizations and the ghosts of dead ones.  We only need to imagine the possibilities inherent in an active conversation between two people, and passively receiving a recording from the past to see the difference.  We can call a ‘living’ band one that is active at the time one of their songs is covered, and a ‘dead’ one as a band/artist no longer active.

First let’s examine some successful covers and see if they fit into the theory.Here are two great originals. . .

Toynbee claimed that one reason why interactions between the living can have more vitality is that the copying civilization (or in our case, artist) are by definition freed from the burden of rote homage.  They can’t merely repeat what the other existing band could easily do better, so they change it and put something of themselves into it.

Below Hendrix and Aretha Franklin cover Dylan and Redding.  These cover versions are deservedly better known, and superior to the originals:

Interestingly, Franklin patterns her version of ‘Respect’ right along Redding’s lines, but the switch of narrator from man to woman and slower tempo adds to the song’s swagger and gives it more life. Perhaps her gender difference with Redding allowed her to confidently assert herself rather than just mimic him.  With Hendrix, he takes Dylan’s song and gives the lyrics the weight, mystery, and energy they deserve.

Along the same lines, Joe Cocker had success interacting with the Beatles on his classic cover of “With a Little Help from My Friends,” at Woodstock, while the Beatles were technically still a living ‘civilization.’

Part of the reason for Cocker’s success is that he feels no need to emulate the Beatles, and is smart enough to know he cannot try and copy what the Beatles could do much better.

But not all would be so insightful.

Here is the Beatles’ “Come Together.”

A few years after they broke up and became a ‘dead civilization’ Aerosmith produced this monstrosity (and if anyone thinks that Ringo didn’t really have any chops, just compare his “light on his feet” performance with the elephant stomps of Joey Kramer):

Here Aerosmith, bringing back the ghost of the recently ‘dead’ Beatles, falls into a common trap.  They feel the need to pay homage, and lose any sense of creative space, producing the lifeless result we might expect under such conditions.  Lest you think Aerosmith an isolated example, let’s do another.

First, the classic original. . .

And now, Sheryl Crow’s regrettable cover of the then recently ‘dead’ Guns N’ Roses:

The problem is not that either Aerosmith or Crow lacks talent.  The problem is their proximity to the ‘dead’ source material creates the additional psychological burden.

Another principle for Toynbee is that of geographical distance.  Closer geographical proximity usually means closer cultural affinity, and less overall freedom.  We saw how in 15th century Europe southern Italy acted with less freedom to the classical revival than northern Europe in the post I linked above.  The Greeks and Romans were the southern Italians’ next door neighbors, but not so to those in the north.  The same can hold true in genres of music.  We see that when Aerosmith, a rock band, covers another rock band (the Beatles) the process of mimesis is often mechanical.  Hendrix and Dylan occupied different genres, as did Joe Cocker and the Beatles.  Franklin pulled off the very unusual feat of occupying similar territory as the artist she covered successfully, but as we’ve seen, the fact that Redding was still a ‘living civilization’ freed her at least from mere mimicry.

Jazz artists over time have often covered standards from popular music, but by the 1980”s-90’s this process grew stale.  Some jazz groups have started to revive the practice of using popular music as source material, but freed from attachment to the ‘Great American Songbook,’ they can choose from a whole new catalog.  Here is a ‘standard’ from my youth:

And here is The Bad Plus, completely reinterpreting it:

The ‘geographical’ difference of genre gives The Bad Plus much more freedom to create something new.

If you, like me, are willing to call Toynbee’s theory a success, are there others areas of life where we can apply his principles?

Many thanks,

Dave

And finally, a cover so awful and so bizarre I am shockingly at a loss for words to begin to categorize it.  Laugh, cry, or go running headlong screaming into the night — I can’t decide!  I dare anyone to actually listen to the whole thing. . .

Renaissances and Ghosts: “Contacts Between Civilizations in Time”

This is not a book unto itself, but merely one-third of Volume 9 of his multi-volume A Study of History series, subtitled, “Contacts Between Civilizations in Time.” However, it can stand apart from the other sections, and it is so dense and at times so insightful it deserves its own treatment.

Naturally when one mentions “The Renaissance,” in the West, we think of the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century, but this, Toynbee states, serves us poorly for three main reasons:

1. There have been many “renaissances” throughout history and to call the one we know “The Renaissance” narrows our vision and prevents us from seeing patterns throughout time and place.

2. When we think of The Renaissance we think mostly about its art, but the classical style came from a broader classical culture.  One thing inevitably spills over into another.

3. Finally, what a “renaissance” really involves  is not so much a resurrection of an idea in the sense of new life, but an act of necromancy designed to bring back to life a dead past.  Think Frankenstein instead of a “new heavens and new earth.”  After all, we cannot bring back the dead, but we can contact a dead past’s “ghost.”  It is this concept of a Renaissance as an act of necromancy that gives this part of the book its unifying theme and key spiritual insight. With that in mind. . .

Toynbee begins with the Italian Renaissance, with which most of us are familiar.  Imagine yourself in Florence, ca. 1400 A.D.  Let’s suppose that you discover the artistic classical style and you begin to replace the prevailing gothic way of seeing the world.  Soon you find yourself, however, noticing the classical political ideology can lend credence to your fight for more independence for  parochial communities (i.e. Venice, Florence, etc.) in one fell swoop.  The city-state system experiences a revival in Italy, which leads to a different role for the Church.  In time, the nation-state is born.  So, “one thing leads to another.”  We cannot expect that we can revive just the artistic style without the accompanying framework.

But if you want the blessings, you get the curses.  The parochial nation-state idea nearly destroyed Europe from 1914-1945, just as it destroyed Greece from 431-338 B.C.  As Toynbee indicates, there is a reason for the death of a previous civilization, and “if you latch onto a decayed society’s social ethos, you will likely suffer their fate.”

This leads naturally into his “necromancy” template.  He makes a few points,

1. Necromancy is by definition an act of desperation (i.e., Saul and the witch at Endor, the rise of spiritualism and seances in England during World War I).  The desperate act may be warranted/worth the cost, or it may be a reaction in the wrong direction.

2. Necromancy reveals not only desperation but a lack of confidence.  Necromancy signals an abdication in our ability to create something new and the passive acceptance to what others already did for you.  Regine Pernoud made similar points in Those Terrible Middle Ages.  But there may be more to it; a renaissance may reflect something deeply lacking in the era in which it happens.

3. When civilizations connect with each other in living “space,” the interaction between the two has potential for equality and mutual exchange, but not with ghosts.  While in Hades, the ghost has no power.  You live; it does not.  But call up the ghost and you discover, like Hamlet, that the ghost has all the power.  You have no influence over the dead, who cannot hear you.  All you can do is listen to them.  Again — you have abdicated something of yourself by reviving the ghost.  “Renaissances are bound to be insulated experiences,” Toynbee commented.  You are now in his power.  The US helped support the revival of the ghost of 19th century Sudanese Wahabi’ism in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, and that did not work out so well for us.

But maybe drastic times call for drastic measures.  Take Charlemagne, for example, who along with Pope Leo III revived the ghost of the Roman Empire.   Was it worth it?  Many historians credit Charlemagne with reviving civilization itself in Europe for the first time in three centuries.  Perhaps inventing a new model would have been preferred, but how much do we blame them given the chaotic times?

Still, even if we agree with Pope Leo and Charlemagne, we must count the cost.  Empires mean conquest; conquest means death, centralization, and other attendant evils.  You can’t have Charlemagne be the “Holy Roman Emperor” without bringing back the filth attendant to the glory.

4. The effect of the ghostly presence will depend in part on geography.  Reviving a direct family member works differently than a distant cousin.  So in Italy the effect of the reviving the classical ghost would be like bringing back the stern father, while in the north the response would have more latitude, and probably, more creativity.

Of course the closer the relation, the greater power the ghost has.

We will also have a difficult time getting the ghost to leave.  In Europe the classical artistic style faded within a century, but in architecture it remained centuries longer, and politically longer still, into the 20th century.

However necessary they may be, renaissances remain unpredictable and dangerous.   Approach at your peril.

Just as renaissances are messy and unpredictable, so too evaluating them remains difficult.  Toynbee cuts through the grey in his typically incisive way, saying,

“Renaissances must be judged by their hindrance or help to the soul with the sin of idolatry.”

Here Toynbee shows his great insight that all human affairs have a theological dimension.  A renaissance may help pry us from a lifeless and destructive present, or it may make us greater slaves to an even more lifeless past and put us, “Out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

Dave

I enjoyed this analysis on the dangers of calling up ghosts in the music industry.

The Imperial Draftee

Children often hear, “This is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you,” before getting punished and of course they never believe it.  One day, they find out that it takes a lot of energy to come up with a punishment and enforce it.  In a similar vein, no one who wins the lottery believes that they will fall victim to the “curse” of great financial windfall actually making people more unhappy.

So too imperial states do not realize that extra conquests often presage a “time of troubles,“* and soon begin to work against them.  We usually think of the geo-political or financial burden of conquest, but it takes a psychological toll as well.

Here is a picture of a draftee into Japan’s army, with his family at a farewell gathering.

The Imperial Draftee

The picture should be blown up beyond screen size to get the full impact, and you can do that here.

We might guess that this picture was taken late in World War II, when all that seemed left for Japan was either surrender or “honorable” death.  But in fact, the picture is from 1939, when Japan’s fortunes seemed very much on the rise.  But this “rise” in fortunes may not have been all it seemed.  In 1939 Japan had reached a stalemate of sorts in China after quick and early victories.  To break the stalemate they began wanton and indiscriminate bombing of Chinese cities.  As David Derrick notes, Japanese tended to look somber in photographs, but here they appear beyond somber.  They are troubled , suffering from what Toynbee called a “schism of the soul.”  Whether your religion be Christianity, or in Japan’s case, Shintoism, people were not made to kill on such a scale.  Such actions take their toll.  It may hurt the conqueror more than the conquered.

*Readers of the linked post may note that while Japan technically was ruled by the Emperor, in fact they were controlled by a military oligarchy.

The Psychology of Encounters

As an author A.J. Toynbee could be controversial and intimidating.  His grand theories of the scope of history naturally had adherents and skeptics.  Toynbee repeated himself numerous times over the scope of his 12 volume magnum opus.  At times too, Toynbee’s “insights” seem like little more than average common sense, such as his observation that geography must present a challenge to encourage the development of a civilization.

But sometimes his insights, even if not earth-shattering, are nonetheless enjoyable to contemplate, and show their worth because of their applicability in different circumstances.  I have always thought that the book The World and the West a great entry point for those interested in Toynbee’s work.  My favorite chapter (the book is a collection of speeches given on a theme) is “The Psychology of Encounters” (available here for those interested).

His main point deals with how cultures interact with one another.  One of his arguments entails showing how when a culture gets transplanted into “non-native” soil, it may not “take” in the way it did so where originally planted.  He uses the rise of nationalism from the mid 19th-early 20th centuries.  The idea of nationalism grew up slowly and organically in England and France, and perhaps to a lesser extent in Russia.  But the exportation of this idea to other areas could have unintended and dangerous consequences.  I quote at length,

We can see why the same institution has had these strikingly different effects in these two different social environments. The institution of ‘national states’ has been comparatively harmless in western Europe for the same reason that accounts for its having originated there; and that is because, in western Europe, it corresponds to the local relation between the distribution of languages and the alignment of political frontiers. In western Europe, people speaking the same language happen, in most cases, to be huddled together in a single continuous and compact block of territory with a fairly well defined boundary separating it from the similarly compact domains of other languages; and, in a region where, as here, the languages are thus distributed in the pattern of a patchwork quilt, the language map provides a convenient basis for the political map, and ‘national states’ are therefore natural products of the social milieu. Most of the domains of the historic states of Western Europe do, in fact, coincide approximately with homogeneous patches of the language map; and this coincidence has come about, for the most part, undesignedly. The west European peoples have not been acutely conscious of the process by which their political containers have been moulded on linguistic lasts; and, accordingly, the spirit of nationalism has been, on the whole, easy-going in its west European homeland. In west European national states, linguistic minorities who have found themselves on the wrong side of a political frontier have in most cases shown loyalty, and been treated with consideration, because their coexistence with the majority speaking ‘the national language’ as fellow-citizens of the same commonwealth has been a historical fact which has therefore been taken for granted by everyone.

But now consider what has happened when this west European institution of ‘national states’, which in its birthplace has been a natural product of the local linguistic map, has been radiated abroad into regions in which the local language map is On a quite different pattern. When we look at a language map, not just of Western Europe, but of the world, we see that the local west European pattern, in which the languages are distributed in fairly clear-cut, compact, and homogeneous blocks, is something rather peculiar and exceptional. In the vastly larger area stretching south-eastward from Danzig and Trieste to Calcutta and Singapore, the pattern of the language map is not like a patchwork quilt; it is like a shot-silk robe. In eastern Europe, south-west Asia, India, and Malaya the speakers of different languages are not neatly sorted out from one another, as they are in western Europe; they are geographically intermingled in alternate houses on the same streets of the same towns and villages; and, in this different, and more normal, social setting, the language map—in which the threads of different colours are interwoven with each other—provides a convenient basis, not for the drawing of frontiers between states, but for the allocation of occupations and trades among individuals.

I thought of Toynbee’s insight when reading Ivan Morris’ excellent The Nobility of Failure.  In his book Morris examines the idea of the Japanese hero through mythology, folklore, and history.  By comparing various stories over two millennia a consistent picture emerges.

  • The hero must be sincerely dedicated and have a purity of devotion.
  • Japanese heroes often dedicate themselves to hopeless, or nearly hopeless causes.  The fact that the cause is relatively hopeless demonstrates his purity and sincerity.  That is, the cause itself is not particularly important — rather, the character of the hero takes center stage.
  • The Japanese hero invariably ends his life in a noble death, one that he himself controls and determines.  This death validates the purity of his cause.  We might assume that the method was always sepiku, the ritual disembowlment.  Not so, Morris explains.  Originally, ritual suicide was performed by slicing the carotid artery on the neck.  Sepiku probably became part of the samurai tradition because it is a much more painful form of death, one that allows for a greater demonstration of suffering and courage.

The last chapter naturally deals with the kamikaze attacks at the end of W.W. II.  Previous to W. W. II heroic status could only be attained by the aristocratic class & samurai class.  But Toynbee’s theory of the unpredictability of cultural transference applies in this case.  Beginning in the mid-19th century Japan got exposed to western ideology, including obviously the idea of equality.  But what equality meant for Japan in this case became a horrifying kind of parody — now everyone can kill themselves and attain heroic status.

Hence the kamikaze pilots.  As Morris points out, the Japanese did not carry out these attacks primarily because they believed it would lead to victory.  No one really believed in victory by the end of 1944.  Such attacks, however, would certainly lead to the pilots achieving hero status in Japan.  They mimicked almost exactly the form and pattern laid down in Japan’s past.

Below I include various excerpts from Morris’ book.  Another quote from Toynbee illustrates the tragedy of Japan in W.W. II.

Since our discovery of the trick of splitting the atom, we have learned to our cost that the particles composing an atom of some inoffensive element cease to be innocuous and become dangerously corrosive so soon as they have been split off from the orderly society of particles of which an atom is constituted, and have been sent flying by themselves on independent careers of their own.

Excerpts from The Nobility of Failure

Testimonies of Kamikaze Pilots, 1944-45

If only we might fall

Like cherry blossoms in the Spring —

So pure and radiant!

  • Haiku by a kamikaze pilot in the ‘Seven Lives’ Unit, died Feb. 22, 1945, age 22. Kamikaze planes were called “Oka” bombs.  “Oka” is the Japanese word for “Cherry Blossom.”

“The purity of youth will issue in the divine wind.” [i.e., the “shimpu,” or “kamikaze.”]

  • Admiral Onishi, the probable originator of the “kamikaze” attacks.   He said to his officers, “Even if we are defeated, the noble spirit of the kamikaze attack corp will keep our homeland from ruin.  Without this spirit, ruin would surely follow defeat.  [The pilots] are already gods, without earthly desires.”

Beckoned to a chair, the young man [Lt. Seki] sat down facing us.  Commander Tamai patted him on the shoulder.  “Seki, Admiral Onishi himself has visited the 201st air group to present a plan of the greatest importance to Japan.  The plan is to crash-dive our Zero fighters, loaded with 250 kilogram bombs, into the ships of the enemy.  You are being considered to lead such an attack.  How do you feel about it?

There were tears in Tamai’s eyes as he spoke.

For a moment there was no answer.  Seki sat motionless, eyes closed, in deep thought.  Then calmly, raising his head, he said, “You absolutely must let me do it.”  There was not the slightest falter in his voice.

  • Lt. Seki was the first to lead a kamikaze squadron, and he successfully sank an escort carrier.

When it was clear that they understood my message [about forming a kamikaze squadron], I turned and said, “Anyone who wishes to volunteer for today’s sortie will raise his hand.”

The words were hardly spoken before every man raised his hand.  Several of them left their seats and pressed up against me, pleading, “Send me!  Please send me!”

I wheeled about and shouted, “Everyone wants to go.  Don’t be so selfish!”

[As the planes moved to the runway for takeoff] Lt. Nakano raised himself in the cockpit and shouted, “Commander Nakajima!”

Fearing that I had done something wrong I rushed over.  His face was wreathed in smiles as he called, “Thank you Commander!  Thank you very much for choosing me!”  I flagged him on with a vigorous wave of my arm, and other pilots shouted the same thing.  “Thank you!” they shouted.  I pretended not to hear these words, but they tore at my heart.

  • Official log of Capt. Nakajima

It is of no avail to express it now, but  in my 23 years of life I have worked out my own philosophy.  It leaves a bad taste in my mouth when I think of the deceits of the wily politicians upon the innocent population.  But I am willing to take orders from the high-command . . . because I believe in the beautiful polity of Japan.  

The Japanese way of life is indeed beautiful, and I am proud of it, as I am of Japanese history and mythology, which reflect the purity of our ancestors and our past.   And the living embodiment of all wonderful things in our past is the Imperial Family which, too, is the crystallization of the splendour and beauty of Japan and its people.  It is an honor to give my life for such beautiful and lofty things.

  • Last letter of Lt. Yamaguchi Teruo

Dear Parents:

Please congratulate me.  I have been given a splendid opportunity to die.  This destiny of our homeland hinges on the decisive battle in the seas to the south where I shall fall like a blossom from a radiant cherry tree.

How I appreciate this chance to die like a man!  . . . Thank you, my parents, for the years during which you have cared for me and inspired me.  I hope that in some small way this deed will repay you for what you have done.

  • From the last letter of Lt. Matsuo Isao

Never think of winning!

Thoughts of victory will only bring defeat.

When we lose, let us press forward, ever forward!

  • A popular kamikaze song

Cease your optimism,

Open your eyes,

People of Japan!

Japan is bound to be defeated.

It is then that we Japanese

Muse infuse into this land

A new life

A new road to restoration

Will be ours* to carve.

 

  • Last poem of a kamikaze pilot.  The “ours*” refers to the kamikaze pilots, whose death will plant the seeds of “new life.”

If by some strange chance, Japan should suddenly win this war, it would be a fatal misfortune for the future of the nation.  It will be better for our nation and people if they are tempered through real ordeals, which will serve to strengthen.

  • Sub. Lt. Okabe [?]

Listen carefully!  Imagine you have nothing in your hand but a pebble, and you need to take down a tree.  What is the best method?  To throw the pebble, or to take the pebble in your hand and strike it against the tree yourself?

  • Lt. Nagatsuka, last message to his parents.

Probably the most fearsome of all scenes took place on Saipan in 1944.  When organized military resistance became impossible soldiers  — some 3000 of them — armed with nothing but sticks came charging at the American concentrated machine-gun fire.   They were mowed down to the last man.   A particularly macabre note was provided by wounded Japanese soldiers who limped forward, bandages and all, to the slaughter.

Subsequently, entire units of Japanese soldiers knelt down in rows to be decapitated by their commanders, who then in turn committed ritual suicide.  Hundreds of others shot themselves in the head or, more commonly, exploded themselves with hand grenades.  As the marines advanced through the island they witnessed one mass suicide after another, culminating in the last terrible scene when Japanese civilians, including large numbers of women with children in their arms, hurled themselves off cliffs or rushed out into the sea to drown rather than risk capture.  

  • From Ivan Morris’ The Nobility of Failure

 

11th Grade: Trusting our Leaders

Greetings,

We began the week by looking at the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932.  His presidency would do much to shape the future of American politics for many reasons.

Fairly or not, the quarterback gets most of the praise or blame for wins or losses, and the same holds true for the president and the economy.  On paper, Hoover had everything going for him as America faced the onset of the Great Depression.  He had experience administering relief work after World War I.  He had broad bipartisan support for many of his policies.  But personality wise, he could not be “relatable” to the public.  Increasingly Americans felt alienated from him, and turned their wrath and desperation his way.

Hoover did not remain aloof from suffering.  He pushed a variety of aid packages through Congress, though they had little success in stemming the tide.  None of this mattered.  What the people required of their president had changed.  Advances in movie and radio technology made the president more accessible, and as such, he needed to be more relatable.

Early in the week we asked the question: “What makes a president more trustworthy?  His ‘credentials’ or his life experience?”  I gave the class two choices of candidate:

  1. An ivy league graduate with a Ph.D in political science, candidate 1 also speaks fluent Chinese and Arabic.  He is personal friends with the U.N. Secretary General and the World Bank.  At every level he graduated with honors and his Ph.D thesis became a best-selling book.  But he grew up with a ‘silver-spoon’ in his mouth, has driven BMW’s his whole life, is personally quite wealthy, etc.  He never had a blue collar job or submitted a resume. He is unmarried with no children.
  2. Candidate 2 is no dummy, but never distinguished himself at school.   He is not wealthy, and grew up lower class and worked his way through college through a variety of odd-jobs.  He married his high school sweetheart and has three children.
Who do you trust more?
Most of the class said they would vote for #1, but others disagreed.  For the latter group, trust had more to do with identifying with that person rather than with their credentials.
In the last presidential race, for example, we saw how the question of being relatable plagued Mitt Romney, who has impressive ‘on-paper’ credentials.  Even when he tries to be a regular guy, it doesn’t come off quite right.
With Hoover one also can’t help but sense a certain stiffness:
Not so with FDR, as even a minute or two of this clip reveals:
We saw also how the Great Depression changed other things. . .
  • One of the subtle shifts that happened in the 1930’s was our attitude towards government itself.  It is probably generally true that previous generations thought of government as removed from the people, even if it was not opposed to them — a kind of necessary but awkward appendage.  Now, government was seen as a helpful and natural tool of the people’s interests and needs.  To be fair to Roosevelt, this idea was not merely his invention.  One can see its roots in the populism of Andrew Jackson.  The extension of voting rights to minorities and women meant that our representatives could more legitimately reflect the population as a whole.  Both of these approaches to government have their roots in the Christian tradition, with St. Augustine tending to see government negatively, and St. Thomas Aquinas, among others, seeing it more positively.
  • We looked at a few specific government programs of the time and asked the question, “Why is it that some government programs stick  around past their original purpose?”  While many New Deal programs did stop during World War II or shortly thereafter, some, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, have lasted until today.  While I don’t want to neglect the fact that many people probably agree that certain programs, like the SEC and FDIC, have had lasting value, I think it more interesting to consider the previous question.  I presented two options to the students:
1. Programs stick around because governments, like people, like power. Individuals like power as much as government does, but government has a much greater capacity to hold onto it because of their monopoly of force and concentration of resources.
OR
2. Does the answer have more to do with our particular system of government, that is, federalism?  If we take the TVA as an example, we  see that a few people (and a few congressmen) benefit a great deal from the program.  When the cost is spread out over a whole, it becomes relatively small, so it is unlikely to bother most of us very much.  A few people are very motivated to keep it, and the vast bulk are not motivated enough to contest it.  Besides, our own congressmen may do similar things for our region that others do for Tennessee.  As a country in general, we accept that deal.
The question of entitlement programs, for example, is political as well as financial.   With the population aging, the current power of the AARP, for example, is unlikely to get smaller.  We can also see different meanings or applications of the concept of equality at work.  On the one hand, government inaction on any particular issue can reinforce the idea of equality.  Doing nothing means not favoring anyone, and letting people work deal with their issues with no hindrance from government.  This has the advantage of consistency and simplicity.  We discussed, on the other hand, the fact that some situations are starkly unequal, with the situation not likely to be any different without decisive and concerted action from government.  What benefits, and what costs, do we want to absorb as a society?
Last week we went back to wrap up some issues from the 1920’s, specifically, the tremendous social impact due to the changing role of women.  We first looked at how the general mood and pace of the times, as well as the changing roles between the sexes, might influence dancing.  We had fun looking at this. . .
But the changes had a broader impact on how women interacting in society in general.
As women gained equality with men in the right to vote, we saw how women’s fashion changed.  They were ‘liberated’ and their dress reflected it:  
But interestingly, some took the idea of equality with men even further, and they began to dress like men, cut their hair short like men, and so on . . .
images-2
images-1
It seems to me that there would be something tragic if women felt that to gain equality with men they had to emulate men, and thereby lose something of their identity as women.
I wanted the students to compare the feminine ideal of the 1920’s with the Victorian era, which we looked at a few months ago.  My gut is that neither era represents a Biblical ideal.  Looking at the mountain of material on Victorian dresses (ca. 1850-1900) makes me think that they obscured true femininity just as the 1920’s did (take a look at the ones from 1850 — 3rd row on left), as to my mind there is something unquestionably ridiculous in how Victorians viewed women as incurably fragile.
A Century of Fashion
Most students asserted that if they had to choose, they would choose the 20’s ideal over the Victorian, arguing that women had more respect in that period.   This did not surprise me, as there is something distinctly modern and familiar with the 1920’s.   Some students last year astutely pointed out that there are two kinds of respect.  In the 1920’s women unquestionably had more political and social freedoms.  No one should underestimate the importance of this.  But they may have lost some of the respect that came with being a woman specifically.  With this exchange, something of the ideal of chivalry, of deference to women, would inevitably be lost.
Ideally, as God made both men and women in His image, for humanity to best reflect that image we should want men to be men and women to be women in the truest possible sense.  What that means exactly will certainly be debated, but the students agreed that neither the 1920’s or the Victorians had it right.
Many thanks,
Dave M

“The Sword and the Olive”

The modern history of Israel poses many questions, their 65 years lived at breakneck speed have given us many lessons.  But the questions about their state, the Palestinians, their neighbors, and so on are enormously complex.  Some historians seek to tackle all aspects of the problem but books of that nature can often be too long, heavy on details, weak on conclusions, leaving readers with no clear answers and no path to discover them on their own.

With problems of this sort, I tend to think that books that focus on one particular aspect of the issues often serve readers better than all-encompassing tomes.  The narrowness of focus makes no pretense to answer every question, but it can provide a clear narrative arc, and thus give definite shape to at least some of the puzzle pieces. Martin van Creveld’s The Sword and the Olive fulfills this purpose, much like Byron Farwell’s The Armies of the Raj.  Creveld does not tackle the broader “should” questions (i.e. should Israel have been given ‘x’ land, should they occupy the West Bank, etc.), but traces the effects of various decisions nicely in this history of the Israeli army.

While various militarized Zionist groups long predated W.W. II, the Israeli army takes as its main starting point the formation of the state.  Early on Creveld introduces one of his main themes, that the trauma of the Holocaust created a moral weight to the Jewish cause.  This in turn formed a social cohesion that enabled an army to achieve near mythical status within a few short years.  Creveld lives in Israel and I assume is Jewish himself, but he attempts no sugarcoating of either Jews, Palestinians, or Arabs.   His seeks to show, however, that whatever the strength of Palestinian claims, the Jews simply had stronger ones in the immediate context of the post-war years.  When Palestine lingered under lame-duck British authority thousands of Jewish immigrants poured illegally into Palestine and settled beyond established boundaries.  These illegal settlements received protection from Jewish militias.  The British discovered that sometimes the strong must suffer the actions of the weak.  How could the British enforce their authority and detain/fire upon people with numbered tattoos on their arms from Auschwitz in 1947?   Every British “victory” over Jewish militias only made their position more and more untenable.

The story of the “War for Independence” in 1948 had a similar theme.  Palestinians outnumbered Jews but tended to spread out in rural areas, whereas Jews settled in mostly urban areas and therefore had a more formal political structure.  The countries that attacked Israel shared few common goals and even had some conflicting ones.  The psychological sense of mission and purpose gave Israel a great army.  As Napoleon remarked, “In war the moral is to the physical as three is to one.”

Israel was a democracy in many ways, but their initial victory helped lead to some generally non-democratic ideas.

  • Democracies at least like to think of themselves as defensive in nature, and so did Israel.  But the nature of their geography led to a sense of being continually under siege.  In war, they developed a “strike-first” mentality — war must always be fought on the enemies territory.  They would have ironically agreed with the Prussian Frederick the Great’s motto of “Audacity, audacity, and still more audacity!”  Even more ironically, this led Israel to develop tactics that strongly resembled the blitzkrieg of 1939-41.
  • As De Tocqueville noted, most democracies have a generally ambivalent attitude toward the army, but not Israel.  After 1948, and especially after 1967, the army had near god-like status within the state.  This led to a political structure where the army had very little official civilian oversight, and even less in practical terms.
  • The sense of unity had to do with their circumstances, but also perhaps due to the settling of Israel by many eastern-European Jews with socialist leanings.  In any case, Israel quickly developed strong censorship laws with anything to do with security.  They deemed this necessary given that they felt alone not only where they stood geographically, but also in the international arena.  The Holocaust showed that the world would abandon Jews if it suited them.  The media helped develop these laws.  But democracies are also open societies, so usually censors had the job of keeping Israeli’s ignorant of what everyone else around the world knew.

Some of these contradictions would have to work themselves out at some point.

The psychological and moral factors of the post-war years created a juggernaut military with sky high morale.  But Israel’s very success would help to change this dynamic.  Occupying more territory meant the need to increase the size of the army.  This in turn meant more recruits, and the social cohesion that once characterized the army — an army where everyone knew everyone else — began to erode.  An army with a civilian-militia ethos turned professional.  Israel condensed about 200 years of Roman history (ca. 202-27 B.C.) into about 20 of their own.

Israel soon developed a much stronger military than their neighbors, but they kept their siege mentality.  This meant that when they engaged the PLO in the 1970’s, and especially in Lebanon in the early 1980’s, that the strong/weak dynamic that had served them so well psychologically had now flipped against them.  They were now strong and secure, their enemies had “weakness” on their side.  The “us against the world” attitude that served them so well now fought against them.  Now Israel faced an identity crisis.  What would they do with success?  Bold, aggressive, and occasional “outside the lines” actions could be tolerated and even expected when “fighting for one’s life.”  But they did not get the same pass under these new circumstances.  No one thought that PLO hideouts within Lebanon posed anything more than a nuisance to the state.  As Creveld commented, the strong should never fight the weak for very long.  Lao-Tsu noted similarly that a sword thrust into sea-water turns to rust.

The unquestioning public support that the military enjoyed for so many years now eroded, and this led to erosion within the army itself.  Their war in Lebanon had far fewer casualties and far less real fighting than their previous wars, but the number of psychological maladies effecting soldiers skyrocketed, as did the number of civilians who refused to serve, or found medical exemptions for their service.  The power of the government to investigate the military increased, albeit only slightly.  Certainly soldiers no longer wore their uniforms off-duty, as once was common.

The Israeli army today still maintains a high level of professional competence and tactical superiority over its neighbors, but they unquestionably lost something of the soul of the army.  And because Israel made the army such a integral part of their identity, something in Israel itself has no doubt been lost as well.  What Vietnam was for us, Lebanon was for them.  If our experience proves any kind of mirror, they can recover some of what they lost, but Israel will not be able to go home again.  The golden age of the Israeli military has come and gone.

“Securing the Blessings of Empire to our Posterity”

Years ago G.K. Chesterton wrote,

[The problem] I mean is [modern] man’s inability to state his opponent’s view, and often his inability even to state his own.  . . . There is everywhere the habit of assuming certain things, in the sense of not even imagining the opposite things.  For instance, as history is taught, nearly everyone always assumes that it was the right side that won in all important past conflicts. . . . Say to him that we should now be better off if Charles Edward and the Jacobites had captured London instead of falling back from Derby, and he will laugh. . . . Yet nothing can be a more sober or solid fact that that, when the issue was still undecided, wise and thoughtful men were to be found on both sides.  . . . I could give many other examples of what I mean by this imaginative bondage.  It is to be found in the strange superstition of making sacred figures out of certain historical characters, who must not be moved from their symbolic attitudes. . . . To a simple rationalist, these prejudices are a little hard to understand.

Our Constitution has proved itself an enduring and effective document.  Some have an admiration for it that verges on veneration, which can obscure the fact that the success of the Constitution was hardly foreordained.  The election of 1800, and of course the Civil War, pushed its limitations to the brink.  We forget too that many reasonable and intelligent men had strong objections to the Constitution.  Some of these objections proved chimerical, but some had remarkable prescience.

I referenced George Mason’s strenuous objections in another post, but to quickly recap, Mason believed that the South should have required a super-majority to pass all trade legislation.  Mason believed that economic differences would eventually tear the North and South apart, and requiring this provision would ensure more unity.  Unfortunately the south kept slavery in exchange for a trade legislation passing like any other law.  Sure enough, states like South Carolina and Georgia cited unfair trade legislation as reason for secession in 1860.

Most expected some form of strengthening of the national government to come out of the convention in Philadelphia.  Many objected, however, not so much because the federal government would be stronger, but because the states would cease to have any importance in the new scheme.  Defenders of the Constitution rushed to quell such fears.  Obviously the states would continue to have their contributions to make, and so on.  Once again, those that objected to the Constitution had it right.  Today states play no vital role in shaping policy or the identity of the country and merely serve as a kind of organizing mechanism for national politics.

The reasons for why some objectors saw the future diminution of states fascinates me the most, however.  Many jumped on the first three words, “We the people,” and saw a totally new basis for governance.   In making the amorphous “people” the basis for authority in the country, some argued that the United States would transform eventually into a kind of democratic empire-state.  It may sound odd for modern sensibilities to equate “the people” with empire.  But the founders thought in the context of Rome’s history.  Rome’s emperors sought to bypass the aristocracy and the Senate and appealed directly to the “people.”*  Tacitus criticizes many emperors not because of their abuses to the people, but perhaps largely because of their abuses to the senatorial class.  If the preamble had said, “We the states,” it would have indicated that ultimately the senate would take the lead in shaping the tenor of American political life.  “We the people,” would shift the focus to the presidency, which meant that the founder’s stated goal of a federated republic would inevitably get superceded by the people/nation.  This shift from states to the “people” also greatly magnified the role of the Supreme Court far beyond the intent of the founders, as some recent and controversial decisions have overridden state laws.

Indeed, something like this happened over the course of the 20th century, and we see it accelerating recently.  Bill Clinton felt our pain and played saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show.  As candidates, Bush and Gore both appeared on Oprah Winfrey.  While in office President Bush worked hard to maintain a “regular guy” image.  President Obama went on Marc Maron’s podcast and Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, using more sophisticated forms of direct appeal to “the people.” If Trump is our next president, he will remind me of some of the practical, irascibly likable, yet for the most part dangerously erratic Roman general-emperors.**  Such direct appeals to “the people” from the president I’m sure would have horrified Washington, Madison, and even Thomas Jefferson.

But they would not have surprised some of the Anti-Federalists.

Because the anti-federalists were right about their objections does not mean that we were wrong to ratify the Constitution.  I still believe that despite its flaws it probably represented the realistic “best we could do” under the circumstances.  But the objections of the so-called “Anti-Federalists” shine great light on where we are now as a nation.

 

Dave

 

*Caligula was certainly a nut, but the story of him making his horse a senator (if true) may have actually been a calculated swipe at the Senate itself and not necessarily evidence of his insanity.

**Thinking about comparisons for Trump . . . he may not quite fit any one particular emperor.  One colleague offered Marius as a mirror image.  Marius was wealthy, a “new man,” who infuriated the Roman aristocracy, who proved powerless to stop him through normal political means (it took a bloody civil war instead).  Another offered Emperor Theodosius I.  Though not a “general-emperor,” he was gruff and impulsive.  He did terrible things on foolish whims (the massacre in Thessalonica), but proved capable of repentance and subsequent bold and important decisions (as to whether or not Trump can prove capable of repentance . . . we’ll have to wait and see).

His American President counterpart has to be Andrew Jackson.  He was not a founder or the son of a founding father.  He lacked a “European” education.  He introduced the idea of campaigning for office, to the horror of the political elite of the time.  His time on the frontier made him a rough, blunt character.  He made a variety of controversial decisions that definitely divided people — i.e. closing the national bank, South Carolina’s attempts at state nullification, and some horrifying decisions like the Cherokee’s and the “Trail of Tears.”

Historical opinion on Jackson is as varied as his acts in office.  But, however one views him, the U.S. survived a Jackson presidency and we just might survive a Trump presidency.

His likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, lacks the personality to connect with and directly appeal to the people that would put her in unusual company among modern presidents, like George Bush Sr., and perhaps, Nixon?