“It Absolutely Will not Stop. Ever.”

I know very little about the history and culture of India, but I feel comfortable saying that they have been around for a long time and possess a very deep sense of cultural identity and tradition.

But in the 20th century, India started to embrace certain key components of western democracy, and introduced new political and cultural strands into their way of being.  I think India bears watching.  They can serve as a petri dish for an experiment.  When democracy interacts with a tradition, who wins?  Can a reasonable peace and balance exist between them?  Or, must one destroy the other?*

For the sake of this post we will not assume that tradition is bad and democracy good, or vice-versa.  Both can be good or bad depending.

I thought of this as I came across an article about hotels in India.  As a traditional society, India has more “conservative” views on marriage and sexual morality.  But democracy seeks to empower individual choices.  Free-market capitalism looks for niches–ways to empower and monetize these choices.  Unmarried couples in India apparently have a hard time getting “privacy.”

Enter StayUncle. The New Delhi-based startup has tied up with hotels where unmarried couples can rent rooms for a duration as short as 8-10 hours. The idea is to help them with affordable rooms, without feeling uncomfortable or unsafe.

“There is no law in India that prohibits (unmarried) couples from renting a room,” Sanchit Sethi, founder of the year-old startup, told Quartz in a phone interview. “As long as you have a government identity card, you should be given a room. We don’t live in the 1950s anymore. What we are trying to do is change the mindset of hoteliers.”

“Couples need a room.  Not a judgment.”

As the article came from a western newspaper, naturally no assumption existed that perhaps India’s discouragement of unmarried couples having hotel rooms has any validity.  They want something–an opportunity to live as they choose–and so naturally we should find some way to empower (and monetize) those choices.  “We don’t live in the 1950’s anymore.”*

What we want now is all that matters.

I thought of Empire of Liberty, where author Gordon Wood points out that almost immediately after the Revolution many of our founders watched aghast as “the people” began eroding many traditions.  One can argue that the Constitution represents a (mostly failed) attempt to put the brakes on the rapid pace of change.

I imagine that, given another couple generations of modern democratic practice in India, most of their traditions don’t stand a chance.  There is something thrilling, horrifying, and inexorable about the march of democratic ideals through traditional societies.  The Terminator reference from poor, doomed, Kyle Reese has its place here.

In the U.S. we have already legally embraced gay-marriage.  Now we moved onto tackling other “traditional” ways of thinking in the form of trans-gender issues, as predicted by both opponents and proponents of gay marriage.  Both democracy and tradition have their good and bad applications.  But I have serious doubts that we can redefine ourselves, our experience, and our place in the world at will and continue to find meaning.

Perhaps the root of the problem comes from the Enlightenment, or the Scientific Revolution, or the printing press/Reformation, or platonic gnosticism, or somewhere else. Whatever the root, a fixation on purely abstract principles or ideas will lead to an abandonment of meaning and rationality in the end.  In his A Philosophy of Inequality Nicholas Berdyaev makes this point quite well.  Absolute equality as a pure idea makes sense, he admits, much like a parallel lines continuing to infinity.  But such equality remains a fiction, a fantasy.  When we try and apply it reality we get the disasters of Revolutionary France, Stalinist Russia, or Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

We see the link between inequality (not servile inequality, but meaningful, purposeful difference) and meaning right in Genesis 1. God creates an intelligible, good world, and does so through distinction and duality, i.e. night and day, sea and dry land, man and woman.  Making sense of our world requires dividing it, in a certain sense.  To see meaning, to see God, we must see distinctions in creation.

The U.S. crossed the bridge of normalizing sexual relationships outside of marriage decades ago.  Again, now we have moved on to gender issues.  We long ago stopped defining gender by certain expected patterns or code of behavior. Now we do not even wish to define it biologically.  If we say now that gender can be defined purely based on one’s own personal, abstract feelings and thoughts, we will enter uncharted waters.  We risk losing the ability to say that anything means anything at all.

With no map to guide us, we should prepare for getting lost.

Dave

*China is conducting a similar experiment.  They attempt to maintain traditional Chinese values, technocratic top-down party political control, and a free market.  On the one hand they have yet to embrace democracy politically, so we might assume a slower pace of change.  But on the other, their economy is more modern and powerful than India’s, so this change might happen faster.

**The 1950’s reference gives this quote a distinctly American feel, as that era is considered the last gasp of traditional morality for U.S.  I don’t know if the same could be said for India or not.

Many on the left decry the “cultural imperialism” of the west, and they have some good points to make.  But have they considered that the non-traditional morality that those on the “academic left” tend to support is also a form of cultural imperialism?

Democracies and their Special Forces

Field Marshal Viscount Slim memoir Defeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India is generally regarded as one the finest, if not the finest military memoir.  Having read it (and not having read many others) I won’t dispute the claim.  I often have a hard time with books written by ex-officers, who I find usually bog down in details.  I also, to be fair, have a hard time with spatial relations and without solid maps right in front of me I often get lost.

Slim’s writing bears some marks of what usually gives me trouble with books like this.  What distinguishes this book is his sense of style and humor.  He shares many anecdotes that paint himself a bit poorly.  He shares honest introspection about his actions without getting too much inside his own head.  When he asserts opinions of people he likes or dislikes he admits that others have different opinions.  Finally, he seemed interested in the campaign as a whole, more so than his role in it.

One of his slightly controversial opinions involved Orde Wingate.  Wingate was just the sort of commander that would appeal to Churchill.  Like Churchill he loved the knight-errant approach to war, and so the Chindits, or special forces, of the Burma campaign, gave Wingate a chance to sally forth boldly behind enemy lines.  The direct military effectiveness of his operations seemed limited, though even Slim admits that he boosted morale through the exploits of his men in the aftermath of a complete defeat inflicted by Japan.

Slim’s concluding comments interested me most about this aspect of the Burma campaign.  He thought that England’s reliance on special forces, and the mythology surrounding special forces, did not serve an overall good purpose.  He mentions the variety of special forces the British used (i.e. mountain divisions, amphibious divisions, long-range penetration divisions, and so on).  He acknowledged that some showed great examples of courage but writes,

Yet I came firmly to the conclusion that such [special forces] . . . were wasteful.  They did not give, militarily, a worth-while return the resources in men, material, and time they absorbed.

To begin with, they were usually formed by attracting the best men from the normal units by better conditions, promises of excitement, and not a little propaganda.   . . . The result of these methods was to undoubtedly to lower the quality of the rest of the army, not only by drawing off the cream from it, but by encouraging the idea that certain of the normal operations of war were so difficult that only specially equipped elite corp could undertake them.  Anything, whatever short-cuts to victory it may promise, which thus weakens the army spirit is dangerous.

. . . The level of initiative, training, and weapon skill required in a commando is admirable; what is not admirable is that it should be confined to a few small units.  Any well-trained infantry battalion should be able to do what any commando can do . . .   This cult of special forces is as sensible as to form a Royal Corp of Tree Climbers and say that no soldier who does not wear its green hat with a bunch of oak leaves stuck in it should be allowed to climb a tree.

Slim retracts a wee bit of this statement when he acknowledges that certain special units devoted to intelligence and sabotage, which fall outside the duties of standard training for  a soldier, but reiterates his main point when he stresses that the multiplication of special forces in Burma made unified command difficult to attain.

Our current war on terrorism presents many political and military challenges.  We have responded in part by significantly increasing the prominence of our special forces, both in budgets, deployments, and perhaps also in a surrounding “mythos” about them.  Like Slim, I am grateful for their courage and dedication.  Perhaps unlike him, I am not willing to apply his thoughts wholesale to our current situation just yet.  We face different sorts of military challenges now as opposed to W.W. II.  But we should not assume that we can do whatever we like militarily without it  having consequences on our values and political practices.   We should at least ask whether or not the increase of special forces may distance the military from the general public, or whether or not the military will be for “the common man” in the near future.

Special Forces demand, among other things, a great deal more secrecy, something else Slim abhorred.  Along with drones, they can be used with less public notice and oversight.  Democracies do not thrive with a populace disconnected from its government.  Is there a parallel between the increase of special forces use and the recent NSA scandals?  In other words, a military disconnected from a general democratic population may work (even unconsciously) to undermine the political application of democratic values.

Other wars have brought about shifts in our country’s values, sometimes for the better.  Maybe this current war will lead us into a better place as well.  Whatever the case, we cannot escape some kind of social and political change if we continue to fight in almost exclusively in a clandestine manner, and these changes will likely alter how we practice democracy at home.

The Burma Campaign

My grandfather fought with the 101st Airborne Division in Europe during W.W. II, and received a Silver Star for bravery in action.  But I remember on more than one occasion him saying that he was grateful he fought in Europe instead of the Pacific/Asian theater.  The jungle, he said, might have been too much for him.

I couldn’t agree more.  Jungle warfare sounds like a nightmare to me.  Frank McLynn’s fine book does nothing to dispel my notions.

For jungle warfare, how about Burma? — home to large amounts of man-eating crocodiles and tigers.  Of the 2500 known species of snakes in the world, only about 200 pose any threat to mankind.  But just about all of them can be found in Burma, a country with the largest known concentration of deadly snakes on the planet.  True, most of them avoid mankind if they can.  Alas, not the small krait, the most feared of all Burmese snakes.  Called “The Two Step” (that’s as far as you can walk if bitten before you collapse and die), these snakes had no problem hiding themselves in the dark corners of tents, or in sleeping bags and boots.

All this to say nothing of the monsoon rains or the malaria infested mosquitos.

Perhaps its our general aversion to the jungle, or our familiarity with Europe, that has led us to overlook the massive war in Burma between 1942-1945, which at various times involved more than 600,000 allied troops.

I say to my students that. . .

  • Military problems are really political problems
  • Political problems are really cultural problems
  • Cultural problems are really religious problems.

I am 100% sure that I did not invent this idea, though I can’t place its origin.  And while I can’t prove it in every case, it sure sounds good, and I expect that it’s true.

But I do think one can see the above principle work itself out in most cases, including the Burma campaign.

For example, Japan had tremendous initial success in Burma as they had all over Southeast Asia in the early days of the war.  Their “bushido” mentality helped form a fearsome army that overwhelmed Allied forces initially.  But this same mentality led them towards an unrealistic view of themselves and their opponents.  Their rigid culture formed a rigid military that did not believe that their opponent could ever learn and adjust their tactics, because after all, they never adjusted their own.  British forces eventually climbed up the learning curve and started to hammer the Japanese by 1944.

Yet, the Japanese continue to do the only thing they know how to do — attack.  Bushido cares primarily about honor, not victory.  Perhaps what the Japanese sought most was not even honor, but an “honorable” death.  Their “attaque a outrance” over Asia seemed to court death and destruction.  As McLynn notes, by war’s end they had the United Kingdom, the U.S., the Soviets, and China as enemies.  Not even the Nazi’s showed such insanity.  Perhaps Japan worshipped death most of all, and as C.S. Lewis noted, we must be careful what we wish for, lest we actually receive it.  Japanese tactics did not change during the war, no doubt due in part to their rigid culture.  But it may also have to do with the fact that they pointed their car to head over the cliff.  The Imphal campaign, where the Japanese planned a massive attack knowing that they their troops would lack the necessary supplies to succeed, again illustrates this concept.

The book starts by describing England’s role in Burma, and their record left much to be desired.  Thankfully for them (though not the Burmese), the Japanese proved much worse landlords, and this I think relates to the paragraph above.  I am reminded of Chesterton’s comment that,

Thieves respect property.  They merely wish the property to become their property, that they may more perfectly respect it.

An attitude I think, that reflects the British and Japanese in Burma.  The Burmese in the end, could tell the differences between British respecters of property and the Japanese, who sought only destruction.

George MacDonald Fraser’s memoir of his time in Burma sheds additional light.  Strikingly to me, at least, he hardly mentions the snakes, tigers, and crocodiles, and mostly concentrated on the mosquitos.  He respects the Japanese, but certain anecdotes he relates make it clear that the Japanese did not seek military success above “honorable” death.  He tells tales of soldiers charging entrenched British positions with nothing more than a sword, yelling maniacally.  After Imphal the Japanese were surely beaten, but none of them ever surrendered.

Fraser’s account  also hints at the coming political transformation of Asia, especially regarding India.  Churchill feared using the Indian Army to fight in Burma since he wanted to keep the British empire intact after the war.  An army that fought to defend India would inevitably bring home a sense of pride that would translate into independence.  Of course the independence movement had begun before the war in India, but the war certainly accelerated it.  One Indian soldier, puffed with patriotism, flew too close the sun and insulted a Gurkha while exalting his own Indian people.  The gurkha needed a dozen men to prevent him from killing the Indian in reprisal (as a brief aside, what would one not believe about the exploits of Gurkhas?  Fraser tells of one Gurkha regiment, who, on a whim, attacked a lost and bewildered Japanese detachment with no guns — only knives — killing all and suffering no casualties themselves).  The Brits explained to the gurkha that if he killed the Indian he would be tried for murder and hang.  This did nothing to deter him.  One of them changed tactics and said that if he killed the Indian he would be thrown out of the army and he would never receive his officer’s commission.  That, and that only, did the trick.  The gurkha finally backed down after a long and profuse apology from the Indian.

Fraser doesn’t talk much about anyone higher than his immediate circle, but McLynn makes a few interesting observations about allied leaders in Burma.  Churchill was known for being impetuous, and he tended to like people with just that quality.  Just as Churchill’s political career survived numerous missteps and disasters, so too he supported Mountbatten and Windgate (leaders of the special forces in Burma, who specialized in dramatic, but possible ineffective campaigns).  All three had enormous self-confidence.  Churchill and Mountbatten had both been involved in political/military disasters that should have ended their careers.  But luckily for the Allied cause only Windgate may have actually bordered on insanity.  The jungle, perhaps, can do that to you.

Standardization is Decline, Easy as ABC

A few years ago I wrote another post under this same theme about restaurant regulation in the EU, based off a particular quote from Arnold Toynbee, which reads,

In a previous part of this study we have seen that in the process of growth the several growing civilizations become differentiated from one another.  We shall now find that, conversely, the qualitative effect of the standardization process is decline.

This idea that “standardization is decline” is exactly the sort of pithy phrase that drew the ire of many of Toynbee’s critics.  In his work Toynbee attempted to create universal general laws of history based on his premise of the uniformity of human nature.  Toynbee’s writing could sometimes degenerate into ideas that seem so general as to be almost meaningless.*  On the subject of standardization, we easily see that surely not every instance of standardization brings decline and limits freedom.  Standard traffic laws, for example, make driving much easier and much safer.  Toynbee’s critics have a point.

But some of Toynbee’s critics seem afraid to say anything without caveating it a million different ways, and this too is another form of saying nothing at all.  Toynbee’s assertion about standardization is of course is not true in every respect, but is it generally true?

I like historians like Toynbee who try and say things, and no one I’ve come across tries to “say things” like Ivan Illich.  Toynbee threw down a magnificent challenge to the prevailing view of history (in his day) that more machines, more territory, more democracy, more everything meant progress for civilization.

But he did not know Ivan Illich, who allows almost no assumption of the modern world to go unexamined.  Toynbee poked at some of our pretty important cows.  Illich often aims for the most sacred.  In Medical Nemesis he challenges the assumption that people today are healthier than they were in the pre-industrial era.  In ABC, he (with co-author Barry Sanders) attacks the idea that universal literacy brings unquestioned benefits to civilization.  In fact, he argues the quest for rote literacy will end with meaninglessness and possibly, tyranny.

Illich begins the book by referencing a quote of the historian Herodotus, who wrote 1000 years after the death of Polycrates. He commented that the tyrant of Samos,

was the first to set out to control the sea, apart from Minos of Knossos and others who might have done so as well.  Certainly Polycrates was the first of those whom we call the human race.

Illich comments that,

Herodotus did not deny the existence of Minos, but for him Minos was not a human being in the literal sense.  . . . [Herodotus] believed in gods and myths, but excluded him from the domain of events that could be described historically.  He did not see it as his job to decipher a core of objective historical fact.  He cheerfully [placed] historical truth alongside different kinds of truth.

This may seem an odd place to begin a book about language.

Later Greek and Roman historians attempted to explain the minotaur and Minos not as myth but as exaggerated historical reality.  So, the sacrifice to the minotaur must really have been a sacrifice of perhaps money or troops to some cruel despot.  Herodotus will have none of this, and neither will Illich.  Those that seek to explain away myths attempt a kind of standardization of truth.  This standardization inevitably involves a reduction, a narrowing, of the meaning of truth, language, and human experience.  I think this explains why he begins with this quote from Herodotus.

Historians misread prehistory when they assume, Illich contends, that language is spoken in a wordless world.  Of course words can exist without exactly defined meanings that last beyond the context in which they were spoken.  But many often assume that this means we have barbarism because without an established language, we cannot have “education” in the sense that we mean it.  Speech remains different from language.  Lest we think that Illich is nuts, we should consider the impact of early forms of standardization:

  • In ancient Egypt, scribes with a unified written language could keep records, and could thus hold people accountable to pay taxes, work on the pyramids, etc.
  • In ancient China, too, the power of scribes over language gave them enormous power within the halls of power.
  • Illich argues that medieval oaths used to be distinctly personal.  Those that swore would clasp their shoulder, their hands, their thigh, and so on.  Towards the end of the Middle Ages, with the rise of Roman, classical concepts of law came the fact that one’s signature stood as the seal of an oath.  By “clear” we should think, opaque, or lacking substance because it lacks context.  This impersonality can give way to tyranny.
  • Henry II attempt at reforming English law (and thus, it would inevitably seem, unifying language as well) was done to increase his power by making it easier to govern and control the population.  Does not much of modern law do the same thing?
  • Isidore of Seville once wrote (ca. 1180) that letters “indicate figures speaking with sounds,” and admitted that until a herald spoke the words, they had no authority, because they had no meaning.  The modern age allows those in power to multiply their authority merely through the distribution of lifeless pieces of paper.
  • One of the first advocates for a universal language and literacy, Elio Nebrija, made his argument just after Columbus set sail.  He bases his argument on hopes of creating a “unified and sovereign body of such shape and inner cohesion that centuries would not serve to undo it.”  He frankly admits that the diversity of tongues presents a real problem for the crown.

Regarding Nebrija, Illich makes the thunderous point that he sought a universal language not to increase people’s reading but to limit it.  “They waste their time on fancy novels and stories full of lies,” he writes to the king.  A universal tongue promulgated from on high would put a stop to that.

We might be surprised to note that Queen Isabella (who does not always get good treatment in the history books) rejected Nebrija’s proposal, believing that, “every subject of her many kingdoms was so made by nature that he would reach dominion over his own tongue on his own.”  Royal power, by the design of the cosmos, should not reach into local speech.  Leave grammar to the scribes.

We live in a world of disembodied texts.  The text can be analyzed, pored over, dissected in such a way as to kill it.  As the texts lack a body, the text remains dead and inert.

But just as we assume that meaning comes when a text is analyzed rather than heard, so too we have created the idea of the self merely to analyze the self.  Ancient people, up through the medieval period, do not possess a “self” in the modern sense.  We see this in their literature.  No stratified layers exist in an Odysseus, Aeneas, or Roland.  No “self” exists apart from their actions.  So too in the modern era the self lacks meaning unless the self is examined.  So we turn ourselves inside out just as turn over the texts that transmit meaning.   But who is more alive, Roland, Aeneas, and Alexander Nevsky, or the man on the psychologists couch?

We might think, maybe the drive for universal literacy back then meant squelching freedom but now surely it is a path to freedom.  After all, we tout education as the pathway to independence, options in life, and so on.  Illich will not let us off the hook.  Education according to whom?  Universal literacy, again, can only be achieved through universal language.  And universal language implies a standardized education.  So to prove we are educated we need the right piece of paper, paper only the government can grant.**

Back to square one again.

So the passion for universal literacy ends in the death of meaning, and the death of the self.  In his final chapter Illich examines the newspeak of 1984 and sees it as the logical conclusion of universal literacy.  Words will mean what the standard-bearers of words say they mean, and this in turn will define the nature of truth and experience itself.

ABC is a short book and easy to read.  But in another way, reading Illich can be very demanding.  He asks you not just to rethink everything, but to actually give up most everything you thought you knew.  Agree or not, this makes him an important writer for our standardized and bureaucratic age.

 

Dave

*Obviously this post is not about Toynbee, but as much as I admire him and as much as I have learned from him, Toynbee’s latent and terribly damaging gnosticism (which comes from his failure to understand the Incarnation and the Resurrection) did at times lead him into a kind of a airy vagueness that greatly limits his persuasive power.

**I suppose to get Illich’s full argument on this score we would need to read his Deschooling Society.

10th Grade: The Inevitability of Revolutionary Violence?

Greetings,

This week we saw the French Revolution immediately take a dangerous turn, and I wanted us to consider why violence formed such an integral part of the Revolution.  I think we can offer a variety of possible answers to this question.

Historian Simon Schama made an interesting observation regarding the nature of the change that gripped France.  If we go back to the France during the heyday of Versailles, we see the king rigidly controlling events.  The spectacle of Versailles began with the king and sometimes ended with him as well.

Louis XVI had a modernist, progressive bent.  He loved science, and joyfully hosted some of the first ballooning experiments on the grounds of Versailles.  The experiments were a great triumph, but in some ways worked against Louis.  With the balloons up in the air, nature controlled the spectacle.  The wind blows,i.e., nature speaks, and the reaction occurs.  The air was public space.  We see this concept of the Revolution as a “force of nature” in David’s drawing of the Tennis Court Oath (note the rush of wind occupying the top areas of the painting).

The revolution then, was a “force of nature” in the minds of many,  outside the control of the king, or anyone else, for that matter.  One must follow where it led — you had no choice.

Traditionally historians have viewed the Revolution as happening in two phases:

1) The idealistic, peaceful, “good” phase from 1789-1792, and

2) The ugly, destructive phase that began in 1792 and lasted until 1794.

Following Simon Schama and his stellar book Citizens, I disagree with this characterization.  Violence and political action went hand in hand in 1788, for example, a year before the Revolution proper began.  Bastille Day in 1789 saw the mob beat Captain DeLaunay to death and put his head on a pike.  The language of blood had much cache in the rhetoric of the time, with orators often proclaiming their desire to shed their blood for the cause, or the need for blood to “water the soil of the fatherland,” blood as the “cement of the new republic,” and so on.

Part of understanding the violence involves understanding the nature of sin itself.  How often have we thought that if we do this one bad thing, we can quickly then step back, shut the lid on our misdeeds, and return to righteous behavior.  But as Scriptural language makes clear, once sin has room to maneuver it tends to take control.  Once they used violence to achieve small objectives, it began to have a life and logic of its own.  Pandora’s box had opened.

Part of the reason for the violence also involves what the French tried to accomplish with their revolution.  Stop and ponder for a moment how many political questions we take for granted. Who gets rights?  Who is a citizen?  How should we apportion political power?  Americans disagree a lot about politics, but nearly all our arguments deal with what to do within the existing system.

But what if we had to completely rethink all of those things on the fly, for this is what the French faced.  Naturally they had many disagreements about fundamental political questions.  Under pressure from foreign powers, did the French have the space and time to decide these questions?  The lazy way out would mean violence.  One can weary of talking endlessly, especially under pressure.  “Since we cannot agree on who gets the last cookie and I’m tired of talking, I’ll shove you out of the way and grab it myself.”

The art of the period reflected some of this change of mindset.  The artistic style called “Rococo” tended to dominate in the period prior to the Revolution, with this painting as perhaps the pre-eminent example:

The emphasis here was on light, softness, and the pleasures (though its critics used the word “frivolity) of life.  Art presaged the political shift of the Revolution.  The colors got bolder, the subject matter more serious, and the focus shifted from celebrating life to facing death.

Here is Jacques Louis-David’s “The Oath of the Horatii,” from a story in Roman history that celebrated the sacrifice of the three brothers for Rome.

And below, “Brutus and His Sons,” which again uses Rome as the narrative template.  Brutus served as one of Rome’s first consuls, its chief law enforcement officer.  But two of his sons participated in a plot to bring back the monarchy.  The punishment was death, and Brutus had the duty of executing the punishment.  As in the picture above, the men have steely resolve while the women swoon:

The semi-apocalyptic tone of the art no doubt captured the existing mood, but also propelled French society toward violence.

We also cannot underestimate the climate of fear that gripped France.  They knew that their attempts to remake their society would draw the ire of other nations.  Austria and Prussia sent armies to invade their country, and France itself had to deal with an army whose aristocratic officer corp had largely fled or been discredited.  But once the French began the Revolution, they could not turn back.  They had already done enough to face punishment from other nations or a restored Louis XVI.  If, for example, you knew you would be hung for the thefts you committed, would you try and kill the witnesses?  What more could the authorities do to you?  Facing domestic uncertainty and international pressure, success became mandatory for the revolutionaries.  This desperation surely contributed to the violence.  Tragically (and not surprisingly) they eventually turned this fear and desperation on each other.  Saturn would eat his children.

It was in this climate of fear that the French had to decide who constituted the “people” of France.  Usually nations decide this along the lines of birth, but many in France thought this could not work, since not all favored the Revolution.  If those who did not go along with the Revolution were “oppressors” of the people, could oppressors of the people be part of the people?  Why give rights to those who work against the nation? This led to the French defining citizenship along ideological lines, which had a disastrous impact on the Revolution.

Violence played a crucial part in this decision too.  On Bastille Day crowds already began executing people without trial.  If those executed were part of “the people” then their actions were obviously illegal.  But to call those actions illegal would call the whole revolution into question.  So, the natural conclusion would be that those executed were not in fact part of France after all, and not deserving of rights.

Next week we will see where these ideas lead the Revolution.

11th Grade: Defending the Indefensible

Greetings,

This week we tried to understand why England and other nations allowed Germany under Hitler to increase its power, in repeated violations of the Versailles treaty.  Hindsight is always 20/20, and of course we know that lack of action spelled disaster for millions around the world.  But we need to avoid finger-wagging, and we need to shun the assumption that if we had only been there in the 1930’s, we would have done the right thing.  If we do not attempt to understand the past, we cannot learn from it.

We note first that the Versailles treaty that ended World War I was unpopular in England almost from the very beginning. Many perceived that it came down too hard on Germany.  As parents, perhaps you too have known the position of being too harsh at first with your kids, and then facing the dilemma of either a) Stick to an unjust course and not back down, or b) Change your initial pronouncement and back down.  Neither option satisfies, but especially if option ‘a’ would also mean hard work at keeping several countries on the same page and equally contributing, it’s easy to see why England went with option ‘b.’  They did so despite the protestations of France, who usually wanted to be harder on Germany than the British, which puts France’s 1940 collapse in a slightly different light.  Ironically, we celebrate (rightly) England’s resistance to the Nazi’s in the early 1940’s and mock France for surrendering.  But in the 1930’s, France in general wanted to be much tougher on Germany than England, but could never get English backing to prevent Germany’s rise to power.

Secondly, for a century prior to World War I England’s basic foreign policy goal meant establishing a continental balance of power.  After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, their basic theory stated that the presence of weak nations induced the stronger ones to fight over them.  Hence, a weak Germany might tempt both France and the Soviet Union towards war over German territory.

So many English statesman actually wanted a stronger Germany to balance out eastern and western Europe.  England drew upon quite recent history for this, as the Austria and Russia’s mutual interest in the Balkans (see map) plunged the world into World War I.

If we look at the map of Europe in 1933, we see British fears that central Europe could be a second Balkans, keeping in mind that the Soviet Union has seized the ‘slashed’ territory.

We also should not forget the situation in Asia in the 1930’s.  Traditionally we date the beginning of World War II in 1939, but Japan began an aggressive foreign policy in 1931 with their invasion of Manchuria.  While Japan did not directly threaten anything Britain held, they began to edge closer to their crucial outposts in Singapore and Hong Kong.  From Hong Kong, India stood just around the corner.  British policy had to take into account the possibility of enemies in the Pacific as well as the continent, and they got almost no help from the U.S. in dealing with the Japanese in the 1930’s.  One gets a sense of this if you look at the British empire ca. 1930.

Japan’s stark rise is almost as dramatic as Germany’s.  They had a rich cultural heritage but almost no natural resources with which to construct a modern military.  Japan looks like an aggressor in 1941, and in many ways they certainly were.  But we must rewind 100 years to the treaty imposed by Admiral Perry in 1858 upon them that forced open their borders.  While one can argue that forcing Japan to open up to western trade benefitted them in some ways, it was done on our terms and not theirs.

The allies made the mistake of humiliating Germany in the wake of W.W. I, and both England and the U.S. made the same mistake with Japan.  The humiliation continued in 1922 when England and the U.S. imposed upon  Japan a treaty that forced the Japanese to have a smaller navy than either England or the U.S.  Many in Japan felt that the west would only tolerate Japan remaining in an “inferior” position.  Japan could have acquiesced to this inferior status, and accepted what geography gave them, or they could try and change it.  The 1922 treaty proved that western powers were not going to let them do it in a peaceful way.  If they wanted more power, they were going to have to take the raw materials of others, which they began to try and do in 1931 by invading Manchuria.  One could argue that England was their in how to craft an empire.

The Allies were the good guys in W.W. II, but it is unfortunately a relative term, and we must be careful not to be smug about it.  In some ways we created the monsters that tried to destroy us.  The only real image of “great nations” they had in 1930’s were European ones who got there via imperialistic colonialism.  With China and Manchuria, I’m sure they thought they were doing what it took to be a “great nation.”

Finally, the economic situation needs our consideration.  Prior to World War I, Germany and England traded more with each other than anyone else.  Like other nations, the Depression hit England hard.  A stronger Germany would mean a stronger German middle class, and a stronger middle class meant better markets for English manufactured goods.  Many economists today believe, that a rising Chinese middle class will benefit our economy.  Ford, I believe, sells more cars in China than they do in the U.S., for example.   We have seen recently in our own time how “the economy” can dominate our own nation’s psyche.  I posed this dilemma to students. . .

Suppose you are a Senator whose state has a technology company that employs thousands of people, one that does  hundreds of millions of dollars in business with China.  Into your office comes someone from your state, who argues that because of human rights abuses and persecution of Christians in China, you should push for severe trade restrictions to try and get China to change their behavior.  Would you agree with her?

In class nearly every student said something like. . .

  • We cannot afford to lose business with China and put thousands of people out of work.
  • China’s human rights abuses is an internal matter for China, and while unfortunate and regrettable, we really can do little to change it.

Does this not sound similar, perhaps, to how nations reacted to Nazi persecution of Jews, ca. 1935?

niall-ferguson-the-war-of-the-world

Much of what I said above I found in Niall Feguson’s book The War of the World, and especially from his chapter “Defending the Indefensible.”  In fact Ferguson makes the claim that appeasement did not cause W.W. II.  Rather, a war which had already began in the Pacific led to appeasement in Europe.  Interestingly, though England tragically miscalculated in regards to Germany, they thought that Japan posed a more imminent danger than Germany was in one sense correct.  Japan’s attack of China predated Germany’s attack on Poland by a couple of years.

Neither Ferguson or I mean to exonerate England of course, but hopefully the students had a better understanding of why events transpired as they did.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin