Things in a Museum

Some time ago I accompanied some students to a museum on a field trip when I encountered a harried-looking adult wearing a “Chaperone” sticker for another school.  Evidently he had gotten separated from his pack, but he didn’t seem to mind too terribly.  He had the thousand-yard stare of a man utterly defeated.  When I asked if he was supervising another group he chuckled, “You think so?  I have no idea what we’re doing or why we brought them here.”

I am proud of my students.  I have had 8th graders show far more interest on trips to museums than seniors from other high-schools I have witnessed, and yet even they have well-set limits.  The Walters Gallery in Baltimore is a wonderful museum.  Alas, at some point the students inevitably conk out and don’t care how old or rare a particular painting or artifact may be.  Any pleading or begging I might have attempted would only be met with the same thousand-yard stare I saw from the hapless chaperone.

And yet, these same students had endless energy on the bus ride for variously animated discussions on the merits of Panera or the next Avengers movie.

Now, this is not to say that I blame them at all.  I stand firmly by my appreciation for them.  But this experience of mine surely has a universality to it, experienced not just by every teacher that takes students to a museum, but anyone who has visited museums like this.  Why does “museum fatigue” set in so quickly not just for students, but for all of us?

The most obvious answer that comes to mind is that no one argues that museums are the ideal setting for such things.  To take a small thing and remove it from its context, putting it in a hushed room with lots of other things removed from their original context, surely limits their power.

I doubt that even museum curators would disagree with this, but I’m convinced this only begins to answer the question.

What makes the Walters a great place is that it packs a great deal into a small space.  Even if you wanted to linger, in about 3 hours you could go from ancient Egypt through the 1800’s in Europe and see the sweep of human culture.  And this led me to some thoughts as to why we have such a hard time engaging with the past. When you move through the Walters you can see a dramatic shift in the art and culture of different periods.  Almost everything from ancient Egypt has a direct religious purpose and is crafted with direct religious symbolism. Babylon is similar, though Assyria less so. You don’t always see the same direct ‘religiosity’ in Greece and Rome but it’s still there more often than we might think.  In the medieval world nearly everything had a distinct religious meaning, and a rich symbolic world lay behind most of what we saw with our eyes. The art from Egypt through the medieval world generally had this same quality–layers within layers of meaning that would have been intuitively obvious to those who lived in those times.  Of course the forms that they expressed this richness of symbolic meaning changed, but they all shared (more or less) in having this tapestry.

But beginning in the Renaissance (with more realistic depictions?, more overt interest in the natural world?) and sharply accelerating in the 17th century, we begin to see a dramatic shift. We could argue about why this happened (the Reformation was often iconoclastic, the Scientific Revolution happened, etc.) but that it happened is perfectly obvious.  In the 17th century and beyond we see a focus on the natural world. The ‘layers’ of meaning so obvious in centuries prior seem absent. The tree is just a tree, the man is just a man. If the layers are there they are no longer part of a general cultural understanding, but have to be supplied via individual interpretation.  

If one thinks students incapable of finding layers of meaning within images, simply observe the world of memes.  Here one witnesses students discovering whole worlds within stock cultural images.  Alas that these meanings and references remain almost entirely self-referential within a shallow cultural context.  Still, the staying power of memes surely has something to do with the joy and satisfaction they take in discovering and creating these endless loops of meaning.  So, while in my snooty and grumpy way I generally look down upon meme culture, I suppose I should see glimmers of hope that students not only can see such layers, but also enjoy finding them.

This led to some other thoughts and possible realizations.

Many have noted and lamented the decline of the influence of the text in our society, and we can point to a variety of causes for this.  No one questions that this will create a different kind of culture and eventually a new way of understanding.  The shift may be painful, but will we end up worse off?  In the “Phaedrus” Socrates recalls the Egyptian myth of Thamus and Theuth, in which the merits of writing are contested by Thamus.

At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, “This,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. “

Thamus replied: “O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Of course Egypt had writing, but even that writing was highly symbolic.  They had an overwhelmingly visual culture but achieved a very high level of civilization for millennia.  The Gothic age also had writing, but one suspects that this writing was not fashioned primarily to be read:

Though it may not be quite as obvious to some, their highly visual and religiously oriented society achieved quite a high-level of civilization.*  Their perception was more immediate.

As an example of our poverty of perception surrounding images and meaning, I refer to the famous “ichthus” symbol for Christianity.  One sees this symbol many places, and who can miss the scintillating war of fish magnets/Darwin fish magnets/anti-Darwin fish magnets on the bumpers of cars?  Though the symbol has been around in modern perception since the 1970’s, I never heard anything about the symbol except that the Greek letters for “fish” resemble the letters for “Christ.”  Of course one might also think of the direct reference to the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, or the fact that some of the apostles were fisherman before they met Jesus.

But the indirect symbolic meaning has much greater depth and wholeness.  To quote Leonid Ouspensky,

The first and most essential meaning of the fish is therefore Jesus Christ Himself.  Some ancient writers occasionally call our Lord, “the Heavenly fish.  We find the image of a boat, symbol of the Church, carried by a fish: the Church rests on Christ its founder.  To represent Christ in the midst of Christians united in baptism, little fishes surrounded by a large fish were often portrayed [in early Christian art].  “We are little fish,” Tertullian writes [ca. A.D. 200], “we are born in water like our fish Jesus Christ, and can only be saved by staying in the water.”**  Thus, the symbolism of fish leads back to that of water, that is, to baptism.”

Here we see a whole history, a whole theological understanding, a whole world to explore.  We must recover this sense of the “things” we see if we wish to re-enchant ourselves.



*The great Kenneth Clark ranks 12th century Europe as one of the great ages of the history of civilization.  John Anthony West, a devoted reinterpreter of Egyptian civilization, makes an interesting comparison between Gothic cathedrals and Egyptian temples.  While he is not a Christian, and seems perhaps slightly tilted against it in general, he admitted that the Gothic cathedrals communicate something directly to the soul.

**Hence the practice of annointing oneself with holy water as one enters and leaves some churches, not so much as a reminder of this, but as a way of connecting to these truths.






“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.

Drinking Tea in Wartime

My grandfather fought in W.W. II for the 101st Airborne.  He took part in the invasion of Arnhem in September 1944, a campaign immortalized by the book/movie A Bridge too Far. One story he related dealt with the British love of tea.  If the British/American plan had a chance of success allied forces needed to move as fast as possible to seize several key bridgeheads across the Rhine River.  But at around 4:00, British units pulled over on the side of the road and had their tea for 15 minutes, driving their American counterparts nuts.  How anyone could justify teatime at such a time baffled them.

I suppose the British might have responded along the lines of, “If we don’t stop for tea at 4:00, then the Nazi’s have already won!”

Tensions between tradition and the exigencies of the moment have always been with us. In every instance where it arises good arguments exist on both sides that invariably go something like

  • We must change in order to survive, vs.
  • If we change the wrong things, or change too much, it won’t be “we” that survive but another sort of society entirely.

I very much enjoyed the many strengths of Basil Liddell Hart’s Scipio Africanus: Greater than Napoleon.  My one quibble with the book is his failure to tackle this dilemma as it relates to Rome in the 2nd Punic War.

But first, the book’s strengths . . .

The title indicates that Hart might indulge in a bit of hero-worship, but I have no problem with this in itself.  First of all, he lets the reader know from the outset where he stands. And, while her0-worship books have inevitable weaknesses, I very much prefer this approach to writing that equivocates to such a degree so that the author says nothing at all.

Hart’s book also reverses the common tendency to glorify the romantic loser.  We love Robert E. Lee, but Grant, well, he’s boring.  We love Napoleon and see Wellington as . . . boring.  Historians of the 2nd Punic War have devoted an overwhelming amount of attention to Hannibal.  His march through the Alps and his enormously impressive successes at Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae have inspired military minds for centuries. Sure, Rome won in the end, but for “boring” reasons like better political structure and more human resources–just as many assume Grant won not because of what he did, but because of the North’s “boring” industrialization and economy.

But surely Hannibal’s defeat had something to do with Scipio himself, especially seeing as how a variety of other Roman commanders failed spectacularly at fighting the wily Carthaginian.  To add to this, if you knock out the champ, doesn’t that mean that we have a new champion?

Liddell Hart gives us some great insights in this book.

Those familiar with Hart’s philosophy know that he constantly praised the value of what he called the “indirect approach” to war, both tactically and strategically.  Rome at first tried the direct approach with Hannibal and lost badly.  Then with Fabius they practiced what some might call “no approach” with a debatable amount of success.  Scipio struck a balance.  After assuming command he fought the Carthaginians, but not in Italy.  He took the fight to Carthage’s important base in Spain.  He fought against Carthaginian troops with Carthaginian commanders, but avoided Hannibal.

I have no great military knowledge and no experience, but Hart’s concise explanation of Scipio’s maneuvering in Spain impressed me greatly.  His “double envelopment” move at the Battle of Ilipa against a numerically superior foe was an inspired stroke:


But I found Scipio’s diplomatic and grand-strategical vision more impressive.  Hart admits that Hannibal had the edge over Scipio in tactics, but I feel that most overlook or excuse Hannibal’s deficiencies at accomplishing his strategy of prying allies away from Rome.  In a very short time Scipio turned the tables completely in Spain, giving Rome a foundation on which to build a Mediterranean empire.  Unlike other great commanders such as Napoleon and Alexander, and even Hannibal, Scipio never had full control of his forces or his agenda.  He accomplished more than most any other commander while navigating more difficult political terrain.  He established the basis militarily and diplomatically for Rome’s preeminence in the Mediterranean.  He deserves the praise Hart heaps on him.

However, the ‘hero-worship’ part of the book needs addressing.  Hart writes with much more balance than Theodore Dodge, who wrote about Scipio’s counterpart Hannibal.  But he makes the same kind of mistakes as Dodge by dismissing some of the political realities Rome faced because of Scipio’s success.  In sum, Hart has no appreciation for the tension between Roman tradition and Roman military success at the heart of this conflict.

Rome’s Republic had no written constitution.  It ran according to tradition.  The bedrock principles were:

  • Sharing power amongst the aristocratic class
  • Yearly rotation of offices
  • Direct appeals to the people smelled of dictatorship
  • No one stands out too much more than anyone else.  They sought more or less to divvy up honor equally.
  • You wait your turn like everyone else.  No one jumps in line ahead of anyone.

From the start of his career Scipio challenged nearly all of these principles in a dramatic way.  Hart himself admits that:

  • He ‘level-jumped’ to high office far earlier than anyone else, breaking the unofficial rules that held things together.
  • He frequently received his support directly from the people against the wishes of the aristocracy
  • He at times used religious claims to boost his appeal for office, which the people responded to over and against the scowls of the aristocracy.
  • In defeating Hannibal he raised his status far higher than any other Roman of his day.  This can’t be held against him obviously, but everyone noticed.

Of course we naturally have a distaste for aristocracy and so does Hart, who loses no opportunities to cast aspersions on Cato, Fabius, and other grumpy, jealous old men.

But . . . by any measure the Roman Republic ranks as one of the more successful governments of all-time.  While they were not close to fully democratic, they had many democratic elements, and still managed annual, peaceful transitions of power across all levels of government for (at the time of the 2nd Punic War) for 300 years.  Judged by the standards of their day, some might even label them as “progressives.”  They had a great thing going and we should not rashly blame them for wanting to protect it.

During the war itself one can easily agree with Hart and his roasting of Fabius and especially Cato the Elder. But events in the generations after the 2nd Punic War show that Scipio’s enemies may have been at least partially on to something.  Within 30 years of their victory, the Republic had major cracks.  After 75 years, the Republic began its collapse.  In time the Republic could not even pretend to contain Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar.  One could argue that Scipio in an indirect way set the stage for this.

Hart wrote a very good book, but not a great one.  I wonder what he would have thought of the British soldiers at Arnhem.  The disruption Rome suffered as a result of the 2nd Punic War had a lot more to do with Hannibal than Scipio.  And yet, Scipio played some part, albeit a small one. Was it worth it?   Could it have reasonably happened differently?  Hart doesn’t say, and leaves us to wonder.






12th Grade: Israel, Palestine, and Solutions Beyond Governments


This week and last we looked at Israeli democracy, and tried to understand the dilemma they face regarding Palestinian statehood.  I hope we gained sympathy for both sides of this question.  Through this lens I wanted the students to understand one of the Catch-22’s that many democratic states face.

Democracies appeal to us largely because of their high ideals and goals, not just for the state itself, but for the individual.  But human nature almost guarantees that we will not attain these goals, and so democratic states are much more prone to hypocrisy and blind spots than authoritarian dictatorships, for example.  This should not make us abandon democracy.   As Chesterton and others have said, if you aim at nothing you’re sure to hit it.  But I do hope it will give us greater understanding of democracy’s Achilles heel.  The “processes” of democracy, like voting, representation, etc. have no real meaning unless they have roots in specific values.  If values make a democracy, then one must lead with those values.

The idea of a Jewish state predated World War II to the 1890’s.  The western world in general experienced an intensification of nationalism and heightened awareness of ethnic identity, which bore such horrific fruit in the 20th century.  Many Jews, having been scattered throughout Europe for centuries, began to resettle in Palestine, which the Ottomans then administered.  By the 1920’s Jewish settlement in Palestine looked something like this (darker areas indicate Jewish presence), though I should add that almost every map related to the Israel/Palestine question is polemical and controversial in one way or another.

After World War I, the British administered the area, but could no longer do so after World War II.  At that point England wanted to jettison nearly all of its colonial empire, and so they handed the question of Palestine over to the United Nations.  After the Holocaust the world had to answer the question as to whether or not there should be a specific Jewish state, and if so, where it should be.

Although people debated various sites, including Madagascar, they eventually settled on Palestine, which made sense in relation to Jewish history and the recent Zionist movement. No place would be without controversy, but choosing Palestine came with problems.  During World War I many Arabs fought with the British against the Turks, and the British in turn pledged to grant Arabs independence.  Instead they reneged on the deal and added Palestine to its colonial holdings.

Actions have consequences, even if sometimes those consequences take years to make themselves known.

From the Israeli’s perspective, owning a small sliver of land that did not even include Jerusalem, was the least the world could do.  Europe had persecuted the Jews on and off since the Crusades.  The latent, on again off again anti-Semitism that simmered for centuries metastasized into a horrifically clinical attempt to wipe them out entirely with the Nazi domination of Europe.  The world had shown that the Jews must have a safe haven, and giving them back a small part of their ancestral land made  political and ethical sense.

The Palestinians saw it differently and many continue to do so.

While the Palestinians were not the Jews number one fan, the Holocaust happened in Europe. It was not their doing, either directly or indirectly.  If the Jews need a homeland, and Europeans need to give them one to assuage their consciences, fine.  How about taking some European territory?  How about part of Germany?

Instead, what the Palestinians feel happened is what they felt always happens with the West. The Palestinians felt stomped on by one colonial power or another for centuries, and now it looked like deja vu  all over again.  This time, the guise took the form of the United Nations, but the result is the same:  someone took our land without our consent.  Rest assured, the Palestinians did not vote at the U.N. to cede part of Palestine for a Jewish state.  Thus, the very existence of the Jewish state is another form of colonial imperialism in Palestinian eyes.  The Jews invaded, in a sense, under U.S. and European flags.  In their mind Israel has no legitimacy because they are no better than other colonial occupiers.  When some critics of Israel, be they Palestinian or not, talk of Israel as a state founded on thievery, they have these associations in mind.

Most argue that the wars fought between Israel and her neighbors in 1948, 1967, and 1973 were started by Israel’s Moslem neighbors (though some might dispute ’67, where Israel launched the first physical attacks).  Not so, say the Arabs.  Israel started them all simply by being there.

Time has not favored the Palestinian cause, as the map below indicates:

Upon its creation, Israel had to make some crucial choices about its future.  It chose a Parliamentary style democracy, which did not surprise many.  But what to do with Palestinians living within their territory?  In 1948, Palestinians formed a distinct minority within Israel, but they were protected and given citizenship.  A British parliamentary style usually has less federation and more majority rule.  But that was ok, because Jews had the clear majority.  Still, it stood as a statement that Israel need not be for Jews only, and in the wake of the Holocaust, this was a powerful statement.

But what to do with Palestinians in the territory Israel acquired in 1948 and 1967?  Should they be citizens too?

This dilemma pierced the heart of the whole purpose for Israel’s existence.  They no longer could be both a Jewish ethnic state and a fully functioning democracy.  In other words, they could either

  • Give every Palestinian full citizenship rights, and risk that Jews would no longer be the majority in Israel.
  • Give them no rights and treat them as an occupied people
  • Give them some rights and not others, but this middle ground would probably not make legal or moral sense, something akin to the 3/5 Compromise in the Constitution, which made slaves count as 3/5 of a person.  How can one be 3/5 of a person?

In other words, Israel could be an ethnic state or a full fledged democracy.  The two could no longer go together.  They would have to give up something.  I have enormous sympathy for Israel here.  The whole purpose of Israel was to create a refuge for Jews and create a state run by Jews. To attain peace they would need to give up something of their identity.  For a generation that saw and survived the Holocaust, this would have been a near supernatural act, and it is not my place to judge.  Palestinian Christians have the only solution, but tragically, some of Israel’s policies, at times supported by the West, and at times supported by some Christian denominations, have deeply eroded and marginalized the Palestinian Christian community.

The middle course Israel chose gave Palestinians in newly acquired land some economic opportunities but not political representation.  Such mixed messages are usually deadly for democracies, and in time those contradictions often assert themselves with a vengeance.  One only needs to think of what happened when our own country sent blaring mixed messages for the first 80-90 years of our existence. In essence, the Palestinians got invited to the party, but then got told to eat with the servants in the basement.

Eventually, security concerns led Israel to build a wall between themselves and certain occupied areas.  But this seems all wrong.  We are familiar with walls — the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, and so on.  Democracies are not supposed to do this.  But Israel felt that they could not be secure without it.   Some supporters of the wall might argue that it sends a signal, like the Emperor Hadrian’s wall in the north of England, of an end point to expansion in the occupied territories.  In other words, it should comfort the Palestinians. But this is not how Palestinians, or the world-wide community, has interpreted the wall.   Some have called it “the most religious place on Earth.”  The images are powerful:

I think Israel’s history comes with many lessons for democracies, including the need for consistency, and the need to lead with cultural values over strict security concerns.  Ultimately, however, we see the need for something greater than what governments can give.

Many thanks,

Dave M

10th Grade: The Feeding Frenzy


This week we came close to wrapping up the events of the Reign of Terror.  During the terrible years of 1793-94 somewhere between 15-40 thousand people died and some 300,000 were imprisoned.  How did a Republic dedicated to “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” descend into this barbaric nightmare.  Many theories exist, and here I would like to highlight a few we will discuss in class.

David Andress – The Terror & Outside Pressure

Historian David Andress wants us to consider what happened inside France in light of events outside of France.  England, Austria, and Prussia all tried militarily to oppose France, and all looked for the the fledgling republic to collapse.  The stress of war on an already fragile government heightened the stakes inside France, and they cracked under the pressure.

Edmund Burke – The Abandonment of Tradition

A contemporary of the Revolution, Burke warned back in 1790 that France would pay a terrible price for putting people in power who had no idea how to use it.  Having no political experience, France’s leaders would quickly grow frustrated, and then lash out in the most basic way possible: violence.  Burke would prove a prophet.

Burke may seem stodgy at fist glance, because of his strong emphasis on tradition and habit.  But in a paradoxical way, he believed that habits were the only sure foundation for progress in the world.  We make thousands upon thousands of decisions in a given day, and Burke sees these these habits as a path to freedom, giving us time to pursue new things rather than have to “rationally” whether or not to eat breakfast first or get dressed first.

In a terrible irony Burke predicted, those fired by the Enlightenment idea to apply the strong light of reason to all things would end up erasing habit and thereby condemn us to starting all over again, setting us back to a barbarian past.  The Revolution saw multiple constitutions over a short period of time, a change of calendar, a change of morals.  No one could be sure of anything, and in this environment, fear and violence would likely take over.

Burke applied the same thought process to the exercise of power.  We often make two mistakes regarding political power:

  • We assume that it is a kind of magic, reserved only for society’s wizards.
  • We assume that anyone can do it.

Burke believed that good use of political power functioned like many other things in life, as a matter of experience and training — a matter of habit.  Certainly we want intelligent people to hold office, but this intelligence needed training like anything else in life.  The problem with the revolutionary leaders was not their lack of intelligence.  It was not their wicked designs (we can grant that some of them, at least, meant well).  The main problem lie in the fact that no one really knew what they were doing, and so fell back on force as a last resort.

Simon Schama – Dangers of Ideology

In his great work Citizens, Schama took another approach.  He focused how the French defined what it meant to be a citizen of their country. Increasingly they defined citizenship in moral and ideological and not legal terms.  Frenchmen had rights, but only those truly “virtuous,” or dedicated to the Revolution were truly French.  Those not revolutionary enough could not be French, and so they had no rights.  They functioned as a cancerous tumor, foreign to the national body, and had to be excised.

All three of these eminent thinkers emphasize important aspects of the political context. But all three I think leave out some fundamental aspects of human nature.  I think this image of Robespierre, the head of the ironically named “Committee of Public Safety,”  speaks volumes.  Here we have a man who believed in his own virtue, and had a passion for enforcing his rules on others.  Imagine the ultimate HOA Board Member on steroids.

Robespierre believed in perfection and insisted upon it.  Unfortunately he more or less thought he had achieved it himself.  People called Robespierre the “Incorruptible.”  In all his dealings, Robespierre appears to have been that rare politician who truly did not take bribes or show favoritism.  It would have been better for France (and Robespierre).  Perhaps then he would not have been able to maintain his furious streak of self-righteousness, which led to so many deaths (perhaps thinking of Robespierre might help us to understand Martin Luther’s oft misunderstood “Sin boldly.  God can only forgive a hearty sinner,” line to his quibbling friend Melancthon).

A passion for moral and political purity destroyed France. One can think of a potter attempting to make the perfect circle.  It wouldn’t be perfect at first, and one would have to shave off bits of clay continually to get it just right.  Eventually, however, you would not have any clay left.  While they said they cared for liberty, they did not realize that the amount of liberty one can enjoy is the amount you are willing to have abused.  France found that it could tolerate no abuse of liberty, so in the end they had none at all.  As the Terror increased, even the Committee of Public Safety members turned on each other and many of them faced the guillotine.

The guillotine itself represents part of the tragedy of the Revolution.  Dr. Guillotin invented the instrument to make executions more humane.  In the past, death by beheading was actually a privilege reserved for the nobility.  Those of more “common” lineage might face execution through hanging, disembowling, or even being drawn and quartered.

The guillotine meant now that everyone would have the “right” to death by beheading, and the mechanism meant now that no executioner might potentially botch the job.  Instead, in an almost bizarre parody, the mechanical nature of the machine gave the state power to execute more people more quickly, and now indeed “the people” could all face death equally.

Emmett Kennedy, author of A Cultural History of the French Revolution makes a great observation about French Romanticism and its relation to violence.  If man is naturally good, he suggests, than grace becomes irrelevant.  But what can take the place of grace as a proper inducement to virtue?  St. Just, Robespierre’s lieutenant, had the answer.  Kennedy writes,

Sensibilite (right sentiments, for lack of a better word) impels a man toward virtue, it affirms his natural goodness; it does for him what grace does for Christians.  If “sentiments”  do not produce virtue, then [St. Just argues] terror must take its place (emphasis mine).

In a round-about way Kennedy hits at a central truth.  The doctrine of the Fall of Man leads us not towards cruelty but mercy.  The Revolution denied mankind’s nature, but this “liberation” from sin could only lead them to destroy one another in blind and merciless search for perfection.

Danton Democracy

I originally published this in 2013, and repost it in light of our study of the French Revolution.  Apologies for any dated information on the ACA . . .


It took a while, but I finally came across an article on the ACA (also called “Obamacare”) that I resonated with.  Ross Douthat does not need to argue that the law will destroy civilization as we know it.  He admits that many will probably benefit from the law.  But in the final analysis (if coming to a final analysis even possible with such a ridiculously complex piece of legislation), he writes.

Now an effective levy of several thousand dollars on the small fraction of middle class Americans who buy on the individual market is not history’s great injustice. But neither does it seem like the soundest or most politically stable public policy arrangement. And to dig back into the position where I do strongly disagree with Cohn’s perspective, what makes this setup potentially more perverse is that it raises rates most sharply on precisely those Americans who up until now were doing roughly what we should want more health insurance purchasers to do: Economizing, comparison shopping, avoiding paying for coverage they don’t need, and buying a level of insurance that covers them in the event of a true disaster while giving them a reason not to overspend on everyday health expenses.

If we want health inflation to stay low and health care costs to be less of an anchor on advancement, we should want more Americans making $50,000 or $60,000 or $70,000 to spend less upfront on health insurance, rather than using regulatory pressure to induce them to spend more. And seen in that light, the potential problem with Obamacare’s regulation-driven “rate shock” isn’t that it doesn’t let everyone keep their pre-existing plans. It’s that it cancels plans, and raises rates, for people who were doing their part to keep all of our costs low.

You can find the full article here.

The article does not fully address my two ‘gut-level’ objections to the law:

  • Many well-intentioned government servants believe that they have found the ‘solution’ to problems that have heretofore eluded society.  Thus, they see only the positive and never realize the cost of certain kinds of legislation.
  • More specifically, the health care system already involved a great deal of physical complexity laid over top of a myriad of individual financial and moral choices.  Government action, almost by definition in cases like this, would almost certainly gum up the works and unintentionally create problems, even those they could not foresee.

I thought of the health care controversy as I read David Lawday’s enjoyable biography Danton: The Giant of the French Revolution.  Danton’s outsized personality stands in sharp contrast to the cold Robespierre, who eventually turned on Danton and had him executed.  Their faces tell the whole story:




Danton styled himself a man of the people.  He claimed to truly understand the people, for he (and not Robespierre) thought and acted like one of them.  He laughed, enjoyed food, women, and friends.  Thus, as he had a seat in government and understood the people, he naturally assumed that government action would work to benefit the people and help fulfill their wishes.  The video below may not reflect an actual historical meeting between  Danton and Robespierre, but it accurately depicts the different personalities of them both.

One can easily get drawn into Danton’s huge personality, but we should remember that he sanctioned horrible butcheries both before and after the fact, in the name of the people.  Danton was not a thinker.  He did not inscribe his speeches, he wrote few letters (that have survived at least), and so we know little of his motivations.  Lawday allows himself to make his best guesses, and paints a portrait of a man who had no love for violence per se, but believed he could successfully manage it once unleashed.  He later seemed to change his mind about this during the Reign of Terror, and this shift factored into his execution.

Unfortunately Danton’s greatest legacy to the Revolution was the Revolutionary Tribunal, the government’s supreme tool in legitimizing political murder on a mass scale.  Danton had some good motives in starting the tribunal.  He saw the random destruction engaged in by “the people,” and thought that direct government action would relieve the masses of the burden of imposing justice, or at least their version of justice.  This in turn would limit the violence that plagued the Revolution, for government would surely exercise more restraint and wisdom than the masses.  In a speech advocating for the establishment of the tribunal he reportedly said, “Let us be terrible, so they do not have to be.”

Tragically, the Tribunal simply gave legitimacy to the worst impulses of the Revolution, and the amount of deaths and imprisonments skyrocketed.  This same tribunal eventually tried Danton himself and found him guilty without allowing Danton to call any witnesses for his defense.

The ACA and the Revolutionary Tribunal remain vastly different things.  I hesitate to include mention of them both in the same post, for in 99 out of 100 ways they have nothing to do with each other.

But they do share one thing in common–they both spring from the mistaken belief that government can enter a complicated situation and with a wave of a wand make everything alright.  It usually fails to work, even with the best of intentions.

On the subject of good intentions, Marginal Revolution posted a link with this abstract. . .

Same Story, Different Day

Once upon a time a man lived in a good land.  His family prospered, and in time, his children and his children’s children filled this good land.  They had their own customs, faith, and rhythms of daily life.

But these good times did not last.  Eventually many others sought to rob these good people of their land.  Various kings and principalities invaded, one after the other.

The people resisted.  They fought bravely, but often these foreign invaders divided to conquer.  At times these good people found themselves at odds with one another.  Eventually the invaders persecuted them. Their very existence as a people seemed threatened.  But they had faith, and this faith will be rewarded.  Their perseverance led them to outlast the forces of history, and so their history in the modern era begins right where it left off many generations ago.

In a post about the failure of the Treaty of Versailles I discuss my view of the importance of narrative in the field of history, whether we study the past or make “history” in the present.  Analytical data or “rational” analysis about costs/benefits in the abstract will lead to wrong perceptions of reality.  A narrative view gives us a more full understanding, and when faced with a problem, a much better chance at solutions.

It sounds odd to say that I really enjoyed Padraig O’ Malley’s * The Two State Delusion: Israel and Palestine — A Tale of Two Narratives.  O’ Malley has little hope for peace if the “peace process” continues as before, and this gives the book a somber tone.  But I enjoyed it because I felt that O’Malley must be onto something by focusing not on particular events, or even security for one side or the other, but on the idea of the narratives both sides bring to the table.  One problem the two sides face is the distinct similarity in their narratives.  The structure of the story remains relatively same for them both, with different characters.

The story I told above fits both sides of the conflict, and to some extent both sides use the above narrative.

For Israel

  • They gained possession of a good land, grew and prospered, reaching their ancient peak during the reign of Solomon.
  • But soon after that, their kingdom fell prey to multiple invasions from the outside, be it Assyrians, Babylonians, or Romans.  They had to scatter throughout neighboring lands, but maintained their identity and culture.
  • They faced persecution from outsiders, culminating in the almost unimaginable horror of the Holocaust.
  • But — their persistence and faith paid off.  They returned, forged by suffering, and established themselves securely back in the land of their forefathers.

For the Palestinians . . .

  • They dwelt peacefully in the land in small communities for many generations
  • But — they fell prey to imperial forces, throughout time.  We can date their unjust subjugation in the modern era with their occupation by the Ottoman Turks from the 16th century to W.W. I.
  • At the turn of the 20th century they had independence promised them from another imperial power (the British).
  • But when it seemed like they might have their land back once again, they were betrayed and occupied  (by the British, who sponsored the return of Israeli’s).
  • Eventually, a host of foreign powers (the U.N.) imposed another conquering people upon them (the establishment of Israel — whose military might is financed from the west).  This new occupier fought a series of wars , scattering them from their homes in a host of illegal land grabs (Israel has routinely violated a varietyU.N. resolution and established settlements in occupied land).
  • But — they have faith.  Forged by suffering, their common bond to one another remains stronger than ever before.  They believe that one day, the land will be theirs once again.

Their narratives remain starkly similar, with the main problem being that:

  • For Israel, Palestinians are not often identified as average people, but as the next in a long line of foreign persecutors of Jews (i.e. PLO, Hamas, etc.)
  • For Palestinians, Israel is identified as an imperial power along the lines of the Ottomans and the British.

O’Malley rightly hones in on the common thread of the suffering of both sides.

The suffering of the Jewish people hardly needs an explanation.  Of course we have the Holocaust, but a lot of lower-level persecution existed before that for centuries throughout Europe.

What may be less obvious to us, and certainly seems less obvious to Israel, is the suffering of the Palestinians.  O’Malley asserts, and I agree, that if we could find any kernel to the disastrous relationship between the two, it lays here.

The Palestinian population has suffered greatly indirectly or directly from the presence of Israeli’s.  We could measure this in land lost to Israel, or in civilian deaths of Palestinians, which greatly outweigh those of Israeli’s due to terrorist attacks.  There also exists what one cannot measure–the wholesale breakup of communities and families due to Israeli occupation and settlements, and the wholesale dismemberment of the Palestinian Church–something Christian supporters of Israel sometimes forget.

The reason why I think it forms the core of the problem is that Israel cannot seem to admit that they have caused these problems.  Some of them one could plausibly ascribe to the “fortunes of war” or the “march of time,” but others, like the direct violation of U.N. resolutions to establish settlements, fall directly into their laps.  But it appears that the Jews in Israel, who has suffered so much at the hands of others, cannot admit that they themselves cause so much suffering to others.

The Palestinians, for their part, want more than grants of certain territory or water rights, they insist on a repentant, contrite Israel.  Having felt impotent and humiliated for so long themselves, they insist that Israel feel the same way.  The Palestinians cannot accept half-measures in this regard.  For example, Ariel Sharon released a statement along the lines of, “Israel regrets the suffering of the Palestinian people,” that the Palestinians found not just unacceptable, but insulting.  They don’t want Israel’s sympathy, they want Israel to admit fault without equivocation.  Nor can they see the above statement as a beginning of a process.  Rather, for them it represents a slap in the face.  “Ha!  This is all you get!”

Formal peace negotiations put Israel in a bit of bind, and we must sympathize with their position. Who speaks for Palestinians as a whole?  Who can negotiate for them?  If none can truly speak for them, then what good is any particular deal?  Why bother?

Israel complains that the Palestinians have not been able to absorb refugees and form stable, coherent political organizations.  After all, they themselves (that is, the Jewish settler in Israel) started with nothing and have formed a modern first-world state.  They absorbed thousands of newcomers and refugees from different countries.  They speak truth in this claim.  But, as O’Malley points out, why should the Palestinians have to form modern western political organizations?  Things moved along nicely for them without such things before Israel arrived, and can continue to do. But it appears that history may overwhelm the Palestinians and force them into an uncomfortable mold, one which will put them at a disadvantage vis a vis Israel.

The relationship between the two has calcified to such an extent that O’Malley recommends that they cease the formal peace process itself, and instead focus on healing their own psychological scars.  The peace process has also been initiated not by each other but by various American presidents looking to make their mark.  Whatever the cause, O’Malley suggests that now “negotiations” serve as a platform for each side to vent grievances or talk to their respective political bases, and not each other.  The peace process serves now to simply enable and confirm their already deeply held beliefs.

In one section of Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis talked about his impatience for how many make moral judgments.  “War is a terrible evil!” some cried.  “Yes,” Lewis agreed, but times exist when war is more morally justifiable than the current “peace.”  Sometimes issues must be considered on a relative scale.  He even mentioned dueling.  Yes, dueling often involved murder, but he admitted that there might be some instances when even a duel to the death might be preferable to indulging in a lifetime of hatred and bitterness, and passing on that hatred, that would in time destroy one’s soul.

I thought of this section when reading this book.  In this scenario both sides have their share of the blame.  As purely personal opinion I give a slight majority of blame to the Israeli side.  They are the stronger (though they don’t realize this), and they–as a formal nation with coherent leadership–have violated international law on numerous occasions.  I distinguish this from Palestinian acts of terror, which I do not believe represent–or at least always represent–the whole of the Palestinian people.  So I root for a Palestinian homeland, and feel that surely this cause has justice on its side.

And yet, the current situation destroys both sides, and there appears no end in sight.  All O’ Malley can see in is a continuation of deep fear and deep hatred growing — hence the title of his book.  A two-state solution simply will not work in the current psychological climate.

So would a “duel” of sorts be a preferable solution?  What would that even look like?  Should Israel just “get on with it” and exile the Palestinians?  This would be cruel, but it would hopefully have the ancillary effect of forcing Palestinians to start over.

On the other hand . . .

Many Palestinians believe they are close to winning.  This victory would not be physical in nature, but moral and psychological.  Some feel that if Israel goes much further they will completely delegitimize themselves internationally, and rot themselves from within morally.  They will then, as an act of atonement, give Palestinians a homeland at least to the 1967 borders.

I do not share this view, but see no other solution that will work in the current environment.  The two sides share the same space and tell the same story, but with different characters playing different roles.  I fear nothing will change until both sides tell themselves a different story.



*It sounds odd for an Irishman to write a definitive book on this subject, but his previous books dealt with Irish/English history and apartheid in South Africa.