“Great Men” and the Great War

Stay Strong and Delude OnMaybe I’m just an iconoclast and everything else follows from that. But I’ve caught a bit of this three part series that The History Channel is doing, The World Wars—I assume for Memorial Day. But the little I’ve seen has been nothing short of pathetic. It is all the usual stuff with Neville Chamberlain portrayed as weak—completely disregarding the thirty-year rule and what we learned about his administration in the late 1960s. I wrote about this to some extent before, so I won’t belabor the topic, Neville Chamberlain Was Right.

But what most annoys me is the presentation of Winston Churchill. You would get the idea that Churchill won the war based on nothing but his will power. And of course, Churchill, a war monger always, was not surprisingly always pushing for more military funding. That’s all fine, but at the same time, the depression was still on and Keynes had not been fully embraced. But based upon the series, you would think that Chamberlain was doing nothing but fighting against Churchill, even though we now know he was engaged in a very large (but not large enough) buildup of the military. But then Churchill is in charge and announces, “Stay strong and carry on!” And victory is theirs!

What really bugs me about it is that it is totally the “great men” theory of history. This is about the most brain-dead approach to history I have ever seen. When I was younger, I used to wonder, “Who thinks this kind of claptrap?” And then I started reading Ayn Rand and I found out. It’s all this Nietzsche superman stuff with neo-Romantic ideas as though Agamemnon was a real guy. I remember Rand writing something along the lines of, “Who do you think does these things?!” The idea is that, well, of course, Hitler was the leader of Nazi Germany. But that isn’t the point. The point is that there are social and economic pressures that bring men like Hitler to power. This is why I’ve always thought the “go back in time and kill Hitler” game was stupid. If it hadn’t been Hitler, it would have been someone else. He might have been better than Hitler, he might have been worse. But something bad was going to happen.

The third episode is tomorrow night. I will have to avoid seeing even a minute of it because I know it will make me apoplectic. Because I already know the narrative. Two of the “great men” are George Patton and Douglas MacArthur. So it will be Patton’s tanks and Churchill’s iron will that defeat Germany with a minor assist from Stalin. And MacArthur and two atomic bombs defeat Japan. Even though we know it was basically the Soviet Union that defeated Germany, allowing England to survive to claim victory. And as I discussed last year, it was Stalin’s re-declaring war on Japan that caused that nation to surrender.

I’m sure the show will do a more evenhanded job than it would have done in the 1970s, when I used to hear that World War II didn’t start until the United States entered it. But it is still the case that it will be a whitewash where the good guys (Churchill and Patton) and the good nations (England and America) defeat the bad guys (Hitler and Mussolini—I haven’t heard Hirohito mentioned) and the bad nations (Germany and Japan). Stalin was as great a villain as Hitler, but given he was on our side, they’ll have to hedge. And since Americans now seem to believe the only thing wrong with Fascism is that it was antisemitic, it’s hard to hate Italy very much.

This isn’t history. This is just bedtime stories for a nation that doesn’t want anything complicated and certainly doesn’t want to consider anything that might chip away at our myths. After all, before the rise of Nazi Germany, America was the big country for eugenics. We conducted a far bigger genocide on the native peoples here before Hitler was even born. The point isn’t that we are especially terrible. The point is that history is a mess and there’s lots of blame to go around. And what is the point of trying to understand history if you are just going to turn it into trite stories that make you feel good? Just read Pride and Prejudice instead.

Michael Kinsley Didn’t Review Greenwald

No Place to HideLast week, I wrote, Lord Michael Kinsley. It was based upon his “review” of Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide. The article is not really about what Greenwald wrote, but about what Kinsley always writes. He is an apologist for the power elite. I want to revisit this topic, because today, the Public Editor of The New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, wrote, Kinsley, Greenwald and Government Secrets. She is reasonably critical of Kinsley.

She makes two points. First, is that the “sneering tone” that Kinsley takes toward Greenwald is unworthy of the Book Review. Second, is that, “Kinsley’s central argument ignores important tenets of American governance.” She goes on to note the importance of journalism in the founding and the history of this country. I’d like to address both of these in a little more depth than Sullivan could in her very political editorial.

Michael KinsleyThe very fact of the “sneering tone” should have made it unpublishable. It is clear that Kinsley doesn’t like Greenwald. And he’s hardly alone. Many journalists (Ones I like!) have a problem with him. He is notably harsh, seemingly without a sense of humor, and has no problem criticizing people who are on his own side. He rather reminds me of myself when I was twenty years old. But I really don’t understand what is wrong with this country. Somehow we have gotten to the point where it is more important that our presidents and journalists be good drinking companions than that they do their jobs well.

Now I can’t prove that Kinsley hated Greenwald before writing the article, other than quoting from the review itself, “Greenwald seems like a self-righteous sourpuss, convinced that every issue is ‘straightforward,’ and if you don’t agree with him, you’re part of something he calls ‘the authorities,’ who control everything for their own nefarious but never explained purposes.” I will note that this is the standard line on Greenwald. A couple of years ago, Jonathan Chait sarcastically referred to him as, “Brave Radical Truth Teller Glenn Greenwald.” And then said, “Greenwald’s penchant for telling bold truths that the corrupted partisans are too blind to see, in a manner that in no way is sanctimonious, is an inspiring example for us all.” Chait has said many similar things about Greenwald, even when he is agreeing with him.

But I can’t say what Kinsley has said about Greenwald or surveillance in the past, because of all the automatic content that web pages create. So even after searching for hours, I came back to the same current discussion. When I searched for articles from 2012, they include auto-links to, “Read about Michael Kinsley’s attack on Glenn Greenwald’s new book.” But it seems pretty clear that Kinsley is with Chait in long thinking that Greenwald is sanctimonious and in need of a good slap. And that is really all that Kinsley’s “review” is. So despite what Book Review editor Pamela Paul thinks, Kinsley was a lousy choice to review a book by Greenwald.

Glenn GreenwaldThe second issue is even more of a head-scratcher. This is why I keep putting “review” in scare quotes. I don’t mind negative reviews. In fact, they are often some of the most useful reviews. But they need to engage in the material. Greenwald may be extreme, but he is also an expert—a successful civil rights attorney and very knowledge about this specific subject. He deserves a hearing. And based upon Kinsley’s “review” he got no hearing. Kinsley simply thinks that the government has the right to keep secrets and it should be up to the government to decide what secrets should be revealed. No Place to Hide is almost 300 pages long and I got absolutely no idea of what arguments he was making from Kinsley’s “review.”

Pamela Paul may think that Kinsley is a serious person who writes good book reviews, but it seems to me that there are many good writers with backgrounds in these issues that could have been hired to write a review. Whether those reviews were positive or negative, the reader would have been given some insights into the issues involved. Kinsley’s review was little more than, “So’s your ol’ man!” And although that is more or less what I expect from Kinsley, I generally expect more from The New York Times.

More Robert Price Islamophobia

The Human BibleRobert M Price is such a curious fellow. I have long enjoyed his books and lectures on various aspects of religion. In fact, his essay in The Historical Jesus: Five Views (“Jesus at the Vanishing Point”), is probably the most profound thing I’ve ever read about the historical Jesus. His contention is, and I fully embrace it, that Jesus may or may not have existed. But after thousands of years of folklore and myth making, there is no historical residue left. And it has brought me to the point of raw confusion as to why Christians seem to need Jesus to have walked the earth. Some Iron Age guy got killed and others claimed to see him later and that means you just have to believe in him and you go to heaven? Why does that need to happen in this world? I really don’t get it.

But Price is brilliant, not just about Christianity but things like New Age theology and fictional theology (he is something of an expert on the writings of H P Lovecraft). Yet his politics are as shallow as they could possibly be. Based upon his occasional statements, it seems clear that the only real political instruction he gets is from right wing radio on his way to and from work. Now I understand: we all have some things that we know more about than others. I, for example, know rather a lot more about English language translations of Don Quixote than anyone outside a literature department. On the other hand, I know almost nothing about cricket. (This is not from lack of trying!) But I don’t pepper my writing of things I do know about with ignorant statements about the positioning of wickets. But Price does pepper his writing and talks with what strikes me as ignorant right wing talking points.

Last year, I wrote, Another Conservative Atheist? In it, I discussed his anti-choice opinions, which I don’t necessarily think are that bad, I just don’t know why they were brought up. But mostly I was talking about the comic strip Jesus and Mo. The “Mo” is Mohammad, and the two guys hang out and talk, and often argue with a female bartender who is an atheist. Sometimes Moses is there too. Price mentioned that he was surprised that the artist hadn’t had a fatwa taken out against him. But it was clear to me: the strip is rather sweet and it isn’t going after Islam any more than it is going after Christianity. Mohammad comes off pretty well.

In Price’s reaction, I detected a strong dose of Islamophobia. Then later, in Episode 28 of his podcast The Human Bible, he was talking about hypocrisy. And as an example, he mentioned Congress members who excluded themselves from Obamacare. Well, as anyone who knows anything about Obamacare can tell you: Obamacare doesn’t affect people who already get healthcare from their employers. But it is because of this conservative talking point that the law was changed and gummed up even more. I was angry enough that I commented:

Oh my, a bit of Dr. Price’s conservative politics has fallen into his podcast! I wouldn’t mind if it had been something other than a talk radio canard that shows a total lack of understanding of Obamacare.

My advice: more Chuck Heston impersonations, less low information conservatism. [Price does a great Charlton Heston impersonation whenever he is reading something that God is supposed to be saying—it’s great fun! -FM]

To my surprise, that comment got ten “thumbs up” and no “thumbs down.” That’s more than I’ve ever seen on any comment on the site. I suspect there are a lot of people like me who appreciate Price’s erudition and humor but who are completely opposite him on politics. But again, it isn’t that he’s a conservative. I have no problem with conservatives generally. But I do have a problem with people popping out brainless conservative talking points. And this particular example is something that could have easily come from Victoria Jackson. But I think that Price got the hint, because since then, he has made no such boner statements.

The reason I bring this all up is because I just came upon Price’s review of Candida Moss’ excellent The Myth of Persecution. (I discussed it before myself.) It was a pretty positive review, but he went all haywire at the end:

Finally, if Eusebius trumped up the myth of a long age of Christian martyrdom in order to advance the interests of his preferred brand of Christianity, it seems equally likely that Candida Moss’ demolition effort has political motivations of its own. She warns that the long-cherished paranoia of Christians who imagine themselves the constant targets of Satan and his agents contributes to a political climate in which modern Christians refuse to take seriously the reasoned opinions of ideological opponents. She bemoans the shrill protests of Catholics Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich and Presbyterian Ann Coulter who compare opposition by liberal politicians and media to Roman persecution of their ancient co-religionists. But one may wonder if Moss’ use of the persecution trope as a weapon of accusation against these conservatives is not itself a mirror-image version of the tactic she decries.

Moss wants us to stop demonizing our enemies and to start a sympathetic dialogue with them. Let her see how far such appeals get with Al-Qaida and the Taliban. I should say that those who go gunning for school children and who massacre members of rival religions have pretty well demonized themselves. I can’t afford to care what childhood traumas or what socio-economic deprivations may have led them to their bloodthirsty courses of action, and neither can she. Gandhi once advised German Jews to use his principles of nonviolent resistance against Hitler. You know where that gets you? Ah, er, martyrdom.

There are a couple of things that really annoy me here. The first is that he’s twisting her argument. Moss is a liberal Christian and she is trying to make the argument that liberal Christians are Christians too. In the conservative Christian community (and in the media as well), liberal Christians are either ignored or treated as though they aren’t real Christians or that their faith must be weak. What she’s saying is what Pope Francis is saying, “There’s more to Christianity than stoning the fags and ‘protecting’ the unborn.”

The other problem is the Islamophobia. Implicit in what he is saying is that all Muslims are terrorists. He doesn’t mock her for trying to have a dialog with Timothy McVeigh. But I don’t recall her talking about an interfaith dialog but rather an intrafaith dialog. She is concerned about her own religion: Christianity. But somehow, Price has to make it about how awful the Muslims are. It’s sad—especially coming from someone as smart as Robert Price.

Welfare State Is Good for Economy

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman’s column on Monday was, Europe’s Secret Success. It is about how even though the European Union is a monetary mess, its economy is doing rather well. Of course, you would never know that from reading or watching mainstream American news. Because everyone just “knows” that Europe is collapsing because of its generous welfare states. This why Americans so often know things that just aren’t true.

This idea that welfare was destroying Europe never made any sense. The northern nations were doing the best and they were the ones that had the most generous welfare programs. Greece, the country doing the worst in the European Union, had a rather stingy welfare state. The same is true of the other “problem” countries: Italy, Spain, Portugal. I think this all comes back to our Calvinist tendencies that we must all suffer for our sins. So the idea is that having a strong welfare state must be bad because it doesn’t cause people to suffer.

Of course, this just happens to be what the power elites want to hear. They want low taxes and low inflation and high unemployment. All of those things help them because the more desperate the working classes are, the better for the rich. It still amazes me, because we nominally live in a democracy and there are so many poor people.

Let’s consider France, because I love France and for whatever reason, most Americans have a problem with the French. France has a very big welfare state and they have one of the best healthcare systems in the world. But in the past, they didn’t have a terribly vibrant economy. But for the past decade and a half, our economy (in terms of being good for workers) has been going down and their economy has been going up. This great graph is from a Krugman blog post, Cheese-eating Job Creators. It shows that now (and for some time), France is employing a far higher percentage of its working age population than the United States:

Employment: US vs France

What is happening in France is what conservatives in this country claim they want to be happening here. That was what supply side economics was all about, right? It wasn’t supposed to be about making the rich richer; it was supposed to be about growing the pie and making everyone richer; jobs for everyone! Except that it was a resounding failure as I discussed in part recently, Reagan’s Legacy: Tax Cuts for Rich, Tax Hikes for the Rest. But don’t expect them to look at France or Germany or Sweden or the Netherlands and think, “Maybe we should try that!”

For me, this is very personal. My business partner Mikhail and I are working on a great new high tech gizmo that I believe will revolutionize the extreme sports industry. But because of my just scraping by with my various gigs and his enormous workload at a very famous high tech firm I guess I shouldn’t mention, we haven’t even been able to test the system for almost two months. Having something like a guaranteed income would allow us to be more entrepreneurial, not less.

But most conservatives know nothing about business—the closest they come is finance, which is a part of business, but isn’t anything without people like us who are actually making things that people want to buy and use. And they have this idea that the only way to get people to start businesses is to make it like a tightrope act over the Twin Towers: if you succeed, you are set for life; if you fail, you are dead. That’s not the way that works the best, because for one thing, careful people like Mikhail and me, don’t thrive in that environment, even though we have a great deal to offer the world.

Just in terms of creating jobs though, America is terrible. Here is a graph from economist Antonio Fatas that I’ve altered to highlight just how badly America does at keeping its people employed:

Employment to Population Ratio - 2012

The power elite of this country should be embarrassed by this. Most especially the conservatives should be ashamed, and yes, I do include Bill Clinton in this, because like all the New Democrats, he’s an economic conservative. But instead, both parties of the United States stand around and look for better ways to take more money away from the poor who actually spend it and push the economy along, and give it to the rich who just sit on it. In a hundred years, historians will look back and say, “What were they thinking?” But I know what they are thinking: they are thinking that all that matters is taking care of their own class. Keep interest rates low so the stuff they own doesn’t lose value. Keep taxes low so they can keep as much of their money as possible. And keep unemployment high so that workers are so desperate they will work for little and never raise a fuss for fear of losing one of the few jobs around.

That’s modern America. Yesterday, an online friend criticized me for my rhetoric about the “political nonsense that’s tearing us apart.” Wrong! What’s tearing us apart is an ever widening gap between rich and poor that is allowing the rich to call all the shots. We don’t get policy that is best for all of us. We get policy that is best for the power elites. And I don’t care that the Tea Party folk think I’m being mean when I point out that they are a bunch of fools who vote against their own interests because the power elites can play them like a fine violin. This is my country too and the rich are destroying it, just as many of the founders—most notably Thomas Paine—feared.

But at least we still have equality of the kind a great Frenchman once told us:

Equality - Anatole France

Charity of Bruce Cockburn

Bruce CockburnThe great singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn is 69 today. I actually know him because he and my wife were once a thing. I think she was with him during at least part of the Stealing Fire tour, which is interesting because I actually saw him on that tour. That was a hugely influential album to me. I still think “Nicaragua” is one of the great songs. At this point, I have seen Cockburn far more than any sane man should have to. He’s an excellent live performer, but I’m not that fond of live performances. Mostly, it is the crowds. When there was a backstage where we could watch, that was much better.

But by far the worst thing about the concerts were the fans. It is such a group of pasty white upper-middle class liberals who I just want to slap. And after the concerts, it was almost impossible to get away. Because Cockburn backs just about every cause in the world, people see him a lot the way that they see Noam Chomsky. So whereas other musicians had to sign autographs and hear about how great they were, Cockburn had to listen to much wringing of hands about this or that. And it would go on for an hour or more.

For his part Cockburn was great. He has the patience of a saint. And in my experience, he was a very nice guy. Although you can tell, he’s kind of lost in his own head. He is certainly a shy guy. At this point, I’m really curious about his position regarding Christianity. He was always at least nominally a Christian. That’s what his song “Wondering Where the Lions Are” is all about. But unfortunately, talking to him would require that I get back in touch with my wife. And that isn’t going to happen.

Here’s two songs of Stealing Fire:

And here’s “Each One Lost” off his newest album, Small Source of Comfort:

Happy birthday Bruce Cockburn!