While Gaza is being bombarded by American-made F-16’s, here’s some food for thought: During the German occupation of Greece, the occupiers posted the following rules: If any German soldier was found murdered, 10 Greeks would immediately be rounded up at random and executed; if there was a repetition, the number would go up to 100. This draconian measure was not put into effect until the very end of the occupation in 1944, well after the Italian collapse of 1943. Communist agitators would go into what they thought were conservative neighborhoods—in other words, well-off precincts—spot a drunken German soldier, kill him, and then beat a hasty retreat. The next day innocent people would pay the piper. At times, the German high command rescinded the order, as it became obvious what was going on.
Switch to Gaza 64 years later. Since 2005 Israel, which is still punishing the original inhabitants of the lands it rules or occupies, has killed 150 Palestinians for each Israeli killed these last eight years. Just think of it. Seventeen Israeli lives have been expunged by the murder of 2550 Palestinian ones. That’s doing much better than the Nazis. And Elliot Abrams, son-in-law of neocon propaganda minister Norman Podhoretz, who’s ensconced in an office deep in the bowels of the White House, calls Hamas “terrorists” and urges even more severe punishments. In 2006, Israeli artillery fired a dawn barrage of shells, supposedly against militants in the Gazan village of Beit Hanoun. The guns missed. Seventeen members of a Palestinian family, the Athamnehs, died in their pajamas, cut to pieces by fragmenting 6-inch howitzer shells. The Israelis did not even issue an apology.
So where is Obama on this one? I’ll tell you where—trying to stay out of the way of AIPAC and the Israel lobby that dictates American foreign policy in the Middle East.
I’ve never been a friend of Islam; however, it’s always been perfectly clear to me that the Israelis are the ones sowing terror and the Palestinians are the ones besieged. The American people have been so brainwashed, they have it the other way round.
In the The American Conservative, Dan McCarthy presents as a hero of the antiwar Right former South Dakota senator and onetime Democratic candidate for the presidency, George McGovern (1922- ). From Dan’s account, it seems that McGovern is a “temperamental conservative, an antimilitarist, and a committed decentralist,” and the GOP, by demonizing his person, has rendered itself “repellant” to “most Americans, including many conservatives.” Moreover, the decision made by the neoconservatives to bolt the Democratic Party, over McGovern’s candidacy, in 1972, brought an unnecessary can of worms into the Republican camp. While driving the party they entered on domestic issues toward the left, the anti-McGovern neoconservatives talked the GOP into embracing a recklessly interventionist foreign policy. GOP operators were also not incidentally able to reconstruct the image of McGovern, from a critic of the Vietnam War into a pacifist-appeaser”and a perpetual punching bag for the likes of Sean Hannity and the Kagan boys. The neocon war against McGovern, which the GOP took over, with a neocon brain-trust, has dominated Republican national elections. Last month, these campaigning tactics (alas) came a cropper, when the “McGovern coalition” trounced an archaic reproduction of the Cold War liberalism of the 1970s.
Dan’s argument is not entirely original, and another antiwar critic of the neocons and the party they captured, Bill Kaufmann, has been making it for decades. Part of this critique is undoubtedly true. Those neoconservatives who entered the GOP and soon became its puppet-masters were, indeed, fixated on the McGovern candidacy and what it portended for American politics. They were also far from silent about what they expected from the party and movement they would soon be guiding: a decidedly pro-Zionist foreign policy, and a Scoop Jackson approach to dealing with the Soviets, one that stressed human rights and helping Soviet Jews leave Russia. It is also the case, as Dan points out, that NRO and other movement conservative organs treat GOP presidential opponents as caricatures of George McGovern. This mythmaking has served the same function for the GOP as the war on the ghost of Herbert Hoover did for the Democrats after the Great Depression.
But there are two points on which Dan’s argument breaks down. One, not all neoconservatives entered the GOP, at the time that Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz did in 1972. Many of them, such as Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer, stayed in the Democratic Party in order to maintain their group’s leverage there. A insightful essay by Jacob Heilbrunn, also in TAC, shows how this system of cooptation works. In the most recent electoral contest, the neocons divided their forces among three candidates, once the campaign of their preferred candidate, Rudolph Giuliani, had floundered.
Although Hillary and McCain thereafter became the neocon favs (and the neocons even created fresh support for Hillary among easily manipulated GOP voters in order to stop Obama), the neocons had loads of resources on the winning side. They had prominent allies in the Obama camp, who would push their party-line after Election Day. Without always arranging for a division of forces, the neocons have prospered by working both parties at the same time.
Two, McGovern was at least as bad as some of the neocons claimed he was. Domestically, he was never a “decentralist” but on the Democratic Party’s left. Already in 1969 he used his clout in the party to introduce quotas for women and blacks at Democratic presidential conventions. He also actively worked to impose racial and gender quotas on all enterprises receiving government funds, and he enthusiastically backed and even hoped to expand Johnson’s Great Society programs. Although while in business years later, McGovern offered some strictures about economic regulations, such complaints were not characteristic of his behavior as a senator. McGovern was also an early backer of the Equal Rights Amendment and an enthusiast for one of Sarah Palin’s favorite forms of government control, Title Nine, which forbids “gender discrimination.” Lest anyone think that McGovern has recently changed his spots, it might be helpful to look at his book that came out this month, Abraham Lincoln. This part of a left-liberal series on American presidents, edited by Sean Wilentz, is a two-hundred page celebration of Lincoln for his governmental reconstruction successes, destroying the “Republic,” which was a white, male monopoly, and launching our “strong centralized government.”
In his attitude toward the rest of the world, McGovern was no latter-day Robert Lafollette; nor does he bear any resemblance to those well-meaning patriots who formed the America First Committee. He was a Communist sympathizer, who is proud of having fought fascism in World War Two, on the side of our supposed Soviet friends. During this edifying adventure, McGovern flew thirty-five bombing missions over enemy territory. The effect of his bellicose activity was incinerating unprotected civilians, particularly after the German and Austrian civil defenses had failed during the last year of the War. Unfortunately, Stalin became our enemy once this good war had ended, and so Bill Kaufmann’s small-town Methodist, who sang in church choirs, advocated peaceful coexistence with Stalin’s slave empire.
In 1948, McGovern joined American Communists in founding the Progressive Party, which drafted as its presidential candidate someone who was known to be quite soft on the Soviet government, former Vice President Henry Wallace. It is telling that the socialist Norman Thomas pointedly refused to back Wallace, for having refused to distance himself from his heavily Communist constituency. Not surprisingly, McGovern, when he ran for president, called for massive cuts in the defense budget and for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. He took this position less because he hated war than because he disliked opposing the Communists. He might well have been the least anti-Communist U.S. Senator in American history.
Equally important, McGovern helped seal the marriage between two Lefts, one consisting of Communists and Communist fellow-travelers and the other the party of cultural radicalism. The charge against him made by the usually unobtrusive, liberal Republican senator Hugh Scott (who pace Dan was from the Philadelphia Mainline and not from Tennessee), that McGovern stood for “appeasement, acid, and abortion,” was entirely on target. McGovern was as far to the left on social issues as he was in his economic views and in his pro-Communist foreign policy. Under him the Democrats moved decisively leftward, and one can not understand the path subsequently taken by that party without looking back to 1972, any more than one can understand where the GOP and conservative movement have drifted without considering their fateful occupation by the anti-McGovern neocons.
Although there are many things that reasonable Americans are justified in holding against the neocons, to the extent that some of them looked askance at McGovern, it is impossible for me to criticize them. McGovern was a thoroughly reprehensible comsymp, as opposed to a thoughtful critic of military overexpansion. His partisans whom I encountered every day for years on American campuses were drawn from two equally repulsive groups, fanatical anti-anti-Communists and lifestyle radicals. I never met a libertarian or consistent opponent of war in all of my encounters with these groups, and so when I find the admirers of Albert J. Nock and Murray Rothbard saluting McGovern and his friends as likeminded libertarians, I can only attribute this to insufficient historical information. With due respect to Bill, who is a truly gifted stylist, I must respectfully dissent from one overly generous judgment that he offers in Ain”t My America: “The George McGovern, dyed deeply in the American grain, is a hell of a lot more interesting than the burlesque that was framed by his neoconservative critics.” As much as it pains me to take the side of my hated enemies against longtime friends, the neocons were dead right about McGovern.
I have never liked New Year’s Eve. Americans might have voted for “change” recently, but I”ve rarely desired it, always finding the same-old, same-old to be as bright or brighter than any new horizons. As a child on New Year’s Eve, when everyone was looking toward a better new year, I was always wondering what was wrong with the last one.
To instinctively oppose change is what most would call a “reactionary” position and growing up in the comfortable, close-knit community of Hanahan, South Carolina very well might have turned me into one at an early age. Since putting away childish things, all the typical accusations lobbed at reactionaries; being anti-liberal, resisting “progress,” romanticizing the past, you name it – I”ve not only been guilty of each, but have considered such qualities bedrock conservative principles.
But while my politics remain conservative – my disposition does not. With the hometown of my youth now somewhat distant, and portions of it being overrun by foreigners of questionable legal status, change could not come fast enough. With a government constantly and forcibly wedding my own future fortunes to inept big government and big business, and spending our children’s and grandchildren’s inheritance without hesitation, a drastic change of course is undoubtedly in order. And after eight years of a utopian, big government, authoritarian-leaning president who some still mistake as a conservative, I cannot wait for any new leadership that might redefine the American Right “ and given the current, sad state of affairs “ the more radical the better. I suspect many might agree that the changing the status quo is no longer a simple matter of reform “ but revolution.
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Unwilling to control its fighters, who fired scores of missiles into Israel at the end of their six-month ceasefire, Hamas gave Israel the provocation it needed to deliver a savage blow to the Palestinian enclave in Gaza.
Saturday was the bloodiest day in the history of the Palestinian people since being driven from their homes in the War of 1948. One thousand were killed or wounded, as the Israeli Air Force conducted over a hundred strikes—on graduation ceremonies for Hamas fighters, police stations and storage sites for rockets.
About Israel’s right and duty to defend its border towns, there is no dispute. When Hamas permits Gaza to be used as a launch pad for rockets, it must expect retaliation. Nor can Hamas claim some right to dictate the limits of that retaliation.
Yet the wisdom of so savage a retribution for rockets that killed not one Israeli is open to question. And crass Israeli politics seems to be behind this premeditated and planned blitz.
With Likud’s hawkish “Bibi” Netanyahu ahead in the polls for the Feb. 10 election, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Labor’s candidate, had to show that he, too, could be ruthless with Hamas.
Kadima Party candidate and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has an even greater need than the highly decorated Barak to show toughness. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, departing in scandal, wants to exit in a blaze of glory, to blot out the memory of a botched war against Hezbollah that he launched in the summer of 2006.
However, while Israel’s politicians all seem to have a stake in these devastating strikes, Israel herself will pay the price.
Given the casualty toll, over 300 dead and 1,300 wounded as of this writing, Hamas will have to exact its pound of flesh. The Hamas wing that seeks renewed war with Israel will now shout into silence the wing working with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak on a new ceasefire.
The moderate Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas, who has been talking to Israel, testifying to her good faith, has been made to appear the puppet and fool. A new intifada spreading to the West Bank, with suicide attacks inside Israel, is now possible.
Moderate Arabs, who have recognized Israel or backed peace, will now be seen by the Arab street as appeasers impotent to stop the public suffering of the Palestinian people.
As for President Bush’s hopes of midwifing a peace that would create a Palestinian state, they are as dead as the Annapolis process he set in train. In advancing peace in the Middle East, Bush’s eight-year record is now a near-absolute failure.
For four years, Bush refused to talk to Yasir Arafat, though Bill Clinton had negotiated with him, as had four Israeli prime ministers, two of who shared a Nobel Prize with Arafat. In his second term, Bush, after insisting Hamas be included in free elections in Palestine, refused to recognize Hamas when it won those elections.
Arafat was a terrorist and Hamas is a terrorist organization, declared Bush, and we don’t negotiate with terrorists. Yet, Bush de-listed Libya as a state sponsor of terror and sent Condi Rice to chat up Col. Gadhafi, though Gadhafi still has on his hands the blood of scores of American school kids from the Lockerbie massacre of 1989 that Libya and Gadhafi engineered
For eight years, like the “dummy” in a hand of bridge, Bush has sat mute as his Israeli partner, Sharon or Olmert, played America’s cards as well as their own. The Bush response to Saturday’s carnage, as anticipated, was to blame Hamas for causing it and urge Israelis to be careful about civilian casualties as they go about their reprisals.
Whatever Israel decides, we support. For eight years that has been the most reliable guide to U.S. Middle East policy.
And Barack Obama? Forty-eight hours after the Israeli blitz began, he and his national security team remain silent.
Hopefully, Obama will bring with him a new Mideast policy, one made in the U.S.A., for the U.S.A. Hopefully, just as Israel has its private links to Syria through Turkey, to Hamas through Egypt and to Hezbollah, Obama will establish independent U.S. channels to all three, and adopt a separate U.S. policy toward all three, as Israel does.
While the United States must support Israel’s right to defend her towns and to strike bases from which Israelis are being attacked, Obama should denounce the collective punishment of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, by Israel’s cutting off their electricity in the dead of winter and denying them the food and medicine many need to survive.
For us to remain silent in the face of this comports neither with our interests or our values. Israel’s policy of withholding from the weak and innocent of Gaza, women and children, the necessities of life, to punish the guilty who rule at the point of a gun, is a policy that Obama should declare the United States will no longer support with tax dollars.
Under Consideration: The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, by Niall Ferguson, Penguin Press (2008), 442 pages.
In The Pity of War, Niall Ferguson asked a penetrating question: What would have happened had Britain remained neutral during World War I? Agree with his answer”history would probably have turned out better”or not, of one thing there can be little doubt. Ferguson showed that he possessed an outstanding historical imagination. He did not practice what Herbert Butterfield called “Whig history,” that is, history as a progressive unfolding toward the glorious present. A more realistic approach to history recognizes, as Ferguson did in his earlier book, that people have often confronted genuine alternatives.
Unfortunately, Ferguson’s historical imagination has deserted him in The Ascent of Money. He traces the history of finance, from the origin of money to the derivatives and hedge funds of today. Though he describes in his vivid style the panics and disasters that have often characterized this development, for him the path has been onward and upward. Through a Darwinian process, superior financial institutions survive and inferior ones perish. This is one reason he speaks in his title of “ascent”: “It should now be obvious to the reader just how far our financial system has ascended since its distant origins among the moneylenders of Mesopotamia. There have been great reverses, contractions, and dyings, to be sure. But not even the worst has set us permanently back. Though the line of financial history has a saw-tooth quality, its trajectory is unquestionably upwards.”
Unquestionably? I hardly think so. Several of the steps in Ferguson’s story have no place in a free society. Ferguson is certainly right that modern civilization could not exist without money. A world in which people exchange goods and services is vastly more productive than one in which persons have to produce everything they need themselves; and trade through barter faces strict limitations. People cannot make an exchange unless they find someone who wants what they have and has what they want: in economists” jargon, there must be a double coincidence of wants. Once money exists, achieving this happy state of affairs becomes much less of a problem. Almost everyone will accept money”precisely because everyone believes that everyone else will accept it.
So far, so good for Ferguson’s tale of ascent; and he makes a good case for his next step as well. Companies often need to raise more money for their projects than they have immediately available. To do so, they can issue bonds, that is, promises of an annual return in return for a loan. These bonds can usually be cashed in and sold, and modern economies could not get along without them.
But now the trouble begins. Ferguson counts it as progress that the state can issue bonds. State bonds, though, differ fundamentally from private bonds. A state-issued bond is a future tax: people must come up with the money to redeem the state’s pledges to pay interest and to cash in the bonds. Often, these taxes impose a crushing burden on the economy. Of course, the state can default, but this plays havoc with economic conditions.
Ferguson himself notes a severe problem that state bonds generate. If people lose confidence in the government, bond prices will go down. This makes the rate of interest go up, which crowds out investment. “In the words of Bill Gross, who runs the world’s largest bond fund at the Pacific Investment Management Company (PIMCO), “bond markets have power because they”re the fundamental basis for all markets. The cost of credit, the interest rate [on a benchmark bond], ultimately determines the value of stocks, homes, all asset classes.”
But there is a yet more severe problem. Of the phenomenon in question, Ferguson shows himself well aware; but he refuses to view it as a difficulty”nothing must interfere with his story of progressive ascent! The problem is that state-created debt massively increases the scale on which the state can engage in war. As Ferguson notes, “The ability to finance war through a market in government debt was, like so much in financial history, an invention of the Italian Renaissance”; and since then, the scope and scale of debt and war have increased together. As if this were not bad enough, war has been the principal means by which the power of the state has grown. (In the American context, Robert Higgs has documented to the hilt this connection in Crisis and Leviathan).
Here an objection requires response. If one says that the state should not be able to get into debt, does this lead to pacifism? What if war is unavoidable? In Belloc’s lines, “Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight / But roaring Bill, who killed him, thought it right.” Would a policy that renounced state debt commit a nation that adopted it to surrender?
I do not think so. As Ludwig von Mises noted, war must always be paid for with current resources. “All the materials needed for the conduct of a war must be provided by restriction of civilian consumption, by using up a part of the capital available and by working harder. The whole burden of warring falls on the living generation.” Bonds create the illusion that the burdens of a war can be passed to future generations. By insisting that wars be paid for through taxes, we can impose a much-needed check to unnecessary aggression. If it must rely on taxes, a government will go to war only if it can convince people to pay.
Ferguson also wrongly sees progress in another area in financial evolution. When people deposit money in a bank, the bank will not keep all of the deposit money on hand. It will lend out the money and retain only enough to meet the anticipated demands of depositors for their money. In this way, the bank earns money through interest payments on the loans it makes. But what if people lose confidence in the banks? If a large number of depositors converge on a bank, the bank will be unable to meet its obligations. If bank runs spread, a nation’s economy can be completely disrupted.
Would we not be better off without fractional reserve banking? Ferguson might answer that bank runs no longer pose a serious problem. Nowadays, through deposit insurance, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s manifold blessings, people no longer fear that they will lose their money.
But deposit insurance raises problems of its own. First, this is a costly program, and the money for it must be provided through taxation or an increase in the government’s debt. Further, if banks no longer fear runs, or at least do so to a much lesser extent, they will be more likely to make risky loans. They need not fear that doing so will create problems for them with their depositors. Deposit insurance, further, increases the power of the government over the supply of money. This is all the more so, if, as is always the case, deposit insurance forms part of a system of centrally directed banking. Is this not an odd dialectic? One starts with fractional reserve banking. This produces instability, owing to the possibility of runs. To cure this, deposit insurance and centralized banking, e.g., the Federal Reserve System, are introduced. Why go through this whole rigmarole? If banks could not lend demand deposits, the problem of runs would not exist. When the bank lends money in excess of its reserves, it in effect creates money out of nothing. Why should banks be allowed to do this?
And there is yet another problem with fractional reserve banking. What causes depressions? According to the Austrian theory of the business cycle, developed by Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, credit expansion lowers the money rate of interest below the “natural” rate, determined by people’s preference for present over future goods. Businesses, presented with new opportunities to borrow money, expand production, especially in capital goods. Once the banks cease expanding, the rate of interest rises to its former, natural, rate. The new investments cannot no longer be sustained. In the Austrian view, this process of liquidation is the depression. There is on the unhampered free market no natural tendency to depression. Business cycles come about through a government-initiated expansion of credit, which in the absence of fractional reserve banking could not take place. (Some Austrians countenance a very limited amount of fractional reserve banking, but nothing like what is practiced under centralized systems like the Federal Reserve. Murray Rothbard is the foremost champion of the 100% reserve requirement.)
Unfortunately, Ferguson never mentions the Austrian theory. For him the Great Depression of October 1929 did not arise through the Federal Reserve’s policy of monetary expansion during the 1920’s, a key thesis of Rothbard’s America’s Great Depression. Quite the contrary, “in perhaps the foremost work of American economic history ever published, Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz.. .did not blame the Fed for the bubble itself, arguing that with Benjamin Strong at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York a reasonable balance had been struck between the international obligation of the United States to maintain the restored gold standard and its domestic obligation to maintain price stability.”
Ironically, Strong, along with his friend and ally Montagu Norman, the Governor of the Bank of England, was for Rothbard the chief villain. Owing to increased production during the 1920’s, prices unaccompanied by monetary expansion would have fallen. The very fact appealed to by Ferguson, i.e., the relative price stability of the period, is a sign that inflationary forces were at work. In Rothbard’s interpretation, Strong orchestrated an American monetary expansion in order to help relieve pressure on the British, who had restored the gold standard at an unduly high rate for the pound.
Ferguson would no doubt reject this account, but he does not have a competing account of the origin of the Depression to offer. Instead, again following Friedman and Schwartz, he blames the unprecedented severity of the Depression on the Fed’s contraction of the money supply in response to the stock market crash”an explanation Rothbard would dispute. But even if Friedman and Schwartz are right about post-1929 Fed policy, this does not speak to the Depression’s origins. To Ferguson, apparently, the Crash was just “one of those things”; the Austrian theory explains it.
Even if the Austrian theory of the cycle is right, though, can a modern economy do without fractional reserve banking? Ferguson thinks that it cannot. “”Precious Metals alone are money,” declared one City [of London] grandee, Baron Overstone. Paper notes are money because they are representations of Metallic Money. Unless so, they are false and spurious pretenders. One depositor can get metal, but all cannot, therefore deposits are not money.” Had that principle been adhered to, and had the money supply of the British economy genuinely hinged on the quantity of gold coin and bullion in the Bank of England’s reserve, the growth of the UK economy would have been altogether choked off, even allowing for the expansionary effects of new gold discoveries in the nineteenth century.” For this claim, Ferguson offers no evidence whatever. He assumes that a growing economy requires a greater quantity of money, but this the Austrians vehemently dispute. In their view, any quantity of money suffices to transact business in an economy, since the price level will adjust to match goods with the money available. This of course raises the specter of deflation, but Austrians do not fear it. Deflation, so long as it is not induced through government manipulation, has often been accompanied by prosperity. Ferguson could learn a lesson from Baron Overstone.
Ferguson would no doubt answer that he refuses to assume, as I have done, the correctness of the Austrian theory. Even on his own evidence, though, his claim that a growing economy would be choked off without adequate monetary expansion does not withstand examination. Britain in the early nineteenth century greatly restricted the emission of bank credit, but the economy was surely growing during that period. As he notes, Sir Robert Peel was suspicious of “excessive banknote creation” and his Bank Charter Act of 1844 restricted the bank’s fiduciary note issue with what Ferguson calls “an excessively rigid straitjacket, “ though one which fell short of a 100% reserve requirement. Ferguson asserts, in my opinion wrongly, that this act led to several liquidity crises, compelling a modification of the system. But even if he is right, this is not the point in dispute. Rather, contrary to Ferguson, a restrictive monetary policy that remained in effect through the 1860s proved quite entirely compatible with remarkable economic growth. The great majority of years when the Act was in effect were not marked by crisis; and in them economic growth was certainly not “choked off.”
I have so far been critical of Ferguson, but on some topics he is excellent. He explains very well how the modern welfare state developed in tandem with militarization. If the state sought more soldiers for a bellicose policy, it had to provide for them: “If the welfare state was conceived in politics, it grew to maturity in war. The First World War expanded the scope of government activity in nearly every field. . .This process repeated itself during and after the Second World War.”
War greatly expanded the welfare state; can it continue at such high levels in peacetime? In some instances, Ferguson thinks that it can. The Japanese welfare state has been very successful: “There was in fact nothing institutionally unique about Japan’s system, of course. Most welfare states aimed at universal, cradle-to-grave coverage. Yet the Japanese welfare state seemed to be a miracle of effectiveness.”
But this success, he thinks, depends on particular aspects of the Japanese character, and for contemporary Western societies, such as the United States and Britain, the prospects of the welfare state are bleak. Comparing Japan with Britain, Ferguson says: “In Japan egalitarianism was a prized goal of policy, while a culture of social conformism encouraged compliance with the rules. English individualism, by contrast, inclined people cynically to game the system. … Health care, social services and social security [in Britain] were consuming three times more than defence as a share of total managed government expenditure [in 1980]. Yet the results were dismal. Increased expenditure on UK welfare had been accompanied by low growth and inflation significantly above the developed world average.”
Ferguson commands a vast array of data and writes clearly. If, for instance, you want a concise account of the rise of the Rothschilds, Ferguson will not disappoint you.
I did note a few mistakes, however. Napoleon was not “Emperor of France” (p.77; p.80 lists him correctly as “French Emperor”). Arnauld and Nicole, not Pascal, wrote, the Ars Cogitandi (p.188). Ferguson’s comments on Thomas Bayes are confused; he fails to state that Bayes” Theorem is about determining conditional probabilities. (pp.189-90) Risk aversion for positive prospects together with risk aversion for negative ones is not an example of “the tendency people have to miscalculate probabilities when confronted with simple financial choices.” (p.344) Why is this behavior irrational? No argument is given that one cannot rationally view identical payoffs through different perspectives.
Readers of The Ascent of Money will learn a great deal about monetary history. They would be well advised to accompany their reading with a perusal of Rothbard’s What Has Government Done to Our Money? Doing so will provide a grasp of the essence of monetary theory, needed to understand the facts about which Ferguson writes in effortless abundance.
David Gordon is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of its Mises Review.
A “Guardianista” is, in the English variant of our common language, someone who ascribes to the general viewpoints of The Guardian newspaper. It’s more than just reading it (as I do) or writing for it (as I occasionally do, they use me as their rhetorically bomb throwing rightist occasionally), it’s really buying into that pinko leftie mindset where everything America does is wrong, where individualism (unless by oneself or one’s children) is to be rejected in favour of collectivism, where private schooling (unless of one’s own children, for they are indeed different) is an anathema and of course taxes should be higher and all would be happy knitting tofu flavoured yurts while singing Kum Bah Ya if only the State forced them to. Middle class hypocrites in other words.
Not a mindset that many of us are likely to fall into then. But two who very much have have made the news this past week. The first was Harold Pinter who made the headlines by dying. His plays, which earned him the Nobel for Literature (I wouldn’t know, philistine that I am) are said to be excellent. His political views were rather less so: he supported the Kurds against Saddam because Saddam was at that time supported by the U.S. He then supported Milosevic and the Serbs because, despite their ethnic cleansings and murders, their enemies were supported by Uncle Sam. Being for those who are against the U.S. is a rather childish, if common, political stance. However, one thing that endears him to many Englishmen was his attitude to cricket. About soccer (football to us) one manager once said that of course it wasn’t a matter of life and death, it was far more important than that. To the cricket aficionado this betrays a definite lack of proportion. Here is how, for example, the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) announced Pinter’s Nobel:
The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Harold Pinter is notable for being the first Nobel to have been won by a member of the TLS cricket team.
Or The Independent announcing his death
Samuel Beckett is the only Nobel winner to appear in Wisden but Harold Pinter”dismissed for 78 on Christmas Eve”is surely the only Nobel winner with a cricket webpage.
Or Pinter himself on cricket:
He once famously described the game the ‘greatest thing that God created on earth’ which was better than sex.
Well, it is true that the senior version of the game lasts five days but it’s perhaps not exactly the comment that one’s wife would want one to make. We can go back to (rightly) excoriating Pinter’s politics once the body is buried but this tale has tickled me for years.
The death of Simon Gray lets me reprise a favourite story. He was a close friend of Harold Pinter, a great cricket lover. Once Pinter wrote a poem about his hero Len Hutton. It read, in its entirety “I saw Hutton in his prime / Another time, another time.” He sent it to several of his friends.
Soon afterwards Pinter and Gray were at the same dinner party and Pinter asked what he thought of the poem. “I don’t know, Harold,” said Gray. “I’m afraid I haven’t finished it yet.
As to Alan Rusbridger, the Editor of The Guardian itself, I think we can be a little ruder, his body not currently lying cooling between death and burial. He turns up in the New York Review of Books talking about how horrible UK libel law is. While this is true his complaint is about how he and the paper were sued for libel by Tesco’s, a supermarket they had accused of trying to dodge a billion or so in corporate taxation. It was pretty obvious, even to mere blog writers and commenters, that the journalists had made a complete mess of their investigation. But the really hilarious thing was that when the tax scheme was finally worked through, it wasn’t corporation tax that was being dealt with at all, rather, Stamp Duty (think sales tax on property). The hilarity coming when it was revealed that The Guardian itself was making use of exactly the same sorts of structure in order to avoid exactly the same tax on its own activities.
Oddly, Rusbridger doesn’t mention that in the NYRB, but then that isn’t really all that unusual for people from that paper. The writers regularly decry those who attempt to minimise inheritance tax, perhaps by placing assets into trust for the future. They prefer not to mention that The Guardian is owned by a trust set up to minimise inheritance tax by placing assets beyond the taxman’s reach. They decry companies that don’t pay their “fair share” by using tax planning but don’t mention that The Guardian itself does the same.
As I said at the top, middle class hypocrites most of them. This interview with Rusbridger really just hammers the point home.
So when you see something like “The Guardian says” that….well, whatever, I wouldn’t sweat it too much. No one over here pays all that much attention to them either. Unless it’s about cricket of course.
President Bush recently had perhaps his last sit-down as president with friendly movement conservative journalists (see accounts here and here) Nothing said then or in reaction since will change anyone’s mind about the man (my own included). Nonetheless, the session is remarkable, for a number of reasons.
First, Bush admits that he called the meeting in order to start building a case for his legacy. Announcing that he is already thinking about his memoirs, Bush states: “It is impossible to have an objective history of this administration written at this point in time. I do think it is worthwhile for me, however, to visit with people, to begin to get a proper perspective laid out.” In other words, the President of the United States is spending his time coaxing journalists and intellectuals to write favorably about him in the future. The very purpose of the meeting was self-aggrandizement.
A cynic would say it was ever thus. What president has not sought the favor of wordsmiths? At least past presidents sought to conceal their ambition. Clinton was ridiculed for so transparently questing for a legacy. Bush now openly confesses the same ambition and his grossest admirers find nothing irregular in it. It has become not only permissible but the duty of a president to defend his “legacy”.
Second, the session confirms the obvious: namely, that Bush relies on surrogates in the conservative movement to amplify his message. To critics who accuse them of shilling for Bush and the Republican Party, mainstream movement conservatives retort that they have opposed Bush often and fiercely. It’s true: movement conservatives helped defeat such Bush desiderata as the Harriet Meiers appointment and passage of the McCain-Kennedy amnesty bill. Yet Bush still entrusts the defense of his legacy to movement conservatives. Why? It is a matter of priorities: Both Bush and the orthodox conservative movement have staked their reputations on the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The Iraq war has become (or was) the Dreyfus case of our time, warping every other debate.
Third, Bush himself does not seem to have a rationale for his own most costly policy, namely, the occupation of Iraq. Acknowledging the difficulties of convincing Americans to support the occupation, Bush states that the “real challenge was to connect Iraq with our security. The most effective way to do so was to remind them that al-Qaeda had said, ‘This is the front line in the War on Terror.’” In other words, as Bush tells those gathered, he has a favorite talking point for shoring up support for the occupation. That the talking point does not make very much sense does not seem to matter. (Is it not in the nature of a real “front line” that it does not need to be pointed out demonstratively?) Bush likes the talking point because it seems to make sense of the occupation, even though the way in which it actually does so is far from clear.
Meanwhile, the justification for the occupation that Bush adheres to in his own mind is, to put it plainly, preposterous. He states: “Success in Iraq . . . serves as an example to people wondering whether democracy can work.” And: “You can marginalize [the enemy] by affecting potential recruits with a more hopeful society.” In short, a successful occupation will undermine the popularity of al-Qaeda’s ideology. We are occupying an entire country just to try to prove a point. It is said that war is unpredictable and a blunt instrument of policy. Yet Bush thinks the best way to manipulate public opinion in the Muslim world (a dubious goal in the first place) is to invade and occupy a foreign country. Perhaps no other military venture in history has had so peculiar a logic behind it.
Finally, Bush’s celebrated idealism”a president, he says, should “never substitute pragmatism for an idealistic vision””really is unprecedented. The standard critique of idealists is that they are heedless of the actual consequences of their actions. As Weber put it, “If an action of good intent leads to bad results, then, in the actor’s eyes, not he but the world, or the stupidity of other men, or God’s will who made them thus, is responsible for the evil.” Hence, idealists to this day accept no blame for the horrors of revolutionary socialism, for their intention were always noble. Likewise, Bush will never accept blame for the bloodbath caused by the invasion if Iraq. On the contrary! Weber observed that the idealist invariably becomes a “chiliastic prophet””that is, when confronted with the evil consequences of his actions, he rationalizes them by saying that eventually all evils will be vanquished. Thus, Bush apologist Jay Nordlinger quotes with approbation the defender of the occupation who says, “It’s more true that we’ve had five years of learning in Iraq than that we’ve had five years of failure.” Five years of biblical-scale horrors”justified because we are doing the Lord’s work of replacing tyranny with liberty.
Yet Bush takes the idealist’s mentality even further. His second inaugural address, he says, was one of the “big moments” of his presidency. Though it had been “a tough four years, I didn’t shy away from what I did during those four years. I didn’t try to sugarcoat [sic] my decisions. I defended them.” He proudly relates how he rejected a Republican leader’s advice that he pull out of Iraq. “I understand that success in Iraq is necessary for the long-term security of America, and therefore I will make decisions based upon victory in Iraq, not victory in the polls.” In sum, says Bush, “I’m comfortable that I have made principled decisions for eight years.”
Bush’s admirers credit him with political courage on par with Lincoln’s. Lincoln, of course, hated the “terrible war” that he felt his duty to wage. “Fondly do we hope,” Lincoln intoned, “fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” Does Bush similarly hate the evils that his policies have caused? It may seem strange that any man should dare to ask the question. Yet according to Bush, the purest test of a leader is the ability to remain an idealist in the face of every calamity. Without the evils that his policies have caused, therefore, Bush could never have made the principled stands that he himself regards as the “big moments” of his presidency. Bush’s idealism, in short, means that he’s not just indifferent to the evil consequences of his actions but positively welcomes them as proofs of his commitment to idealism. In Bush’s mind, the our very failures in Iraq have shown how he has gloriously withstood the test of leadership. For all that other presidents have also claimed the mantle of righteousness, an idealism as fanatical as Bush’s has never been seen before.
Let us hope that it is never seen again.
December not only marks the advent of “the Holidays“ but, for America’s growing population of undergraduates, is a time of exams, papers, and NoDoz-assisted “all-nighters.”
The following selections come from the final examination for “Western Heritage,” offered at the State University of New York, Oswego. The students were asked to write an essay discussing the theme of “order” in the course’s syllabus, which includes Homer’s Odyssey, Euripides” Iphigenia, Plato’s Symposium, Virgil’s Aeneid, Apuleius” Golden Ass, Augustine’s Confessions, a handful of Icelandic stories, including Hrafnkel’s Saga, and two items concerning early Christianity in the British Isles”Bede’s Life of Saint Cuthbert and the anonymous Voyage of Saint Brendan.
Although plagiarism is increasingly frequent on campus, one can be certain that the following work is the students” own.
Introductory paragraph for an essay: “Literature is the key foundation for all types of litercy. Without litercy there would be no means of proper communication.”
On Homer’s Odyssey: “In the Odessey, Odysseus expects a marvelous homecoming, is slowed down by various absticals, including the island of the cylcopese, and the plod of the suitors to kill Odysseus” son, which escapes me.” [“Abstical” is a recurrent misspelling of obstacle, which shows up in many student essays every semester.]
On Homer’s Odyssey: “Odysseus kills the suitors after a lack of proper behavior, which happened again in Virgil’s The Aeneid, written roughly around the time of ca. 400 BC, in the fifth and fourth centuries. Along the way, Virgil is haulted by numerous things, like the stay of Dido in Carthage and hostilities on the land of which we now call Italy and Cecicilli. While in a fight with Tiresias, the death of Tiresias brings some order to the people.” [Tiresias, the Theban prophet, was a man, a woman, a man again, and once conversed with Odysseus in Hell. Alas, the poor fellow never made it to Italy or Cecicilli.]
On Homer’s Odyssey: “By examining the books read this semester, I can flush out several quotes. In the first book studied, the Odyssey, by Homer, we examine how our hero, Odysseus is on his way home after saving Troy.”
On Homer’s Odyssey, more or less: “Most of Athens took place in the Labronze age after time emerged again, giving rise to Plato. But first Homer had to write down his Odissy in the alphabet, which The Golden Ass would also use in telling the story of Lucious.” [In this essay, the term “the Labronze age” occurs a half-dozen times. Editor’s Note: Perhaps the young scholar has confused 4th-century Athens with the “LeBron Age” (circa A.D. 2003-), named in honor of the Cleveland Cavaliers” all-star forward]
On Homer’s Odyssey: “Athene helps Telemachus and Odysseus to be reunited and restore order to Troy. This all took place around 450 B.C. but it was not written down until 800 B.C.”
On Homer’s Odyssey: “Odysseus, the main character, though having the hand of Venus (Venus-Isis) right on his side, is faced with much despair when he has to leave his wife and son’s behind before he goes on many “adventures” and encounters things. He defeats the Cycalopse after barely being eaten and meets Nausicaa while naked then stumbling over Calypso who holds him prisoner and gives him all of the winds.”
On Homer’s Odyssey: “Beginning with Homer’s “The Odyssey” written down around 800 BC, when infact the events took place in the 4th century. There are many examples of order, tragedy, and some triumph.”
On Homer’s Odyssey: “In Homer’s Odyssey while Odyssus is gone for ten years trying to get home from Calypso’s isle about 700 B.C. and enduring the many abstacles he faces along the way, the entire time’s he’s trying to restore order with in his selfs life.”
On Homer’s Odyssey: “The Odessy, written down around 800 B.C., its events are said to actually take place around 500 B.C.”
On Augustine’s Confessions: “Much like Odyssus Augustine, who at one time was reared as a saint in Hippo, is tempted by pretty women as well as by a pear tree. But later he loses his self-control problem and converts into a Christian.” [My wife and I once owned a sofa that converted into a queen-sized bed.]
On Euripides” Iphigenia: “The Greeks were told by the gods that Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia would need to be sacrificed in order for the winds to blow. After Iphigenia was sacrificed and the winds were blowing again allowing them to continue on to Troy order began to be restored because the Greeks saw their experience with disorder was for a reason and they must trust their leaders and things will be fine in the end.” [“Giovinezza, Giovinezza, Primavera del Belle-e-e-ezza!.”]
On Virgil’s Aeneid: “Had Aeneas disobeyed [the gods] and stayed in Carthage, he would have never gone on to win the Trojan war, and the country of Italy would not exist. After death, no progress was made on Dido’s part.”
On Virgil’s Aeneid: “A large wooden horse is brought by Aeneas from Troy, which Queen Dido thinks is a sign of appreciation. When the wooden horse is opened up and a number of Greek soldiers jump out, Dido is in shock. Thankfully, Aeneas and his men show up and promise to restore her disorder.”
On Apuleius” Golden Ass: “Disorder was also present in Apuleius” novel The Golden Ass. This was where Lucius was a young man who lived in the Byzantine Empire. Lucius was about to be forced to have sex with a donkey in front of people. Fortunately he was fond of his own horse and was saved.” [In case anyone is in doubt, neither Apuleius the author nor Lucius his protagonist had anything to do with the Byzantine Empire, which did not exist until four or five hundred years after Apuleius” death.]
On Apuleius” Golden Ass: “The story of Lucious, wrote in the second of two centuries AD, has gluttony and also sluttony.” [ I have to admit that, in my opinion, “sluttony” ought to enter the dictionaries!]
On Apuleius” Golden Ass: “In 1517 Apuleius wrote The Golden Ass.” [The Golden Ass dates from the Sixties of the Second Century AD”Apuleius, its author, was almost exactly contemporary with the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.]
On Hrafnkel’s Saga: “Thorbjorn rounded up a posse that hacked Hrafnkel to death eventually leaving him tortured. This showed their uncivilized erges.” [No one, in fact, kills Hrafnkel, who triumphs over his enemies and kills off any number of them.]
On Hrafnkel’s Saga: “Anonymous is the author of Hrafnkel’s Saga but which is never named, showing how weak he was when compared with Homer who was named.” [“Anonymous” is the well-known, long-lived, prolific author, competent in many languages.]
On Hrafnkel’s Saga: “Hrafnkel’s Saga of the tenth century was written in 1839, the same year as The Voyage of Saint Brendan.” [Often I can explain a student’s mistake based on a mishearing of something that I have said during lecture”but in this case, the 1839 date is inexplicable.]
On Hrafnkel’s Saga: “It is feudalism that causes chaos and halts the further progression of progress.” [One is tempted to say, “Up with Feudalism!”]
On Hrafnkel’s Saga: “Hrafnkel was a great leader because he was understanding and treated animals with kindness as well. He also knew how to kill which was important for a leader.” [This was why Hrafnkel’s followers trusted him; they knew that, “things will be fine in the end.”]
On the Vikings generally: “During the ice ages the Vikings diminished and then evaporated.” [My theory is that they did not “evaporate,” but migrated stealthily to “Italy and Cecicilli.”]
From a Similar Course Dedicated to Medieval Literature
On The Quest of the Holy Grail: “In “The Quest of the Holy Grale” Galahad, which was by Jean de Joinville of the 17th century, was going around looking for piece of mind. Around this time the enlightenment also occurred.”
On Joinville’s Life of Saint Louis: “The Crusades was a war fought over in the holy land by the Romans, Catholics and Protestants.”
On Camoes” Lusiads: “About the same time as this there was a renizance in Italy with Greeks, and depth prespective and also numerous changes in moors and the types of thought that was allowed. There costumes were very colorful about this time. One of them, I forgot his name had a telescope.” [The name of the fellow with the telescope was””Anonymous.”]
It won’t come as a great shock to anyone that the current state of the financial markets shows that we’ve still quite a bit to learn about economics. While there were indeed those observers (some of them even economists!) who pointed to the housing bubble, its unsustainable nature and the oddity of funding it by borrowing back the money we’d sent to China for our iPods and other shiny gew gaws, few if any thought that the unwinding would lead to a collapse of the entire financial system. Even amongst those few that did the precise mechanism by which it happened escaped them: it wasn’t, for example, credit default swaps that caused it, nor other complex derivatives. A good old fashioned credit crisis though, one driven it appears by a massive loss of trust in the system itself. We thought we’d managed to get rid of that possibility by having such as the FDIC, SEC and so on, the alphabet soup of regulators installed after the last such collapse of confidence in the 1930s.
As I say, turns out we didn’t know as much about economics as we thought we did. But this ignorance isn’t restricted to to what went wrong in the past, it’s also relevant to what we ought to be doing now. We’re still finding out things about what were done last time, in the ‘30s, and perhaps not fast enough to stop making the same mistakes as last time. We’ve still got people saying that the solution is to raise the minimum wage for the poor spend all of their money rather than save it: entirely ignoring the fact that Roosevelt’s policies of trying to raise real wages prolonged the Depression. It’s not rocket science to point out that if you raise the price of something people will purchase less of it, after all, and this applies to labor just as much as anything else.
But much the most interesting area of disagreement to me is over the fiscal stimulus. Yes, I know, it’s rather a cornerstone of conservative economic thought that if we can’t actually have a balanced budget, can we at least have some logical relationship between the amount being taxed and the amount spent? It’s also a similar cornerstone that small government is better than big for as Adam Smith pointed out, the money should be allowed to fructify in the pockets of the populace. Rather than, say, be allocated by bureaucrats and politicians to their favoured groups and activities. But if a fiscal stimulus there is going to be and for political reasons I can’t see that there won’t be, there’s still the argument over how this should be done.
Keynes himself (something that has been forgotten by many of his modern followers) pointed out that if other things were equal that there are two ways to have such a boost, such a stimulus. For to him the basic point was that government needed to be spending more than it was collecting in taxes, funding the gap by borrowing or printing. This can be done in two ways, by increasing spending while keeping taxes static (in the present, for most assuredly they will have to rise in the future) or by reducing taxes and keeping spending constant. Either will provide that fiscal boost assuming, as above, that other things are equal.
It was a refinement of this that has led so many to assume that a rise in spending is better, a refinement that depends upon something called the “multiplier.” Simply, how much economic growth, how much extra GDP do we get for each $ of government spending? Is this higher than the extra growth we get for each $ of tax cuts? If so, assuming that we do indeed want a fiscal boost, then spending is the way to go, it’s a more efficient way of getting what we want. The general Keynesian assumption has been that the spending multiplier is indeed higher than the tax cut one. However, recent research seems to show that this is incorrect, it is actually the tax cuts which produce more growth than the spending rises.
Paul Krugman (yes, I know, but it’s his political view that is objectionable, not his economics) puts the spending multiplier at about 1.1. That’s a pretty low estimate as such go, but there’s almost no one who thinks that it is above 2 in the current US economy. That tax multiplier has always been assumed to be lower than this, an assumption made in error, it seems.
The strong negative relationship between tax changes and investment also helps to explain the size of our estimated overall effect on output. Recall that we find that a tax increase of one percent of
GDP lowers real GDP by about 3 percent, implying a substantial multiplier. An important part of that effect appears to be due to the procyclical behavior of investment.
Yes, we do expect that tax rises and tax cuts have equal and opposite effects and that seems to be telling us that the tax multiplier is in fact 3. That is, much higher than the spending one. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise to any of us: we already believe that people spending their own money on their own desires produces a better result than bureaucrats spending other people’s money on what politicians think people desire. It does come as something of an unwelcome surprise to those who consider themselves Keynesians. For decades the assumption has been the other way around, that the spending multiplier is larger than the tax one.
As I’ve said above, we really don’t know as much about economics as we thought we did and are finding out new things all the time. In this case, contrary to received wisdom, that tax cuts are the best and most efficient method of providing a fiscal boost to the economy. Something we have always insisted is true, yes, but now we’re using impeccable Keynesian logic to prove it. Of course, you can find an economic paper to argue just about any point you want but I have a feeling that this one I’ve quoted is going to have a rather larger effect than most. For it was written just last month by Christina Romer along with her husband. Yes, that Christina Romer who has just been appointed Chair of Obama’s new Council of Economic Advisors.
That Congress and the White House are now Democratic controlled is a bitter pill to swallow, of course, but if it becomes the received wisdom that tax cuts, not growth of government, are the way to combat recessions, then I for one will take that as a consolation prize.
As we clear away all the wrapping paper and wonder how long to leave up the decorations, the deeper meaning of the season easily eludes us. So it’s good that Friday’s New York Times addressed the question that nags at the back our minds this time each year: Could “over-commercialization spoil Kwanzaa?”
It’s best not to read such a sentence with your mouth full, lest you spend the new few minutes scraping tapenade off your tapestries. Like most people outside the Upper West Side, I can’t keep a straight face while reading about the pseudo-African holiday that the tenured black separatist and FBI informer Maulana (Ron) Karenga pulled out of his orifice. The Times, with constipated politeness, reports that Karenga “developed the concept for the holiday in 1965.” What kind of holiday is “developed” as a “concept”? I’ll tell you what kind: Administrative Assistants’ Day.
And it’s all too easy to scoff at the crappy Kente trappings, the kinarah (a pseudo-menorah), the vaporous “principles” millions of church-going black Americans are expected to mark alongside Christmas. As the Times recounts them soberly, the “Nguzo Saba, or seven principles, of Kwanzaa [are]: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith).” All this flubjub sounds like it’s lifted straight out of one of Evelyn Waugh’s less charitable novels. You expect that in the next paragraph you’ll hear about principles 8 & 9: “bobongo (polygamy) and oyumyum (cannibalism).”
It’s okay to laugh. In His inscrutable Providence, God created different ethnicities mainly to enable ethnic jokes. While you’re at it, save some spleen for the drunken idiocies surrounding St. Patrick’s Day; for the wannabe Mafia cafones who preen every Columbus Day as if they had personally discovered Puerto Rico; for the aggressive celebrations of a minor Jewish holiday (outside the U.S., Hannukah means as much to Jews as the Feast of the Ascension does to Christians) by guys like Larry David who couldn’t tell a Maccabee from a macaroon; and for every jot and tilda of the racist nationalism associated with “La Raza.” (To make things easier, let’s call it “razism.”)
Such nonsense pervaded Europe throughout the 19th century in the form of romantic nationalism. For an afternoon of laughs, read up some time about the German Völkish activist Father Jahn, who went about wearing bearskins, encouraging youthful Bavarians, Hessians, and Rhinelanders to take up gymnastics so they could fight someday for a united Germany. His slogan: “Frisch, Fromm, Fröhlich, Frei” (Hardy, Pious, Cheerful, Free) really should be incorporated into Kwanzaa.
French nationalism could be even more absurd, since it tried to meld the particularities for which Frenchmen really loved their nation with the universalist principles of the Revolution that destroyed it. What they ended up with was a kind of Gallic pseudo-Zionism: These principles are for everyone, everywhere—and if you resist, we have a few divisions of Zouaves who’ll force you to be free. But the French are unique for discovering them, and the French nation is somehow the sacred bearer of these eternal truths—as the Jews were of the Law. Now every year, Frenchmen on Bastille Day celebrate the event that wrecked their system of government (they haven’t yet come up with a durable replacement); persecuted their religion; got millions of their citizens executed, starved, or killed in useless wars; and rendered the nation helpless against colonization by Mohammedans, who will in a few generations rule it. Vive le Roi!
Russian Panslavism was an even more curious creature. If you’ve come across phrases like the “Russian Christ” in Dostoevsky novels and crossed your eyes, you’re not alone. Panslavist writers, as Hannah Arendt admits in the course of her yeoman’s attempt to make sense of them, were enthusiastically irrational. The closest I can come to a sensible summary is this: Christianity boils down to suffering. The more you suffer, the more Christ-like you are. Russia has been ill-governed, oppressive, and poor for longer than any other country. Hence, its people are the most profoundly Christian. So the Russians are meant to redeem Europe from its secularist errors—by spreading the Tsarist system of government all across it.
Appropriately enough, the best expression of absurdist Italian nationalism appears not in words but in marble. Any visitor to Rome should set aside an hour or so to visit the Victor Emmanuel Memorial, universally regarded as a monument to bad taste. In a city full of the most exquisite sculpture and architecture, it looms like a soiled wedding cake. (Some Romans call it “Mussolini’s Typewriter”—which is unfair, since its planning predates him.) Like the Nguzo Saba of Kwanzaa, the monument is rife with allegorical depictions of vaguely uplifting concepts. The only part of the monument that rises to seriousness is the altar, deep within, that honors an Unknown Soldier. There the marble statuary silliness all dries up, a stark Christian mosaic looms over a simple Catholic altar, and a brave man without a name lies in state, the representative of hundreds of thousands like him who died for their country—in a war that was totally needless (World War I).
And this brings me back to why Kwanzaa isn’t all that funny. If you think about it too long, it may even break your heart. These people celebrating it are Americans—more American than I am, that’s for sure. Their ancestors were here, speaking English and picking cotton, while mine were planting potatoes and fishing the Adriatic. They’ve been Christians for almost as long as the Filipinos. They’re a part of Western culture, albeit a sad footnote. We dragged them here, kicking and screaming. We didn’t set them entirely free until the 60s—inviting them into the “mainstream” at the same time we filled it with cultural poison. They moved from farms into the cities to work in the factories which closed within a generation. They’re in America, but not quite of America, and none of us knows quite what to do to help them. Poor people cannot afford the bohemian dabblings of the upper middle class; with no access to the Betty Ford Clinic, they get addicted, arrested, and die. Millions of them languish in our prisons, and we replace them with (temporarily) more compliant immigrants. Now they get to have a president, for all the good he will do them. Probably as much good as Jimmy Carter did for the South.
And the government isn’t the answer. Nor are bureaucracies devoted to micromanaging the attitudes of every American, serving the new religion of Antiracism as its Holy Inquisition. The problems in the black community could once be traced to discrimination and exclusion. But that’s not true any more, and deep down, thinking black people know it. Some may rant and rave about slavery in past centuries, and lynchings that happened a lifetime ago—but they sound like a Boston Irishman blaming his cirrhosis on the Potato Famine. And when they suit up in African costumes and mark imaginary holidays, they look about as dignified as I would dressed as a leprechaun, searching for Brigadoon. (I’m half-Irish, folks.)
But the fact that these old Americans have to cast about for an identity other than ours is very sad. And the racialism which our society encourages them to indulge is very dangerous—if only because it enables the wider acceptance of multiculturalism. That ideology is something much more serious than Kwanzaa; it asserts that members of every race and ethnicity have the right, almost the duty, to think and act as separatists—except for descendants of Europe. Those people, those nations, lie under the mark of Cain. They have no right to self-preservation, but only the “duty to die.” Hence Flemish who fight against massive Islamic immigration into Brussels aren’t patriots but “racists,” and so on and so on. Fill in the blanks. This kind of double standard can’t survive forever, and when it breaks down it’s going to break hard and break ugly. The outcome may be as nasty and futile as what happened in Kosovo and Kashmir. Or maybe as simple and sad as what’s happening in Zimbabwe.
If we somehow, by means of some divine blessing of the sort our country hasn’t deserved since Jan. 22, 1973, could close the borders to further immigration, none of this would matter. We can tolerate separatism in very small doses, the way we accommodate the Amish. Maybe, without all the pressure of ever-increasing doses of ever more demanding “diversity,” we could work out some common ground between all the old Americans, black and white. We could rectify remaining injustices, and learn to forgive each other.
But if we keep stirring the soup and turning up the heat, the melting pot will boil over, and everything we care about will burn. The America all our ancestors worked for, fought for, even slaved for, will be lost. The Mexo-Sino-Islamo Confederation of North America won’t feel guilty about slavery, and won’t give a damn about its descendants. It will have a new constitution every 17 years, and each junta will hand out ministries according to a rigid ethnic quota. We’ll be living in a new Yugoslavia, and we’ll be grateful if we get a Tito.