The Spirit of Totalitarianism

Polls say that only about one fifth of the nation is now aware of the Holocaust. This is probably just as well because it is just too awful an experience in human history to dwell upon and because the slogan of the survivors, “Never again!”, now appropriated for the worthy cause of gun control, had not deterred subsequent genocides. For my part, I cannot get away from the Holocaust and perhaps the Second World War will remain alive for as long as any in my generation, born in World War II, remain alive. I vividly remember as a five year old playing with my toys underneath a table while the adults (and me too) saw the British newsreels of bulldozers moving thousands of corpses that they deposited into deep trenches that would be covered with lime and then earth. The banquet was organized by those who had survived and those who had come over before the war from the Polish city of their birth, and a lot of people were in tears. Who needs such memories? But I am concerned with how quickly we lose a sense of the desperation of those outside the totalitarian regimes of the time and the sense of absolute horror that I  and so many Americans supposed permeated life within those regimes. In our time, when totalitarianism is restricted to North Korea, what with its slavish love of its leader, and China and Russia now just ordinary authoritarian regimes, concerned more with securing their leaders than making their entire populations miserable, how are we to get a sense of those times?

One try was the recent movie “The Death of Stalin”, which struck me as off the mark because it made its audience laugh at the terror even high ranking Kremlin leaders felt that a new development would put them in line for death. What if Stalin recovered? Who would take the fall for the leadership having made any preparation at all for a succession? They all hate Stalin but have gone along with him. That is played as farce but it is a cold porridge we are asked to swallow. Totalitarianism is not easily played as farce and that led me to think, for the first time, that Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” was a real accomplishment because it contextualized its satirization of the Third Reich with a stereotypical tale of Jewish swindlers out to take money away from aging widows just too happy to cooperate in exchange for sexual favors and by the use of a woman secretary straight out of an old time burlesque routine. But the takeoff on Hitler was so over the top that it had little bite, as was also the case with Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”, who treats Hitler as a clown. Lubitsch's “To Be Or Not To Be” is much superior in that Jack Benny and the other actors play the clowns and the Nazis are the sinister forces that they have to manipulate. How to grab hold of the sinister, to make it come alive?

A recent documentary, “Hitler’s Hollywood” also fails to do the job. It consists of very brief excerpts from many of the comedies, historical dramas, and musicals produced under Joseph Goebbels for the benefit of the Third Reich and claims that the films show a fascination with death and with surrender to the collective will that is characteristic of Naziism, this based on some quotes from Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag, as those authorities are backed up by critics of an earlier generation, such as Siegfried Kracauer. But the narrator does not look attentively at any of the films or seem to know much about film or literary history. The theme of the beautiful death is there in Wagner and, before that, in Goethe; it is a cliche of Romantic literature. The tango sequence in one film is very similar in choreography and staging to a scene in “Gold Diggers of 1936”, a Warner Brothers musical, and so may be a characteristic of filmmaking that decade rather than an expression of German or Nazi consciousness. The narrator says that the film industry was “a dream factory” for Naziism, when that is the exact term used by Hortense Powderhouse to describe what Hollywood, USA was doing at the same time.

Looking at even these brief excerpts allows drawing a very different conclusion from the one provided by the narrator. The Nazis were depicting what they thought was a conception of the wholesomeness of German life as that was threatened by the international Jewish-English conspiracy. Women are glorified as healthy and robust in their beauty, as are the young men who are seen washing up before donning their uniforms in Leni Richenfeld’s “Triumph of the Will” so that they can march to the stadium and listen to the Fuhrer’s oration. Politics grows from fitness and grace and morality, or so is the story to be told. Even there, the story is not far off the Hollywood tropes of the time, what with G. I. Joe conquering Nazi aristocrats and technology and skulduggery with common sense and practical intelligence as well as women who prove to be plucky and serious minded. It is the times, not the nation, at work here, everywhere in the Western world.

Then how can we get hold of the reality of totalitarian evil? My suggestion is that history and memoirs provide the best avenue into the heart of this darkness. Hannah Arendt, for all her virtues, was too apocalyptic in her pronouncements, claiming as she did that totalitarianism was a new thing under the sun, a form of evil different from what evil had been before, when it was just an intensification, an excess, of the evil that could also be found in Calvin’s Geneva or the Spanish Inquisition or the medieval war of Innocent III against the Albigensians. The Nazis adopted very pedestrian techniques to give them control over everything going on in their societies, and that provides the most satisfactory meaning for Arendt’s famous phrase “The banality of evil”: evil operates through simple rather than Wagnerian gestures, even if, collectively, those measures add up to a gotterdammerung.  

Victor Klemperer, in his memoirs of his time as a dispossessed professor in Germany from the beginning to the end of the Third Reich, always thinking even at the beginning that the regime did not have long to last, documents how society operated. As soon as the Nazis gained power, one of them had to be present at every departmental faculty meeting at every university. That was the effective end of academic freedom, right there at the beginning. The fear settled in very quickly. And the organization of German society remained to the very end. Klemperer was only able to get out of showing properly granted identity papers to the still functioning governmental bureaucracy when he could claim, with a good deal of plausibility, that his records had been lost because of the firebombing of Dresden. And we know from other sources that firing squads for deserters were still being carried out as the Soviet troops were entering Berlin. The determination to maintain social order is astonishing and even morally praiseworthy. There is no descent into anarchy but simply a change of who is in charge.

I remember reading as a teenager Eugen Kogon’s “The Theory and Practice of Hell”, published in 1950, which was an early spelling out of how extermination camps functioned, down to the most grisly details. It was far more shocking that either Elie Wiesel's “Night”, which is now considered suitable assigned reading for high school students, or Primo Levi’s “Death at Auschwitz”, which fulfills its author’s Dantesque ambition to report back what Hell was like. So we have two extremes: the Arendt view that the concentration camps were an epitome of what life was like in the Germany of the Third Reich, the concentration camps the true heart of the regime, and the view, as displayed in Goebbels's movies, that this was an authoritarian regime dedicated to truth, wholesome beauty and material progress, one supported by the vast majority of its population, that was brutal only towards its essential enemies. The Goebbels view remained plausible perhaps until the the first Thousand Bomber Raid by the RAF on Cologne in May of l942 or perhaps until the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 or perhaps until the landing in Normandy in 1944 had become secure, any of those events making clear that the defeat of Germany was unavoidable unless it developed an atomic bomb in time, which it could not, just having jet planes not enough to turn the tide of battle. That the society carried on even after these three dates is a tribute to the German people, given how difficult it was to work up a political resistance. Germans did what the British government would have advised its subjects to do if Britain were invaded: “Keep Calm and Carry On”. I wonder if the citizens of the United States would have acted in so organized a fashion under similar circumstances.

Some evidence that evil during the Third Reich was ordinary and everyday and absorbed into the ordinary round of life, that another meaning for that incisive phrase, “the banality of evil”, is supplied in Milton Mayer’s  “They Thought They Were Free”, first published in 1955. The author interviewed ten Germans soon after the war and expected to find the same surrender to evil that Theodor Adorno and others in the Frankfurt School who had by that time returned from their exile in America expected to find: brains so curdled by Nazi propaganda that they could no longer tell right from wrong. But what he finds, though I am not at all sure he realized this, was support of the opposite hypothesis. His Germans, all former Nazis, regarded themselves as anti-Semites still, but claimed that they had no social hatred for the Jews; it was just that you couldn’t trust them when it came to money and they felt sure that the Jews who had been deported had been compensated for their financial loses. Mayer thought the anti-Semitism was what held the Nazis together, in that the Nazis were action first and thought a long time later and so never had a well worked out ideology, which is a point with which I disagree, the classification and eugenics and theory of race very well worked out by Nazi theorists.

My reading of the interviews is that anti-Semitism was a side issue, even if recounting after the war what had happened to Jewish relatives or to their own sense of themselves as Christians was heart-wrenching. It was so easy to maintain a surface conformity. A high school literature teacher knew not to teach “Julius Caesar” or “Hamlet”, which were, after all, about rebellion against the state, but there was no trouble with “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream”, and you could even act bravely by reminding the class that Mendelsohn was a Jew. “The German Spirit”, as it was called, did not need a list of censored books because teachers knew how to censor themselves by avoiding books that spoke in favor of rebellion against the state, and as one informant put it, that is banned in America too. So you could survive if you were careful, which meant guarded in the expression of opinion, so your personal defeat was only moral and psychological, to be reflected upon, years later, in the safety of a Nazi failure that had been forced on the German people from the outside. Life could be ordinary if you did not distance yourself from it with a moral compass.

Inevitability in Foreign Affairs

The possibility of negotiations between the United States and North Korea over the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a good opportunity to review some basic wisdom about foreign policy and so avoid a debate about whether Trump should be given credit for having initiated this opening because of his bluster or whether he should be blamed for having a State Department that may not be up to the task of carrying out the negotiations. Bits of wisdom are that rather than knowledge because they cannot be put to the test through experiment. You can’t run history as a controlled experiment, but you can make a case that one adage about foreign policy seems more trustworthy than another. The wisdom in question is that most foreign policy decisions are inevitable because of the nature of the geopolitical circumstances. You can delay them, as when Wilson delayed entry into World War I when TR, if he had been elected in 1912, would have more quickly gotten into the war, even though that would have meant many more American casualties, though it probably would also have forestalled the rise of Communism and Fascism. The best a leader can do, in Obama’s memorable injunction, is not do anything stupid, such as get us into a needless war in Iraq. Just go with the inevitable and don’t do anything else. The alternative wisdom is that supplied by George Kennan who, in his classic book “American Diplomacy”, argued that clever diplomatists can come up with a formula whereby a treaty can be constructed which redirects history. That wisdom was belied in Kennan’s own time when no one, not even George Marshall, could figure out a way to negotiate with the Russians or the Chinese and so we had to settle in for a Cold War whereby, as Kennan himself predicted, we would outlast them, though what would follow the Soviet Union, and which Kennan had not predicted, would be a return to the usual Russian situation of rule by an autocrat who would, as Soviet dictators previously had, also rattle his missiles, rather than some more modern regime. So let me defend the Obama principle of yielding only to the inevitable.

Read More

Priests, Police and Psychiatrists

An institution of social control is a set of organizations that have the specific societal purpose of ensuring that people obey the rules and regulations and customs of a society or some institution within it. The umpires are the social control agency in a baseball game though baseball itself is a leisure activity, with all that entails in the way of allowing people of different social classes to share the same experience, even if, metaphorically, we can say that baseball contributes to the social order of society because it gives people an escape valve so that they can root for the underdog without that sentiment having any consequences. Institutions of social control exist as part of most modern, complex bureaucracies, and go under a variety of names: Internal Affairs, Human Resources, Inspector General. These adjuncts make it possible for the larger organization to go about pursuing their main purposes. In this light, it is only by way of metaphor that we can treat the IRS as an institution of social control, even if it does supervise economic activity, because its main goal is to collect revenue. Similarly, the main goal of education as an institution is to help children fit into adult roles by improving their ability to make use of whatever cognitive capacities they may have, not to serve as a boot camp for adult servility.

Read More

The Autonomy of Field Commanders

The field commanders of armies are notoriously unreliable. In fact, the Romans forbade them from sending their armies across the Rubicon lest they try to overthrow the government. Troops were, until recently, more loyal to their commanders than they were to their polity, perhaps because it was the military units that enforced military discipline. You could be killed for insubordination. That was the power over you, not the politicians in Rome. What is remarkable and surprising, however, is that the autonomy of field commanders to do what they wanted with their troops lasted until recent times-- the First World War, I would say. This is partly because armies in the past relied on their own supplies and the funds provided to them to keep them in the field. But twentieth century armies had come to rely on supplies of oil and munitions and tanks supplied for them by their various defense ministries and so were no longer autonomous. How this balance of field command and high command alters over the past two hundred years explains a lot about the wars fought during that time period.

Read More

Carrying Charges

Not too long ago, commentators were saying that some people voted for Trump because they were economically pressed in that wages were stagnating, this assessment based on national wage figures. That is an economic change of which people may not be aware, but which will somehow go into their calculations of how well off they are. Somehow, voters have a sense of how only statistically significant increases or decreases in wages impinged on their own lives and respond accordingly. That is not very plausible and it is a factor in life that, one would presume, would be easily enough washed out by cultural issues like abortion or thinking that coastal people are condescending towards middle Americans. At this moment, however, a very different economic logic is being pursued by commentators trying to forecast the impact of the Trump tax bill. It may not do much good for the country, this giving away of a trillion dollars to rich people without any requirement that they invest it in productive ways, but it will put a thousand dollars or so in the pockets of many of the middle class and that is something concrete, a real if small gain, and so may lead them to stick with Trump. Note the difference between the two argument: in the first case, there is an incremental change in people’s disposable income as a result of a lack of increase in paychecks, a change of which people may not be aware, but which will somehow go into their calculations of how well off they are, and in the second case, there is an increase in take home pay because of a decrease in payroll deductions and people will be aware of this change even though it is not very sizable. I want to apply this second kind of logic, of what people know as a change in their own lives, to addressing the first question, which is why people feel squeezed, and so dispense with any need for economic metaphysics.

Read More

The Nominal Role of the Politician

George Orwell got it all wrong in his famous essay “Shooting An Elephant” when he says that people wanted him to exercise his authority as a policeman in India and shoot an elephant. Orwell says the locals did so because they identified authority with the English. Rather, I would say, they wanted him to assume authority so that the elephant would get shot. He would make the decision, take the risk, get the job done, and take the blame should he mess up. Otherwise, there would have been no end of haggling about who should be appointed to do the job or whether it should be done by a committee. His title was an excuse to do what had to be done, and he had considerable discretion, as all bosses do, about what that title required him to do. Any boss can follow his personality and be more or less aggressive in the policies he asks his subordinates to administer or in how he responds to the demands of clientele. Orwell could have pooh-poohed the request or referred it to local game officials.

Read More

Standby & Operating Institutions

All organizations, and not just governments, are either standby or operating institutions, or some combination of the two, and an important basis for the division between conservatives and liberals, a distinction that goes back to the French Revolution or before, and is part of the fabric of the modern world, rests on whether government should be primarily one or the other. This is just one of the underlying and overlapping emotions and ideas that give rise to the chasm between conservatives and liberals. Another, well elaborated by Karl Mannheim about one hundred years ago, is the distinction between those who look backwards to a golden age and those who look forward to a utopia as the focus of their political imaginations. Both ideas are creatures of the imagination but both also have very different consequences. A traditionalist mind finds conventional morality and politics preferable to what seem to be the hopeless dreams of the Utopian, even though what a utopian predicts will often come true, as happened in the United States, for example, when African Americans went from being a caste to an ethnic group in two generations, from the time miscegenation was made legal to the time a mixed race person was elected President.

Read More

Sovereignty & Its Discontents: Blade runner or H.G. Wells?

The idea of sovereignty has been the prevailing theory of the state for at least a thousand years. It is the idea that the power of government was entrusted by God to kings and then, in the view of seventeenth century political theorists, the locus of power was shifted to officeholders responsible, in some sense, to the will of the people. In all of these cases, government was what the early twentieth century sociologist Max Weber defined it to be: a legitimate monopoly on the use of violence that could be exercised on any matters that came to concern the imagination of the government. First, there was the control of warfare, in that everything else was ruled by custom; then, ever more intrusion into the economy, violence used to enforce economic reforms such as collectivization or the regulation of the sale of bread; then, into ever more intrusion into social structure, so that violence or the threat of violence influences changes in the class structure and even the caste structure of the Jim Crow American South; and then into culture, strictly speaking, as journalists are swept off to gulags or killed. As Hugo Grotius, another seventeenth century savant, elaborated, the relation of nations to one another was one of perpetual war or potential war. Order existed only within the individual nation state. This is a long way from Kant’s Enlightenment vision of a state of perpetual peace ushered in by the gradual consolidation of nations into a giant single state.

Read More

Fifty Years Later: Anniversary of the March on Washington

A number of people, including myself, found the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, which took place a few years ago while Obama still held the con, discouraging as well as a cause for celebration. It is worth trying to recapture that moment for why it was the anniversary of only a partial victory, just as gun control legislation, even if it came about, would be only a very partial victory against the cultural preoccupation of Americans with guns and gun culture, something that has little place in the modern urban world but only in the minds of those who idealize a Wild West which, contrary to fact, does not have gun totters deposit their weapons at the saloon door or at the Sheriff’s office.

Read More

The End of Social Movements?

European social movements over the past hundred years have been largely out to change the values of one or more societies. These movements include Communism, Socialism, and Fascism and, more recently the drive to unite Europe into a federation and the counter-movement to reassert various European nationalisms. There are exceptions to this European pattern, such as the suffragette movement and the environmental movement, but the generalization holds. The United States, on the other hand, has over the course of the century from the 1880’s to the 1980’s had its history filled with movements that are interested in the issues that concern one or another particular section of the population, and that may account for the fact that American history is not regarded as a history of ideas while European history is so regarded. American movements for that period included the labor movement, which was out to protect workers; the reaction in the South against Reconstruction, which was out to re-entrench white minority rule; the temperance movement, where women wanted to save their husbands from drink; our own suffragette movement; and more recent movements, like the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement and our own environmental movement. But all that has ended. There has been no significant social movement in this country in nearly forty years, and the question is why that is the case.

Read More

Natural Disposition

What is the natural disposition of mankind? That is to ask what are the basic emotions that make people recognizable to one another and not the ones added on by the veneer of civilization. What, in a word, are our “true” or “truest” emotions? The great psychologist-philosophers all tried to answer this question. Aristotle thought there was a very long list of standard emotions. Hobbes thought that there was an evolution of emotions from the most simple to the most complex, the key being when people learned or came to think in practical terms. Spinoza thought that emotions changed into one another, as when love turned to hate, and dispensed with Aristotle’s notion that there was a Golden Mean, whereby the best emotions were the ones between their extreme versions. Another way to answer the question, rather than to arrange a gigantic table of emotions, is to look at the actual history of mankind so as to see what emotions were exhibited by primitive, and so presumably more natural people. Durkheim looked at Australian Aborigines and concluded, based on their funeral practices, that the most basic feeling of humanity was reverence for the ongoing community. Australian Aborigines are about as primitive as you can get on the ladder of cultural evolution. In his book “A Commonwealth of Thieves”, Thomas Kennelly supplies us with portraits of a few of the Aborigines encountered by the early English settlers in Australia, and so let us consider what Kennelly tells us about people in their full naturalness, though the consideration of different Aborigines might offer different readings. We should remember, however, that we often use people who seem lacking and insufficient in some way or another even if they are singular to tell us all kinds of things about the general human condition. Helen Keller showed that people bereft of sight and hearing could still think and Ishi and the wild boy of Avignon showed us how children raised in isolation were limited as human beings.

Read More

Reparations & Affirmative Action

Reparations are payments to survivors of atrocities or the group which suffered the atrocities as an acknowledgment of guilt and as an attempt to right at least part of the wrong. They are not a bad idea. Germany paid reparations to individual Jews and also to the newly found state of Israel to atone for the Holocaust. The money to Israel was blood money in the sense that millions of people had to die to get it but Israel accepted it anyway because they needed it at the time and because it proved the basis for what is now a long standing alliance between the two countries, the whole world having recognized the reality of Germany having overcome its past through acts such as this. Now we are in the midst of a new round of talks about reparations to African Americans for slavery. The difference here is that there are no actual survivors to whom to write checks and that the problems of African Americans in current American society are not of the sort that are solved by writing checks, even if lawyers are willing to monetize every damage. How much to a sixth generation survivor? How much to a ghetto crack addict? How much to the institutions, like education and health, that would help alleviate black poverty? Let us parse this question more carefully before arriving at a conclusion.

Read More

The Fifties

Cultural commentators try to define the culture of a decade by finding themes that distinguish it from the decade before and the decade after, and so are distracted from taking note of the long term trends that develop across decades. So the Seventies are the era of Disco and high heel shoes for men and John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever”, that different from the more radical Sixties, or the computer revolution of the Eighties. As such, labelling decades by their themes is an exercise in nostalgia: a way to recall somewhat faded memories of what it was like to go to your Senior Prom. It might be better to label decades by those who occupied high office. The Nineties were the Clinton Years, and that meant both temporizing social policy and dealing with Monica Lewinsky and moving the boundaries of Europe to the Russian border. But the usefulness of giving themes to decades is that it allows the commentator to see the decade as negating what had come before. The Great Depression of the Thirties abolished the Flapper Era, even if major union organizing, such as in the garment industries, had gone on during the Twenties; the Forties banished the Great Depression, the United States winning a great war and entering a period of unparalleled prosperity, even though that decade saw only the start of the movement to get rid of Jim Crow. Sometimes this labelling process can mean thinking one decade reverses the themes of the previous decade, and that can be very misleading, as I think is the case when the Sixties is seen as setting right everything that was wrong about the Fifties, that much maligned decade that came before the revolutionary era of the Sixties. I went to high school and college during the Fifties, and so I want to set the record straight.

Read More

Foundation Stories

Every modern nation has a foundation story, based in history and social structure as well as in fable, that is used to explain the origins of that particular nation and thereby their distinctiveness. Foundation stories, varied as they are, are cultural creations based on historical and social structural circumstances, often tell something very true and abiding about a society--but not always, as we shall see in the case of Australia.

Read More

Local Culture

Samuel Johnson went to what was then and may become again the Near Abroad of Scotland and the Outer Hebrides to discover what a people who were familiar yet distinctive enough to have a distinct culture and social structure were like. He captured the religious quality of the moonlight and the castles as well as the economic opportunities available in that then “underdeveloped” economy. He did not have to travel to the South Sea islands or North America to discover the exotic; it was much closer to home than most travel writers imagined. I have in the past few months begun to understand another Near Abroad. I have moved to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, which is some ten miles distant from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I lived for so many years. Here are some observations from someone who is a traveler in that my acquaintanceship with my neighborhood is fresh and catches the superficial aspects of the thing, and so predates a time when a deeper appreciation of the place will settle in.

Read More

Why Noam Chomsky Is Wrong

Noam Chomsky, so I am told, is much admired as a truth-teller among young people looking for accurate explanations of what is going on in America politically and economically. His basic thesis is that the small number of people who are in power in this country exert their interest in enriching themselves by pursuing imperialist policies abroad and oppressive policies at home. They keep down poor and even middle class people both foreign and domestic. I think this view is mistaken. Rather, Chomsky is just repeating shibboleths that were inaccurate when they were first enunciated by Lenin and then, for a later generation, by C. Wright Mills, who wrote in “The Power Elite”, in the Fifties, that militarists dominated the United States government and fomented wars so that they could increase the defense budget as well as keep America in control of third world countries, the natural resources and domestic labor of these countries that fell into the American sphere of influence thereby available for exploitation. Let us deaggregate this point of view into distinct propositions and hold them up for examination.

Read More

The Criticism of Society

Sociologists during its Golden Age in the United States, during the Forties through the Sixties, were able to notice what had just not occurred to other people, as when David Riesman, in The Lonely Crowd, saw Americans as engaged in trying to please one another, gain the approval of others, rather than engage in the dog-eat-dog tactics of interpersonal relations that had for so long been hallowed as the accurate way to assess the American character largely because that portrait was in keeping with the ideology of Social Darwinism that people claimed to believe. Insight triumphed over trumpeted theory. Robert Merton, writing at about the same time as Riesman, had an equally probing insight into American prejudice which he elaborated into an essay, “Discrimination and the American Creed”. He noted that when people said they were not prejudiced even if they engaged in discrimination they might be telling the truth. They were simply behaving as they were expected to do regardless of their personal feelings. Merton then did a twist on this insight that turned it into sociology. He created a typology of people who acted in accord with their beliefs and those who acted contrary to their beliefs and so decided that most people were “summer soldier” haters in that they would abandon prejudicial behavior if they were supported in doing so by a changed social context, which is indeed what happened over the next generation. Merton had done sociology because he had transformed what he noticed about the nuances of the human psyche into the objective, invisible social structures that give rise to these nuances.

Read More

An Adult Primer on Sociology

Here is a brief overview of sociology that is not for children or undergraduates but for adults who still confuse it with statistics, which is one of the methods used in sociology, and with anthropology, which studies pre-literate cultures and addresses modern cultures only to the extent that they are like pre-literate cultures.

The basic insight of sociology is that relationships, even if invisible, are just as real as atoms or people. Friendship is as old as Achilles and Patroclus, or David and Jonathan, and, if Radcliffe-Brown is right, exists in pre-literate societies, where friends also kid around with one another. The characteristics of friendship, such as trust and respect, remain constant over time even if other characteristics, such as whether people who are social unequals can be friends, either change or simply come to be thought about differently over time. The same can be said of other relationships. A general who wears a toga, as Alcibiades did, is doing the same thing as a general wearing an Ike jacket: deploying troops to go into battle and perhaps die there. What applies to individuals also applies to larger units of social life. Whether a city state or a nation state, governments will do whatever it takes to uphold the interests of their communities whatever they see them to be  and whatever measures that may require. George Marshall said that the best primer on government and war was Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War. The impact of immigration on a society has not changed since the Israelites invaded Canaan: there are fights over religion and land. Sometimes, though, overall characteristics have to be modified to deal with particular circumstances. For some reason, immigrants to the United States assimilate in the space of several generations while immigrants to Continental Europe do not.

Read More


When I hauled myself into his cab, the driver was speaking Arabic into a phone mike. The only phrase I could make out was “long term mortgage”. I surmised he was talking to a relative because, whatever the language, only close friends and relations talk in the clipped tones and interrupted sentences that other people would take as rude. Halfway through the ride, he hung up (or whatever you do to slam down the receiver when using this kind of phone equipment). He glanced over his shoulder at me and unburdened himself. “I brought my son over from Egypt, and now he doesn’t even want to go into business with me. All he cares about is his own family.” I felt like saying “Welcome to America”  because, of course, that has been the story of any number of immigrant groups. The first generation comes over knowing it may or may not be as successful as it was over there, that they may sacrifice themselves to allow some success to the next generation, as was the case for the Chinese laundryman and his wife on my old block who spoke fluent English and whose daughter became a doctor, and not so much for the Korean grocer on the corner of my old block who never learned English and so could not use his Korean degree in social work, and yet put his kids through Ivy League colleges, never allowing any of them to work in the store, one of his sons, nevertheless, eventually taking over the store.

There is, indeed, something magical about America. Its streets are paved with gold; it is indeed the gold mountain. The chances of doing well over the generations are big, though children may go through a time when they are embarrassed by the fact that their parents seem so quaint and unknowing, but that happens with all American children, no matter how many generations their families have been here. What explains the ambitions of the immigrants and the relative success of their children?

Read More

What World War II Wrought

Post-Apocalyptic life is a standard literary genre. The Terminator series, as well as the Mad Max series, show what life is like when some great catastrophe has engulfed and destroyed the civilized world. According to these tales, life has once again become short and brutal, peopled by grotesquely dressed and malformed people (and by machines), some saving remnant of humanity trying to preserve what is left of and trying to re-establish what had existed before the cataclysm. My favorite of these is the Alexander Korda version of H. G. Wells’ “Things to Come”, the movie made just before the impending Second World War, when it was expected that strategic bombing might reduce cities to rubble-- which it did, without, however, destroying the governance of those cities or nations. In Wells’ vision, civilization is reduced to barbarism until it is rescued by a cadre of airmen, known as “Wings Over the World”, who then build cities that are modernistic while its inhabitants wander around in togas and are given to bombastic speeches delivered by gigantic holograms of themselves, the young people driven to go on to the exploration of the Moon.

To the sociological mind, however, whatever is imagined can be exemplified by what actually comes to pass. There are many times in world history when a nation or a new civilization is reborn or created after the coming of a dark age, or when, even more generally, the old days have rather abruptly been put to rest and a new time is emerging, a new time beginning, as happened when the French started the clock over again as part of their understanding that their Revolution had put an end to the Old Regime that would be replaced by an age of citizenry and enlightenment. The new calendar lasted fourteen years. Similar new beginnings emerge after the execution of Charles I and the Russian Revolution and Hitler’s seizure of power, while the new beginnings that started with the eight years of violence and mayhem that was the American Revolution are still going on, so much so that there are those who will claim that the American Revolution was not really a cataclysmic upheaval but just a struggle among the colonial elites for power, even though the people of the time certainly thought, as the popular song of the time went, that “The World [was] Turned Upside Down”.

Read More