1527: The Sack of Rome

Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” broadcast about the sack of Rome in 1527 inspired me to do a little digging in the History of Atrocities department.

From Will and Ariel Durant, The Story of Civilization:

Charles [V, King of Spain and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire], still remaining in Spain, and moving his pawns with magic remote control, commissioned his agents to raise a new army. They approached the Tirolese condottiere, Georg von Frundsberg, already famous for the exploits of the Landsknechte—German mercenaries—who fought under his lead. Charles could offer little money, but his agents promised rich plunder in Italy. Frundsberg was still nominally a Catholic, but he strongly sympathized with Luther, and hated [Pope] Clement as a traitor to the Empire. He pawned his castle, his other possessions, even the adornments of his wife; with the 38,000 gulden so obtained he collected some 10,000 men eager for adventure and pillage and not averse to breaking a lance over a papal head; some of them, it was said, carried a noose to hang the Pope. . . . 

In Milan the imperial commander was now Charles, Duke of Bourbon; created constable of France for bravery at Marignano, he had turned against Francis when the King’s mother, as he felt, had cheated him of his proper lands; he went over to the Emperor, shared in defeating Francis at Pavia, and was made Duke of Milan. Now, to raise and pay another army for Charles, he taxed the Milanese literally to death. He wrote to the Emperor that he had drained the city of its blood. His soldiers, quartered upon the inhabitants, so abused them with theft, brutality, and rape that many Milanese hanged themselves, or threw themselves from high places into the streets. Early in February, 1527, Bourbon led his army out of Milan, and united it with Frundsberg’s near Piacenza. The conglomerate horde, now numbering nearly 22,000 men, moved east along the Via Emilia, avoiding the fortified cities, but pillaging as it went, and leaving the countryside empty behind it. . . .

On May 6 . . . the swarm entered from a confusing variety of directions; some were hidden by the fog; others so mingled with fugitives that the Castle cannon could not strike them without killing the demoralized populace. Soon the invaders had the city at their mercy.

As they rushed on through the streets they killed indiscriminately any man, woman, or child that crossed their path. Their bloodthirst aroused, they entered the hospital and orphanage of Santo Spirito, and slaughtered nearly all the patients. They marched into St. Peter’s and slew the people who had sought sanctuary there. They pillaged every church and monastery they could find, and turned some into stables; hundreds of priests, monks, bishops, and archbishops were killed. . . . Every dwelling in Rome was plundered, and many were burned, with two exceptions: the Cancelleria, occupied by Cardinal Colonna, and the Palazzo Colonna, in which Isabella d’ Este and some rich merchants had sought asylum; these paid 50,000 ducats to leaders of the mob for freedom from attack, and then took two thousand refugees within their walls. Every palace paid ransoms for protection, only to face later attacks from other packs, and pay ransom again. In most houses all the occupants were required to ransom their lives at a stated price; if they did not pay they were tortured; thousands were killed; children were flung from high windows to pry parental savings from secrecy; some streets were littered with dead. The millionaire Domenico Massimi saw his sons slain, his daughter raped, his house burned, and then was himself murdered. “In the whole city,” says one account, “there was not a soul above three years of age who had not to purchase his safety.”

Of the victorious mob half were German [Lutheran]s, of whom most had been convinced that the popes and cardinals were thieves, and that the wealth of the Church in Rome was a theft from the nations, and a scandal to the world. To reduce this scandal they seized all movable ecclesiastical valuables, including sacred vessels and works of art, and carried them off for melting or ransom or sale; relics, however, they left scattered on the floor. One soldier dressed himself as a pope; others put on cardinals’ hats and kissed his feet; a crowd at the Vatican proclaimed Luther pope. The Lutherans among the invaders took especial delight in robbing cardinals, exacting high ransoms from them as the price of their lives, and teaching them new rituals. Some cardinals, says Guicciardini, “were set upon scrubby beasts, riding with their faces backward, in the habits and ensigns of their dignity, and were led about all Rome with the greatest derision and contempt. Some, unable to raise all the ransom demanded, were so tortured that they died there and then, or within a few days.” One cardinal was lowered into a grave and was told that he would be buried alive unless ransom were brought within a stated time; it came at the last moment. Spanish and German cardinals, who thought themselves safe from their own countrymen, were treated like the rest. Nuns and respectable women were violated in situ, or were carried off to promiscuous brutality in the various shelters of the horde. Women were assaulted before the eyes of their husbands or fathers. Many young women, despondent after being raped, drowned themselves in the Tiber.

The number of deaths cannot be calculated. Two thousand corpses were thrown into the Tiber from the Vatican side of Rome; 9800 dead were buried; there were unquestionably many more fatalities. . . .

Plague had visited Rome in 1522, and had reduced its population to 55,000; murder, suicide, and flight must have reduced it below 40,000 in 1527; now, in July of that year, plague came back in the full heat of summer, and joined with famine and the continued presence of the ravaging horde to make Rome a city of horror, terror, and desolation. Churches and streets were littered anew with corpses; many of these were left to rot in the sun; the stench was so strong that the jailers and prisoners fled from the castle parapets to their rooms; even there many died of the infection, among them some servants of the Pope. The impartial plague struck the invaders too; 2500 Germans in Rome died by July 22, 1527; and malaria, syphilis, and malnutrition cut the horde in half. . . .

On December 7, after seven months of confinement, Clement left Sant’ Angelo, and, disguised as a servant, made his way humbly out of Rome to Orvieto, apparently a broken man. . . .

Losing all hope of aid from the League, Clement offered his full surrender to Charles; and on October 6 he was allowed to re-enter Rome. Four fifths of the houses had been abandoned, thousands of buildings were in ruins; men were amazed to see what nine months of invasion had done to the capital of Christendom. . . .

The story of civilization, indeed.

Joe Biden is the best President of my lifetime

By “best” I mean, from a progressive point of view.

I was born in 1952, so the candidates are Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, Trump, and Biden.

We can eliminate the Republicans right away, so that leaves Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Obama, and Biden. Kennedy’s relations with the civil rights movement were awkward, at best. His speeches indicating a shift away from Cold War hostilities were promising, but those promises came to nothing when he was murdered. Johnson would be at the top of my list for his domestic policies, especially the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but his Vietnam catastrophe takes him off the table. Clinton was far too dodgy and neoliberal for my taste. That leaves Carter, Obama, and Biden.

Jimmy Carter did a lot of good things. Most notably, he got Israel and Egypt to sign a peace accord, but he also gave amnesty to Vietnam War draft dodgers, promoted solar energy, etc. He had the bad luck to inherit a lousy economy; he was blamed for taking the tough measures that handed his successor, Reagan, a much better economy. He also had the bad luck of being in office during the Iran hostage crisis which, along with traitorous back-channels deals with the Ayatollah by Reagan’s team, lost him his re-election bid. But he also did not understand how Congress works and—early in his term, especially—created a lot of unnecessary problems for himself.

Obama, for all his resonant speeches and charming smiles, was essentially an Eisenhower Republican in his policies, both domestic and international (except that Ike didn’t have drones). His greatest achievement was the Affordable Care Act. But he bailed out the fat cats while leaving ordinary folks to take all the pain of the 2008 financial crisis, with repercussions we are still suffering from. He had to be pushed on gay marriage by his VP, Joe Biden. He didn’t have the guts to get out of Iraq or Afghanistan, and his policies were ineffective, at best, in Syria and Libya. Apart from health care and some inspiring speeches . . . he didn’t accomplish much.

Joe Biden inherited a rotten situation in Afghanistan, and it was ugly. But unlike all his predecessors (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford in Vietnam; Bush II and Obama in Afghanistan) he had the cojones to get out, knowing it would be ugly. He also inherited the 80-year-old insoluble Israeli-Palestinian mess and had it blow up last fall when Hamas attacked over the border, committed atrocities, and took hostages back into Gaza. Could he take a harder line against Israel? Sure. But the consequences, both political and geo-political, are rarely considered by his critics on the Left. Short answer: the situation is a horrific mess, has been for some 80 years, and is likely to remain so. The blowback from any significant change in U.S. policy toward Israel would make the blowback after the Afghanistan pull-out look like a D.A.R. tea party. But I trust Biden and his team to make the best choices available to them, and I cannot think of anyone else who would do better in Biden’s place.

Beyond these two foreign policy crises, Biden has been as outstanding as I can imagine an American president being. His deep understanding of Congress has allowed him to pass significant progressive legislation despite unrelenting obstruction by Republicans, including the infrastructure bill, and the “Inflation Reduction Act”—which do more to address climate change and move toward a green energy economy than anything any other president has done. He managed the recovery from the COVID recession by putting money into the pockets of ordinary folks, resulting in the strongest economy in the world, by far. He is the most pro-labour president since Harry Truman or FDR. He is a skilled negotiator, as seen in his budget deal with Kevin McCarthy. Where the Republicans and the courts have blocked him, he has found ways to make progress anyway, as in his cancellation of student loan debt for millions of people. He is a wily politician, as when he got obstreperous Republicans to promise publicly not to touch Medicare and Social Security during one of his State of the Union addresses; or when he gave them almost everything they had ever asked for in a border reform bill, whereupon they nixed the deal—effectively killing the “crisis at the border” issue as a Republican talking point. His only equal on the domestic front is LBJ, and on the international front . . . would you prefer Johnson to Biden? Not me, thanks.

Is he good on TV? Nope. So what? That’s not the job.

Time for a new business model

  • For landlords, high rental costs are good for business; maintenance costs are bad for business.
  • For employers, low wages are good for business; unions are bad for business.
  • For manufacturers, cheap raw materials are good for business; for manufacturers, developers, mining companies, and energy companies, concern for the environment is bad for business.
  • For gun companies, gun sales are good for business; restrictions on guns are bad for business.
  • For social media companies, hate speech and propaganda are good for business; regulation is bad for business.
  • For journalism, Donald Trump is great for business; Joe Biden is bad for business.

Time for a new business model.

How to choose a President, 2024 version

Qualities I am looking for in a candidate for President:

  1. Youth
  2. Good looks
  3. Great hair
  4. Excellent bone structure
  5. Entertaining. This could mean . . .
    1. Funny
    2. Inspiring speaker
    3. Crazy mo-fo, don’t know what s/he will say or do next
  6. No smarter or better informed than I am, because that makes me nervous
  7. Promises cheap gas and groceries

‘K bye, gotta get back to my TV program.

Plato and Marcus Aurelius seem to agree, in the end

Edward Gibbon contemplates the sad tale of the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, whose virtue and wisdom failed to produce either wisdom or virtue in his son and successor, Commodus:

The monstrous vices of the son have cast a shade on the purity of the father’s virtues. It has been objected to Marcus, that he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy; and that he chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic. Nothing however, was neglected by the anxious father, and by the men of virtue and learning whom he summoned to his assistance, to expand the narrow mind of young Commodus, to correct his growing vices, and to render him worthy of the throne for which he was designed. But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous. —History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter IV

Marcus had perhaps not read, or simply did not heed, the words of Socrates in Plato’s Meno: “If through all this discussion our queries and statements have been correct, virtue is found to be neither natural nor taught, but is imparted to us as a divine gift without understanding in those who receive it” (tr. W. R. M. Lamb).

 

Support for Netanyahu ≠ support for Israel

Supporting Bibi Netanyahu’s right-wing government undermines the State of Israel and jeopardizes its future. 

A genuinely pro-Israel policy would seek peace and reconciliation with Palestinians, would support the establishment of a Palestinian state, and would negotiate a fair division of land and resources, including areas of shared sovereignty where access and rights are guaranteed to both peoples. Such policies would ensure a future of peace and prosperity for Israel.

Netanyahu’s policies of land theft, apartheid, and genocide lead only to perpetual war and to the eventual destruction of the State of Israel.

President Biden: support Israel’s true interests by opposing Netanyahu’s murderous and self-defeating actions.

The task was to make Germany great again

From Hitler and the Collapse of Weimar Germany, by Martin Broszat (1984):

In the depressed situation following the German defeat [in World War I, Hitler] could generalise and politicise his feelings of personal bitterness and hatred which were rooted in his own failure and his rejection of the unpleasant realities of life and which had led him, already as an adolescent, to develop fantastic plans for the future and to evade regular employment. . . . The task was to . . . make Germany great again.

The themes of speeches which he was making in 1920 in Munich beer halls by their dozens were the same: the ‘shame of the Versailles Treaty’, the enemies within who had stabbed the nation in the back, . . . and, invariably, the ‘Jewish Question’. . . .

Early verdicts on his style were: a ‘born popular orator’, ‘masterly’ or ‘extremely skilful’. . . . He knew how to stimulate his audiences . . . by resorting to biting sarcasm. He ridiculed his opponents as ‘liars’ or spoke of the ‘miserable weaklings’ in the government and in other political parties. Police reports almost always noted that there was ‘lively applause’, ‘tempestuous applause’ or ‘long-lasting applause’ at the end of his appearances. . . . The anti-Nazi press . . . dubbed him an ‘extremely cunning demagogue’ or ‘leader of an anti-Semitic’ party. . . . He knew how to wrap his constant call to fight the ‘parasites’ and ‘enemies of the people’ in a solemn appeal to show national pride and to believe in Germany’s strength . . . . He could talk of the rebirth of the nation in a tone of religious conviction . . . .

. . . To be successful and to gain power was synonymous . . . with drawing attention to oneself and with attracting the masses. . . . New propaganda methods which had been developed first and foremost by Hitler assumed great significance. . . .

Hitler’s messianic power and dynamism also drove wealthy supporters and patrons into his arms . . . .

Provocative brutalities, especially if directed against the ‘Socialists’, . . . were also designed to command the respect of the middle classes . . . . His antics gained the respect of sympathetic circles in Munich’s high society . . . . His reputation was that of a political enfant terrible who succeeded in arousing an almost morbid interest in himself . . . .

The notion that actual fighting was required rather than passive resistance prepared the ground for the formation of a block of radical paramilitary groups . . . .

. . . On 15 November 1930 . . . every tenth person . . . was without a job. . . . The worst hit were the 14 to 18-year-olds who had just left school.

The first reaction of the high-brow bourgeois-liberal press of Berlin to the Nazi success was one of stunned horror. The leader writer of the Berliner Tageblatt (16 September 1930) found it impossible to take in the ‘monstrous fact’ that ‘six million and four hundred thousand voters in this highly civilised country had given their vote to the commonest, hollowest and crudest charlatanism’.

. . . Professor Hans von Eckart . . . [wrote that] “the Nazis . . . are, above all, people who . . . have simply seized a first opportunity of participating and who have hitherto not yet been able to be politically active.”

. . . This was also the soil in which Goebbels’s propaganda ideas began to flourish. . . . [in Der Angriff, the Nazi newspaper]. Police and courts were constantly ridiculed. The paper published anti-Semitic cartoons of people in authority. . . .

. . . Goebbels . . . publicly bragg[ed] about the dozens of prosecutions which had been started against him. . . . At subsequent mass rallies, Goebbels [was] cocky, arrogant and provocative as ever . . . . [He] was fined 1,600 marks for making defamatory statements . . . .

. . . Hitler . . . in a trial against three officers who had joined the Nazi Party . . . declared: ‘Here I stand swearing an oath before God, the Almighty. I say to you that, once I shall have come to power by legal means . . . a few heads will roll in the sand . . . ‘.

. . . The basic aim was the further erosion of the Republic’s stability . . . .

The bourgeois-conservative parties . . . were in principle prepared to bring the Nazis into the government. They hoped that giving them political responsibility would neutralise their demagogy. . . .

. . . The Nazis were intent on using violence in order to prove . . . that law and order had broken down . . . .

. . . National Socialism . . . had barely anything in common with the ‘old’ school of culture and rigorous intellectual discourse which still informed the major political thought systems . . . . Nazi ideology was almost totally a product of mass culture and political semi-literacy . . . , unsophisticated sloganeering which drew on the ‘scrapheap of ideas current in this period’ . . . , [and] popularised snippets of ideas and dogmas . . . combined with a political-emotional attachment . . . . used for the deliberate simplification of political world-views and . . . the creation of a political myth for the masses.

. . . [The] essential elements of the late Nazi ideology were . . . a virulent anti-Semitism, a blood-and-soil ideology, the notion of a master race, the idea of territorial acquisition and settlement in the East. These ideas were . . . anti-modernist, anti-humanist, and pseudo-religious.

. . . Criticism of bourgeois security and rationality had become vehement and widespread. This criticism also expressed itself in various life-reform movements and avant-garde artistic trends, in the pedagogical reform movement and, above all, in the Youth Movement . . . .

. . . The First World War was to cause the decisive seismic shift in the country’s political culture. This was the soil in which Nazism was to grow. . . . Young peasants and land labourers returned with changed personalities, after the war had torn them from the slow-moving pace of provincial life and had thrown them into the ‘wide world’ and onto the stage of fateful national developments. . . . [Their] largely unpolitical life-styles far removed from the centre of national affairs had become politicised primarily via the nationalist experience of the war. . . . Both the central government and the national political parties had traditionally neglected the provinces . . . . Rural protesters who had been shaped by the war experience provided massive recruitment grounds for the incipient fascist movements.

Climbing down

Theodor Herzl’s Zionist project for a Jewish state in Palestine, which seems in many respects to have been such a great success, has failed. Like so many other groups who have responded to unjust attacks, the Zionists have doomed themselves by adopting many of the worst traits and tactics of their persecutors: fierce nationalism, denial of civil rights, forced deportations, seizure of land and property, etc. The Israelis have become the oppressors they were trying to escape. The Israeli state has generated so much hatred and resentment among Palestinians that all hope of reconciliation has evaporated. Israelis and Palestinians are locked in a struggle to the death whose outcome seems certain to mean destruction for both sides. And the State of Israel, ironically, is now a major generator of anti-Jewish sentiment around the world.

The United States, too, finds itself in an untenable position it cannot escape. Its commitment to support Israel has acquired a sacred quality; no political party and few if any politicians would dare to question it. As part of this commitment, the U.S. seeks support and alliances with surrounding Arab governments: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan. All of these governments oppress their own people, and to secure their friendship the U.S. becomes complicit in that oppression, and thus becomes the adversary of every resistance group seeking justice in their own country and justice for the Palestinians. Just as opposition to the Soviet Union during the Cold War put the U.S. in opposition to liberation movements in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, so its support of Israel puts it in opposition to liberation movements all over the Middle East. The lack of reform in Arab countries drives their reformist movements into more and more radical positions. The only people working seriously for liberation during the Cold War were communists. Today the only people working seriously for liberation in the Middle East are radical Islamists. The U.S., facing a choice between friendly autocrats and angry Islamists, sides with el-Sisi, MBS, and the King of Jordan, just as it sided with dictators rather than communists in the Cold War years. 

Perhaps the Islamists will be defeated in the Middle East just as Soviet rule collapsed in Russia and Eastern Europe, and perhaps then there will be genuine reform in the autocratic states of the Middle East, just as democracy has spread, albeit unevenly, in the post-colonial nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. More likely, it seems to me, is some version of what happened in Vietnam in 1975  and Iran in 1979 and Afghanistan in 2021: the local, radicalized insurgents will drive out the foreigners and overthrow their corrupt autocratic governments. 

As for Israel, they have no solution but endless suppression of the Palestinians. How long can they sustain that, even with U.S. support? And if  they were to have a change of heart and seek reconciliation . . . who among the Palestinians would be their partners? There are no Palestinian Mandelas, as far as I know.

Climbing down is much, much harder than climbing up.

Heroic butchery

There was never anything so gallant, so spruce, so brilliant, and so well disposed as the two armies. Trumpets, fifes, oboes, drums, and cannon made music such as Hell itself had never heard. The cannons, first of all, laid flat about six thousand men on each side. Then the muskets swept away from this best of worlds nine or ten thousand ruffians who had infested its surface. The bayonet was also a “sufficient reason” for the death of several more thousands. The total dead might amount to thirty thousand souls. Candide, who trembled like a philosopher, hid himself as well as he could during this heroic butchery.

At length, while the two kings were causing “We praise Thee, O God” to be sung each in his own camp, Candide resolved to go and reason elsewhere on effects and causes. He passed over heaps of dead and dying, and first reached a neighbouring village that was smoldering; it was an Abare village that the Bulgars had burnt according to the laws of war. Here, old men covered with wounds beheld their wives hugging their sons, who had been massacred before their faces, to their bloody breasts. They saw some of their daughters disembowelled and breathing their last after having satisfied the natural wants of Bulgarian heroes; while others, half burnt in the flames, begged to be finished off. The earth was strewed with brains, arms, and legs.

Candide fled quickly to another village. It belonged to the Bulgars, and the Abarian heroes had treated it in the same way. . . .

—From Voltaire’s Candide, Or Optimism (1759), Chapter III

Well-educated, intelligent, and primitive

Recent events recall this passage from Sinclair McKay’s book about the fire-bombing of Dresden in February 1945. In the years following the war, those who had been involved in the operation wondered about the necessity and the morality of what they had done.

The young scientist Freeman Dyson, who had worked in Bomber Command and who had come to feel a revulsion especially for the raids carried out towards the end of the war, found himself discussing the Dresden bombing raids with a ‘well-educated and intelligent’ wife of a senior air force officer. Dyson asked her if it was right that the Allies should be killing large numbers of German women and babies. She told him: ‘Oh yes. It is good to kill the babies especially. I am not thinking of this war but of the next one, twenty years from now. The next time the Germans start a war and we have to fight them, those babies will be the soldiers.’ There was something quite extraordinarily primitive about this exterminating impulse that stayed with Dyson for decades.

—from Dresden: The Fire and the Darkness, by Sinclair McKay, p. 294

Portrait of a Nazi

Hans Globke (1898-1973), enthusiastic Nazi and persecutor of Jews who served first in Hitler’s government and then, from 1953 to 1963, as chief of staff to the West German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer.

In this undated photo he looks like a Hollywood parody of what he actually was: a Nazi bureaucrat. In his memoir, “Pigeon Tunnel,” John Le Carré refers to Globke and quotes Adenauer saying, “You don’t throw out dirty water when you have no clean water.”

Hans Globe

Photo description for the visually impaired: Undated black-and-white image of a puffy-faced man in late middle age dressed in a dark suit and tie, sitting at a desk with a folder of papers open before him. His graying hair is slicked back from his receding hairline. He has deep bags underneath his eyes, arched eyebrows descending to the bridge of a large nose, and a grim mouth with just the hint of a smirk. He is staring directly into the camera through almost invisible rimless eyeglasses with thin cable temples, as if he has just looked up from his papers, the whites of his eyes showing underneath his pupils.

More about Globke: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Globke

Hold my beer, Lord

The Jews have been persecuted for as long as we have knowledge of their existence. Persecuted for their monotheism, by their polytheistic neighbours. Persecuted for their literacy, by the largely illiterate peoples they lived amongst after their dispersal around the Roman Empire. Persecuted for their language, used and understood only by themselves. Persecuted for their refusal to convert to Christianity and, later, to Islam. Persecuted for their clannishness and refusal to assimilate. Persecuted just for being Jews, even after they have assimilated and stopped practicing their religion.

How ironic, then, that after this long history of being victims, the Jews in Israel should persecute their non-Jewish neighbours. In the name of reclaiming their historic rights in Palestine; refusing to be victims any longer; standing up to defend themselves—in the name of refusing to be persecuted any longer, the Israelis have systematically deprived Palestinians of their rights and refused to negotiate in good faith; have driven Palestinians off their land and herded them into restricted areas that are in effect giant ghettos; have committed unspeakable crimes in response to unspeakable crimes committed by the extreme factions who have come to power among Palestinians in the face of Israeli oppression. 

Yes, the full history is much more complicated than this, but here is the result:

The persecuted have become persecutors in the name of refusing to be persecuted ever again. The worst among them, consumed by hatred and desire for revenge, refusing negotiation or compromise, have gained control of the Israeli state just as their mirror-image counterparts among Palestinians have gained control in Gaza and the West Bank.

“Vengeance is mine,” says Jehovah in Deuteronomy. “Hold my beer, Lord,” say the humans.

1853, 2023, same as it ever was

1853: Memo from Professor of history Mikhail Pogodin to Czar Nicholas I of Russia:

France takes Algeria from Turkey, and almost every year England annexes another Indian principality: none of this disturbs the balance of power; but when Russia occupies Moldavia and Wallachia, albeit only temporarily, that disturbs the balance of power. France occupies Rome and stays there several years during peacetime: that is nothing; but Russia only thinks of occupying Constantinople, and the peace of Europe is threatened. The English declare war on the Chinese, who have, it seems, offended them: no one has the right to intervene; but Russia is obliged to ask Europe for permission if it quarrels with its neighbour. England threatens Greece to support the false claims of a miserable Jew and burns its fleet: that is a lawful action; but Russia demands a treaty to protect millions of Christians, and that is deemed to strengthen its position in the East at the expense of the balance of power. We can expect nothing from the West but blind hatred and malice . . . .

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crimean_War#Eastern_Question

War is the wrong response to terrorists

War is the appropriate response when one nation is invaded or attacked by another. The most recent obvious example, in Ukraine, illustrates the case: Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in 2022 set off a war between the two nations that continues today. Ukraine is completely justified in defending itself by going to war against Russia.

War is the wrong response, however, to terrorist attacks. George W. Bush made this mistake when he responded to Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks in 2001 by sending armies to Afghanistan and Iraq. The result? Two decades of war, thousands and thousands of deaths, two countries devastated, and trillions of dollars expended—with no discernible reduction in terrorist activity by Al-Qaeda, Isis, Iran, Hezbollah, etc. Going to war against terrorism leads only to bloodshed, destruction, and hatred.

Now Israel is making the same mistake—not for the first time—in Gaza and the West Bank, with the same results.

So what is the appropriate response to terrorism?

Criminal investigation, arrests, and prosecution.

Terrorist acts are criminal acts. Send investigators. Offer rewards. Make arrests. Put suspects on trial. Then make damned sure that your system of justice is truly just, and is not actually a system of injustice that promotes . . . terrorism.

Nations that go to war against criminals commit criminal acts: they become criminals.

 

Recipe: Israeli-Palestinian Soup

Ingredients

  • Three major religions all descended from the same patriarch (Abraham / Ibrahim).
  • A small piece of land.
  • Limited fresh water supply.
  • A history of genocide going back thousands of years.
  • An equally long history of anti-Jewish hatred in historically Christian countries.
  • A shorter but still long history of Islamophobia in historically Christian countries.
  • A history of conquest and colonization going back hundreds of years.
  • Neighbouring nation-states all governed by one flavour or another of authoritarian leaders, and mostly populated by overwhelming numbers of oppressed poor people.
  • Islamist terrorism and anti-Semitism as a reaction against both authoritarian governments and the imposition of modern Western values.
  • Nearly a century of Palestinians being dispossessed and oppressed by Israeli colonization.
  • An impotent United Nations.
  • Big-power rivals taking sides as they continue their rivalry by proxy and jockey for access to the region’s petroleum.
  • Weapons manufacturers and arms dealers, making money.

Directions

  1. Stir until all ingredients are hopelessly mixed.
  2. Once set in motion (long ago), the mixture will continue to ferment and to spontaneously combust at irregular intervals.
  3. No further intervention is needed to continue the process. We are all in the soup.

Oradour-sur-Glane

In the summer of 1987 Mike Radow and I were driving the back roads of France in my crappy Renault 5 and stumbled on Oradour-sur-Glane, the site of a notorious massacre carried out by Nazi SS troops. The village has been preserved as the Nazis left it, as a memorial. We stopped and walked through the burned-out main street: hulks of old cars, houses missing roofs and fronts, a chimney here, a sewing machine there.

We came on a tour group. The speaker was an older man who was one of about thirty people who escaped the slaughter. His audience had tears running down their faces as he told the story.

The men had been gathered in several barns; the women and children in the church. The Nazis machine-gunned their victims, often just in the legs. They threw grenades into the church. They piled straw and other combustibles on top of the wounded, then set fire to the church and to the barns. They pillaged the houses of food and valuables, setting each house afire once it was looted, and finally burned the whole village. People found hiding in their homes during this pillaging were killed. Most of the victims died by being burned alive.

The old man saw me standing at the back in my Moroccan black leather jacket, looking very Aryan. “D’ou venez-vous?” he asked. Where are you from?

It was one of the few times in my life that I was completely happy to say, “Je suis Americain.” The whole group sighed in relief.

The massacre took place on my birthday, June 10th, in 1944, eight years before I was born. It was apparently a reprisal for some Résistance attack in the days following the Normandy landings on June 6th—an attack that had nothing to do with Oradour-sur-Glane or any of its residents. The total number of people killed was 642, but only 52 of the bodies could be identified. The rest were beyond recognition.

In the spring of 1992 I was living in Vienna, Austria. One day I found, in the International Herald-Tribune, this brief article:

Austrian SS Veterans Honor Butcher of Oradour-sur-Glane - Intl Herald-Tribune Apr:May 1992.png

I had no words to express my disgust and outrage then, and thirty years later that has not changed, even though the account given of the massacre on the French version of Wikipedia (see below) describes Stadler as a colonel, not the regiment commander.

Almost none of the perpetrators were prosecuted; most of those that were imprisoned served less than five years before being released. One SS Sergeant was sentenced to life in prison in 1981. In 1997 he was released on humanitarian grounds. He died in 2007, age 86.

Here is an English-language account of the massacre, and a more detailed account in French.

Robert Hébras in 2008.

The man telling the story of the massacre in 1987 might have been Robert Hébras, who was wounded by machine-gun fire in his leg, abdomen, and wrist, but played dead. He and four others remained hidden underneath the corpses of their friends and neighbours even after the fire was set, waiting until the last possible moment to make their escape. He died this past February 11th, 2023, 97 years old. May he rest in peace.

One of the families of the village, eight months before the massacre. None of them survived.

Airbnb is evil

When you go on holiday and rent an Airbnb, you are actively promoting the housing crisis for renters.

“Jasper, Alberta has hundreds of Airbnbs, but not a single place to live

“‘Desperate to find housing’: In resort towns, landlords are pulling units from the long-term rental market to convert them to short-term rentals”

Read the article here:

ricochet.media/en/3974/jasper-

 

Cause of death

With AIDS, unlike COVID-19, you had to work pretty hard to be infected. Walking into a restaurant and breathing was not enough.

So when people died of AIDS, the reports would say, “died of complications from AIDS,” and everyone understood that having AIDS made you vulnerable to a host of other illnesses—pneumonia, for example.

COVID deaths, however, are being massively mis-reported and under-reported. If someone with COVID contracts pneumonia and then dies, the cause of death is reported as . . . pneumonia! Why? Because if COVID deaths were reported as “died of complications from COVID-19,” all holy hell would break loose. Lots of people would be more reluctant to walk into restaurants and breathe. Or to go to shopping malls, or go out to a nightclub, or go to a play or a concert.

That would be bad.

Gotta keep the economy going, y’know?

Companies Producing AR-15s and AR-15 Knock-Offs

Let them know what you think of them.

Colt’s Manufacturing Company http://www.colt.com/
Barrett Firearms Manufacturing https://barrett.net/
Bushmaster Firearms International https://www.bushmaster.com
Caracal International http://caracalusa.com/
C.G. Haenel https://www.cg-haenel.de/en/
Heckler & Koch http://heckler-koch.com/
Remington Arms http://www.remarms.com/
Sturm, Ruger & Co. http://ruger.com/
SIG Sauer http://sigsauer.com/
Smith & Wesson http://smith-wesson.com/
Springfield Armory, Inc. http://www.springfield-armory.com/
Norinco http://en.norincogroup.com.cn/

My message to these companies:

Why are you selling weapons to civilians that are designed for warfare and end up being used in mass killings?

You are worse than murderers: too cowardly to pull the triggers yourselves, but happy to profit from the carnage.

You are despicable.

Politics 101

  • Most voters are in the center, when they pay attention; and most don’t pay attention. They aren’t interested. They just want to work and fall in love and follow sports and watch TV.
  • It is outrages on the right that push uninvolved voters to pay attention and become involved, that motivate them to vote, and to vote for progress. Think about Bull Conner’s thugs attacking kids with firehouses and dogs in 1963. In recent days we have the right-wing Supreme Court overturning abortion rights, or DeSantis et al banning books, etc.
  • The progressive left’s best strategy is to make their votes necessary for liberals to get elected and pass legislation. This is much easier in a parliamentary system (Canada, the U.K.) than in the U.S., with its two-party system so firmly entrenched. But it’s not easy anywhere.
  • Progress is multi-generational. One lifetime is barely the blink of an eye on history’s timeline. It is natural, from the perspective of a single lifetime, to feel enormously frustrated. And it is very difficult to take heart over incremental improvements that, with rare exceptions, began long before you were born and will not be completed until long after you die.
  • Start local! National politics is really, really hard to change. City councils, school boards, county commissions, and state/provincial legislatures are where progressives need to start. But this is slow, tedious work and, historically, progressives have been more inclined to street demonstrations that usually have limited (sometimes counterproductive) effects—although we tend to remember the spectacular exceptions.

Sharp alterations and abrupt oscillations can be expected

“In view of the truly extraordinary record of the past few centuries, no one can say for sure that new and unexpected breakthroughs will not occur, expanding the range of the possible beyond anything easily conceived of now. Birth control may in time catch up with death control. Something like a stable balance between human numbers and resources may then begin to define itself. But for the present and short-range future, it remains obvious that humanity is in course of one of the most massive and extraordinary ecological upheavals the planet has ever known. Not stability but a sequence of sharp alterations and abrupt oscillations in existing balances between microparasitism and macroparasitism can therefore be expected in the near future as in the recent past.

“In any effort to understand what lies ahead, as much as what lies behind, the role of infectious disease cannot properly be left out of consideration. Ingenuity, knowledge, and organization alter but cannot cancel humanity’s vulnerability to invasion by parasitic forms of life. Infections disease which antedated the emergence of humankind will last as long as humanity itself, and will surely remain, as it has been hitherto, one of the fundamental parameters and determinants of human history.”

—Wm. H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (1976, 1998). Final two paragraphs.

COVID and history: lessons learned

1. Not just people, but entire cultures can be pigheaded
There is a pigheaded resistance to government in Anglo culture that persists even when public health measures are desperately needed to save lives. We have seen this during the COVID-19 pandemic, but history shows that it is nothing new.

British liberals, in particular, saw quarantine regulations as an irrational infringement of the principle of free trade, and bent every effort toward the eradication of such traces of tyranny and Roman Catholic folly. . . .

In England . . . a libertarian prejudice against regulations infringing the individual’s right to do what he chose with his own property was deeply rooted . . . .

[As Asiatic cholera approached, Parliament established a Central Board of Health in 1848] and began installation of water and sewer systems all over the country. . . .

Intrusion upon private property to allow water mains and sewer pipes to maintain the straight lines needed for efficient patterns of flow was also necessary. To many Englishmen at the time this seemed an unwarranted intrusion on their rights and, of course, the capital expenditures involved were substantial. It therefore took the lively fear that cholera provoked to overcome entrenched opposition.

—William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, pp. 272, 276-77

Pigheaded resistance to common-sense public health measures can be found outside of Anglo culture, of course. McNeill notes elsewhere in the same book that, confronted with bubonic plague during the annual hadj to Mecca, Islamic authorities shrugged it off on the theory that Allah alone determines who lives and dies, and when. Similarly, regular outbreaks of cholera among during Hindu pilgrimages to the Ganges River did nothing to diminish enthusiasm to join the crowds.

2. Money talks
Scurvy had been a problem for sailors ever since Columbus. When the British navy learned that the disease resulted from a Vitamin C deficiency, they decided to supply British warships with citrus fruits. As it turned out, however, Mediterranean lemons were more expensive, so they opted for limes from the West Indies, which were much cheaper. Unfortunately, the West Indies varieties were also much lower in Vitamin C, so scurvy outbreaks in the British navy continued for another 80 years. But think of the money they saved! [McNeill, pp. 273-74]

3. Public health is not private health
As I have noted previously, governments are not particularly concerned with your health, or mine. They are only concerned about health when it becomes a public problem by swamping hospitals or impacting the workforce and damaging the economy. Soft-headed dopes like me who continue to think that my governments, local and national, ought to be concerned about my health, are bound to be disappointed.

Scared to go to the hospital: an open letter to BC Premier Dave Eby

To British Columbia Premier Dave Eby

Dear Mr. Eby,

Before Dr. Henry’s latest announcement that health care workers would no longer be wearing masks on the job, I was already extremely reluctant to go to the hospital because of the outrageous waiting times in the emergency department.

In August 2021 I was forced to call an ambulance and go to the ER when I had an attack of vertigo. Nauseous, miserable, and dry-heaving into a cardboard bucket, I sat for 12 hours in a waiting room filled with scores of sick people. It was horrible.

Now, in addition to inhumane waiting times, going to the hospital will mean being needlessly exposed to every airborne disease around.

If these policies were being promulgated by a right-wing party I would not be surprised. But the NDP??

What the hell has happened to the NDP??

Whatever it is, it’s appalling.

Sincerely yours, [etc.]

Gun violence is not about ideology: it’s about money

In 16th-century France the Wars of Religion tore the nation apart for almost forty years. The atrocities committed make 21st-century terrorists look like Boy Scouts. King Henri IV finally restored peace (for a while) by addressing the real causes of the conflict: not religious doctrine, but economics and political power.

I was reminded of this today talking with a friend about the latest wave of gun homicides in the U.S. Those eager to prolong the status quo want you to think that this is an ideological disagreement about the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, about the right of citizens to own guns.

Wrong. It’s about the profits of gun manufacturers and sellers. The ideological hysteria is stirred up by people who profit from it.

Remember when bar owners were held liable if they allowed customers to get drunk, and those customers subsequently got behind the wheel and caused accidents? The epidemic of drunk driving, seemingly insoluble, stopped. There are still drunk drivers, but not nearly so many.

The same approach could dramatically reduce gun violence in the U.S. Make it possible for victims and their families to sue gun makers and gun sellers whose guns are used in mass killings. Suddenly sellers will be much more careful about who they sell guns to, and manufacturers will change the kinds of guns they sell.

Follow the money.

The link between colonialism and police brutality

I highly recommend this recent episode of the BBC World Service programme, “The Real Story”: How do you stop police brutality? It inspired me to think about the problem of police brutality in broader terms.

Previously I was thinking more about the problems inherent in the kind of people sometimes attracted to policing (and the military):

We need police officers. We need soldiers. Unfortunately, both professions tend to attract people who enjoy weapons, conflict, and power—sometimes to the point of psychopathy. Not all, but a significant percentage. And that turns out to be a significant problem for which we do not have a solution.

But the problem is bigger than that. Surprisingly, that may mean that it is more possible to find solutions. Not easier, but more possible.

Coercive policing was an essential element of colonialism. Colonial police were given a job by their governments with clear mandates:

  1. Surveil the population, looking for potential troublemakers who might threaten the colonial system.
  2. Control those groups and individuals who would dissent, demonstrate, and organize to change or overthrow the system.
  3. Use whatever means are necessary, including coercion and violence, to ensure order and stability.

This pattern can be recognized immediately in the histories of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern peoples colonized by European nations in the 19th century. In all such cases, the European police officers were supplemented by large numbers of policemen recruited from among the local population. These native policemen, in return for job security and a certain kind of power and status, gave their loyalty to the colonial regimes that were exploiting their own people. Decolonization after World War II led, most often, to colonial governments being replaced by despotic native rulers who used the same system of coercive policing to control the population and keep themselves in power.

In the Americas we see the same coercive policing used against domestically colonized populations: indigenous people and racialized minorities. These domestically colonized people have provided cheap labour essential to the prosperity of the affluent majority. To ensure the supply of cheap labour, such people must be kept in their place. Dissent, demonstrations, and organization against the status quo must be quashed, and coercive policing is used to suppress such activities, in exactly the same way that colonial police forces operated in the 19th century. And, again, police recruited from among the colonized population have been essential to making the system work. We should not be surprised, then, when a Native American band council subsidized by the US government forms a local police force that proceeds to use violence against their own band members who oppose the leadership; or when Black police officers in an American city commit violence against Black citizens. In both cases, the police officers’ loyalty is to the system in power that has employed them and raised their status, not to the people they have been hired to, theoretically, “serve.”

We see similar coercive policing used against immigrant populations in European countries.

So the actual motto of such police forces is not “Protect and Serve” but “Surveil, Control, and Coerce.”

If this is correct, we have good news and bad news. On one hand, the problem of identifying and removing officers or recruits with psychopathic personalities appears quite manageable. As noted in the BBC programme, Norway has an effective system of screening out such individuals. Once that is done, we are no longer dealing with chronic but seemingly random acts of violence involving rogue police officers.

On the other hand, trying to solve the problem of police violence by reforming the police with better training, body cameras, etc., is doomed to fail. It is like reforming school curricula to address racism and poverty. Hence the bad news: the system of coercive policing supports a social and economic system that is inherently unfair and unequal. Without poverty, without income and wealth inequality, the affluence and social status of the privileged classes disappear. Moreover, in places like the United States there is a culture of violence that compounds the problem. An armed and often violent population seems inevitably to require an armed and violent police force.

And so, just as we must repair broken communities to repair broken schools, we must reform the system that employs coercive policing if we want to reform policing itself.

No justice, no peace.

 

We were attacked

We were attacked.

Babies cried, or lay lifeless.

Mothers sprawled awkwardly.

Young men, old men, old women, girls and boys,

body parts and fluids everywhere.

Only whimpers or dazed silence as the sun shone indifferently.

Somewhere, crowds cheered in triumph.

Somewhere, crowds screamed in rage.

We struck back.

Babies cried, or lay lifeless.

Mothers sprawled awkwardly.

Young men, old men, old women, girls and boys,

body parts and fluids everywhere.

Only whimpers or dazed silence as the sun shone indifferently.

Somewhere, crowds cheered in triumph.

Somewhere, crowds screamed in rage.

—6 May 2011 / 27 January 2023

The plague in China

. . . Chinese records do not show anything unusual before 1331, when an epidemic in the province of Hopei [Hubei] is said to have killed nine tenths of the population. Not until 1353-54 do available records indicate a more widespread disaster. In those years epidemic disease raged in eight different and widely scattered parts of China, and chroniclers reported that up to “two thirds of the population” died. . . .

Plague coincided with civil war as a native [Han] Chinese reaction against the Mongol domination gathered headway, climaxing in the overthrow of the alien rulers and the establishment of a new Ming Dynasty in 1368. The combination of war and pestilence wreaked havoc on China’s population. The best estimates show a decrease from 123 million about 1200 (before the Mongol invasions began) to a mere 65 million in 1393, a generation after the final expulsion of the Mongols from China. . . . Disease assuredly played a big part in cutting Chinese numbers in half; and bubonic plague . . . is by all odds the most likely candidate for such a role.

—Wm. H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (1976), pp. 174 – 175

Victor Hugo: socialism and the fate of England

In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo wraps his accounts of history and his commentaries on social, political, and economic problems in the melodrama of Jean Valjean’s life. In Volume 4 (“Saint Denis”), Book 1, Chapter 4, he delivers the following astute and prescient assessment of socialism:

All the problems that the socialists proposed to themselves, cosmogonic visions, reverie and mysticism being cast aside, can be reduced to two principal problems.

First problem: To produce wealth.

Second problem: To share it.

The first problem contains the question of work.

The second contains the question of salary.

In the first problem the employment of forces is in question.

In the second, the distribution of enjoyment.

From the proper employment of forces results public power.

From a good distribution of enjoyments results individual happiness.

By a good distribution, not an equal but an equitable distribution must be understood.

From these two things combined, the public power without, individual happiness within, results social prosperity.

Social prosperity means the man happy, the citizen free, the nation great.

England solves the first of these two problems. She creates wealth admirably, she divides it badly. This solution which is complete on one side only leads her fatally to two extremes: monstrous opulence, monstrous wretchedness. All enjoyments for some, all privations for the rest, that is to say, for the people; privilege, exception, monopoly, feudalism, born from toil itself. A false and dangerous situation, which sates public power or private misery, which sets the roots of the State in the sufferings of the individual. A badly constituted grandeur in which are combined all the material elements and into which no moral element enters.

Communism and agrarian law think that they solve the second problem. They are mistaken. Their division kills production. Equal partition abolishes emulation; and consequently labor. It is a partition made by the butcher, which kills that which it divides. It is therefore impossible to pause over these pretended solutions. Slaying wealth is not the same thing as dividing it.

The two problems require to be solved together, to be well solved. The two problems must be combined and made but one.

Solve only the first of the two problems; you will be Venice, you will be England. You will have, like Venice, an artificial power, or, like England, a material power; you will be the wicked rich man. You will die by an act of violence, as Venice died, or by bankruptcy, as England will fall. And the world will allow to die and fall all that is merely selfishness, all that does not represent for the human race either a virtue or an idea.

It is well understood here, that by the words Venice, England, we designate not the peoples, but social structures; the oligarchies superposed on nations, and not the nations themselves. The nations always have our respect and our sympathy. Venice, as a people, will live again; England, the aristocracy, will fall, but England, the nation, is immortal. That said, we continue.

Solve the two problems, encourage the wealthy, and protect the poor, suppress misery, put an end to the unjust farming out of the feeble by the strong, put a bridle on the iniquitous jealousy of the man who is making his way against the man who has reached the goal, adjust, mathematically and fraternally, salary to labor, mingle gratuitous and compulsory education with the growth of childhood, and make of science the base of manliness, develop minds while keeping arms busy, be at one and the same time a powerful people and a family of happy men, render property democratic, not by abolishing it, but by making it universal, so that every citizen, without exception, may be a proprietor, an easier matter than is generally supposed; in two words, learn how to produce wealth and how to distribute it, and you will have at once moral and material greatness; and you will be worthy to call yourself France.

This is what socialism said outside and above a few sects which have gone astray; that is what it sought in facts, that is what it sketched out in minds.

Efforts worthy of admiration! Sacred attempts!

Source: https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/135/pg135-images.html

“This Heart That Hated War”

This Heart That Hated War
by Robert Desnos (1943)

This heart that hated war now throbs for combat and battle!
This heart that once beat only to the rhythms of the marshes, the seasons, the hours of day and night,
Now swells and sends through my veins a blood infused with saltpetre and hatred,
Sending such a noise in my brain that it whistles in my ears,
Such a noise that must be spreading through towns and fields
Like the sound of a church bell calling the people to riot and combat.
Listen! I hear it returning to me in echoes—
But no! it is the noise of other hearts, millions of other hearts like mine, beating all across France.
All these hearts beat to the same rhythm for the same duty,
They sound like the sea crashing against the cliffs,
And all that blood carries to millions of brains the same command:
“Revolt against Hitler! Death to his supporters!”
Though this heart hated war and beat to the rhythm of the seasons,
One word—liberty—sufficed to awaken the old anger
And millions in France prepare themselves in darkness for the task that the coming dawn will impose on them.
Because those hearts that hated war beat for liberty, for the rhythms of the seasons and the marshes, day and night.

—Translated by Eric T. MacKnight

Original text: « Ce cœur qui haïssait la guerre… »

About Robert Desnos (1900 – 1945), from Wikipedia:

During World War II, Desnos was an active member of the French Résistance network Réseau AGIR,[4] under the direction of Michel Hollard, often publishing under pseudonyms. For Réseau Agir, Desnos provided information collected during his job at the journal Aujourd’hui and made false identity papers,[4] and was arrested by the Gestapo on 22 February 1944.

He was first deported to the German concentration camps of Auschwitz in occupied Poland, then Buchenwald, Flossenburg in Germany and finally to Terezín (Theresienstadt) in occupied Czechoslovakia in 1945.[5][6][7][8]

Desnos died in Malá pevnost, which was an inner part of Terezín used only for political prisoners, from typhoid, a month after the camp’s liberation.

“He didn’t believe it, no sir” or, “I’m masking for a friend”

[Manhattan’s dismantled Sixth Avenue elevated tracks were bought as scrap metal by Imperial Japan three years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.]

plato told

him:he couldn’t
believe it(jesus

told him;he
wouldn’t believe
it)lao

tsze
certainly told
him,and general
(yes

mam)
sherman;
and even
(believe it
or

not)you
told him:i told
him;we told him
(he didn’t believe it,no

sir)it took
a nipponized bit of
the old sixth

avenue
el;in the top of his head:to tell
him

—e. e. cummings, 1944

Question: Why does it take a bullet in the head for us to see what has been right in front of our eyes the whole time?

John Adams, “Thoughts on Government” (1776)

Asked for advice by a fellow member of the Continental Congress who was going home to help draft a new constitution, Adams sketched his ideas in just under 3,000 words.

The purpose of government, he writes, is to promote “the happiness of society.”

From this principle it will follow, that the form of government, which communicates ease, comfort, security, or in one word happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.

A review of the best thinkers on the subject, he goes on, will conclude that the best form of government is a republic, and “the very definition of a Republic, is ‘an Empire of Laws, and not of men.'”  The best government, therefore, must ensure “an impartial and exact execution of the laws.”

Describing a government with powers divided between a bicameral legislature, an executive, and a judiciary, he notes that “Great care should be taken . . . to prevent unfair, partial, and corrupt elections.” He believes that all executive officers should be elected for a single one-year term. “This will teach them the great political virtues of humility, patience, and moderation, without which every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.” Alternatively, he suggests longer terms, but again without the possibility of re-election. Judges, on the other hand, “should hold estates for life in their offices . . . during good behaviour” to ensure their freedom from influence.

To limit the accumulation of excessive wealth by a few individuals, he recommends sumptuary laws. “Whether our countrymen have wisdom and virtue enough to submit to them I know not,” he remarks.

Essential to such a government’s success—a government whose foundation is “some principle or passion in the minds of the people”—is universal education.

Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that to a humane and generous mind, no expence for this purpose would be thought extravagant.

Equal justice for all; honest government based on free and fair elections; a limit on the accumulation of personal wealth; and universal education aiming to produce an informed and intelligent citizenry. Still good ideas, and still more aspirational than realized.

Pop philosophy from a mystery writer

“You see, when I was young I had democratic ideas. Believed in the purity of ideals, the equality of all men. I especially disbelieved in kings and princes.

. . . “Since then, I’ve traveled and seen the world. There’s damn little equality going about. Mind you, I still believe in democracy, but you’ve got to force it on people with a strong hand, ram it down their throats. Men don’t want to be brothers. They may, someday, but they don’t now.

“My belief in the brotherhood of man died the day I arrived in London last week, when I observed people standing in a tube train, resolutely refusing to move up and make room for those who entered. You won’t turn people into angels by appealing to their better natures, just yet awhile. But by judicious force you can coerce them into behaving more or less decently to one another.

“To go on with, I still believe in the brotherhood of man, but it’s not coming yet awhile. Say, another ten thousand years or so. It’s no good being impatient. Evolution is a slow process.”

The Secret of Chimneys, by Agatha Christie (1925)

Another solution

From The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle, by David Edmonds, pp. 191-192:

In July 1938 Franklin D. Roosevelt convened an international conference, in Évian-les-Bains in northern [sic] France, to discuss the Jewish refugee crisis . . . [but] the conference, attended by representatives from more than thirty countries, made no progress; there was no loosening of immigration controls. Politicians feared increasing Jewish immigration would be hugely unpopular; four in five Americans were opposed to allowing in a large number of refugees. A poll shortly before the conference in the United States revealed that a majority of Americans believed that the Jews bore at least some responsibility for their persecution. The Australian delegate at the conference summed up his government’s attitude and probably the attitude of others: “It will no doubt be appreciated that, as we have no racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.”

An indirect consequence of failure at Évian was that the Nazis came to believe that, if foreign states would not take their Jews, they would have to find another solution to the Jewish problem.

Knowledge and intelligence

Amid clear signs of a neo-fascist movement led by Donald Trump and fueled by social media propaganda and disinformation, news reports and polling tell us that American voters are concerned above all with the price of gasoline and groceries, and that they are almost certainly going to elect a majority of Republicans in the House, and quite possibly in the Senate, too—not to mention dozens of state races with neo-fascists on the ballots for positions like Secretary of State, which will put them in charge of counting votes in the 2024 presidential election.

Counting on the knowledge and intelligence of American voters suggests a serious lack of knowledge and intelligence.

2022, meet 1950

Lionel Trilling, writing in the preface to The Liberal Imagination (1950):

In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. . . . The conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action, or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas. . . .

When we say that a movement is “bankrupt of ideas” we are likely to suppose that it is at the end of its powers. But this is not so . . . . It is just when a movement despairs of having ideas that it turns to force, which it masks in ideology.

So much for the idea that 1950 was a long time ago (or that these words apply only to the United States).

A weakling who lacked self-esteem

Agamemnon . . . pushed his way imperiously to the front of Arisbe’s stall, slid the ceramics back and forth choosily, and broke one of the most beautiful vases, which he paid for in haste at a word from Arisbe; then fled with his retinue amid the laughter of the onlookers. . . .

“He will take revenge, that one,” I said to Arisbe; and it troubled me deeply that the great and famous commander in chief of the Greek fleet was a weakling who lacked self-esteem. How much better it is to have a strong enemy.


“In heaven’s name, how can opinions differ about a case that does not exist? That was invented especially for the purpose?” “Even if that’s true, once something has become public knowledge, it is real.”

. . . I still believed that a little will to truth, a little courage, could erase the whole misunderstanding. To call what was true, true, and what was untrue, false: That was asking so little (I thought) . . . . Then I understood: . . . we were defending everything that we no longer had. And the more it faded, the more real we had to say it was.

—Christa Wolf, Cassandra, pp. 52, 84-5 (1983)

Salman Rushdie

Sending Salman Rushdie earnest best wishes for a full recovery.

The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas — uncertainty, progress, change — into crimes.

—Herbert Reade Memorial Lecture (6 February 1990)

What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.

Imaginary Homelands p. 391 (1992)

I do not envy people who think they have a complete explanation of the world, for the simple reason that they are obviously wrong.

—Salman Rushdie — Talking with David Frost (1993)

Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms.

—Statement in The Wall Street Journal, Salman Rushdie: “I Stand With Charlie Hebdo, as We All Must” (7 January 2015)

We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them. How to defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.

Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992–2002

Two things form the bedrock of any open society—freedom of expression and rule of law. If you don’t have those things, you don’t have a free country.

The Times of India, ‘Don’t allow religious hooligans to dictate terms’ (16 January 2008)

Take the Fifth, eh?

Dedicated to TFG & Co., with apologies to the great Duke Ellington.


If you,
must take the Fifth, eh?
you,
will quickly find yourself to be in prison.

If you,
don’t take the Fifth, eh?
you’ll
find an even quicker way to prison.

Hurry, hurry, stop your mumblin’
All your clever schemes are crumblin’

When,
you take that Fifth, eh?
soon,
you’ll be sitting pretty up in prison!

War Crimes and Amnesty International

This week Amnesty International published a report criticizing Ukraine for putting soldiers in residential areas. The report begins, 

Ukrainian forces have put civilians in harm’s way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals, as they repelled the Russian invasion that began in February, Amnesty International said today.

Such tactics violate international humanitarian law and endanger civilians, as they turn civilian objects into military targets. The ensuing Russian strikes in populated areas have killed civilians and destroyed civilian infrastructure.

“We have documented a pattern of Ukrainian forces putting civilians at risk and violating the laws of war when they operate in populated areas,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

“Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law.”

Not every Russian attack documented by Amnesty International followed this pattern, however. In certain other locations in which Amnesty International concluded that Russia had committed war crimes, including in some areas of the city of Kharkiv, the organization did not find evidence of Ukrainian forces located in the civilian areas unlawfully targeted by the Russian military.

Despite the last paragraph and the many preceding Amnesty reports that have identified Russia as the perpetrator of war crimes in its invasion of Ukraine, this report produced outrage among supporters of Ukraine. Yaroslav Trofimov of the Wall Street Journal:

The head of @Amnesty Ukraine @OPokalchuk resigns, saying that the organization created an “instrument of Russian propaganda” with a report accusing Ukrainian forces of breaking int’l law that ignored local researchers concerns and gave too little time for Ukrainian MOD response.

This controversy invites reconsideration of the whole notion of “war crimes” and the question of whether the moral standards that we at least attempt to uphold in peacetime can be applied as well in wartime. At one end of this debate one might argue that war is itself a crime, just as murder is a crime. If war is a crime then trying to regulate its conduct by “humanitarian” rules reminds one of the British army in the American colonies, outraged by the colonists’ habit of hiding behind trees instead of fighting out in the open. If the aim in a war is to win by any means, it might seem that no wartime conduct—including rape, torture, and wholesale slaughter of unarmed civilians—can be rationally condemned.

However, if we want to consider war as a crime, let’s compare it with something we all agree is a crime: murder. We don’t condemn people who defend themselves against attempted murder, even if that defence results in the death of the attacker. We don’t condemn a police officer for shooting in self-defence or to protect civilians from a murderous attack. Can we condemn a country like Ukraine, defending itself from an unprovoked invasion, for any tactic it uses in that defence? If we stay with the analogy, the answer must be . . . yes. Someone who successfully disarms and immobilizes an attacker, for example, acts within the law; but if he goes on to torture his attacker, he becomes guilty of a crime. Likewise, a police officer who subdues an attacker and subsequently abuses or murders the suspect is subject to prosecution.

If we carry that logic to Amnesty’s criticism of Ukraine for, in some instances, stationing troops and weapons in residential areas, what judgment do we reach? The key idea would seem to be necessity: an action that is necessary to self-defence is justifiable. If Ukrainians were to torture and summarily execute Russian soldiers they have taken prisoner, for example, these would be acts of gratuitous cruelty, unnecessary for self-defence, and therefore unjustifiable, criminal acts. The question, then, would seem to be whether putting troops and weapons in residential areas is, in some cases at least, necessary to Ukraine’s self-defence. Without access to detailed information we can only speculate. On the face of it, however, we can see that Russia is a much larger country, with a much larger army and many more weapons than Ukraine. In such circumstances, one is inclined to give Ukraine the benefit of any doubt. If such tactics are the only way to preserve the few soldiers and weapons that one has to defend oneself, how can they be condemned? In addition, the Ukrainian army and government clearly have overwhelming popular support: the people in residential areas used in this way either support these tactics, or are freely allowed to protect themselves by leaving for safer refuges. Certainly I have seen no reports of Ukrainian civilians protesting against their army’s tactics—whereas there have been reports of Ukrainian civilians protesting against the Russian invaders. 

The insistence by Amnesty that both sides conform to the same humanitarian standards seems to be an arbitrary adherence to rules, regardless of real-world circumstances. It’s as if someone faced with an attacker intent on murder is criticized for pulling out a switchblade or throwing acid in the attacker’s eyes. Circumstances matter. Soldiers who kill enemy combatants are not considered to be