Liberal Democracy’s Pragmatic Advocate


Kati Marton, The Chancellor:

The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel

(Simon & Schuster, 2021)

Many can plausibly claim to have had a hand in Germany’s remarkable transition from pariah state of the first order in 1945 to what British scholar Timothy Garton Ash termed in 2013 “about as solid a liberal bourgeois democracy as you can find on earth. . . civilized, free, prosperous, law abiding, moderate and cautious.”  But on any list of contributors to Germany’s transformation, Angela Merkel would surely be at or near the top.  A consistent and firm defender of the European Union and NATO, Merkel has also been arguably the 21st century’s most consequential advocate for “liberal bourgeois democracy,” to use Ash’s phrase.  In December 2021, Merkel stepped off the national and world stage as Germany’s first female Chancellor after holding her position continuously since 2005.

In the first biography to assess Merkel’s 16 years in power, The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel, Kati Marton portrays Merkel as the personification of the Germany Ash described.  No leader on the world stage in our era “protected the post-World War II liberal democratic order as fiercely as [Merkel] did,” Marton contends, transforming Germany “into the leader of Europe – not just an economic leader but a moral one too” (p.xii).   In her sixteen years as Chancellor (roughly the equivalent of a Prime Minister in Germany’s parliamentary system), Merkel pursued liberal democratic ideals pragmatically: she learned from her own mistakes, was “not wedded to ideology or dogma, in politics or in economics,” and was “open to new ideas regardless of their source – as long as they work” (p.285).

Marton seems ideally situated to offer a comprehensive picture of Merkel.  She was born and spent her early years in Hungary, until her parents were forced to flee the country in 1956 when the Soviet Union invaded the country to squelch an apparent liberal democratic uprising.  Marton’s childhood experience with Eastern European communism undoubtedly looms in the background as she seeks to cast light on how Merkel’s upbringing in the altogether undemocratic German Democratic Republic, as communist East Germany was officially termed, shaped her character and approach to governance.  Freedom of expression and movement are “more than hackneyed phrases for a politician who spent her first thirty-five years lacking both,” (p.77), Marton observes.  Surviving the East German police state unbroken is an “accomplishment in itself and offers the key to her personal and political resilience”  (p.xvi).  Merkel’s “deepest conviction” is that democracy is “fragile and if treated carelessly, can slip away” (p.302).

To a degree unusual among contemporary politicians, Merkel guarded her privacy zealously and for the most part successfully throughout her years in the political limelight, a practice that can be attributed at least in part to her East German background.   Characteristically, Merkel refused Marton’s request for an interview for the book.  With no pretense of producing a “tell all” exposé, Marton nonetheless makes some headway in peeking behind Merkel’s personal iron curtain, providing her readers with a fuller picture of the woman who dominated German and European politics for a decade and a half.

Marton follows a generally chronological approach in her easy-to-read biography.  She starts with Merkel’s youth and early adult years as a professional scientist in East Germany, then tracks her rise in politics in the 1990s after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.   In the last two thirds of the book, Marton zeroes in on the defining events of Merkel’s Chancellorship years, 2005-2021.  Although plainly impressed with her subject, Marton does not hesitate to point out Merkel’s weaknesses and missed opportunities along with her strengths.  The “supremely rational scientist” frequently failed to appreciate the “irrational, emotional elements behind human behavior” (p.245), Marton notes.

Marton gives Merkel highest marks for her handling of the 2015 refugee crisis, when Germany admitted close to a million people fleeing from wars in the Middle East.  Less praiseworthy are the austerity policies which Merkel insisted upon to deal with the 2008-10 economic downtown, often termed the Great Recession, and the accompanying crisis of the euro, the European common currency.  Merkel became the West’s lead negotiator in dealing with Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and invaded two provinces of Eastern Ukraine in what now appears almost as a dress rehearsal for its full-scale invasion of February 2022.  Writing a few months before this year’s invasion, Marton concludes that Merkel, although far from fully successful if one is to judge by results, did about the best she could under the circumstances.

Marton provides much insight into Merkel’s relationship with Putin, who rates an entire chapter, “Dictators.”  There are also full chapters on George W. Bush (“Her First American President”), Donald Trump (“Enter Trump”), and Emmanuel Macron (“A Partner at Last!”).  To round out her portrait, Marton adroitly weaves in observations about Merkel’s unique leadership style and her methodical, understated and sometimes perplexing character.

* * *

Merkel’s father, Horst Kasner, was a Lutheran pastor whom Marton describes as an “austere, demanding man of God” (p.2).    Shortly after his oldest child Angela was born in Hamburg, West Germany, in 1954, he moved his family to officially atheist East Germany to further the church’s mission on the other side of Germany’s iron curtain.  Although young Angela was a precocious and exceptionally high-performing schoolgirl, excelling in math, science and Russian, she faced many forms of petty discrimination at her primary and secondary schools because of her family’s “bourgeois” background.  Even after earning a PhD in physics and establishing unquestioned brilliance in that field, Merkel found prestigious university level teaching positions closed to her because of the same “bourgeois” background.

Merkel’s start in politics followed in short order after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.  Bored with her position in a Leipzig research laboratory and attracted to the opportunities which open political life seemed to offer, she abandoned physics for politics.  Fueled by “self-control, strategic thinking and, when necessary, passive aggression” (p.49), Merkel and a handful of fellow East Germans formed an Eastern center-right party, the Demokratischer Aufbruch (DA, Democratic Awakening).  The fledgling party went on to merge with then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a mostly male, Catholic and conservative organization.  After Germany reunited in 1991, Merkel as an Easterner and a woman proved to be precisely what Kohl was looking for in his cabinet.

Kohl, the primary architect of German unification who had been Germany’s chancellor since 1982, considered Merkel a “trophy” or “talking point” from East Germany.  What the “garrulous and normally shrewd Kohl did not calculate,” Marton writes, was that “his ‘trophy’ had plans and ambitions of her own and was willing to bide her time to realize them” (p.59).  Kohl nominated Merkel initially to the position of Minister for Women and Youth and subsequently to the higher-visibility Minister for Environment and Nuclear Safety.  In the latter position, at age 41, she presided over a 1995 Climate Conference held in Berlin which attracted representatives from 160 nations and produced the foundation for the landmark Kyoto Protocol two years later.  This was Merkel’s debut on the world stage.

In 1998, Kohl was defeated in his 5th run for Chancellor after 16 years in office (as it turned out, his term of office was one week longer than that of Merkel).  When he was caught a year later in a financial scandal, Merkel, in “one of the boldest acts in contemporary German politics” (p.68), wrote in a Frankfurt newspaper opinion piece that Kohl’s actions had damaged the party and that it was time for him to step aside as party leader.  Merkel, the only one within her party willing to take on the man who had jumpstarted her political career, thereby demonstrated that “beneath her stolid façade lay a fierce will”  (p.68).  Two years later, at age 45, Merkel nominated herself for CDU chairmanship and was elected without opposition.  When Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called for early elections in 2005, Merkel was the CDU’s unanimous choice as the party’s standard bearer.

As a fresh political face, Merkel appealed to the German public for her “humility, her plain but direct style, her absence of theatrics, and the fact that she had made the transition from East to West with seeming ease,” Marton writes.  “Little more was really known about her beyond the remarkable sangfroid with which she had dispatched Kohl”  (p.73).  In an election that turned out to be closer than early polls predicted, Merkel’s CDU edged Schröder’s Social Democrats with barely enough votes to control the Bundestag, Germany’s national parliament, and form a government for Merkel to lead.

Rather than a program of specific policies, Merkel brought to the Chancellorship her steadfast character and a singular leadership style, “working sideways,” as Marton puts it, “indirectly and without calling attention to herself”  (p.xiii).  She repeatedly demonstrated “how much a leader can get done quietly, without boasting of her achievements” (p.xiv).  The Chancellor’s public allocutions were anything but inspiring.  Marton characterizes Merkel as an “almost aggressively dull speaker.  Her relationship to words is one of wariness: the fewer the better; it’s results that matter.  Thus, she sometimes fails to capture a distracted world’s attention, however urgent her message” (p.140-41).

But if less than inspiring at the podium, Merkel was a fearsome negotiator, almost invariably the best-informed person in the room whose grasp of minutiae was her own form of intimidation.  A master of face-to-face diplomacy, she was highly skilled at careful reading of unspoken cues, body language, and silences.  Her “near-photographic memory, her trained scientific ability to break down problems to their component parts, and her ravenous appetite for work” (p.xvi) all helped her gain or hold the upper hand in meetings and negotiations.  But the Great Recession of 2008, Merkel’s first major international test, demonstrated the limits to these qualities in dealing with the messy realities of politics and economics on a global scale.

At the time of the 2008 economic downturn, Germany, like Merkel herself, believed deeply in the “virtues of hard work, thrift, and living within one’s means” (p.156), one of the reasons Europe’s wealthiest country and its Chancellor were ill equipped to help the continent’s lesser economies, especially Greece.  Merkel thought a bailout for Greece would build dependency and prescribed belt tightening instead, with no financial assistance until the country demonstrated more responsible behavior. When she went to Athens, she was met with overt hostility – and Nazi swastikas.   Her “stern mien and her pieties sent exactly the wrong signal to Europe’s hardest hit economies” (p.160), Marton writes.

Merkel’s insistence on austerity seemed oblivious to the role of the banks in the crisis.  Her policies appeared to punish ordinary people for the wrongs of their governments and the international financial system.  Merkel and her hyperactive French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy — an “impulsive publicity hound” who seemed to “embody everything Merkel scorned” (p.160) — finally worked out a series of bailouts for Europe’s most beleaguered economies.  But she had “dawdled as millions suffered and took too long to appreciate the human cost of the global recession” (p.161).   Her excess caution “gave the impression that she was impervious to human suffering” (p.161).

By contrast, Merkel’s “breathtakingly bold decision” (p.185) in 2015 to admit close to one million refugees, mostly from Syria, but also from Iraq and Afghanistan, transformed Germany into what Marton terms the “moral center of the world” (p.185).  No other leader in Europe or elsewhere “spoke with such moral clarity about the West’s obligation toward the causalities of its never-ending wars”  (p.189).  With nations across the globe increasingly succumbing to xenophobia, Merkel’s three-word explanation of why she had gone against the current in a refugee-weary Europe became famous worldwide: “Wir schaffen das,” “We can handle this,” which Marton characterizes as “pure Merkel in its undramatic, calming tone” (p.195).

Germans turned out the welcome mat for arriving refugees in numbers that surprised even themselves.  But not all Germans were welcoming.  The German Alternative Party, Alternative für Deutschland or AfD, a party with neo-Nazi tendencies, arose in response to the Syrian immigrant crisis.  In parliamentary elections of 2017, AfD gained a previously unthinkable 94 seats in the Bundestag, enough to make their voices difficult to ignore.  Merkel ruled out any collaboration with AfD, even if her party needed its support on a particular issue.  But the AfD “did not vanish just because she refused to acknowledge its presence” (p.239).  AfD’s followers were among the hardest hit by the 2008 economic crisis.  By insisting that the AfD’s rise required no change of approach, Merkel missed an opportunity to “connect with people whose grievances – imagined and real – made them ripe for populist exploitation” (p.238), Marton writes.

It was no coincidence, moreover, that AfD was concentrated geographically in the former East Germany.  AfD’s rise highlighted the extent to which the two Germanies were still separate and unequal.  Until late in her tenure, Marton indicates, Merkel underestimated how rocky the road since unification had been for many of her fellow East Germans.  In her relationship with the former East Germany, she appeared “cut off from a segment of her population and unwilling or incapable of dealing with the emotional content of their dissatisfaction” (p.238-39).   But the Covid pandemic of 2019-2020, which she described as her country’s “greatest crisis since World War II” (p.280), provided an opportunity to clip AfD’s wings.

Merkel insisted that rapid and coordinated transnational relief was the only way to confront a contagion that had no respect for international borders.  She seized the global health crisis to “forge a new solidarity among European nations” (p.286), sending a powerful message to authoritarians, populists and nationalists around the world.  Her competence in fighting the Covid-19 crisis “temporarily silenced the AfD’s empty bluster” (p.286).  A party fueled by rage “found little political traction in indignation against a virus” (p.286),   Marton suggests that Merkel’s handling of the Covid pandemic sealed her legacy for calm, fact-based leadership.

Today, however, assessments of Merkel’s legacy gravitate inescapably to her handling of the 2014-15 Ukraine crisis and her relationship with Vladimir Putin.  The two are contemporaries, less than two years apart, with similar backgrounds but opposite world views.  Each speaks fluently the language of the other.  In one of the pair’s earliest meetings on the Black Sea, Putin seemed to have sensed that the German Chancellor would be a tough match for him.  Having learned of her childhood fear of dogs (she was bitten twice), Putin brought his Labrador retriever to the meeting. The childish maneuver annoyed but did not intimidate Merkel.  “He has to do this, to show his manhood,” she reportedly told her staff subsequently.  “Russia has no successful politics or economy” (p.109).

Merkel became the West’s lead negotiator on Ukraine in 2014 after American president Barack Obama concluded he could no longer deal effectively with the duplicitous Putin (Merkel’s uneven relationship with Obama is one of the book’s more surprising revelations).  It was not a role Merkel sought for herself or Germany, but one she pursued doggedly.  During Russia’s 2014 offensive in Ukraine, Merkel spoke to Putin several times a week. “Seething quietly” on each call, she was nonetheless “determined to provide Putin with an off-ramp from what she saw as a fundamentally nefarious and unprovoked war” (p.171).

Merkel ruled out the use of force and resisted growing calls for increasing arms shipments to Ukraine.  Her main weapons in dealing with Putin were her own “focus and steely determination” (p.173), as Marton puts it.  By talking, she felt she might “eventually bring Putin back to reality” (p.171).   Merkel’s resistance to more bellicose measures was influenced in part by the German public’s pacifist streak and its memory of the dark consequences of militarism.  But Merkel was even more influenced by Germany’s Cold War experience, in which the West “ultimately defeated the Soviet Empire through containment, patience and strategy” (p.173).   Yet pursuit of a bargain with Putin revealed the limits of Merkel’s negotiation skills in an “increasingly lawless, authoritarian era” (p.165).

Merkel expended considerable political capital to talk German businesses into imposing sanctions on Russia, at a significant cost to the German economy, and persuaded all EU members except Hungary and Italy to join in a coordinated sanction effort.  Two major agreements, the “Minsk Accords” and “Minsk II,” sought to end the fighting in Eastern Ukraine and restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity but were never fully implemented and failed to put an end to the conflict.  In Marton’s estimation, Merkel nevertheless emerged from the 2014-15 Ukraine crisis as the West’s “most determined defender of established democratic norms,” proving that she could “stand up to Putin when others would not (or could not)” (p.165), an unsubtle dig at Obama.  In a passage that she would probably excise were she writing today, Marton writes that Putin “seems to have learned his lesson, so for now, at least, the other countries that made up the former Russian Empire are safe” (p.180).

In June of this year, in her first public interview since leaving the Chancellorship, Merkel reflected upon the lessons she learned from her Ukraine experience in 2014-15.  Relying upon her penchant for understatement when a little more emotion might have been warranted, she described the 2022 invasion as a “big mistake on Russia’s part.”  Asked whether she should apologize for having been too soft on Putin seven years earlier, the ex-Chancellor responded, “I tried to work toward calamity being averted, and diplomacy was not wrong if it doesn’t succeed . . . It is a matter of great sorrow that it didn’t succeed, but I don’t blame myself now for trying.”  The sanctions imposed in 2015 “could have been stronger,” the ex-Chancellor conceded, but added that there was no majority sentiment for strengthening them at the time.

* * *

The world, Marton writes in conclusion, is in many ways a “much rougher place than the one [Merkel] inherited as chancellor in 2005” (p.301).  After Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the world seems to be a rougher place still than the one Merkel left when she stepped down in December 2021 after 16 years of battling in her methodical, understated manner for democratic norms and values, internationally and domestically.  More Merkel biographies are likely to follow what Kati Morton has produced here, some longer and more granular.   Merkel might even provide an interview to a fortunate future biographer and, with or without a Merkel interview, a 900-page Robert Caro-type doorstopper may see the light someday.  Until then, Morton’s initial effort to assess the ex-Chancellor’s full tenure and pierce her personal space will serve as the lodestar for readers hoping to gain more insight into this still-enigmatic figure.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

August 17,  2022




Filed under Biography, European History, German History

Our Word


George Makari, Of Fear and Strangers:

A History of Xenophobia (W.W. Norton and Company)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “xenophobia” as a “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign.”  As a university student and young adult, psychiatrist and historian George Makari considered xenophobia to be a term applying mainly to the past, at least in the comfortable New Jersey world in which he grew up as the son of Lebanese immigrants.  The young Makari assumed that the proverbial long arc of history was tilting, slowly perhaps but still surely, away from the irrational fear and hatred of strangers and foreigners that the word xenophobia appeared to refer to.

Makari maintained this reassuring view well into his adult years, as he forged his career as a psychiatrist and academic.  Then came Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, two illusion-shattering events which, as he writes in Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia, “seemed to contradict assumptions I had held for most of my adult life” (p.247).  Trying to make sense out of these events led him to reassess his own thoughts about the word xenophobia, dig into the word’s history, and consider its implications and ramifications.  The result is a wide-ranging, erudite work that combines intellectual history, psychological analysis, and social commentary.

Makari starts with a study of how the word xenophobia emerged, in French in the late 19th century, then in English and other European languages, and the settings in which it has since been used.  French print journalism initially linked the two Greek words, xénos and phobos, in a manner that seemed to be associated with medicine and science, but actually referred to a “new kind of political antipathy,” a “malady called ‘nationalism’” (p.41), arising in the context of European colonization and closely related to racism and hostility toward foreigners.

Makari then dons his psychoanalytic hat to explore whether the cluster of attitudes and habits that we group under the word xenophobia tells us anything meaningful about the human character: are there generalizations we can make about why people fall into a fear and hatred of strangers and foreigners?  And what about the objects of that fear and hatred — what psychologists and social commentators often lump together as “The Other.”  Here, Makari ambitiously presents his own synthesis of the diverse explanations about the nature of xenophobia.  In the book’s final portion, he zeroes in on how the word’s history and its psychological implications might assist us in understanding Brexit, Trump, and related contemporary phenomena.

No reader should be surprised to learn that the Merriam-Webster definition provides us with at best only a partial understanding of the word xenophobia.  Digging deeply below the surface of the dictionary definition, as Makari has done here, reveals a surfeit of complexity.  New words gather new meanings over time, Makari notes.  They “grow and mutate . . . words transform . . . they suddenly travel and pop up amid new signs and symbols . . . The story of xenophobia has been of a word that has gone through a series of alternations and migrations” (p.246).

As he guides us through these alterations and migrations, Makari provides short biographical sketches of numerous thinkers who have in one way or another contributed to our understanding of the word xenophobia.  These include such familiar 20th century figures as Sigmund Freud, Walter Lippman, Richard Wright, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Franz Fanon.  But the lead figure among the luminaries whom Makari portrays is Bartolomé de las Casas, a 16th century Spanish Dominican priest.

Las Casas gained notoriety in his time by calling attention to the barbarity committed on the island of Hispaniola and elsewhere in the Caribbean in the name of the fledgling Spanish empire.  His best-known work, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, which came out at a time when religious wars were tearing Europe apart, reached a startling conclusion: “everyone should be judged by the same principles; therefore, strangers were not necessarily the enemies of righteousness. We, the Christians, may be” (p.30).

* * *

As he started his etymological dig, Markari was surprised to learn that the word xenophobia could not be traced to the ancient Greeks, even though it is derived from Greek components, xénos and phobos.  Xénos in ancient Greek means “foreigner” or “stranger,” but mostly in a relational sense to a host, like “guest;” phobos means “fear” or “dread.”  But Malaki could find no indication that the Greeks or their counterparts ever put the two words together.  Although much ancient literature has been lost, those who assume that our word xenophobia descended from ancient Greece are “simply wrong” (p.10; of course, there are ample examples of Greeks acting in ways we would today describe as xenophobic, many ascribed to Aristotle).

Rather, the emergence of the word xenophobia can be pinpointed to the last third of the 19th century.  At a time when medicine was beginning to affix the word “phobia” to a host of disorders, such as “agoraphobia,” which came into use in 1871, and “claustrophobia,” which appeared in 1879, a medical dictionary from this decade defined xenophobia as the “morbid dread of meeting strangers” (p.40).  But this early usage never caught on.  As a medical diagnosis, “xenophobia was a flop, perhaps due to the proliferation of phobias that brought many others into disrepute” (p.48).

The triggering event linking the word xenophobia to its modern usages was the “Boxer Rebellion” in Northern China, an uprising that took place between 1899 and 1901.  The work of young Chinese began as what Makari terms a “loose cluster of thugs who indulged in looting and thievery” (p.56) with the announced mission of attacking and destroying foreigners (they were called “Boxers” because their mastery of Chinese martial arts seemed to Westerners similar to the sport of boxing).  In 1900, Makari discovered, a French newspaper reported from Shanghai on an ominous xénophobie movement afoot in China.  Three days later, future French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau used the term.  French newspapers were soon all over the idea that xénophobie was out of control in China.

In less than a year, the word xénophobie became “part of the French vocabulary” (p.50).  As news of the Boxer uprising spread, “xénophobie” migrated to English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and other languages, with readers throughout the West suddenly aware of a “new kind of beastly hatred for foreigners” (p.62) emanating from China.  The Boxers “promoted a violent hatred of all those from other lands and made no effort to distinguish the beneficent from the rapacious ones”  (p.63).

Several European nations joined with the United States and Japan to crush the uprising and topple the Chinese government, but the memory of the rebellion persisted in the age of Western imperialism.  It was, Makari writes, “as if cognoscenti around the world awoke from some confusion, and all at the same time fastened to a clarifying word that spelled out something they had vaguely suspected but never named” (p.62).  In the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, xenophobia now referred to an “overheated hatred” (p.43) of Western foreigners, immigrants, strangers, and travelers.

By the early 1900s, as European empires stretched across the globe, seeking new markets, cheap resources and forced labor, xenophobia had become a “powerful biopolitical tool tied to science and race” (p.67).  The term defined who was “primitive” and who was “civilized.”  Discrimination against immigrants or minorities was “not based on the ancient notion that the ‘stranger is my enemy’; this was not a phobia, tribalism, or emotional partiality.  It was predicated on cold, hard facts” (p.100).  Thus, the concept of xenophobia “went to work for expanding Western empires” (p.70).

As powerful Western nations spread across the globe, journalists, diplomats, and racial scientists linked xenophobia to a “kind of primitivity that afflicted only the colonized, non-Europeans” (p.67).   In this “up-is-down” world, as Makari aptly terms it, the “primitive hosts were mistreating the civilized immigrants – that is, the Western missionaries, traders and colonists” (p.67-68).  Primitive “races,” so the conventional wisdom held, were “instinctively fearful of outsiders and perceived all strangers as enemies” (p.66).  Xenophobia was said to be ingrained in Africans, Asians, and other non-Westerners.  But the age of imperialism also gave rise to attacks upon these legitimizing narratives of colonialism.

Writers as diverse as Leo Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad and Mark Twain played lead roles in undercutting the notion that xenophobia was a primitive reaction by non-Westerners.  Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce asked whether the problem was not the yellow or black peril, but the “white peril” (p.97).  A journalist writing in The Nation coined the term “xenophobic imperialism” (p.85).  As World War I approached, those seeking to justify beneficent white rule over hostile communities “began to lose their credibility, and were thrown open to accusations of deception, hypocrisy, and the justification of rapacious cruelty” (p.81).  Much of the world knew by then what Las Cassas had emphasized in the 16th century, that “behind the moralizing cliches and race science, evil of stunning proportions had transpired” (p.80).

Xenophobia thus mutated again, from “being a convenient accusation by Westerners against foreigners to the failure of the ethic of toleration among those Westerners themselves” (p.98).  The tribulations of minorities and immigrants in Great Britain, France, and the United States, the “supposed standard bearers of liberalism, toleration, and individual rights,” exposed xenophobia as a phenomenon that “thrived in these Western democratic lands” (p.96).   The term came to be pressed into service, Makari writes, to “make sense of British and French anti-Semites, French haters of Italians, the Ku Klux Klan, anti-Chinese Americans, and others who, while championing equality for themselves, seemed all too eager to deny it to others” (p.98).

Xenophobia became official state policy when the Nazis rose to power in Germany in the 1930s, wrapping into an ideology the virtues of “treating minorities like serfs, or finding ways to dispossess and eliminate them” (p.115).  As the crimes committed pursuant to this ideology were revealed in all their immensity after the Nazi defeat in 1945, the word xenophobia appeared infuriatingly inadequate.  The Nazi crimes seemed to have “broken the back of language itself” (p.118), Makari observes.  Dismissing Nazi crimes as xenophobia “simply would not do.  This was not some mere act of bias against strangers” (p.119).

Yet, the Holocaust raised innumerable discomforting questions about human nature, with something akin to xenophobia seeming to be part of every answer: what was the source of the malicious desires that led to mass murder on an unprecedented scale? Where did such inhumane hate come from?  Was it something that remained latent in most of us most of the time, but surfaced at times of strain and stress?  When and where would it start again?  Despite numerous efforts to provide answers to these and related questions, the word xenophobia in the post-World War II era seemed to lurk in the “cracks of history” (p.124), Makari writes.  The “nature of this beast remained elusive” (p.124).

Three major lines of inquiry sought to pin down the elusive beast: the nature of human identity, its relation to emotions like fear and aggression, and the nature of groups.  But the three lines became siloed in the post-World War II era; they were separate areas of research and thought, with little interaction between them.  There was no theoretician, no one to tell us why or provide “explanations that might make sense of this trouble’s origins and menacing power” (p.129).  And so it remains.  “No grand synthesis or novel paradigm has since emerged” (p.232).

* * *

Makari seeks fill the void by constructing a synthesis of the diverse explanations about the nature of xenophobia.  Drawing upon a host of 20th century thinkers who proffered their own interpretations, Makari’s proposed synthesis turns on distinctions between Other anxiety, overt xenophobia and covert xenophobia.  Other anxiety is a normal and familiar human reaction, one that “can be managed” (p.240).  Social mixing and integration can diminish conditioned reflexes; unconscious biases can be reworked through relearning.  “Dialogue with the Other can restore the capacity for empathy and the possibility of mutual recognition” (p.240),  he writes.  But Other anxiety can slip into overt xenophobia, in which “fear and hatred of the Other has solidified into more than an errant anxiety or a cognitive error” (p.241).

Overt xenophobes, Makari notes,need their villain; they hate the xénos so as to stabilize themselves” (p.241).  Overt xenophobia is marked by stereotypes that are more rigid than those of Other anxiety, and more difficult to alter.  Signs that suggest that an individual’s Other anxiety may be heading toward overt xenophobia include a vanishing capacity to consider interim positions; an inability to tolerate ambivalence; and the loss of a capacity for guilt.  In between arguments are “swept aside as weak.  Shaming the offender only provokes rage.  Sadism is prominent in overt xenophobia” (p.241).  If the social conditions are right, xenophobic groups can grow quickly.  The “ameliorative effects that quell Other anxiety fail here .  . . Exposure and habituation with this population go nowhere” (p.242).

Makari cites the famous pediatrician and Vietnam war critic Dr. Benjamin Spock as having found a promising potential answer to overt xenophobia.  Social groups that emulate Spock’s call for less harsh, shame-driven forms of child rearing, Makari suggests, “may be less prone to authoritarian solutions” (p.242-43).  Radical egalitarianism, he goes on to argue, poses the greatest threat to xenophobia.  Toleration must be a rule for all, not simply a liberal value.  We “therefore confront bigotry while offering acceptance to all, except those who, as Karl Popper argued, would destroy toleration” (p.243).

Covert xenophobia, by definition, “operates in the shadows” (p.243).  One of French philosopher Michel Foucault’s principal insights was that highly socialized and accepted forms of xenophobia “disappear into norms, conventions, and discourses” (p.243) of any given society.  Resistance to change then becomes a defense of xenophobia.  No individual need take responsibility for covert xenophobia.  “Rule-based dictums inscribe hierarchies, logical relations and differentials, all of which support discrimination against the degraded group” (p.244).  The trap of covert xenophobia ensnares “not just France’s anti-Semites, American racists, colonizers, patriarchal men, and homophobes but, in ways hard to acknowledge, you and me” (p.227).

Makari does not need to embrace the full implications of covert xenophobia to reach his conclusion – the synthesis of his synthesis — that xenophobia is a “form of darkness” that lurks in the “most destructive corner of the everyday mind” (p.232).  Xenophobia is “not literally an illness;” it cannot be reduced to “some genetic defect or neural pathology”; it is not “hardwired in some subset of the human population” (p.237).  Rather, and more disturbingly, it is “part of the psychic violence of everyday life” (p.237).

The word xenophobia, Makari finds, is sufficiently sturdy – both broad enough and specific enough — to embrace such manifestations of stranger hatred as ethnocentrism, ultranationalism, racism, misogyny, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia.  By recovering the word’s rich past, he argues, and by “examining the numerous concepts of stranger hatred to which it is linked, we may repurpose this term so that it serves to organize and promote attempts at synthesis” (p.237).

Makari’s intrepid effort to construct a synthesis around diverse interpretations of the word xenophobia might have seemed like an interesting academic exercise in the 1990s.  But the election of Donald Trump in 2016, a “would-be demagogue” who seemed to be “searching for whatever negative stereotypes of the Other would stick” led Makari and many others to discover “to our shock that a startling number had done just that” (p.262).

Makari’s suggestion that 2016 was the year when he awoke to realize that xenophobia had not been confined to the dustbin of history need not be taken literally.  Events such as the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the worldwide economic downturn of 2008, and the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015, he acknowledges, allowed overt xenophobes to emerge from the shadows to vilify minorities and vulnerable groups as the alien Other.

* * *

If the words racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment does not quite capture what has been happening in the 21st century,  the word xenophobia may suffice, Makari suggests, in no small part because it is not “some antiquated, classical term.”  Rather, xenophobia is “our word” (p.270), a point he drives home convincingly in this deeply serious yet eminently readable work.

Thomas H. Peebles

Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré, France

July 13,  2022



Filed under History, Language, Science

Reinventing the International Order

Adom Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire:

The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination

(Princeton University Press)

As World War II ended, European colonial empires of the 19th and 20th centuries — British and French especially, but also Belgian, Italian, and Portuguese — were breaking apart, to be replaced in the post war period by newly independent nation-states throughout Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean.   The United Nations counted 51 member states when its founding charter was signed in June 1945.  By 1970, UN membership had more than doubled to 127 member states.  But serious theorizing about potential pathways to decolonization and independence had been underway at least since the World War I era.  In Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination, Adom Getachew, an Ethiopian-born scholar presently teaching at the University of Chicago, seeks to capture the multiple and often conflicting strands of thought that aspired to define the direction of the 20th century anticolonial independence movement.

Uniting these strands, as Getachew’s sub-title suggests, was the notion of “self-determination,” roughly the notion that the newly independent states themselves and not their former colonizers should determine the terms of independence.  Getachew highlights a bold strand of thinking about self-determination, developed in the 1930s by a handful of thinkers from what she terms the “Black Atlantic,” i.e. Western sub-Saharan Africa and the black Caribbean.  These thinkers emphasized the racial disparities and economic inequalities that had shaped the international global order.

Anglophone Black Atlantic” is a more precise term for the world Getachew depicts.  The thinkers she focuses upon were all English speakers, schooled in the United States or Great Britain and, with one exception, became early leaders of newly independent English-speaking countries while doubling as political theorists.  That exception was W.E.B. DuBois, the ubiquitous American scholar and educator who functions as Getachew’s lead character.  Over the course of more than a half century, DuBois provided the intellectual glue for the Black Atlantic vision of self-determination.

Prominent francophone anticolonial nationalists from the Black Atlantic, such as Aimé Césaire of Martinique and Léopold Senghor of Senegal, do not figure in Getachew’s analysis.  They favored retaining strong administrative ties to France, both as an “effort to ward off the limits of independent statehood,” and as a “demand for an equal share in the wealth the colonies had produced” (p.116).  Martinique, along with its Caribbean neighbor Guadeloupe, became an administrative department of the French state in 1946.  Senegal and most of the French colonies in sub-Saharan West Africa, by contrast, became independent states in the early 1960s.  Getachew also refers to Asia intermittently, but her focus is not there.  India’s Mohandas Gandhi, arguably the most consequential single figure of the 20th century anti-colonial movement, is nowhere mentioned.

For Getachew’s Black Atlantic thinkers, the right to self-determination was “never conceived as the culmination of their worldmaking aspirations,” but rather as a “first step in political and economic transformations, both domestically and internationally” (p.92).  Their goal was a “thorough-going reinvention of the legal, political and economic structure of the international order” (p.25). That reinvention began by recognizing the “foundational role of New World slavery in the making of the modern world” (p.25).

When DuBois famously observed at the first Pan-African Congress in 1900 that the “problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line” (p.6), he had in mind the entire colonized world, not simply the Jim Crow American South or the United States more generally.  Over the course of the century, Black Atlantic thinkers went on to reiterate and amplify DuBois’ insight, “centered on a critique of colonialism as a dual structure of slavery and racial hierarchy” (p.67).  Getachew returns continually to DuBois’ insight and its ramifications.

This emphasis does not quite make her work an international version of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, the project spearheaded by Nikole Hannah-Jones that seeks to demonstrate the centrality of slavery to the founding and subsequent history of the United States.  But by highlighting what she terms the “racial hierarchy” of European colonization, Getachew lays a foundation for a subsequent work that would globalize the perspective of the Times’ project.

The most concrete manifestation of Black Atlantic “worldmaking after empire” was a quest to build supra-national institutions that would link if not bind newly independent states together.  National independence required international institutions, some Black Atlantic thinkers reasoned.  Getachew zeroes in on two short-lived and unsuccessful projects, the West Indian Federation and the Union of African States.  Both faltered in the 1960s due to “deep disagreements about the precise balance between federal union and independence of member states” (p.110).

Getachew’s Black Atlantic thinkers also manifested their commitment to worldmaking through two resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) which they championed: Declaration 1514, “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples,” and the “New International Economic Order” (NIEO).  The former, passed in 1960, served as the political declaration of independence for the emerging independent states, placing colonization outside the boundaries of the international legal order.  The NIEO, adopted in 1974, sought to “reestablish economic equality as the central ideal of the postimperial world” (p.9).

Worldmaking After Empire began as Getachew’s dissertation at Yale University and is written in dense academic prose that some readers may find slow going.  But those willing to take the time will find a rigorous analysis of an influential strand of anti-colonial thinking which, with its emphasis upon the global order’s racial disparities and structural economic inequalities, remains salient today.  Getachew’s narrative is roughly chronological, starting with World War I and the version of self-determination which American president Woodrow Wilson brought to the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference.

* * *

In his famous 14 points presented to the US Congress prior to traveling to Versailles, Wilson called for a “free, open-minded and absolutely impartial” adjudication of colonial claims, in which colonized peoples should have an equal say in determining their future.  But Wilsonian self-determination proved to be a highly qualified principle, predicated upon “preparation for self-rule” (p.177).

Self-determination was “not a given right,” as Wilson put it, but one “gained, earned, [and] graduated into from the hard school of life” (p.45), his way of saying that self-determination was a principle reserved mainly for people of European descent.  Getachew terms Wilson’s version of self-determination a “racially differentiated principle,” fully compatible with continued colonial rule, a principle to be used primarily to ward off worldwide Bolshevik revolution and preserve “white supremacy on the planet” (p.43).

Wilson’s 14 points also proposed the creation of a League of Nations, a recommendation adopted by the Versailles conference but subsequently rejected by the United States Congress in a humiliating rebuke to Wilson.  Arthur Balfour, Britain’s representative to the conference, expressed what Getachew considers the League’s de facto official view of race and racial hierarchy at the conference: if it was “true in a certain sense that all men of a particular nation were created equal,” Balfour opined, that did not mean that “a man in Central Africa was created equal to a European” (p.22).

Yet, Ethiopia, and Liberia, two African nations not part of European empires, managed to become members of the League.   From the start, they were plainly second-class members, primarily because of the continued existence of slavery within both states.  Although slavery had been explicitly banned by the 1926 Anti-Slavery Convention, forced labor – not quite slavery, but close — remained a central practice in every colony.  Britain and France successfully lobbied for the exemption of forced labor from the 1926 convention.  Slavery was thus “disconnected from colonial labor and cast as an atavistic holdover in backward societies” (p.53), Getachew writes.

For the League, the continued existence of slavery in two of its member-states served as evidence that Africans “could not rule themselves and their territories in ways that conformed to the standards of modern statehood,” making European oversight and intervention the “only mechanism that could secure humanitarian norms in Africa”  (p.59). Perversely, Benito Mussolini justified the 1936 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, in which Italy engaged in overwhelming and unnecessary violence that included illegal use of mustard gas, indiscriminate killing of noncombatants, and the torture of captured soldiers, as the logical fulfillment of the League’s aims of abolishing slavery and developing backward states.

For DuBois, Italy’s invasion confirmed that “economic exploitation based on the excuse of race prejudice is the program of the white world.” (p.68).  The League of Nation’s concern with slavery in Ethiopia and Liberia was a thin pretext to permit European powers to “dominate native labor, pay it low wages, give it little political control and small chance for education or even industrial training,” while extracting the “largest possible profit out of the laboring class” (p.68).

As World War II ended and the United Nations came into being in 1945, DuBois found the situation eerily reminiscent of 1919, with abundant reference to universal principles that again applied differently to the colonized world and did not foresee the end of colonial rule.  The United Nations Charter, for example, contained only two references to self-determination, both of which were subordinated to the larger aim of securing “peaceful and friendly relations among nations.”  DuBois worried that by not addressing international racial hierarchy and colonial domination, the world had not yet learned the lesson of two world wars.  We have conquered Germany, he wrote, “but not their ideas” (p.72).

 By 1960, worldmaking in the form of federation had become a “central strategy for securing international nondomination” (p.108).  But the two Black Atlantic federation projects that Getachew describes, in the Caribbean and Africa, both failed to overcome concerns over ceding too much sovereignty to central authorities (surprisingly, both sides developed arguments based on the 18th century experience of the American colonists breaking away from Britain to form the United States).

The West Indian Federation came into being in 1958, with a federal parliament and executive authority that governed ten Caribbean island states.  But the federation vested only limited powers in the federal government, with no independent sources of revenue.  With the federation’s constitution under reconsideration in 1962, Eric Williams, Trinidad and Tobago’s president, advocated a stronger federal state as the best means to achieve both independence and national unity.  Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Michael Manley, successfully lead the opposition to Williams’ push for more centralization, signaling the federation’s demise.

Across the Atlantic, Ghana’s president Kwame Nkrumah insisted that only a continent-wide government could ensure Africa’s place in world affairs.  Total surrender of sovereignty was “not necessary to create a strong and effective union”  he contended.  Equality among states “could be maintained within the union” (p.136).  Rejecting the French model of some sort of fusion with the colonizer, Nkrumah further argued that any integration that included European states would “preserve and deepen economic dependence” (p.117).   

Nkrumah’s proposed draft constitution for a Union of African States closely resembled the robust federal government which Williams had unsuccessfully proposed for the Caribbean.  It ran into a similar opposition, led by Nigerian president Nnamdi Azikiwe.  Speaking for many African leaders, Azikiwe feared that a centralized organization would “undermine the independence anticolonial nationalists had sought to secure” (p.134), weakening the sovereignty of individual, independent African states and, with it, their legal, national, and cultural pluralism.

1960 was also the year the UN General Assembly passed Declaration 1514.   A “watershed moment in the history of decolonization” (p.107), Declaration 1514 was viewed as correcting the omissions of the UN Charter and superseding the Wilsonian version of self-determination.   Its effect, Getachew contends, was to make self-determination a human right and colonialism itself an international crime. She characterizes Declaration 1514 as the instrument through which colonial domination became “illegitimate for the first time in modern international society” (p.99), with racial hierarchy abolished and sovereign equality extended to all members states.

As a supplement to the political independence which Declaration 1514 recognized, Jamaica’s Manley and Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere spearheaded the push for the NIEO, which passed the UNGA in 1974.  In what Getachew terms the “biggest departure for the postwar international legal order” (p.145), Manley and Nyerere contended that the formal political independence and legal equality attained over the course of the prior two decades had “masked the material inequality through which powerful states reproduced their dominance” (p.163).   Rebalancing these inequalities required a more equitable share of the wealth which newly independent states had helped to produce.

Manley and Nyerere focused on ownership of natural resources, the relationship of newly independent states to multi-national corporations (which Manley saw as the 20th century heir to imperial-era trading companies), and unequal trade relations between developing and developed nations.  For Manley and Nyerere, NIEO was the “international corollary to the effort to institute socialism at home” (p.168).   But the NIEO’s demand for greater international equality and equity proved to be a step too far for the world’s economic powers.

Daniel P. Moynihan, United States Ambassador to the United Nations in the mid-1970s, became one of the NIEO’s most vocal and visible critics.  Moynihan derided the NIEO as the product of former British colonial subjects who had over-imbibed in the doctrines of Fabian socialism under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics, and were “seeking to internationalize the lessons of British welfarism” (p.176).  The impoverished economic conditions of the world’s underdeveloped countries, Moynihan contended scornfully, were “of their own making and no one else’s” (p.177).

Critics to the left of Moynihan pointed out that the NIEO had nothing to say about the domestic distribution of wealth and resources.  Self-determination, they argued, had been “concerned solely with the absence of alien rule and disconnected from democratic self-government”  (p.177).  Civil wars in Nigeria and the Congo led many newly independent states to prioritize zealous protection of sovereign prerogatives, raising questions about their internal stability and capacity to respect such democratic norms as pluralism, political dissent, and human rights.  John Rawls’ influential 1971 work A Theory of Justice spurred many advocates of global justice to shift their focus from protecting the sovereignty of newly independent states to protecting the rights of individuals within those states.

Further undermining the Black Atlantic vision of self-determination was the United States, the principal architect of the post-World War II international order.  Getachew notes America’s “gradual abandonment” (p.178) in the 1970s of the United Nations and other key multilateral institutions.  The end of the Cold War in the following decade gave rise to what she terms a “new era of unrestrained American imperialism where the principle of sovereign equality was curtailed, and the United States was freed from even a rhetorical commitment to a rule-bound international order” (p.179). Three decades after the end of the Cold War, Getachew perceives a “striking return to and defense of a hierarchical international order” (p.179).

* * *

The Black Atlantic vision of a reinvented international order did not survive the neo-liberalism of the 1980s.  But a host of contemporary global crises hitting former colonies much harder than their colonizers — climate change and access to Covid-19 vaccines come immediately to mind – serve as reminders that vestiges of 19th and 20th century colonial domination remain part of today’s international order.  The time may therefore be ripe, Getachew concludes with a slight hint of optimism, for “reformulating the contours of an anti-imperial future and enacting new strategies to realize this vision” (p.181) – a time in other words for another reinvention of the international order akin to what Black Atlantic thinkers boldly set in motion in the 1930s.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 9, 2022



Filed under Politics, Rule of Law, World History

Criticizing Government Was What They Knew How To Do


Paul Sabin, Public Citizen:

The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism

(W.W. Norton & Co., 2021)

1965 marked the highpoint for Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, an ambitious set of policy and legislative initiatives which envisioned using the machinery of the federal government to alleviate poverty, combat racial injustice and address other pressing national needs.  Johnson was coming off a landslide victory in the November 1964 presidential election, having carried 44 states and the District of Columbia with the highest percentage of the popular vote of any presidential candidate in over a century.  Yet a decade and a half later, in January 1981, Republican Ronald Reagan, after soundly defeating Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter,  took the presidential oath of office declaring “government is not the solution, it is the problem.”

How did government in the United States go in a fifteen-year period from being the solution to society’s ills to the cause of its problems?  How, for that matter, did the Democratic Party go from dominating the national political debate up through the mid-1960s to surrendering the White House to a former actor who had been considered too extreme to be a viable presidential candidate?  These are questions Yale University professor Paul Sabin poses at the outset of his absorbing Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism.  Focusing on the fifteen-year period 1965-1980, Sabin proffers answers centered on Ralph Nader and the “public interest” movement which Nader spawned.

1965 was also the year Nader rocketed to national prominence with his assault on automobile safety, Unsafe at Any Speed.  General Motors notoriously assisted Nader in his rise by conducting a concerted campaign to harass the previously obscure author.  From there, Nader and the lawyers and activists in his movement – often called “Nader’s Raiders” — turned to such matters as environmentalism, consumer safety and consumer rights, arguing that the government agencies charged with regulating these matters invariably came to be captured by the very industries they were designed to regulate, without the voice of the consumer or end user being heard.  “Why has business been able to boss around the umpire” (p.86) was one of Nader’s favorite rhetorical questions.

Because of both industry influence and bureaucratic ineffectiveness, government regulatory authority operated in the public interest only when pushed and prodded from the outside, Nader reasoned.  In Nader’s world, moreover, the Democratic and Republican parties were two sides of the same corrupt coin, indistinguishable in the degree to which they were both beholden to special corporate interests — “Tweddle Dee and Tweddle Dum,” as he liked to put it.

Reagan viewed government regulation from an altogether different angle.  Whereas Nader believed that government, through effective regulation of the private sector, could help make consumer goods safer, and air and water cleaner, Reagan sought to liberate the private sector from regulation.  He championed a market-oriented capitalism designed to “undermine, rather than invigorate, federal oversight” (p.167).  Yet, Sabin’s broadest argument is that Nader’s insistence over the course of a decade and a half that federal agencies used their powers for “nefarious and destructive purposes” (p.167) — — the “attack on big government” portion of his  title – rendered plausible Reagan’s superficially similar attack.

The “remaking of American liberalism” portion of Sabin’s sub-title might have better been termed “unmaking,” specifically the unmaking of the political liberalism rooted in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal – the liberalism which Johnson sought to emulate and build upon in his Great Society, based on a strong and active federal government. Following in the New Deal tradition, Roosevelt’s Democratic party controlled the White House for all but eight years between 1933 and 1969.  Yet, when Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, New Deal liberalism had clearly surrendered its claim to national dominance.

Most interpretations of how and why New Deal liberalism lost its clout are rooted in the 1960s, with the decade’s anti-Vietnam war and Civil Rights movements as the principal actors.  The Vietnam war separated older blue-collar Democrats, who often saw the war in the same patriotic terms as World War II, from a younger generation of anti-war activists who perceived no genuine US interests in the conflict and no meaningful difference in defense and foreign policy between Democrats and Republicans.  The Civil Rights movement witnessed the defection of millions of white Democrats, unenthusiastic about the party’s endorsement of full equality for African Americans, to the Republican Party.

Nader and the young activists following him were also “radicalized by the historical events of the 1960s, particularly the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War” (p. p.48), Sabin writes.  These were their “defining issues,” shaping “their view of the government and their ambitions for their own lives” (p.51).   We cannot imagine Nader’s movement “emerging in the form that it did separate from civil rights and the war” (p.48).  But by elaborating upon the role of the public interest movement in the breakdown of New Deal liberalism and giving more attention to the 1970s, Sabin adds nuance to conventional interpretations of that breakdown.

The enigmatic Nader is the central figure in Sabin’s narrative.  Much of the book analyzes how Nader and his public interest movement interacted with the administrations of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, along with brief treatment of the Reagan presidency and that of Bill Clinton.  The Carter years, 1977-1981, revealed the public interest movement’s most glaring weakness: its “inability to come to terms with the compromises inherent in running the executive branch” (p.142), as Sabin artfully puts it.

Carter was elected in 1976, when the stain of the Watergate affair and the 1974 resignation of Richard Nixon hovered over American politics, with trust in government at a low point.  Carter believed in making government regulation more efficient and effective, which he saw as a means of rebuilding public trust.   Yet, he failed to craft what Sabin terms a “new liberalism” that could “champion federal action while also recognizing government’s flaws and limitations” (p.156).

That failure was due in no small measure to frequent and harsh criticism emanating from public interest advocates, whose critique of the Carter administration, Sabin writes, “held those in power up against a model of what they might be, rather than what the push and pull of political compromise and struggle allowed” (p.160).  Criticizing government power was “what they knew how to do, and it was the role that they had defined for themselves”  (p.156). Metaphorically, it was “as if liberals took a bicycle apart to fix it but never quite figured out how to get it running again” (p.xvii).

 * * *

Sabin starts by laying out the general parameters of New Deal liberalism: a technocratic faith that newly created administrative agencies and the bureaucrats leading them would act in the public interest by serving as a counterpoint to the power of private, especially corporate, interests.  By the mid-1950s, the liberal New Deal conception of “managed capitalism” had evolved into a model based on what prominent economist John Kenneth Galbraith termed “countervailing powers,” in which large corporations, held in balance by the federal regulatory state, “would check each other’s excesses through competition, and powerful unions would represent the interests of workers.  Government would play a crucial role, ensuring that the system did not tilt too far in one direction or the other” (p.7-8).

Nader’s public interest movement was built around a rejection of Galbraith’s countervailing power model.  The model failed to account for the interests of consumers and end users, as the economist himself admitted later in his career.  If there was to be a countervailing power, Nader theorized, it would have to come through the creation of “independent, nonbureaucratic, citizen-led organizations that existed somewhat outside the traditional American power structure” (p.59).  Only such organizations provided the means to keep power “insecure” (p.59), as Nader liked to say.

Nader’s vision could be described broadly as “ensuring safety in every setting where Americans might find themselves: workplace, home, doctor’s office, highway, or just outside, breathing the air”  (p.36).  In a 1969 essay in the Nation, Nader termed car crashes, workplace accidents, and diseases the “primary forms of violence that threatened Americans” (p.75), far exceeding street crime and urban unrest.  For Nader, environmental and consumer threats revealed the “pervasive failures and corruption of American industry and government” (p.76).

Nader was no collectivist, neither a socialist nor a New Dealer.  He emphasized open and competitive markets, small private businesses, and especially an activated citizenry — the “public citizens” of his title.  More than any peer, Nader sought to “create institutions that would mobilize and nurture other citizen activists” (p.35).  To that end, Nader founded dozens of public interest organizations, which were able to attract idealistic young people — lawyers, engineers, scientists, and others, overwhelmingly white, largely male — to dedicate their early careers to opposing the “powerful alliance between business and government” (p.24).

Nader envisioned citizen-led public interest organizations serving as a counterbalance not only to business and government but also to labor.  Although Nader believed in the power of unions to represent workers, he was “deeply skeptical that union leaders would be reliable agents for progressive reform”  (p.59).  Union bosses in Nader’s view “too often positioned themselves as partners with industry and government, striking bargains that yielded economic growth, higher wages, and unions jobs at the expense of the health and well-being of workers, communities, and the environment” (p.59).   Nader therefore “forcefully attacked the unions for not doing enough to protect worker safety and health or to allow worker participation in governance” (p.64).

Nader‘s Unsafe at Any Speed was modeled after Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking environmental tract Silent Spring, to the point that it was termed the “Silent Spring of traffic safety”  (p.23).  Nader’s auto safety advocacy, Sabin writes, emerged from “some of the same wellsprings as the environmental movement, part of an increasingly shared postwar concern about the harmful and insidious impacts of new technologies and processes” (p.23).  In 1966, a year after publication of Unsafe at Any Speed. Congress passed two landmark pieces of legislation, the Traffic Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act, which forced manufacturers to design safer cars and pressed states to carry out highway safety programs.  Nader then branched out beyond auto safety to tackle issues like meat inspection, natural-gas pipelines, and radiation safety.

Paradoxically, the Nixon years were among the most fruitful for Nader and the public interest movement.  Ostensibly pro-business and friendly with blue-collar Democrats, Nixon presided over a breathtaking expansion of federal regulatory authority until his presidency was pretermitted by the Watergate affair.  The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, consolidating several smaller federal units.  New legislation which Nixon signed regulated air and water pollution, energy production, endangered species, toxic substances, and land use — “virtually every sector of the US economy” (p.114), Sabin writes.

The key characteristics of Nader-influenced legislation were deadlines and detailed mandates, along with authority for citizen suits and judicial review, a clear break from earlier regulatory strategies.  The tough legislation signaled a “profound and pervasive distrust of government even as it expanded federal regulatory powers” (p.82).   Nader and the public interest movement went after Democrats in Congress with a fervor at least equal to that with which they attacked Republican-led regulatory agencies.  Nader believed that “you didn’t attack your enemy if you wanted to accomplish something, you attacked your friend”  (p.82).

In the early 1970s, the public interest movement targeted Democratic Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, the party’s nominee for Vice-President in 1968, whose support for the environmental movement had earned him the moniker “Mr. Pollution Control.” Declaring his environmental halo unwarranted, the movement sought to take down a man who clearly wanted to ride the environmental issue to the White House.  Nader’s group also went after long-time liberal Democrat Jennings Randolph of West Virginia over coal-mining health and safety regulations.  The adversarial posture toward everyone in power, Democrat as well as Republican, continued into the short interim administration of Gerald Ford, who assumed the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal.  And it continued unabated during the administration of Jimmy Carter.

As the Democratic nominee for president, Carter had conferred with Nader during the 1976 campaign and thought he had the support of the public interest movement when he entered the White House in January 1977.  Many members of the movement took positions in the new administration, where they could shape the agencies they had been pressuring.  The new president sought to incorporate the public interest movement’s critiques of government into a “positive vision for government reform,” promoting regulatory approaches that “cut cost and red tape without sacrificing legitimate regulatory goals” (p.186).

Hoping to introduce more flexible regulatory strategies that could achieve environmental and health protection goals at lower economic cost, Carter sacrificed valuable political capital by clashing with powerful congressional Democrats over wasteful and environmentally destructive federal projects. Yet, public interest advocates faulted Carter for his purported lack of will more than they credited him for sacrificing his political capital for their causes.  They saw the administration’s questioning of regulatory costs and the redesign of government programs as “simply ways to undermine those agencies.” (p.154).   Their lack of enthusiasm for Carter severely undermined his reelection bid in the 1980 campaign against Ronald Reagan.

Reagan’s victory “definitively marked the end of the New Deal liberal period, during which Americans had optimistically looked to the federal government for solutions” (p.165), Sabin observes.  Reagan and his advisors “vocally rejected, and distanced themselves from, Carter’s nuanced approach to regulation”  (p.172). To his critics, Reagan appeared to be “trying to shut down the government’s regulatory apparatus” (p.173).

But in considering the demise of New Deal liberalism, Sabin persuasively demonstrates that the focus on Reagan overlooks how the post-World War II administrative state “lost its footing during the 1970s” (p.165).    The attack on the New Deal regulatory state that culminated in Reagan’s election, usually attributed to a rising conservative movement, was also “driven by an ascendant liberal public interest movement” (p.166).   Sabin’s bottom line: blaming conservatives alone for the end of the New Deal is “far too simplistic” (p.165).

* * *

Sabin mentions Nader’s 2000 presidential run on the Green Party ticket only at the end and only in passing.  Although the Nader-inspired public interest movement had wound down by then, Nader gained widespread notoriety that year when he gathered about 95,000 votes in Florida, a state which Democratic nominee Al Gore lost officially by 537 votes out of roughly six million cast (with no small amount of assistance from a controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision).  Nader’s entire career had been a rebellion against the Democratic Party in all its iterations, and his quixotic run in 2000 demonstrated that he had not outgrown that rebellion.  His presidential campaign took his “lifelong criticism of establishment liberalism to its logical extreme” (p.192).

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

May 13, 2022



Filed under American Politics, Political Theory, Politics, United States History

Taking Exception To American Foreign Policy

Andrew Bacevich, After the Apocalypse:

America’s Role in a World Transformed (Metropolitan Books 2020)

Andrew Bacevich is one of America’s most relentless and astute critics of United States foreign policy and the role the American military plays in the contemporary world.  Professor Emeritus of History and International Relations at Boston University and presently president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Bacevich is a graduate of the United States Military Academy who served in the United States Army for over 20 years, including a year in Vietnam.  In his most recent book, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed, which came out toward the end of 2020, Bacevich makes an impassioned plea for a smaller American military, a demilitarized and more humble US foreign policy, and more realistic assessments of US security and genuine threats to that security, along with greater attention to pressing domestic needs.  Linking these strands is Bacevich’s scathing critique of American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States has a special role to play in maintaining world order and promoting American democratic values beyond its shores.

In February 2022, as I was reading, then writing and thinking about After the Apocalypse, Vladimir Putin continued amassing soldiers on the Ukraine border and threatening war before invading the country on the 24th.  Throughout the month, I found my views of Bacevich’s latest book taking form through the prism of events in Ukraine.   Some of the book’s key points — particularly on NATO, the role of the United States in European defense, and yes, Ukraine – seemed out of sync with my understanding of the facts on the ground and in need of updating. “Timely” did not appear to be the best adjective to apply to After the Apocalypse. 

Bacevich is a difficult thinker to pigeonhole.  While he sometimes describes himself as a conservative,  in After the Apocalypse he speaks the language of those segments of the political left that border on isolationist and recoil at almost all uses of American military force (these are two distinct segments: I find myself dependably in the latter camp but have little affinity with the former).  But Bacevich’s against-the-grain perspective is one that needs to be heard and considered carefully, especially when war’s drumbeat can be heard.

* * *

Bacevich’s recommendations in After the Apocalypse for a decidedly smaller footprint for the United States in its relations with the world include a gradual US withdrawal from NATO, which he considers a Cold War relic, an “exercise in nostalgia, an excuse for pretending that the past is still present” (p.50).  Defending Europe is now “best left to Europeans” (p.50), he argues.   In any reasoned reevaluation of United States foreign policy priorities, moreover, Canada and Mexico should take precedence over European defense.  Threats to Canadian territorial sovereignty as the Artic melts “matter more to the United States than any danger Russia may pose to Ukraine” (p.169).

I pondered that sentence throughout February 2022, wondering whether Bacevich was at that moment as unequivocal about the United States’ lack of any geopolitical interest in Ukraine as he had been when he wrote After the Apocalypse.  Did he still maintain that the Ukraine-Russia conflict should be left to the Europeans to address?  Was it still his view that the United States has no business defending beleaguered and threatened democracies far from its shores?  The answer to both questions appears to be yes.  Bacevich has had much to say about the conflict since mid-February of this year, but I have been unable to ascertain any movement or modification on these and related points.

In an article appearing in the February 16, 2022, edition of The Nation, thus prior to the invasion, Bacevich described the Ukrainian crisis as posing “minimal risk to the West,” given that Ukraine “possesses ample strength to defend itself against Russian aggression.”  Rather than flexing its muscles in faraway places, the United States should be “modeling liberty, democracy, and humane values here at home. The clear imperative of the moment is to get our own house in order” and avoid “[s]tumbling into yet another needless war.”   In a nutshell, this is After the Apocalypse’s broad vision for American foreign policy. 

Almost immediately after the Russian invasion, Bacevich wrote an OpEd for the Boston Globe characterizing the invasion as a “crime” deserving of “widespread condemnation,” but cautioning against a “rush to judgment.”  He argued that the United States had no vital interests in Ukraine, as evidenced by President Biden’s refusal to commit American military forces to the conflict.  But he argued more forcefully that the United States lacked clean hands to condemn the invasion, given its own war of choice in Iraq in 2003 in defiance of international opinion and the “rules-based international order” (Bacevich’s quotation marks).  “[C]coercive regime change undertaken in total disregard of international law has been central to the American playbook in recent decades,” he wrote.  “By casually meddling in Ukrainian politics in recent years,” he added, alluding most likely to the United States’ support for the 2013-14 “Euromaidan protests” which resulted in the ouster of pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, it had “effectively incited Russia to undertake its reckless invasion.”

Bacevich’s article for The Nation also argued that the idea of American exceptionalism was alive and well in Ukraine, driving US policy.  Bacevich defined the idea hyperbolically as the “conviction that in some mystical way God or Providence or History has charged America with the task of guiding humankind to its intended destiny,” with these ramifications:

We Americans—not the Russians and certainly not the Chinese—are the Chosen People.  We—and only we—are called upon to bring about the triumph of liberty, democracy, and humane values (as we define them), while not so incidentally laying claim to more than our fair share of earthly privileges and prerogatives . . . American exceptionalism justifies American global primacy.

Much  of Bacevich’s commentary about the Russian invasion of Ukraine reflects his impatience with short and selected historical memory.  Expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe in the 1990s, Bacevich told Democracy Now in mid-March of this year, “was done in the face of objections by the Russians and now we’re paying the consequences of those objections.”  Russia was then “weak” and “disorganized” and therefore it seemed to be a “low-risk proposition to exploit Russian weakness to advance our objectives.”  While the United States may have been advancing the interests of Eastern European countries who “saw the end of the Cold War as their chance to achieve freedom and prosperity,” American decision-makers after the fall of the Soviet Union nonetheless  “acted impetuously and indeed recklessly and now we’re facing the consequences.”

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“Short and selected historical memory” also captures Bacevich’s objections to the idea of American exceptionalism.  As he articulates throughout After the Apocalypse, the idea constitutes a whitewashed version of history, consisting “almost entirely of selectively remembered events” which come “nowhere near offering a complete and accurate record of the past” (p.13).  Recently-deceased former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s 1998 pronouncement that America resorts to military force because it is the “indispensable nation” which “stand[s] tall and see[s] further than other countries into the future” (p.6) may be the most familiar statement of American exceptionalism.  But versions of the idea that the United States has a special role to play in history and in the world have been entertained by foreign policy elites of both parties since at least World War II, with the effect if not intention of ignoring or minimizing the dark side of America’s global involvement.

 The darkest in Bacevich’s view is the 2003 Iraq war, a war of choice for regime change,  based on the false premise that Saddam Hussein maintained weapons of mass destruction.  After the Apocalypse returns repeatedly to the disastrous consequences of the Iraq war, but it is far from the only instance of intervention that fits uncomfortably with the notion of American exceptionalism. Bacevich cites the CIA-led coup overthrowing the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953, the “epic miscalculation” (p.24) of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and US complicity in the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, not to mention the Vietnam war itself.  When commentators or politicians indulge in American exceptionalism, he notes, they invariably overlook these interventions.

A  telling example is an early 2020 article in  Foreign Affairs by then-presidential candidate Joe Biden.  Under the altogether conventional title “Why America Must Lead Again,” Biden contended that the United States had “created the free world” through victories in two World Wars and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The “triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy,” Biden wrote, “does not just define our past.  It will define our future, as well” (p.16).  Not surprisingly, the article omitted any reference to Biden’s support as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Biden had woven “past, present, and future into a single seamless garment” (p.16), Bacevich contends.  By depicting history as a “story of America rising up to thwart distant threats,” he had regurgitated a narrative to which establishment politicians “still instinctively revert in stump speeches or on patriotic occasions” (p.17) — a narrative that in Bacevich’s view “cannot withstand even minimally critical scrutiny” (p.16).  Redefining the United States’ “role in a world transformed,” to borrow from the book’s subtitle, will remain “all but impossible until Americans themselves abandon the conceit that the United Sates is history’s chosen agent and recognize that the officials who call the shots in Washington are no more able to gauge the destiny of humankind than their counterparts in Berlin or Baku or Beijing” (p.7).

Although history might well mark Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as an apocalyptic event and 2022 as an apocalyptic year, the “apocalypse” of Bacevich’s title refers to the year 2020, when several events brought into plain view the need to rethink American foreign policy.  The inept initial response to the Covid pandemic in the early months of that year highlighted the ever-increasing economic inequalities among Americans.  The killing of George Floyd demonstrated the persistence of stark racial divisions within the country.  And although the book appeared just after the presidential election of 2020, Bacevich would probably have included the assault on the US Capitol in the first week of 2021, rather than the usual transfer of presidential power, among the many policy failures that in his view made the year apocalyptic.  These failures, Bacevich intones:

 ought to have made it clear that a national security paradigm centered on military supremacy, global power projection, decades old formal alliances, and wars that never seemed to end was at best obsolete, if not itself a principal source of self-inflicted wounds.  The costs, approximately a trillion dollars annually, were too high.  The outcomes, ranging from disappointing to abysmal, have come nowhere near to making good on promises issued from the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon and repeated in the echo chamber of the establishment media (p.3).

In addition to casting doubts on the continued viability of NATO and questioning any US interest in the fate of Ukraine, After the Apocalypse dismisses as a World War II era relic the idea that the United States belongs to a conglomeration of nations known as  “the West,” and that it should lead this conglomerate.  Bacevich advocates putting aside ”any residual nostalgia for a West that exists only in the imagination” (p.52).  The notion collapsed with the American intervention in Iraq, when the United States embraced an approach to statecraft that eschewed diplomacy and relied on the use of armed force, an approach to which Germany and France objected.   By disregarding their objections and invading Iraq, President George W. Bush “put the torch to the idea of transatlantic unity as a foundation of mutual security” (p.46).  Rather than indulging the notion that whoever leads “the West” leads the world, Bacevich contends that the United States would be better served by repositioning itself as a “nation that stands both apart from and alongside other members of a global community” (p.32).

After the apocalypse – that is, after the year 2020 – the repositioning that will redefine America’s role in a world transformed should be undertaken from what Bacevich terms a “posture of sustainable self-sufficiency” as an alternative to the present “failed strategy of military hegemony (p.166).   Sustainable self-sufficiency, he is quick to point out, is not a “euphemism for isolationism” (p.170).  The government of the United States “can and should encourage global trade, investment, travel, scientific collaboration, educational exchanges, and sound environmental practices” (p.170).  In the 21st century, international politics “will – or at least should – center on reducing inequality, curbing the further spread of military fanaticism, and averting a total breakdown of the natural world” (p.51).  But before the United States can lead on these matters, it “should begin by amending its own failings (p.51),” starting with concerted efforts to bridge the racial divide within the United States.

A substantial portion of After the Apocalypse focuses on how racial bias has infected the formulation of United States foreign policy from its earliest years.  Race “subverts America’s self-assigned role of freedom,” Bacevich writes.  “It did so in 1776 and it does so still today” (p.104).  Those who traditionally presided over the formulation of American foreign policy have “understood it to be a white enterprise.”  While non-whites “might be called upon to wage war,” he emphasizes, but “white Americans always directed it” (p.119).  The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which seeks to show the centrality of slavery to the founding and subsequent history of the United States, plainly fascinates Bacevich.  The project in his view serves as an historically based corrective to another form of American exceptionalism, questioning the “very foundation of the nation’s political legitimacy” (p.155).

After the Apocalypse raises many salient points about how American foreign policy interacts with other priorities as varied as economic inequality, climate change, health care, and rebuilding American infrastructure.  But it leaves the impression that America’s relationships with the rest of the world have rested in recent decades almost exclusively on flexing American military muscle – the “failed strategy of militarized hegemony.”  Bacevich says little about what is commonly termed “soft power,” a fluid term that stands in contrast to military power (and in contrast to punitive sanctions of the type being imposed presently on Russia).  Soft power can include such forms of public diplomacy  as cultural and student exchanges, along with technical assistance, all of which   have a strong track record in quietly advancing US interests abroad.

* * *

To date, five full weeks into the Ukrainian crisis, the United States has conspicuously rejected the “failed strategy of militarized hegemony.”  Early in the crisis, well before the February 24th invasion, President Biden took the military option off the table in defending Ukraine.  Although Ukrainians would surely welcome the deployment of direct military assistance on their behalf, as of this writing NATO and the Western powers are fighting back through stringent economic sanctions – diplomacy with a very hard edge – and provision of weaponry to the Ukrainians so they can fight their own battle, in no small measure to avoid a direct nuclear confrontation with the world’s other nuclear superpower.

The notion of “the West” may have seemed amorphous and NATO listless prior to the Russian invasion.  But both appear reinvigorated and uncharacteristically united in their determination to oppose Russian aggression.  The United States, moreover, appears to be leading both, without direct military involvement but far from heavy-handedly, collaborating closely with its European and NATO partners.  Yet, none of Bacevich’s writings on Ukraine hint that the United States might be on a more prudent course this time.

Of course, no one knows how or when the Ukraine crisis will terminate.  We can only speculate on the long-term impact of the crisis on Ukraine and Russia, and on NATO, “the West,” and the United States.  Ukraine 2022 may well figure as a future data point in American exceptionalism, another example of the “triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy,” to borrow from President Biden’s Foreign Affairs article.  But it could also be one of the data points that its proponents choose to overlook.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 30, 2022





Filed under American Politics, American Society, Eastern Europe, Politics

Flawed Ideal

Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit:

What’s Become of the Common Good (Farrar Strauss and Giroux)


“Those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise as far as their talents will take them.”  This catchphrase, a favorite of politicians of all political stripes, captures in shorthand the American idea of meritocracy. More formally, Merriam-Webster defines meritocracy as a “system, organization, or society in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit.”  In a modern democracy, one would be hard pressed to argue against the idea that life’s major opportunities should be open to all who can prove themselves through talent and hard work.

Renowned Harvard professor Michael Sandel is not about to make that argument.  But in The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good, Sandel nonetheless delivers a searing critique of meritocracy today, primarily in the United States and secondarily in Great Britain.  Sandel, one of America’s best-known philosophers, begins The Tyranny of Merit by acknowledging that as an abstract principle, meritocracy has won the day in the United States, dominating the national debate about such matters as access to jobs, education, and public office.  “Our disagreements are less about the principle itself than about what it requires,” he writes. “When people complain about meritocracy, the complaint is usually not about the ideal but about our failure to live up to it” (p.119).

But in this provocative, against-the-grain work, Sandel asks us to consider the possibility that the real problem is not that we have fallen short in trying to live up to the meritocratic ideal, but that the ideal itself is flawed. Sandel’s argument rests on a straightforward premise: today’s meritocracy stratifies society into winners and losers, defined mostly by economic status and university diplomas, generating hubris among the winners and resentment and humiliation among the losers.

The winners, our elites, “believe they have earned their success through their own talent and hard work” (p.14),  Sandel writes.  They view success not as a matter of luck or grace, but as something earned through effort and striving, making success a “sign of virtue. My affluence is my due” (p.59).  The downside of meritocratic stratification is that those left behind—typically those without a college education—are perceived as being responsible for their fate, with “no one to blame but themselves” (p.14).  The result is that we have lost a shared notion of the common good and with it a sense of the solidarity that might bind us together in all our diversity.

The more we view ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, Sandel contends, the “less likely we are to care for the fate of those less fortunate than ourselves” (p.59).   Meritocratic hubris “banishes all sense of gift or grace. It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for solidarity” (p.25).  Sandel links meritocracy’s hard edge to rising economic inequality at home over the past four decades, accentuated by what we term globalization—the form of capitalism associated with freer international trade, increasingly inter-dependent markets and, in the United States, the loss of blue-collar jobs to foreign locations with lower labor costs.

The jump in economic inequality in the United States began around 1980 with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, while globalization took off after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Today, Sandel points out, the richest one percent in the United States take in more than the combined earnings of the entire bottom half of the population, with median income stagnating for the past forty years. In 1965, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the CEOs of America’s largest public corporations earned about twenty-one times what an average worker in the corporation earned; today, the ratio is 350 : 1.  One of Sandel’s key points is that rising economic inequality, combined with market-driven globalization, contributed to Donald Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 in the United States, to the Brexit vote that same year in the United Kingdom, and to the phenomenon known as populism in both countries and elsewhere around the world.

Sandel characterizes the Trump electoral victory as an “angry verdict on decades of rising inequality and a version of globalization that benefits those at the top but leaves ordinary citizens feeling disempowered” (p.17).   Trump’s victory tapped into a “wellspring of anxieties, frustrations, and legitimate grievances to which the mainstream parties had no compelling answer” (p.17-18).  It was also a rebuke for a “technocratic approach” to politics that is “tone-deaf to the resentments of people who feel the economy and the culture have left them behind” (p.17).

The meritocratic promise, Sandel emphasizes, is not one of greater equality, but of “greater and fairer mobility” (p.85).   Allocating jobs and opportunities according to merit simply “reconfigures inequality to align with ability” (p.117); it does not reduce inequality.  This reconfiguration “creates a presumption that people get what they deserve” (p.117).  To be sure, Sandel sees nothing wrong with hiring and promoting people based on merit. In fact, he writes, it is “the right thing to do,” (p.33), dictated by both efficiency and fairness.

But if we are to overcome the “tyranny of merit,” we need to rethink the way we conceive success, question the meritocratic conceit that those on the top have made it on their own, and challenge the inequalities of wealth and esteem that are “defended in the name of merit but that foster resentment, poison our politics, and drive us apart” (p.155).    To move beyond the “polarized politics of our time,” we must have a “reckoning with merit,” (14), Sandel argues, a reckoning that begins with the two domains of life most central to the meritocratic conception of success, education and work.

* * *

The Tyranny of Merit treats both education and work throughout but builds up to a final chapter on each: “The Sorting Machine,” largely a discussion of the admission process at elite American colleges and universities; and “Recognizing Work,” a plea for restoring a  sense of dignity to the work of those without a college or university degree.  Linking the two is what Sandel terms “credentialism,” the meritocratic insistence that a college degree is the “primary route to a respectable job and a decent life” (p.73).

Credentialism and “disdain for the poorly educated,” (p.95), Sandel suggests, may constitute the last acceptable prejudice in an age when racism and sexism are frowned upon in most circles.  The constant call for working people to improve their condition by getting a college degree, however well intentioned, “eventually valorizes credentialism and undermines social recognition and esteem for those who lack the credentials the system rewards” (p.89).  Building a politics around the idea that a college degree is a prerequisite for dignified work and social esteem, moreover, has a “corrosive effective on democratic life.  It devalues the contributions of those without a diploma, fuels prejudice against less educated members of society … and provokes political backlash” (p.104).

But if success in today’s meritocratic world is measured primarily by education and economic standing, it is unclear how the two fit together, part of a more fundamental question that runs through Sandel’s analysis: just who are meritocracy’s self-satisfied winners? How do we identify them?  Much of The Tyranny of Merit suggests that they are mostly the super-rich, such as Wall Street financiers and high-ranking corporate executives, along with top government officials, such as cabinet officers and leading legislators.  Sandel emphasizes—overemphasizes, in my view—the importance of a degree from an elite college or university, defined as one which admits less than 20% of its applicants.  But what about the Harvard graduate who goes on to be a high school math teacher?  Or the high school dropout who creates a wildly successful construction business and lives at the upper end of the upper middle-class?

 “The Sorting Machine,” Sandel’s chapter on higher education, focuses primarily on the differences in today’s meritocratic society between those credentialed with a college or university degree from an elite college or university, and those with degrees from other educational institutions, including community colleges.  Degrees from elite institutions are perceived all-too-often as the only reliable prerequisites for dignified work and social esteem—a ticket upward for those aspiring to rise on the economic ladder, and an insurance policy for those already there, that they don’t fall down the ladder.  But the majority of students at elite institutions, Sandel notes, still come from wealthy families, due in no small part to the many advantages that well-off parents can provide their children, giving rise to a “pervasive unfairness that prevents higher education from living up to the meritocratic principle it professes” (p.11).  Still, only about 20% of graduating high school seniors get caught up in the frenzied pursuit of admission to elite colleges and universities.

For the remaining 80%, Sandel writes, the “tyranny of merit is not about a soul-killing competition for admission but about a demoralizing world of work that offers meager economic reward and scant social esteem to those who lack meritocratic credentials” (p.188).   He quotes one of his students, a young man from Texas, who opined that one must work hard in high school to “get into a good college and get a good job. If not, you work in the oil fields” (p.77).  Becoming a plumber or electrician or dental hygienist, Sandel argues at another point, should be “respected as a valuable contribution to the common good, not regarded as a consolation prize for those who lack the SAT scores or financial means to make it to the Ivy League” (p.191).  That sentence more than puzzled me.

Had Sandel himself succumbed to the elitist conceit that the pathway to meaningful and important work is open only to graduates of a small sliver of higher education institutions, the very credentialism he seeks to discredit?  Or was he merely expressing the perception of many of his students, like the young man from Texas?  This binary view—the Ivy way or the highway­—may well be how the world looks from places like Harvard, within the belly of the elitist beast, but the real world is awash with leaders, movers, and shakers whose degrees do not come from hypercompetitive, elite American colleges and universities.

I am willing to venture that the president of just about any American college or university considered non-elitist would be delighted to provide the names of “famous” alumni and cite a litany of graduates who have gone on to important positions in the community and elsewhere in the world. As one personal example, while assigned to a United States Embassy in Eastern Europe, I worked under two different US Ambassadors, both extraordinary leaders with multiple talents, each a genuine superstar within the ranks of the US Foreign Service.  The first was a graduate of Arkansas State University, the second from Grand Valley State University in Michigan, neither likely to be on a list of elitist higher education institutions.

Sandel advocates more support, moral as well as financial, for non-elitist higher education institutions.  But his more pressing concern is to restore dignity to those without a college or university degree, a surprising 70% of the adult American population.  His chapter “Recognizing Work” focuses on the role of blue-collar workers in American society, particularly those who voted for Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections—thus mostly white blue-collar workers.

Sandel notes that from the end of World War II to the 1970s, it was possible for those without a college degree to find good work, support a family, and lead comfortable middle-class lives.  Globalization and the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs have made this far more difficult today. Although overall per capita income in the United States has increased 85% since 1979, white men without four-year college degrees now make less, in real terms, than they did then.  Any serious response to working-class frustrations, Sandel argues, should start with rethinking our notions of the common good as they apply to those without a college degree.

How a society honors and rewards work is “central to the way it defines the common good” (p.205), implicating such questions as what counts as a valuable contribution to the common good and what we really owe to one another.  Today we operate under what Sandel terms a market definition of the common good, where individual preferences and consumer welfare are paramount. If the common good is “simply a matter of satisfying consumer preferences,” Sandel contends, then market wages are a “good measure of who has contributed what. Those who make the most money have presumably made the most valuable contribution to the common good, by producing the goods and services that consumers want”  (p.208).

Sandel seeks to displace the market definition with a civic definition, rooted in the thinking of Aristotle and Hegel, the American republican tradition, and Catholic social thinking.  A civic definition is “inescapably contestable” (p.214), Sandel warns. We may never come to agree on its substantive terms but nonetheless need to engage in a debate over what those terms could include. This will require “reflecting critically on our preferences—ideally, elevating and improving them—so that we can live worthwhile and flourishing lives” (p.208).   Moving the debate about the dignity of work away from the market definition of the common good has the potential to “disrupt our partisan complacencies, morally invigorate our public discourse, and move us beyond the polarized politics that four decades of market faith and meritocratic hubris have bequeathed” (p.214).

Critical reflection on the common good and a renewed debate on the dignity of work are incontestably fine ideas, but is difficult to imagine any wide-scale debate in today’s United States that would take us in the direction of a wholesale change in the prevailing meritocratic ethos.   Yet, several pragmatic steps that could narrow the glaring economic disparities between the very rich and working-class Americans might, in turn, smooth some of the sharper edges of the meritocratic ethos and thereby enhance the dignity of work.

One place to start lies in changing tax policies.  A political agenda that recognizes the dignity of work, Sandel argues, would “use the tax system to reconfigure the economy of esteem by discouraging speculation and honoring productive labor” (p.218).  A consumption or “VAT” tax would be a modest step in this direction, along with a “financial transactions tax on high-frequency trading, which contributes little to the real economy” (p.219).  A more progressive income tax with higher rates on the highest brackets—top tax rates in the 1950s reached 91%—would also help narrow economic disparities, as would higher estate taxes, which today exempt all estate wealth up to about $12 million.  Then there is my favorite: enhanced funding for the IRS to equip the agency to better pursue high level tax fraud and avoidance.

Narrowing the economic gap can also be accomplished from below by more generous social welfare benefits, not unlike those contained in President Biden’s proposed Build Back Better Act: universal and free childcare, affordable health insurance, and extending the Child Tax credit and Earned Income Tax credit.  More job retraining programs need to be established for workers whose jobs move overseas and higher education—at both elite and non-elite institutions—needs to be made more accessible for young people from lower income families (to include pathways to relief for student debt).  Sandel mentions each briefly.  Surprisingly, he doesn’t give much attention to the potential of a reinvigorated organized labor movement to diminish some of the most glaring economic disparities in American society, which could in turn provide a tangible statement of the dignity and value of work.  The term solidarity, after all, is closely associated with the American labor movement.

* * *

Sandel’s trenchant critique of the meritocratic ethos in today’s United States leads — inescapably in my mind — to the conclusion that changing that ethos starts with narrowing the space between those at the top of the economic ladder and the ladder’s bottom half.  Until then, The Tyranny of Merit’s eloquently argued case for a more humane version of the common good could be scintillating subject matter for a (Sandel-led) philosophy seminar at Harvard, but with little likelihood of gaining traction in the world beyond.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 23, 2022






Filed under American Politics, Politics

The Cost of Women War Criminals’ Gendered Defenses


Izabela Stefjia and Jessica Trisko Darden, Women as War Criminals:

Gender, Agency, and Justice

(Stanford Briefs/Stanford University Press, 2020)

Most people, female as well as male, think of war crimes as the ignominious reserve of the male of the human species.  But in Women as War Criminals: Gender, Agency, and Justice, Izabela Stefjia and Jessica Trisko Darden, professors at Tulane and Virginia Commonwealth  University, respectively, contend that the gender “violence gap” in war crimes – the difference between the rate at which men and women commit violent acts – is “not as wide as is often thought, in part because women’s historical participation in wartime violence has willfully been ignored” (p.122).  Women war criminals, the authors contend, have gone unnamed or been underestimated, all part of an attempt to “preserve archetypal images of women as victims and men as perpetrators” (p.122; the authors cite Wendy Lower’s seminal work,  Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, a nuanced study of women who joined the Nazi cause and in surprising numbers abetted willingly and enthusiastically the Holocaust, reviewed here in 2016).

While no single document defines war crimes, the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions, the 1949 Geneva Convention, and the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court all identify and prohibit behaviors in the conduct of international and domestic conflicts that transgress internationally accepted norms, including torture, forced displacement and genocide.  Women as War Criminals revolves around four women charged with war crimes.  The four cases illustrate in different ways how gendered stereotypes can distort the outcome in proceedings to address those crimes, and how specific social and political contexts influence the construction of gendered arguments.

Stefjia and Trisko Darden bring to their work a perspective that could be described as both feminist and prosecutorial.  Violence by women, they argue, should be treated when proven as a prosecutor would treat it: an “autonomous choice clearly indicative of the human capacity for violence” (p.9).  The four cases are intended to demonstrate how gendered arguments in legal proceedings almost invariably deny or lessen women’s agency, often resulting in women being treated more leniently and escaping full accountability for their crimes.  Women who are “willing to cater to gender stereotypes through compliance, obedience, and apology are more likely to evade the full weight of their crimes” (p.126), the authors write.  However, context is critical in assessing women accused of war crimes.  In some contexts, gendered arguments can result in women being treated more harshly than men for similar offenses.  Focusing on women as war criminals, the authors add, does not “diminish the important and well-established fact that women are among the greatest victims of armed conflict” (p.121-22).

The first two of the four cases involve women accused of war crimes during the 1990s: Biljana Plavšić, charged with participation in the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims in the former Yugoslavia; and Pauline Nyiramasuhuk, indicted as an architect of the genocide against ethnic Tutus in Rwanda.  Each was a high-level official in her government and both were well into their adult years when they were implicated in war crimes.  Their cases, tried before recently established United Nations international tribunals, the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Court for Rwanda (ICTR), reflect the optimism of the 1990s that such tribunals could assign responsibility for war crimes in an unbiased fashion and thereby ameliorate the post-conflict political conditions in the two countries.

The last two cases involve women who found themselves engaged on opposite sides of the 21st century American-led “global war on terror” in the Middle East: Lynette England and Hoda Muthana.  Both were 20 when they entered conflict, decades younger than Plavšić and Nyiramasuhuk, and both were at or near the bottom of their respective organizations.  Both, moreover, became pregnant by male co-perpetrators and gave birth while in service to their organizations.

England was the US Army soldier famously photographed in 2004 abusing suspected terrorists captured in Iraq.  She faced a military court-marital in the United States.  Muthana was an American-born Muslim woman who traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) during the 21st century’s second decade.   While with ISIS, she allegedly incited violent acts against civilians, including urging the killing of Americans and the assassination of then-President Barack Obama.  Muthana married three times during her ISIS tenure, earning her the media moniker of “ISIS bride.”  Her first two husbands died in conflict.

Despite apparent similarities between England and Muthana, and between Plavšić and Nyiramasuhuk, each woman’s case is significantly different from the other three.  If there is a common denominator among the four, it lies in the readiness of all to downplay their own agency by arguing in their defense that they had been manipulated by males and predominantly male institutions.  These gendered defenses, the authors contend, disguise the “noteworthy ideological commitment to the cause they took up.”  All four believed, “with conviction, that they were fighting for the right side” (p.123).   Until we recognize that women can be as violent as men, capable of committing such heinous crimes as torture, rape, enslavement, mass murder, ethnic cleansing and genocide, the authors suggest, “we cannot expect their equal treatment under the law or in society” (p.131).

* * *

Biljana Plavšić was an accomplished agricultural scientist who held a PhD and had been a Fulbright scholar.  In 1992, she became co-president, along with the notorious war criminal Radovan Karadžić,  of Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity created within the larger state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  She was the only woman among 16 individuals indicted by the ICTY on war crimes charges involving the ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs.  Unlike the 15 males, Plavšić surrendered voluntarily and did not use the tribunal theatrically, either to ridicule it as the “ultimate enemy of their people” or to “express extreme nationalist narratives” (p.18), as did several of her male co-defendants.  She was originally indicted on nine counts, but eight, including genocide, were dropped in exchange for a guilty plea to one count of persecution on political, racial and religious grounds.

At her sentencing, Plavšić’s lawyers presented their client as the compliant “Mother of the Serb nation.”  Her lawyers seemed to be “seeking to prove that Plavšić was an obedient and virtuous woman” (p.27).  She regretted publicly the role she had played in heinous war crimes.  She too was a victim, she argued, “not of The Hague [or] the international community but of the political elite in Republika Srpska” and its “rogue leadership” (p.28) which she left.

Portraying Plavšić as a woman who was duped by her male peers proved to be an effective defense, as she was given a modest sentence, 11 years in prison minus 245 days spent in pre-trial detention.  She was released in October 2009 for good behavior, after serving about two-thirds of her sentence.  Many men considerably lower in the hierarchy and facing less serious charges received longer prison terms.  But rather than being duped by her Republika Srpska peers, Plavšić might better be seen as the woman who duped the ICTY and the international community.

While in prison, Plavšić wrote a scorching two-volume political memoir in Serbian, never translated into other major European languages, in which she all but admitted that her defense at the ICTY had been an act – that she fully supported the aims of Bosnia’s Serbian nationalists, even if she didn’t admit explicitly to participation in the specific war crimes of which she was accused.  Her memoir dismissed Serbian atrocities as a “fabrication;” portrayed NATO as the enemy of the Serbs; and contended that the United States sought to eradicate Serbia.  Diverging drastically from the image Plavšić sought to create at the ICTY, the memoir  demonstrated “disrespect and disregard for international criminal law and displayed extreme nationalism and racism” (p.38).   The ICTY, the authors note woefully, clearly “did not manage to convert a key female perpetrator into a reconciliatory figure through leniency and a reduced sentence” (p.42).

* * *

The Rwandan genocide of ethnic Tutsis in 1994, one of the most infamous episodes of mass violence and war crimes in modern history, was organized by a small group from the Hutu ethnic group that had been excluded from and disagreed with a power sharing agreement executed in 1990 between Hutus and Tutsis, Rwanda’s two major ethnic groups.  Three quarters of Rwanda’s Tutsi population were killed in the genocide, along with others who either “looked Tutsi” or were more moderate Hutus.

Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, the Rwandan Minister of Family and Women’s Development, was one of the key inner circle members of the government which planned the massacre of Tutsis and opposition Hutus.  Nyiramasuhuko was tried at the ICTR in a group of six, with five men, all considered to be at the top of the criminal pyramid.  Like the five men, she was accused of crimes against humanity that included aiding and abetting in the slaughter of Tutsis.  She allegedly encouraged men, including her son, to commit rape of Tutsi women.

At Nyiramasuhuko’s trial, her lawyers cast her as an “unaware, uninformed, innocent victim of male leaders,” suggesting that she was a “passive participant” (p..62).  They sought to normalize her image by “portraying her as a pious and devoted mother” (p.46).  But for her victims and the accusers, Nyiramasuhuko was “especially guilty and vicious because she [was] a woman and a mother” (p.59).  That she was a mother made her participation worse for her victims and accusers, the authors sardonically observe, “as if somehow being a father and a perpetrator is not a common characteristic of male genocidaires” (p.54).

The ICTR didn’t buy gendered arguments from either side.  The court was “not open to the argument that Nyiramasuhuko was a woman duped by genocidal men” (p.62).  It convicted her of genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, violence to life, and outrages against personal dignity, along with the crimes against humanity of extermination, persecution and rape.  She became both the “only woman tried and convicted by an international court for the crime of genocide” and the “only woman to be tried and convicted by an international criminal trial for rape as a crime against humanity” (p.49), thereby “shattering the image of men being exclusive perpetrators of rape” (p.55).  The ICTR gave Nyiramasuhuko and her son life sentences, with her sentence reduced in 2015 to 47 years.

The ICTR’s rejection of gender-related arguments cast the court as an “objective legal institution, interested only in the facts” (p.64).  But the authors nonetheless characterize the court’s avoidance of gender as a missed opportunity to probe more deeply into how masculinity and femininity in the Rwandan context affected the horrific violence.  Treating Nyiramasuhuko’s case as no different from that of her co-accused males, the authors contend, resulted in the court fitting her into what they characterize as the “violent ‘African savage’ stereotype” (p.70).  The ICTR case against Nyiramasuhuko was thus “influenced by ingrained biases about how African actors behave in conflicts” (p.46).

“Relying exclusively on gender to understand female war criminals diminishes their social, political, and material motives,” the authors conclude in their summary of Nyiramasuhuko’s case.  But removing gender entirely, as the ICTR did,“denies the gendered context in which the crimes took place” (p.65).

* * *

Lynette England gained notoriety in the spring of 2004, when renowned investigative reporter Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker magazine on torture and extensive prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison that was once home to Saddam Hussein’s torturers and became, as the authors put it, “synonymous with the excesses of America’s War on Terror” (p.71).  Among the photos accompanying Hersh’s article was one of England in a t-shirt and fatigues, “holding what appeared to be a leash wrapped around the neck of a naked man” (p.72).

England, who grew up in Appalachia, had been diagnosed with a learning disability as a child.  While in high school, she signed up for the U.S. Army Reserves.  After graduation, she married her boyfriend and mobilized with her reserve unit for deployment.  Shortly after her arrival in Iraq, England, still legally married, met Charles Graner.  Contrary to Army regulations, England and Graner began a sexual relationship which resulted in England’s pregnancy.  She gave birth to her son, Carter, about six months after the abuse scandal had broken.

After a first court-marital, in which the military judge refused to accept her guilty plea, England’s second court-martial generated far more media attention than those of the males who were more deeply involved in abuse of Iraqi prisoners.  In that proceeding, England’s defense team “intentionally used her gender and status as a mother to minimize her role in the abuse by depicting her as sexually and emotionally exploited by an older, higher ranked man” (p.73-74).  England was portrayed as an “uncivilized, promiscuous Hillbilly-turned-Torturer” (p.79), at the bottom of both the American social hierarchy and the military hierarchy – “incapable of making good decisions as evidenced by her divorce, pregnancy, and participation in torture” (p.80).  As a so-called “Hillbilly,” England’s social status was “seen by some observers as enforcing her culpability” (p.81).

For institutional as much as strategic reasons, England’s defense team did not seek to question the military’s role in creating conditions conducive to torture and perhaps even in directing soldiers to commit abusive acts.  The overall objective of the Abu Ghraib courts-martial , the authors contend, was to “deflect blame away from the Army and toward the individual perpetrators rather than establishing a broader system of accountability” (p.88).  The prosecution too, while recognizing England’s agency, “failed to consider the broader social and institutional environment that the abuse occurred in” (p.88).

England was found guilty on 7 of 8 counts and sentenced to three years in military prison.  The male soldiers’ sentences varied based on their cooperation with the investigation.  Graner received the stiffest sentence as the ringleader of the abuse.  There were a few soldiers higher up in the chain of command who had their career advancement blocked, but most escaped punishment.  The lesson to be derived from England’s court martial, the authors conclude, is that when women soldiers face military justice, they will be judged for “failing not only as soldiers, but as women” (p.94).

* * *

Hoda Muthana was born in New Jersey in 1994 to immigrant parents from Yemen.  Her father was a Yemeni diplomat who chose to remain in the United States after his diplomatic tour ended.  After graduation from high school, Muthana enrolled in business school at the University of Alabama.  In 2014, she left university to join ISIS in Syria, where she became one of its public spokespersons.  On social media, she took the name of Umm Jihad, Mother Jihad.

Early in her tenure with ISIS, Muthana married a 23-year-old man from Australia, of Middle Eastern background.  Her husband was killed in battle less than three months after their marriage and, after a period of mourning, she married a 19-year-old Tunisian who too was killed in combat, when Muthana was 7 months pregnant.  She gave birth to a son, Adam, and remarried still another time, but little detail is known about her third husband.

Muthana fled ISIS-controlled territory in mid-December 2018.  Stressing her youth and  her status as a mother, she described herself as having been “brainwashed,” “traumatized, and “manipulated” by ISIS (p.105).  In January 2019, Muthana surrendered to opposition Kurdish forces and was placed in a holding camp.  As of the authors’ writing, she and her son lived in a tent, along with about 4,400 other women and children affiliated with ISIS.  She expressed publicly a desire to return to the United States to face potential criminal charges for her actions in Syria.  But that path seems to be legally foreclosed.

In 2016, the State Department sought to strip Muthana of her of US citizenship based on a revised understanding of her father’s diplomatic status.  He was still subject to diplomatic immunity when she was born, the Department argued.  Muthana’s father sued in federal district court to challenge that decision, with the case centered around what his daughter had done for ISIS.  The district court affirmed the State Department’s decision, thereby denying Muthana American citizenship.  Last month, the Supreme Court turned down the request to review the district court decision, and it is unclear whether Muthana will ever be called to account in a legal forum.

The authors manifest little sympathy for Muthana’s claims of brainwashing and manipulation while with ISIS, but would plainly like to see those claims and the accusations of terrorist acts attributed to her subject to the scrutiny of a legal proceeding.  Yet she still warrants study as an example of the gendered stereotyping baked into the term “ISIS bride.”  The term attaches a woman to a man’s agenda, they contend, thereby acknowledging women’s agency “only within the framework of marriage” and downplaying the “very real engagement of these women with ISIS’s ideology” (p.102).

There is no evidence that Muthana joined ISIS because she was “persuaded to by a man,” or that she did so for the “primary purpose of getting married” (p.102), the authors argue.  And  there is ample evidence of her strong ideological convictions: she viewed her actions in Syria as in line with God’s laws, in which the founding of a Muslim state or caliphate is an obligation of every Muslim, regardless of gender race, or nationality.  These ideological convictions were wholly absent in media reporting about Muthana and those of other so-called ISIS brides.  That the women of ISIS, and not the men, are able to press claims of youth, manipulation and victimization reflects the “deeply gendered bias in both media portrayals and the legal treatment of ISIS members” (p.108).

* * *

The four cases, disparate as they may be, reveal women war criminals to be like their male counterparts,  Stefjia and Trisko Darden write,  “political actors willing to act on their convictions and use their trials and notoriety to further their messages” (p.123). Women implicated in war crimes, moreover, are uncomfortably similar to other women across the globe in at least one sense – they too are “committed to making a mark and having a voice in a man’s world” (p.123).

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

February 1, 2022




Filed under Gender Issues, Rule of Law

Tomsbooks@10: Beyond the Singular ‘They’




Ten years ago today, on January 22, 2012, a time when I barely understood what a blog was, tomsbooks vaulted into cyberspace with a review of John McWhorter’s Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care.

John McWhorter, “Doing Our Own Thing- The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care.”

McWhorter has since become a regular columnist on language-related issues for the New York Times, and I chuckle that I had the temerity in that first review to take him to task for using what has come to be known as the “singular they,” as in: “if a person is writing a blog, they need to know what they’re talking about.”  I counted some 19 of these constructions in McWhorter’s book, any one of which would have earned him an “F” from my 9th grade English teacher.

2012 was before the issue of gender sensitivity had risen to the fore, at least for me, and I didn’t have a clue then as to what a non-binary person might be or where that person – see, I didn’t have to use “they” — stands in a gendered world.  I just thought the singular “they” was wrong as a matter of basic English grammar.  Ten years later, as I have gradually come to understand a little about being non-binary, I still think the singular “they” is wrong.  Just plain wrong.  Period.

Without giving an inch on my view of the “singular they” since that initial January 2012 posting, tomsbooks has moved intrepidly on, with most reviews concentrated in the core subject areas of modern history, politics and political theory.  Over the course of ten years, the overriding objective of tomsbooks has remained the same: to bring to the attention of non-specialist readers recent works in these core areas that are unlikely to make the best seller lists yet may be worthy of their precious reading time.  If my ten-year count is accurate, I have now reviewed 193 books, in 178 separate postings on this blog (chronological and subject matter lists available on request).

The subject matter of some but not all of the books reviewed here falls within these core areas.  Over the past five years, I have veered occasionally into the world of literature, with reviews of several books on literary works and their authors, among them:  James Joyce, Albert Camus, Victor Hugo, Joseph Conrad, Franz Kafka, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In 2021, moreover, I began a partnership with Tocqueville 21, a blog affiliated with the American University of Paris and its Center for Critical Democracy Studies.  Tocqueville 21 seeks to encourage in-depth thinking about democratic theory and practice, with particular but by no means exclusive emphasis on the United States and France.  I have now posted 12 reviews on the Tocqueville 21 blog, all of which also appeared here.  I am confident that this fruitful partnership will continue in 2022, as tomsbooks begins its 11th year.

My association with Tocqueville 21 has re-enforced a conclusion I reached five years ago, writing in late 2016 on the occasion of tomsbooks’ forthcoming 5th anniversary, that most of the books reviewed, including those with a literary bent, explore some aspect of modern liberal democracy, more often indirectly, occasionally directly.  I defined liberal democracy as the system of government that “seeks to maximize both individual liberty and equality among citizens, through free and fair elections, the rule of law, free but regulated markets, and respect for human rights.”  Liberal democracy is also decidedly pluralist, “seeking to provide a channel for as many voices as possible to compete for influence in a free and orderly, if at times cacophonous, process.”  Those of us lucky enough to have been born or raised in the United States, Great Britain or Western Europe in the post World War II era grew up with imperfect yet functioning versions of liberal democracy, to the point where it became  all too easy to take its multiple benefits for granted.

I went on to note that many of the books reviewed on tomsbooks addressed instances where liberal democracy has “gone off the rails,” most notably in Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia, two subjects that remain of great interest (and, for those who believe that reading is an uplifting pastime that can make us better moral beings, I can’t help but point out that both Hitler and Stalin were voracious readers).


While writing in late 2016, I was also bracing for the incoming Trump administration and seeing disquieting signs for liberal democracy.  The man the United States had just elected as its next President seemed to be “at best indifferent to the ideals of liberal democracy, often hostile.”  Earlier that year, Great Britain in the “Brexit” campaign tinged with no small doses of anti-immigrant sentiment, notoriously elected to pull out of the European Union, probably the most ambitious multi-national liberal democracy project of the post-World War II era.  I also noted how anti-democratic, authoritarian governments appeared to be on the rise elsewhere, including Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and Russia (with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán usually given credit for coining the term “illiberal democracy”).  I concluded in late 2016 that the world’s global civilization appeared to be “heading into the darkest and most difficult period for liberal democracy since the 1930s. We can only hope that a catastrophe analogous to the world war that erupted at the end of that decade can be averted.”

Much has happened in the five years since I wrote that passage.  Thankfully, no open conflict similar to a far-ranging war has broken out in the interim, although the current pandemic has often been compared to a worldwide war and there are plenty of reasons to be nervous about the possibility of widespread violence, starting on the Russian-Ukraine border, but also in locations as divergent as Iran, Taiwan and the India-China and India-Pakistan borders.

But if “concern” best described my feelings about the future of liberal democracy in late 2016, “terrified” better captures those feelings now, especially as applied to my home country, the United States of America.  As I write this, an authoritarian assault on American democratic norms, values, and institutions — what some writers have termed a

slow moving coup” — appears to be taking place before our eyes.  In a narrow sense, the assault arises out of the notion that somehow the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from Donald Trump and that Joe Biden, despite winning more than 7 million votes more than Trump and a decisive majority in the Electoral College, is somehow an illegitimate president – a view supported by no empirically verifiable evidence yet shared by an astonishingly high percentage of my compatriots.

The counter-factual notion of a stolen election, of course, precipitated the assault on the US Capitol in January of last year, an event that would have seemed to me like the stuff of third-rate fiction back in late 2016.  But largely out of public sight, state legislative majorities of the Republican Party – the party of Lincoln, the party that once stood for full civil rights and empowerment of formerly-enslaved persons while the Democratic Party unabashedly supported racial segregation and second class citizenship for African Americans — are making voting more difficult in several states, with the obvious intention of dampening the turnout of traditional Democratic voters, particularly African Americans.  Even more stealthily, Republican majority legislatures are passing laws that would allow those legislatures to override the votes of their citizens in the anachronistic Electoral College process utilized for presidential elections.

At his address at the US Capitol earlier this month to commemorate the January 6th uprising at the US Capitol, President Biden castigated the movement to make voting more difficult.  In state after state, the President observed, “new laws are being written — not to protect the vote, but to deny it; not only to suppress the vote, but to subvert it; not to strengthen or protect our democracy, but because the former president lost . . . It’s wrong.  It’s undemocratic.  And frankly, it’s un-American.”



Two books reviewed here in March of 2021 — also the first two which I reviewed for Tocqueville 21 — reached similar conclusions by different paths: James Miller, Can Democracy Work: A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World and William Davies, Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason.  Miller demonstrated that expansion of the right to vote — who gets to participate in the representative process of selecting leaders – was at the heart of democracy’s march forward in the 19th century, a march  accompanied by many steps backward.

Miller’s historical overview shows how, in the United States, Great Britain and on the European continent, the requirements of property ownership for male voting were gradually loosened and then disappeared; and, in the United States, the vote was extended to formerly enslaved persons (albeit often more in theory than in practice).  Women would have to wait until the 20th century to gain voting rights.  But by the mid-20th century, the universal right of all citizens to vote had become commonly accepted among all functioning democracies around the world.  It was and is the glue that holds together the other institutions and values we consider essential to democracy.

To this historical perspective, Davies added that a functioning democracy depends upon a widespread acceptance of a common core of empirically verifiable facts — “some commonly agreed starting point, that all are willing to recognize.”  How then, the review asked in conclusion, can a democracy work when there is “widespread disagreement with an incontrovertible fact, especially one that goes to democracy’s very heart, in this case the result of the vote and the peaceful transfer of power after an orderly election?”

That question is still with us a year later.  It will at a minimum lurk in the background as tomsbooks enters its second decade.  At times, the second decade may look much like the first, a continuation of reviews of books that raise issues pertinent to liberal democracy, yet often in ways that are not directly obvious.  But I suspect readers will also see more books under review here in the months and years ahead that address head-on the existential question of how democracy, especially but not exclusively in the United States, can be preserved or – I shudder to think – how American democracy might be restored.  I hope you will continue to read, including perhaps some of the books reviewed here, and that you will continue to think about the critical issues which these books raise — issues to be confronted as citizens as well as readers.  And, of course, I hope you will refrain from the temptation to use the singular “they.”

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

January 22, 2022





Filed under Uncategorized

Frenchness and Jewishness, Eternally Incompatible?

James McAuley, The House of Fragile Things:

Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France

(Yale University Press, 2021)

In The House of Fragile Things, Washington Post Global correspondent James McAuley examines the place of Jews and the role of anti-Semitism in French history and culture, from the perspective of four prominent Jewish families and their art collections.  The four families—whose histories he details over the course of an approximate hundred-year period, from the second half of the nineteenth-century through the first half of the twentieth—are the Camondos, Reinachs, Cahens d’Anvers, and, most familiar but least important to the story, the Rothschilds. All four families migrated to France from points further east; all amassed huge fortunes in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, mostly in the banking and financial sectors; and, as befit France’s upwardly mobile bourgeoisie of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all pieced together extraordinary art collections, displayed in opulent houses and châteaux which they designed.  From one generation to the next, moreover, their young men and women regularly married among themselves.

McAuley uses the four families’ experiences to highlight the tension between France’s official adherence to the universal republican values of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution—based on the equality of all men (and sometimes even women!), all simply “citizens” in the French Republic, without regard to other identities—and the ever-present force of anti-Semitism, sometimes hidden, often overt.  In its most virulent form, anti-Semitism held that Jews, including the wealthy Jews who are the subject of the study, could never be fully French.  Understanding the world of these Jewish families and their battles against anti-Semitism, McAuley argues, constitutes a key to “one of the central and unresolved dilemmas in modern French history: the place of minority communities in a society of ‘universal’ citizens … that emerged from the French Revolution” (p.6).

The families McAuley portrays demonstrated their allegiance to France by embracing wholeheartedly the republican values of the Revolution.  They were “careful architects of an identity that sought to present Frenchness and Jewishness as symbiotic, and perhaps even as natural extensions of each other” (p.6).  They collected art, especially pieces with a noble provenance and history, as “testimonies to the specific people they were but also to the proud identity this milieu sought to build—Jewish and French, particular and universal” (p.7).   As different as the collections might have been from one another, they constituted for their collectors a public statement—their attempt to write Jews into France’s national narrative, buttressing the argument in favor of the “eternal compatibly of Frenchness and Jewishness” (p.188).

But rather than being eternal, McAuley soberly concludes, the compatibility of Frenchness and Jewishness proved to be an illusion.  The conclusion became inescapable with the fall of France in 1940, when the invading Nazis found a willing partner in the collaborationist Vichy regime, a regime which undertook the “great undoing of the French Revolution [as] a nationalist rejoinder to the excesses of liberal democracy and the impotence of a decadent society” (p.215).   Within months, the “entire social world” that the families had assiduously constructed over the course of a century revealed itself as a most “fragile thing” indeed, a social world that was “quickly and deliberately destroyed with the approval—and even the encouragement—of the same nation they had championed”  (p.217).

* * *

The French Revolution provided citizenship to France’s sizeable Jewish population.  But it also induced a strident conservative reaction, based on a vision of France as Catholic, aristocratic, and monarchial, a country deeply tied to the land and rural life.  In nineteenth-century French conservative circles, the universal values of the Revolution came to be perceived as a “discourse about Jews,” McAuley writes, who were viewed as the “victors of the Revolution” (p.49).  As the four families prospered in the second half of the nineteenth century, anti-Semitism waxed and waned, but came unambiguously to the forefront during the century’s last decade with the polarizing treason trials of Alfred Dreyfus (in 2012, I reviewed here three works on the Dreyfus Affair).

Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew with an impeccable military record, was falsely accused of passing military secrets to the Germans.  In 1899, after the zealous campaign of the “Dreyfusards,” led by Emile Zola and his famous tract J’Accuse, Dreyfus was pardoned and released from prison. He was then given a second trial in which he was again found guilty despite evidence strongly supporting his innocence. It was not until 1906 that a military commission officially exonerated him.  Joseph Reinach, a prominent member of McAuley’s elite Jewish milieu, became France’s most consistent and fierce defender of Dreyfus after Zola, writing a detailed and authoritative account of the affair.

Except for Reinach’s writing, however, the elite milieu remained mostly silent about the “collective wound” (p.67) of the Dreyfus affair, retreating into a “fierce clannishness” that “transcended the injunction to marry within the Jewish community” (p.163; marriage outside the faith was not only a recurring source of friction for the families; in the case of women, it may have been a way of asserting independence from the families’ tribal patriarchy).  The Dreyfus affair jeopardized the four families’ “carefully constituted social positions” (p.65) and forced them to see themselves as others saw them, underscoring the “fragility of their illusions” (p.64).  For McAuley’s families, Dreyfus constituted what he terms a “bitter reminder that the world as they understood it was not the world as it was, and that in fact it never had been” (p.65).

As the families sought escape from late-nineteenth-century anti-Semitism, art collecting came to be seen more as a necessity than just a rich man’s pastime, providing the collectors with a “profound sense of solace and sanctuary” (p.7).  In the Dreyfus era, France’s most acerbic anti-Semitic commentators frequently expressed their disdain for Jews and Judaism in material terms, criticizing the Jewish collectors and their collections as “inauthentic,” the work of “outsiders” who could never acquire true French aristocratic taste.  For Edmond de Goncourt, a prominent anti-Semitic journalist of the 1880s and a “self-appointed arbiter of taste,” Jews were “fundamentally counterfeit, doomed to a mimetic parroting of a national identity that could never be theirs” (p.47-48; the annual Prix Goncourt, awarded today for France’s most imaginative literary work, is named after Goncourt and his brother).  Léon Daudet, another virulently anti-Semitic journalist, attacked Jewish collectors through the objects they bought and the houses they owned.  They were no more than “facsimiles of Frenchmen,” Daudet contended, “truncated, hybrid beings … in search of an impossible nationality” (p.48).

The opportunity to refute the premises of the era’s anti-Semitism once and for all came with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, less than a decade after Dreyfus’ exoneration.  McAuley quotes an historian who wrote that 1914 was the moment when elite Jews “definitively considered themselves emancipated in the spirit of 1789 and fully integrated into the nation” (p.91).  Most members of the four families felt a “profound sense of obligation to contribute to the French war effort in whatever way possible” (p.94).  There was “almost a sense of romance in conscription” (p.80), McAuley notes.  Some of the families offered their homes as military hospitals, with Jewish women often working as nurses.  For the elite milieu of the four families, World War I was the “moment when they definitely proved their Frenchness—at least in their own eyes” (p.80).

But the war’s potential for social redemption and personal glory quickly gave way to harsher realities.  Adolphe Reinach, the son of the Dreyfusard Joseph, was killed in the  Ardennes in August 1914.   McAuley, however, gives more attention to the death of Nissim de Camondo in 1917, shot down at age twenty-five in aerial combat somewhere over Lorraine.  From the time of Nissim’s death, McAuley’s often sprawling narrative focuses increasingly on the Camondo family: Nissim, his sister Béatrice, and their parents, Moïse and Irène Cahen d’Anvers.

* * *

Moïse de Camondo, born in Constantinople, in addition to directing and adding to the family’s banking fortune, became the foremost art collector among the four families.  In 1910, Moïse inherited a house from his mother on Paris’ rue de Monceau, at the edge of the Parc Monceau in the 8th arrondissement, which he remodeled after the Petit Trianon at Versailles.  As dedicated as he was to republican values, Moïse entertained a nostalgia for the eighteenth-century aristocratic era, an “imagined social world in which elites, as they had been before the French Revolution, were free to pursue lives of dalliance and refinement at the same time as they controlled the natural order that afforded them such pleasure” (p.107).

Moïse’s wife Irène became the center of a widely publicized scandal when she left her husband and two children to marry an Italian count, and at the same time converted to Catholicism.  As an eight-year-old, Irène had been the subject of a famous Renoir portrait, La Petite Irène, to which McAuley refers throughout the narrative.  The portrait was seized by the Nazis; for a time became part of Hermann Göering’s personal collection; was recaptured by Irène after the war; and was then sold to a Ger­man-born Swiss arms man­u­fac­tur­er who had col­lab­o­rat­ed with the Nazis.

Nissim, Moïse and Irène’s only son, had been expected to take over the family business, but had not shown himself particularly adept at finance.  He seemed to look at military service in wartime as an escape from the listless existence of a rich but aimless young man.  The news of Nissim’s death devastated Moïse, who for a while stopped eating and sleeping, and refused initially to accept that his son was not coming back.  When Nissim’s body could not be located, denying him a proper Jewish burial, Moïse set out to reclaim his son’s remains with “more vigor than any other object he ever sought” (p.101).  It took him years, but he eventually arranged to steal the body and bring it back to Paris.

In the 1930s, Moïse donated both the rue Monceau house and the collection it contained to the French state.  The house became the Musée Nissim de Camando, designed both to memorialize Moïse’s fallen son and to celebrate the “ancien régime aesthetic” that Moïse had “tirelessly pursued for decades”  (p.192).  McAuley considers the museum—today part of Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs—as Moïse’s rejoinder to Goncourt and his ilk, demonstrating that a Jew “could not only be French but proudly so, a credible arbiter of what Moïse called the ‘glories of France’” (p.195).  A significant number of Jewish collectors established private collection museums in France in the 1920s and 1930s.  In 1935, the same year that Moïse bequeathed his house and collection to the state, Charles Cahen d’Anvers donated his country estate, Château de Champs, to France. The château was transferred to the Ministry of Culture in 1971.

* * *

In an inter-generational study that contains multiple portraits of individuals from the four families, Béatrice de Camondo—Moïse’s daughter and Nissim’s sister—stands out as McAuley’s lead character, featured both at the book’s opening and its closing.  A prominent Parisian socialite when France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Béatrice had two children, Fanny, then twenty years old, and Bertrand, seventeen.  In 1940, she was already separated from and in the process of divorcing her husband, Léon Reinach, an aspiring musician who was the son of Joseph Reinach’s brother, Théodore, a wide-ranging intellectual who had given his Greek-themed Villa Kérylos on the Cote d’Azur to the Institut de France in the 1920s.

Béatrice was also converting to Catholicism. She was typical of her generation of elite French Jews who felt little attachment to the Jewish faith or Jewish communal life.  She didn’t take particularly seriously the Vichy government’s edicts about Jews, which in her view were aimed at recent immigrant Jews, whom she and her family looked down upon.  Nor did she see any need to try to escape.  In September 1942, she wrote with emphasis that she was “certain” that she would be “miraculously protected” by God and the Virgin “for years”  (p.231).  In fact, McAuley notes, Béatrice’s protection lasted exactly three months.

Despite her claim to no longer being Jewish and her standing in the right social circles, despite her family’s contributions to French artistic and cultural life over generations, Béatrice was arrested and sent to the notorious holding camp at Drancy, outside Paris.  From there, she and her two children were deported to Auschwitz, where they died in early 1945, just weeks before the camp’s liberation by the Soviet Army. In a cruel irony, Béatrice’s ex-husband Léon also wound up at Auschwitz, and he too perished, in late 1944.

What Béatrice had failed to realize, McAuley writes, was that the establishment of the Vichy government and its persecution of France’s Jewish citizens was the end of the “hybrid identity that earlier generations had sought to refine and, ultimately, to display” (p.217).   From that time forward, Jews, including those who had strayed from Judaism, were “confined into a single identity category,” told in no uncertain terms that they no longer belonged to France, and that “in fact they never had” (p.217).  As part of his research, McAuley was able to uncover Béatrice’s death certificate, which stated that she had “Died for France” (“Mort pour la France”), the usual inscription for fallen soldiers like her brother Nissim.  Béatrice died not for France, McAuley writes indignantly, but “because of France, and specifically because she had been Jewish in France” (p.256).

The Moïse de Camondo line was extinguished entirely at Auschwitz.  As to those elite Jews who survived the war, the betrayals of the Vichy years irreversibly undermined the faith of many in the “nominally universal values of the French republic.”  Some renounced any kind of Jewish identity, while others left France for the United States, Great Britain, and South America.

* * *

Without mentioning specifically Eric Zemmour, McAuley alludes to the current French presidential candidate’s argument that the Vichy government protected French-born Jews as a matter of principle, targeting only foreign Jews (Zemmour has also questioned Dreyfus’ innocence).  Most historians agree that French-born Jews fared better than foreign-born Jews under the Vichy regime, with approximately 75% surviving.  But that still means that 25% did not survive, McAuley notes, and his emphasis on Béatrice de Camondo’s fate brings the point home graphically.  By reminding us how extensive France’s unforgiving anti-Semitism was under Vichy, McAuley not only sheds light on a discomforting slice of French history.  He also provides a timely contribution to France’s polarizing contemporary debates about what it means to be French.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

January 17, 2022



Filed under France, French History, History, Religion

The Authoritarian Playbook for Uprooting Democracy


Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (Norton, 2020)

In late November of this year, the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) issued its annual report showing democratic slippage and authoritarian ascendancy throughout the world, with the United States included among the world’s backsliding democracies.  The report’s ominous conclusion was that the number of countries moving in the direction of authoritarianism is three times the number moving toward democracy.  Less than a month later, US President Joe Biden opened a “Summit for Democracy,” in Washington, D.C., attended virtually by representatives of more than 100 countries, along with civil society activists, business leaders and journalists.  Alluding to but not dwelling upon the increasing threats to democracy that the United States faces internally, Biden described the task of strengthening democracy to counter authoritarianism as the “defining challenge of our time.”

The short period between the IDEA report and the democracy summit coincided with the time I was grappling with Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, a work that provides useful but hardly reassuring background on today’s authoritarian ascendancy.  As her title suggests, Ben-Ghiat finds the origins of the 21st century version of authoritarianism in the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, appointed in 1922 by King Victor Emmanuel II to head the Italian government as Prime Minister, an appointment that marked the end of Italy’s liberal democratic parliamentary regime.

Ben-Ghiat defines authoritarianism as a political system in which executive power is concentrated in a single individual and predominates “at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches of government” (p.5), with the single individual claiming that he and his agents are “above the law, above judgment, and not beholden to the truth” (p.253).    A professor of history and Italian Studies at New York University and a leading academic expert on Mussolini and modern Italian history, Ben-Ghiat uses her knowledge of the man called Il Duce and his Fascist party’s rule in  Italy from 1922 to 1943 as a starting point to build a more comprehensive picture of leaders who have followed in Mussolini’s footsteps – the “strongmen”  of her title, or “authoritarians,” two terms she uses interchangeably.

Ben-Ghiat divides modern authoritarian rule since Mussolini’s time into three general historical periods: 1) the fascist era of Mussolini and his German ally, Adolph Hitler, 1919-1945;  2) the age of military coups, 1945 to 1990; and 3) what she terms the new authoritarian age, 1990 to the present.  But  Strongmen is not an historical work, arranged in chronological order. Ben-Ghiat focuses  instead on the tools and tactics selected strongmen have used since Mussolini’s time.

In ten chapters, divided into three general sections, “Getting to Power,” “Tools of Rule,” and “Losing Power,” Ben-Ghiat  elaborates respectively upon how strongmen have obtained, maintained, and lost power.  Each chapter sets forth general principles of strongman rule, to which she adds illustrative examples of how specific strongmen have adhered to the principles.   For Ben-Ghiat, the key tools in the strongman’s toolbox are propaganda, violence, corruption and, most originally, virility.  Each is the subject of a separate chapter, but they are “interlinked” (p.7) and each is referred to throughout the book.

Ben-Ghiat’s cast of characters changes from one chapter to the next, depending upon its subject matter.  At the outset, she lists 17 “protagonists,” authoritarian leaders who are mentioned at least occasionally throughout the book, including such familiar contemporary leaders as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.  But eight dominate her narrative: Mussolini and  Hitler, who personified the Fascist era, with Mussolini making an appearance in nearly every chapter; Spain’s General Francisco Franco, a transition figure from fascism to military coup, a fascist in the 1930s and a pro-American client during the Cold War;  Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who modeled himself after Franco and embodied the era of military coups; and four “modern” authoritarians, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, who served as Italy’s Prime Minister in three governments, from 1994 to 1995, 2001 to 2006, and 2008 to 2011; Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who followed Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic attempt in the 1990s to establish neoliberal democratic institutions after the fall of the Soviet Union; Libya’s Muamar Gaddafi, more a transition figure from the age of military coups to 21st century authoritarianism; and yes, America’s Donald Trump.  Reminding readers how closely Trump and his administration adhered to the authoritarian playbook appears to be one of the book’s main if unstated purposes.

Among the eight featured authoritarian leaders, all but Gaddafi rose to power in systems that were in varying degrees democratic.  How authoritarians manage to weaken democracy, often using democratic means, is the necessary backdrop to Ben-Ghiat’s examination of the strongman’s playbook.   All eight of her featured leaders sought in one way or another to undermine existing democratic norms and institutions.  Ben-Ghiat excludes strong women political leaders, such as Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher, for this very reason.  No woman leader has yet “sought to destroy democracy” (p.5), she argues, although she does not rule out the possibility that a future female leader could meet the authoritarian criteria.

Among the featured eight, moreover, only Gaddafi could be considered left of center on the political spectrum.  The other seven fit comfortably on the right side.  While there would be plenty of potential subjects to choose from for an examination of strongmen of the left – Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro all come readily to mind – Strongmen is largely an analysis of right-wing authoritarianism.  For Ben-Ghiat, as for President Biden, combatting this form of authoritarianism constitutes “one of the most pressing matters of our time” (p.4).

* * *

From Mussolini and Hitler to Berlusconi and Trump, the strongman’s rule has been almost by definition highly personal.  Strongmen, Ben-Ghiat argues, do not distinguish between their individual agendas and those of the nation they rule.  They have proven particularly adept at appealing to negative emotions and powerful resentments.  They rise to power in moments of uncertainty and transition, generating support when society is polarized, or divided into two opposing ideological camps, which is “why they do all they can to exacerbate strife”  (p.8).

A strongman’s promise to return his nation to greatness constitutes the “glue” (p.66) of modern authoritarian rule, Ben-Ghiat argues.  The promise typically combines a sense of nostalgia and the fantasy of returning to an imagined earlier era with a bleak view of the present and a glowing vision of the future.  In the chaos of post-World War I Italy, Mussolini invoked the lost imperial grandeur of the Roman Empire.  Putin speaks nostalgically of the Soviet era.  Trump’s 2017 inaugural address cast the United States as a desolate place of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” (p.58), the dystopian picture of contemporary America which underpinned his ubiquitous slogan Make America Great Again.

Franco and Pinochet were typical of right-wing authoritarians who organized the path to the glorious future around counterrevolutionary crusades against perceived leftist subversives.  But in what are sometimes termed “developing” or “Third World” countries,” the return to national greatness focuses more frequently upon the remnants of foreign occupation.  Rather than leading a revolt against pre-existing democratic institutions and norms, anti-imperialist leaders like Gaddafi use their peoples’ “anger over the tyranny of Western colonizers to rally followers,” while adapting “traditions of colonial violence for their own purposes” (p.36), Ben-Ghiat writes.

To gain and maintain power, strongmen utilize a style of propaganda which Ben-Ghiat describes as a “set of communication strategies designed to sow confusion and uncertainty, discourage critical thinking, and persuade people that reality is what the leader says it is”  (p.93).  From Mussolini’s use of newsreels and Hitler’s public rallies to Trump’s use of Twitter, authoritarians have employed “direct communication channels with the public, allowing them to pose as authentic interpreters of the public will”  (p.93).

Propaganda, moreover, encourages people to see violence differently, as a “national and civic duty and the price of making the country great”  (p.166).  General Franco murdered and jailed Spanish leftists at an astounding rate, both in the Spanish Civil war, when he was supported by Mussolini and Hitler, and during World War II, when he remained neutral.  His claim to legitimacy rested on the notion that he had brought peace to the land and saved it from apocalyptic leftist violence.  But his real success, Ben-Ghiat writes, was in “creating silence around memories of his violence” (p.232).

Augusto Pinochet, fashioning himself in the image of Franco, also strove to present an image of Chile as a bastion of anti-communist stability.  But central to Pinochet’s rule was the systematic torture and execution of Chilean dissidents and leftists, “not [as] isolated sadism but state policy” (p.165), according to an Amnesty International report. Pinochet’s secret police agency, the DINA, drew upon neo-Nazis living among the country’s large German population to execute its mission of “cleansing Chilean society of leftist influence and making Chile a center of the international struggle against Marxism” (p.178).

Gaddafi envisioned himself as the center of an anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist world, and bankrolled a wide range of revolutionary and terrorist movements across the globe while adopting terrorist methods at home to eliminate Libyan dissenters. He used television to present violence as mass spectacle, subjecting dissenting students to public, televised hangings, including the  entire trial and execution of a dissident in 1984.  And Donald Trump’s calls for Hillary Clinton’s imprisonment and allusions to her being shot, shocking to many Americans, were “behaviors more readily associated with fascist states or military juntas” (p.62), Ben-Ghiat writes.

Almost invariably, strongmen use the power of their office for private gain, the classic definition of corruption.  In tandem with other tools, such as purges of the judiciary, corruption produces a system that tolerates criminality and encourages broader changes in behavioral norms to “make things that were illegal or immoral appear acceptable, whether election fraud, torture, or sexual assault” (p.144).  The term “kleptocracy,” much in vogue today, refers to a state in which the looting of public treasuries and resources often appears to be the central purpose of government.

Joseph Mubuto Sese Soko, the staunch anti-communist leader of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) from 1965 to 1997, appears here primarily to illustrate what US Representative Stephen Solarz termed in 1991 the “kleptocracy to end all kleptocracies,” in which Mobutu set the standard by which “all future international thieves will have to be measured” (p.14).   Mobutu’s country, awash in raw materials estimated to be worth in excess of $24 trillion, has the dubious distinction of being the world’s richest resource country with the planet’s poorest population, according to Tom Burgis’ insightful study of kleptocratic African regimes, The Looting Machine (reviewed here in 2016).    By the time he was forced into exile in 1997, Mobutu had amassed a $5 billion fortune, but Zaire had lost $12 billion in capital and resource flight and increased its debt by $14 billion.

New patronage systems allow the strongman’s cronies and family members to amass wealth, offering power and economic reward.  Vladimir Putin places oligarchs in competition for state resources and his favor, treating the country as an entity to be exploited for private gain.  While he poses as a nationalist defender against “globalists,” Putin uses global finance to launder and hide money.  He and his associates have removed an estimated $325 billion from Russia since 2006.  By 2019, 3% of the Russian population held 89% of the country’s financial assets.

Silvio Berlusconi maintained a curious and secretive relationship with Putin that almost certainly benefited him financially, typical of how Berlusconi normalized corruption by bending the institutions of Italian democracy to “accommodate his personal circumstances,” and by “partnering with authoritarians and elevating himself above the law” p.161).  He retained control over his extensive holdings in television, publishing and advertising, putting family members and loyalists in charge.  The vastness of his media empire “made it hard to police his mixing of personal and business interests”  (p.159).  While Italy remained a nominal democracy under Berlusconi, he turned the Italian government into what Ben-Ghiat describes as a “vehicle for accumulating more personal wealth and power on the model of the illiberal leaders he so admired” (p.246), alluding to his particular partnership with Putin and an even stranger partnership with Gaddafi.

Ben-Ghiat goes beyond other discussions of authoritarianism by highlighting the extent to which virility — a cult of masculinity —  enables the strongman’s corruption by projecting the idea that he is “above laws that weaker individuals must follow”  (p.8).  Displays of machismo are “not just bluster, but a way of exercising power at home and conducting foreign policy,” she writes.  Far from being a private affair, the sex lives of strongmen reveal how “corruption, propaganda, violence and virility work together.” (p.120).

In portions of the book most likely to appeal to adolescent males, Ben-Ghiat details the unconstrained sex lives of Mussolini and Gaddafi.   Paradoxically, Gaddafi afforded Libyan women far more independence than they had enjoyed before he came to power in 1969.  He promoted women as part of his revolutionary measures, while privately constructing a system – modeled, apparently, on that of Mussolini – to “procure and confine women for his personal satisfaction” (p.132).

Silvio Berlusconi “used his control of Italy’s television and advertising markets to saturate the country with images of women in submissive roles”  (p.134).  The young female participants in Berlusconi’s famous sex parties often received cash to help them start a business, a chance at a spot in a Berlusconi show, or a boost into politics.   Bare-chested body displays constitute an “integral part” of Vladimir Putin’s identity as the “defender of Russia’s pride and its right to expand in the world”  (p.121), Ben-Ghiat writes.

As to Donald Trump, the infamous Access Hollywood tapes which were released amidst the 2016 presidential campaign, in which he bragged about groping non-consenting women, did not sink his candidacy.  Instead, the revelations “merely strengthened the misogynist brand of male glamor Trump had built over the decades” (p.138).  Trump’s campaign and presidency seemed dedicated to “[r]eclaiming male authority,” Ben-Ghiat contends, which meant “creating an environment in which men can act on their desires with impunity” (p.139).

Gaddafi was the last of the authoritarians who used violence openly as a tool to maintain power.  In the social media age, mass killings often generate bad press. New authoritarians need to gauge the tolerance of elites and the public for violence.  21st-century strongmen like Putin and Recep Erdogan tend to warehouse their enemies out of public scrutiny, preferring targeted violence, information manipulation and legal harassment to neutralize dissenters.  They use platforms like Facebook and Twitter to “target critics and spread hate speech, conspiracy theories, and lies” (p.111), and attempt to impoverish opponents and potential opponents by expropriating businesses they or their relatives might own.

Ben-Ghiat’s book appeared just before the 2020 American presidential election, weeks before the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol, and before the notion of a “stolen election” took hold amongst a still-mystifyingly large portion of the American electorate.  But her insight that today’s authoritarians use elections to keep themselves in office, “deploying antidemocratic tactics like fraud or voter suppression to get the results they need” (p.49 ), reveals the extent to which former president Trump and a substantial segment of today’s Republican party, especially in key “battleground” states, are working off the strongman’s playbook.

* * *

After an apt dissection of  the way authoritarianism threatens the world’s democracies, Ben-Ghiat’s proposed solutions may leave readers wanting.  “Opening the heart to others and viewing them with compassion” (p.260) can constitute effective pushback against strongman rule, she argues.  Solidarity, love, and dialogue “are what the strongman most fears” (p.260-61).   More concretely, she emphasizes that to counter contemporary authoritarianism, we must “prioritize accountability and transparency in government” (p.253).   Above all, she recommends a “clear-eyed view of how strongmen manage to get into power and how they stay there” (p.250).  This deeply researched and persuasively argued work provides just such a view, making it a timely contribution to the urgent contemporary debates about the future of democracy.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

December 30, 2021







Filed under History, Politics, World History