Category Archives: 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

 

5 Comments

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.”

* * *

“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

 

 

 

11 Comments

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

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

 

6 Comments

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

 

 

 

 

 

8 Comments

Filed under History, Politics, World History

Stand By Your Nazi Man

 

James Wyllie, Nazi Wives:

The Women at the Top of Hitler’s Germany (St Martin’s, Press) 

With the proliferation of literature about seemingly every aspect of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime, women have hardly been overlooked.  One of the leading works is Wendy Lower’s 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, the Nazi project to exterminate Europe’s Jews (reviewed here in 2016).  But according to freelance British journalist and screenwriter James Wyllie, there has never been an in-depth study of the wives of the most notorious Nazis,  a gap he seeks to fill in Nazi Wives: The Women at the Top of Hitler’s Germany.  The absence of a serious study of the top Nazi wives, Wyllie contends, bolsters the claim made after World War II that they were helpless bystanders as the Nazi terror unfolded.  Wyllie seeks to refute this claim.  A close look at the women who married the leading Nazis also yields important insights into the nature of Nazi rule and the psychology of its leaders, he argues.

In Nazi Germany, the ideal woman was above all expected to be a child bearer, adding to the stock of the master Aryan race, while remaining compliant and subservient to her  husband.  Although supporting the goals and aspirations of the Third Reich, the Nazi woman was to be largely apolitical, with the serious questions of politics reserved for the men.  Concentrating on six women, Wyllie aims to demonstrate how the wives of Nazi leaders adhered in varying degrees to these standards, yet used their positions near the top of the party hierarchy to involve themselves, directly or indirectly, in the Nazi project.

Wyllie profiles: Isle Hess, wife of Rudolf Hess, Adolph Hitler’s chief deputy until he flew a solo mission to Scotland in 1941 in an attempt to negotiate peace with Great Britain; Magda Goebbels, married to chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels; Margaret Himmler, wife of Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzsaffell, the SS, the German paramilitary security unit, and a chief architect and implementer of the Holocaust; Gerda Bormann, whose husband Martin served as Hitler’s private secretary; Emmy Goering, second wife of Hermann Goering, commander-in-chief of the German Air Force, the Lutwaffe; and Lina Heydrich, married to Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s chief deputy in the SS who shared responsibility for design and implementation of the Holocaust and served as administrator of annexed Czechoslovakia until assassinated in Prague in 1942.  Also featured are Goering’s Swedish first wife Carin, perhaps the most fanatical Nazi among the women depicted in the book, who died early in her husband’s career; and Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress who became his wife 36 hours before both took their own lives in a Berlin bunker as the Red Army moved in on the shattered capital.

Wyllie has amassed an impressive amount of information about these women, arranged in rough chronological order against the backdrop of familiar events, beginning with the Nazis’ rise from obscurity to power in post-World War I Germany, through their defeat in 1945, and ending in the early post-World War II era.  He goes into strikingly intimate detail: how they met their husbands, in some cases when the couple first had sex together, how their marriages functioned and malfunctioned, how they squabbled among themselves, and the children each couple reared.

The six women came from similar backgrounds.  All were reasonably well educated, raised in conservative middle-class families, Catholic and Protestant.  They were inculcated with what Wyllie describes as a sense of “strident patriotism” (p.10), based on a belief in the superiority of German culture, a hatred of socialism and a “fear that the unruly masses would devour them” (p.10).  They came of age in the “profoundly insecure and volatile circumstances” of post-World War I Germany.  “Old certainties were gone,” writes Wyllie. “The civilized conventions of their parents’ generation appeared increasingly irrelevant.  Cut adrift, they each gravitated towards a self-styled savior who promised the world” (p.11).

That savior was of course Adolph Hitler, the Führer.  In a study of women, Hitler is unavoidably the book’s core character.  Each of the women Wyllie portrays had a different relationship to the Führer, but all were able to “enjoy their many privileges and their gilded lifestyles because Hitler allowed them to(p.264-65).  Consequently, Wyllie   probes each woman’s relationship to Hitler.  “Any power the top Nazi wives had was entirely dependent on his goodwill,” he asserts.  “One false move was enough to ruin them; Hitler could reduce them to nothing with the wave of his hand”  (p.265).

But Wyllie also probes the women’s relationship to the Nazi regime, examining their ideological side, their anti-Semitism, and the degree to which they were aware of the gruesome details of the Nazi project.   After the Nazi defeat, none who survived evinced  willingness to accept responsibility for the havoc and destruction their husbands had wreaked upon Germany and Europe.  But these weighty questions are relegated mostly to the final chapters and seem secondary to the mundane and sometimes prurient details of the women’s personal lives.

** *

Hitler abstained from marriage and a normal family life because he considered himself married to the German people, the reason his relationship with Eva Braun was kept under wraps and largely out of public view (long-standing readers of this blog will recall my 2013 review  of two biographies of Braun).  When off duty, the Führer preferred the company of women and took great interest in the top Nazi wives, an interest “bound up with his need for an extended family” (p.264).  He was “more relaxed and comfortable in the company of women, as long as they openly and unconditionally adored him, didn’t discuss politics and conformed to the stereotypes he found attractive” (p.265).

When necessary, the Führer played the role of matchmaker and marriage counselor for his extended family.  Hitler coaxed Deputy Führer Rudolph Hess into popping the question with an impatient Isle Pröhl.  Isle had been involved with the procrastinating Hess for more than seven years, in a relationship Wyllie describes as sexless, held together primarily by the couple’s “unquestioning enthusiasm for Hitler’s poisonous ideology” (p.18).  The couple married in a small civil ceremony in December 1927, with Hitler serving as a witness.

The Führer took a different route to coax Magda Quant into marriage with his chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels.  Magda, “sophisticated, multilingual, well-travelled, elegant, poised, at ease in elevated company and never short of male admirers” (p.43), had been married and was divorced when she first met Joseph while working in his propaganda department.  From the beginning it was a volatile relationship, in no small measure because Joseph rejected monogamy as an “outdated bourgeois convention” and “made no secret of his own insatiable sexual appetite” (p.50), yet could not abide the thought of Magda with another man.

Hitler at least fantasized about having a clandestine affair with Magda and concluded that he might enhance his seductive fantasy if she were married.  Magda, no doubt infatuated with the Führer, appeared willing to enter a triangular relationship that would involve marrying the chief Nazi propagandist.  We don’t learn whether Hitler’s interest in Magda ever progressed beyond fantasy, but Magda and Joseph married in 1931, with Hitler again serving as a witness.

When Joseph’s affair with a Czech actress took the couple to the cusp of divorce, the Führer intervened, bringing the couple together at his mountain retreat, the Berghof, where he made “brutally clear” (p.192) that they would have to mend their marriage and Joseph would have to stop seeing his Czech paramour; otherwise, both would lose their exalted places in the Nazi hierarchy.  The couple got the message and stayed together.  Their marriage produced six children, all of whom they infamously killed before themselves committing suicide in the final days of the Third Reich.

Magda Goebbels appears to have been the only one of the six Nazi wives who did not genuinely love and admire her husband. But she was hardly the only one whose marriage was tested by her husband’s extramarital affairs. Margaret Boden, a Red Cross nurse, married SS chief Heinrich Himmler, eight years younger.  After having a daughter and adopting a son together, her dour husband fell in love with his twenty-six-year-old secretary, Hedwig.  She and the SS chief had two children together.  Although Heinrich spent most of his spare time with Hedwig and his new family, he regularly wrote tender love letters to Margaret and delivered presents to her and their children.  At Christmas 1944, with the Nazi war machine in full retreat, Margaret expressed in her diary how proud she was that “all of Germany” (p.218) looked up to her husband.

Gerda Buch, daughter of Walter Buch, a high-ranking military officer in World War I who fell under Hitler’s spell in the aftermath of the war, met Hitler when she was a teenager and called him “Uncle Adolf.”   From an early age, Gerda “lived and breathed Hitler’s ideology.  It was second nature to her” (p.266).  Through her father, Gerda met Martin Borman, who surely calculated that an “association with the daughter of such a prominent Nazi could only smooth his passage through the ranks of the party” (p.40). When the couple wed, Hitler and Hess served as witnesses.

Gerda, Wyllie’s nomination for the  wife who adhered most closely to ideal Nazi feminine standards, had seven children with Martin, even while her husband pursued liaisons with multiple women during the couple’s married life and probably abused his wife physically.  Gerda didn’t fight back, didn’t seek help, and didn’t confide in anyone else.  She believed it was her duty to obey her husband, and “there’s every indication that she was truly devoted to Bormann” (p.96-97).

Gerda also befriended Himmler’s mistress Hedwig.  That Himmler was married to another woman was in Gerda’s view the natural way men were, the “healthy expression of a man’s biological need to reproduce” (p.202).  She had the same attitude toward her husband and his serial extra-marital affairs. When Martin departed from his usual habit of short stands by falling for an actress—one who had previously rejected Goebbels’ advances—Gerda was oddly unopposed to the affair.  She seems to have conceived of a ménage-à-trois where the two women would produce children for Martin, thereby contributing to Germany’s efforts to increase its sagging national birthrate.

* * *

The Nazi leadership was notorious for its infighting, bureaucratic rivalries, and sharp competition for the Führer’s favor.  It is thus no surprise that sharp competition also marked many of the relationships between the wives of the top leadership.  The Nazi wives competed continually for the informal moniker of “First Lady” of Nazi Germany, a contest to which Wyllie returns repeatedly.  Eva Braun, although recognized as the alter ego of the Führer among the women at the Berghof, was kept under wraps and never part of the competition (Braun was nevertheless often quite assertive among the women at the Berghof).  Once the Nazis seized power in 1933, Magda Goebbels was the obvious candidate to assume this public role.  She gave the first Nazi Mother’s Day address via national radio, and, with her husband and their children, was constantly photographed as the “perfect Nazi family” (p.75).

But the Goebbels’ marital difficulties left Magda open to competition from Emmy Goering, Herman’s second wife and an accomplished actress.  While all the Nazi wives lived well during the 1930s and most of the war years, the Goerings were in a class by themselves for  unabashed opulence.   Their vast estate, known as “Carinhall” after the deceased Carin, dwarfed the accommodations of the other top Nazis.  The couple’s lavish lifestyle attracted much public attention.  For a while during the mid-1930s, Emmy and Herman became the Nazis’ “first couple” (p.80).

But if Emmy’s increasingly high profile was a “direct challenge to Magda’s status as the First Lady of the Reich” (p.75), Magda was able to hold on to her title because Hitler never warmed to Emmy.  Among the top wives, she was the “least interested in Nazism” (p.267).  Hitler didn’t disparage or criticize her, but he was “never relaxed around her either,” Wyllie indicates. “There was none of the intimacy or the meeting of minds that he experienced with Magda” (p.84-85).

The fiercest rivalry was between Lina Heydrich and Margaret Himmler, whose husbands forged a surprisingly close working relationship as top SS brass until Reinhard was assassinated in Prague in 1942, leaving Lina a widow.  Before her husband’s death, Lina yearned to be the most influential SS wife, a position Margaret held by virtue of her husband’s lead role in the SS.  Lina “couldn’t bear playing second fiddle to a woman for whom she had nothing but contempt.  Lina thought Margaret was inferior to her in every way and never missed an opportunity to ruthlessly put her down” (p.113).  She sabotaged Margaret’s efforts to host regular tea parties for SS wives.  Margaret, less outspoken than Lina, sought to have her husband tell Lina’s husband that he should divorce Lina.

But for all the energy the two women expended sniping at one another, Wyllie describes both as “snobs” who “looked down their noses at most of humanity” (p.266).  Moreover, the two women shared a fervent anti-Semitism.  Margaret, visiting the Eastern Front, reacted to the “Jew trash” she saw — “most of them don’t even look like human beings” (p.169).    As a young woman, Lina loathed the Polish Jews who had settled in her Baltic fishing village: “to her, they were like an alien species.” Later, when she lived on an estate outside Prague, according to one of the estate’s Jewish prisoners, she “spat at her workers, calling them ‘Jewish pig[s]’” (p.209).

* * *

All but Magda Goebbels survived the war and each found herself alone in the post war era.  Along with Joseph Goebbels, Himmler and Goering took their own lives, and Bormann likely did the same.  Hess remained imprisoned until his death in 1987.  Although the Allies’ post-war justice system treated the women lightly, all engaged in denial and deception over their roles and those of their husbands in the Nazi project.  Margaret Himmler told an American journalist she had seen press coverage about the death camps and “knew her husband would be blamed.”  She told the journalist she was “just a woman” who “did not understand politics” (p.245).

Lina Heydrich wrote a book, candid and in its own way “disarmingly honest” (p.253).  She was unapologetic about the ideological convictions she shared with her husband, and shameless about their racism, while downplaying her husband’s direct involvement in the Holocaust.  Lina was obsessed by the idea that her husband was being treated “unfairly by posterity.”  He was being judged harshly for acts he considered an “unavoidable political necessity,” as she put it.  It was all too easy to condemn the “decisions of those times from today’s warm bed” (p.252), Lina wrote.

Emmy Goering wrote a spirited a defense of her husband, My Life with Goering, which avoided the issues that had marked her husband’s career.  Hermann’s  only crime had been loyalty to Hitler, she contended.  A woman in love “thinks only of her partner’s success, and it is of little importance to her how he obtains it” (p.261).  But among the top Nazi wives, Emmy came closest to expressing an iota of remorse about what the Nazis had done and the extent to which she and her husband may have been responsible.

“I often wonder now,” Emmy wrote, if we should not have been “a little more vigilant and when we saw injustices being done, if we should not have put up stronger resistance, especially to Hitler over the Jewish question” (p.261).   Wyllie characterizes Emmy’s uneasiness as “willful blindness,” which was “not accidental” but rather “typical of many Germans who benefited from the regime and preferred to ignore its brutal excesses and look the other way, rationalizing their lack of resistance and passive complicity” (p.267).  In an account heavy on the minutiae of the personal lives of the top Nazi wives, “willful blindness” may be the most apt common denominator tying those lives together.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

December 7, 2021

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Looking at the Arab Spring Through the Lens of Political Theory

Noah Feldman, The Arab Winter: A Tragedy

(Princeton University Press)

2011 was the year of the upheaval known as the “Arab Spring,” a time when much of the Arabic-speaking world seemed to have embarked on a path toward democracy—or at least a path away from authoritarian government. The upheaval began in December 2010, when a twenty-six-year-old Tunisian street fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, distraught over confiscation of his cart and scales by municipal authorities, ostensibly because he lacked a required work permit, doused his body with gasoline and burned himself.  Protests began almost immediately after Bouazizi’s self-immolation, aimed at Tunisia’s autocratic ruler since 1987 Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  On 14 January 2011, Ben Ali­­, who had fled to Saudi Arabia, resigned.

One month later, Hosni Mubarak­, Egypt’s strongman president since 1981, resigned his office. By that time, protests against ruling autocrats had broken out in Libya and in Yemen. In March, similar protests began in Syria. By year’s end, Yemen’s out-of-touch leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had been forced to resign, and Colonel Muammar Qaddafi—who had ruled Libya since 1969—was driven from office and shot by rebels. Only Syria’s Bashar al-Assad still clung to power, but his days, too, appeared numbered.

The stupefying departures in a single calendar year of four of the Arab world’s seemingly most firmly entrenched autocrats sent soaring the hopes of many, including the present writer.  Finally, we said, at last—at long, long last—democracy had broken through in the Middle East. The era of dictators and despots was over in that part of the world, or so we allowed ourselves to think. It did not seem far-fetched to compare 2011 to 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and countries across Central and Eastern Europe were suddenly out from under Soviet domination.

But as we know now, ten years later, 2011 was no 1989: the euphoria and sheer giddiness of that year turned to despair.  Egypt’s democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi was replaced in 2013 by a military government that seems at least as ruthlessly autocratic as that of Mubarak.  Syria broke apart in an apparently unending civil war that continues to this day, with Assad holding onto power amidst one of the twenty-first century’s most severe migrant and humanitarian crises.  Yemen and Libya appear to be ruled, if at all, by tribal militias and gangs, conspicuously lacking stabilizing institutions that might hold the countries together.  Only Tunisia offers cautious hope of a democratic future. And hovering over the entire region is the threat of brutal terrorism, represented most terrifyingly by the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS.

It is easy, therefore, almost inescapable, to write off the Arab Spring as a failure—to saddle it with what Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman terms a “verdict of implicit nonexistence” (p.x), as he phrases it in The Arab Winter: A Tragedy.  But Feldman, a seasoned scholar of the Arabic-speaking world, would like us to look beyond notions of failure and implicit nonexistence to consider the Arab spring and its aftermath from the perspective of classical political theory.  Rather than emphasizing chronology and causation, as historians might, political theorists—the “philosophers who make it their business to talk about government” (p.8) —ask a normative question: what is the right way to govern? Looking at the events of 2011 and their aftermath from this perspective, Feldman hopes to change our “overall sense of what the Arab spring meant and what the Arab winter portends” (p.xxi).

In this compact but rigorously analytical volume, Feldman considers how some of the most basic notions of democratic governance—political self-determination, popular sovereignty, political agency, and the nature of political freedom and responsibility—played out over the course of the Arab Spring and its bleak aftermath, the “Arab Winter” of his title.   Feldman focuses specifically on Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and ISIS, each meriting a separate chapter, with Libya and Yemen mentioned intermittently.  In an introductory chapter, he addresses the Arab Spring collectively, highlighting factors common to the individual countries that experienced the events of the Arab Spring and ensuing “winter.”  In each country, those events took place within a framework defined by  “political action that was in an important sense autonomous” (p.xiii).  

The Arab Spring marked a crucial, historical break from the era in which empires—Ottoman, European and American—were the primary arbiters of Arab politics.  The “central political meaning” of the Arab Spring and its aftermath, Feldman argues, is that it “featured Arabic-speaking people acting essentially on their own, as full-fledged, independent makers of their own history and of global history more broadly” (p.xii).  The forces arrayed against those seeking to end autocracy in their countries were also Arab forces, “not empires or imperial proxies” (p.xii).  Many of the events of the Arab Spring were nonetheless connected to the decline of empire in the region, especially in the aftermath of the two wars fought in Iraq in 1991 and 2003.  The “failure and retreat of the U.S. imperial presence” was an “important condition in setting the circumstances for self-determination to emerge” (p.41).  

 While the massive protests against existing regimes that erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, Syrian, Libya, and Yemen in the early months of 2011 were calls for change in the protesters’ own nation-states, there was also a broader if somewhat vague sense of trans-national Arab solidarity to the cascading calls for change.  By “self-consciously echoing the claims of other Arabic-speaking protestors in other countries,” Feldman argues, the protesters were “suggesting that a broader people—implicitly the Arab people or peoples —were seeking change from the regime or regimes . . . that were governing them” (p.2). The constituent peoples of a broader trans-national Arab “nation” were rising, “not precisely together but also not precisely separately” (p.29).  

 The early-2011 protests were based on the claim that “the people” were asserting their right to take power from the existing government and reassign it, a claim that to Feldman “sounds very much like the theory of the right to self-determination” (p.11).  The historian and the sociologist would immediately ask who was making this “grand claim on behalf of the ‘people” (p.11).  But to the political theorist, the most pressing question is “whether the claim was legitimate and correct” (p.11).   Feldman finds the answer in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, first published in 1689. Democratic political theory since the Second Treatise has strongly supported the idea that the people of a constituent state may legitimately seize power from unjust and undemocratic rulers. Such an exercise of what could be termed the right to revolution is “very close to the central pillar of democratic theory itself” (p.11).   Legitimate government “originates in the consent of the governed;” a government not derived from consent “loses its legitimacy and may justifiably be replaced” (p.12).  The Egypt of the Arab Spring provides one of recent-history’s most provocative applications of the Lockean right to self-determination. 

* * *

Can a people which opted for constitutional democracy through a legitimate exercise of its political will opt to end democracy through a similarly legitimate exercise of its political will?  Can a democracy vote itself out of existence?  In his chapter on Egypt, Feldman concludes that the answer to these existential questions of political theory is yes, a conclusion that he characterizes as “painful” (p.59).  Just as massive and legitimate protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January 2011 paved the way for forcing out aging autocrat Hosni Mubarak, so too did massive and legitimate protests in the same Tahrir Square in June 2013 pave the way for forcing out democratically-elected president Mohamed Morsi.

Morsi was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood—a movement banned under Mubarak that aspired to a legal order frequently termed “Islamism,” based upon Sharia Law and the primacy of the Islamic Quran.  Morsi won the presidency in June 2012 by a narrow margin over a military-affiliated candidate, but was unsuccessful almost from the beginning of his term.  In Feldman’s view, his most fatal error was that he never developed a sense of a need to compromise.  “If the people willed the end of the Mubarak regime, the people also willed the end of the Morsi regime just two and a half years later” (p.59),  he contends. The Egyptian people rejected constitutional democracy, “grandly, publicly, and in an exercise of democratic will” (p.24).  While they may have committed an “historical error of the greatest consequence by repudiating their own democratic process,” that was the “choice the Egyptian people made” (p.63).

Unlike in Egypt, in Tunisia the will of the people—what Feldman terms “political agency”—produced what then appeared to be a sustainable if fragile democratic structure.  Tunisia succeeded because its citizens from across the political spectrum “exercised not only political agency but also political responsibility” (p.130).  Tunisian protesters, activists, civil society leaders, politicians, and voters all “realized that they must take into account the probable consequences of each step of their decision making” (p.130).  

Moving the country toward compromise were two older politicians from opposite ends of the political spectrum: seventy-two-year-old Rached Ghannouchi, representing Ennahda—an Islamist party with ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood—and Beji Caid Essebsi, then eighty-five, a rigorous secularist with an extensive record of government service.  Together, the two men led a redrafting of Tunisia’s Constitution, in which Ennahda dropped the idea of Sharia Law as the foundation of the Tunisian State in favor of a constitution that protected religion from statist dominance and guaranteed liberty for political actors to “promote religious values in the public sphere”—in short, a constitution that was “not simply democratic but liberal-democratic” (p.140).  

Tunisia had another advantage that Egypt lacked: a set of independent civil society institutions that had a “stake in continued stability,” along with a “stake in avoiding a return to autocracy” (p.145).  But Tunisia’s success was largely political, with no evident payoff in the country’s economic fortunes. The “very consensus structures that helped Tunisia avoid the fate of Egypt,” Feldman warns, ominously but presciently, have “created conditions in which the underlying economic causes that sparked the Arab spring protests have not been addressed” (p.150).   

As if to prove Feldman’s point, this past summer Tunisia’s democratically-elected President Kais Saied, a constitutional law professor like Feldman, froze Parliament and fired the Prime Minister, “vowing to attack corruption and return power to the people. It was a power grab that an overwhelming majority of Tunisians greeted with joy and relief,” The New York Times reported.  One cannot help but wonder whether Tunisia is about to confront and answer the existential Lockean question in a manner similar to Egypt a decade ago.

Protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began after both Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt had been forced out of office, and initially seemed to be replicating those of Tunisia and Egypt.  But the country degenerated into a disastrous civil war that has rendered the country increasingly dysfunctional.  The key to understanding why lies in the country’s denominational-sectarian divide, in which the Assad regime—a minority-based dictatorship of Alawi Muslims, followers of an off-shoot of Shiite Islam representing about 15 % of the Syrian population—had disempowered much of the country’s Sunni majority.  Any challenge to the Assad regime was understood, perhaps correctly, as an existential threat to Syria’s Alawi minority.  Instead of seeking a power-sharing agreement that could have prolonged his regime, Bashar sought the total defeat of his rivals.  The regime and the protesters were thus divided along sectarian lines and both sides “rejected compromise in favor of a winner-take-all struggle for control of the state” (p.78). 

The Sunnis challenging Assad hoped that Western powers, especially the United States, would intervene in the Syrian conflict, as they had in Libya.  United States policy, however, as Feldman describes it, was to keep the rebel groups “in the fight, while refusing to take definitive steps that would make them win.”  As military strategy, this policy “verged on the incoherent”  (p.90).  President Barack Obama wanted to avoid political responsibility for Bashar’s fall, if it came to that, in order to avoid the fate of his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who was considered politically responsible for the chaos that followed the United States intervention in Iraq in 2003.  But the Obama strategy did not lead to stability in Syria.  It had an opposite impact, notably by creating the conditions for the Islamic State, ISIS, to become a meaningful regional actor.

ISIS is known mostly for its brutality and fanaticism, such as beheading hostages and smashing precious historical artifacts.  While these horrifying attributes cannot be gainsaid, there is more to the group that Feldman wants us to see.  ISIS in his view is best understood as a utopian, revolutionary-reformist movement that bears some similarities to other utopian revolutionary movements, including John Calvin’s Geneva and the Bolsheviks in Russia in the World War I era.  The Islamic State arose in the aftermath of the failure and overreach of the American occupation of Iraq.  But it achieved strategic relevance in 2014 with the continuing breakdown of the Assad regime’s sovereignty over large swaths of Syrian territory, creating the possibility of a would-be state that bridged the Iraq-Syria border.  Without the Syrian civil war, “there would have been no Islamic State” (p.107), Feldman argues.

The Islamic State attained significant success through its appeal to Sunni Muslims disillusioned with modernist versions of political Islam of the type represented by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia.  With no pretensions of adopting democratic values and practices, which it considered illegitimate and un-Islamic, ISIS sought to take political Islam back to pre-modern governance.  It posited a vision of Islamic government for which the foundation was the polity “once ruled by the Prophet and the four ‘rightly guided’ caliphs who succeeded him in the first several decades of Islam” (p.102).

But unlike Al-Qaeda or other ideologically similar entities, the Islamic State actually conquered and held enough territory to set up a functioning state in parts of Syria.  Until dislodged by a combination of Western air power, Kurdish and Shia militias supported by Iran, and active Russian intervention, ISIS was able to put into practice its revolutionary utopian form of government.  As a “self-conscious, intentional product of an organized group of people trying to give effect to specific political ideas and to govern on their basis,” ISIS represents for Feldman the “strangest and most mystifying outgrowth of the Arab spring” (p.102).

* * *

Despite dispiriting outcomes in Syria and Egypt, alongside those of Libya and Yemen, Feldman is dogged in his view that democracy is not doomed in the Arabic-speaking world.  Feldman’s democratic optimism combines Aristotle’s notion of “catharsis,” a cleansing that comes after tragedy, with the Arabic notion of tragedy itself, which can have a “practical, forward looking purpose. It can lead us to do better” (p.162).  The current winter of Arab politics “may last a generation or more,” he concludes.  “But after the winter—and from its depths—always comes another spring” (p.162).  But a generation, whether viewed through the lens of the political theorist or that of the historian, is a long time to wait for those Arabic-speaking people yearning to escape autocracy, civil war, and terrorist rule.

Thomas H. Peebles 

Bethesda, Maryland 

November 10, 2021 

 

6 Comments

Filed under Middle Eastern History, Political Theory

Love Actually

 

Ann Heberlein, On Love and Tyranny:

The Life and Politics of Hannah Arendt

Translated from Swedish by Alice Menzies (Pushkin Press, 2021)

Before she became a celebrated New York public intellectual, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) lived through some of the 20th century’s darkest moments. She fled her native Germany after Hitler came to power in 1933, living in France for several years.  In 1940, she spent time in two intern camps, then departed for the United States, where she resided for the second half of her life.  In 1950, Arendt became an American citizen, ending nearly two decades of statelessness.  The following year, she established her reputation as a serious thinker with The Origins of Totalitarianism, a trenchant analysis of how oppressive one-party systems came to rule both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the first half of the 20th century.  As a commentator observed in The Washington Post, Arendt’s work diagnosed brilliantly the “forms of alienation and dispossession that diminished human dignity, threatened freedom and fueled the rise of authoritarianism.”

The Origins of Totalitarianism was one of a handful of older works that experienced a sudden uptick in sales in early 2017, after Donald Trump became president of the United States (George Orwell’s 1984 was another).  The authoritarian impulses that Arendt explained and Trump personified seem likely to be with us for the foreseeable future, both in the United States and other corners of the world.  For that reason alone, a fresh look at Arendt is welcome.  That is the contribution of  Ann Heberlein, a Swedish novelist and non-fiction writer, with On Love and Tyranny: The Life and Politics of Hannah Arendt.  

Heberlein’s work, ably translated from the original Swedish by Alice Menzies, constitutes the first major Arendt biography since 1982, when Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s highly-acclaimed but dense Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World first appeared.  On Love and Tyranny, by contrast, is easy to read yet hits all the highlights of Arendt’s life and work.  Disappointingly, there are no footnotes and little in the way of bibliography. Heberlein makes use of the diaries of a key if problematic figure in Arendt’s life, philosopher Martin Heidegger, which only became public in 2014 and cast additional light on Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies.  But it is difficult to ascertain from the book itself what other new or different sources Heberlein utilized that might have been unavailable to Young-Bruehl.

Although Arendt studied philosophy as a university student, she preferred to describe herself as a political theorist.  But despite the reference to politics in her title, Heberlein’s portrait accents Arendt’s philosophic side.  She emphasizes how the turbulent circumstances that shaped Arendt’s life forced her to apply in the real world many of the abstract philosophical and moral concepts she had wrestled with in the classroom.  As the title suggests, these include love and tyranny,  but also good vs. evil, truth, obligation, responsibility, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

At Marburg University, where she entered in 1924 as an 18-year-old first year student, Arendt not only studied philosophy under Heidegger, already a rising star in German academic circles, but also began a passionate love affair with the man.  Heidegger was then nearly twice her age and married with two young sons (their affair is detailed in Daniel Maier-Katkin’s astute Stranger from Abroad, Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger: Friendship and Forgiveness, reviewed here  in 2013).   Arendt left Heidegger behind when she fled Germany in 1933, but after World War II re-established contact with her former teacher, by then disgraced because of his association with the Nazi regime. A major portion of Heberlein’s work scrutinizes Arendt’s subsequent, post-war relationship with Heidegger.

Heberlein also zeroes in on Arendt’s very different post-war relationship to a seemingly very different man, Adolph Eichmann, Hitler’s loyal apparatchik who was responsible for moving approximately 1.5 million Jews to Nazi death camps.  Arendt’s series of articles for The New Yorker on Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961 became the basis for another of her best-known works, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, published in 1963, in which she portrayed Eichmann as neither a fanatic nor a pathological killer, but rather a stunningly mediocre individual, motivated more by professional ambition than by ideology.

The phrase “banality of evil,” now commonplace thanks to Arendt, followed her for the rest of her days. How the phrase applies to Eichmann is of course well-ploughed ground, to which Heberlein adds a few insights.  Less obviously, Heberlein lays the groundwork to apply the phrase to Heidegger.  Her analysis of the banality of evil suggests that the differences between Heidegger and Eichmann were less glaring in the totalitarian Nazi environment, where whole populations risked losing their ability to distinguish between right and wrong.

* * *

Arendt was the only child of Paul and Martha Arendt, prosperous, progressive, and secular German Jews.  Paul died when Hannah (born Johanna) was 7, but she remained close to her mother, who immigrated with her to the United States in 1941. Meeting with Heidegger as a first-year student in 1924 was for Arendt “synonymous with her entry into the world of philosophy,” Heberlein writes.  Heidegger was “The Philosopher personified: brilliant, handsome, poetic, and simply dressed” (p.28).  The Philosopher made clear to the first-year student that he was not prepared to leave his wife and family or the respectability of his academic position for her.  She met him whenever he had time and was able to escape his wife.

The unbalanced Arendt-Heidegger relationship “existed solely in the shadows: never acknowledged, never visible”, (p.40) as Heberlein puts it.  Arendt was never able to call Heidegger her partner because she “possessed him for brief intervals only, and the fear of losing him was ever-present” (p.41).   Borrowing a perspective Heberlein attributes to Kierkegaard and Goethe, she describes Arendt’s love for Heidegger as oscillating “between great joy and deep sorrow—though mostly sorrow” (p.31).  For these writers, whom Arendt knew well, love consisted “largely of suffering, of longing, and of distance” (p.31).  The 18-year-old, Heberlein concludes, was “struck down by a passion, possibly even an obsession, that would never fade” (p.31).

Arendt left Marburg after one year, ending up at Heidelberg University.  She later admitted that she needed to get away from Heidegger.  But she continued to see him while she wrote her dissertation at Heidelberg on St. Augustine’s conception of love. Her advisor there was the esteemed theologian and philosopher Karl Jaspers, with whom she remained friends up to his death in 1969.

After university, Arendt worked in Berlin, where she met Gunther Stern, a journalist, poet and former Heidegger student who was closely associated with the communist Berthold Brecht.  Arendt married Stern in 1929 at age 23.  Sometime during her period in Berlin, she cut off all contact with Heidegger.  But after the Nazis came to power, Arendt began hearing alarming rumors about several specific anti-Semitic actions attributed to Heidegger at Fribourg University, where he had been appointed rector.  She asked him in a letter to clarify by responding to the rumors, and received back a self-pitying, aggressive response that she found entirely unconvincing.

1933 was also the year Arendt and her mother left Germany and wound up in Paris. There she met Heinrich Blücher, a self-taught, left wing German Jewish political activist. She and Stern had by then been living apart for several years, and she divorced him to marry Blücher in early 1940. The couple remained together until Blücher’s death in 1970. They were sent to separate intern camps just prior to the fall of France in 1940, but escaped together through Spain to Portugal, where they immigrated to the United States in 1941 and settled in New York.

Arendt’s first return trip to Europe came in late 1949 and early 1950.  With Blücher’s approval, she sought out her former teacher, then in Fribourg, meeting with Heidegger and his wife Elfried in February 1950.  Understandably suspicious, Elfried seems to have understood that Arendt was in a position to help rehabilitate her husband, besmirched by his association with the Nazi regime, and accepted that he wanted Arendt to again be part of his life.  Arendt maintained a warm relationship with her former professor until her death in 1975 (Heidegger died less than a year later), writing regularly and meeting on several occasions.

In the post-war years, as Arendt’s star was rising, she became Heidegger’s unpaid agent, working to have his writings translated into English and negotiating contracts on his behalf.  She also became an enthusiastic Heidegger defender, going to great lengths to excuse, smooth over, and downplay his association with Nazism.  She once compared Heidegger to Thales, the ancient Greek philosopher who was so busy gazing at the stars that he failed to notice that he had fallen into a well.

On the occasion of Heidegger’s 80th birthday in 1969, she delivered an over-the-top tribute to her former professor, reducing Heidegger’s dalliances with Nazism to a “10-month error,” which in her view he corrected quickly enough, “more quickly and more radically than many of those who later sat in judgment over him” (p.236).  Arendt argued that Heidegger had taken “considerably greater risks than were usual in German literary and university life during that period” (p.237).  As Heberlein points out, Arendt’s tribute was a counter-factual fantasy: there was no empirical support for this whitewashed version of the man.

Heidegger had openly endorsed Nazi “restructuring” of universities to exclude Jews when he became rector at Fribourg in 1933 and his party membership was well known. His diaries, published in 2014, made clear that he was aware of the Holocaust, believed it was at least partly the Jews’ fault and, even though he ceased to be active in party affairs sometime in the mid-1930s, remained until 1945 a “fully paid-up, devoted supporter of Adolph Hitler” (p.238).  Arendt of course didn’t have access to these diaries when she rose to Heidegger’s defense, but it seems unlikely they would have changed her perspective.

Arendt’s 1969 tribute left little doubt she had found her way to forgive Heidegger for his association and support for a regime that had murdered millions of her fellow Jews, wreaked destruction on much of Europe, and forced her to flee her native country to start her life anew an ocean away. But why? Heberlein writes that forgiveness for Arendt was the conjunction of the conflicting powers of love and evil.  “Without evil, without betrayal, insults and lies, forgiveness would be unnecessary; without love, forgiveness would be impossible” (p.225).  Arendt found the strength to forgive Heidegger in the “utterly irrational emotion” that was love. Her love for Heidegger was “strong, overwhelming, and desperate. The power of the passion Hannah felt for Martin was stronger than the sorrow she felt at his betrayal” (p.226).  But whether it was right or wrong for her to forgive Heidegger, Heberlein demurely concludes, is a question only Arendt could have answered.

Did Arendt also forgive Eichmann for his direct role in transporting a staggering number of Jews to death camps? Is forgiveness wrapped within the notion of the banality of evil? Daniel Maier-Katkin suggests in his study of the Arendt-Heidegger relationship that in her experience with Heidegger, Arendt may have come to the notion of the banality of evil “intuitively and without clear articulation.”  That experience may have prepared her to comprehend that each man had been “transformed by the total moral collapse of society into an unthinking cog in the machinery of totalitarianism.”

Heberlein’s analysis of Eichmann leads to the conclusion that the notion of the banality of evil was sufficiently elastic to embrace Heidegger.  Heberlein sees the influence of Kant’s theory of “radical evil” in Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil.  For Arendt, as for Kant, evil is a form of temptation, in which the desires of individuals overrule their “duty to listen to, and act in accordance with, goodwill” (p.198).   The antidote to evil is not goodness but reflection and responsibility.  Evil grows when people “cease to think, reflect, and choose between good and evil, between taking part or resisting” (p.138).  Arendt’s sense of evil recognizes an uncomfortable truth that seems as applicable to   Heidegger as to Eichmann, that most people have a tendency to:

follow the path of least resistance, to ignore their conscience and do what everyone else is doing.  As the exclusion, persecution, and ultimately, annihilation of Jews became normalized, there were few who protested, who stood up for their own principles (p.199).

For Arendt, forgiveness of such persons is possible. But not all evil can be explained in terms of obedience, ignorance, or neglect. There is such a thing as evil that is “as incomprehensible as it is unforgiveable” (p.200).   In Heberlein’sinterpretation of Arendt, the genuinely evil person is the one who is “leading the way, someone initiating the evil, someone creating the context, ideology, or prejudices necessary for the obedient masses to blindly adopt” (p.201).  Whether Eichmann falls outside this standard for genuine evil is debatable. But the standard could comfortably exclude Heidegger, as Arendt had in effect argued in her 1969 tribute to her former teacher.

Arendt compounded her difficulties with the separate argument in Eichmann in Jerusalem that the Jewish councils that the Nazis established in occupied countries cooperated in their own annihilation.  The “majority of Jews inevitably found themselves confronted with two enemies – the Nazi authorities and the Jewish authorities,” Arendt wrote.  The “pathetic and sordid” behavior of Jewish governing councils was for Arendt the “darkest chapter” of the Holocaust – darker than the mass shootings and gas chambers — because it “showed how the Germans could turn victim against victim.”

The notion that Arendt was blaming the Jews for their persecution “quickly took hold,” Heberlein writes, and she was “forced to put up with questions about why she thought the Jews were responsible for their own deaths, in virtually every interview until she herself died” (p.192).  After Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt was shunned by many former colleagues and friends, repeatedly accused of being an anti-Israel, self-hating Jew, “heartless and devoid of empathy . . . cold and indifferent” (p.192).  When her husband died in 1970, Arendt’s isolation increased.  She was again in exile, this time existential, which surely enhanced her emotional attachment to Heidegger, the sole remaining link to the world of her youth.

* * *

Arendt’s ardent post-war defense of Heidegger, while generating little of the brouhaha that surrounded Eichmann in Jerusalem, is also a critical if puzzling piece in understanding her legacy.  Should we consider the continuation of her relationship with Heidegger as the simple but powerful triumph of Eros, an enduring schoolgirl crush that even the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust were unable to dispel?  Heberlein’s earnest biography points us inescapably in this direction.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 12, 2021

[NOTE: A nearly identical version of this review has also been posted to the Tocqueville 21 blog  maintained in connection with the American University of Paris’ Tocqueville Review and its Center for Critical Democracy Studies]

 

 

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Filed under History, Intellectual History, Political Theory

American Polarizer

 

 

 

James Shapiro, Shakespeare in a Divided America:

What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Our Future

(Penguin Press, 2020)

In June 2017, New York City’s Public Theater staged a production in Central Park of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, directed by Oskar Eustis, as part of the series known as Shakespeare in the Park.  As in many 21st century Shakespeare productions, non-whites had several leading roles and women played men’s parts.  Eustis’ Caesar, knifed to death in Act III, bore more than passing resemblance to President Donald J. Trump: he had strange blond hair, wore overly long red ties, tweeted from a golden bathtub, and had a wife with a Slavic accent.

A protestor interrupted one of the early productions, jumping on stage after the assassination of Caesar to shout, “This is violence against Donald Trump,” according to The New York Times.  Breitbart News picked up on the story with the headline “’’Trump’ stabbed to death.”  Fox News weighed in, expressing concern that the play encouraged violence against the president.  Corporate sponsors pulled out.  Threats were levied not only against the Public Theater and its actors, but also against other Shakespeare productions throughout the country.  A fierce but unedifying battle was fought on social media, with little regard for the ambiguities underlying Caesar’s assassination in the play.

The polemic engendered by Eustis’ Julius Caesar unsettled Columbia University Professor James Shapiro, one of academia’s foremost Shakespeare experts.  Shapiro also serves as Shakespeare Scholar in Residence at the Public Theater and in that capacity had advised Eustis’ team on some of the play’s textual issues. His most recent work, Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Our Future, constitutes his response to the polemic, in which he demonstrates convincingly that the frenzied reaction to the 2017 Julius Caesar performance was no aberrational moment in American history.

Starting and finishing with the 2017 performance, Shapiro identifies seven other historical episodes in which a Shakespeare play has been enmeshed in the nation’s most divisive issues: racism, slavery, class conflict, nationalism, immigration, the role of women, adultery and same sex love.  Each episode constitutes a separate chapter with a specific year. Shapiro dives deeply and vividly into the circumstances surrounding all seven, revealing a flair for writing and recounting American history that rivals what he brings to his day job as an interpreter of Shakespeare, his plays and his age.  Of the seven episodes, the most gripping is his description of the 1849 riot at New York City’s upscale Astor Place Opera House, one of the worst in the city’s history up to that point.  By comparison, the 2017 brouhaha over Julius Caesar seems like a Columbia graduate school seminar on Shakespeare.

* * *

Fueled by raw class conflict, nationalism and anti-British sentiment, the Astor Place riot was described in one newspaper as the “most sanguinary and cruel [massacre] that has ever occurred in this country,” an episode of “wholesale slaughter” (p.49)— all arising out of competing versions of Macbeth, starring competing actors.  The Briton William Macready, performing as Macbeth at Astor Place, and the American Edwin Forrest, simultaneously rendering Macbeth at the Bowery Theatre, only a few blocks away but in a decidedly rougher part of town, offered opposing approaches to playing Macbeth that seemed to highlight national differences between the United States and Great Britain: Forrest, the “brash American, Macready the sensitive Englishman” (p.66).  Macready’s “accent, gentle manliness, and propriety represented a world that was being overtaken by everything that Forrest, guiding spirit of the new and for many coarser age of Manifest Destiny, represented”  (p.66), Shapiro writes.

Shapiro’s description of the riot underscores how theatres in a rapidly growing New York City in the 1840s were democratic meeting points.  They were  “one of the few places in town where classes and races and sexes, if they did not exactly mingle, at least shared a common space. This meant, in practice, that the inexpensive benches in the pit were filled mostly by the working class, the pricier boxes and galleries were occupied by wealthier patrons, and in the tiers above, space was reserved for African Americans and prostitutes” (p.56).  The Astor Place Opera House, built in 1847, was an explicit response of New York’s upper crust to these democratizing tendencies. It did not admit unaccompanied women – there was no place for prostitutes – and it imposed a dress code.  The new rules were seen as fundamentally undemocratic, especially to the city’s large number of recent German and Irish immigrants.

While Forrest opened at the Bowery, Forrest fans somehow obtained tickets to the opening Astor Place performance—who paid for them, Shapiro indicates, remains a mystery—and began heckling Macready, telling him to get off the stage, “you English fool.”  Three days later, the heckling recurred.  But this time a crowd of about 10,000 had gathered outside, an unruly mix of Irish immigrants and native-born Americans, groups that had common cause in anti-English and anti-aristocratic sentiment (many of the Irish immigrants were escaping the Irish potato famine of the mid-1840s, often attributed to harsh British policies; see my 2014 review here of John Kelly’s The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People).  Incited by political leaders and their cronies, the crowd began to throw bricks and stones. They fought a battle with police that continued for several days, with dozens of deaths on both sides.

There were “no winners in the Astor Place riots,” Shapiro writes. The mayhem “brought into sharp relief the growing problem of income inequality in an America that preferred the fiction that it was still a classless society” (p.76).  But the riots also spoke to an “intense desire by the middle and lower classes to continue sharing the public space [of the theatre], and to oppose, violently if necessary, efforts to exclude them from it.  Shakespeare continued to matter and would remain common cultural property in America” (p.78).

In two other powerful chapters, Shapiro demonstrates how Shakespeare’s plays also intertwined with mid-19thcentury America’s excruciating attempts to come to terms with racism and slavery.  One examines abolitionist former president John Quincy Adams’ public feud in the 1830s over what he considered the abominable inter-racial relationship Shakespeare depicts in Othello between Desdemona and the dark-skinned Othello.  In the second, Shapiro shows how, in a twist that was itself Shakespearean, fate linked President Abraham Lincoln, a man who loved Shakespeare and identified with Macbeth, to his assassin, second-rate Shakespearean actor John Wilkes Booth, himself obsessed with both Julius Caesar and what he perceived as Lincoln’s efforts to undermine the supremacy of the white race.

John Quincy Adams, who served as president from 1825 to 1829, found Desdemona’s physical intimacy with Othello, known at the time as “amalgamation” (“miscegenation” did not enter the national vocabulary until the 1860s), to be an “unnatural passion” against the laws of nature.  Adams’ views might have gone largely unnoticed but for a dinner party in 1833, in which the 66 year old former president was seated next to 23 year old Fanny Kemble, a rising young Shakespearean actress from England.  Adams apparently thrust his views of the Othello-Desdemona relationship upon the unsuspecting Kemble.

Two years later, Kemble published a journal about her trip to the United States, in which she described her dinner conversation with the former president.  A piqued Adams felt compelled to respond, elaborating in print about how repellent he found the Desdemona-Othello relationship. The dinner conversation of two years earlier between the ex-president and the rising British actress thus became national news and, with it, Adams’ anxieties about not only the dangers of race-mixing but also the threat posed by disobedient women.

Yet, the ex-president who was so firmly against amalgamation was also a firm abolitionist.  Adams’ abolitionist convictions, Shapiro writes, “seem to have required a counterweight, and he found it in this repudiation of amalgamation” (p.20).  By directing his hostility at Desdemona rather than Othello, moreover, Adams astutely sidestepped criticizing black men, and it “proved more convenient to attack a headstrong young fictional woman than a living one” (p.20).  Although a prolific writer, Adams’ public feud with Kemble represented his sole written attempt to square his disgust for interracial marriage with his abolitionist convictions, and he chose to do so “only through his reflections on Shakespeare” (p.20).

Abraham Lincoln, from humble frontier origins with almost no formal schooling, developed a life-long passion for Shakespeare as a youth.  Shapiro notes that the adult Lincoln regularly asked friends, family, government employees, and relative strangers to listen to him recite, sometimes for hours on end – and then discuss – the same few passages from Shakespeare again and again.  John Wilkes Booth too grew up with Shakespeare, but in altogether different circumstances.

Booth’s father owned a farm in rural Maryland but was also a leading English Shakespearean actor who immigrated to the United States and became a major figure on the American stage.  His three sons followed in their father’s footsteps, with older brothers Edwin and Julius attaining genuine star status, a status that eluded their younger brother John.  Although Maryland was a border state that did not join the Confederacy, John, who had been convinced from his earliest years that whites were superior to blacks, was naturally drawn to the Southern cause.

In 1864, both the year of Lincoln’s re-election and the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, Booth was stalking Lincoln and plotting his removal with Confederate operatives.  Lincoln, who had less than six months to live when he was re-elected in November, found himself brooding more and more about Macbeth in his final months, and especially about the murdered King Duncan.  Through his reflection upon the guilt-ridden Macbeth, Shapiro writes, Lincoln felt the “deep connection between the nation’s own primal sin, slavery, and the terrible cost, both collective and personal, exacted by it” (p.113)

After Booth assassinated Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington in April 1865, many of Lincoln’s enemies likened the assassin, whose favorite play was Julius Caesar, to Brutus as a man who killed a tyrant.  But Macbeth proved to be the play that the nation settled on to “give voice to what happened, and define how Lincoln was to be  remembered”(p.116).  Booth had “failed to anticipate that the man he cold-bloodedly murdered would be revered like Duncan, his faults forgotten” (p.118).  For a divided America, the universal currency of Shakespeare’s words offered what Shapiro terms a “collective catharsis” which permitted a “blood-soaked nation to defer confronting once again what Booth declared had driven him to action: the conviction that American ‘was formed for the white not for the black man’” (p.118).

The year 1916 was the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, a year in which one of his least known plays, The Tempest, was used to bolster the case for anti-immigration legislation. The Tempest centers on Caliban, who is left behind, rather than on those who immigrate.  But the point is the same, Shapiro argues: a “more hopeful community . . . depends on somebody’s exclusion” (p.125).  This notion resonated in particular with Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, an avid Shakespeare reader who led the early 20th century anti-immigration campaign.

The unusual number of performances of The Tempest during that tercentenary year meshed with the fierce debate that Lodge led in Congress over immigration.  The legislation that passed the following year curtailed the influx into the United States of immigrants representing “lesser races,” most frequently a reference to Southern and Eastern Europeans. “How Shakespeare and especially The Tempest were conscripted by those opposed to the immigration of those deemed undesirable is a lesser known part of this [immigration] story” (p.124), Shapiro writes.

Closer to the present, Shapiro has chapters on the 1948 Broadway musical, play, Kiss Me, Kate, later a film, about the cast of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which raised the issue of the roles of women in a post-war society; and on the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, by far the most successful film to date about Shakespeare or any of his plays, which began as a film about same-sex love but evolved into one about adultery.

Kiss Me, Kate takes place at the backstage of a performance of The Taming of the Shrew.  With music and lyrics provided by Cole Porter, the Broadway musical contrasted the emerging, post-World War II view of the role of women with the conventional stereotyped gender roles in the Shakespeare play itself, thereby featuring “rival visions of the choices women faced in postwar America” (p.160).  In Shakespeare’s play, “women are urged to capitulate and their obedience to men is the norm,” while backstage “independence and unconventionality hold sway” (p.160).  Kiss Me, Kate deftly juxtaposed a “front stage Shakespeare world that mirrored the fantasy of a patriarchal, all-white America” with a backstage one that was “forthright about a woman’s say over her desires and her career” (p.162).

In the earliest version of the film Shakespeare in Love in 1992, Will found himself attracted to the idea of same sex attraction (he was actually attracted to a woman dressed as a man, but the point was that Will thought she was a he).  But same sex love was reduced to a mere hint in the final version, about how the unhappily married Will’s affair with another woman, Viola, helped him overcome his writer’s block, finish Romeo and Juliet, and go on to greatness.  Those creating and marketing Shakespeare in Love, Shapiro writes, “clearly felt that a gay or bisexual Shakespeare was not something that enough Americans in the late 1990s were ready to accept” (p.194).  For box-office success, “Shakespeare could be an adulterer, but he had to be a heterosexual one in a loveless marriage” (p.194).

Shakespeare in Love ends with Viola leaving Will and England for America, reinforcing a myth that persisted from the 1860s through the 1990s of a direct American connection to Shakespeare  — anti-immigration Senator Lodge was one of its most exuberant proponents.  This fantasy, Shapiro writes, speaks to our desire to “forge a physical connection between Shakespeare and America” as the land where his “inspiring legacy came to rest and truly thrived” (p. 193).

* * *

While finding no credible evidence for a direct American  connection to Shakespeare, Shapiro sees a legacy in Shakespeare’s plays that should inspire Americans of all hues and stripes.  Pained by the polarization he witnessed at the 2017 Julius Caesar performance, Shapiro expresses the hope that his book might “shed light on how we have arrived at our present moment, and how, in turn, we may better address that which divides and impedes us as a nation” (p.xxix).  The hope seems forlorn in light of the examples he so brilliantly details, pointing mostly in the other direction: a Shakespeare on the cutting edge of America’s social and political divisions, with his plays often doing the cutting.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

September 19, 2021

[NOTE: A nearly identical version of this review has also been posted to the Tocqueville 21 Blog, maintained in connection with the American University of Paris’ Tocqueville Review and its Center for Critical Democracy Studies]

 

 

 

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Filed under American Politics, American Society, Literature, Politics, United States History

Deciphering a Confounding Thinker

 

 

Robert Zaretsky, The Subversive Simone Weil:

A Life in Five Ideas (University of Chicago Press)

 

Simone Weil is considered today among the foremost twentieth-century French intellectuals, on par with her luminous contemporaries Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. And yet she was not widely known when she died at age 34 in 1943. Although she wrote profusely, only small portions of her writings were published during her lifetime. Much of her written work was left in private notebooks and published posthumously. It was only after the Second World War, as Weil’s writings increasingly came to light, that a comprehensive picture of her thinking emerged —comprehensive without necessarily being coherent. In The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas, Robert Zaretsky attempts to provide this coherence.

Indeed, Weil was a confounding thinker whose body of thought and the life she lived seem awash in contradictions. As Zaretsky notes at the outsetWeil was:

an anarchist who espoused conservative ideals, a pacifist who fought in the Spanish Civil War, a saint who refused baptism, a mystic who was a labor militant, a French Jew who was buried in the Catholic section of an English cemetery, a teacher who dismissed the importance of solving a problem, [and] the most willful of individuals who advocated the extinction of the self (p.2).

 Zaretsky, a professor at the University of Houston and one of the Anglophone world’s most fluent writers on French intellectual and cultural history, aims not so much to dispel these contradictions as to distill Weil’s intellectual legacy, contradictions and all, into five core ideas encapsulating the body of political, social, and theological thought she left behind. These five ideas are: affliction, attention, resistance, rootedness, and goodness—each the object of a separate chapter.

Unsurprisingly, these five Weilian ideas are far more intricate and multi-faceted than the single words suggest, and they are inter-related, with what Zaretsky terms “blurred borders” (p.14).  Moreover, the five ideas are presented in approximate chronological order: the first three chapters on affliction, attention, and resistance concern mostly Weil in the 1930s; while the last two on rootedness and goodness primarily cover her wartime years from 1940 to 1943—her most productive literary period.

Each chapter can be read as a standalone essay, and Zaretsky would likely discourage us from searching too eagerly for threads that unite the five into an overarching narrative. But there is one connecting thread which provides context for the apparent contradictions in Weil’s life and thought: collectively, the five ideas tell the story of Weil’s transformation from an exceptionally empathetic yet otherwise conventional 1930s non-communist, left-wing intellectual—Jewish and secular—to someone who in her final years found commonality with conservative political and social thought, embraced Catholicism and Christianity, and was profoundly influenced by religious mysticism. Although not intended as a biography in the conventional sense, The Subversive Simone Weil begins with a short but helpful overview of Weil’s abbreviated life before plunging into her five ideas.

* * *

Weil was born in 1909 and brought up in a progressive, militantly secular bourgeois Jewish family in Paris. Her older brother André became one of the twentieth century’s most accomplished mathematicians. She graduated in 1931 from France’s renowned École Normale Supérieure, the same school that had accorded diplomas to Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron a few years earlier.  After ENS, she took three secondary teaching positions in provincial France, and also managed to find her way to local factories, where she taught workers in evening classes and with limited success did some of the hard factory work herself.

In 1936, Weil joined the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and was briefly involved in combat operations before she inadvertently stepped into a vat of boiling cooking oil, severely injuring her foot. After she returned to France to allow her injury to heal, she had three seemingly genuine mystical religious experiences that set in motion what Zaretsky characterizes as rehearsals for her “slow and never quite completed embrace of Roman Catholicism” (p.134).  When Nazi Germany invaded France in 1940, Weil and her parents caught the last train out of Paris for Marseille, where they stayed for almost two years before leaving for New York. While in Marseille, Weil was deeply influenced by Joseph-Marie Perrin, a nearly blind Dominican priest, and came close but stopped short of a formal conversion to Catholicism.

Weil left her parents in New York for London, where she joined Charles de Gaulle’s government-in-exile, with ambitions that never materialized to return to France to battle the Nazis directly. While in London, her primary responsibility was to work on reports detailing a vision for a liberated and republican France. Physically frail most of her life, Weil suffered from migraines, and may have been on a hunger strike when she died of complications from tuberculosis in 1943, in a sanatorium south-east of London.

* * *

Malheur was Weil’s French term for “affliction.” This is the first of the five ideas that Zaretsky distills from Weil’s life and thought, in which we see Weil at her most political. Her idea of affliction appears to have arisen principally from her experiences working in factories early in her professional career.  Yet, affliction for Weil was the condition not just of factory workers, but of nearly all human beings in modern, industrial society—the “unavoidable consequence of a world governed by forces largely beyond our comprehension, not to mention our control” (p.36).  Affliction was “ground zero of human misery” (p.36), entailing psychological degradation as much as physical suffering.

The early Weil was attracted politically to anarcho-syndicalism, a movement that urged direct action by workers as the means to achieve power in depression-riddled 1930s France, with direct democracy of worker co-operatives as its end. In these years, Weil was an “isolated voice on the left who denounced communism with the same vehemence as she did fascism” (p.32), Zaretsky writes, comparing her to George Orwell and Albert Camus. With what Zaretsky describes as “stunning prescience” (p.32), she foresaw the foreboding consequences of totalitarianism emerging both in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany.

Attention, sometimes considered Weil’s central ethical concept, involves how we see the world and others in it. But it is an elusive concept, “supremely difficult to grasp”  (p.46).  Attention was attente in French: waiting, which requires the canceling of our desires.  Attention takes place in what Zaretsky terms the world’s salle d’attente, its waiting room, where we “forget our own itinerary and open ourselves to the itineraries of others” (p.54).  Zaretsky sees the idea of attention at work in Weil’s approach to teaching secondary school students, where her emphasis was on identifying problems rather than finding solutions. She seemed to be telling her students that it’s the going there, not getting there, that counts. Although not discussed by Zaretsky, there are echoes of Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship in Weil’s notion of attention.

Zaretsky refrains from terming the Spanish Civil War a turning point for Weil, but it seems to have been just that.  Her brief experience in the war, combined with a growing realization of the existential threat which the Nazis and their fascist allies posed to European civilization, prompted her to revise her earlier commitment to pacifism. This is one consequence of resistance—Zaretsky’s third idea — which aligned Weil with the ancient Stoics and Epicureans, who taught their followers to resist recklessness, panic and passion. For Weil, resistance was an affirmation that the “truly free individual is one who takes the world as it is and aligns with it as best they can” (p.64), as Zaretsky puts it. Weil’s Spanish Civil War experience also gave rise to a growing conviction that “politics alone could not fully grasp the human condition” (p.133).

Rootedness—the fourth idea—arises out of Weil’s visceral sense of having been torn from her native France.  Déracinement, uprooting, was the founding sentiment for The Need for Roots, her final work, in which she emphasized how the persistence of a people is tied to the persistence of its culture—a community’s “deeply engrained way of life, which bends but is not broken as it carries across generations” (p.99).  Rootedness takes place in a “finite and flawed community” and became for Weil the “basis for a moral and intellectual life.” A community’s ties to the past “must be protected for the very same reason that a tree’s roots in the earth must be protected: once those roots are torn up, death follows” (p.126).

There is no evidence that Weil read either the Irish Whig Edmund Burke or the German Romantic Johann Herder, leading conservatives of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Nonetheless, Zaretsky finds considerable resonance between Weil’s sense of rootedness and Burke’s searing critique of the French Revolution, as well as Herder’s rejection of the universalism of the Enlightenment in favor of preserving local and linguistic communities.  Closer to her own time, Weil’s views on community aligned surprisingly with those of Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras, two leading early twentieth-century French conservatives whose works turned on the need for roots. Zaretsky also finds commonalities between Weil and today’s communitarians, who reject the individualism of John Rawls.

But Weil also applied her views on rootedness to French colonialism, putting her at odds with her wartime boss in London, Charles de Gaulle, who was intent upon preserving the French Empire.  She perceived no meaningful difference between what the Nazis had done to her country—invaded and conquered—and what the French were doing in their overseas colonies.  Weil was appalled by the notion of a mission civilisatrice, a civilizing mission underlying France’s exertion of power overseas. It was essential for Weil that the war against Germany “not obscure the brute fact of French colonization of other peoples” (p.111).  Although Weil developed her idea of rootedness in the context of forced deportations brought about by Nazi conquests, she recognized that rootlessness can occur without ever moving or being moved. Drawing upon her idea of affliction, Weil linked this form of uprooting to capitalism and what the nineteenth-century English commentator Thomas Carlyle termed capitalism’s “cash nexus.”

Zaretsky’s final chapter on Goodness addresses what he terms Weil’s “brilliant and often bruising dialogue with Christianity” (p.134), the extension of her three mystical experiences in the late 1930s.  The battle was bruising, Zaretsky indicates, because as a one-time secular Jew Weil’s desire to surrender wholly to the Church’s faith ran up against her indignation at much of its history and dogma.  “Appalled by a religion with universal claims that does not allow for the salvation of all humankind,” Weil “refused to separate herself from the fate of unbelievers. Anathema sit, the Church’s sentence of banishment against heretics filled Weil with horror” (p.135).  Yet, in her final years, Catholicism became the “substance and scaffolding of her worldview” (p.34), Zaretsky writes.

But Zaretsky’s emphasis is less on Weil’s theological views than on how she found her intellectual bridge to Christianity through the ancient Greeks, especially the thought of Plato.  Ancient Greek poetry, art, philosophy and science all manifested the Greek search for divine perfection, or what Plato termed “the Good.”  For Weil, faith appears to have been the pursuit of Plato’s Good by other means. The Irish philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, who helped introduce Weil to a generation of British readers in the 1950s and 1960s, explained that Weil’s tilt toward Christianity amounted to dropping one “o” from the Good.

* * *

Simone Weil was a daunting figure, intimidating perhaps even to Zaretsky, who avers that her ability to plumb the human condition “runs so deep that it risks losing those of us who remain near the surface of things” (p.38).  Zaretsky, however, takes his readers well below the surface of her body of thought in this eloquent work, producing a comprehensible structure for understanding an enigmatic thinker. His work should hold the interest of readers already familiar with Weil and those encountering her for the first time.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

July 31, 2021

[NOTE: A nearly identical version of this review has also been posted to the Tocqueville 21 blog, maintained in connection with the American University of Paris’ Tocqueville Review and its Center for Critical Democracy Studies]

 

 

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Filed under French History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Religion

Breaking Away

 

J.H. Elliot, Scots and Catalans:

Union and Disunion (Yale University Press)

[NOTE: This review has also been posted to the Tocqueville 21 blog, maintained in connection with the American University of Paris’ Tocqueville Review and its Center for Critical Democracy Studies]

Are the United Kingdom and Scotland barreling toward a crisis over Scottish independence of the magnitude of that which rattled Spain in 2017, when Catalonia, the country’s northeast corner that includes Barcelona, unilaterally declared its independence? That possibility seems less far-fetched after early May’s parliamentary elections in Scotland, in which the Scottish National Party (SNP) fell just one seat shy of an absolute majority. In coalition with the Scottish Green Party, the SNP is now in a position to set the legislative agenda for Scotland. To no one’s surprise, Nicola Surgeon, Scottish First Minister and SNP leader, announced after the recent elections that she would seek a second referendum on Scottish independence, presumably similar to the one that took place in 2014. For Sturgeon, a second independence referendum is now a matter of “when, not if.”  But British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reiterated his opposition to another referendum; that of 2014 was a “once in a generation” event, the Prime Minister explained.

Separatism also advanced appreciably in Catalan regional elections in February of this year, with pro-independence parties capturing a clear majority of seats in the regional parliament. But numerous parties with a range of views on separation seek to carry the independence banner in Catalonia. The movement has no single voice comparable to that of Sturgeon and the SNP.

While no one can say with certainty where Scotland and Catalonia are heading, J.H. Elliot, Regius Professor Emeritus at Oxford University, has produced an extraordinarily timely, in-depth guide to how separatism has come to dominate the 21st century politics of each: Scots and Catalans: Union and Disunion. From the mid-15th century up through the Catalan crisis of 2017, Elliot traces the relationship of Scotland and Catalonia to the larger entities we now call Great Britain and Spain, relationships in which genuine grievances mix with myths, resentments, and manipulations of history.

The Catalan crisis of 2017, the endpoint in Elliot’s narrative, ensued after regional authorities organized a non-binding independence referendum, conducted over the strong objection of the central government in Madrid.  90% of Catalans who voted approved the referendum, but several major Catalan parties boycotted it and only 43% of eligible voters actually voted. When the Catalan regional parliament adopted a resolution declaring the region an independent republic, the central government responded by invoking the 1978 Spanish constitution to remove regional authorities and impose direct rule from Madrid.  Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan regional president, was formally accused of treason and fled to Belgium with key members of his cabinet, where he remains to this day.

In sharp contrast to the 2017 Catalan initiative, the 2014 Scottish independence referendum had the approval of the central government in London, having been negotiated by Johnson’s predecessor, David Cameron.  Scottish voters moreover soundly rejected independence: 55%- 45%, with 85% of eligible voters casting ballots. But one of the main issues in the campaign was the desire of many Scottish voters to maintain membership in the European Union as part of the United Kingdom, rather than secede and apply for EU membership as an independent nation. The Brexit referendum two years later, also a Cameron-approved measure, upended this understanding. While a far from united United Kingdom approved the initiative to leave the European Union, Scottish voters adhered to the “remain” position by an emphatic 62%-38% margin, with about two-thirds of eligible Scottish voters participating.

Elliot is scathing in his condemnation of the Catalonian secessionists’ decision to press ahead in 2017 with their unilateral declaration of independence, describing it as an “act of folly, unleashing consequences that never seemed to have crossed the proponents’ minds as they took the plunge” (p.263).  In more muted terms, he appears to endorse the outcome of the orderly 2014 referendum in Scotland: “Stability had triumphed over risk, pragmatism over utopianism, fear over hope” (p.246).  But Elliot treats the Brexit referendum two years later only in two non-judgmental paragraphs.  Many Scots who voted “No” in 2014 have felt compelled to reassess their position in light of Brexit. Elliot’s decision not to weigh in more forcefully on the impact of Brexit constitutes a missed opportunity in this otherwise painstakingly comprehensive work.

Although Elliot focuses almost exclusively on the Catalan and Scottish independence movements, easily the most visible in today’s Europe, they are hardly the only ones. Depending upon how one counts, there are presently about 20 active separatist movements in Europe, some of which seem to be mainly quests for more autonomy rather than secession.  Finding common denominators among them can be difficult – each is mostly a product of its own historical and cultural circumstances. But nationalism is usually considered one such denominator, often the only one, and what Elliot terms a “resurgent nationalism” (p.4) is at play in both Catalonia and Scotland.

These and other 21st century secessionist movements harken back to the classical 19th century European version of nationalism: the idea that a people with a common culture and history — and often a common language, as in Catalonia – have an inherent right to rule themselves. This idea, which buttressed Europe’s 1848 uprisings, produced the modern nation-state, a state with a nationalist creed binding it together — a common core of shared principles, traditions and values accepted by its disparate regions, and its major ethnic, religious, and cultural groups. But separatist movements in Scotland, Catalonia and elsewhere are predicated on a rejection, implicit if not explicit, of the nationalist creed and in this sense are the antipode of classical 19th century nationalism. Some separatist movements partake of xenophobic and authoritarian-leaning nationalist impulses. But neither the Scottish nor the Catalan independence movement can be described in these terms – if anything, both Scotland and Catalonia tilt leftward on 21st century Europe’s left-right pendulum.

Scots and Catalans consists of six chapters, each focused on a discrete historical period. It begins with “Dynastic Union, 1469-1625.” 1469, the year in which Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabelle of Castile, marked the beginning of a composite, multi-regional monarchy on the Iberian Peninsula, with the Crown of Aragon including the principality of Catalonia. The last chapter, “Breaking Away? 1975-2017” covers the time from the death of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco and the beginnings of modern democracy in Spain in 1975, up through the Catalan constitutional crisis of 2017.  Unlike many comparative histories, Elliot does not rely on separate chapters for his two subjects. His narrative goes back and forth between Catalonia and Scotland, Spain and Britain, setting out the two histories side-by-side. Although not quite his intention, this technique highlights how different Catalonia’s relationship to Spain has been from that of Scotland to Great Britain from the early 18th century onward. Only in the late 20th and early 21st centuries does Elliot find significant convergences between the two independence movements.

* * *

Prior to its 1707 the union with England, Scotland had been an independent kingdom, one shaken by the 17th century’s religious and civil wars that had upended its more powerful neighbor to the South.  Catalonia, by contrast, had never been a sovereign state in any modern sense of the term.  But as one of several rebellious provinces within Spain’s composite monarchy, Catalonia had a colorable claim to a set of ancient liberties and privileges that the Nueva Planta decrees of Phillip of Anjou, the first Bourbon King of Spain, erased between from 1707 and 1716.

Designed to impose the centralized French model on Spain’s unruly provinces, the Nueva Planta decrees abolished the Catalan legislature and imposed the Castilian language – today’s Spanish — on the region. While Scotland’s consensual association with England was the result of genuine negotiations between two sovereign kingdoms, Catalonia was “subjected to a settlement imposed by a victorious monarch, who stigmatized its peoples as rebels” (p.89).  Catalonia came to be seen, both by its citizens and the central government in Madrid, as a territory under military occupation.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the feeling in Spain that the Catalans were inherently intractable never disappeared. Catalans, constantly inveighing against “centralization,” responded to pressures from Madrid by emphasizing with “growing stridency” the “uniqueness of their own history and culture” (p.163), Elliot writes. By contrast, the Scots felt less need to be assertive about their distinctive heritage, and less obsessed about their potential loss of identity. Tensions between London and Edinburgh were “far fewer than those to be found in the Barcelona-Madrid relationship” (p.163).

Spain fell under the rule of two military dictatorships in the 20th century. That of Primo de Rivera, from 1923 to 1930, preceded the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War and the ensuing Franco regime, which lasted until the General’s death in 1975. Both de Rivera and Franco pursued national unity by ruthlessly suppressing regionalist tendencies across Spain. But Franco probably distrusted Catalonia more than any other region during his long rule. Spain did not begin its transition to a modern democratic nation-state until after Franco’s death.

In 1979, following the first free elections in Spain since the 1930s in 1977, Catalan voters approved a statute of autonomy for the region that recognized Catalonia as a “nationality,” gave the Catalan language an official status equal to Castilian Spanish, and conceded extensive powers to Catalonia in education, culture and language. Catalonia henceforth became what Elliot describes as an “integral but largely self-governing part of what the bulk of its inhabitants had long wanted – a democratic, decentralized and modernizing Spain” (p.229).

1979 was also the year Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party were voted into office in Britain. Thatcher moved quickly to shut down all talk about “devolution,” which envisioned re-establishing the Scottish parliament and according more autonomy to Scotland. In Elliot’s view, Thatcher probably did more to spur the modern separatist movement in Scotland than any other single individual. Devolution came to Scotland in 1997, when Scottish voters approved creation of an independent Scottish parliament, its first since the 1707 union with England. By 1997, Scotland enjoyed approximately the same degree of autonomy from the central government in Westminster that Catalonia had achieved in 1979.

Elliot further fits both independence movements into a broader 21st century framework, wherein pressures upon the traditional nation-state from above, driven by the European Union, economic inequalities, and what we often term globalization, have generated a “general sense in many parts of the western world that highly bureaucratized central governments [have] become too remote to understand the true needs and problems of the governed” (p.3).  Separatism for Scotland and Catalonia, as elsewhere, appears to offer an easy answer to those who feel they have lost control over their lives. “Independence [will] allow them once again to be masters in their own house,” he writes. But much of this, he adds tartly, referring more to Catalonia than Scotland, is “nostalgia for a world that never was” (p.267).

* * *

A second independence referendum for Scotland – and with it Scottish independence — now appears, if not inevitable, more probable than not, despite Boris Johnson’s opposition. As Scottish journalist Jamie Maxwell wrote in the New York Times after the May elections, a Johnson veto would be tantamount to “transforming Britain from a voluntary association based on consent into a compulsory one” –– an ironic transformation to the way Catalan secessionists view their relationship to Spain.

Continued political stalemate, rather than realistic prospects for independence, looks like the better bet for Catalonia. The region lacks a leader comparable to Sturgeon, who has ruled out a “wildcat referendum” and is generally cautious, steady and unusually adept at playing the long game – words rarely used to describe former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont.  Sturgeon seems confident that Johnson will “ultimately buckle under the weight of democratic pressure,” as Maxwell puts it.  Independence may nevertheless be in the cards in this decade for both Scotland and Catalonia.  But in demonstrating the deep historical dissimilarities between Scotland’s relationship to Great Britain and Catalonia’s to Spain, Elliot’s erudite history suggests that the two entities are likely to travel distinctly different paths to independence.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

July 8,  2021

 

 

 

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Filed under British History, European History, Spanish History