Tag Archives: Books

Is Europe Burning?

[Introductory Note:  I have again spliced together two short commentaries which I wrote earlier: on Phillips in 2009 and on Caldwell in 2010.  I owe reading of both to my college friend Tom Fagan.  Tom pointed me to Phillips’ book, which I fortuitously found in a used bookshop for $2.  A little later, Tom sent me Caldwell’s book as a holiday present.  Two thought-provoking books for a total of $2.  That’s an excellent return on a modest investment.  Thanks, Tom]

 

Christopher Caldwell, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: 

Immigration, Islam, and the West

and

Melanie Phillips, Londonistan

Europe’s fiscal and financial crisis undoubtedly constitutes its foremost contemporary challenge.  But the challenge of integrating ever-growing Muslim populations into its cultural mainstream is not far behind – and in many ways is linked to European economic woes.  These two books address Western Europe’s efforts to find a place for Islam.  Christopher Caldwell surveys approaches across Europe, while   Melanie Phillips focuses exclusively on Great Britain.

Caldwell’s title is an allusion to Edmund Burke’s 1790 “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”  Caldwell starts with a 1968 speech by British Tory parliamentarian Enoch Powell on April 20, 1968, two short weeks after Martin Luther King was killed in the United States.  In this speech, Powell decried rising immigration into Britain.  He forecast American-style urban ghettoes and said that watching immigration into his country was like “watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre” (p.5).  I was living in London at the time, and remember well Powell’s speech, which was the subject of much discussion with my British friends.  Although the term “politically correct” was not yet in use, it was very clear to me and my friends — all of us wise and worldly 20 somethings — that Powell’s ideas were most incorrect politically.  My recollection is that we almost unanimously compared Powell, an erudite classics scholar, to the retrograde Southern racists whom we assumed were responsible for King’s death.  Since that time, however, as Caldwell states, all British discussion of immigration may be reduced to whether Powell was right.

Caldwell traces how both Britain and continental European countries increased immigration in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s of the last century, without sufficient forethought of the consequences.  He outlines the differences between European countries, with varying rationale for opening borders and diverse approaches toward absorbing and welcoming immigrant populations.  Caldwell considers judiciously both sides of the arguments that Muslims can be integrated into these countries, but leaves no doubt that in his view such integration is a steep, uphill battle across Europe, not least because a certain part of the European Muslim population is “dedicated to Europe’s destruction by armed violence” (p.172).

Caldwell describes two models for immigrant assimilation, British and French.  Britain’s model is “multicultural,” holding that one may “keep one’s culture as long as one [obeys] the law of the land” (p.151).  Caldwell prefers the French model, which holds that immigrants “should become French in their cultural loyalties” (p. 151).  Despite – some would say because of — its multi-cultural model, Britain remains “by far, the European country with the most serious dangers of violence and political extremism” (p.301).  France’s republican traditions, by contrast, “give it the best chance of fully assimilating the children and grandchildren of immigrants.  It is the only country where a European equivalent of the American dream is likely,” Caldwell concludes (p.301).

Although Caldwell’s purpose is not to compare European and American approaches to immigration, he regards Hispanic immigration to the United States as an altogether different phenomenon from Muslim immigration to Europe — far more benign, far less threatening to our culture.  Latin American immigrants come with a European language, he says, which is “inevitably discarded for English by the second generation.”   Latinos’ “cultural peculiarities” are “generally antiquated versions of American ones” (p.12).  They have “less money, higher labor-force participation, more authoritarian family structures, lower divorce rates” than native white Americans.  Their culture, in its broad outlines “is like the American working class culture of forty years ago”  (p.12).

I would have liked more discussion in Caldwell’s book about non-Muslim immigration to Europe.  Are the prospects for integration of West Indians, sub-Saharan non-Muslim Africans, and Asians from India, Vietnam, Cambodia and China as bleak as those for Muslim immigrants?  It was immigrants from all these places, not simply Muslim countries, which prompted Powell’s 1968 remarks. But Caldwell’s critique of the effect of Muslim immigration on today’s Europe, while provocative, is well-reasoned and cogent.

In “Londonistan,” British journalist Melanie Phillips comes across as Enoch Powell on steroids.  She would surely agree with Caldwell that Great Britain today is “by far,” the country most vulnerable to Islamic violence and political extremism, and would not hesitate to attribute Britain’s vulnerability precisely to the multi-cultural model of assimilation which Caldwell describes.  Phillips starts with the July 2005 London bombings, which revealed a society initially in denial that these attacks had been carried out by home-grown Muslims, “suburban boys who had been educated at British schools and had degrees, jobs and comfortable families” (p.viii).  As denial faded, Phillips found Britain pitifully unable to confront the threat posed by the violent ideology she terms “Islamism”:  a “particular interpretation of authentic Islamic principles” (p.168) that is the “dominant contemporary political force within Islam. . .. an ideology that seeks to destroy Christianity and its values” (p.141).

In Phillips’ view, Britain’s ability to counter Islamism is undermined by a flabby and permissive social culture dominated by “secular nihilists” who disdain the country’s Judeo-Christian values.  Secular nihilists are infatuated with the “doctrine of multiculturalism,” and obsessed with the rights of victims and minorities.  Phillips contends that an unquestioning tolerance for non-Western cultures, militant feminism, exaltation of gay rights, and a judiciary which has supplemented the common law with more general human rights norms have, taken together, rendered Britain ineffectual in countering the grave threat to its existence growing in its midst.  Today’s Britain is “locked into such a spiral of decadence, self-loathing and sentimentality that it is incapable of seeing that it is setting itself up for cultural immolation,” (p.189), Phillips warns direly, echoing Powell’s 1968 clarion call.  Ironically, “self-styled progressives of the British left” have aligned themselves with Islamism – “which denies female equality and preaches death to gays” — to advance their common goal, “the destruction of Western society and its foundation values” (p.xxiii).

I agree with Phillips’ core message that tolerance is no virtue in dealing with violent Islamism and that the West needs to defend its democratic values unapologetically.  But she loses me when she radiates out from this core to suggest that secular Enlightenment values – secularism, equality, respect for minority rights – are incompatible with taking a strong stand against what she terms Islamism.  Phillips’ analysis seems at times to gravitate toward the comments of the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, who inanely attributed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks in the United States to “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way–all of them who have tried to secularize America–I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.”

Further, there is irony in Phillips railing against many of the manifestations of modernity in today’s Britain, when the most common prescription for bringing Islam out of the dark ages and into the 21st century is some form of Muslim Enlightenment – development of a secular sense and a more general spirit of free inquiry, with recognition of equality for women and homosexuals.  Phillips’ strong condemnation of the anti-Semitism which pervades much of the Muslim world is to be lauded.  But she is far less critical of the subordinate role of women in Islamic societies and I had to wonder whether this was because excessive feminism figures so prominently among the reasons she contends that Britain is incapable of countering Islamism.

Phillips recommends requiring a civil marriage certificate before an Imam could perform a marriage ceremony, thereby, she hopes, halting the drift toward parallel Sharia jurisdiction where polygamy is recognized; instituting tough controls on immigration “while Britain assimilates the people it has already got” (p.188); and teaching Muslims “what being a minority means” (p.189).  These measures may be reasonable but the likelihood that they will make any serious dent in Islamism seems at least as dubious as the outreach efforts to moderate Muslims which she belittles throughout her book.  Like everyone else struggling with the issue of assimilation of the Muslim population into Western European societies, Phillips falls short in specific solutions.  Finding such solutions ranks among the most pressing challenges facing contemporary Europe.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

June 5, 2012

2 Comments

Filed under History, Politics, Religion

The Limits of Toleration

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel,

and

Irshad Manji, The Trouble with Islam Today

[Introduction: This is a commentary I wrote in September 2008.  At that time Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book was on the best-seller list, and her general profile has risen even further since 2008.  Today, she lives in the United States and is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.   Although less well-known, Irshad Manji’s profile has also risen since 2008.  She too recently migrated to the United States, from her native Canada.  She is presently director of the Moral Courage Project at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, which aims to “challenge political correctness, intellectual conformity and self-censorship.”  She is a frequent “talking head” on a diverse range of TV news programs.  I have edited the original commentary only minimally, adding notably the reference in the final paragraph to the “Arab spring”]

“I believe that Islam is no different from the world’s other major religions; that it has a strong humanistic component; and that many, hopefully most, of its adherents are altogether capable of living harmoniously with persons of other faiths.”  Thomas H. Peebles, 9/12/06 (email correspondence to friends)

Was I hopelessly naïve when I wrote the above, or just ignorant?  In my defense, I did not have the benefit of having read “Infidel,” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, nor had I read Irshad Manji’s “The Trouble with Islam Today” — two books about contemporary Islam, written by brilliant young Muslim women.  Ali’s is a poignant, riveting personal memoir, whereas Manji offers an analytical prescription for changing Islam, well captured in her subtitle, “A Muslim’s Call for Reform of Her Faith.”  Ali’s book was difficult to put down, and left me inspired yet emotionally drained at the end.  Initially, Manji’s book rubbed me the wrong way.  She seemed too glib and perhaps a little too full of herself.  But by the end, I developed a respect for her too.  In her breezy, informal style, Manji conveys a wealth of knowledge and insight about Islam and the Islamic world.  Among her contributions, she shows that the Muslim Holy Book does not support the anti-Semitism that seems endemic in many parts of the Muslim world (p.21, 39).  But Ali’s book is more complex, unsettling, and challenging – a spellbinding story that contains powerful messages about freedom and its limits, democracy, and human rights.

I was reading both books with the hope of validating the views which I went out on a limb to express in 2006, quoted above; or, to quote from the “discussion questions” for book clubs inserted at the end of Ali’s book, using both to help me reexamine whether Islam is “compatible with Western values and culture” (book club questions are a feature I had never seen before, then found again at the end of Manji’s book).  Manji’s answer to the book club question is a definite “maybe.”  Throughout, she leaves no doubt that a more open, less dogmatic Islam, although difficult, is attainable.

Much of Ali’s book, by contrast, lays out the case that Islam is altogether incompatible with Western values.  Muslim culture, based on the Koran, is “brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women, and harsh in war,” she writes (p.272).  I had the sense she was killing me not so softly when she belittled those Westerners who argue that Islam is a peaceful and humane religion.  Looking at “reality, at real cultures and governments,” Ali sees that “it simply isn’t so” (p.349).  Westerners swallow these arguments, she says, “because they have learned not to examine the religions and cultures of minorities too critically, for fear of being called racist.”  Ouch!  That hurt.

But, surprisingly, a close reading of Ali’s book reveals that for her, too, Islam is at least potentially compatible with Western values: Ali proffers a highly tentative maybe, rather than Manji’s definite maybe.  The key for both is that the Muslim world needs to undergo its own version of the Enlightenment, similar to that of Western Europe and North America in the 18th century, when the notion of a secular state that promotes equality and encourages tolerance began to take hold.  Manji’s book throughout is a plea for what she calls a “reformation” in Islam (p.30).

Ali too uses the word “reformation,” which she describes as moving “from the world of faith to the world of reason” (p.347).  “In the past fifty years,” she observes, the Muslim world has been “catapulted into modernity.”  Muslims “don’t have to take six hundred years to go through a reformation in the way they think about equality and individual rights” (p.350).  Just as the West freed itself from the “grip of violent organized religion,” Ali assumes that the “same process could occur among the millions of Muslims,” infusing traditions that are “rigid and inhumane with the values of progress and modernity” (p.272-73).  Surely, she says, now it is “Islam’s turn to be tested” (p.282).

Still, overall, Manji’s vision is far more optimistic, in large measure because she was brought up in a Muslim family in dour but diverse British Columbia, Canada, where the more stifling aspects of Muslim culture are counterbalanced by the province’s general openness.  Growing up amidst war, dictatorship and rigid patriarchy in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya afforded Ali no such advantage.  Ali’s description of her youth in these countries is chilling in many respects, never more so than her description of the genital mutilation she was forced to undergo as a girl.  But this is simply the most graphic example of a suffocating Muslim culture that subjugates women and leaves little room for free inquiry for either sex.  And it is striking that Ali dwells far more on the intellectual rather than economic impoverishment she encountered as she moved between four different countries as a girl.

Similarly, when Ali moved to the Netherlands to avoid an arranged marriage, she was captivated far more by the country’s spirit of openness and free inquiry than by its material prosperity (and we can argue well into the night on whether there is a connection between the two: do you need one to have the other? if so, which is the chicken, which is the egg?).  In the portion of her book on the Netherlands, where she transforms from outsider to insider, Ali found a “post-religious,” highly secular society, where people “openly disbelieved every aspect of religion” and “God was mocked everywhere” (p.239).  She also found Holland to be a “post-patriotic” society, “uncomfortable with the symbols of Dutchness,” where being Dutch seemed to mean “absolutely nothing“ and nationalism was seen as “almost the same thing as racism” (p.257).  Nobody, she emphasized, “seemed proud of being Dutch” (p.257).

Despite its openness – or maybe because of its openness – Ali perceives clear limitations to Holland’s ability to absorb and integrate outsiders.  When massive immigration to the Netherlands began in the 1980s, there was a “sense among the Dutch that society should behave with decency and understanding toward these people and accept their differences and beliefs” (p.246).  But the result was that “immigrants lived apart, socialized apart.  They went to separate schools – special Muslim schools or ordinary schools in the inner city, which other families fled” (p.246).  While the Dutch contributed generously to international aid organizations, they were “also ignoring the silent suffering of Muslim women and children in their own background” (p.246).

For Ali, the Dutch form of toleration – that paradigm Western value – subverts individual freedom when applied to Muslim women.  To paraphrase Barry Goldwater’s famous 1964convention line, Ali contends that toleration of a system that systematically subjugates women and deprives them of their rights is no virtue.  Indeed, the chapters in her book on the Netherlands might have been titled “The Limits of Tolerance.”  Manji reaches a similar conclusion.  She says that as Westerners “bow down before multiculturalism, we often act as if anything goes.”  The “ultimate paradox,” she says, is that in order to defend Western tolerance and diversity, “we’ll need to be less tolerant” (p.199).  This is also Ali’s “ultimate paradox”: Western tolerance should not extend to systemic human rights abuses practiced in minority cultures.  Thus stated, the principle seems self-evident, but Ali’s example of the Dutch Ministry of Justice’s refusal to record honor killings of women because it would “stigmatize one group in society” (p.295-96) shows how well meaning, tolerant officials can have difficulty applying it.

In this vein, in his introduction to Ali’s book, the late Christopher Hitchins contends “without equivocation” that:

[i]f Muslims want to immigrate to open and developed societies in order to better themselves, it is they who must expect to do the adapting.  We no longer allow Jews to run separate Orthodox courts in their communities, or permit Mormons to practice polygamy or racial discrimination or child marriage.  That is the price of ‘inclusion,’ and a very reasonable one (p.xviii-xix; emphasis in original).

Does anyone disagree?

Even with these reservations and insights into the limits of toleration, perhaps the most striking aspect of Ali’s book is her affirmation of the superiority of Western values over those of the societies she grew up in.  Having made her journey from the “world of faith” to the “world of reason,” she has particular credibility when she says she knows that:

one of those worlds is simply better than the other.  Not because of its flashy gadgets, but fundamentally, because of its values . . .Life is better in Europe [and I hope she would include North America] than it is in the Muslim world because human relations are better, and one reason human relations are better is that in the West, life on earth is valued in the here and now, and individuals enjoy rights and freedoms that are recognized, and protected by the state (p.346).

Manji, who grew up in a Western culture and could take its individual liberty and spirit of inquiry for granted, is just as emphatic.  She opens her book by paying homage to the freedoms afforded her in the West: “to think, search, speak, exchange, discuss, challenge, be challenged and rethink” (p.19).  Unlike Ali, she never had to choose between Islam and the West.  As she puts it, “the West made it possible for me to choose Islam, however tentatively.” Manji not only reaffirms the superiority of Western values but also sees Western Muslims as “poised to demonstrate the possibilities of reforming Islam” (p.186); or, as she puts it at the beginning of her book, having the capacity to restore Islam’s “better angels” (p.4).  Muslims in the West have the “luxury of exercising civil liberties, especially free expression to change tribal tendencies,” Manji asserts.  “Are we leveraging that freedom? Are enough non-Muslims challenging us to do so?” (p.186).

But only a miniscule portion of the world’s Muslim population lives in Europe and North America.  Most still live in predominantly Muslim countries and unless these countries undergo sweeping transformation, reform of Islam is unlikely to be widespread.  And here Manji’s analysis conveys a better sense of the diversity and dynamism within the Islamic world.   Somalia and Saudi Arabia are not the only models.  Manji cites  Turkey, flawed in many ways but nonetheless the Muslim world’s most mature and secular democracy (p.156).  Today, she would be likely to cite the democratic sentiments so widely manifested in the “Arab Spring” — although she would probably want to add a word about how the Arab Spring also demonstrates the difficulty of utilizing those sentiments to build sustainable democratic institutions.  Indeed that very difficulty demonstrates that there is still today, as in 2008, a long way to go before a Muslim Enlightenment takes hold in the Islamic world.  But if counterparts as articulate and clear-eyed as Ali and Manji can be empowered in that part of the world, it would be imprudent to discount this possibility as hopelessly naïve.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

May 7, 2012

10 Comments

Filed under Gender Issues, Politics, Religion

Stephen Cohen, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War

In this series of essays, Stephen Cohen, a well-known scholar of Russia and the Soviet Union, looks at “alternative possibilities” in Russian and Soviet history – possibilities “grounded in realities of the time, represented by leaders, and with enough political support to have had a chance of being realized” (p.xi). Throughout the book’s seven essays, along with an epilogue written early in the Obama administration, Cohen challenges what he terms a “school of inevitability” prevalent in the United States that treats seventy five years of Soviet history as having been “closed to alternatives” (p.xii).

The first essay, “Bukaharin’s Fate,” takes a new look at the enigmatic Nikolai Bukaharin, one of several original Bolsheviks whom Stalin liquidated in the 1930s. Cohen speculates that the Soviet Union would have been a very different country, without the terror of the 1930s and 1940s, had Bukarhin prevailed over Stalin in the struggle for power after Lenin’s death in 1924. The second essay, “The Victims Return,” focuses on the Soviet Gulag and highlights the ambivalence of the Soviet Union and Russia about the crimes that Stalin inflicted on his country.

Although Gulag returnees were “survivors in almost the full sense of victims who had survived the Nazi extermination camps,” (p.34), the Soviet Union never undertook exercises like those that sought to hold Nazis accountable for their war crimes after World War II. The primary reason, of course, was the complicity of post-Stalin Soviet leadership in Stalin’s crimes, including Nikita Khrushchev himself. Even today, a fault line runs through Russia between those who contend that Stalin was a despicable, inhuman tyrant, and those who see him as a wise leader of his country. This is not simply an historical debate, Cohen contends, even though most of the survivors of the Soviet Gulag have now died. 27% of Russians today have ancestral links to the Gulag, according to a 2006 poll. A reckoning remains on Russia’s political agenda, Cohen argues, because “there is no statute of limitations for historical crimes as large as Stalin’s . . .the victims’ return is not over” (p.60).

These two essays are polished and thoughtful, with Cohen indulging in the reasoned speculation that is a prerogative of a senior scholar. The last five essays and the epilogue blend together, and are more polemical and provocative. In these pages, Cohen addresses critical questions involving Russia and the Soviet Union. The titles of three of the five essays are themselves questions: Was the Soviet System Reformable? Why Did It End? Who Lost the Post-Soviet Peace? Here, Cohen takes on the conventional wisdom – conventional at least in the United States and much of Western Europe — that the Soviet Union collapsed of its own weight and internal contradictions; that it was beyond reform; and that Gorbachev’s petrosoika and his goal of “socialism with a human face” were hopelessly naïve in light of the nature of the Soviet state. In response, Cohen argues that the Soviet Union could have been transformed into a functioning democracy; that its current anti-democratic tendencies could have been avoided; and that the United States bears considerable responsibility for setting post-Soviet Russia on its current anti-democratic path.

To Cohen, Gorbachev was a genuine reformer, a “Lincolnesque figure determined to ‘preserve the Union’ – in his case, however, not by force but by negotiating a transformation of the discredited ‘super-centralized unitary state’ into an authentic, voluntary federation” (p.105). At some point in the 1980s, Cohen argues, Gorbachev “crossed the Rubicon from Communist Party liberalizer to authentic democratizer,” evolving from a “proponent of ‘socialist pluralism’ to a proponent simply of ‘pluralism,’ from advocate of ‘socialist democracy’ to advocate of ‘democracy,’ from defender of the Communist Party’s ‘leading role’ to defender of the need for a multi-party system” (p.78-79). During Gorbachev’s last years, “all the basic forms of economic activity in modern Russia were born” — born, that is, “within the Soviet economy and thus were evidence of its reformability” (p.105). Under Gorbachev’s leadership, Russia (then Soviet Russia) came “closer to real democracy than it had ever been in its centuries-long history” (p.141).

Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s successor, was the anti-Gorbachev (p.140), driven by a “pathological, destructive, all-consuming hatred of Gorbachev” (p.132). Yeltsin oversaw the breakup of the Soviet Union, dissolving it in a manner which, according to Cohen, was “neither legitimate nor democratic,” but rather, a “profound departure from Gorbachev’s commitment to gradualism, social consensus, and constitutionalism,” and a “return to the country’s ‘neo-Bolshevik’ and earlier traditions of imposed change. . . ” (p.151). In the privatization of former state-held property, Yeltsin unleashed a “true bacchanalia of redistribution,” sometimes euphemistically called “spontaneous privatization,” which Cohen and others derisively term “grab-it-ization” (p.137). Gorbachev, by contrast, was prepared to “go boldly” toward “destatization” but only on the condition that “property created by whole generations does not fall into the hands of thieves” (p.139). Even today, Cohen finds the political and economic consequences of the manner in which privatization unfolded in the 1990s “both the primary cause of Russia’s de-democratization and the primary obstacle to reversing it” (p.154).

In particular, privatization in Russia has led to endemic corruption throughout the public and private sectors, buttressed by frightening violence:

The shadowy, illicit procedures and contract murders that fostered the birth of the oligarchy spread with the new system. As a result, corruption also now deprives Russia of billions of dollars and the efficiency needed for modernization. Meanwhile most of the frequent assassinations of journalists and related crimes, usually attributed to the Kremlin, are actually commissioned by corrupt “businessmen” and officials against reporters and other investigators who have gotten too close to their commercial secrets (p.205).

Cohen provides a disturbing analysis of the role that the United States has played in Russia’s authoritarian turn over the last two decades. Presidents Reagan and G.H.W. Bush supported Gorbachev and the path toward reform he tried to follow. But the Soviet Union was gone by the time Bill Clinton became President, and US policy toward Russia embarked on a disastrous course during his presidency that has continued to the present. The United States elected to treat post-Communist Russia as a “defeated nation, analogous to Germany and Japan after World War II, which was expected to replicate America’s domestic practices and bow to U.S. international interests” (p.171). The United States thereby squandered the “historic opportunity for an essential partnership in world affairs – the legacy of Gorbachev, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush” (p.181). Cohen labels this approach “triumphalism,” a “bi-partisan” and “unbridled” exaltation that America had “won” the Cold War and therefore Moscow’s direction “at home and abroad should be determined by the US government” (p.181).

What the United States euphemistically termed a “strategic partnership” with Yeltsin’s Russia was unbalanced from the beginning, Cohen argues, a “relentless, winner-take-all exploitation of Russia’s post-1991 weakness” (p.168). Washington’s insistence on expanding NATO eastward was for Russia the “original sin” (p.189), with Washington unwilling to acknowledge legitimate Russian security concerns with such expansion. “As the Western military alliance continued its ‘march to the east,’ taking in former Soviet-bloc countries and republics along the way, it finally convinced Moscow that U.S. policy was not ‘strategic partnership’ but a quest for domination” (p.189). Ukraine’s potential entry into NATO was (and still is) seen in Moscow as “hammering the final nail into the coffin of Russia as a great power” — exactly the motive behind the United States’ support for Ukraine membership, Cohen contends (p.190).

In his epilogue, Cohen seeks to refute the notion that a reset in US-Russia relations occurred when Barack Obama became President. “Reinforced by a cult of conventional ‘tough-minded’ policy-making, which marginalized and invariably ‘proved wrong’ even ‘eloquent skeptics’ like George Kennan, the triumphalist orthodoxy still monopolized the political spectrum, from ‘progressives’ to America’s own ultra-nationalists, in effect unchallenged in the parties, media, policy institutes, and universities” (p.218), Cohen argues.  For a real reset, triumphalism must be replaced “in words and in deeds, as the underlying principle of U.S. policy by the original premise that ended the Cold War in the years from 1988 to 1991 – that there were no losers but instead a historic chance for the two great powers, both with legitimate security interests abroad and full sovereignty at home, to escape the perils and heavy costs of their forty-year confrontation” (p.195).

There is certain crankiness to Cohen’s relentless assault on two decades of Washington policy toward Russia, reminding me of Ron Paul taking on the Federal Reserve. I do not have anywhere near the expertise to reach a conclusion as to whether Cohen has made his case in these essays that US policy toward Russia has been as consistently wrongheaded as he contends. But I can easily conclude that his provocative views will prompt me to look at Russia and US-Russian relations through a different lens going forward.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
April 24, 2012

4 Comments

Filed under History, Politics, Soviet Union

Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

[Introduction: This is the last of my comments that I can locate from 2006, written after my high school friends and I had discussed an earlier Sam Harris book, “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.” In our exchanges, I found myself alone among my friends in arguing that the taboo against delving deeply into the faith of others is a socially useful convention, enabling people of many different religions to co-exist in relative tolerance and harmony. My friends found that view antiquated and wimpy. The comment below reprises these themes. I have rewritten the final paragraph in light of events since 2006].

This slim book, less than 100 pages, is intended as a sequel to Harris’ earlier “The End of Faith.” My own spiritual inclinations might best be described as secular humanism; I respect but reject Christianity and organized religion generally. I therefore found myself in agreement again, as I did in Harris’ earlier book, with most of his fervently argued points about Christian theology. But the fervor of his argument suggests that Harris’s letter is really for like-minded secularists. Although he makes a few concessions and includes some efforts to be respectful to the hypothetical Christian he is addressing – the person who believes, “at a minimum, that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that only those who accept the divinity of Jesus Christ will experience salvation after death” (p.viii)– the style overall is very much “in your face” and not designed to win many converts among such Christians. Rather, he has set out, as he says with no tinges of false modesty, to “demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms” by engaging Christianity “at its most divisive, injurious and retrograde” (p.ix).

I don’t think we get very far by demolishing the foundations of others’ theology. I look at theology as a set of beliefs based on faith, which many people decide, for all kinds of interesting psychological reasons, to place outside the usual empirical and scientific processes that we try, however imperfectly, to apply in other aspects of our lives. Rather than seeking to show the scientific dubiousness of Christian theology, I would have preferred a letter which tries to convince devoted Christians that their religion should be an essentially private matter, rather than one that animates public policy. In many ways, this is a tougher argument. Christians arguing for a religious role in public life usually cite the religious motivation of many abolitionists in the 19th century, and of course, Martin Luther King in the 20th . (Two recent Washington Post columns present good arguments for minimizing religion in public life: Michael Gerson, a conservative who served in the George W. Bush White House: “Too Much Religion in Politics,” Washington Post, March 27, 2012:

http://cjonline.com/opinion/2012-03-29/michael-gerson-too-much-religion-politics;

and E.J. Dionne, a liberal Catholic: “A Holy Week Entreaty,” Washington Post, April 5, 2012:

http://host.madison.com/ct/news/opinion/column/ej_dionne/e-j-dionne-jr-a-holy-week-entreaty-on-religion/article_317e8b3c-b92e-5557-81e1-5d42c792dfed.html).

I couldn’t read either Harris book without thinking that his real point is that anyone who embraces Christianity in any of its forms is at best intellectually dishonest. This leads to a problem I have seen among many — but certainly not all – atheists: a tendency to demonize theists. Although understandable for atheists who are routinely demonized by some true believers, this tendency in my view should nonetheless be avoided. My problem is that I know too many highly intelligent people from all walks of life — doctors, educators, investment counselors, carpenters, auto mechanics, even an occasional lawyer – who are very intelligent and profess to be Christians. Does their faith approach that of the dogmatic hypothetical recipient of Harris’ letter? Are they at base intellectually dishonest? For the most part, I can’t say. I have assiduously applied the taboo that Harris wishes to discard, which cautions against probing too closely into other folks’ religion. But I do know many hyper-intelligent practicing Christians, and am not comfortable with Harris’ attempt to belittle if not demonize them.

Further, as in Harris’ earlier book, I remain unconvinced by his analysis of Islam. The idea that Islam is a “peaceful religion hijacked by extremists” Harris writes, is a “fantasy” and:

it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge. It is not at all clear how we should proceed in our dialogue with the Muslim world, but deluding ourselves with euphemisms is not the answer. It is now a truism in foreign policy circles that real reform in the Muslim world cannot be imposed from the outside. But it is important to recognized why this is so – it is because most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith. Muslims tend to view questions of public policy and global conflict in terms of their affiliation with Islam. And Muslims who don’t view the world in these terms risk being branded as apostates and killed by other Muslims.

(p.85; emphasis in original).

I found this passage “way overstated” in 2006 and still do, six years later. If Harris is even close to the mark, there is hardly any point in “dialogue with the Muslim world.” I was curious whether the on-going “Arab Spring,” in which millions in Muslim countries have manifested their preference for a more pluralist democracy in their countries, might have prompted some modification in Harris’ views. While I didn’t find anything “directly on point,” as the lawyers say, last month, Harris posted an article, “Islam and the Future of Liberalism” (www.samharris.org/blog/item/islam-and-the-future-of-liberalism). There, Harris writes:

Of course, millions of Muslims are more secular and are eager to help create a global civil society. But they are virtually silent because they have nothing to say within the framework of their faith. (They are also afraid of getting killed). That is the problem we must keep in view. And it represents an undeniable difference between Islam and Christianity at this point in history.

Many people who would like to see pluralist democratic institutions established in their predominately Muslim countries have been anything but “virtually silent.” No small number have been killed, others tortured, yet the strength of their democratic vision has prompted Muslims and non-Muslims in the Arab world to continue to manifest their belief that democratic institutions offer the best way forward for their beleaguered countries. The Arab Spring has a long, uphill way to go before such institutions become firmly rooted, and fundamentalist religious groups may yet prevail. There is probably less reason for optimism today than six months ago. But the heartening aspect of the Arab Spring is that so many democratic-minded Muslims have not been silent.

Thomas H. Peebles
Washington, D.C.
April 16, 2012

11 Comments

Filed under Politics, Religion

Caroline Moorehead, A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France


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This book was my parents’ 2011 selection from my annual Christmas “wish list.” It is really two short books in one, approximately equal in length. The first half depicts France under German occupation and the rise of the French Resistance movement. The second takes place outside occupied France, in hellish Nazi prison camps, first Birkenau, part of the Auschwitz complex, then Ravensbrück. Both halves revolve around 230 women who were part of the Resistance before being deported East in January 1943 on a “Train in Winter,” le Convoi des 31000. Forty-nine of the 230 survived a twenty-seven month ordeal, liberated in the spring of 1945. “Those who came back to France in 1945 owed their lives principally to chance,” Moorehead writes, “but they owed it too in no small measure to the tenacity with which they clung to one another, though separated by every division of class, age, religion, occupation, politics and education” (p. 7).

Moorehead’s story of the growing solidarity between the women prisoners begins with the early phase of German occupation in 1940. To the great relief of the French, this phase was relatively civil, not marked by the savagery that had accompanied the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. Indeed, the Nazis were initially “astonished by the French passivity” (p.13). The French government ended up in Vichy, a spa near Clermont-Ferrand in the heart of the Auvergne. Led by World War I hero Marshal Phillipe Pétain, the Vichy regime embarked upon a path of collaboration with the German occupiers. Pétain and his followers – “Catholic, conservative, authoritarian and often anti-Semitic,” as Moorehead describes them (p.15) — believed that collaboration would lead to a France:

purged and purified, returned to a mythical golden age before the French revolution introduced perilous ideas about equality. The new French were to respect their superiors and the values of discipline, hard work and sacrifice and they were to shun the decadent individualism that had, together with Jews, Freemasons, trade unionists, immigrants, gypsies and communists, contributed to the military defeat of the country (p.15).

Not all French adhered to Pétain’s vision of what he called la France éternelle. The resistance to the Vichy government and Nazi occupation included every class and ideology within French society. But members of the French Communist Party (PCF in French) were in the forefront of the movement, a useful reminder that, whatever else its failings, the PCF was way ahead of much of the rest of France in seeing the existential threat that Nazism posed to French civilization. 119 of Moorehead’s 230 women were PCF members or supporters and as such “already knew a good deal about survival and the clandestine life” (p.25).

In 1940, when the occupation began, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were allies, confusing the French Communists who nonetheless rallied to the cause of the Resistance. But when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the confusion ended and everything changed. In the summer of 1941, the chasse aux Juifs, the hunt for Jews, began in earnest, “so zealously pursued by the French collaborators that it was said that even the Nazis were impressed” (p.75-76). The final portions of the first part of Moorehead’s book reveal strong and heroic acts of resistance, along with betrayal of many of the resistants by their fellow countrymen. As the first half ends, the 230 women were placed in Romainville, a camp in France, before being sent East to Birkenau on the train in winter, le Convoi des 31000.

Throughout the second half of the book, Moorehead expounds upon how the solidarity among the French women imprisoned in the camps deepened and became a key to their survival. The French women “took pride in their closeness” and were “as kind, helpful and polite towards one another as they would have been back home” (p.212). They were helped by their “particular skills as women, caring for others and being practical,” making them “less vulnerable than men to harsh conditions and despair. Adaptability was crucial, resignation fatal” (p.220). The women became so cohesive, “so attuned to each other’s frailties, so watchful and protective, that planning how to keep the group alive had become a way of life” (p.215).

Nonetheless, two and a half months after reaching Birkenau, the initial group of 230 French women was down to eighty. “A hundred and fifty of them had died, from typhus, pneumonia, dysentery, from dog bites and beatings, and gangrenous frostbite, from not being able to eat or sleep, or from being gassed” (p.218). The ones still alive were the stronger women, “those neither too old nor too young, those sustained by belief in a new world order; or, quite simply, because they had been very lucky” (p.218).

Fifty-two of the 230 women survived the ordeal in Birkenau before being transported in early 1944 on another train in winter to Ravensbrück, north of Berlin. At Birkenau, the “primary goal had been to exterminate the inmates, with the majority being gassed as soon as they arrived, and the others worked to death” (p.254). Ravensbrück, although hellish, was set up as a commercial enterprise to fuel the German war machine, with death being “simply a by-product and not an end” (p.254).

There were 5,000 French women at Ravensbrück. Those who came from recognized groups, Moorehead writes, communists, Catholic Bretons, the intellectual bourgeoisie, were “team players, and the easiest to get on with” (p.255). As a national group, the French were more cohesive than the other nationalities, more prone to look after their own” (p.255). The friendship between them “stronger than anything they had known in their previous lives, had become their credo; it defined them” (p.254).

In addition to luck and solidarity, there were unanticipated keys to survival:

Discussion groups were started, on everything from raising rabbits to esoteric questions of philosophy. Despite the lack of books and paper, there was a huge hunger for knowledge, particularly the learning of languages, though very few women chose to learn German (p.250).

Forty-nine of the fifty-two who went from Birkenau to Ravenbrück lived to see the end of the war, thirty four of them communists (with four of the forty-nine still alive as Moorehead’s book went to press). Fourteen were widows, their husbands shot by the Nazis or dead in the concentration camps. The forty-nine went home “emaciated, haunted, grieving for the dead companions, but alive” (p.278). In their two years and three months in the camps, the survivors had:

witnessed both the worst and the best that life had to offer, cruelty, sadism, brutality, betrayal, thievery, but also generosity and selflessness. Their reserves of strength and character had been pushed to the very far limits of endurance and every notion of humanity had been challenged (p.288-89).

The return to France “proved as hard and as unhappy as anything they had known. Return, they said, was a time of ‘shadowy places, silences and things not said’” (p.289). The survivors had to face questions about how to remake their lives, and how to convey to their families what they had been through. The camps were “so extreme, so incomprehensible, so unfamiliar an experience, that the women doubted that they possessed the words to describe them, even if people wanted to hear; which, as it turned out, not many did” (p.293). When the women did talk about why they survived, they asked themselves repeatedly:

what it was in their particular story or character that enabled them to live, whether it was their optimistic nature, or because they had been able to use their skills as women, caring for others. In the end, they always came back to the same two reasons: they had lived because each of them had been incredibly lucky, and because of the friendship between them, which had protected them and made it easier to withstand the barbarity” (p.313-14).

The second half of Moorehead’s book is difficult to read, but a poignant reminder of the brutality and depravity which characterized the camps. With its emphasis upon the role of women in the Resistance and the camps, the book is a useful supplement to much of the literature on the subjects, heavily concentrated on men. Throughout the second half, I asked myself whether Moorehead might be overstating the extent to which friendship and solidarity were the women’s keys to survival; whether, in the end, it all came down to raw luck. But I was moved by her depictions of the “worst and best that life had to offer,” and understood how the valiant women who survived felt wiser, “in some indefinable way,” because they comprehended, as Moorhead writes, the “depths to which human beings can sink and equally the heights to which it is possible to rise” (p.314).

Thomas H. Peebles
Washington, D.C.
March 26, 2012

5 Comments

April 8, 2012 · 2:29 pm

Tales of Two Cities

Rick Gosselin, “Goodfellows: The Champions of St. Ambrose”

Paul Clemens, “Made In Detroit: A South of Eight Mile Memoir”



[Introductory note: This commentary splices together two pieces I wrote in 2006 and 2009. My college friend Tom Fagan gave me Paul Clemens’ book in 2006. Although now comfortably ensconced in sunny Hawaii, Tom grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, in the shadow of Michigan State University. Among his claims to fame, as a boy Tom caddied for legendary Michigan State football coach Hugh “Duffy” Dougherty, who lurks in the background throughout Rick Goesslin’s book. In 2009, my high school friend Paul Rentenbach pointed me to Goesslin’s book. Paul and his lovely wife Jackie are among a very few of my high school friends who have remained in the Detroit area, living today little more than one block from the house where my parents lived from 1955 to 1998.]

My heart may be in Paris but, as my friends know, my psyche will always be in Detroit, Michigan, once proudly known as the Motor Capital of the World. Detroit is where I was raised in my most formative years. Although I have lived well over half my life in other locations, the Motor City remains the frame of reference by which I see the world. Or, to qualify that, the Motor City of the ‘50s and ‘60s remains my frame of reference. That is not the Detroit of today.

Detroit now epitomizes urban rust belt decay, with block after block of abandoned buildings and gutted houses. Its current population is less than half what it was in 1950, when it ranked fifth in the United States, and 19th worldwide; and it now has the highest poverty rate of any major city in the United States. The reasons for Detroit’s demise are endlessly debated, the stuff of Ph.D theses and think tank policy papers.

I place particular emphasis upon the severe 1967 race riots in Detroit, which accelerated white flight to the suburbs; and, in a city synonymous with the American automobile industry, a lack of foresight on the part of the “Big 3,” GM, Chrysler and Ford, along with their union counterpart, the United Auto Workers – big business and big labor. Over the course of several decades, the Big 3, with the acquiescence of the UAW, ceded their preeminent place in the world market to more competitive Japanese and European companies. The city of Detroit, but also its suburbs and the entire region, suffered from the slow stagnation of the American automobile industry. These two books are about two very different cities bearing the same name. Rick Goesslin describes the Detroit before the ’67 riots. Paul Clemens treats the city more people are familiar with today.

Goesslin’s book centers on the football fortunes in the 1950s and 1960s of a small Catholic school, St. Ambrose, located in one of Detroit’s most affluent suburbs, Grosse Pointe, but just the other side of the border with Detroit. Even people familiar with Michigan and Detroit are not always aware that Grosse Pointe contains a few blue collar pockets, with small houses built closely together, frequently designed to house two or more families; houses headed by autoworkers, police officers and firemen, not auto executives, doctors and lawyers. St. Ambrose was located in one such pocket, and, up to my 10th year, my family lived about three blocks away, in the same blue-collar pocket.

Indeed, Goesslin’s book starts in 1956 at 1358 Maryland, a mere half-block away from where we had lived, at 1314 Maryland, before moving the previous year to a leafier Grosse Pointe street about ten blocks away. Little did I then know that living down the block was one Tom Boisture, who was about to be offered the head coaching job at St. Ambrose. Boisture took the job at St. Ambrose, then went on to coaching positions at Michigan State and in the NFL. Had I known that a future Michigan State and NFL coach was living a mere half block away, I’m sure I would not have let my parents move. Goesslin recounts how first Boisture, then George Perles, another Michigan State and NFL coach, turned this tiny parochial school into an unlikely high school football powerhouse.

The St. Ambrose Cavaliers’ finest moment came in 1959, when they bested Detroit Cooley, a school close to 10 times bigger, in the 1959 “Goodfellows” game, an annual match between Detroit’s public and Catholic school champions at what was then known as Briggs Stadium – later Tiger Stadium and now nothing more than an forlorn field on Michigan Avenue on Detroit’s near West Side. The 1959 Goodfellows game is the centerpiece of Gosselin’s book. But the Cavaliers continued to dominate Detroit high school football for the better part of a decade. They went on to win four more Goodfellow games, enjoyed four more undefeated seasons, and posted a 64-8-3 record in the period 1959 to 1967.

St. Ambrose was so small that it had no field of its own, and consequently the Cavaliers practiced at nearby Defer Elementary School, the school I attended from kindergarten through 6th grade. While in elementary school, I remember watching in awe as the team scrimmaged. My most vivid memories, however, came during practice breaks, when the players removed their helmets and headed to the water fountain. I could then see them up close, with sweat pouring down their faces. This was prior to Boisture’s arrival, when a man named John Thursby was Cavalier coach. I can still hear Thursby barking at his players during practice sessions (Thursby would go on to become basketball coach at my public high school).

1967 marked the high water point for the Cavaliers. The program fell apart quickly thereafter, and in 1972 the Archdiocese of Detroit closed the school, which was demolished a decade later. Gosselin’s job is not to explain the demise of either St. Ambrose or Detroit, although he does mention that racial unrest generally and the 1967 riots specifically prompted an exodus from Detroit that would “empty out many parishes” (p.233). In addition, Gosselin attributes St. Ambrose’s demise – and by extension, that of Catholic Detroit – to 1960s thinking, where parochial education became an “outmoded idea” and the wave of the future was to “train Catholics and Christians in a more secular way rather than in a more enclosed environment like a parochial school,” quoting a St. Ambrose priest of that era, Father Timothy Pelc. Joe Carruthers, the last St. Ambrose coach to lead the Cavaliers to a championship, noted that the Age of Aquarius arrived at St. Ambrose after the 1967 season. “[A]ll discipline seemed to be breaking down,” Carruthers said ruefully. “The flower children were coming in and changing the whole neighborhood” (p.233).

Clemens’ story picks up at about the point where Goesslin ends. He recounts the decline of his once tightly knit working class neighborhood on the East Side of Detroit, as more and more white families – the Clemens family excepted — moved from his neighborhood to the north side of Eight Mile Road, the boundary between Detroit and its suburbs, to be replaced by African-Americans. Although Clemens expounds at length on the virtues and disadvantages of his Catholic education, I was frustrated that he never reveals which high school he attended, leaving me guessing throughout. Part of my informal education growing up was learning at least a bit about the many Catholic schools which held Detroit’s neighborhoods together. By Clemens’ time (he was born in 1973), many of these institutions, like St. Ambrose, had closed, replaced by a few mega-schools. Since the book is not likely to have much appeal to persons not already somewhat familiar with the territory, I was curious why Clemens hid from his readers what I consider a key fact about him.

Clemens seems to despise my community, Grosse Pointe, with the same fervor that many of his neighbors despised blacks. But the Grosse Pointe he describes was totally unfamiliar to me, an endless series of debutante balls, yachts and horse shows. When I was growing up in Grosse Pointe (which, ironically, is located almost entirely south of Eight Mile Road, like Clements’s enclave), my principal preoccupations, and those of my friends, were beating rival high schools Dearborn Fordson and Royal Oak Dondero in football, and Highland Park and Austin in basketball. The latter was a nearby Catholic boys school which basketbabll great Dave DeBusschere attended; it was razed many years ago to make way for a used car lot.

Although Clemens and his immediate family seem immune to the anti-black racism that touched so many of his neighbors, he describes Coleman Young, the African-American mayor of Detroit from 1973 to 1993, in terms that sound like those of an African-American who grew up in Alabama in the ‘50s and ‘60s talking about Bull Connor. Clements argues that Young did just about everything he could to encourage white flight from Detroit’s working class neighborhoods, while cozying up to the elites rebuilding downtown with Renaissance Centers.  White flight would have happened without Young and the policies he followed but, Clemens suggests, it might not have been so precipitous.

In the latter portions of Clemens’ book, he abandons chronology and skips from his unnamed high school to post-college and back again. Much of the second half consists of digressions into literature, with discussions of Faulkner, Baldwin, Ellison and others. These discussions added little to the book. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading Clemens’ account of how familiar territory was changing rapidly in the 1980s in a way I could only see from a distance.

Gosselin’s book, by contrast, was nearly 100% close-to-home nostalgia for me. Anyone under 40 is unlikely to recognize the Detroit which Gosselin describes, a vibrant patchwork of tightly-knit neighborhoods, more often than not held together by parish schools. It pains me to say that this Detroit has disappeared forever.

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C.

March 9, 2012

3 Comments

Filed under History, Sports, United States History

David McCullough, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

 “Good Americans when they die go to Paris”

Thomas Gold Appleton

Every year, I prepare a “wish list” of recently-published books which I would like to read, and send that list to my parents for them to select a Christmas gift. It’s a system that has worked well over more than two decades. This year, I shared the list with my daughters, who went to one of a handful of English language bookstores in Brussels and came up with David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.” They could not have made a better choice, selecting one of my favorite authors, David McCullough, writing on one of my favorite subjects, Paris.

McCullough is truly a national treasure, the rare author who uses jargon-free prose to tell spellbinding stories about serious historical subjects. On Paris, I am close to Thomas Gold Appleton’s view, quoted above. Perhaps a little more skeptical than Appleton about an afterlife (but still wishing and hoping), I would modify his quotation to say, “When they go to Paris, good Americans think they’ve died and gone to heaven.” McCullough’s book was thus a natural for me, and he didn’t disappoint.

Most Americans know that Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and John Adams spent formative and productive years in 18th century Paris. After that, we tend to fast forward to the 20th century, to Papa Hemmingway holding court in Montparnasse cafés and Gertrude Stein demonstrating to her compatriots that Paris was most unlike Oakland, with lots and lots of there there. Not many of us know much about Americans in Paris between Jefferson, Franklin and Adams’s time, and that of Hemmingway and Stein.

McCullough fills that gap, shedding much new light on the City of Lights. “The Greater Journey” concentrates on the period 1830-1890, showing convincingly that Paris held a similar magnetic attraction for 19th century Americans. In the early portion of the book, McCullough focuses on Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph but then an upcoming artist affectionately known as the “Lightning Man;” and James Fennimore Cooper, already a well-known novelist who somehow found inspiration to write frontier stories while in Paris. Most prominent at the end are the painters John Singer Sargent, considered the leading portrait painter of his generation; and Mary Cassatt, one of the few women associated with Impressionism. But luminaries such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Charles Sumner, Henry James, P.T. Barnum and Tom Thumb all had stints in Paris, which McCullough ably recounts.

In terms that still apply today, McCullough describes the transcending spell of Paris for 19th century Americans, “derived from light, color, and architecture” (p.46). The great appeal of Paris then, as now, was “what man built there. There was nothing stunning about its natural setting – no mountain ranges on the horizon, no dramatic coastline. . . The ‘genius of the place’ was in the arrangements of space and architecture, the perspectives of Paris” (p.206). Paris was a “continuing lesson in the enjoyment to be found in such simple, unhurried occupations as a walk in a garden or watching children at play or just sitting observing the human cavalcade” (p.44).

But if Paris was, as Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote, an “immense panorama of art and architecture – life, motion, enterprise, pleasure, pomp, power” (p.214), it was also home to new ideas and practices which had not yet reached American shores. Charles Sumner, who became a leading anti-slavery Senator from Massachusetts, observed that a small number of blacks and mulattoes in his philosophy course at the Sorbonne were “well received” by the other students. With his American perspective, this natural coexistence “seemed strange” to Sumner, prompting him to conclude that the “distance between free blacks and whites among us is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things” (p.131). McCullough terms this a “stunning revelation” for Sumner, a moment of epiphany and arguably the most important of the many new ideas which young Americans would bring back to the United States in the 19th century (p.131-32).

American artist Emma Willard was delighted to see many young women artists in Paris. Women were not confined to the periphery of the Parisian art world; they produced works “much esteemed” and bearing a high price (p.42; Willard was, however, much embarrassed by the extent to which the “female anatomy in its natural state was so conspicuously glorified on canvas and in sculpture,” a view the French found “absurdly squeamish;” p.43). Nathaniel Willis was even more delighted to find himself greeted by “only attractive women” in men’s apparel shops. “No matter what the article of trade . . .you are waited on by girls always handsome and always dressed in the height of the mode” (p.34), Willis wrote home.

In the early decades of the 19th century, moreover, Paris was the cutting-edge center of medical research and training, far ahead of the United States. Women were well integrated into the medical profession, which was largely closed to women in America. Not surprisingly, the first woman doctor in the United States, Elizabeth Blackwell, studied medicine in Paris. Further, in the United States, with its puritan traditions, “most women would have preferred to die than have a physician – a man – examine their bodies” (p.115). Not so in France. A Philadelphia surgeon, Augustus Gardner, wrote that the French woman “knows nothing at all of this queasy sensibility. She has no hesitation, not only to describe, but to permit her [male] physician to see every complaint” (p.115).

McCullough does not flinch from covering one of the darkest periods in Parisian history, 1870-71, when France lost the Franco-Prussian War, at great cost to the city and the country; followed by a round of unfathomable pillage, burning and destruction, the Paris Commune uprising. American Ambassador to France Elihu Washburne wrote that both sides in the uprising committed “acts which disgrace human nature” (p.325). The “vandalism of the dark ages pales into insignificance before the monstrous crimes perpetrated in this great center of civilization in the last half of the nineteenth century” (p.324), he despondently informed the American Secretary of State.

Washburne was the only major diplomat to remain in Paris during the madness of the Franco-Prussian war and Commune uprising, steadfastly seeking peace and working to end the carnage. McCullogh credits Washburne’s copious diary entries as critical in preserving the historical record of the dark period, “substantial in quality” and written “so extremely well, with clarity, insight, and such great empathy for the human drama at hand” (p.328-29). If Washburne’s decision to stay had resulted only in his diary, McCullough concludes, he nonetheless “would have made an enormous, singular contribution” (p.329).

Befitting our national character, American commerce and trade were instrumental in helping Paris and France rebound in the 1870s after the war and the Commune. A Paris newspaper wrote:

It is generally acknowledged that the trade of Paris is now manly sustained by American visitors who spend more money among the shopkeepers than all the rest put together . . . we only wish there were more of them, for this is about the best and most effective way in which Uncle Sam can aid the new French Republic (p.334).

One of the most interesting aspects of McCullough’s book is the extent to which the experience of young Americans in Paris sharpened their sense of what it means to be an American. The American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (thoroughly American despite the French-sounding name) wrote that his time in Paris had been a “wonderful experience, surprising in many respects, one of them being to find how much of an American I am.” (p.423). Nathaniel Willis, when he wasn’t gazing at pretty girls in men’s apparel shops, found he could always pick out fellow American men in Paris. The distinguishing feature, he observed, was the “independent, self-possessed bearing of a man unused to look up to anyone as his superior in rank, united to the inquisitive, sensitive, communicative expression which is the index to our national character” (p.67). An irate Samuel Morse vigorously defended his friend James Fennimore Cooper when Cooper came under attack for being “boastful, even bombastic about being an American” (p.92). The Lightning Man declared his admiration for his friend’s “proud assertion of the rank of an American . . . for I know no reason why an American should not take rank, and assert it, too, above any artificial distinctions that Europe has made . . .There can be no condescension to an American. An American gentleman is equal to any title or rank in Europe, kings and emperors not excepted”(p.93).

One side of Paris that appears missing is Franco-American romance. McCullough notes artist Mary Cassatt’s “open friendship” with her fellow impressionist painter Edgar Degas, “but apparently no more than that” (p.352). Mary Healy, the daughter of the American painter George Healey, married a French writer and professor (p..336). But there do not appear to have been many liaisons dangerouses between Americans and Parisians in the 19th century (unless, of course, the wily McCullough is holding a treasure trove of information on this tantalizing subject, which he is saving for what would surely be a blockbuster best-seller).

In “The Greater Journey,” David McCullough has produced a work about 19th century Americans’ experience in Paris that bears his trademark, rich in little-known facts and incisive observations, pieced together into a typically engaging narrative. Vive Monsieur McCullough.

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C.

February 27, 2012

10 Comments

Filed under France, French History, History

Elin McCoy, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr., and the Reign of American Taste

[Note: This is another comment dating from 2006, written for the same group of high school friends who were the original audience for my review of John McWhorter’s book, posted below. I remember going through the book during my summer vacation back in 2006 in little more than a day, hiding from the rest of my family.]

Those who follow the American wine trade even minimally know that Robert Parker is today’s undisputed arbiter of quality in wines. Imagine that in the art or film world, a single critic will decide whether a painting has value or a film is worth seeing. That’s the role of Parker today. How he got there is the nub of Elin McCoy’s story, of which I knew nothing previously. I learned that Parker is a guy roughly my age, born in 1947, who grew up in rural Maryland. His family sounded much like mine, with rarely anything other than milk on the table. His college girl friend, who was to become his wife, spent her junior year in a university in France. Parker visited her and became entranced by the centrality of good food and good wine in French society, like many Americans in the ‘70s, (I am another). He also found that he had a sensitive palate and was able to see differences in wine that sail by most of us.

 McCoy tells the story of how Parker went from a lawyer writing a Baltimore-Washington area wine review in his spare time to the most powerful wine critic today, maybe ever. While in law school, he was very much drawn to Ralph Nader (the Nader of the ’70s, not the guy who helped Bush into the White House), and saw his wine newsletter as part of a Nader-like mission – perhaps the better analogy is to the magazine Consumer Reports. Parker was convinced that the public paid too much for wine. Many wineries were living on their reputation and overcharging shamelessly. Parker’s newsletter was designed to rectify this situation. It was a strictly no-nonsense wine review – no pictures, no advertising by wineries that might compromise the objectivity of his work, no fluffy life-style pieces. It carried a rating for each wine he reviewed, on a scale of 100 – an 89 was much better than an 86, but not as good as a 91 (like a lot of term papers we wrote in college). McCoy shows how Parker wore down the competition, to the point that he became the “only game in town.” His ratings carried the day with wine consumers, and so with the wine makers. As a vintner, getting a 95 from Parker meant the good times were about to roll; getting an 78, by contrast, meant you were in for a long winter.

Today, Parker’s books on wine, with their 100 point ratings, have been translated into a zillion languages, and have driven the price of quality wines through the roof – people will now pay $200-300 per bottle for a wine that Parker has rated 95 or up. “The Irony of Success” might have been a good subtitle for this book. The consumer watchdog who wanted to make sure the little guy didn’t get burned when he shelled out for a good bottle of wine has driven the price of wine way beyond what we little guys can reasonably afford.

The sub-themes in this book are as fascinating as those involving wine: the herd mentality that often pervades the market for luxury goods; the American tendency to want to reduce everything, from cheese cakes to colleges to college term papers, to an “objective” point scale; the awakening of Americans in the ‘70s and ‘80s to the virtues and pleasures of quality cuisine (very much a baby boomer phenomenon, according to McCoy, as the boomers grew out of their more spartan ‘60s pleasures); the rise of the California wine industry, also in the ‘70s and ‘80s; and, because Parker’s favorite wine area is Bordeaux, insights into differences between French and American business ways and how a hard-charging American can win friends and influence people in the very different French culture and society.

McCoy is a former food critic for Food and Wine. She has written a scrupulously objective study of a very polarizing figure, who has both fanatical followers and those who consider him to be a diabolic force. You don’t have to love wine to enjoy this book.

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The Matter of Dreyfus

Ruth Harris, “Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century”

Frederic Brown, “For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus”

Louis Begley, “Why The Dreyfus Affair Matters”

I was surprised when two books on the Dreyfus affair, by Ruth Harris and Frederic Brown, came out within a short time of one another in 2010. This is a subject that I have wanted to understand better, so I decided to jump in and read both in 2011. When I ordered the Harris and Brown books on Amazon.com, through a “pop up” mechanism, Amazon kindly suggested that people who had purchased the two books might also be interested in reading Louis Begley’s “Why The Dreyfus Affair Matters.” I try to resist these pop ups but, after being severely tempted on many previous occasions, this time I succumbed. I really did want to learn why Dreyfus matters in the 21st century.

Although I read Harris’ book first, it would have made more sense to reverse the order. Brown emphasizes the background of the Affair. In the first 174 pages of his 265 page book, he treats the social, political and intellectual climate in which the Dreyfus Affair arose. At about the two-thirds mark, he begins to recount the story of a French cleaning lady emptying her wastebasket at the German Embassy in Paris in September 1894 and finding pieces of a torn-up, unsigned document containing low-level military secrets. This discovery set in motion the matter that would ensnare Alfred Dreyfus, a promising young Jewish Army officer from Alsace. In contrast, Harris starts with the cleaning lady in the German Embassy. The two books work well together, presenting a comprehensive and balanced view of the Affair.

Begley’s book, published a year earlier in 2009, covers succinctly the background and details of the Affair. Although eager to learn why someone versed in the Affair thinks that it might matter for us today, over a century later, I was disappointed by Begley’s book. I am skeptical of this genre (and learned that Begley’s book on Dreyfus is part of a Yale University Press series on why various people, places or things matter). Explaining why an historical figure or event matters appears to involve a search for the most pertinent contemporary analogy. Begley analogizes Dreyfus’ case to those of terrorist suspects held by the United States at Guantanamo Naval Base. He failed to convince me that this is the best analogy, and I found his argument jarring and out of place in his narrative.

The hard and cold facts of the Dreyfus Affair hide the polemical debate which it generated and the fissures in French society which it revealed. Shortly after finding that shredded document in the wastebasket in the German Embassy in September 1894, the cleaning lady, herself a spy for French intelligence, turned the shreds over to her superiors. They pieced it together, concluded that it was evidence of a spy for Germany within the French army, and quickly determined that Dreyfus was the culprit. Dreyfus was arrested for treason shortly thereafter, summarily convicted in a secret court martial, and stripped of his rank in front of a crowd screaming, “Death to Judas, death to the Jew.” Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana in early 1895.

In 1896, a new chief of French intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel Picquart, found evidence that the real traitor was Major Ferdinand Esterhzy and that Dreyfus was innocent. Picquart was silenced by a military cover up. In 1899, after a passionate campaign by the “Dreyfusards,” led by Emile Zola and his famous J’Accuse, Dreyfus was pardoned and released from prison, 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 Dreyfus.

Brown’s book is excellent in laying out the background to the affair. As his sub-title indicates, that background involves French cultural wars dating back to the French Revolution of the previous century, in which conservative institutions, particularly the Catholic Church and the military, considered themselves and the traditional France they represented to be under siege by a republican France, cosmopolitan, secular and fused with the values of the 18th century Enlightenment. In this climate, a virulent anti-Semitism flourished as the pervasive common denominator which drove the frenzy against Dreyfus.

In wide swaths of late 19th century French society, Jews were considered to be outsiders even when born on French soil, “created by God to serve as a spy wherever treason is afoot,” as one Catholic publication stated (Brown, p.216 n.*). Brown discusses a “fortress-France nationalism,” defending the country against the forces of modernity, especially the democratic and liberal Third French Republic — often termed a “Jewish, Masonic Republic” (Brown, p.208). But, Brown observes, “beneath the political agenda one observed a spiritual reaction against decadence by people who understood that defense of French interests to be that of a completed civilization at war with the new mobility of things and beings” (Brown, p.208, quoting historian Michel Winock).

Brown’s story begins in 1870 with Napoleon III’s abdication and the Franco-Prussian War, which ended with the humiliating loss of Alsace and parts of Lorraine, a loss many on the political right attributed to the Enlightenment and the forces of modernity. Among the immediate predicates to the Dreyfus Affair, the most critical in Brown’s view was that involving Georges Boulanger, a general in the French Army who, in 1889, led an unsuccessful movement of French conservatives threatening to take over the state and restore the monarchy. According to Prime Minister Léon Blum, who would become France’s first Jewish Prime Minister in 1936, one “cannot understand the Dreyfus Affair unless one remembers that it broke out less than eight years after a failed [Boulanger-led] revolution. The Boulangists sought revenge . . . and the discrediting of institutions and parties” (Brown, p.123).

Construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 was another factor fueling the French cultural wars. Conservatives regarded the tower as a sacrilege to traditional France, a sign that “mercantile fantasies” were in the ascendance and France was becoming “more American than America” (Brown, p.147). Lording over the French past and future, the tower was a “cosmopolite aspiring to universality, a potential instrument of treason. As such, it could only be the invention of ‘Israel’” (Brown, p.151). The Sacré Coeur basilica, which faces the Eiffel Tower from Paris’ highest perch in Montmarte, was constructed a few years later to serve as the counterpoint to the Tower: a “sanctuary for refugees from Babylon, a Parisian home for a devotion of specifically French origin, a monument embodying allegiance to the pope . . .” (Brown, p.35).

Harris dwells only in passing on the background to the Affair, concentrating on the moment Dreyfus was fingered as a traitor. She agrees with Brown and most other historians of the period that at one level, the Dreyfus debate was a “struggle over the legacy of the Enlightenment” (Harris, p.8). The Anti-Dreyfusards:

Rejected the universalism of the Rights of Man in favour of a conception of French identity that was based on language and race. They believed that a “true” French morality had to exclude Jews, Protestants and Freemasons in order to preserve a unique national community (Harris, p.8).

On the other side, the Dreyfusards “retained a belief in a universal moral code and trusted in rationality as a guide to ethical conduct. Correct judgments, they held, could be made only on the basis of evidence, and they maintained that Catholicism and anti-Semitism were roads back to a pre-Enlightenment obscurantism” (Harris, p. 8-9).

Harris excels in exposing the complexities underlying both sides, showing that the Affair was far more than a Manichean struggle between monolithic blocks. There was “neither a single, unified Catholic vision, nor a single, unified ‘secular’ response” (Harris, p. 373). Dreyfusards were Protestant, Catholic and Jewish, all trying to overcome backward elements within their own religions, but plagued by their own fears, animosities and inflexibilities. The more radical Dreyfusards, she contends, “abandoned much of their liberal humanitarianism and cemented their victory through an all-out assault on the Church, closing down congregations, expelling orders of priests and establishing an iron grip over the educational system” (Harris, p.9). They were “as emotionally vested in their ideology as the anti-Dreyfusards. . . They insisted that their opponents alone were guilty of muddled thinking and obscurantist tendencies. This belief was central to creating, and intensifying, the gulf between the two sides” (Harris, p. 168).

Harris closes with her own observations on why the Dreyfus affair might matter today. She cites the “widespread anxiety about how to integrate a large immigrant – and predominantly Islamic – minority” (Harris, p.385). Despite the very altered circumstances in twenty-first century France:

The debate resonates with the ferocity (and many of the same ideological oppositions) of the earlier [Dreyfus] period. Today right-wing nationalists keep company with some members of the left outraged by the incursion of religious symbolism into secular education. Where else in the Western world would the wearing of headscarves produce such ire and even national legislation . . .As much as in the early stages of the Dryefus Affair, the debate surrounding headscarves does not fit neatly into a tidy left/right divide. Even if, in time, the headscarf issue fades from view, Muslim resistance to the values of laïcité [secularism] means that many French citizens will continue to face the problem of living comfortably with multiple identities. This tension is one of the many aspects of French political culture that were strengthened, and, in some measure created, by the Dreyfus Affair (Harris, p.385).

Harris’ view of why Dreyfus might manner in the 21st century is more convincing than that of Louis Begley. About halfway through his first chapter, Begley jumps from a factual summation of the Affair to a 17 page digression on United States treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Naval Base, including discussions of some of the key Supreme Court decisions addressing the legality of maintenance of the base as a prison for detainees captured in the war on terror. Citing a poll taken around the time of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008 that showed that 44% of the respondents did not favor closing the prison, Begley concludes: “Just as the outset of the Dreyfus Affair the French found it easy to believe that Dreyfus must be a traitor because he was a Jew, many Americans had had no trouble believing that the detainees at Guatánomo – and those in CIA jails – were terrorists simply because they were Muslims” (p.43). Begley does not return to the Guatánomo theme in any meaningful sense until the final paragraph of his book.

Begley’s elevation of Guatánomo as the most pertinent contemporary analogy to Dreyfus strikes me as a stretch. In a recent Washington Post article, Karen Greenberg writes that Guatánomo is a “ready symbol of the country’s willingness to allow national security to trump the rule of law,” (Karen Greenberg, A World Without Gitmo,” Washington Post, January 15, 2012, B2), a view I accept. Dreyfus’ flagrant mistreatment within the French legal system was justified by some as necessary to defend the security of a civilization thought to be under siege, and in this sense there may be superficial similarities to the detainees at Guatánomo. But few of the detainees are United States citizens, whereas one of the core themes of the Dreyfus Affairis is the insider as outsider. Born French and a loyal and patriotic citizen serving in his country’s army, Dreyfus threatened traditional institutions because he was a Jew and in the eyes of many of his countrymen could never be French in the true sense of the term.

But the question why Dreyfus matters does not have to be a search for the most pertinent contemporary analogy. One could argue that the Affair matters because it is crucial to any understanding of late 19th and early 20th century French history. These three books contribute significantly to this understanding. My guess is that scholars would contend that Harris breaks the most new ground, providing an iconoclastic view of the Dreyfusards, with their own warts. Brown sets forth a richly detailed picture of the environment in which the Affair arose. Although his discussion of Guatánomo seems misplaced, Begley offers a solid summation of the Affair. That three English language books on the subject were published within a two-year period demonstrates that the matter of Dreyfus continues to matter.

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John McWhorter, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care

[Note: This is the earliest book review I could locate, written in 2006 for the benefit of a small group of dear high school friends. Most of us had a charismatic English teacher in 9th grade who was passionate about grammar and, amazingly, was able to impart that passion to some of his 14 and 15 year old students. McWhorter’s book was published in 2003.]

John McWhorter is a former professor at Berkeley, now at the Manhattan Institute in New York. I was attracted to his book because, as the quotation on the cover states, the book addresses “America’s ineloquent babble” and “[c]}elebrates the English language and bemoans our present incapacity to use it in an elegant formal or elevated way.” While I am as likely as the next guy to bemoan America’s ineloquent babble and inelegant usages of the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare, I was more than a little surprised to find 19 sentences of the following nature in the book:

“…[T]his person is indistinguishable in mental sophistication from the semi-literate Third World villager who derives all of their information about the world beyond via conversation and gossip. (p.xxiv)”

“. . .[T]he upshot is that the speaker’s immediate access to vocabulary did not, at least in that segment of their utterance, even succeed in conveying just what they meant at all. (p.11).

“. . .[I]magine eavesdropping on a drunken businessman complaining under gaslight about what happened to them on the commodities market in the Panic of 1893 (.27-28).”

“. . .[T]he semi-literate dropout rarely had the ability to write about their lives later on (p.152).”

“In fact, no classical musician would venture such a gaffe, because now they are on the cultural defensive (p.204).”

And my favorite: “An English professor before the 1960s would never cast their ideas in prose of this kind, now matter how complex or nuanced their ideas might be, because the public norms of American society placed a high value on graceful prose composition (p.244).”

I asked myself throughout whether I was wrong in concluding that each of these sentences is grammatically incorrect, with – and I probably have this terminology wrong; far too many years have passed since the 9th grade — a singular subject that doesn’t correspond to the plural predicate. Have the rules of grammar so changed that these constructions no longer violate accepted rules?

I often hear constructions like these in spoken language and see them regularly in government memos, hardly a recommended venue for grammar purists. But I had never seen quite so many in a published book, let alone one by a language specialist pleading for more elegance in and reverence for the English language. My view is that these constructions are driven by political correctness: “his” is offensive to those who find it unfairly excludes the female half of the human race; “his or her” is awkward; and “her” sounds artificial or forced (and excludes the other half of the race). There is an easy solution that works most of the time, making the subject plural, e.g. “semi-literate dropouts,” “English professors before the 1960s” etc. But I still wonder whether the rules of grammar have changed, and whether I need to chill out and accept the new rules.

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