Tag Archives: Brexit

Minding Our Public Language

Mark Thompson, Enough Said:

What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics 

          In Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics, Mark Thompson examines the role which “public language” — the language we use “when we discuss politics and policy, or make our case in court, or try to persuade anyone of anything else in a public context” (p.2) — plays in today’s cacophonous political debates.  Thompson, currently Chief Executive Officer of The New York Times and before that General Director of the BBC, contends that there is a crisis in contemporary democratic decision-making today that at heart is a crisis of political language.  Public language appears to be losing its power to explain and engage, thereby threatening the bond between people and politicians. “Intolerance and illiberalism are on the rise almost everywhere,” Thompson writes, and the way our public language has changed is an “important contributing and exacerbating factor” (p.297-98).

          Thompson seeks to revive the formal study of rhetoric as a means to understand and even reverse the contemporary crisis of public language.  Rhetoric is simply the “study of the theory and practice of public language” (p.2).  Rhetoric “helps us to make sense of the world and to share that understanding. It also teaches us to ‘pay heed’ to the ‘opposite side,’ the other” (p.361). Democracies need public debate and therefore competition in the mastery of public persuasion. Rhetoric, the language of explanation and persuasion, enables collective decision-making to take place.

        Across the book’s disparate parts, Thompson’s central concern is today’s angry and polarized political climate often referred to as “populist,” in which the word “compromise” has become pejorative, the adjective “uncompromising” is a compliment, and the “public presumption of good faith between opposing parties and factions” (p.97) seems to have largely evaporated.  Thompson recognizes that the current populist wave is founded upon a severe distrust of elites.  Given his highest-of-high-level positions at the BBC and The New York Times (along with a degree from Oxford University), Thompson is about as elite as one can become.  He thus observes from the top of a besieged citadel.  Unsurprisingly, Thompson brings a well-informed Anglo-American perspective to his observations, and he shines in pointing to commonalities as well as differences between Great Britain and the United States. There are occasional glances at continental Europe and elsewhere – Silvio Berlusconi’s rhetorical skills are examined, for example – but for the most part this is an analysis of public language at work in contemporary Britain and the United States.

          In the book’s first half, Thompson uses the terminology of classical rhetoric to frame an examination of what he considers the root causes of today’s crisis in public language. Among them are the impact of social media on political discourse and how the pervasive use of sales and marketing language has devalued public debate.  Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have given rise to a “Darwinian natural selection of words and phrases,” he writes, in which, “by definition, the only kind of language that emerges from this process is language that works. You hear it, you get it, you pass it on. The art of persuasion, once the grandest of the humanities and accessible at its highest level only to those of genius – a Demosthenes or a Cicero, a Lincoln or a Churchill – is acquiring many of the attributes of a computational science. Rhetoric not as art, but as algorithm” (p.187).  The use of language associated with sales and marketing serves further to give political language “some of the brevity, intensity and urgency we associate with the best marketing,” while stripping away its “explanatory and argumentative power” (p.191).

          In the second half, Thompson shifts way from applying notions of classical rhetoric to public debate and focuses more directly upon the debate itself in three settings: when scientific consensus confronts spurious scientific claims; when claims for tolerance and respect for racial, religious or ethnic minorities seek to override untrammeled freedom of expression; and when, after the unprecedented and still unfathomable devastation of the 20th century’s world wars, leaders seek to take their country into war.  Thompson’s analyses of these situations are lucid and clearheaded, but for all the common sense and good judgment that he brings to them, I found this section more conventional and less original than the book’s first half, and consequently less intriguing.

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       Thompson starts with a compelling example to which he returns throughout the book, involving the once ubiquitous Sarah Palin and her rhetorical attack on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), better known as Obamacare. Before the ACA was signed into law, one Elizabeth McCaughey, an analyst with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, looked at a single clause among the 1,000 plus pages of the proposed legislation and drew the conclusion that the act required patients over a certain age to be counseled by a panel of experts on the options available for ending their lives. McCaughey’s conclusion was dead wrong. The clause merely clarified that expenses would be covered for those who desired such counseling, as proponents of the legislation made clear from the outset.

         No matter. Palin grabbed the ball McCaughey had thrown out and ran with it. In one of her most Palinesque moments, the one-term Alaska governor wrote on her Facebook page:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of heath care. Such a system is downright evil (p.4-5).

By placing the words “death panel” and “level of productivity in society” in quotation marks, Palin left the impression that she was quoting from the statute itself.  Thus presented, the words conjured up early 20th century eugenics and Nazi doctors at death camps.  To her supporters, Palin had uncovered “nothing less than a conspiracy to murder” (p.7).

        In the terminology of classical rhetoric, “death panel” was an enthymeme, words that might not mean much to a neutral observer but were all that Palin’s supporters needed to “fill in the missing parts of her argument to construct a complete critique of Obamacare” (p.30).   It had the power of compression, perfect for the world of Facebook and Twitter, and the effect of a synecdoche, in which the part stands for the whole.  Its words were prophetic, taking an imagined future scenario and presenting it as current reality.  Palin’s claim was symptomatic of today’s polarized political debate. It achieved its impact “by denying any complexity, conditionality or uncertainty,” building on a presumption of “irredeemable bad faith,” and rejecting “even the possibility of a rational debate” with the statute’s supporters (p.17).

        Thompson considers Palin’s rhetorical approach distinct in keys ways from that of Donald Trump.    Writing during the 2016 presidential campaign, Thompson observes that Trump had “rewritten the playbook of American political language” (p.80). Trumpian rhetoric avoids cleverness or sophistication:

There are no cunning mousetraps like the “death panel.” The shocking statements are not couched in witty or allusive language. His campaign slogan – Make America Great Again! – could hardly be less original or artful. Everything is intended to emphasize the break with the despised language of the men and women of the Washington machine. There is a wall between them and you, Trump seems to say to his audience, but I am on this side of the wall alongside you. They treat you as stupid, but you understand things far better than they do. The guarantee that I see the world as you do is the fact that I speak in your language, not theirs (p.79-80).

        Yet Thompson roots both Palin’s populism and that of Trump in a rhetorical approach that dates from the 18th century Enlightenment termed “authenticism,” a mode of expression that prioritizes emotion and simplicity of language, and purports to engage with the “lowliest members of the chosen community” (p.155).  To the authenticst, if something “feels true, then in some sense it must be true” (p.155).  Since the Enlightenment, authenticism has been in tension with “rhetorical rationalism,” which venerates fact-based arguments and empirical thinking.  Authenticism rises as trust in public leaders declines.   Authenticists take what their rationalist opponents regard as their most egregious failings, “fantasies dressed up as facts, petulance, tribalism, loss of control of one’s own emotions,” and “flip them into strengths.”  Rationalists may consider authenticism “pitifully cruel, impossible to sustain, downright crazy,” but it can be a compelling rhetorical approach for the “right audience in the right season” (p.356).

        Authenticism found the right audience in the right season in Brexit, Britain’s June 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union, with people voting for Brexit because they were “sick and tired of spin, prevarication and policy jargon” (p.351).   A single topic referendum such as Brexit, unlike a general election, requires a “minimum level of understanding of the issues and trade-offs involved,” Thompson writes. By this standard, the Brexit referendum should be considered a “disgrace” (p.347).  Those opposing Brexit had little to offer “in the way of positivity to counterbalance the threats; its Tory and Labour leaders seemed scarcely more enthusiastic about Britain’s membership [in] the EU than their opponents.  Their campaign was lackluster and low-energy.  They deserved to lose” (p.347).

        In understanding how classical rhetoric influences public debate, Thompson attaches particular significance to George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” the “best-known and most influential reflection on public language written in English in the twentieth century” (p.136).  Although Orwell claimed that his main concern in the essay was clarity of language, what he cared most about, Thompson contends, was the “beauty of language . . . Orwell associated beauty of language with clarity, and clarity with the ability of language to express rather than prevent thought and, by so doing, to support truthful and effective political debate” (p.143).  Orwell’s essay thus embodied the “classical understanding of rhetoric,” specifically the “ancient belief that the civic value of a given piece of rhetoric is correlated with its excellence as a piece of expression” (p.143).

* * *

      In the book’s second half, Thompson looks at the public debate over a host of contentious issues that have riveted the United Kingdom and the United States in recent years, beginning with the deference that democratic debate should accord to questionable scientific claims.  So-called climate skeptics, who challenge the overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming, can make what superficially sounds like a compelling case that their views should be entitled to equal time in forums dedicated to the elaboration of public issues, such as those provided by the BBC or The New York Times.  Minority scientific views have themselves frequently evolved into accepted scientific understanding (one 19th century example was the underlying cause of the Irish potato famine, discussed here  in 2014 in my review of John Kelly’s The Graves Are Walking).  Refusal to accord a forum for such views can easily be cast as a “cover up.”

         Thompson shows how members of Britain’s most distinguished scientific body, the Royal Society, once responded to public skepticism over global warming by becoming advocates, presenting the scientific consensus on the need for action in terms unburdened by the caution and caveats that are usually part of scientific explanation, and emphasizing the bad faith of climate change skeptics. Its efforts largely backfired. The more scientists sound like politicians with an agenda, the “less convincing they are likely to be” (p.211).   The same issue arose when a British medical researcher claimed to have a found connection between autism and measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations. The research was subsequently found to be fraudulent, but not before a handful of celebrities and a few politicians jumped aboard an anti-vaccination movement (including, in the United States, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Donald Trump, when he was more celebrity than politician), with an uncountable number of parents opting not to have their children vaccinated.

       Thompson’s discussion of the boundaries of tolerance and free speech raises a similar issue: to what degree should democratic forums include those whose views are antithetical to democratic norms. While at the BBC, Thompson needed to decide whether the BBC would invite the British National Party (BNP), which flirted with Holocaust denial but had demonstrated a substantial following at the ballot box, to a broadcast that involved representatives of Britain’s major parties. In the face of strident opposition, Thompson elected to include the BNP representative and explains why here: the public “had the right to see him and listen to him responding to questions put to him by a studio audience itself made up of people like them. They did so and drew their own conclusions” (p.263).

       Thompson also delivers a full-throated rebuke to American universities that have disinvited speakers because students objected to their views.  The way to defeat extremists and their defenders, whether in faculty lounges or the halls of power, is simply to out-argue them, he contends.  Freedom of expression is best considered a right to be enjoyed “not just by those with something public to say but by everyone” (p.262-63), as a means by which an audience can seek to reach its own judgment. With a few exceptions like child pornography or incitement to violence, Thompson finds no support for the notion that suppressing ideas of which we disapprove is a better way to defeat them in a modern democracy than confronting and debating them in public.

       In a chapter entitled simply “War,” Thompson argues that war is today the greatest rhetorical test for a political leader:

To convince a country to got to war, or to rally a people’s courage and optimism during the course of that war, depends on your ability to persuade those who are listening to you to risk sacrificing themselves and their children for some wider public purpose. It is words against life and limb. [It includes the] need for length and detail as you explain the justification of the war; the simultaneous need for brevity and emotional impact; authenticity, rationality, authority; the search for a persuasiveness that does not – cannot— sound anything like marketing given the blood and treasure that are at stake” (p.219).

        Today, it is almost impossible for any war to be well received in a democracy, except in the very short term.  This is undoubtedly an advance over the days when war was celebrated for its gallantry and chivalry. But, drawing upon the opposition to the Vietnam War in the United States in the 1960s, and to Britain’s decision to join the United States in the second Iraq war in 2003, Thompson faults anti-war rhetoric for its tendency to assume bad faith almost immediately, to “omit awkward arguments or to downplay unresolved issues, to pretend that difficult choices are easy, to talk straight past the other side in the debate, to oversimplify everything” (p.254-55).

* * *

      Thompson does not see today’s populist wave receding any time soon. “One can believe that populism always fails in the end – because of the crudity of its policies, its unwillingness to do unpopular but necessary things, its underlying divisiveness and intolerance – yet still accept that it will be a political fact of life in many western countries for years to come” (p.363).  He ends by abandoning the measured, “this-too-shall-pass” tone that prevails throughout most of his wide-ranging book to conclude on a near-apocalyptic note.   A storm is gathering, he writes, which threatens to be:

greater than any seen since the global infernos of the twentieth century. If the first premonitory gusts of a global populist storm were enough to blow Britain out of Europe and Donald Trump into the White House, what will the main blasts do? If the foretaste of the economic and social disruption to come was enough to show our public language to be almost wholly wanting in 2016, what will happen when the hurricane arrives?” (p.364).

       Is there anything we can do to restore the power of public language to cement the bonds of trust between the public and its leaders?  Can rhetorical rationalists regain the upper hand in public debate? Thompson argues that we need to “put public language at the heart of the teaching of civics . . . We need to teach our children how to parse every kind of public language” (p.322).  Secondary school and university students need to know “how to listen, how to know when someone is trying to manipulate them, how to discriminate between good arguments and bad ones, how to fight their own corner clearly and honestly” (p.366).   This seems like a sensible starting place.  But it may not be sufficient to withstand the hurricane.

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

January 18, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under American Politics, British History, Intellectual History, Language, Politics

Turning the Ship of Ideas in a Different Direction

Judt.1

Judt.2

Tony Judt, When the Facts Change,

Essays 1995-2010 , edited by Jennifer Homans

      In a 2013 review of Rethinking the 20th Century, I explained how the late Tony Judt became my “main man.” He was an expert in the very areas of my greatest, albeit amateurish, interest: French and European 20th century history and political theory; what to make of Communism, Nazism and Fascism; and, later in his career, the contributions of Central and Eastern European thinkers to our understanding of Europe and what he often termed the “murderous” 20th century. Moreover, Judt was a contemporary, born in Great Britain in 1948, the son of Jewish refugees. Raised in South London and educated at Kings College, Cambridge, Judt spent time as a recently-minted Cambridge graduate at Paris’ fabled Ecole Normale Supérieure; he lived on a kibbutz in Israel and contributed to the cause in the 1967 Six Day War; and had what he termed a mid-life crisis, which he spent in Prague, learning the Czech language and absorbing the rich Czech intellectual and cultural heritage.  Judt also had several teaching stints in the United States and became an American citizen. In 1995, he founded the Remarque Institute at New York University, where he remained until he died in 2010, age 62, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, which Americans know as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

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      Rethinking the 20th Century was more of an informal conversation with Yale historian Timothy Snyder than a book written by Judt. Judt’s best-known work was a magisterial history of post-World War II Europe, entitled simply Post War. His other published writings included incisive studies of obscure left-wing French political theorists and the “public intellectuals” who animated France’s always lively 20th century debate about the role of the individual and the state (key subjects of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, reviewed here in June).  Among French public intellectuals, Judt reserved particular affection for Albert Camus and particular scorn for Jean-Paul Sartre.  While at the Remarque Institute, Judt became himself the epitome of a public intellectual, gaining much attention outside academic circles for his commentaries on contemporary events.  Judt’s contributions to public debate are on full display in When the Facts Change, Essays 1995-2010, a collection of 28 essays edited by Judt’s wife Jennifer Homans, former dance critic for The New Republic.

      The collection includes book reviews and articles originally published elsewhere, especially in The New York Review of Books, along with a single previously unpublished entry. The title refers to a quotation which Homans considers likely apocryphal, attributed to John Maynard Keynes: “when the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir” (p.4). In Judt’s case, the major changes of mind occurred early in his professional life, when he repudiated his youthful infatuation with Marxism and Zionism. But throughout his adult life and especially in his last fifteen years, Homans indicates, as facts changed and events unfolded, Judt “found himself turned increasingly and unhappily against the current, fighting with all of his intellectual might to turn the ship of ideas, however slightly, in a different direction” (p.1).  While wide-ranging in subject-matter, the collection’s entries bring into particularly sharp focus Judt’s outspoken opposition to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, his harsh criticism of Israeli policies toward its Palestinian population, and his often-eloquent support for European continental social democracy.

* * *

      The first essay in the collection, a 1995 review of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, should be of special interest to tomsbooks readers. Last fall, I reviewed Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, a collection of Hobsbawm’s essays.  Judt noted that Hobsbawm had “irrevocably shaped” all who took up the study of history between 1959 and 1975 — what Judt termed the “Hobsbawm generation” of historians (p.13). But Judt contended that Hobsbawm’s relationship to the Soviet Union — he was a lifelong member of Britain’s Communist Party – clouded his analysis of 20th century Europe. The “desire to find at least some residual meaning in the whole Communist experience” explains what Judt found to be a “rather flat quality to Hobsbawm’s account of the Stalinist terror” (p.26). That the Soviet Union “purported to stand for a good cause, indeed the only worthwhile cause,” Judt concluded, is what “mitigated its crimes for many in Hobsbawm’s generation.” Others – likely speaking for himself — “might say it just made them worse” (p.26-27).

      In the first decade of the 21st century, Judt became known as an early and fervently outspoken critic of the 2003 American intervention in Iraq.  Judt wrote in the New York Review of Books in May 2003, two months after the U.S.-led invasion, that President Bush and his advisers had “[u]nbelievably” managed to “make America seem the greatest threat to international stability.” A mere eighteen months after September 11, 2001:

the United States may have gambled away the confidence of the world. By staking a monopoly claim on Western values and their defense, the United States has prompted other Westerners to reflect on what divides them from America. By enthusiastically asserting its right to reconfigure the Muslim world, Washington has reminded Europeans in particular of the growing Muslim presence in their own cultures and its political implications. In short, the United States has given a lot of people occasion to rethink their relationship with it” (p.231).

Using Madeline Albright’s formulation, Judt asked whether the world’s “indispensable nation” had miscalculated and overreached. “Almost certainly” was his response to his question, to which he added: “When the earthquake abates, the tectonic plates of international politics will have shifted forever” (p.232). Thirteen years later, in the age of ISIS, Iranian ascendancy and interminable civil wars in Iraq and Syria, Judt’s May 2003 prognostication strikes me as frightfully accurate.

      Judt’s essays dealing with the state of Israel and the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict generated rage, drawing in particular the wrath of pro-Israeli American lobbying groups. Judt, who contributed to Israeli’s war effort in the 1967 Six Day War as a driver and translator for the Iraqi military, came to consider the state of Israel an anachronism. The idea of a Jewish state, in which “Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded,” he wrote in 2003, is “rooted in another time and place” (p.116). Although “multi-cultural in all but name,” Israel was “distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethno-religious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens” (p.121).

      Judt noted in 2009 that the Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu was “certainly less hypocritical than that of the old Labor governments. Unlike most of its predecessors reaching back to 1967, it does not even pretend to seek reconciliation with the Arabs over which it rules” (p. 157-58). Israel’s “abusive treatment of the Palestinians,” he warned, is the “chief proximate cause of the resurgence of anti-Semitism worldwide. It is the single most effective recruiting agent for radical Islamic movements” (p.167). Vilified for these contentions, Judt repeatedly pleaded for recognition of what should be, but unfortunately is not, the self-evident proposition that one can criticize Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic or even anti-Israel.

      Judt was arguably the most influential American proponent of European social democracy, the form of governance that flourished in Western Europe between roughly 1950 and 1980 and became the model for Eastern European states emerging from communism after 1989, with a strong social safety net, free but heavily regulated markets, and strong respect for individual liberties and the rule of law. Judt characterized social democracy as the “prose of contemporary European politics” (p.331). With the fall of communism and the demise of an authoritarian Left, the emphasis upon democracy had become “largely redundant,” Judt contended. “We are all democrats today. But ‘social’ still means something – arguably more now than some decades back when a role for the public sector was uncontentiously conceded by all sides” (p.332). Judt saw social democracy as the counterpoint to what he termed “neo-liberalism” or globalization, characterized by the rise of income inequality, the cult of privatization, and the tendency – most pronounced in the Anglo-American world – to regard unfettered free markets as the key to widespread prosperity.

      Judt asked 21st century policy makers to take what he termed a “second glance” at how “our twentieth century predecessors responded to the political challenge of economic uncertainty” (p.315). In a 2007 review of Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life, Judt argued that the universal provision of social services and some restriction upon inequalities of income and wealth are “important economic variables in themselves, furnishing the necessary public cohesion and political confidence for a sustained prosperity – and that only the state has the resources and the authority to provide those services and enforce those restrictions in our collective name” (p.315).  A second glance would also reveal that a healthy democracy, “far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends upon it: that in a world increasingly polarized between insecure individuals and unregulated global forces, the legitimate authority of the democratic state may be the best kind of intermediate institution we can devise” (p.315-16).

      Judt’s review of Reich’s book anticipated the anxieties that one sees in both Europe and America today. Fear of the type last seen in the 1920s and 1930s had remerged as an “active ingredient of political life in Western democracies” (p.314), Judt observed one year prior to the economic downturn of 2008.  Indeed, one can be forgiven for thinking that Judt had the convulsive phenomena of Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States in mind when he emphasized how fear had woven itself into the fabric of modern political life:

Fear of terrorism, of course, but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one’s daily life.  And perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.. . This is already happening in many countries: note the arising attraction of protectionism in American politics, the appeal of ‘anti-immigrant parties across Western Europe, the calls for ‘walls,’ ‘barriers,’ and ‘tests’ everywhere (p.314).

       Judt buttressed his case for social democracy with a tribute to the railroad as a symbol of 19th and 20th century modernity and social cohesion.  In essays that were intended to be part of a separate book, Judt contended that the railways “were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord . . . and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike” (p.301). Although we “no longer see the modern world through the image of the train,” we nonetheless “continue to live in the world the trains made.”  The post-railway world of cars and planes, “turns out, like so much else about the decades 1950-1990, to have been a parenthesis: driven, in this case, by the illusion of perennially cheap fuel and the attendant cult of privatization. . . What was, for a while, old-fashioned has once again become very modern” (p.299).

      In a November 2001 essay appearing in The New York Review of Books, Judt offered a novel interpretation of Camus’ The Plague as an allegory for France in the aftermath of German occupation, a “firebell in the night of complacency and forgetting” (p.181).  Camus used The Plague to counter the “smug myth of heroism that had grown up in postwar France” (p.178), Judt argued.  The collection concludes with three Judt elegies to thinkers he revered, François Furet, Amos Elon, and Lesek Kołakowski, a French historian, an Israeli writer and a Polish communist dissident, representing key points along Judt’s own intellectual journey.

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      The 28 essays which Homans has artfully pieced together showcase Judt’s prowess as an interpreter and advocate – as a public intellectual — informed by his wide-ranging academic and scholarly work.  They convey little of Judt’s personal side.  Readers seeking to know more about Judt the man may look to his The Memory Chalet, a memoir posthumously published in 2010. In this collection, they will find an opportunity to savor Judt’s incisive if often acerbic brilliance and appreciate how he brought his prodigious learning to bear upon key issues of his time.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
July 6, 2016

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Filed under American Politics, European History, France, French History, History, Intellectual History, Politics, Uncategorized, United States History, World History