Tag Archives: United Nations

Portrait of a President Living on Borrowed Time

Joseph Lelyveld, His Final Battle:

The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt 

            During the last year and a half of his life, from mid-October 1943 to his death in Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential plate was full, even overflowing. He was grappling with winning history’s most devastating  war and structuring a lasting peace for the post-war global order, all the while tending to multiple domestic political demands. But Roosevelt spent much of this time out of public view in semi-convalescence, often in locations outside Washington, with limited contact with the outside world. Those who met the president, however, noticed a striking weight loss and described him with words like “listless,” “weary,” and “easily distracted.” We now know that Roosevelt had life-threatening high blood pressure, termed malignant hypertension, making him susceptible to a stroke or coronary attack at any moment. Roosevelt’s declining health was carefully shielded from the public and only rarely discussed directly, even within his inner circle. At the time, probably not more than a handful of doctors were aware of the full gravity of Roosevelt’s physical condition, and it is an open question whether Roosevelt himself was aware.

In His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Lelyveld, former executive editor of the New York Times, seeks to shed light upon, if not answer, this open question. Lelyveld suggests that the president likely was more aware than he let on of the implications of his declining physical condition. In a resourceful portrait of America’s longest serving president during his final year and a half, Lelyveld considers Roosevelt’s political activities against the backdrop of his health. The story is bookended by Roosevelt’s meetings to negotiate the post-war order with fellow wartime leaders Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, in Teheran in December 1943 and at Yalta in the Crimea in February 1945. Between the two meetings came Roosevelt’s 1944 decision to run for an unprecedented fourth term, a decision he reached just weeks prior to the Democratic National Convention that summer, and the ensuing campaign.

Lelyveld’s portrait of a president living on borrowed time emerges from an excruciatingly thin written record of Roosevelt’s medical condition. Roosevelt’s medical file disappeared without explanation from a safe at Bethesda Naval Hospital shortly after his death.   Unable to consider Roosevelt’s actual medical records, Lelyveld draws clues  concerning his physical condition from the diary of Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, discovered after Suckley’s death in 1991 at age 100, and made public in 1995. The slim written record on Roosevelt’s medical condition limits Lelyveld’s ability to tease out conclusions on the extent to which that condition may have undermined his job performance in his final months.

* * *

            Daisy Suckley, a distant cousin of Roosevelt, was a constant presence in the president’s life in his final years and a keen observer of his physical condition. During Roosevelt’s last months, the “worshipful” (p.3) and “singularly undemanding” Suckley had become what Lelyveld terms the “Boswell of [Roosevelt’s] rambling ruminations,” secretly recording in an “uncritical, disjointed way the hopes and daydreams” that occupied the frequently inscrutable president (p.75). By 1944, Lelyfeld notes, there was “scarcely a page in Daisy’s diary without some allusion to how the president looks or feels” (p.77).   Lelyveld relies heavily upon the Suckley diary out of necessity, given the disappearance of Roosevelt’s actual medical records after his death.

Lelyveld attributes the disappearance to Admiral Ross McIntire, an ears-nose-and-throat specialist who served both as Roosevelt’s personal physician and Surgeon General of the Navy. In the latter capacity, McIntire oversaw a wartime staff of 175,000 doctors, nurses and orderlies at 330 hospitals and medical stations around the world. Earlier in his career, Roosevelt’s press secretary had upbraided McIntire for allowing the president to be photographed in his wheel chair. From that point forward, McIntire understood that a major component of his job was to conceal Roosevelt’s physical infirmities and protect and promote a vigorously healthy public image of the president. The “resolutely upbeat” (p.212) McIntire, a master of “soothing, well-practiced bromides” (p.226), thus assumes a role in Lelyveld’s account which seems as much “spin doctor” as actual doctor. His most frequent message for the public was that the president was in “robust health” (p.22), in the process of “getting over” a wide range of lesser ailments such as a heavy cold, flu, or bronchitis.

A key turning point in Lelyveld’s story occurred in mid-March 1944, 13 months prior to Roosevelt’s death, when the president’s daughter Anna Roosevelt Boettiger confronted McIntire and demanded to know more about what was wrong with her father. McIntire doled out his “standard bromides, but this time they didn’t go down” (p.23). Anna later said that she “didn’t think McIntire was an internist who really knew what he was talking about” (p.93). In response, however, McIntire brought in Dr. Howard Bruenn, the Navy’s top cardiologist. Evidently, Lelyveld writes, McIntire had “known all along where the problem was to be found” (p.23). Breunn was apparently the first cardiologist to have examined Roosevelt.

McIntire promised to have Roosevelt’s medical records delivered to Bruenn prior to his initial examination of the president, but failed to do so, an “extraordinary lapse” (p.98) which Lelyveld regards as additional evidence that McIntire was responsible for the disappearance of those records after Roosevelt’s death the following year. Breunn found that Roosevelt was suffering from “acute congestive heart failure” (p.98). He recommended that the wartime president avoid “irritation,” severely cut back his work hours, rest more, and reduce his smoking habit, then a daily pack and a half of Camel’s cigarettes. In the midst of the country’s struggle to defeat Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, its leader was told that he “needed to sleep half his time and reduce his workload to that of a bank teller” (p.99), Lelyveld wryly notes.  Dr. Bruenn saw the president regularly from that point onward, traveling with him to Yalta in February 1945 and to Warm Springs in April of that year.

Ten days after Dr. Bruenn’s diagnosis, Roosevelt told a newspaper columnist, “I don’t work so hard any more. I’ve got this thing simplified . . . I imagine I don’t work as many hours a week as you do” (p.103). The president, Lelyveld concludes, “seems to have processed the admonition of the physicians – however it was delivered, bluntly or softly – and to be well on the way to convincing himself that if he could survive in his office by limiting his daily expenditure of energy, it was his duty to do so” (p.103).

At that time, Roosevelt had not indicated publicly whether he wished to seek a 4th precedential term and had not discussed this question with any of his advisors. Moreover, with the “most destructive military struggle in history approaching its climax, there was no one in the White House, or his party, or the whole of political Washington, who dared stand before him in the early months of 1944 and ask face-to-face for a clear answer to the question of whether he could contemplate stepping down” (p.3). The hard if unspoken political truth was that Roosevelt was the Democratic party’s only hope to retain the White House. There was no viable successor in the party’s ranks. But his re-election was far from assured, and public airing of concerns about his health would be unhelpful to say the least in his  re-election bid. Roosevelt did not make his actual decision to run until just weeks before the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

At the convention, Roosevelt’s then vice-president, Henry Wallace, and his counselors Harry Hopkins, and Jimmy Byrnes jockeyed for the vice-presidential nomination, along with William Douglas, already a Supreme Court justice at age 45. There’s no indication that Senator Harry S. Truman actively sought to be Roosevelt’s running mate. Lelyveld writes that it is tribute to FDR’s “wiliness” that the notion has persisted over the years that he was “only fleetingly engaged in the selection” of his 1944 vice-president and that he was “simply oblivious when it came to the larger question of succession” (p.172). To the contrary, although he may not have used the used the word “succession” in connection with his vice-presidential choice, Roosevelt “cared enough about qualifications for the presidency to eliminate Wallace as a possibility and keep Byrnes’s hopes alive to the last moment, when, for the sake of party unity, he returned to Harry Truman as the safe choice” (p.172-73).

Having settled upon Truman as his running mate, Roosevelt indicated that he did not want to campaign as usual because the war was too important. But campaign he did, and Lelyveld shows how hard he campaigned – and how hard it was for him given his deteriorating health, which aggravated his mobility problems. The outcome was in doubt up until Election Day, but Roosevelt was resoundingly reelected to a fourth presidential term. The president could then turn his full attention to the war effort, focusing both upon how the war would be won and how the peace would be structured. Roosevelt’s foremost priority was structuring the peace; the details on winning the war were largely left to his staff and to the military commanders in the field.

Roosevelt badly wanted to avoid the mistakes that Woodrow Wilson had made after World War I. He was putting together the pieces of an organization already referred to as the United Nations and fervently sought  the participation and support of his war ally, the Soviet Union. He also wanted Soviet support for the war against Japan in the Pacific after the Nazi surrender, and for an independent and democratic Poland. In pursuit of these objectives, Roosevelt agreed to travel over 10,000 arduous miles to Yalta, to meet in February 1945 with Stalin and Churchill.

In Roosevelt’s mind, Stalin  was by then both the key to victory on the battlefield and for a lasting peace afterwards — and he was, in Roosevelt’s phrase, “get-at-able” (p.28) with the right doses of the legendary Roosevelt charm.   Roosevelt had begun his serious courtship of the Soviet leader at their first meeting in Teheran in December 1943.  His fixation on Stalin, “crossing over now and then into realms of fantasy” (p.28), continued at Yalta. Lelyveld’s treatment of Roosevelt at Yalta covers similar ground to that in Michael Dobbs’ Six Months That Shook the World, reviewed here in April 2015. In Lelyveld’s account, as in that of Dobbs, a mentally and physical exhausted Roosevelt at Yalta ignored the briefing books his staff prepared for him and relied instead upon improvisation and his political instincts, fully confident that he could win over Stalin by force of personality.

According to cardiologist Bruenn’s memoir, published a quarter of a century later, early in the conference Roosevelt showed worrying signs of oxygen deficiency in his blood. His habitually high blood pressure readings revealed a dangerous condition, pulsus alternans, in which every second heartbeat was weaker than the preceding one, a “warning signal from an overworked heart” (p.270).   Dr. Bruenn ordered Roosevelt to curtail his activities in the midst of the conference. Churchill’s physician, Lord Moran, wrote that Roosevelt had “all the symptoms of hardening of arteries in the brain” during the conference and gave the president “only a few months to live” (p.270-71). Churchill himself commented that his wartime ally “really was a pale reflection almost throughout” (p.270) the Yalta conference.

Yet, Roosevelt recovered sufficiently to return home from the conference and address Congress and the public on its results, plausibly claiming victory. The Soviet Union had agreed to participate in the United Nations and in the war in Asia, and to hold what could be construed as free elections in Poland. Had he lived longer, Roosevelt would have seen that Stalin delivered as promised on the Asian war. The Soviet Union also became a member of the United Nations and maintained its membership in the organization until its dissolution in 1991, but was rarely if ever the partner Roosevelt envisioned in keeping world peace. The possibility of a democratic Poland, “by far the knottiest and most time-consuming issue Roosevelt confronted at Yalta” (p.285), was by contrast slipping away even before Roosevelt’s death.

At one point in his remaining weeks, Roosevelt exclaimed, “We can’t do business with Stalin. He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta” on Poland (p.304; Dobbs includes the same quotation, adding that Roosevelt thumped on his wheelchair at the time of this outburst). But, like Dobbs, Lelyveld argues that even a more physically fit, fully focused and coldly realistic Roosevelt would likely have been unable to save Poland from Soviet clutches. When the allies met at Yalta, Stalin’s Red Army was in the process of consolidating military control over almost all of Polish territory.  If Roosevelt had been at the peak of vigor, Lelyveld concludes, the results on Poland “would have been much the same” (p.287).

Roosevelt was still trying to mend fences with Stalin on April 11, 1945, the day before his death in Warm Springs. Throughout the following morning, Roosevelt worked on matters of state: he received an update on the US military advances within Germany and even signed a bill, sustaining the Commodity Credit Corporation. Then, just before lunch Roosevelt collapsed. Dr. Bruenn arrived about 15 minutes later and diagnosed a hemorrhage in the brain, a stroke likely caused by the bursting of a blood vessel in the brain or the rupture of an aneurysm. “Roosevelt was doomed from the instant he was stricken” (p.323).  Around midnight, Daisy Suckley recorded in her diary that the president had died at 3:35 pm that afternoon. “Franklin D. Roosevelt, the hope of the world, is dead,” (p.324), she wrote.

Daisy was one of several women present at Warm Springs to provide company to the president during his final visit. Another was Eleanor Roosevelt’s former Secretary, Lucy Mercer Rutherford, by this time the primary Other Woman in the president’s life. Rutherford had driven down from South Carolina to be with the president, part of a recurring pattern in which Rutherford appeared in instances when wife Eleanor was absent, as if coordinated by a social secretary with the knowing consent of all concerned. But this orchestration broke down in Warm Springs in April 1945. After the president died, Rutherford had to flee in haste to make room for Eleanor. Still another woman in the president’s entourage, loquacious cousin Laura Delano, compounded Eleanor’s grief by letting her know that Rutherford had been in Warm Springs for the previous three days, adding gratuitously that Rutherford had also served as hostess at occasions at the White House when Eleanor was away. “Grief and bitter fury were folded tightly in a large knot” (p.325) for the former First Lady at Warm Springs.

Subsequently, Admiral McIntire asserted that Roosevelt had a “stout heart” and that his blood pressure was “not alarming at any time” (p.324-25), implying that the president’s death from a stroke had proven that McIntire had “always been right to downplay any suggestion that the president might have heart disease.” If not a flat-out falsehood, Lelyveld argues, McIntire’s assertion “at least raises the question of what it would have taken to alarm him” (p.325). Roosevelt’s medical file by this time had gone missing from the safe at Bethesda Naval Hospital, most likely removed by the Admiral because it would have revealed the “emptiness of the reassurances he’d fed the press and the public over the years, whenever questions arose about the president’s health” (p.325).

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           Lelyveld declines to engage in what he terms an “argument without end” (p.92) on the degree to which Roosevelt’s deteriorating health impaired his job performance during his last months and final days. Rather, he  skillfully pieces together the limited historical record of Roosevelt’s medical condition to add new insights into the ailing but ever enigmatic president as he led his country nearly to the end of history’s most devastating war.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 28, 2017

 

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Biography, European History, History, United States History, World History

Global Hubris

Hopgood

Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights 

      In The Endtimes of Human Rights, Stephen Hopgood delivers a scathing critique of the practices and institutions associated with present day global human rights. Over the course of two introductory sections and five subsequent chapters, Hopgood argues forcefully that today’s global human rights machinery is unsustainable and on the verge of collapse, as the word “endtimes” in his title suggests.  Hopgood uses initial capital letters, “Human Rights,” to describe this broken system, which he contrasts with “human rights” without initial capital letters.

     Lower case human rights refer to ground level, indigenous movements to be free from human rights abuses, which Hopwood wholeheartedly endorses. The endtimes “can never come for this form of ’human rights,’” he argues, “in the same way that nothing can stop people banding together to demand their own freedom or justice in whatever language they prefer” (p.viii).  Upper case Human Rights, by contrast, consist of a “global structure of laws, courts, norms, and organizations that raise money, write reports, run international campaigns, open local offices, lobby governments, and claim to speak with singular authority in the name of humanity as a whole” (p.ix).

    For Hopgood, upper case Human Rights are based on an elitist, one-size-fits-all approach, “overambitious, unaccountable, alienated and largely ineffectual” (p.182).  In their hubris, Human Rights advocates have sought, and have largely succeeded, in arrogating to themselves and the institutions they represent the authority to define the fundamental global norms that are “applicable always, without discretion” (p.122).  The tension between Human Rights and human rights, he argues, is “exactly” the “tension between top-down fixed authority and bottom up (spontaneous, diverse, and multiple) authorities.” (p,x).  The forthcoming collapse of (upper case) Human Rights means that locally inspired (lower case) human rights movements will have space to flourish.

    Hopgood’s arguments against Human Rights focus primarily upon international criminal justice, the process which seeks to hold accountable those who violate international norms against, for example, torture and arbitrary arrests and killings, occurring in the context of what we often term mass atrocities, war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.  International criminal justice institutions of concern to Hopgood include the war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and, especially, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, along with non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, gatekeeper organizations dedicated to identifying and publicizing human rights abuses and advocating for accountability for abusers.  Human Rights also embraces humanitarianism — the treatment of military and civilian personnel in wartime and crisis situations — and, more recently, has included efforts to secure equal treatment for women and for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and trans-gender (LGBT) individuals.  These strains of Human Rights, although mentioned in Endtimes, are of less concern to Hopgood, a professor of international relations at the University of London and the author of Keeper of the Flame, Understanding Amnesty International.

     Readers may be surprised to discover that very little of Hopgood’s work involves a direct critique of the day-to-day practices of Human Rights. Readers need to look elsewhere if, for example, their interest is whether hearsay evidence should be admissible before the ICC.  Hopgood addresses Human Rights from a far broader perspective.  His core argument is that although contemporary international criminal justice seeks to secure accountability for human rights abusers through what purports to be a judicial process, the process is almost entirely political.  Hopgood’s interest is in exposing the political underpinnings of this process. A crucial portion of his argument against contemporary Human Rights lies in his elaboration of its European origins.

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     Today’s Human Rights may be traced to what Hopgood terms 19th century European humanism, when progressive, middle class Europeans created a “secular replacement for the Christian god” (p.x) which borrowed heavily from Christian values and concepts, especially the need to alleviate suffering.  Of particular importance was the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, the “first international church” of secular humanism (p.25). The ICRC, founded in 1863 in very Protestant Geneva, Switzerland, was a neutral organization dedicated to providing assistance to soldiers wounded in war.  The ICRC gave rise to the Geneva Convention of 1864, which established standards for the provision of relief in armed conflicts.

      A decade later, the Geneva-based Institut de Droit International (International Law Institute) came into being as a supplement to the ICRC. The institute, a standing council of international jurists charged with providing expert commentary on the laws of war, served as the first step toward international war crimes tribunals, Hopgood contends.  The League of Nations, created in the aftermath of World War I and also based in Geneva, constituted an “epiphany” for secular humanism, the “first truly international organization authorized explicitly by the idea of humanity, not the Christian god” (p.41).  The League was to be a “permanent, transnational, institutional, and secular regime for understanding and addressing the root causes of suffering” (p.41-42).

      This phase of global secular humanism “came crashing to the ground in 1939. The Holocaust and the Second World War destroyed the moral legitimacy and political power, if not the ideological ambition and cultural arrogance, of Europe” (p.xi).  But the Holocaust and World War II gave rise to a perceived need to create institutions better equipped to preserve and advance secular humanism across the globe.  The creation of new institutions began in 1945 with the United Nations and the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, which served as a model for future war crimes tribunals.  The years 1945-49 were the “last time Europe held such a central place in the design of world order. It was a last moment to embed the humanist dream before the empires were gone” (p.49), Hopgood argues.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN’s Anti-Genocide Convention, both dating from 1948, along with a revised 1949 Geneva Convention, were products of this era and remain key instruments of global Human Rights.

       Echoing a theme which Barbara Keys developed in Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s, reviewed here in November 2015, Hopgood goes on to argue that Human Rights gained impetus in the 1970s when the United States began to prioritize human rights abroad as a key consideration in its foreign policy.  More than any other single factor, Hopgood argues, American power turned lower case human rights into upper case Human Rights, with the “secular religiosity” of European humanism giving way to a “more political, openly pro-democratic form of advocacy” that embraced the “logic of money as power” and “made explicit what had been implicit within international humanism: Human Rights and liberal capitalism were allies, not enemies” (p.12-13).  Human Rights thus became “intimately tied to the export of neo-liberal democracy using American state power” (p.xii).

     The apogee of Human Rights was from 1991 to 2008, the “unipolar moment” of American post-war dominance, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the creation of international tribunals to investigate and prosecute mass atrocities in the ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda.  During this period, moreover, 120 countries approved the Rome Statute of 1998, the founding charter for the ICC, which Hopgood terms the “apex of international criminal justice” (p.129; the United States was one of just seven states to vote against the Rome statute, along with China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar and Yemen).  The ICC began hearing cases in 2002. The period also witnessed the emergence of an international “responsibility to protect” victims of human rights abuses, often shortened to R2P, now a recognized basis for humanitarian interventions authorized by the United Nations Security Council.

     But at the very moment when the notion of Human Rights was at its apogee, the “foundations of universal liberal norms and global governance [were] crumbling” (p.1), Hopgood argues.  The United States no longer retains the power it enjoyed after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 to foist its neo-liberal vision upon the rest of the world.  Nationalism and religious conviction have reasserted themselves throughout the world, and competing world powers, particularly China and Russia, are not proponents of liberal democracy.  Neither the United States nor any other entity is today capable of speaking and acting on behalf of the international community.

     Rather, we are entering what Hopgood terms a “neo-Westphalian world,” a reference to the 1648 peace treaties which ended Europe’s Thirty Years War and established a system of political order in Europe based on state sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.  The neo-Westphalian world is one of “renewed sovereignty, resurgent religion, globalized markets, and the stagnation or rollback of universal norms about human rights” (p.166).  The “core modernizing assumption” of Human Rights, Hopgood argues, that “history brings secularism, a sense of oneself as an individual rights holder, and the erosion of collective beliefs and loyalties” is “fracturing alongside the Western power that sustained it” (p.166). Neo-Westphalia means “more politics, less morality, and less Europe,” in which the notion of genuine global solidarity becomes little more than a “conceit of human rights advocates in Geneva, New York, and London” (p.177).

    Hopgood looks with favor at the forthcoming collapse of Human Rights, its “endtimes,” much as many Christians look forward to an eschatological endtimes that culminate with the second coming of Jesus.  As Human Rights declines with declining American power, “local interpretations of what rights are and which rights might be sustainable will be essential if human rights are to flourish” (p.xv).  Once lower case human rights replace upper case Human Rights “other alliances can grow” (p.22), with “more international funding and expertise in areas like public health, disease, communication, and mediation – the Médecins Sans Frontières approach—which is more conducive to longer-lasting and effective change than are the often symbolic efforts of large-scale global institutions” (p.21).

     In the endtimes, only “issues of security, natural resources, and trade will excite multilateral engagement” (p.20), along with “very practical but time-limited relief work in logistics, search and rescue, medicine, disease control, and food and shelter” (p.21).  International Human Rights organizations will “turn increasingly to self-promotion. They will be concerned more than ever with themselves” (p.20). The one area where Human Rights seems likely to retain some clout is sub-Saharan Africa, precisely because this is the globe’s single area where Europe retains at least limited influence. “Africa will remain a laboratory for European moral spectatorship, although given Europe’s’ relative global decline, self reliance and church support will likely be the future for the poor and the suffering south of the Sahara” (p.21).

     Despite his searing rhetorical assault on contemporary Human Rights, Hopgood’s specific criticisms of the ICC and, by extension, international criminal justice, are tepid and hardly unconventional: the ICC’s prosecutions have been primarily against lower level state actors, rather than heads of state; they have focused almost exclusively on Africans, with few actions against persons from other regions; and the United States, having refused to ratify the Rome convention, remains an “embarrassing outlier for claims about liberal global norms” (p.129). The “true tragedy” of the ICC is that it is a court that “cannot conceivably exercise political jurisdiction over great powers, creating a permanent two-tier justice system in which strong states use global institutions to discipline the weak” (p.167).

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     Hopgood’s polemical and passionately argued case against modern Human Rights is problematic in several respects.  He offers maddeningly few specifics to support his broad theme that international Human Rights elites, in their hubris, have foisted “universal” and “secular” norms upon unwilling local populations.  The scattered examples he provides are drawn from efforts to secure greater rights for women and LGBT individuals in certain non-Western cultures, difficult and delicate exercises to be sure but well removed from his primary focus on international criminal justice.  Further, it is facile to argue that “renewed sovereignty” threatens international criminal justice. Nationalism and state sovereignty have always been, and are likely always to be, challenges to the aspirations and objectives of international institutions and organizations across the board, not simply to those of international criminal justice — just ask the mavens in Brussels charged with trying to hold the European Union together.

     Hopgood stops short of explicitly recommending abolition of the ICC and other publicly financed international criminal justice institutions and organizations, but his arguments lead inescapably to this recommendation. His contention that the resources presently applied to these institutions and organizations should be redirected to humanitarian relief means that any process seeking accountability for human rights abusers will have to be locally driven.  Given the weak state of domestic justice systems in much of the world, this means still less accountability for those who commit war crimes and mass atrocities than is the case with today’s admittedly imperfect international criminal justice machinery.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
March 4, 2016

5 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Politics, Rule of Law

What Was So Enlightened About That?

Pictures.pagden

Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment
And
Why It Still Matters 

            I remember being introduced to the Enlightenment during my senior year in college, in a course officially denominated 18th Century European Intellectual History or something to that effect. In this course, the professor, a kind, scholarly gentleman whose specialty was Diderot, introduced his clueless undergraduate charges to a sort of Hall of Fame of Enlightenment philosophes and other enlightened figures. In addition to his beloved Diderot, we met Voltaire, Montesquieu, Frederick the Great (an “enlightened despot”), and a host of others. I recall that our professor even allowed Jean-Jacques Rousseau to make a brief and tightly-regulated appearance. I couldn’t help but like the Enlightenment figures’ emphasis on science, reason, and empirical thinking rather than religion; their belief in the equality of all men – for some, even the equality of all men and women; and their willingness to rethink the “timeless verities” that had been handed down from century to century in Europe.

            But as I identified with the enlightened figures of the 18th century, I was consistently brought back to a harsher reality: hadn’t I learned in a previous year’s introductory European History course that the 18th century ended rather badly for France, the epicenter of the Enlightenment? Didn’t the French Revolution that began so nobly with a Declaration of the Rights of Man degenerate into a guillotined bloodbath, with some of the revered Enlightenment figures finding themselves on the chopping block for politically incorrect thinking or insufficient revolutionary zeal? Wasn’t our text punctuated with several gruesome sketches of the guillotine in action? And didn’t that revolutionary zeal inspire a pesky little guy named Napoleon to launch a European war of conquest? What was so enlightened about that?

            In the decades since that course, I have instinctively felt the need to check my natural enthusiasm for the ideals of the Enlightenment by reminding myself of the ignominious ending to the French Revolution, followed by Napoleonic wars of conquest. Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters seeks to uncouple the Enlightenment from the darker chapters of the Revolution and the Napoleonic era. Pagden’s answer to why the Enlightenment still matters, his somewhat aggressive, in-your-face title, is that it continues to be the baseline for the “broadly secular, experimental, individualist and progressive intellectual world” we inhabit today (p.x-xi). By insisting on “its own unfinished nature,” the Enlightenment “quite simply created the modern world. It is . . . impossible to imagine any aspect of contemporary life in the West without it” (p. 408). In particular, Pagden concludes that modern liberal democracy, the form of political system which, “for better and sometimes for worse, governs most modern societies,” is a “creation of the Enlightenment, refined and institutionalized during the course of the nineteenth century” (p.412-13). Nonetheless, the struggle over the legacy of the Enlightenment remains one of the “most persistent, most troubling, and increasingly most divisive” of the ideological divisions within the modern world (p.ix).

            For Pagden, the Enlightenment arose during the “long” 18th century, the last decade of the 17th century through the first decade of the 19th, in the aftermath of the 17th century’s religious wars and the accompanying breakdown of the authority and intellectual unity of the Catholic church. These wars, the Reformation, the “theologically destabilizing impact of the revival of Skepticism,” and the discovery of the Americas had “dealt all the self-assured claims of the theologians a blow from which they never recovered’ (p.96). By the end of the 17th century, Christianity was no longer able to provide the “intellectual and consequently moral certainty that it once had done” (p.406). Pagden describes two broad, intertwined intellectual trends which marked the Enlightenment: reliance upon science and reason, rather the religion and theology, to explain the human species and the universe; and what he calls the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment, its emphasis upon what unites the human species across a vast array of cultures and languages. Pagden sets out these trends in eight erudite if sometimes difficult to follow chapters, each with a snappy title (e.g. “Bringing Pity Back In”; “The Fatherless World”). The most argumentative portion – and for me the most enticing – is his conclusion, entitled “Enlightenment and Its Enemies,” evoking Karl Popper’s World War II-era defense of liberal democracy, The Open Society and Its Enemies.

            The Enlightenment can be studied from numerous angles, but most encompass the study of the thinking of Europe’s enlightened figures, a “self-appointed elite” whose members were, as Pagden phrases it, marked by their “intellectual gifts, their open-mindedness, their benevolence toward their fellow human beings. . . and their generosity” (p.322). Each student of the period has his or her own favorite figures. My undergraduate course seemed to turn around Diderot, whereas Pagden’s interpretation gives preeminent place to two philosophers who thrived outside France, the Scottish David Hume and the German Immanuel Kant. Although the thinking of each ranged broadly, Hume personifies for Pagden the secular thread of the Enlightenment, the effort to supplant religious and theological explanations of man and the universe with a “science of man,” based on such notions as “sentiment,” “empathy, “and “virtue,” rather than simple self-preservation, as Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher and quasi-atheist, had posited. In somewhat different terms, both Hume and Kant articulated the Enlightenment’s cosmopolitan universalism.

            Hume became the “single most influential proponent of a secular ethics based upon a ‘science of man’ which the Enlightenment ever produced” (p.153), Pagden writes. For Hume, the world’s religions – those “sick men’s dreams,” as he called them (p.125) — had only muddled, corrupted and complicated human lives. His demolition of religion was, Pagden argues, “more assertive, better argued, more profound, and has been more long-standing than that of any philosopher besides Kant” (p.146). Moreover, unlike Kant, Hume was “able to demonstrate that religious belief could not exist ‘within the limits of reason alone,’” using Kant’s phrase (p.146). Hume agreed with the Old Testament view that “however varied actual human beings might be, they all shared a common identity as humans,” with “no universal difference discernible in the human species” (p.162). For Hume, “habits,” “manners,” “customs,” are the stuff of which our worlds are made. All that distinguished the “wisest European from the most ignorant ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’ is precisely the same as that which distinguishes one ‘civilized’ people from another . . . custom, law, habit, and social expectations” (p.163).

          Pagden cautiously endorses the view of Kant as the “first of the modern liberals” and the first to claim that “modern liberal democracy was bound eventually to become the form of government that all enlightened and civilized peoples would one day embrace” (p.358). Kant’s “cosmopolitan right,” the vision of humanity moving steadily toward a future free of strife and hostility, in which all humans might pursue their own individual ends without endangering those of others, was the “inescapable conclusion of the Enlightenment project” (p.370). Kant, who paradoxically never traveled more than 30 miles away from his native Konigsberg in Germany, also foreshadowed the 20th and 21st century movements toward international justice.

            Kant’s Toward Perpetual Peace, written in the aftermath of the 1795 Peace of Basel, which ended the War of the First Coalition between Europe’s principal monarchies and revolutionary France, set out Kant’s views on ending the scourge of war. In this tract, Kant laid out the case for a hypothetical universal peace treaty that could “ensure the future and inescapably cosmopolitan development of the human race” (p.349). The influence of Toward Perpetual Peace can be seen not only in “contemporary discussions over global governance and global justice but also in the creation of the universal institutions to sustain them, in the League of Nations, the United Nations, and perhaps most closely of all, the European Union” (p.349-50). In bringing the secular, scientific and cosmopolitan threads of the Enlightenment together, Hume and Kant enunciated the Enlightenment objective of creating a “historically grounded human science that would one day lead to the creation of a universal civilization capable of making all individuals independent, autonomous, freed of dictates from above and below, self-knowing, and dependent only on one another for survival” (p.371).

            After setting forth the essential threads of the Enlightenment and highlighting its most consequential thinkers, Pagden finishes with his provocative conclusion, “Enlightenment and Its Enemies,” in which he discusses the case against the Enlightenment. The case amounts to an assault against modernity, Pagden contends, based on “some caricature of a project to reduce all human life to a set of rational calculations” (p.406). Under this view, the Enlightenment produced a culture “devoid of direction and purpose” because the Enlightenment was “fundamentally wrong about morality” as being discoverable by reason alone (p.397). Without the guidelines of tradition, custom and systems of religious belief which the Enlightenment sought to strip away, “humans are lost” and the Western world has been “suffering for it ever since” (p.398). What might be termed the German 4H club, Herder, Heine, and Hegel in the 19th century, and Heidegger in the 20th, propounded the view of the Enlightenment as a “cold, toneless, monstrous and calculating . . . It had tried to crush all of human life, difference, heroism, and desire” (p.387). Over the centuries, Enlightenment, the “Rights of Man,” “Republicanism,” and Kant’s “Cosmopolitanism” all came to be identified in the minds of conservative elites with the destructive power of the French Revolution. Or, as Friederich Karl von Moser, an 18th German jurist and government official, more succinctly put it, Enlightenment “begins with philosophy and ends with scalping and cannibalism” (p.381).

            In response, Pagden comes to what is for me the crux of his argument on behalf of the Enlightenment. Any direct causal link between the Enlightenment and the darker side of the French Revolution, he asserts, is “spurious” (p.389). Had the Enlightenment in fact been a precursor to the Revolution and to Napoleon, he writes, “it would not be of much lasting importance” (p.389). For all its excesses, the Revolution and the Napoleonic era were a “necessary evil” that “ultimately cleared the way for the liberal-democratic order that ultimately came to replace the ancient regime throughout Europe” (p.389). That doesn’t sound to me like an argument that the links between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution are “spurious” (which my dictionary defines as “of falsified or erroneously attributed origin”). Rather, Pagden’s account seems to acknowledge that the Revolution and Napoleonic era were intertwined with the Enlightenment, and it is difficult to see how one could argue otherwise.

            The Enlightenment itself was a complex phenomenon, and the interpretation of its legacy some 200 years after the end of the “long” 18th century still excites passions. Given this complexity, we should not be surprised that many paths can be charted from the Enlightenment. I accept as well-founded the link which Isaiah Berlin perceived between the Enlightenment’s utopian universalism and the game plan which Vladimir Lenin devised for Russia. That another path from the Enlightenment leads to modern notions of liberal democracy, Pagden’s primary contention, seems unassailable. And it is not unreasonable to contend, as Pagden does, that the Revolution and the Napoleonic era were necessary disruptions to clear that path. But that is a more modest contention than that links between the Revolution and the Enlightenment are “spurious.”

            After the horrendous wars and genocides of the 20th century, we know that we cannot always count on reason to prevail. There is still tribalism of many sorts that precludes us from seeing the common humanity linking individuals across the globe, and atrocities are committed in the name of religion nearly every day. But the Enlightenment impulses represent for me now, as they did in that classroom several decades ago, the more noble side of human beings and human experience – if only I could only rid my mind of those guillotine sketches in my college textbook.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
January 24, 2015

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