Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Collingwood on Magic, Art, Emotion & Utilitarian Civilization

Another quote today from Collingwood. Reading Collingwood reminds me of when I first read Hannah Arendt over 40 years ago--the feeling of reading by lightning--being struck with flashes of deep insight. Insights that alter the way that I perceive the world leap-up from the page. Having read a great deal more and pondered about how the world works over that period since first encountering Arendt, it shocks me a bit to have a such an experience again. But Collingwood, whom I've only begun to explore in the last few years, has provided a deeper, richer vein of insight than I had anticipated. The quote below comes from his essay "Magic." I have some sense of Collingwood's take on the subject from having read his Principles of Art (1938), but this particular essay digs deeply into the relation of magic and emotion and how our utilitarian civilization has attempted to suppress emotion and magic. To read and appreciate this, you must--at least temporarily--set aside your belief that magic is simply crude or distorted science. (Read Collingwood's full treatment of the topic in this book, and I suspect he'll permanently dissuade you from that misconception.) Also, for the curious, compare Collingwood's insights and argument with the work of Iain McGilchrist (The Master and His Emissary). I believe that they arrive at very similar conclusions. 

After a long and hideous experiment in suppressing [magic] by force, by burning witches, we came to see that burning witches means believing in them, and that their victims’ belief in them, what I have called emotional vulnerability, was the source of their power. So we changed our own attitude towards them: replaced persecution by ridicule, and gradually developed a whole system of education and social life based on the principle that magic was not a crime but a folly, whose success depended on a like folly in its victims.

            The hard-headed or thick-skinned or rationalistic attitude towards life, which our civilization invented in the seventeenth century, worked out in the eighteenth, and applied to all aspects of human affairs in the nineteenth, is the dominant factor in modern civilization. The best single-word name for it is utilitarianism. Our civilization prides itself in being sensible, rational, businesslike; and all these are the name for the same characteristic, namely the habit of justifying every act, every custom, every institution, by showing its utility. The doctrine that utility is the only kind of value that a thing can have is called utilitarianism; and it is obvious to anyone who reflects on the general character of our civilization that it is, characteristically, a utilitarian civilization. . . .

            This utilitarianism is more than a principle; it is an obsession. Whatever cannot be justified in this way our civilization tends on the whole to suppress. In general, it discountenances emotion and the expression of emotion; in particular it distrusts art and religion as things not altogether respectable. To live within the scheme of modern European-American civilization involves doing a certain violence to one’s emotional nature, treating emotion as a thing that must be repressed, a hostile force within us whose outbreaks are feared as destructive of civilized life. We have already had occasion to observe that our horror of savages is really a horror of something within ourselves which ‘the savage’ (that is, any civilization other than our own) symbolizes. We are now finding reason to think that this thing is emotion: for magic, which sums up all that we dislike in savage life, is beginning to reveal itself as the systematic and organized expression of emotion.


R.G. Collingwood, The Philosophy of Enchantment: Studies in Folktale, Cultural Criticism, and Anthropology (ed. David Boucher, Wendy James, & Phillip Smallwood), (2005; note, however, that the book is based on manuscripts written by Collingwood in the 1930s but not published—and largely forgotten—until long after his death).

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life by Mitch Horowitz

I can’t imagine any contemporary American who hasn’t been exposed to—and probably adhered to—some form of “positive thinking.” It’s a part of our cultural gene pool, reinforced through decades of repetition and refinement. Whether it’s “the power of positive thinking,” “a can-do attitude,” “think and grow rich,” or the “law of attraction,” I suspect all Americans, like me, have considered, tried, and wondered about this train of thought. Are these movements the legitimate heirs of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James or the bastard children of P.T. Barnum? I’ve long suspected a bit of both, and having now read Mitch Horowitz’s One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (2014), and believe the “a little bit of both” conclusion is a fair characterization and one that doesn’t bother me.

As someone who’s changed his mind about a lot of serious issues and practices, and who’s sampled a variety of schools of thought and action, a mixed intellectual heritage doesn’t bother me. I’ve concluded that no one has a monopoly on the truth; that with perhaps a very few exceptions, no one is entirely wrong; that we don’t understand everything—perhaps most events and processes that govern our world; and that a certain pragmatism (so American) is required. Add to this a personality that is conservative in the sense of skeptical about change and thus slow to change. I also harbor an outlook that anticipates problems and doesn’t trust the future to necessarily prove benign, even though I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in my life. I think that the Buddha (life necessarily involves dissatisfaction) and his western cousins, the Stoics, are correct in many of their fundamental insights. And yet, the positive attitudes and mental energies promoted by the American tradition attract me as well. Thus, when I started Horowitz’s book, I hoped that it would help untangle these ambiguities and apparent contractions. And it turns out, while I didn’t resolve these contractions, I do have a better grasp of what’s going on in the American tradition of positive thinking and my relation to it.
Horowitz addresses the issues by providing a thorough history of the positive thinking movement from its early days. Starting with the import of Mesmerism from France (an early form of hypnosis) in the early 19th century, to early efforts to use the mind and prayer to heal, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a series of streams converged to bring about a new way of dealing with the world. Especially noteworthy was Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science. For a woman to found a new church that continued to be run by women (primarily) was no small feat. As Horowitz explains, part of the impetus toward spiritual healing was the abysmal state of the medical arts in 19th century America, with its “heroic” efforts that used bleeding, leeches, and poisons to treat patients, and this woeful practice was applied even more to women than to men. If fact, one was more likely to be harmed by a physician than helped. And, at least in some cases, prayer seemed to work. Others followed or came to similar ways of thinking as Eddy, at least in part, about the beneficial uses of “prayer” and “mind” to cure disease. As the U.S. continued to grow and prosper, this “New Thought” movement, or mind metaphysics, grew with it. And in addition to curing illness, it turned its attention to the generation of wealth and the business world.

As we proceed in Horowitz’s account into mid-20th century America, we move from names now largely forgotten to those whom—at least for person my age—will recognize: Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, Earl Nightingale, Oral Roberts, and Alcoholics Anonymous to name some those who remained active into the 1970s and after. Horowitz conveys their insights and weaknesses, including the fact that practitioners could sometimes be glib, Pollyannaish, or ethically obtuse. Horowitz also discusses figures who have escaped our attention from earlier years and who were more fringe in some ways but helped shape their times and the movement.

Horowitz spends some pages addressing the man who most publicly and famously manifested this culture in late 20th century America: Ronald Reagan. Reagan, whether you’re an admirer or a critic, was not an easy man to gain the measure of. But no doubt a significant part of his success as a politician and leader came from his unabashed optimism and (for lack of a better term) positive thinking. This was not an accident, as Reagan was bathed in this culture from his youth to his years in Hollywood and beyond. Part of what drove people like me crazy about Reagan was his firm grasp of unreality, and yet he was amazingly successful in molding reality to his liking, which included changing his mind in ways that seemed at times almost flippant, but that also contributed to his success. The imagination and the mental agility (to put it kindly) that Reagan deployed arose in some measure from these New Thought beliefs (and his acting career). Note that Reagan was not a religious man in the way, for instance, his predecessor, Jimmy Carter was (born-again Baptist), yet Reagan was in tune with most of middle-America and its belief system.

In the concluding chapter of the book, Horowitz takes measure of New Thought and its positive thinking descendants. His assessment is sober, thorough, and convincing, a kind of “what’s living and what’s dead” in the New Thought and positive thinking movement. He concludes that there is a bit of both. He criticizes the “law of attraction,” a major tenet of New Though well before Rhonda Byrnes wrote and produced The Secret (2006); in fact, she gained her insights from New Thought writer Wallace Wattles’ 1910 book The Science of Getting Rich. The law of attraction posits an all-controlling universal law without any second. Horowitz points out the obvious: our lives are governed by a myriad of forces beyond our control. Thus, a naïve and partial reading of Emerson must be rejected; however, that we get what we give in some measure seems more likely than not. Horowitz also points out that the advice to focus the mind on what you really want—and not just what society or culture imposes upon you—will prove liberating, clarifying, and motivating. It makes a lot of sense. One title, It Works! captures the simplicity and common-sense aspect of the movement. Horowitz also marshals scientific evidence and arguments that point to the fact that mind or thoughts can affect the (physical) brain. It may not be true that if we think we can, we can, but it certainly seems to help.
Mitch Horowitz

There are persons and topics that Horowitz doesn’t address that I wish he could have. For instance, how the thought of Abraham Maslow and his work about peak experiences might fit into this line of thinking. Also, Robert Anton Wilson explored the topic of belief systems and their interaction with the brain and mind in his wild ride of a book, Prometheus Rising (1983). This book owes its intellectual legacy more to traditional psychology, especially Freud and Jung, as well as general semantics and the psychedelic movement (it’s dedicated to Dr. Timothy Leary). I don’t recall any explicit reference to the New Thought movement, but Robert Anton Wilson’s take certainly shares some attributes and attitudes. Finally, while I know of no direct references between New Thought and Colin Wilson, the two trains of thought provide for an interesting comparison. Across the Atlantic, Colin Wilson developed his own very provocative and convincing theory of the mind and how it worked, but he developed most of his insights from reading in phenomenology and existentialism, as well as the European literary tradition (later supplemented with explorations of the occult). If nothing else, Colin Wilson shared an exuberance and eagerness with New Thought to explore the human mind to realize its full potential.

But like most good books (or at least that those who find willing publishers and readers), Horowitz had to stop somewhere, and in doing so, he provided us with a very satisfying work. And so, while I will likely remain a bit skeptical, I’ll also remember to focus on my intentions, vet my thoughts kick out the stinkers, keep a positive attitude, and acknowledge that thoughts have causative powers. I believe it just might help.


Words of R.G. Collingwood to Contemplate (and Practice)

R.G. Collingwood (undated photo)
Words of R.G. Collingwood to contemplate & practice:

'The maxim of Spinoza is neither to condemn nor to deride the feelings and actions of men, but to understand them. It might seem a truism that this rule must be obeyed by all students of human custom and belief; but that is not so. many people who claim to be students of human nature think that by condemning others they are proving their own superior virtue, and in deriding them their own superior wisdom; or rather, they do not think about it at all, but act as if they thought thus, because of a devil inside them that can only be appeased by this self-glorification at the expense of others. Here the professed study of human nature is simply a pretense for gratifying odium humani generis [hatred of the human race]. . . . These rules, so far as they are rules of scientific method, are not mere rules of manners or morals; they are indispensable means to arriving at the truth. . . . [T]he adoption of Spinoza's maxim is not only a point of scientific method, it is a moral discipline for the whole man, for the whole of our civilization. We must learn to face the savage* within us if we are to understand the savage outside us. The savage within us must be not be stamped down out of sight. He too, by the same Spinozistic rule, must be neither be condemned nor derided, but understood. Just as the savages around us, when thus understand, cease to appear as savages and become human beings, courteous and friendly and honourable and worthy of admiration for their virtues and of love for their humanity, so the savage within us, on the same terms, will become no longer a thing of horror but a friend and helper: no savage, but the heart and root of our own civilization."
Spinoza: 
'I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them.' TRACTATUS THEOLOGICO-POLITICUS (1670).

R. G. Collingwood, THE PHILOSOPHY OF ENCHANTMENT: STUDIES IN FOLKTALES, CULTURAL CRITICISM, & ANTHROPOLOGY, (ed. by Boucher, James, & Smallwood), pp. 184, 185, 186.

I fear that I've all too often ignored Spinoza's & Collingwood's advice. Especially viz those with whom I have strong disagreements currently. However, Collingwood spoke out strongly and forcefully against those opinions that he found wanting, as well as those wrong & even threatening (such as fascism). I think the key to acting viz. the present is to understand as well as possible even those whose actions we must condemn. But sometimes understanding doesn't bring reconciliation, but greater loathing. (You know of whom I speak of in the current context, I trust.) While we need reconciliation and understanding, sometimes we need resistance, too. I'm not sure of how or where to draw the line. "Love the sinner but hate the sin"? Were it so clean a distinction!

*Earlier in his text, Collingwood had derided the use of terms such as "savages,", "primitives," and the like by social scientists as condescending and misleading. Thus, in the current context, Collingwood's use of the term "savage" should be read as an ironic turn that disarms its malignant use by applying it to himself, his contemporaries, and to those whom he would ascribe its misuse.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Two Essays on Colin Wilson: "World Rejection and Criminal Romantics" and "From the Outsider to Post-Tragic Man" by Gary Lachman

When your first encounter a book by Colin Wilson and begin to investigate what else he wrote, you can very quickly become intimidated by the number and scope of his works. After looking over his impressive body of work, you can find some recurring recurrent topics among the titles, but you’d have a long slog to find a common thread without a guide. In 2016, Gary Lachman published what I believe constitutes the definitive long-form (book length) guide to Wilson’s work, his biography of Wilson, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson. But some might be intimidated by a book-length dive into Wilson. So, is there a work that allows one to dip one’s toe into the water, so to speak? In this case, I can recommend Lachman’s Two Essays on Colin Wilson: “World Rejection and Criminal Romantics” and “From Outsider to Post-Tragic Man.” The two essays date from 1994, thus pre-dating the end of Wilson’s career (as a writer he was truly prolific), but they still capture the essence of Wilson’s project.
Colin Wilson



The first essay plunges the reader into Wilson’s ideas about optimists and pessimists and how they arrive at their respective positions. The pessimistic view (‘world rejection’) gained the upper hand with the advent of the Romantic movement, and it has continued to maintain its prominence, especially in the artistic class. Of course, Wilson and Lachman can identify vital counter-examples (e.g., Nietzsche (his dourness and occasional vitriol notwithstanding), William James, and George Bernard Shaw), but many writers and artists in the 20th century tended toward ‘world rejection.' After discussing various viewpoints, Lachman makes the following point (referring to Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov)

The whole point of Wilson’s The Outsider [Wilson’s first book and the one that brought him widespread acclaim-sng] and practically all of his subsequent books is that any halfway sensitive consciousness is faced with this dilemma: which vision is true, Alyosha’s or Ivan’s? In a way it comes down to a variation on Pascal’s wager: if the universe is pointless and worth rejecting, then to act as if it isn’t, as if it is meaningful and worth affirming, is a mistake with no worse consequence than any action or belief in a meaningless universe. But to act as if it is meaningless and worth rejecting when it is indeed meaningful and worth affirming is to throw away the possibility of having the kind of experience that Alyosha does when he feels that his consciousness is linked to the stars, or Nietzsche when he felt “6,000 feet above man and time,” or the Steppenwolf’s vision of “Mozart and the stars,” and the other visions of meaning and affirmation that Wilson has catalogued throughout his enormous body of work.
The thing to be remembered is that the affirmative vision is not the outcome of a reasoned argument, although after it one can use reason to remind oneself of its reality. The affirmative vision always arrives unexpectedly, from some source in ourselves deeper than our conscious egos. 
Lachman, Gary. Two Essays on Colin Wilson: “World Rejection and Criminal Romantics” and “From Outsider to Post-Tragic Man” (Colin Wilson Studies Book 6) (Kindle Locations 148-157). Paupers' Press. Kindle Edition.
Gary Lachman
Throughout the remainder of the essay, Lachman continues to explicate on this fundamental theme, just as Wilson did throughout his lengthy career. Both Wilson and Lachman embrace the view that life is worth living and counter the arguments of the world rejecters, although both Wilson and Lachman eschew Pollyannaish views on the subject. It’s not that evil and suffering don’t exist, it’s that these realities don’t carry the day.

One of Wilson’s key insights is that one overcomes the abundant prompts toward pessimism by “peak experiences” (Maslow’s term; Wilson was an admirer, then friend and biographer of Maslow). Of course, the Romantics (the originals and their descendants) craved peak experiences and sought them, often by drugs and alcohol, but Maslow and Wilson both believed that peak experiences were not “gifts of the gods,” but how ordinary consciousness should work. Indeed, the “criminal” part of the essay, reflecting a part of Wilson’s investigation, is the fact that at least some criminal behavior is sparked by the need for thrill and adventure, as well as power. While greed and simple lack of self-control (e.g., alcohol consumption) are behind most crimes according to my 30 years of experience as a criminal defense lawyer, in some cases, the motive seems to have been the thrill of it all. (Two check-kiters (back in the day) pop into my mind; they loved to tell how played the game so well—for a while.) Wilson cites many instances of either actual and imagined debauchery pursued by artists to heighten and engage consciousness to the level of a peak experience. But whatever temporary high they achieve then dissolves and becomes merely an elusive vision of a paradise lost. Some writers, like “William Burroughs, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer” almost deify the criminal and debauched elements in their writings, as against, for instance, Shaw, who created characters who sought out the extraordinary and to achieve and aspire greatly. (Again, my 30 years of experience with “criminals” prevents me from giving any credence to romanticizing them; the overwhelming number of them were simply occasional screw-ups; some wise-guy blow-hards with a bit of luck; and the congenitally anti-social. I never mustered any admiration for my clients, although I hasten to add that I always treated them with dignity and respect.) Thus, Wilson-Lachman (it is hard to separate the thinking of the two within the context of these essays) don’t have to work very hard to convince me of the folly of the romancing the criminal, or of ‘world rejection’ in general. Yet, because these authors are still read and perhaps have some following (beyond English departments?), the exercise is a worthwhile one.

So, while some of the essay critiques the futile (and to me, frankly boring) worldviews espoused by the pessimists, the other part looks at the problem from the affirmative perspective. Lachman notes:

While the Criminal Romantics treat the symptoms of what Wilson calls ‘life-failure’ by throwing themselves into one adventure after another, Wilson addresses the source of the problem.
That source, ultimately, is consciousness itself. Two things, Wilson argues, are essential in understanding the problem of ‘affirmation consciousness’; one is the curious relation between the conscious and unconscious minds, the other is recognizing the fact that we are all in a state of what he calls ‘upside-downness’. Since Sigmund Freud’s ‘discovery’ of the unconscious, the popular notion has been that the conscious mind is in a sub-ordinate relation to the unconscious. We are all, the common myth goes, driven by unconscious forces. There is a one-way relationship between the two; in computer-talk, the unconscious ‘downloads’ into the conscious mind, but not vice versa. With Freud this scenario is exceedingly dark, since for him the unconscious is a kind of cellar full of nasty business we’d rather not think about. In Jung the situation is better; for him the unconscious is not a dumping ground for ‘repressions’ but a creative, purposeful centre in the psyche. But still, in Jungian psychology, the unconscious calls the shots. 
If. 619-628.
Wilson posits that the opposite may be the case: that the active, conscious mind may affect the unconscious to our benefit. In other words, our conscious, intentional acts—our active mind—may be the vehicle of our well-being and not a passive, “leave-it-to-the-unconscious” attitude that depth psychology (Freud and Jung) suggests. It’s certainly more than just “think happy thoughts,” but does begin with “don’t focus on negative thoughts.” Some balance, some lines of communication, between the conscious and unconscious mind must be opened, and Wilson suggests (and Lachman agrees) that the conscious mind can have a much greater role in promoting this increased communication that all too many have heretofore believed.

In the second essay, “From Outsider to Post-Tragic Man: Colin Wilson and the Case for Optimism” many of the same themes are further explored and developed. As Lachman explains in the opening paragraph:

Colin Wilson is a very good example of what Isaiah Berlin called a hedgehog, he who “knows one big thing.” Whether he is writing about the Düsseldorf sex murderer Peter Kürten or the Russian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff, Wilson’s subject is invariably the same, and has been so since his first book, The Outsider. For nearly forty years Wilson has been fascinated with the potentials of human consciousness and has produced under this rubric a massive and highly readable oeuvre on topics as diverse as existential philosophy, the occult, crime and the psychology of murder, literary criticism and sociology. In pursuit of his investigations, biographies of such dissimilar characters as Bernard Shaw, Wilhelm Reich and Grigory Rasputin have emerged from his pen, as well as many novels and much incidental writing. His output is unquestionably prodigious: at last reckoning the number of volumes from Wilson’s hand exceeds 100.

Id. 734-740.
Lachman’s opening comment that Wilson is a “hedgehog” according to Isaiah Berlin's distinction between thinkers as hedgehogs and foxes is a designation that wouldn’t on first blush attribute to Wilson, as I alluded in the opening of my review. His array of book topics, non-fiction and fiction, is astonishing, but Lachman is right: an overriding theme ties all of Wilson’s work together. Wilson is all about the potentials of human consciousness. As Lachman aptly puts it: “[W]hat is the “one big thing?” Put as briefly as possible, Wilson’s underlying theme is that questions of the meaning of human existence cannot be satisfactorily addressed without taking into account the intensity—or lack thereof—of human consciousness.” Id. 743-745. If like me, you perceive everything that we humans do as motivated by a desire to alter or sustain a particular state of consciousness, then you realize that Wilson must be right. Feeling sleepy? Then change to sleep consciousness (which has various levels as well). Hungry? Act to alleviate that uncomfortable state by eating. Bored? Turn on the television or attend to your smartphone (which may well lead to greater boredom, but it may distract you for a while. Horny? Well, you get the idea. Of course, my examples focus on basic needs and drives, but we can say the same about the need to create, to be inspired, to share emotions with a group, to feel the body in action, and so on. We constantly act to alter our state of consciousness. But not all courses of action are useful, and some are counter-productive to our (often ill-defined) intentions. I think that this is what Wilson (and Lachman) are getting at.

In the remainder of the essay, Lachman catalogs the developments of Wilson’s thought through his Outsider cycle (five books at the beginning of Wilson’s career). By the time he’d completed these books, Wilson had developed an alternative take on the existentialism of Sartre and Camus. A positive existentialism, if you will, is outlined in Wilson’s An Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966). In this work, Wilson pens his answer to Sartre, Camus, and others in their line of thinking. Husserl’s phenomenology and its emphasis on intentionality and Whitehead’s distinction between ‘causal efficacy’ and ‘presentational immediacy,’ are the main ingredients with which Wilson brews his ‘new existentialism.’

Lachman continues his explication to include the “St. Neot margin” (a peculiar phrase but based on a terrifically telling story told by Wilson that brings it alive), ‘life failure,’ ‘the robot,’ and ‘Faculty X.’ Each of these terms expands and clarifies Wilson’s essential insights. In fact, my notes and highlights go on at some length in the book from this point, but I’ll stop here because for the few dollars it will cost you to buy this and read it on your Kindle (or free Kindle software), you should. Just writing the review makes me want to go back and read the two essays again cover-to-cover. The team of Wilson and Lachman is a potent one and one that you can return to repeatedly for inspiration and insight. To me, this is high praise indeed.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith

Yes, he looks a bit like my dad, and he said this:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” “Is there no other way the world may live?”


I must admit it upfront: I like Ike. I’ve always liked Ike.

It might be in part because he was the first president I knew was in office. But more likely because my parents were “Eisenhower Republicans” (later referred to as “moderate Republicans,” an extinct species today). In fact, in the year before my birth, my prematurely bald father (only about 30 at the time) was outfitted with an Army uniform and played the role of Ike in a local Republican victory parade to celebrate Ike’s election in 1952. And, yes, my dad and Ike do bear a resemblance. Even over the intervening years when my political views have changed (for the better, of course), my admiration for Ike has held firm. After reading Smith’s fine biography, that opinion has been deepened, not dampened.

As historian Garry Wills put it, Ike was a political genius. “It is no mere accident that he remained, year after year, the most respected man in America.”

Before this I’d read the second volume of Stephen Ambrose’s two-volume biography, the second volume dealt with Ike’s presidency and post-presidency, and so this was a first extended exposure to Ike’s early life and military career. From this period, I learned from fascinating aspects of Ike’s life. For one, Ike had a reputation for luck, and luck certainly played a contributing role in his success. Also, he had mentors—General Fox Conner, General Pershing, and General George Marshall—who boosted his career at crucial times. But while luck and patronage certainly helped Ike along his path, he worked hard and grew in his assignments. He was never a combat commander in war time (at the fighting level), but he honed a variety of skills that made him indispensable. For instance, while working for General Fox Conner at a Panama Canal posting during the 1920s, he took advantage of the General’s extensive library to extend his knowledge of history and military affairs. While serving General Pershing in Paris, he learned a great deal about the French countryside. (Ike missed combat during WWI.) He also served under Douglas MacArthur in Washington, D.C. (during the sad conduct of MacArthur and the political leadership in its treatment of the Bonus Army), and Ike served again under MacArthur in the Philippines in the 1930s. (Reading about MacArthur in this book, I better understand why William Manchester’s biography of MacArthur was entitled American Caesar; he was a pompous, ambitious man. George Patton, Ike’s slightly older peer, was as gung-ho and sanguinary as the George C. Scott bio-pic portrayed him to be.) The most surprising thing about Ike was that in WWII, when he took direct control of field operations as the Allies prepared for the final push into Germany, proved wasn’t much of a military strategist. The British general Montgomery did a much better job of that, although, he, like MacArthur and Patton, was a prima donna. But when it came to the incredibly challenging task of keeping an international coalition functioning with the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Charles DeGaulle to please, Ike was a miracle-worker.

While certainly ambitious, Ike remained an uncertain office-seeker. Former general Lucius Clay, along with New York lawyer Herbert Bromwell (later Ike’s Attorney General) and Thomas Dewey, were all needed to propel Ike into the presidency. Ike was uncertain, and he was probably wary of the dirt that might be slung at him. (He mistreated his predecessor Harry Truman, although Truman admired him, and unbeknownst to Ike on inauguration day—when Ike snubbed Truman—Truman has removed a very damaging letter from Ike’s army file that concerned Ike's relationship during WWII with Kay Summersby, his driver, aid, and lover.) But none of this came out, and the nation loved him, giving him a sound victory over the Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson.

“Someday there is going to be a man sitting in my present chair who has not been raised in the military services and who will have little understanding of where slashes in [the Pentagon’s] estimates can be made with little or no damage. If that should happen while we still have the state of tension that now exists in the world, I shudder to think of what could happen to this country.”

After his election, Ike mostly left the choice of his cabinet to his chief advisors (listed above). It wasn’t that Ike was indifferent, but he delegated to subordinates and trusted them to take charge of what they could while leaving the final, big decision to him. Thus, they recommended Nixon as vice-president (as a sop to the Republican right that Ike—in the person of “Mr. Republican” Robert Taft—had defeated for the nomination.) He also accepted John Foster Dulles as his Secretary of State. Like Nixon, Dulles proved very un-Eisenhower-like. Dulles had a Manichean, Cold War mentality, while Nixon was a shifty—even then—political animal. But Ike managed both, along with a gung-ho military. I was shocked about how on various occasions Ike refused the advice of the military to use nuclear weapons. In fact, Eisenhower wanted peace and to limit the arms race. If there is one fact to take away about his Administration, it’s that after the Korean armistice in July 1953, no American troops were killed in combat during the remainder of his presidency. And he deployed troops overseas only once, in Lebanon, without loss of life and only for a limited duration (to counter Arab nationalist sentiment). He declined to try to deliver the French from their defeat at Dien Bien Phu, to attack the Chinese over islands around Formosa, to aid the British-French-Israeli coalition to take the Suez Canal from Egypt, or to actively intervene in the Hungarian uprising in 1956. 

On May 1 [1953], Robert Cutler, the president’s national security assistant, presented Eisenhower with the Joint Chiefs’ plan for Operation VULTURE [in Vietnam]. Ike dismissed it out of hand. “I certainly do not think that the atomic bomb can be used by the United States unilaterally,” he told Cutler. “You boys must be crazy. We can’t use those awful things against Asians for the second time in less than ten years. My God.”

“I believe hostilities are not so imminent as is indicated by the forebodings of a number of my associates. I have so often been through these periods of strain that I have become accustomed to the fact that most of the calamities that we anticipate really never occur.”

This is not to say Ike’s judgment was flawless. Ike approved of covert activities in Guatemala and in Iran that deposed legitimate governments that were pursuing policies that didn’t endanger U.S. security, but that endangered U.S. and U.K. multinational corporations with financial interests. In the case of Iran, a line can be drawn from the U.S. role in deposing the Mossadegh government and imposing the Shah and the 1979 Iranian Revolution that brought to power the current regime.

The GOP majority in the Eighty-third Congress seemed less interested in grappling with the problems of the day than in repudiating the work of Truman and Roosevelt. [Sound familiar?]

But in two other areas where some of criticized him, Eisenhower, Smith argues, called the right plays. Before becoming president and after his service in WWII, Eisenhower served as Columbia University’s president (a fine place, I’m told). And while Ike wasn’t very attuned to the academic world, he resisted those who wanted to limit free speech or engage in witch hunts. 

 “Don’t join the book burners,” he said. “Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend your own sense of decency. That should be the only censorship.… How will we defeat communism unless we know what it is?"

This attitude continued into his presidency. He declined to take McCarthy head-on, not wanting to give McCarthy a stage and not wanting to get into a brawl with a skunk. Although McCarthy and his fellow-traveling anti-Communist radicals (and cynics) did a lot of damage, McCarthy and his movement crashed as Ike had predicted. One could argue that a frontal attack was called for, but I think that Smith’s assessment makes sense. 

Ike always believed that if he had attacked McCarthy directly, the Senate would never have taken action. Later he wrote, “McCarthyism took its toll on many individuals and on the nation. No one was safe from charges recklessly made from inside the walls of congressional immunity.… Un-American activity cannot be prevented or routed out by employing un-American methods; to preserve freedom we must use the tools that freedom provides.”

Ditto with civil rights. Ike was not a crusader for civil rights (it was not an issue that he faced directly before becoming president), but Brown was decided on his watch after his appointment of Chief Justice (Earl Warren), and Ike would have none of the insubordination to the law that so many in the South were willing to pursue. His showdown with Arkansas governor Orville Faubus was a masterpiece of Eisenhower maneuvering and political skill, augmented by the 101st Airborne. In the end, Little Rock High was integrated.

Adam Clayton Powell—scarcely anyone’s Uncle Tom—put it best in a speech to his constituents on February 28, 1954. “The Honorable Dwight D. Eisenhower has done more to eliminate discrimination and to restore the Negro to the status of first-class citizenship than any President since Abraham Lincoln,” he said.

A few days before he left office, Ike addressed the nation in a farewell address, just as Washington had done after his two terms in office. The concerns of Eisenhower for peace and against militarism had not changed much. His words are worth noting at some length, as Smith does. Smith describes and quotes the address: 
“Our military organization bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime.” Until World War II, “the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could … make swords as well.” But now, because of the Cold War, “we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend more on military security than the net income of all United States corporations.” Eisenhower’s voice continued with somber intonation. “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new to the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.” Then, in the most widely quoted passage, Ike said: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. 
Then, in a timeless warning for the future, Eisenhower said America “must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.” [Emphasis added.]
After learning a great deal more about this man—warts and all—I do so we wish we will soon have again a person serve as president who can provide the level of leadership, dignity, skill, and wisdom as did this man from Abilene, Kansas 

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

23568868Sometimes I pick up a book on an entirely unexpected whim, and so I did with The Neverending Story. I saw the 1991 Wolfgang Peterson film of the story back when our daughters were kids, and I remember thinking that it was pretty good. (The younger daughter, upon being quizzed, reports that she found the movie frightening, about people losing their memories. Actually, the issue of memory came in the second half of the book and was the subject of a sequel, The Next Chapter. She has a good--albeit traumatized--memory!) Anyway, good children’s and YA lit usually packs in a good story, fun, and a quick read (unless you're doing so aloud). This proved entirely correct with this classic. The film, as best as I recall it, did a pretty good job of tracking the book, so I was happy to learn again about Atreyu, the heroic young warrior, Falkor, the luck dragon, the Swamps of Sadness, and the Child-like Empress. (In doing some research I learned that author Ende didn’t like the film production and tried to stop it, but he failed. It’s been too long since I saw the film one around the time of its release, but it is an elegant and involved book, and that almost always means that a film adaptation will often prove thin by comparison.)


I won’t go into details about the plot, but I do want to share an extended passage that I found especially resonant, demonstrating again intriguing literature comes in all manner of cover: 


(Gmork, the werewolf that has been hunting for Atreyu, while caught in a trap, enters into a conversation with the young hero about the fate of Fantastica, which has been slowly disappearing into the Nothing:)

"You ask me what you [Atreyu] will be there [in the human world]. But what are you here? One of the creatures of Fantastica? Dreams, poetic conventions, characters in the neverending story. You think you're real? Well yes, here are in your world you are. But when you been through the Nothing, you won't be real anymore. You'll be unrecognizable. You'll be in another world. In that world, your Fantasticans won't be anything like yourselves. You'll bring delusion and madness into the human world. Tell me, sonny, what do you suppose will become of all the Spook City folk you who have jumped in to the Nothing?" 
"I don't know," Atreyu stammered. 
"They will become delusions in the minds of human beings, fears where there is nothing to fear, desires for vain, hurtful things, despairing thoughts where there is no reason to despair." 
"All of us?" Asked Atreyu in horror.

"No," saidGmork,  "there will be many kinds of delusion. According to what you are here, ugly or beautiful, stupid or clever, you will become ugly or beautiful, stupid or clever lies." 
"What about me?" Atreyu asked. "What will I be?" 
Gmork face grinned. 
"I won't tell you that. You'll see. Or rather, you won't see, because you will be yourself anymore." 
Atreyu stared at the werewolf with wide-open eyes. 
Gmork went on:
"That's why humans hate Fantastica and everything that comes from here. They want to destroy it. And they don't realize bit that by trying to destroy it they simply multiply the lies that keep flooding the human world. For these lies are nothing other than the creatures of Fantastica who have ceased to be themselves and survive only as living corpses, poisoning the souls of men with their fetid smell. But humans don't know it. Isn't that a good joke?" 
"And there's no one left in the human world," Atreyu asked in a whisper, "who doesn't hate and fear us?" 
"I did know of none," said the Gmork. "And it's not surprising, because you yourself, once you're there, can't help working to make humans believe that Fantastica doesn't exist." 
. . . . [Gmork continues]: 
"When it comes to controlling human beings there's no better instrument than lies. Because, you see, humans live by beliefs. Beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts. That's why sided with the powerful and served them – because I wanted to share their power." 
"I want no part of it!" Atreyu cried out. 
"Take it easy, you little fool," the werewolf growled. "When your turn comes to jump into the Nothing, you too will be a nameless servant of power, with no end of your own. Who knows what use they will make of you? Maybe you'll help them persuade people to buy things they don't need or hate things they they know nothing about, or hold beliefs to make them easy to handle, or doubt the truth that might save them. Yes, you little Fantasticans, big things will be done in the human world with your help, wars started, empires founded . . . " 
For time to Gmork appeared at the boy out of half closed eyes. 
Then he added: 
"The human world is full of weak minded people, who think there as clever us can be and are convinced that it's terribly important persuade even the children that Fantastica doesn't exist. Maybe they will be able to make good use of you." 
172-174.
Okay, enough of your bedtime story. Sweet dreams! 

St Paul: The Misunderstood Apostle by Karen Armstrong

28672094Karen Armstrong is among my favorite writers on the topic of religion, and this book only adds to my admiration. Armstrong is not a Biblical scholar nor an academic student of religion, but she’s someone who’s dived deeply into religious traditions and who brings her findings and observations back to the rest of us through thoughtful, carefully researched, and considered books. This book only adds to my admiration for her work.

Armstrong is no stranger to challenging topics: the monotheistic tradition from its Judaic origins to the present (A History of God), Buddha, Mohammed, the Bible, the Axial Age, and religion and violence. But still, St. Paul can present a unique challenge. As Armstrong reports at the beginning of this book, she’d tackled the subject of St. Paul early in her career as a journalist and student of religion. She began that project, undertaken in the late 1970s, with the assumption that Paul took Christianity in a wrong direction, away from the legacy of Jesus. But as she learned more about this enigmatic and fascinating man (although in some ways we know little about him), she changed her opinion. Thus in 1983, she published The First Christian about Paul, whom she initially thought of as the source of misogyny, authoritarianism, and anti-Judaism in the Christian tradition. She reports that she changed her perception in the course of producing that book (and accompanying television series). This work, published in 2015, updates her quest to come to grips with this “misunderstood apostle.”

No one can doubt Paul’s influence. Indeed, I remember some years ago seeing a poll of scholars about the most influential persons in the Western tradition. In that poll, to my surprise at the time, some of the respondents rated Paul’s influence as greater than that of Jesus. I was shocked, but the explanation provided was that without Paul, the nascent tradition surrounding Jesus would have remained within the existing tent of Judaism. Paul, the Pharisee turned apostle after his vision on the road to Damascus, brought the “Good News” to the Gentiles. Paul's ministry caused chagrin to the Jesus movement in Jerusalem, led by James, the brother of Jesus, who intended to remain within the Judaic tradition, or who at least would have required Gentile converts to adhere to Jewish law and custom.


Another intriguing aspect of Paul’s story is the fact that his letters are the oldest documents to be included in the New Testament canon. (Aand I do mean his letters because some letters were later attributed to him by tradition.) Armstrong undertakes a vital project for her readers, in working to separate out what are certainly authentic Pauline letters and words from those later (inaccurately) attributed to him. Also, his authentic letters, epistles, were scrambled in what came to be the official versions, sometimes mixing letters and dates and subjects. Also, later editors would occasionally interject their own words. The Acts of the Apostles, attributed to Luke, comes after Paul’s letters and provides a different (and not especially accurate) account of Paul’s mission. In fact, some of the most controversial (by contemporary standards) passages in Paul’s letters are later interpolations, such as the injunction for wives to be submissive to their husbands, or (maybe) his injunction to defer to the political authorities. (However, Paul, like Jesus and other earlier followers, believed the end times were imminent, and therefore any injunctions were for a transitory period.) Armstrong notes that Paul’s real value was in his proclamation of the Good News to those outside of the Judaic tradition (although Paul was very much a part of that tradition and was never anti-Jewish). Paul's injunctions about love, justice, and equality became fundamental (if all too often ignored) aspects of the Jesus Movement and then Christianity. 

Even misreadings of Paul, such as those of St. Augustine and Martin Luther, have shaped the course of Christianity. How Christians understand, appreciate, and use the legacy of St. Paul remains as vital as ever to the Christian tradition, and Karen Armstrong provides a trustworthy guide to continuing that quest.  

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder

History & Prophecy
Tim Snyder, professor of history at Yale who specializes in modern East European history, has emerged as a leader in the resistance to the threat to democracy posed by the election of Trump. This book reveals why Snyder might have such committed and informed opinions about our current situation. The story of East Europe in the 1930s and 1940s is one of radical anti-Semitism (and the persecution and elimination of other groups) followed by state destruction by both Stalin’s and Hitler’s regimes. The chaos that followed state destruction allowed the Holocaust to evolve into the mass murder that it became. The Holocaust is a familiar story, but it’s one that Snyder brings further insight to.

At the beginning of the book, Snyder addresses Hitler’s ideology. Hitler was an extreme and rabid anti-Semite, and he wanted “Lebensraum” (living room) for the German people. Snyder argues that Hitler’s concern with Lebensraum is not merely a matter of grabbing more land for Germany (although it certainly entailed that), but it also referenced a standard of living that looked to the U.S. for its inspiration. Hitler was infatuated with the problem of a Malthusian trap and the hunger and deprivation that Germany suffered in the First World War. To offset these fears, Hitler saw the Slavic and Jewish lands to the east as the equivalent of the American West, which was taken by force from what the white the white settlers considered as the ignorant and expendable natives. What Hitler intended and what his beliefs about Jews and Slavs would entail were not hidden.

Snyder also reports on how the Polish government tried to address the “Jewish problem” by helping to arm and train fighters to allow Jewish emigration to Palestine. But the Polish state was caught between the Stalinist Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and as a functioning state, it disappeared in the joint onslaught that immediately followed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that secretly divided Poland and the Baltic states between the USSR and Germany. The destruction of the Polish state also ended the most effective state advocacy for a Jewish homeland in the Middle East.

One of Snyder’s most arresting insights comes from his description of how the destruction of states by one side and then the other (after Hitler invaded the USSR) facilitated and encouraged the Holocaust. Snyder notes that Jews in these twice-invaded lands perished at extremely high rates, while those who lived where states (which entail bureaucracies) remained intact survived at much higher rates, even in Germany. The double-destruction created a moral and practical anarchy that stripped individuals of legal rights and their basic humanity, and that allowed the criminality of the Nazi regime to act unchecked by any rival authority. Snyder shares some stories of survival and those heroic few who saved others, but the offset against the truly staggering death tolls doesn’t create a balance, just a crack of light shining through a crushing avalanche of human depravity.

Historian & prophet
Snyder’s account summarized above makes for fascinating reading. The history of ideology, diplomacy, and criminality by states (Nazi and Soviet) and individuals is deeply engaging and troubling enough. But it is in his concluding chapter that Snyder goes beyond the role of historian to that of a political and practical thinker. In his concluding chapter, Snyder contemplates how our times share characteristics with those of this truly awful period in human history. Snyder writes:

There is little reason to think that we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1930s and 1940s, or for that matter less vulnerable to the kind of ideas that Hitler so successfully promulgated and realized. If we are serious about emulating rescuers, we should build in advance the structures that make it more likely that we would do so. Rescue, in the broad sense, thus requires a firm grasp of the ideas that challenged conventional politics and open the way to an unprecedented crime. (320-321).

Snyder explains:
By presenting Jews as an ecological flaw responsible for the disharmony of the planet, Hitler channeled and personalized the inevitable tensions of globalization. The only sound ecology was to eliminate a political enemy; the only sound politics was to purify the earth.” (321). (This refers to Snyder’s initial consideration of Hitler’s ideology; the use of “ecology” is an anachronism but a quite appropriate one.) Snyder goes on to note that “the course of the war on the eastern front created two fundamental political opportunities. At first, the zoological portrayal of Slavs justified the elimination of their polities, creating the zones where the Holocaust could become possible. (323).
 . . . . 
Just as Hitler’s world view conflated science and politics, his program confused biology with desire. The concept of Lebensraum unified need with want, murder with convenience. It implied a plan to restore the planet by mass murder and a promise of a better life for German families. Since 1945, one of the two senses of Lebensraum have spread across most of the world; a living room, the dream of household comfort in a consumer society. The other sense of Lebensraum is habitat, the realm that must be controlled for physical survival, inhabited perhaps temporarily by people characterized as not quite fully human. In uniting these two passions in one word, Hitler conflated lifestyle with life. For the vision of a well-stocked cupboard people should endorse the bloody struggle for other peoples’ land.  Once standard of living is confused with living, a rich society can make war on those who are poorer in the name of survival. Tens of millions of people died in Hitler’s war not so that Germans could live, but so that Germans could pursue the American dream in a globalized world. (324).

Reflect on this as you consider world population growth, the rise of demand for food and other goods by China and India and other developing nations, and our (American) attachment to material prosperity. Consider also this:

Hitler the thinker was wrong that politics and science are the same thing. Hitler the politician was right that conflating them creates a rapturous sense of the catastrophic time and thus the potential for radical action. (325).
 
Does this sound like any contemporary politicians? I think that it reminds Snyder (and me) of some. 
The similarities between now and then (the 1930s and 1940s) arise foremost from globalization. Snyder writes: “Hitler was a child of the first globalization, which arose under the imperial auspices at the end of the nineteenth century. We are the children of the second, that of the late twentieth century. Globalization is neither a problem nor a solution; it is a condition with a history.” (326). It promotes thinking—for good or ill—on a planetary scale. And when a “global order collapses, as was the experience of many Europeans in the second, third, and fourth decades of the twentieth century, a simplistic diagnosis such as Hitler’s can seem to clarify the global by referring to the ecological, the supernatural, or the conspiratorial.” (327).
In the past 25 years of so, we’ve experienced new collapses of order, in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, for instance, where virulent, fearful ideologies team with economic and ecological precariousness to unleash new genocides. As pressures continue, especially in light of continued climate change and world population growth, we’ll continue to see these problems pop-up as they do in daily headlines. Hitler used bad science to foresee a bleak future, not appreciating the Green Revolution ahead, but we don’t’ know if we have further Green Revolutions available. And we have grave reasons to doubt that the fortuitous climate that civilizations have come to depend upon will continue in light of continued human activities that alter the climate.
A closing thought from Snyder:
States should invest in science so that the future can be calmly contemplated. The study of the past suggests why this would be a wise course. Time supports thought; thought supports time; structure supports plurality, and plurality, structure. This line of reasoning is less glamorous than waiting for general disaster and dreaming of personal redemption. Effective prevention of mass killings is incremental and its heroes are invisible. No conception of a durable state can complete with visions of totality. No green politics will ever be as exciting as red blood on black earth. But opposing evil requires inspiration by what is sound rather than by what is resonant. The pluralities of nature and polities, order and freedom, past and
future, are not as intoxicating as the totalitarian utopias of the last century. Every unity is beautiful as an image but circular as logic and tyrannical as politics. The answer to those who seek totality is not anarchy, which is not totality’s enemy but it handmaiden. The answer is thoughtful, plural institutions: an unending labor of differentiated creation. This is a matter of imagination, maturity, and survival. (342).

To which I say, “Amen,” let it be so.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

In Defense of History by Richard J. Evans

It’s not often that I read a book that’s written by a character in a movie, but I did so when I read Sir Richard Evans’s In Defense of History (1998). Sir Richard, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, is no swashbuckling character.  He was portrayed the movie Denial (my review) about the libel trial of Irving v. Lipstadt in which he served as an expert witness for Lipstadt as she proved the truth of the Holocaust against the falsehood of Irving’s denialism. Evans is an expert on modern German history, and he wrote a three-volume history of the Third Reich. But in this book, he’s not writing history; he’s writing about history.

The lineage of this undertaking is a long and venerable one. Evans notes predecessors like E.H. Carr (What is History?) and Sir Geoffrey Elton, among others, and he mentions Collingwood only in passing and not in a flattering way. But Evans’s primary project in this book isn’t to argue with his well-known predecessors, but with his contemporizes, especially those who fly the flag of postmodernism. But in doing so, Evans isn’t out to pull them down so much as to pull them back. Evans, like other critics of postmodernism (Ken Wilber pops to mind), do not argue that they’re all wrong, but that they take some fundamental insights and run them to an extreme that collapses under the weight of logic. Postmodernism and relativism (of which postmodernism is the current incarnation) collapse in a performative contradiction when it’s insights are pushed to their logical conclusions. But Evans is not acting like an old curmudgeon here. In fact, he welcomes many of the insights provided by postmodernism and other innovative approaches to history, including its subject-matter, its way of investigating and knowing the past, and how history is written.


I’ll keep my review short, as many on Goodreads have shared the same insights. But before closing, this book deserves a place alongside the works of E.H. Carr and Sir Geoffrey Elton, and yes, even R.G. Collingwood, Evans’s ill-considered dis notwithstanding. It’s a thorough and persuasive appraisal of the historical profession and what it can hope to achieve, and it’s an excellent guide to (relatively) contemporary thinking about history. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

Fateful Choices: Ten Decision That Changed the World 1940-1941 by Ian Kershaw

Ian Kershaw’s Fateful Choices: Ten Decision That Changed the World 1940-1941 is an outstanding history of a time of immensely influential but not necessarily obvious decisions made by dictatorships and democracies. There are many dangers in the study and writing of history, such as navigating the risk of hindsight bias—of course, someone acted in such and such a way because of this and that reason compelled the decision. We better understand the reasons and compulsions that affected the decision-makers because we know how the decisions turned out and we can know the simultaneous acts of others that affect the outcome. On the other hand, when titanic forces are on the move, the importance—even the reality—of individual decisions can become mere chimeras in comparison to the great impersonal forces that shape the course of events. Kershaw’s book shows how historians can understand and appreciate the decisions of actors in the face of profound change and uncertainty. Individual decisions do make a difference, although all human decisions are constrained. The constraints may arise from within the individual, such as his [sic] values, goals, and beliefs (true and false); from the effects of other actors in a strategic game; or from the effects of Nature’s whims. The historian—and I think I’m following Collingwood here, as I believe Kershaw implicitly does—must “re-enact” (Collingwood’s term) the thoughts (and perceptions) of the actors as they sought to act in their worlds. Of course, such as undertaking of “re-enactment” is at best partial and incomplete. Any representation of reality, no matter how concurrent it may be, must always result in “reality-lite” in any re-telling. Yet, despite the limitations, some efforts are more successful, more edifying, that others and Kershaw’s work fits this description.

The ten decisions that Kershaw addresses were momentous and did change the course of history (if we can say that history has a course; perhaps we should say that it unfolds willy-nilly like the weather—somewhat predictable only in the shortest run). For instance, Kershaw opens with the decision of the British cabinet to continue the war against Hitler even as France is falling. Here, of course, we see the importance of a single individual, Winston Churchill, who has only just assumed the post of Prime Minister. Under the lead of Lord Halifax, the British contemplated cutting a deal with Hitler that some hoped would preserve the Empire and guaranty of freedom of the seas for them. Indeed, Hitler hoped that Britain would take just such a course. In this account—also brilliantly relayed in John Lukacs’s Five Days in London: May 1940—Kershaw reveals the uncertainty, yet underlying value, of the reasoned arguments required by the British parliamentary democracy. In contrast, for instance, consider another decision that Kershaw recounts: that of Stalin to ignore the numerous sources that warned him of Hitler’s impending attack. Stalin’s refusal to act on the warnings he received allowed the Soviet Union to come perilously close to falling in the face German onslaught. (The fascinating question is what combination of wishful thinking, outright denial, or strategic miscalculation (Stalin thought Hitler wouldn’t dare open a second front with the British fighting on) took place in Stalin’s mind, but Kershaw is not, nor is any historian, a mind-reader.)

Kershaw also includes chapters on the Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor and engage the U.S. in a war in the Pacific; Mussolini’s reckless and ill-fated decision to enter actively into the war; and the evolution of the Final Solution from the circumstances of the conquest of Eastern Europe with its huge Jewish population. For Americans, Kershaw details Roosevelt’s decisions to come—slowly, hesitantly—to Britain’s aid, and then his eventual decision to risk war in the North Atlantic by engaging German U-boats. In another chapter, Hitler, a couple of days after Pearl Harbor, declares war on the U.S., relieving Roosevelt from the need to make a case for a war in both Europe and the Pacific. Kershaw details the rationality of this decision that might, at first glance, seem quite irrational.


Whether one is a student of WWII history (as I am) or just an occasional history reader, this is a first-class work of history that will entertain (well, if you like narratives of political decisions) and instruct. We all see through a glass darkly, but some put on darker glasses than others. Kershaw helps us see more clearly.