Saturday, December 31, 2011

Say What You'd Like

about Paul Krugman but his blog has provided the most sustained and intelligent reporting and arguments about the Hungarian debacle. And, clearly, the official Hungarian response to this coverage suggests that he and his colleague are getting under their skin. The recent response to this response is, I think, worth reading.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review

I got Peter Englund's The Beauty and The Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War for Christmas; he claims that the book is not "about what" WWI "was . . . its causes, course, conclusion and consequences" but rather "what it was like" (xi).  His "focus remains primarily on the everyday aspects of the war" because the text is "a work of anti-history" with an emphasis on "the individual, and his or her experiences" (xiii). I don't think his book supports this claim, for reasons I explain below, and I am not sure why someone who has invested as much time and effort would avoid providing explicit argument, interpretation, and analysis.

The text is based on his reading diaries and letters of some 20 participants from different fronts, armies, and occupations: former opera singer and American married into the transnational eastern European aristocracy, left-wing French man of letters, reluctant Danish/German soldier, courageous British upper-class Red Cross volunteer, and so on. Englund doesn't offer any principle for selection of characters. Some of them are hyper articulate, Belgian flyer Willy Coppens for example, while Elfriede Kuhl is far too young to understand and analyze her war.  Paolo Monelli comes across as an Italian alpine Rambo. It seems to me that Englund's actors and the various excerpts he selects, forwards three distinct arguments: the war was badly managed at the top, popular enthusiasm waned rapidly under the pressure of events, and no one really understood the war.

The book is divided into year long sections in which Englund selects excerpts or offers extended paraphrases of diaries and letters for different days of each month. There is a sort of summing up for the characters in the end and, finally, a cleverly selected coda that orients the reader toward the future. This selection, it is Hitler's alleged response to the Armistice, cements, for me in any event, the extent to which Englund is making an argument about the war's consequence as well as course, nature, and causes.

Altagsgeschicte, the history of everyday life, focuses on the everyday and makes no claim to be an "anti-history"; rather it is a history in another key. Englund's claim here, it seems to me, is defensive: an attempt to obscure the extent to which his selection of voices and the diary or letter excerpts is completely conventional. For example, while he doesn't provide citations for the letters and diaries, he does provide explanatory footnotes. By attending to these, the reader finds Englund's argument about the war, that its start was written in the passive voice, that the hopes for a moral cleansing were misplaced, that the was a case of donkeys leading lions, etc, that accepts the consensus view of 10 or 20 years ago.

I would recommend this book primarily because its well-written. It is not for novices in the world of WWI studies. For advanced students the bibliography is probably its nicest feature.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Honesty Not The Best Policy Updated

One of the depressing aspects of the current level of intellectual debate is the mendacity of the conservatives. In the course of a remarkably incoherent, uncharitable, and badly-argued review of Corey Robin's book on conservativism, Mark Lilla, whose real purpose is not to review Robin but rather to insist that not all conservatives are crazy -- to which one points at the current crop of Republicans and their various crazy positions, argues that
[w]hat makes conservatives conservative are the implications they have drawn from Burke’s view of society. Conservatives have always seen society as a kind of inheritance we receive and are responsible for; we have obligations toward those who came before and to those who will come after, and these obligations take priority over our rights. Conservatives have also been inclined to assume, along with Burke, that this inheritance is best passed on implicitly through slow changes in custom and tradition, not through explicit political action. Conservatives loyal to Burke are not hostile to change, only to doctrines and principles that do violence to preexisting opinions and institutions, and open the door to despotism. This was the deepest basis of Burke’s critique of the French Revolution; it was not simply a defense of privilege.
As I've mentioned before, Burke view of society was essentially and fundamentally undemocratic. His argued for society's gradual improvement under the leadership of existing elites and institutions and feared common people's participation in political decision making unmediated by elite tutelage. This is a recipe for elite domination of political decision making and rests on the conviction that, as Lila suggests Robin's incorrectly argues, “some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others.” That "reasonable" Conservatives want to deny that their project rests on this horrid little principle doesn't change that fact.

If Lilla wants to get rid of the dark and dangerous forces he sees the first step is to admit the role and power of the Conservative desire to deny to most of us the right to decide our own fates. Of course, to do that means admitting the unpleasant reality of the Conservative and Neoliberal project.

The more I think about it the more I become convinced that Lilla had no interest in reviewing Robin's book but rather wanted to offer some kind of an anti-Tea Party conservative political ideology with a pinch f false equivalency thrown in.

For a good thrashing of Lilla's review see

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Robot or Sociopath?

Mitt Romney has to be one or the other. This article in the NYT is deeply disturbing. The man seems immune to the normal feelings we associated with humanity and, what strikes me as even worse, his success, such as it is, arises from this desert like moral and emotional inner life.