Thursday, July 27, 2017

Views from Dunkirk



Nearly half a century ago, a new fashion swept the historical profession.  Rather than focus on the “great men”—or would-be great men—of history, the decision-makers who initiated, fought, won and lost wars, or passed laws, or ran for office, many historians argued for examining the experience of ordinary—or marginalized—men and women, whom they argued had been neglected in the past.  It took time for this new idea to spread outside the academy.  In the early 1990s, Ken Burns met with a group of professional historians after the screening of his first great documentary on the Civil War, and they took him to task severely for his traditional approach.  His subsequent work has increasingly reflected their criticism.  Now, however, this view of history has become mainstream in much of the press and in the media—and it is very much on display in Christopher Nolan’s new film, Dunkirk.  One way to illustrate this is to look at what Nolan left out—the political and military context of the events he shows on the screen.

When the Second World War in Europe began in September 1940, the British and French expected a long struggle, and most Americans expected the British and French to prevail.  The French invested huge sums in the Maginot Line, a system of fortifications along the Franco-German border (but not along the Franco-Belgian border), and thought themselves secure from attack.  Neither side wanted to begin a bombing campaign against the other, and for seven months, through April, both sides built up their forces without any fighting.  By May, about three million German soldiers faced two million French and about 400,000 British troops.  (Today, the entire army of the United States numbers less than half a million.)  In early April, the Germans struck north, not west, invading Denmark and Norway.  That catastrophe brought down the government of Neville Chamberlain in Britain, and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in early May. Then, on May 10, they invaded neutral Holland and Belgium. On May 14, backed by dive bombers, the Germans crossed the Meuse River at Sedan, very near the intersection of Belgium, Germany, and France.

Having broken through, German tank forces and motorized troops advanced with unprecedented speed. They reached the English Channel at the mouth of the Somme by May 21, just one week after their breakthrough. That divided most of the French Army to the South from some French forces and the entire British Expeditionary Force to the North.  Within a few days, further German advances forced the British and French into a small pocket around Dunkirk.  Suddenly, the fate of western civilization hung in the balance.

For seven years, since 1933, Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany had established a new totalitarian form of government in the heart of Europe, based upon the idea of Aryan racial supremacy.  Hitler, Mussolini in Italy, and Franco in Spain had declared that liberal democracy was dead, and that they were leading Europe into a new future.  By the last week of May their hopes seemed on the point of realization.  Nothing, it seemed, could stand in the way of German forces.  France was collapsing, and the entire British Army was likely to be captured. The allies, meanwhile, had been unable to cope with the German air force.  Most of the world expected the British either to suffer invasion or make peace within a few weeks, and across the Atlantic, as I showed in my last book, the US government began to think seriously about how to defend the western hemisphere against the victorious Axis. The world faced one of the great turning points of modern history.

That is the background to the organization of the evacuation of British and French forces from Dunkirk of which Christopher Nolan’s film gives us a glimpse.  I use that word on purpose.  Although one character reports, correctly, that more than 300,000 men were evacuated, at no time did Nolan attempt to set up a scene on the beach or in the water that would give a true idea of the scale of the operation.  We spend a lot of time with Mark Rylance’s small boat, but it was only one of 700 that the Royal Navy requisitioned—and most of them were not manned by their owners, but by naval personnel. I thought the shots of troops on the beach gave the impression that thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of men, at most, were involved—not hundreds of thousands.  Nor was there any real sense of the battle French troops were waging just outside the city to keep the Germans out.

According to Nolan, this was not accidental, but purposeful.  Dunkirk is not a war film,” Nolan says. “It's a survival story and first and foremost a suspense film. So while there is a high level of intensity to it, it does not necessarily concern itself with the bloody aspects of combat, which have been so well done in so many films. . . The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? Will they be killed by the next bomb while trying to join the mole? Or will they be crushed by a boat while crossing?"  In another interview, Nolan says,    "I knew I didn’t want to make a film that could be dismissed as old-fashioned, something that wasn’t relevant to today’s audiences," he elaborates. "What that ruled out for me immediately was getting bogged down in the politics of the situation.”—that is, that the future of the world was at stake. “We don’t have generals in rooms pushing things around on maps. We don’t see Churchill. We barely glimpse the enemy. It’s a survival story. I wanted to go through the experience with the characters."

The evacuation succeeded largely because the Royal Air Force mostly kept the Luftwaffe out of the skies over Dunkirk.  That allowed Churchill to promise Britain and the world that Britain could fight on and survive until help came from the New World.  That is why democracy, not totalitarianism, has ruled the western world for the last 72 years.

Born in 1970, Christopher Nolan may understand that he owes his whole life and career to Churchill, and Roosevelt who rallied their peoples and to the admirals and generals who commanded the forces that defeated Hitler--but he chose not to put any such understanding into his film.  More importantly, he does not seem to understand that the allies won the war precisely because the soldiers and sailors and airmen in his film were not thinking only about whether they personally might survive.  They knew that they might not, but they believed that they were fighting for things that justified their sacrifice—and they were right.  The question now before us is whether we can preserve the civilization that we inherited without finding leaders who can rally us behind a common cause, and without reviving some spirit of sacrifice for the common good.  That is something that films could help us do.



Thursday, July 20, 2017

Birth rates by state

This week I am reading Jane Mayer's remarkable book, Dark Money, on the ultraconservative billionaires who have orchestrated the rise of the modern right wing, including Charles and David Koch, Richard Mellon Scaife, and John Olin.  It is an extraordinarily researched book with enormous implications for the crisis that the nation is going through, and I will eventually discuss it here at some length.  But meanwhile, I'm going to share some interesting demographic data that I turned up some months ago that also has implications for our political future.  It breaks down our fertility rate by state.

The fertility rate is generally  defined as the number of births per thousand women aged 15 to 44.  Recent stories stress that our overall fertility rate is at an all time low--but that is only part of the story.  Like so much else in our society, fertility rates have become a cultural characteristic, and culture is highly correlated with politics.  Red states, to put it bluntly, are reproducing at substantially higher rates that blue ones.

My data comes from a recent year, but I must apologize that I didn't note what the year was when I found it and haven't been able to find the table quickly just now.  The fertility rate in the 21 states that voted for Hillary Clinton ranges from a high of 69.3 per thousand in Hawaii, through 62.4 for California (where half a million children were born in the year under review), and more than 60 in Minnesota, New Mexico, Washington state, Maryland, Virginia, Illinois, Delaware, and Colorado.  The lowest fertility rates in the nation--under 55 per 1000--are in the six New England states and the District of Columbia, all of which, of course, voted for Clinton.  All told in this particular year there were 1.67 million births in Clinton's states--and 1.01 million deaths.

The Trump states show a different pattern.  Utah, not surprisingly, leads the country with a rate of 80 births per thousand women of child bearing age, followed by the Dakotas, Alaska, Nebraska, Idaho, Texas, and Kansas.  All these states of a fertility rate of at least 70, that is, higher than any Clinton state.  After that, the entire South, except Florida, has rates in the 60s (Louisiana and Arkansas, surprisingly, are the highest), and only Florida and Pennsylvania among Trump states have rates as low as 59.  The Trump states had more deaths than the Clintons, 1.25 million to 1.01--presumably because they include to may retirees.  But they had about 33% more births, 2.32 million to 1.67 million.  That is a large part of the reason that the red states are expected to gain yet more Congressional seats in the new census.

I am not going to include any racial breakdowns here, because the only convenient table that I have found, from teh Kaiser Foundation (no relation), combines whites and hispanics, which surely gives a misleading picture.  But I have before me a table showing the household income level of women giving birth in 2014, which is rather remarkable as well.  The median household income in that year was about $53,000, and from the table it would appear that more than half of the women giving birth were above that level.  Only 38% of birthing women lived in households with incomes of less than $50,000, while 56.4% of their households earned $75,000 or less. 

Based on my own personal experience, the lowest birth rates in the country seem to come from my own demographic--well-off, well-educated people in the blue states.  Among my close friends and relatives I know only two people who have more grandchildren than children.  Late in the second year I spent teaching at Williams, in 2012-13, I suggested to some students that they might consider having kids in their 20s, and the idea was not well received.  The problem of left wing politics today, I think, is their moral certitude, their sense that what they know to be right simply must come to pass.  But the blue states are losing the demographic battle, and that is just one of many trends working against liberals today.  I should be discussing a much bigger one next week.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

Competing views of history

I belong to a private facebook page that was created to discuss issues relating to generational theory.  It has a fairly broad range of opinion, including a few Trump acolytes.  The other day we got into a discussion of the nature of p.c. One poster, a bright young man who has just graduated from college, made the following comment to explain the modern leftism to which he has been exposed in college--but clearly without adopting it fully.  Keep in mind that the author is only 23, I believe, and probably has only some dim memories of Bill Clinton.  I have edited slightly just for readability. 

"Many view the progression from slavery -> Jim Crow -> what people call "New Jim Crow", as an all-around trajectory of progress.
Ta-Nehisi Coates views it as the culmination of an intentionally subtle and insidious web of formal and informal institutions descendant from slavery. Same with people who view crony capitalism and income inequality as more sophisticated incarnations of aristocratic and/or oligarchic systems from the past, designed to entrap citizens. Same with a Glenn Greenwald or Oliver Stone, who look at the military industrial complex + surveillance state + multilateral institutional architecture, and see an intentionally complex web of systems and institutions that entrench (what they call) Western imperialism and make it hard to step away from.

"A lot of it is based in Critical Theory/Marxism, which we discussed a ~month ago. Left philosophy/ideology is based in a goal of emancipation from old exploitative systems. Thus leftists (Coates, Stone, Greenwald) have far more cynical perspectives of America that say we're simply moving into more inconspicuous--thus unseen and difficult to prove to well-to-do decision-makers far away from issues of the underclasses-- incarnations of slavery in the social realm, an oligarchic + crony aristocracy in the economic realm, and imperialism in the foreign realm. You're right, it isn't the full story/perspective of history, but it is one side of the coin that we have to be aware of. It's why people on the left view incremental change as a non-starter. It's viewed as preserving or further entrenching descendant systems of: slavery, oligarchy, and imperialism.

"Imo, the tricky part is that those views of our social, economic, and foreign paradigms are more true than false. The part I've grown to criticize, is the inherent cynicism that accompanies this view of history. Coates says, we still have significant forms of oppression, inequality, and imperialism entrenched complex institutions; it's a tragedy that says exploitation is both feasible and profitable without much consequence. On one end, leftists may be driven to activism. On the other hand, leftists may say, "America is hopeless" while only despairing about our society without getting politically involved because the system is too icky to reformulate from the inside.

"Ideally for me, we'd recognize how complex and dichotomous America is, being conscious of our institutional history while not neglecting how we overcame/evolved beyond certain paradigms and behaviors. To me it's as simple as, positive and negative exists; it's part of life. In my more romantic view, challenges create stronger people and societies if we confront them without fear, but rather with an interest in creating success stories and improving life."


What struck me is that John had grasped the essential belief of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Oliver Stone, Glenn Greenwald, and many others: that the system is hopelessly rigged and always has been.  That is a slight oversimplification in Stone's case, at least, since he has made clear at various times that he thinks American history might have been very different if Henry Wallace had remained  Vice President in 1945, or if John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated. (For the record, I think things would have been quite different had JFK served out two terms in the short run but that we would probably be in about the same place now anyway.)  Coates, whose father was a Black Panther in the 1960s, has emerged as the Generation X's leading spokesman for black rage, in the tradition of James Baldwin (GI), Eldridge Cleaver (Silent), and Nathan MacCall (Boomer.)  Fame and fortune have if anything made him more shrill, and at a recent event on Harvard and slavery, he said,
“We talk about enslavement as though it were a bump in the road,” nd I tell people it’s the road, it’s the actual road.”  The idea that the United States is fatally flawed by original sins of racism, sexism, and homophobia is extremely popular in academia and has been eagerly embraced by many young protesters on campus.

My own view is close to John's, but I would put it differently.  Yes, racism has always existed in the United States and had terrible consequences, beginning with the introduction of slavery and continuing to this day.  Yes, corporate power has posed a potential or actual danger to liberty, as recognized by Presidents including Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy.  Yes, women could not vote until 1920 and did not begin to secure equal rights in the workplace until the 1960s.  Yet I would always keep two things in mind.

The first and most important is to take a broader historical perspective to place US history in the context of world history.  White males in Europe and the US did not invent racism, economic oppression, racism, homophobia, or imperialism.  All those phenomena have characterized all the major civilization that we have been aware of since the beginning of time.  Few, if any major ethic groups now live on land which they did not take from some one else. Economic inequality has been the norm, not the exception, for most of human history, especially among developed civilizations.  To get specific, in the context of western civilization, Ta-Nehisi Coates is wrong: slavery in North and South America was a detour from the road. It had been abolished in western Europe well before the 16th and 17th centuries, when settlers introduced it into the Americas.  They did not bring their slaves form Europe, but bought them in the very active slave markets of West Africa, where different tribes continually enslaved one another.  The United States fought a successful and very bloody war to abolish it, after most of the Latin American nations and the colonial powers in the Americas had already done so.

What distinguishes western civilization in general and the United States in particular is that they were the first civilization to develop a doctrine of equal rights, and to design institutions based upon it.  Of course their original application of the doctrine was limited to free men, but they did not state it in that way--certainly not in the US Constitution--and inevitably, excluded groups were going to demand the rights proclaimed in founding documents. The same drama played out rather rapidly in the European colonies elsewhere, as soon as South Asians, Vietnamese and Africans were educated in the principles of British and French liberty.  Unfortunately, very few young people learn much about the true history of civilizations before the modern era nowadays, and are more likely to learn about the hopeless defects of the West.  In the last 30 years colleges and universities have usually replaced Western Civ with World History, which often turns into the story of the west's exploitation of the rest of the world.

The history of the United States has in fact been divided into periods tending towards more democracy (1801-1836, 1861-1876, and 1901-1980) and those tending towards oligarchy and corporate power (1787-1800, 1877-1900, 1981 to the present.)  An understanding of those different periods would allow young people today to see where the wretched state of the nation is coming from and how it truly could be improved.  Instead, young people are being taught a Manichean view of a society based upon oppression, faced with a vision of a world free of all evil which colleges are trying to bring to life on their own campuses.  It is not surprising that so many young people (although not my young friend) are completely disillusioned with politics in general and politicians in particular, and even hope for a kind of Democratic Donald Trump--Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, or Mark Zuckerberg--as a presidential candidate.

My young friend, whose opinions I have learned to respect over several years, has not given up hope for the US, although he thinks today's leftist view is "more true than false."  I agree that inequality and imperialism have been on the rise again, although I'm not so sure about racial inequality.  What he seems to understand, however, is that the pessimistic left wing view simply can't be the basis for an effective political movement.  Having seen it first emerge in the late 1960s, take over academia, and now become mainstream within a good deal of the media and the Democratic party, I think that that is true.  Liberalism has declined as leftists have lost all faith in it.  My friend does have some ideas of pursuing a career in politics and government, and I hope he does--armed with a true sense of the place of the US in world history and the possibilities for change its history offers.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

What the Russians wanted

My posts here are usually designed to provide a long-term perspective on events, not add to the cacophony about the news of the day, but there are times when the major media seem so brain dead that I feel I have something different to contribute.  It seems pretty clear to me what was going on last summer, but no one seems to be paying very much attention.

The Russian government and people have been hurt significantly--although hardly critically--by the American sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea, and other measures taken in response to human rights violations within Russia.  As the election campaign unfolded, they knew that Hillary Clinton would continue or even increase the sanctions.  On the other hand, Donald Trump had long-standing ties to Russia.  It is also possible,. according to news reports, that Russian intelligence possessed compromising information about Trump.  In any case, the Russian government had some reason to believe that Trump might be willing to ease the sanctions.

Now while I doubt that any of the participants in the famous meeting of a year ago among Donald Trump Jr, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and Natalia Vesenitskaya has been completely frank about their discussions as yet, the emails that surfaced yesterday, combined with Trump Jr.'s testimony, give a reasonable picture of what was up.  As the New York Times points out today, Ms. Vesenitskaya is a trusted Moscow insider with many high-level connections.   Working through the publicist Rob Goldstone, she offered dirt on Hillary Clinton developed by the Russian government to the Trump campaign in order to arrange a high-level meeting.  Such dirt may well have been discussed at the meeting, although no one has confirmed that as yet.  But in the course of the meeting, she turned the discussion to specific sanctions against Russians--the so-called Magnitsky Act--which she hoped a Trump Administration might lift.  She also brought up the ban on US adoptions of Russian children that Putin had imposed in retaliation for that act, in effect proposing a deal, and confirming, critically, that she was at least claiming to be acting on behalf of the Russian government.

Now this was not the only instance we have discovered of negotiations for a quid pro quo between teh Trump campaign and Russian officials during the campaign.  Last March my brother Charles brought some tweets from a statistician (not a journalist) named Carolyn O to my attention, in which she demonstrated the results of simple triangulation.  Here is what I said here then:

"On September 2, President Obama met with President Putin at a G-8 Summit.  They discussed US sanctions against Russia that Obama had imposed the day before, and Putin described them as an obstacle to cooperation between the two nations.

"Five days later, on September 7, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, suggested for the first time that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee.

"On the very next day, September 8, Trump told a Russian TV correspondent that he did not believe Russia was behind the hack, and Sessions met with Kislyak. [n.b.: This was the meeting that Sessions did not disclose in his confirmation hearing.] Trump also said publicly that, 'If we had a relationship with Russia, wouldn't it be wonderful if we could work on it together and knock the hell out of ISIS?' And on that same day, Trump and Pence made a whole series of statements praising Putin's leadership style. and on the same day, Tass announced, 'Moscow expects Washington to display political will on building good relations with Russia after the presidential election," quoting Dimitry Peskov.'"

The July meeting, it seems, may have been the start of something.  By September, it looks as if a deal was in operation.  Russia would continue releasing hacked emails, and perhaps trying to hurt the Clinton campaign in other ways.  Trump would try to exonerate the Russians for the hack (as he still intermittently continues to do.) He and his surrogates would also promise better relations.

Trump did, of course, win the election, but the clear evidence that the Russians had hacked the DNC and the evidence of contacts between them and his campaign have made it difficult to carry out the deal.  Early last month it seemed that the Russians had won one victory since the Trump Administration was reported to be ready to allow them to re-open two listening posts in the US that the Obama Administration had ordered closed.  And the President himself still speaks intermittently about the possibility of more cooperation with Russia.  The Congress, however, has moved to impose more sanctions.

The Trump campaign, in short, appears to have secured help from a foreign government that carried out the modern equivalent of a Watergate break-in to help it win the election, in exchange for unknown promises of better relations which it has not been able to keep.  The situation would truly be parallel to Watergate were any evidence to surface that the Russians carried out the DNC attack after discussing it with the Trump campaign, but there does not seem to be any such evidence as yet.  The Russian hacks began perhaps a year before the meeting that is in the news this week.  A careful analysis in today's New York Times tends toward the conclusion that what has been revealed this week does not rise to the level of a crime.

Putin's investment in Trump has already paid off handsomely in the form of disarray within the NATO alliance and a general loss of respect for the US around the world.  But his government has not gotten what it wanted.  This raises the question of whether he can, or would, turn to sticks as well as carrots--perhaps threats to release compromising information about Trump, which a respected retired British intelligence officer concluded that he probably had.  The real story, in any case, is about the evolution of a long relationship between Trump and Russian interests, before, during, and perhaps after his campaign.  Given the level of indiscretion revealed in the recently released email chain, more evidence seems very likely to emerge.