28 June 1914

Today marks the centenary of Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie (whom the rank-obsessed Habsburg court had graced only with the title of Countess Hohenberg, she not being of sufficiently blue blood to marry an Archduke).  Theirs was among the first blood to be shed in what became the Great War.  I say “among” because the assassins’ first run at them that morning left them unscathed but wounded several in the next car in the motorcade.

The facts of what happened that morning are pretty straightforward.  Royal party is to visit local dignitaries.  In show of condescension (in the laudatory use of that word, now largely and sadly forgotten, of one placed higher going out of his way to encounter on the level another, placed lower, specifically as a gesture of kindness, or encouragement, or recognition of merit), the Archduke directs that the usual military guard be dispensed with, so the crowds can see the heir to the throne come among them, unafraid.

Among that crowd is a group of youngsters, lead by teen-aged Gavrilo Princip.  Citizens of Austria-Hungary, from Bosnia, they are ethnic Serbs, outraged that Bosnia is part of the empire and not part of neighboring Serbia (back then spelled “Servia,” by the way).  Having seen the announcement of the Archduke’s visit, they determine to kill him.  They travel to Belgrade where they are armed by a group known as the Black Hand, fanatic pan-Slavists set upon uniting all Balkan Slav populations in one (Serbian-run) state.  The conspirators return to Sarajevo and wait.  The morning of 28 June, they disperse themselves into the crowd, the motorcade’s route also having been announced ahead of time.  On the way to city hall, one of them manages to heave a bomb which misses its intended target but explodes near the next car in line, wounding several of its occupants (none severely).  The motorcade, now alerted, speeds away.  At city hall the Archduke, understandably distressed, tears a strip off the mayor.  The gala reception is cancelled.

The royal party embarks to return to the train station by a route different than the trip there.  The Archduke, mindful of his injured retainers, instructs that he wishes to see them before he leaves, to make sure they’re being properly attended to, and the motorcade is thus to swing past where they’ve been taken.  On the drive back the lead driver, in one of history’s most portentous navigational errors (right on up there with Columbus’s, when you think about it), makes the turn to go back by the route they’d come by.  Alerted to his mistake, he stops in the middle of the street to begin the cumbersome reversal of course.  The Archduke’s car stops as well, a few feet from where Princip, convinced that his group’s mission has failed and its cover is blown, just happens to be standing.  He approaches the car and fires a revolver, hitting Franz Ferdinand in the neck and Sophie in the abdomen.  Both rounds sever arteries, and the Archduke and his wife bleed out in a matter of minutes.

It’s not really possible to say much of anything about the events of that day, or their background, or their consequences, that hasn’t been said repeatedly over the last century.  If Gentle Reader is looking for fresh insight, it will not be found here.  That notwithstanding, I do think it important to reflect on those times, not least because there is a powerful argument to be made that we are still living out their immediate consequences.

The interesting, the instructive, historical eras are those of change, whether gentle transition or violent overthrow.  Generations and centuries in which very little changed much one way or the other just don’t intrigue.  Yes the Dark Ages are of historical curiosity, but more in the sense of just figuring out what was going on in the first place.  We want to know about the organization of agriculture and land tenures in the Sixth Century not because they teach us much of anything about ourselves as humans, but rather merely because we want to know, because knowing is in itself important (and it is).  Ditto much of the history of sub-Saharan Africa, at least until the Scramble.  The Reformation, the Age of Exploration, the Industrial Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the South American independence movements, however; these all teach us something about being human, because each of them was a change from one state of existence to another profoundly different in important ways.  What sparked those transformations, and how did people behave during them?  How did they resolve themselves and how did those resolutions reflect and impact human nature?  What did people learn about themselves and their fellow humans in the process?  What lessons from those times have we today forgot?

By the way, the notion of history-as-change is itself very much a recent concept in terms of the literate human experience.  Men have always catalogued their crimes and follies deeds and struggles, even in the pre-literate times (think Homer).  “Wie es gewesen ist,” in the German historians’ 19th Century expression, has always occupied our minds.  What is new — say, since the late 18th Century — is the meta-historical understanding, the insight that the chronicle of events has something to tell us beyond the bare narration of their sequence.

And so we turn our minds to 28 June 1914.

Franz Ferdinand was a marked man, from more sides than one.  Viewed from within the power structure, he was a disruptive force in the empire.  His father became heir to the throne upon Crown Prince Rudolph’s swallowing his pistol in January, 1889.  The father died a few years later leaving Franz Ferdinand next in line.  The heir understood what the emperor was unwilling to accept, notwithstanding its truth had been thrust down his throat, generally with a bayonet, since he first came to the throne in 1848.  The empire could not continue as it had been.  Changes both within and outside would not permit it.  Industrialization, the rise of militant nationalism, the spread of literacy, mass emigration, and the flow of money, goods, and people within and among nations permitted by the Long Peace (a peace framed, ironically, at the Congress of Vienna) had laid to rest forever, at least for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the idea that tomorrow would reliably resemble today.

As mentioned, Franz Joseph’s acquiescence in that world state was objectively unreasonable.  He was too young to have been alive for the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars.  On the other hand, how blind did one need to be not to understand that a century inaugurated by the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, a political institution 900 years old and at the head of which one’s own family had served more or less without interruption for a matter of 400 years, was a time of Things Coming Unstuck?  Since 1415 there had been all of two non-Habsburg emperors: Sigismund (d. 1437) and Charles VII (1742-45).  Within a single generation the French had kicked the Empire’s ass all over the courtyard multiple times and in 1806 the last of the line just shut it down.  Sure, you can argue that by then there really wasn’t very much substance to liquidate, but in point of fact it was a symbol, a symbol of What Has Forever Been.  Humans are unique animals in that so much of our mental landscape is formed by symbolism, both concrete (statuary, pictorial) and abstract (The Church, the Roman Empire).  There’s even a book about the Habsburgs which organizes its narration around the family’s use of religious and political symbolism to maintain itself in power, even as the physical forces over which they held sway frayed, snapped, dissolved.

From his first moments on the throne, Franz Joseph’s reign was riven with violent change.  The very fact of his accession was a function of ructions among the Hungarians, part of the Revolution of 1848.  Feeble-minded Ferdinand I, widely acknowledged among the family to be Just Not Up To It, was pressured to abdicate, as was his younger brother, Franz Joseph’s father.  Pregnant with implications for the future, it took the intervention of Russian troops to secure Franz Joseph on his throne.

For Franz Joseph there then followed twenty years of getting his butt run out of Italy, or rather the rest of the way out of Italy, courtesy of the French and the House of Savoy.  On his northern borders, the Prussians were squeezing him out of participation in the Greater German consolidation of the mid-century decades.  That culminated in the humiliation of 1866.  In 1867 the Hungarians forced on him the Ausgleich — the Compromise — of 1867, which formally created the Dual Monarchy, in which Franz Joseph was Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary.  The Hungarians extracted numerous concessions as the price for an undisputed throne, most of which can be categorized as mechanisms for the suppression of non-Hungarian peoples within Hungary, and freezing out from participation in the joint government any groups other than Germans and Hungarians.

Of the Ausgleich could be said, as the Duke of Wellington was told after delivering an over-my-dead-body speech against what became the Great Reform Bill of 1832 and he asked a fellow peer, a crusty old Scot, “I have not said too much, have I?” and was told, “Ye’ll hear of it.”

During these same years serfdom was finally abolished in the empire, a change which affected foremost Hungary.  Of all the servient classes in Europe, about the only large group stifled in greater misery than the Hungarian serfs and peasants were their fellow toilers in Russia.  And as in Russia, for the newly-emancipated serfs formal freedom brought precious little in material betterment.

Let’s just come right out and say it in plain Saxon:  The Habsburg accession to the Hungarian throne after Mohacs in 1526 turned out to be a poisoned chalice, to retain its grip on which the monarchy repeatedly made decisions that compromised its ability to survive.  Even when it wasn’t the Hungarians themselves creating tumult, it was accommodating the Hungarian insistence that nothing occur which might lessen their influence in the empire which was a if not the chief point on which snagged and capsized any attempt to adapt to a changing, challenging world.

The imperial coddling of Hungary was all the more disastrous — and in retrospect questionable — for the empire because Hungary was by a good margin the portion of the empire most backward socially, economically, and industrially.  Yes it was to some extent the imperial bread-basket.  It was a phenomenally inefficient bread-basket, however, and the only reason it occupied that position at all was because so much of the rest of the country was either badly suited to large-scale agriculture or was rapidly industrializing and so turning away from basic food production.  More to the point, after the Napoleonic Wars, and even more so after the opening of the American Mid-West and the Canadian Plains by mid-century, cheap North American grain could and would have been more than sufficiently available to feed the population.  In late century the Australian wheat fields came on-stream, with a growing season exactly the opposite of the northern hemisphere, and from 1867 the Suez Canal was open for traffic in grain carriers.  Had Franz Joseph had the vision, or had the advisors, he could have very plausibly embraced the industrialization of his empire, used the economic surplus generated by that growth to feed his people from abroad (as Britain and even the German Reich were doing), and told the Hungarians to go pound sand up their asses.  But he didn’t.

In fairness to Franz Joseph, it ought to be observed that he wasn’t the only monarch in thrall to a well-organized group of people who were adamantly opposed to any change at all which threatened a very ancient, and ludicrously inefficient agrarian way of life.  The Prussian kings (and of course later German emperors) were forever tip-toeing around the Prussian Junker class, from which it drew its officer class, which latter class the Hohenzollerns insisted be the driving force in the Reich’s political life.  The domestic policies of Bismarck (himself of ancient Junker heritage) and his successors were at any number of points forced through the seine of agrarian intransigence.

All the while these changes were going on, and Franz Joseph grimly setting his face against them, there grew and festered the nationalistic sentiments among the empire’s numerous non-German, non-Hungarian minorities.  First among them were the Czechs, by late century the principal drivers of such Austro-Hungarian modernization as was occurring.  If the Hohenzollerns in Berlin had Krupp (in Essen, clear on the other end of the Reich), the Habsburgs had Skoda . . . in Bohemia, founded and run by Czechs.  Again the curious parallels: hard-shell Protestant, militantly anti-modern Prussia armed itself from heavily Roman Catholic (until Napoleon’s conquest, the city was church property), highly internationalized Essen.  Hard-shell agrarian, chauvinistic Austria-Hungary armed itself from highly-industrialized, Czech Bohemia.  But the Czechs at least had the power of money, and even in Austria-Hungary, hoary with tradition and snobbery (see: Sophie, Countess of Hohenberg), money was not mute.  But you had Slovakians, Ruthenians, Rumelians, Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians, Rumanians, and many more besides.  “Polyglot” doesn’t begin to do justice to the patchwork that was Austro-Hungarian ethnography.

Pretty much all those groups (except those who were so marginalized they knew better than even to dream of it, such as the Jews and the Gypsies) had a few things in common:  They were outraged that all political power was artificially concentrated in the hands of the Germans and the Hungarians.  They fervently wanted to establish national states, in which they and others of their ethnic group would dominate.  They wanted to assemble their ethnic fellows into compact geographic groups.  And finally, each and every one of them had its neck stomped on by the Austro-Hungarian government whenever they tried anything in the direction of addressing their grievances or aspirations.  With the emperor’s full approval.

First Crown Prince Rudolph, and then Franz Ferdinand, saw all of this.  Rudolph in his frustration to do something gave in to his genetic emotional instability (his mother was a Wittelsbach, a cousin of Ludwig II, and it showed) and whacked his girlfriend (I’m sorry; if you’re heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, with a litany of titles even as heir that can’t be pronounced in one breath or even several, and the best you can do as mistress is a 17-year-old tart of decidedly arriviste origins, then you aren’t much of an heir to that kind of throne.) and then himself rather than continue to watch his father drive his patrimony onto the rocks.  Franz Ferdinand, soldier that he was, beat his fists bloody (metaphorically speaking, of course) against the absurdities and obtuseness of the system.  The forces of reaction easily marginalized him.  In this respect his marriage to Sophie, while reflecting great credit on them both (theirs has a good claim to be among the great love matches of European royal history, as warm-hearted, and eventually tragic, as George III and Charlotte or Nicholas II and Alexandra), did neither him nor his country any good.  To a large degree, Franz Joseph’s natural antipathy towards change was made easier to maintain by his revulsion against an heir who had defied him to marry morganatically.  Would Franz Ferdinand have been able to sway the emperor if the two had been on speaking terms?  Maybe not, but it sure as hell wasn’t going to happen with the emperor feeling like he needed a bath after every audience with his heir.

Franz Ferdinand was no soupy sentimentalist about the empire’s ethnic minorities.  With his customary lack of grace he damned them all.  But he understood that unless they were brought into the polity, unless they acquired a stake in its continuance that they could feel and around which they could coalesce, the empire could not survive.  And like all heirs to thrones who enjoy poor relations with their immediate predecessors, his views were known.

Those within governing circles had little trouble letting the air out of Franz Ferdinand’s sails.  Those increasingly radicalized among the minorities were terrified of an Emperor Franz Ferdinand.  This was not because they feared repressions and exactions, but exactly the opposite.  They feared that his reforms would succeed, and that rather than follow them into revolt and dissolution, their ethnic brethren would reconcile themselves to the empire and become contented citizens of it.  The expression “false consciousness” had not been coined yet, but that’s what the radical ethno-warriors feared.  Lenin, with his gift for capturing complicated concepts in pithy expressions (e.g., “Who?  Whom?”) once famously said of Russian tribulations, “The worse, the better.”  Improvement in the minorities’ lot would damn their aspirations, and with Franz Joseph’s life rapidly approaching its close, improvement was on the horizon.

So Franz Ferdinand had to die.  This may be one of history’s all-time greatest too-clever-by-half events.  The Serbian radicals, terrified that Franz Ferdinand would undercut them with their kinsmen, decided to take him out, believing that they thereby could preserve their ambitions’ viability.  In fact, the death was cynically used by those around Franz Joseph as a pretext for extinction not only of Serbian nationalism within the empire, but extinction of Serbia as an independent state.  The emperor sure wasn’t identifiably upset by his heir’s murder; he commented that God had restored a balance he, the emperor, had been unable to maintain.  The war-mongers (that’s usually a hyperbolic epithet, but I really don’t know how else you could accurately describe someone like General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, who (like Cato centuries before: Carthago delenda est) appended to almost every official statement something about the need to crush the “vipers’ nest” of Serbia) famously spent the next month putting together a list of demands that no sovereign country could agree to.  The idea was that Serbia would reject some of them and that could be presented by the empire as a casus belli, after which either Serbia would not exist at all, or would do so in form of a vassal state.  Austria-Hungary would not only have resolved an issue of domestic concern, but its brief and successful war would restore it to relevance among the world’s Great Powers.

The war-mongers genuinely believed they could pull it off.  This would be just another tumult in the Balkans, and after all, in the preceding three years there had been not one but two Balkan Wars among shifting coalitions, and nothing larger had grown from them.  In Edward Grey’s expression, the anchors held, and in the empire’s view there was no reason they ought not hold again.

It would be unfair to accuse Conrad and his allies of blindness to the risk that this particular Balkan crisis would be different because it, unlike the two previous wars, involved a Power — themselves.  They knew that Russia viewed itself as the South Slavs’ patron.  They knew from the Bosnian annexation crisis of 1908 that Russia’s position was that anything which increased imperial influence in the Balkans, especially at the expense of Slavic or Orthodox influence, was a direct threat to Russia’s standing as a Great Power (whether that position was reasonable or not).  They knew that Russia was the wild card in the deck.  They thought they could keep it from being played by invoking the aid of their German ally, Wilhelm II.  Wilhelm, foolishly, gave them the “blank check,” the assurance that, whatever happened, Germany would back them to the hilt.  And so forward they went.

Here it is not inappropriate to observe that, once again, the Hungarians gave the empire a shove in the direction of collapse.  The Hungarian prime minister, Istvan Tisza, was not unopposed to Serbia, and in fact was not fundamentally in disagreement that the Serbs needed to be squashed.  He did, however, have the imagination to realize where a war against Serbia, and against Russia, Serbia’s protector, was likely to lead.  He knew that the ethnic tensions in Hungary could scarcely survive such a war, and for that reason he was opposed, originally, to forcing the issue in summer 1914.  He was the sole politically powerful man who might, by firmness, have de-railed the self-delusion of the imperial government.  That he was inclined to do so out of chauvinistic grounds is not important.  He alone might have done so.  Had he demanded an audience with Franz Joseph and point-blank told him the home truths that Tisza alone seemed to comprehend, the ultimatum in its eventual form might well not have been sent.  And then he gave in, and blessed the enterprise.

If the Austo-Hungarians made one central mistake in summer 1914, it was in supposing that just because they and the Germans were allies they shared the same objectives.  Conrad thought that by invoking the German alliance he could prevent the Russian card from being played, that he could secure his northern front while he proceeded against the Serbs.  This is why you need to spy on your friends as well as your enemies.  The German general staff affirmatively wanted a war, and specifically a war against Russia.  They could see Russia re-arming, industrializing, growing, with access to French (and by that time, British as well) capital and markets.  They knew that, fully mobilized, Russia could put millions of men in the field, men who even incompetently lead would simply swamp the German army in a flood of flesh and material (much as they — correctly — understood their exposure to American intervention in both wars).  After years’ observation and debate, the German high command reached the conclusion that the only way to breach the encirclement of an allied France and Russia, with the association of a reconciled France and Britain in the background, was to smash the weakest member of the three: Russia.

The general staff’s objectives in respect of Russia are why, even after Wilhelm had, completely without consultation with any responsible member of his government (recalling that under the Imperial constitution, the chancellor had control of foreign policy) given the blank check, the general staff failed to jerk a knot in his butt.  They wanted a war with Russia, and the sooner, the better.  If anything, they were offended by their ally’s focus on the (for Germany, at least) irrelevant Serbian front.

By calling upon Germany, the Austro-Hungarians not only were unsuccessful in keeping Russia at bay, they ensured that Russia would be drawn in to the war.  As Franz Ferdinand was, in death, used as a tool by his political enemies to accomplish that which he abhorred, so Conrad von Hötzendorf was used as a tool by his allies to accomplish their ends, the diametric opposite of his own.

In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln spoke of the country’s route to war.

“On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”

Of the route to war between June 28 and the end of July, I do not know that we can say better than that one side would make war rather than allow peace to continue, and the other would accept war rather than let peace be destroyed.  And the war came.

Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace deals of the years ending in 1914.  There is not a great deal in her book that isn’t widely known, but it’s her perspective that is important.  She asks and tries to answer the question of why Edward Grey’s anchors failed to hold.  And she keeps squarely before the reader that these were identifiable people, moral agents with a range of choices, who made choices that brought war closer instead of making those which would have made it more difficult.

The Serbian nationalists felt relieved when Franz Ferdinand died in Sarajevo.  They thought they’d done a good day’s work.  Fools.  By war’s end 16% of Serbia’s gross pre-war population was dead.  Nearly one out of six men, women, and children was a corpse.  Sure, they got their kingdom of South Slavs (the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovene, the constitution of which was proclaimed on this day in 1921), but they had precious little time to enjoy it.  Twenty years later the Wehrmacht came to town.  Then came 45 years of communist oppression, then renewed civil war and genocide.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”  This was said, flippantly, by a former aide to Dear Leader.  He said it as if to assert his mastery of political intrigue, his control of the Great Chessboard of Affairs.  Crises, according to this view, enable the savvy operator to accomplish things, to form alliances, that would be impossible under normal circumstances.  This view rests on a sublime hubris, the delusion that in a pack of wolves, it is possible to select one, grab that one by the ears, and in so doing steer the entire pack in a direction you desire.  Even if you can ride him, you’re still in a pickle:  Thos. Jefferson said of slavery that it was like holding a wolf by the ears:  You didn’t like it but you dare not let it go.  General Conrad and the German general staff didn’t want to let a good crisis go to waste.  And they didn’t.  To borrow another expression of Lincoln’s (also from the Second Inaugural), they got something altogether more “fundamental and outstanding” than they’d bargained for.  Franz Joseph, the man who abhorred all Change on principle, wearily acquiesced in the fomenting of the most fundamental change seen on the European continent since the Reformation.

God has a sense of irony.  Again, from Lincoln:  “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

And so today we contemplate the death of a man and his wife, a man whose life was a frustration of his own purposes and whose death was appropriated to their antithesis.  We today begin the centennial observation of those years in which men, by no means fools, yet foolishly actively sought chaos because they thought their stability repugnant.

The history of revolution and revolutionaries is a grim litany of horror and death.  About the only two I can readily think of which resulted in objective improvement to the moral or material conditions of their ordinary populations were the English Glorious Revolution of 1688 and their American colonies’ revolution of the 1770s-80s.

It doesn’t speak very well of us, does it?

Rest in peace, Franz Ferdinand.  You at least were spared the sight of what you spent your life trying to stave off.

Smart Diplomacy™ to the Rescue

Or, It’s a Good Thing We’ve Finally rid Ourselves of That Damned Cowboy, Bush.  Because no one could stand him.  And besides racism!!  And so forth.

The Poles have had a mixed history.  Sometimes they’ve been incredibly self-destructive, as with their kooky elective monarchy that gave them three partitions of the country in less than a century, with the last one fully extinguishing them as an independent state for over 120 years.  Sometimes they have nobly stood alone against the enemies of humanity, as when they fought the Soviet Union to a standstill in the 1920s, or in the Warsaw uprising in 1944 (I refer both to the general resistance and to the Polish Jews who fought in the ghetto).  Sometimes their bravery is of a character to inspire all freedom-loving men across the globe, as when their resistance fighters turned on both the Soviets and the Germans.  Sometimes they have rendered services to us all which are truly mind-blowing in their achievement, as when a bunch of Polish mathematicians deduced, solely from radio intercepts, how the German Enigma machine had to be constructed and operate . . . and then provided their reverse-engineered machines to the British.  Can anyone doubt whether Bletchley Park could have played nearly the role it did in the U-boat war — at least as soon as it did — without them?  Sometimes their nationalism has been as vicious as anything you could find anywhere else.  A good number of the Hiwis (that’s for “Hilfswillige,” or volunteers . . . to work the Nazi extermination camps) were Polish.  And after the war, the persecution of Jews continued in parts of Poland.  For those latter examples, see Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (which I reviewed here).

As of right now, however, Poland is one of our very few true friends.  They were among the most loyal participants in the Iraqi war.  They’ve provided help, both publicly and behind the scenes, on any number of initiatives near to American interests.  They are a leader in Eastern Europe, and while the struggle to overcome their disastrous history continues, they bid fair to become a rallying point in that part of the world for the forces of freedom and justice under law.

In short, Poland is one of those countries that you’d think it would be nearly per sé in America’s best interests to go to bat for.  Sort of like Israel.  We might not always like what it is they’re doing on specific points, but history offers us (and them) the background and justification to bind ourselves to each other with bands of steel.

The current administration has done just about everything it could to undermine the integrity of that relationship.  From choosing the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland (17 Sept. 1939) to tell them — by way of a telephone call; we couldn’t even have our ambassador get in his car and drive down the road — that we were not going to provide them with the missile defense shield that we had long promised and which would have helped guard them from a resurgent and very aggressive Russia, to going out of our way to hand diplomatic victory after victory to that same Russia, Dear Leader has let pass no opportunity to offend and consternate the Poles.

In a country which could deduce the internal workings and design of the Enigma machine, just from listening to the coded transmissions, is it really surprising that the Poles have figured out what we’re now worth, as an ally?

It will take generations to un-do the damage Dear Leader has wrought on the United States and its position in the world.  I pray that it does not take the crucible of war to repair the friendships he has gone out of his way to destroy.

What Would Jesus Do?

Boy, if that post title don’t fetch ’em, I don’t know Arkansaw (to borrow a line from Twain).

Whatever it may seem like, the title of this post is not link- or click-bait.  It’s a legitimate question as we look around at 21st Century America and the world in which it exists.  I’ve commented on the dynamic before, here, and here’s another soul whose church has pretty much left him.  In the linked article, we find commentary on the American Presbyterian Church’s decision to “divest” itself from Israel.  By doing so it has aligned itself with the enemies of the one solitary democracy in an entire area of the world, the one place where Muslims can decide they’d rather be something else and not have to fear death imposed by government decree.  The one place where a homosexual can parade his preferences in the open without being sentenced to death.  The one place where the government is not run by a cabal of blood-soaked theocrats and kleptocrats.  A place where teenage girls need not concern themselves with “honor” killings winked at by the police.  Where gang rape of lower-class girls is not looked upon as something of an outdoor sport.  A place where government-backed thugs don’t go about the place burning other people’s houses of worship.

Will the Presbyterians divest themselves from Russia?  Russia’s invaded and stolen an entire geographic region — the Crimea — which dwarfs any place the Palestinian Arabs lived within the borders of modern Israel.  For that matter, Russia kicked out the Prussians and the Poles from most of its modern western reaches.  The Poles of course ejected the Germans when their country was bodily moved 150 miles west at the end of the war.  How about the Czech Republic?  It kicked the Sudeten Germans out in 1945, although those people had never been part of a modern Germany; they’d come to what was then the kingdom of Bohemia in the late Middle Ages.  So why don’t the Presbyterians divest from England?  The English have been occupying Wales since the Middle Ages, and until recently actively suppressed Welsh as a language and culture.  Come to think of it, will the church divest from California?  I seem to recall that the U.S. didn’t exactly acquire undisputed title to that place.  And while we’re at it, will the Church divest itself from companies doing business in China?  China is doing everything in its power to crush its western peoples, principally the Uyghurs and the Tibetans.  It is flooding those areas with ethnic Chinese, suppressing the local cultures and locking up local leaders willy-nilly.  The Church gets its chasuble all in a wad because of a few apartment buildings the Israelis have run up; but about the all-but-shooting war in western China what do we hear?  Crickets.

What makes Israel different?  Oh.  Right.  It’s the Jooooossss.

Jeffrey Carter, over at StockTwits (the article linked above) puts it succinctly:  “Why have traditional churches lost members?  It’s because they have lurched to the far left when it comes to official church policy.”  I’d submit it’s not just official church policy; it’s the churches’ gratuitously mixing themselves into political areas where they have no moral authority to speak and where they enjoy no identifiable expertise that makes their voices weightier than anyone else’s.  They have conflated Christianity with the furthest-left reaches of the political spectrum.

I find this odd.

The big churches increasingly embrace political positions that have demonstrated themselves across all areas of the globe, across multiple generations, and across entirely distinct cultures to be the direct causes and exacerbators not just of material and moral human misery, but of active evil.  We are now preached at, week in and week out, about the evils of capitalism.  The butcher’s bills of the Holodomor, the Great Leap forward, the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot, the grinding prison that has been Cuba since 1959 — they are never mentioned.  You’ll never hear a preacher mention how it has only been since Red China’s (however lackluster) embrace of capitalism and free markets that hundreds of millions of Chinese can hope to have reliably clean running water, or transportation beyond their villages.  It’s as if the population of India has just magically begun to flourish, and children who once would have ground their lives to dust tending herds of goats, sheep, or water buffalo may now dream of becoming engineers, doctors, scholars, or just independent businessmen.

Unfortunately Jesus doesn’t seem to have spent a great deal of time on public policy matters.  About the closest He got was His famous render-unto-Caesar dodge, when they tried to trick Him into a seditious position.  Unlike some I don’t read that as saying any more than what it says:  It permits a Christian to be a citizen.  No more, no less.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Amish and related faiths because they in fact do walk the walk, but with all that respect I think they’re taking things to excess in their disengagement from the polis.  Which is a shame because civil society has such desperate need of people who cultivate precisely the values of those groups.

So we’re left with How Would Jesus Vote? on any number of things.  Would He raise or lower the capital gains tax?  Would He use the tax code as a device to redistribute wealth, when the attempt to do so merely destroys existing wealth and discourages the creation of new?  Would He support gratuitous licensing requirements (such as hair dressers, landscapers, interior decorators, and so forth), when the demonstrable effect of those is to keep in distressed circumstances many people who might otherwise achieve economic — and thus moral — independence?  Would Jesus so arrange the social welfare net as to encourage generations of families to squander their cultural heritage, to create situations where it’s been three or four generations since anyone in the family held a job?  Would He approve of governmental programs that more or less pay teenage girls to become unwed mothers, when the single strongest predictor of all manner of adverse economic and social outcomes for adults (poverty in childhood, criminal behavior, unemployability, failure to complete high school . . . you name it) is the age of the mother at the birth of her first child?  Would Jesus support the Community Reinvestment Act, which mandates under threat of significant penalty that banks make loans to people it is known cannot hope to repay them?  How about Dodd-Frank, with its tens of thousands of regulations, large numbers of which have the intentional or ancillary effect of driving local financial institutions out of business, so that the economic engines of thousands of communities are destroyed?

Would Jesus own stock in Wal-Mart, which provides fairly good products at fairly reasonable prices to small towns all over the country, and provides tens of thousands of jobs?  It provides those jobs to people who may not have the talent or the drive to own their own businesses, and whose other options would be working for other employers where the job security is non-existent, there is no hope of advancement (unless you’re part of the family and might hope to inherit or buy), and which are subject to the wild swings of local economies.  Would Jesus turn His back on those people?

Would Jesus support Israel, or would He back Hezbullah?  Would Jesus support those people who throw acid on women’s faces for daring to show them in public?  Would He support forcible measures against those groups?

You see, I have this inability to understand a Lord and Savior who would command His children to do things that are known to cause or worsen each other’s misery.  I get it:  Jesus hated suffering and poverty.  He loved the poor and the down-trodden, but I don’t recall anything in Scripture that would support the argument that He loved them so much He wanted to see more of them, and in greater poverty and misery.  I also think I understand what he was saying in the eye-of-the-needle turn of phrase.  I don’t think He was condemning riches or the rich; I think He was warning against the temptations that riches bring, the temptations to pride, hardness of heart, oppression of one’s fellow humans.  Riches enable, after all, not only human goodness but also human iniquity.  It’s real hard to indulge feelings of malice when you’re too flat broke to worry about anything except how to pay for that next tank of gas.  I think Jesus was cautioning us against the moral pitfalls of prosperity, rather than condemning prosperity as such.

I am, as I have mentioned elsewhere, no theologian.  But a Christianity that works to establish and promote systems of human organization that have accounted for nine figures of corpses in less than a century, and which have as their stated goal the destruction of individual humans’ moral agency and their yoking to the harness of the faceless behemoth that is the modern nation-state, is not a Christianity that I can accept as serious moral system.  It is certainly not a moral system which I recognize as having a claim upon my allegiance.

I do not see, however, that American churches’ embrace of the extreme leftist positions on nearly every question of public interest out there can be characterized otherwise than as affirmative efforts toward that establishment and promotion.


Not Even Bothering to Pretend

A few days ago the odds-on favorite for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination was fielding meatball questions at a staged love-fest CNN “Townhall” for her recent book (the book in which she omits her eight years in the U.S. Senate, years in which she voted to authorize the use of military force against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq).  As any reasonably attentive person might have expected would happen, the subject of guns came up.  Never letting pass a chance to use a human tragedy to score political points, the conversation was steered onto school shootings, and how American parents are supposedly cowering in fear lest something that happens once in a blue moon at a tiny proportion of the country’s tens of thousands of schools might happen to their beloved chickabiddies.

Our Not-Candidate made the following statement, having first prefaced it with a bunch of bromides about thoughtful conversations, difficult balancing of competing values etc. etc. etc.:  “We cannot let a minority of people — and that’s what it is, it is a minority of people — hold a viewpoint that terrorizes the majority of people.”  Althouse has a typically helpful de-construction of the remark and the context in which she made it.  Placed in that context it becomes plain that the words mean precisely what they say.  Holding a belief — as opposed to acting on it, such as by loading up a trunkful of semi-automatic weapons (supposedly brilliant, Our Not-Candidate repeatedly referred to “automatic weapons” in her speech, while in actuality not a single “school shooting” has involved an automatic weapon) — and expressing that belief is now a “terrorizing” act.  Specifically it “terrorizes the majority of the people.”  I strongly doubt it terrorizes any of the folks with whom this person runs, since they tend to have hired armed guards to protect them.  I also strongly doubt it terrorizes many other people outside the Upper West Side or Manhattan Beach.  But we’ll leave the counting of terror victims to another day; if anyone is terrorized we must act, right?  How do we combat something so awful that it terrorizes the “majority of the people”?  Why, we don’t permit that viewpoint to be held.

As Althouse points out, you can’t really prevent people from holding beliefs (a thought which must cause Our Not-Candidate endless frustration).  So precisely what does “we can’t let” actually mean, in practical terms?  What sort of approach to “thoughtful conversations,” “hard choices,” and “competing values” does it suggest might be the choice of a future administration headed by this person?

Admittedly that’s a tough call.  Holding the American presidency is a state of existence so unlike any other set of relationships to the surrounding world that it’s just not, except in the rarest cases, very possible to state with certainty how a particular person is going to behave once in it.  Any attempt to do so must necessarily be as much tea-leaf-reading as anything else.  But it’s not impossible.  There do arise, from time to time, situations in which a putative president is presented with a set of facts and the choice of how to react.  How he makes that choice can be illuminating of how his mind works.  The longer a person has been in public life the more such data points there will be.  Our Not-Candidate has been in public life for a very long time.  Even so, we needn’t fire up our Wayback Machine to find some of them.

There exists a group which proclaims itself “ready for” Our Not-Candidate.  They even have cutesy logos, hip gear, and so forth.  Of course there’s absolutely no coordination at all going on between this group of concerned-but-enthusiastic citizens and the operatives for Our Not-Candidate (you know, the ones she sends to herd The New York Times back onto the reservation).  They just happen to think she’s the messiah, is all, and like all true evangelicals, they’re proud for the world to know it.  The personality cult aspect of it all just begs for satire, and in a country that for the moment has a First Amendment, what begs for satire gets it.  What was the reaction?  Why, a threat of legal coercion, of course.  Without, you know, actually having a basis for it, they still made the threat, but backed down once they saw their target had competent counsel.  What, we Joe Bloggses of the world may ask ourselves, would have become if the person threatened had not had access to that legal assistance?

One of the poses Our Not-Candidate likes to strike is that of standing up for females (because War on Wymyn, dontcha know) and children, and especially female children.  Unless they’re rape victims, it seems.  Once upon a time Our Not-Candidate represented a fellow charged with raping a young (12) girl.  She appears to have represented him zealously within the confines of the law — as was her ethical obligation.  She got the only physical evidence excluded, and apparently gratefully used one of the oldest defense lawyer’s tricks in the book: she attacked the victim.  Successfully, or at least successfully enough that he beat the rape charge, and got him time served (a couple of months, at that point) on a lesser charge.  It appears that she did her job, no more and no less.

Thoroughly distasteful stuff, all of it, but I submit she would have been perfectly justified in taking the approach that she was just doing her job, however icky it was.  In the Anglosphere we have this curious notion that everyone accused of a crime, no matter how terrible, has the right to competent counsel and a vigorous defense that is entitled to make use of every legally-valid, not-unethical stratagem to fight the charges.  You don’t have to pretend to like it; you don’t have to pretend that it’s ennobling; you don’t have to pretend that it operates only to protect the innocent.  The logic the Anglo-American adversarial legal system is not to guard against false negatives, but rather against false positives.

The fact remains, however, that her defense of this child rapist — and it seems she knew he was guilty as sin — destroyed the victim’s childhood.

The system worked as designed for Our Not-Candidate’s client.  However disturbing her role in the story was, Our Not-Candidate can legitimately state she performed well the role assigned to her.  Trouble was, she doesn’t appear to have been all that disturbed by it, and her re-telling of the episode, roughly a decade later, doesn’t jibe very well with the image she’s presented over the decades.  And as interesting as are her words is her tone.  A tone of voice captured.  On tape.  Archived tape.  Tape that exists in the public records of a public library operated by a public university.  Tape that can surface years later, a lifetime later, at awkward moments for someone who wishes for the illusion to continue.  A newspaper (you know, part of that “press” mentioned in the First Amendment) went digging through the archives, out at the University of Arkansas, and found them.  They were granted unrestricted access to and use of the tapes.  And they reported what they found.

What happens next is instructive.  The dean of libraries at the university sends a take-down demand to the newspaper, and notifies it that its privileges have been “suspended” for violating some sort of library policy.  Did we mention this person gave $500 to Our Not-Candidate’s unsuccessful run for the White House, back in 2007?  Granted, $500 isn’t much from the candidate’s perspective, but speaking from my own, any candidate about whom I’m sufficiently enthused to part with $500 is a candidate in whose fortunes I really have made a major investment, beyond the purely financial aspect.  Fortunately this particular newspaper also has competent counsel, and is declining to accept without protest this pretty transparent effort to bury Our Not-Candidate’s past.

Two data points, the common element of which is a transparently unmerited threat to use processes of legal coercion against private citizens or organizations whose sin is to tell the truth, or expose the fatuity, of Our Not-Candidate.  Technically Our Not-Candidate is a private citizen herself, for the moment.  How, we can be forgiven for asking ourselves, would she be likely to respond to such situations when it’s not just some second-tier government hack in Arkansas she can send to run interference, but the entire United States Department of Justice, backed by shoals of alphabet-soup federal agencies that she can deploy to silence her critics?

Does that suggest any range of meanings which Our Not-Candidate herself assigns to the notion of “not letting people hold viewpoints”?

Maybe I Need to Re-Think my Position

A couple of years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court over-turned a death sentence.  If my memory is correct (and I can’t say with certainty that it is, because I don’t follow such things very closely and in any event I’ve slept since then), the perp had committed a murder for which he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.  Given how hard it is to be sentenced to death, it must have been a genuinely horrible crime.  Here was the kicker:  He had been a minor when he committed the crime.  He was tried as an adult.  As I recall, the court had no problem with the decision to try him as an adult, or with the conviction itself.  But it reversed the imposition of the death penalty on (and you’re really taxing my feeble mind now) 8th Amendment grounds, or maybe it was 14th Amendment grounds.  Whatever.  There was a good deal of outrage at the time because the majority opinion specifically rested not so much on American principles of justice and notions of constitutionally permissible state action, but on supposedly international notions of “justice” and what the rest of the world allegedly might think about it.

Back in the 1950s, Chief Justice Earl Warren — a fathead by any reasonable standard — claimed for the court the status of seers, and further effectively ruled that the court’s fevered imaginings had the force of constitutional law.  In Trop v. Dulles, 78 S.Ct. 590, an army private who deserted his unit, in wartime, had been court-martialed and convicted and had been, as prescribed by Act of Congress then in force, deprived of his U.S. citizenship, applied for a passport, which was denied on the basis that he was not a U.S. citizen.  He alleged that denationalization was a “cruel and unusual punishment” proscribed by the 8th Amendment.  Warren agreed.  “The Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”  No.  Seriously.  This kind of claptrap passes for constitutional jurisprudence in some quarters.

So it is now with reference to some mystic chords of memory (to borrow one from Lincoln’s First Inaugural) running from the Supreme Court, not to whoever the hell it is in the American polity who determines what is “decency” and how its “standards” “evolve” over time and in which direction (remember that’s very much a two-way street; there was once a time in Germany when trucking millions off to be summarily executed by reason of where they went to church would have been stoutly rejected), but rather to those folks’ international counterparts that we are to derive the extent of our constitution’s mandates and proscriptions.  Color me chauvinistic, but I’m just not sure that’s a real sound idea.  I mean, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, in large areas of the world it’s considered well within the boundaries not only of “decency” but “honor” as well to slit your teenage daughter’s throat because you disapprove of her boyfriend.  In India these days it sure seems to be within standards of public decency to gang-rape not only the local women but tourists as well.  I defy those black-dressed boobs on that bench to articulate for me a morally defensible, logically delimited algorithm for deciding just which standards of international “decency” and notions of “justice” should be engrafted onto a constitutional system that’s done just fine without them for over 200 years, and which we ought to leave be.

On the other hand . . . .  There generally is an other hand, isn’t there?

From 2010 to early 2012, the president of Germany was a chap named Christian Wulff.  He resigned in February of that year in the face of criminal charges of corruption stemming from his days in the government of Niedersaschsen (Lower Saxony).  Without boring Gentle Reader with details, it was a long, drawn-out affair only slightly less salacious than the investigation and impeachment proceedings against Clinton.  They actually took Wulff all the way to trial, earlier this year.  He was acquitted by a jury.

Now a formal request has been made to initiate criminal and disciplinary proceedings against the prosecutors.  The accusations fall into two groups.  The first relates to the relentless pursuit of Wulff himself, with numerous examinations of witnesses, searches, and ever-new, and uniformly irrelevant, avenues of inquiry opening up and being pursued doggedly to their dead-ends.  A large amount of what the prosecutors dredged, plowed, and (see below) leaked, it is alleged, really had nothing at all to do with what Wulff was accused of having done.  Here in America we would call that malicious prosecution, or abuse of process, or most colloquially, “Easter-egging” or “witch hunt.”  The purpose of this ever-expanding dragnet was, according to this accuser, not the illumination of public corruption but the keeping alive of the investigation for its own (political) sake.

The second group of accusations relate to the usual leaking of sensitive personal information, none of it germane to whether Wulff was or was not guilty of public corruption, but the intent and effect of which was personal and political embarrassment.

In short, the German prosecutors are accused of what American prosecutors routinely do.  Only this time, if the justice minister of Lower Saxony bites, the hunter may become the hunted.

Absolute immunity for prosecutorial abuse is a purely judge-made doctrine (did we mention how many judges are former prosecutors?).  It has no foundation in statute or constitutional law.  It has no basis in simple logic.  The dynamics of over-indictment, succinctly described in The Blogfather’s wonderful and highly readable article “Ham Sandwich Nation,” 113 Colum. L. Rev. 102 (2013), is just the tip of the iceberg.  The distressing fact is that a prosecutor who decides to ruin someone’s life either for personal or political reasons is nearly impossible to bring to book.  For every Michael Nifong (he of the Duke lacrosse-rape abomination) there are scores if not hundreds of prosecutors who use highly politicized and publicized prosecutions as nothing more than rungs on their ladders of advancement.  It is all too easy to end up bankrupt, unemployable, one’s family ruined, and generally a social pariah without even getting to a trial, much less being convicted, and with no recourse at all against the person for whom you were nothing more than a canvas on which to paint his “tough on crime” slogan.

Lest one think that this sort of thing just does not happen, I refer Gentle Reader to the story of what FDR’s Internal Revenue Service did to Andrew Mellon, who had been Hoover’s Secretary of the Treasury.  The whole sordid story is told in Amity Shlaes’s The Forgotten Man, which I’ve already linked to a number of times, but which deserves to be read very carefully.

So it will be interesting to see whether these prosecutors in Germany have to answer, personally, for their misbehavior.  If so, then perhaps this precedent will be useful in arguing for some of them evolving international standards of decency to be imported into American law.

Don’t Mention the War

That used to be what Americans and Britons were advised in post-1950s Germany.  Especially the decades during which one was likely to meet, socially or professionally, or just out and about, Germans of a certain age who, as Paul Fussell observed while teaching at Heidelberg for a year, were strangely silent about just what they’d been doing from . . . oh, say . . . 1938-45.

As that generation dies out [n.B.  What might turn out to be one of the last Nazi war criminals — a former guard at Auschwitz and Buchenwald — has been arrested in Philadelphia and is being deported back to Germany to stand trial.] it appears that there are still things you cannot mention in Germany.

Things like where immigrant criminals come from.  From the FAZ we have this report.  A woman “from an immigrant family,” but who is a German citizen, is raped.  She knew her attacker (a German), although they apparently had no connection (specifically, no prior or current romantic connection) otherwise.  She reported the crime and an arrest warrant issued.  The perp hoofed it.  Yesterday four men, two from her family and two Germans, found him in a parking lot near the French border.  They beat him to death (and good for them, I have to say).  [Update (20 Jun 14):  It appears that it was the woman’s 17-year-old brother, and he stabbed the perp to death . . . 23 stab wounds.]  All four have now been arrested.

Nowhere in the article do they mention where this woman’s family came from.  [Update (20 Jun 14):  This article corrects the oversight; she came from Lebanon.]

I’ve posted earlier here about the concerns in Germany about the rise and dynamics of a parallel justice system among immigrants of specific groups, specifically groups which just happen to follow the Religion of Peace.  There’s all this hand-wringing about “parallel justice” among certain specific groups, and yet when instances of it occur, it’s as if there’s no connection at all.  Silence.  It’s as if the entire German media industry is experiencing the Butterfield Effect.

Don’t mention the war.  Don’t mention where they’re from.

[Update (20 Jun 14):  With today’s article in the FAZ, linked above, it appears that this post is largely mooted.  One interesting thing mentioned in the article is that the woman’s family appears to have lured the perp, whom the police somehow couldn’t find, to the parking lot where they killed him.  They got a buddy to arrange a bogus drug deal, using unspecified social media.  The article also mentions that the police didn’t bother with a wire tap, didn’t put out a BOLO, and weren’t themselves monitoring the perp’s social media — although the article specifically recites that they could have.  The woman’s brother — and good for him, allow me to repeat — got understandably pissed that the police were dragging their feet.  So he did their job for them.  It’s a shame that he’ll be tried there, and not here, because if I were defending him I think I’d go with justifiable homicide as a defense.  And I bet most juries around here would agree.]

For the Last Time

Just 199 short years ago today, something stopped that had been going on almost uninterruptedly for . . . oh . . . something on the order of 500 years.

On 18 June 1815, for the last time, a fully-sovereign France and Great Britain fired on each other in anger.  I use the expression “fully-sovereign” because I distinguish the Vichy forces’ opposition to the TORCH landings in 1942 as being acts in the capacity of agent for their Nazi overlords.  Let’s think about that for a moment.  At least since Edward III asserted his rights to the French throne in 1337 the English and the French were at each other’s throats.

Several of those wars were world-transformative, in the most literal sense of the word.  The Hundred Years War, launched by Edward III all those years ago, produced among its longer-lasting side-effects a functioning parliament in England.  Edward was repeatedly forced to grant concessions to the Lords and Commons to obtain money for his war-making.  In fact the very notion of no taxation except upon consent is a principle first firmly established in the course of that conflict.

On the other side of the Channel, as Barbara Tuchman points out in A Distant Mirror, the war consolidated the French monarchy and territorial integrity, and introduced a new force into the political fabric of Western Civilization, one pregnant with implications for the future: nationalism.  Oh sure, there were places where tribal loyalties could and did combine to produce momentary politico-social cohesion against outsiders.  Think Scotland, and specifically the Scotland of Edward’s day; it was Edward’s father, the ill-fated Edward II, whom Robert the Bruce demolished at Bannockburn in 1314.  But that’s the whole point:  the Scots’ loyalties were tribal, meaning that creating a coalition capable of prolonged, bitter resistance to a non-Scottish force was problematic to say the least.  Over the course of centuries the English time and again were able to splinter them to bits and conquer them piecemeal.  Before the 100 Years War, “France,” as a concept, existed scarcely outside the area immediately surrounding Paris.  One was Provençal, or Burgundian, Breton, or whatever.  “I am the Lord of Coucy,” proclaimed the builders of the castle at the symbolic center of Tuchman’s book.  Indeed what allowed England to wage war so successfully for so long was that the English were not fighting “France” so much as a succession of highly frangible coalitions of French nobles.  The crucible of a century’s fighting ended that.  By the time England was pared back to Calais, France as such was a unified state capable of mobilizing the population and resources of a comparatively vast (certainly in comparison to just about everyone else on the western European continent) territory.

The long wars of Louis XIV established Britain, as she by then was, in what became her traditional role of Paymaster of Coalitions.  Certainly Britain fought on the continent against Louis, but it was the decades of repeatedly having to assemble and keep in the field massive coalitions of widely disparate allies that cemented Britain in its position as power broker.  It wasn’t the first time Britain had played that role; we think of its underwriting of the United Provinces in the 80 Year War for independence from Spain.  But there were two aspects of that involvement that, I think, set it a bit apart from the long struggle against Louis.  Britain’s backing of the Low Countries was first and foremost a religious war, which Britain involved itself in because Spain during those years was actively attempting to crush the Reformation in England.  Secondly, the relationship was dyadic; on the one side England and on the other the Dutch.  The wars against Louis covered far more territory and involved much larger groups of very different combatants.  Is it so unreasonable to suppose that a talent for coalition building and maintenance somehow made it into the English political DNA over the course of those years?

The Seven Years War found Britain once again at the financial center of a shifting coalition of forces the only constant in which was that England and France were always on the opposite sides.  It also made Britain a truly world power for the first time, when it snapped up nearly all of France’s overseas possessions.  All of North America east of the Mississippi, north of Florida and the mouth of the river, and — at least once you got to the Great Lakes — all the way west to the Pacific.  The Indian subcontinent.  And sundry others.  On the other hand, the financial burdens of winning that war lead Britain down the entirely reasonable-seeming path of Why Shouldn’t the Colonists Help Pay For It All?  With results in the form of the American Revolution too well-known to mention.

After only the briefest respite after the American Revolution, in 1792 France and Britain were at it again, and would remain so until this day in 1815.  That conflict did two things: It ensured the critical thrust to the incipient Industrial Revolution in Britain, and by utterly destroying French and Spanish colonial power (Spain never recovered from its conquest by France and the civil war that ensued, and sure enough, by 1820 its remaining significant American colonies were sloughing off like dead skin), it ensured that for nearly 100 years the world was Britain’s oyster.  No one at all seriously challenged its position atop the world economic system until Germany emerged in the 1880s.

Now, Waterloo did not suddenly make France and Britain such bosom buddies that all was kiss-in-the-ring ever after.  Even though they fought in tandem against the Tsar in the Crimea in the 1850s, as late as 1898, when Captain Marchand and his troops marched into Fashoda, a general shooting war could have erupted on any number of occasions.  It took Admiral Tirpitz and Wilhelm II, his dupe, to accomplish the final reconciliation in 1904 in the form of the Entente Cordiale.  I’ve made my observations on that here.  Wilhelm and his ministers were so confident of the depth of Franco-British enmity that they were dumbfounded when it happened.  The United States making common cause with Iran will scarcely be more flabbergasting to our world than was the spectacle of France and Britain formally and actually abandoning an antagonistic posture nearly six centuries old.

The fact still remains, however, that this day in 1815 was the last time (apart from the peculiar circumstances of TORCH) that France and Britain traded mortal blows.  Which of the surviving soldiers on that muggy June day in Belgium could have known to look out over the fields writhing with wounded and littered with dead men and animals, to say nothing of the blasted remains of muskets, cannon, limbers, wagons, and farm buildings, and think to himself, “Today ends nearly five centuries.”  Who could have known, as Marshall Blücher and Wellington shook hands after the battle, and the old soldier greeted the Iron Duke with, “Quelle affaire!” that the next time Prussian and Briton would shake hands as friends and allies would be 140 years later, upon the West German rump state’s entry into NATO?

Happy Waterloo Day.

Some Stories are Their own Commentary

The observation underlying the basic idea was sound.  Silicon Valley has an enormous concentration of extremely high-earning males relative to the number of females.  So what to do?  Right.  Fly out a bunch of women.

Oh dear.  What can you say that doesn’t scream itself from the words of this story?  Just what did any of the people involved in this fiasco actually expect?

From the Department of be Careful What You Wish For

A couple of years ago, swarms of people with some truly confused understandings about law, economics, politics, and basic human nature decided it was time to go for a camp-out.  In downtown New York City.  Yes, we refer Gentle Reader to recollections of those days of THC-laden fumes, bull-horns, vandalism, sexual assault, attempted terrorist bombings, bodily functions and sweat, and sordid ordinary greed that called itself the Occupy Wall Street movement.  In the weeks and months after their initial attempted colonization of the city’s financial district, they spawned numerous copy-cat “occupations” in other cities around the world.

For those still interested (both of you), they’re still around, and even have a website and everything.  It’s here.  To get a true flavor of what passes for thinking over there, Gentle Reader can click on the “Action” tab on the banner and then go around the pinwheel chart on the page.  I looked for a “blow up bridges” link in the “tactics” portion of the wheel, but didn’t find one.

Let’s ignore the movement depositing its money into Amalgamated Bank, which as of fall, 2011 was controlled by an SEIU affiliate and was circling the toilet bowl operating under an FDIC consent order, largely as the result of having invested $800 million in Countrywide Home Loans mortgages.  You’ll remember Countrywide, won’t you, Gentle Reader?  Countrywide was by a wide margin the leading private originator of subprime home loans — loans to people who had little likelihood of being able to repay them.  Loans that are now characterized as exploitative and conclusive evidence of the “1%” plundering The Working Man.  And shit.  Seems the SEIU was just jim-dandy getting in on a slice of that plunder, and the Occupyistas were happy to send them their business.  By the way, Amalgamated was rescued by the sale of roughly 40% of its shares to Ron Burkle (billionaire and Big Time Democrat) and Wilbur Ross (another billionaire, although he backed Romney in 2012).  Amalgamated became the Democrat National Committee’s sole lender in 2012.  And so on and so forth.  In short, business is business, even for outfits whose stated mission is “world revolution.”

At the risk of understatement, the Occupy loonies having served their purpose of re-electing America’s first explicitly anti-American president, they’re about as relevant today as the Wobblies.  So why am I devoting bandwidth to them?

Because today is June 17, after all.

On June 17, 1953, in the Worker’s and Peasant’s Paradise, more formally known as the Deutsche Demokratische Republik — the German Democratic Republic: East Germany in round numbers — and more informally among West Germans of a certain generation as the Sowjetische Besatzungszone or the SBZ — the “Soviet Occupation Zone” — the rest of the world got to see how movements like the Occupy Wall Street outfit get treated post-revolution.  The preceding day in East Berlin construction workers had finally had enough of the privations, oppressions, and exactions of Sovietization.  As happens with dreary predictability, the government had announced forthcoming increases in “work norms” with no corresponding increase in pay.  Work more, same income.  So on June 16, they went on strike.  The next day they were joined by other groups of workers.  For 1953 in still-devastated Central Europe, news of the goings-on spread amazingly rapidly throughout most of East Germany.

On the morning of June 17, the workers began to march towards downtown East Berlin.  The government pretty quickly decided to use force to deal with the protests and, the times being what they were, they turned to their Soviet occupiers for help.  Roughly 20,000 troops and 8,000 police, complete with tanks and so forth, turned out, and the fun began.  The total numbers of killed and wounded is somewhat vague, as are all numbers of victims of communist oppressions.  When you add in the subsequent executions it appears to have been north of 500.

From the 1950s until actual German reunification, June 17 was the Tag der deutschen Einheit — Day of German Unity.  Beginning in 1990 the newly-reunified country moved it to October 3 (the formal Reunification Day, instead of November 9, the day the Wall fell . . . too many unfortunate associations with that day (e.g., Kristallnacht)).  A principal consequence of the June 17 Uprising and its brutal suppression was to heighten the exodus of every East German who had the gumption, prompting the 1961 construction of the Berlin Wall.

I’ll make a humble suggestion, for the benefit of those three or four dozen remaining true believer Occupiers.  I think they need their very own holiday.  I think they need a holiday that will serve as their inspiration to World Revolution, and provide them a glimpse of their Paradise on Earth.

We’ll have it on June 17 (now that day’s free of prior claims), and we can call it Fools and Tools Day.

Which is Better: An Avalanche or a Glacier?

All else being equal, in a world in which nothing is ever really certain until it’s already happened (and then sometimes not even then), I suppose you have to opt for being able to see what’s coming at you before it gets there.  All else being equal, again, I guess you would want to see what’s coming as far out as you can.  The reason for both is so that you can take evasive action, or hunker down behind whatever you can for shelter.  But what if whatever it is that’s coming your way you can neither avoid nor mitigate?

Via the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung this morning, we have a report on something with the titillating name Baltic Dry Index.  Like many things with a geographic name these days, it’s about well more than just the Baltic.  It’s an index that tracks the price of shipping dry bulk commodities very long distances in ships of different classes — Handysize (35–50,000 d.w.t.), Supramax (50–60,000 d.w.t.), Panamax (the largest that will fit through the Panama Canal, it is a physical dimension rather than a load specification, although the most common size is 65–80,000 d.w.t.), and Capesize (too big for the Suez or Panama; we’re talking about something in the 150,000 d.w.t. range . . . folks, that’s Real Damn Big, by anyone’s standards).  The index measures how much it costs per ton per mile to move things like coal, ores, grains, and the like.  Things that are the basic materials used to make just about anything durable, and stay alive while doing so.  Since shipping space is a not easily expandable on a quick-turn basis (it takes a day or so to make an 18-wheeler’s cab and trailer; it takes months to build, fit out, and pass an ore-carrier), the more people want to ship and the greater amounts they want to ship, the higher the price for any given shipping route.  The less is being shipped and by the fewer people, the lower the cost.

Further, sea shipping costs are less susceptible to at least certain kinds of price distortions than other forms of transport.  I’m thinking specifically about an owner’s practical ability to withdraw his capacity from the marketplace and thereby maintain artificial scarcity.  If you don’t have enough freight to keep your locomotives and cars busy at your price point, you park them on a siding somewhere until you need them again.  Very low out-of-service maintenance.  Ditto heavy trucking.  Keep the battery charged, make sure the engine block doesn’t freeze, and have some maintenance guy come along a couple of times a month and start it up for 30 minutes to keep the seals wet.  That’s of course over-simplified, but not by much.  Ship owners can’t just pull a ship out of service when the shipping price per ton per nautical mile falls below whatever they want to charge.  A ship that is not actively loading, un-loading, or underway is a ship that is losing its owners phenomenal amounts of money.  There is a reason why you don’t see merchant equivalents of the James River Ghost Fleet.  Private owners can’t afford to keep inactive ships afloat, so they get sifted downstream through progressively less scrupulous, more neglectful owners, and generally end their days on a beach in South Asia somewhere, being chopped to bits.

In short, because the commodities whose shipping costs it tracks are so basic to so many manufacturing processes, the Baltic Dry Index makes a very reliable leading economic indicator.  Its fluctuations express themselves in the general economy with an 8-12 month lag time.

And it’s dropping through the floor.  Since the beginning of the year it’s dropped by roughly 50%, to less than 1,000.  Back in 2008 it was at nearly 12,000.  Add this to the U.S. economy having shrunk at an annualized rate of 1.0% in the first quarter, Japan cranking up its value-added tax (in the run-up to the increase’s effective date, Japan Went Shopping, delivering a (deceptive) “growth” of 6% annualized), Vladimir Putin holding a gun to Europe’s head in the shape of natural gas prices (Germany’s trade with Russia has imploded by 16% year-on-year since the onset of the latest Ukrainian crisis), and the Middle East about to explode all over everyone, and it’s hard to find something to be upbeat about.

The leading edge of the glacier is headed this way.  Fasten your seatbelts accordingly.