Today is This past Saturday was the 100th anniversary of the initial landings by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps on the Gallipoli Peninsula.  [I started this post timely, but wasn’t able to finish it on the day.]

The invasion was the brain-child of Winston Churchill, at that time First Lord of the Admiralty.  He had realized that Turkey, so far from being a side-show which could only diminish Britain’s strength in the decisive theater (i.e., the Western Front), was in fact the fragile and barely guarded back gate to core of the Central Powers.  Take Turkey out of the war and suddenly you have year-round unimpeded supply of Russia (already acknowledged to be the weak link in the Allied camp) and you out-flank Austria.

And in early 1915, the Hellespont and the Sea of Marmara were a loaded gun at Turkey’s head.  The Gallipoli Peninsula, which runs from northeast at the landward end to southwest where it juts into the Mediterranean, was a rugged place of arid uplands, very little settlement, and — most importantly — ancient forts with antiquated guns and very limited ammunition supply.  Across the Hellespont, on the Asian side, were equally antiquated, equally poorly-supplied forts.  Not only were they critically short of ammunition (which fact was known to the Admiralty through its Room 40 decrypts, themselves a result of SMS Madgeburg‘s capture by the Russians, with its code books intact), but the guns they had were not capable of piercing the armor of a modern dreadnought . . . with which the Admiralty was richly supplied.  Even its King Edward VII class of pre-dreadnoughts were more than up to the task of running the forts.  The navy’s ability to run the forts was vital, since the Hellespont at its narrowest point is just a mile across — point-blank range for any artillerist who isn’t a cross-eyed lunatic with the delirium tremens.

Churchill and the admirals decided the Navy could do it alone.  They were right.  After a concentrated bombardment on March 18 by a combined Anglo-French fleet which pulverized the forts into powder and almost completely exhausted the forts’ ammunition supplies, the fleet was poised to strike the dagger into the heart of the Ottoman capital.  In fact the Ottoman government began to evacuate Constantinople.  [N.b.  Constantinople was Constantinople from 335 or so until 1453, just over 1,100 years.  The Turk has had the place not quite 600 years.  When they’ve had it another 500 years I’ll call it whatever the hell they want me to.  Until then, it’s Constantinople.]

And then it happened.  A Turkish mine-layer had laid a single line of mines along the shore, just at the edge of the channel.  If I recall correctly, it was only a half-dozen or ten mines; the rest of the channel had been swept by the Royal Navy’s minesweepers (navy vessels, but manned, for some incomprehensible reason, by civilians).  First a French battleship, the  Bouvet, struck a mine and sank with most of her 600 crew still aboard.  Then it was the British turn:  HMS Irresistable struck a mine, as did HMS Ocean, which had been sent to assist.  Both ships later sank.  HMS Inflexible, one of the Royal Navy’s original I-Class battlecruisers (two of the four of which came to grief at Jutland).  The navy backed off.  The minesweepers’ crews weren’t willing to brave the fire from the mobile shore batteries, which targeted them using searchlights on the shore, both to light up the sweepers and also to blind them.  The navy high command also got cold feet.  It was decided that the job was not to be done by naval power alone.  Troops would be landed.

And this is where Lord Kitchener comes into the picture.  To summarize the picture in spring 1915, nothing happened in the British army unless Kitchener signed off on it.  Nothing at all.  Lord K of K was not only the Secretary of War, in in the public mind he was the very face of the British land forces.  And Kitchener was a Western Front man, heart and soul.  He didn’t want any British soldier shot needlessly unless it was in one of his battles.  And he profoundly viewed a campaign on Gallipoli as being not his battle; in fact, he viewed it as being the Royal Navy’s battle.  He’d not approved landing troops in support of the navy’s initial efforts.  Even afterward he, too, went hot-and-cold about providing supporting troops.  The ANZACs were already in Egypt, staging and training for further transport to France.  It was hard to deny them to the campaign.  But he at first resolutely refused to consider sending in other troops, only later on to relent and send in additional divisions.  [One of them, the 29th, not only got itself shot to pieces at Gallipoli, but also got itself pretty badly knocked about on July 1 at the Somme; the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was nearly annihilated, and it was among the 29th Division that large numbers of troops in subsequent attack waves were shot down before they even could get to their own front-line trenches.]

Just about not a damned thing was done correctly on April 25, 1915, or at any time later, until the final withdrawal from the peninsula.  Between the mid-March naval attack and the landings over a month later, the Turks poured everything they could into beefing up the defenses, re-supplying the forts, and generally getting ready.  And they were ready enough, even if just barely in places.

Incredible as it seems, the British command in the field seems to have had no particular notion of what should happen once the troops and such modest equipment as they could handle got ashore.  By the end of April 25 there were literally several thousand British troops milling about on the beach because no one had thought to get them to the top of the cliffs.  Elsewhere, where individual commanders had taken some initiative, the British had made some progress up the slopes, although not uniform.  Mustafa Kemal’s troops held, however thinly; in some places they were reduced to bayonet charges when the ammunition ran out.

The overall British commander of the operation, Gen. Sir Ian Hamilton — a buddy of Churchill’s from way back in the Boer War — seems to have believed himself capable of running an amphibious operation followed by a protracted land battle from first a battleship and then the island of Lemnos.  Hamilton finally got himself fired, the new commander more or less taking over for the purpose of liquidating the front.

While excoriated for many years — in many households in Australia and New Zealand his name is still seldom uttered without a curse — Churchill’s conception of the Central Powers’ vulnerability at Constantinople was spot-on.  I’ve seen it described as the single master stroke of strategic thinking on either side of the entire war, and while I suppose you could quibble here and there, I’ve never seen anyone else attempt to identify a plan or an operation that, had it been vigorously prosecuted and properly supported, had the potential to be a game-changer on all fronts at once, which must be something like the philosopher’s stone of military strategy.  The concept was brilliant, the execution tragically bungled.  Why?  The problem, other than on-site incompetence staggering in its blindness, must in part be laid at the feet of the British system of governance.

But first, a word on the incompetence:  In fairness it must be conceded that the Gallipoli landings were the world’s very first industrial-scale opposed landings.  No one had ever done it before.  But in truth, how much imagination was required to understand that if your landing beaches are at the foot of cliffs, you’ve got a preciously small window of time to get yourself and your artillery to the top of those cliffs, and that until you get there you’re utterly vulnerable?  The value of high ground has been known since organized warfare began.  How hard could it have been to understand that aggressive advance, always a critical component of any attack, would be all that much more crucial under the situation that they had to have known awaited them?  And while we’re on the subject of the situation they ought to have understood awaited them:  One area in which Churchill’s aggression betrayed the entire plan was in the disastrous wait between March 18 and April 25.  Had the full might of the Mediterranean Fleet and the land forces been hurled on the peninsula at once, with no advance warning, there is a good chance that, however poorly led the troops were, the objectives would have been met, the shore batteries harassing the minesweeping operations suppressed, and the fleet sailed triumphantly into the Golden Horn.  But at that time Kitchener wasn’t willing to cut loose the ground forces.  Churchill’s failure was that rather than wait it out and maneuver Kitchener into consenting, he bit down on Fisher’s claim that the fleet alone could get the job done.

This last point highlights the institutional weakness of the parliamentary/cabinet system of governance as a war-fighting structure.  Lord Kitchener was Secretary of War; Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty.  Both were therefore cabinet members, and thus equals.  There was no person in the government who had coercive authority over either of them.  The British cabinet rests, even now and much more back then, upon the notion of “collective responsibility,” according to which no major decision is made until the cabinet as a whole can agree, with the dissenters having the choice to shut up or resign.  In many instances this arrangement is a positive strength; it permits ministers to resign on points of principle, without destroying their public careers (they remain members of Parliament, and in fact tradition accords the resigning minister a free shot on goal in the form of a speech on the floor of the House), and without foreclosing their re-ascent into the cabinet under other circumstances, as has happened repeatedly over time.  But where there is no agreement — as there was not on whether or how to attack the Dardanelles — and where you have a fundamentally weak Prime Minister (and Herbert Asquith was nothing if not weak; there was almost no principle he would not sell out, no colleague he would not under-bus, in order to stay in office), you get actions like the Gallipoli campaign.  In the American system a president would have had the ability to inform Kitchener that he had one of two choices: find X troops and get them to the theater, or go look for another job.  Churchill could have been forbidden to proceed without land support.  Asquith, even assuming he had had sufficient hair on his balls, could do neither.

In the aftermath of the failed campaign, the cabinet underwent a fundamental reorganization, with an inner War Cabinet effectively assuming control of the British war effort.  Churchill was made the scapegoat, and although a parliamentary inquiry more or less pinned the blame where the bulk of it lay — squarely on Kitchener and his refusal to act in good faith support of the effort — by the time its conclusions were drawn events had moved on.  Churchill was serving in the trenches in France, in the front lines and under fire.  Kitchener went down on June 5, 1916, when HMS Hampshire, carrying him to a meeting with the Russians, struck a mine and sank.  And then of course, on July 1, 1916, the Somme fiasco started.  By the time Haig finally gave it up as a bad job that November, the quarter-million dead and wounded of Gallipoli were dwarfed by the 624,000-odd of the Somme.

In Australia and New Zealand, however, the memories of Gallipoli remain.  The utter futility of the campaign repeatedly rose like a specter to haunt Churchill in all his future dealings.  It was the recollection of Gallipoli that lead General Marshall to declaim point-blank and to Churchill’s face, with FDR present and watching, “Not a single American soldier is going to die on that goddam beach,” when Churchill was plumping for an invasion of Rhodes in follow-up to the victory in North Africa.  It was at least in part the recollection of Gallipoli that made Churchill so reluctant a participant in Overlord.  How would he face the nation if a second expeditionary force was hurled back into an ocean?  The Americans, having had the luxury of observing and learning from Gallipoli, as well as much practice in the Pacific theater in their own war, were much more eager to shoot the dice.  The Americans were determined to launch a direct invasion of northern France, and Churchill could either get on board or see his role as an Allied leader further diminished.  So he got on board.

And for the Aussies and the Kiwis?  Gallipoli became their Valley Forge, and forge them it did.  Some time between April 25, 1915, and December of that same year, something happened on the hillsides in that miserable corner of hell.  While before they had been from Australia or from New Zealand, after Gallipoli they were Australians and New Zealanders respectively, on a mythical level, on a level at which nations are born.  That spirit was communicated back during the war, and brought home by the survivors afterward.  No more would Australia or New Zealand be off-shoots of some mother country.  “Back home” could never again be some island off the northern coast of Europe.

In the first episode of Ken Burns’s The Civil War, during an interview with Shelby Foote, he observes that you cannot understand the United States without a firm understanding of the Civil War, in that the Civil War “made” the United States in a way that no other trauma of our existence has.  I think you can say the same thing about the Gallipoli campaign for Australia and New Zealand.

So I hope everyone had a Happy ANZAC Day.  I sure did.  Unfortunately about the closest I could get were a few Foster’s oil cans (and those not even brewed in Australia).  Ended up being in a couple of bars that night, and not one of the bands could play “Waltzing Matilda.”  A shame.  But at least for a few moments, the memory of the ANZACs was honored, half a world away.

Well played, the ANZACs.

The Long Tail Lashes Again

In statistics there is an observable distribution phenomenon known as the “long tail.”  I’ve seen different definitions of it as an economic proposition, and its implications for business and marketing have been the subject of a book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (note: this link violates one of my informal rules on this humble blog, viz. I do not link to books I have not read).  But very briefly stated, the “long tail” phenomenon as a matter of economics is the pattern whereby the total market (measured by income, or turnover, or whatever other measure of “success” you choose) is concentrated among a very small number of the population at the top, while by far the greatest portion of the population exists at much, much lower levels of whatever you’re measuring.  It’s called a “long tail” because that’s what it looks like if you graph it out.

The intriguing aspect of the long tail is that it is observable across nearly every avenue of economic activity you can name.  It’s highly visible in professional sports, where for every Peyton Manning or Tom Brady you’ll have dozens upon dozens of third-string tackles who maybe see a play or two a game and whose careers are over in three to five years, their knees shot and their brains addled from all the hits.  And those sods will never make a tenth annually what the “franchise players” make.  Factor in the endorsement income that a Peyton Manning makes and compare that to Sidney Schmo whose job in life is to be more or less a live blocking dummy for the starting offensive line, and ol’ Sid will not make in his life what Peyton makes in a year.

Or take a look at income distribution among lawyers.  Over at MarginalRevolution there are actually two graphs, one showing the 2010 distribution and the other showing the 1991 distribution.  Even in 1991 there was an observable tail, but by 2010 you had a tiny number with massive income, nearly no one in the middle, and then a huge gob way down at the bottom of the scale.  This specific pattern is not new at all.  When Daniel Webster announced an intention to quit teaching school and become a lawyer, he was warned off because the field was too crowded (too crowded?  back in the early 1800s?  seriously?) and he’d never make any money.  Webster’s reply has remained famous:  “There is always room at the top.”  Which is true enough, I suppose.

And now, from Britain, we discover than even writing is not exempt from the long tail phenomenon.  In Britain, according to a recently-released study, the top 5% of authors (measured by income) scooped up 42.3% of all income earned by all authors.  The median income — the amount separating the top 50% from the bottom 50% — was £10,432, which is apparently below minimum wage for Britain.  That bottom 50%, by the way, earned a whacking total of 7% of all the income earned.  Put differently, the top 5% of earners raked in right at six times the amount the bottom half did.  The commenters to the report of the study seem to break into two groups: (i) those who decry someone like J. K. Rowling making all that money while “artists” starve in their holes, and (ii) those who tell the first group to shut up and write something that someone wants to read.

I can see genuine merit in both viewpoints.  Much of what gets published these days really is tripe and nothing more, made to be “consumed” and tossed out to the next church fund-raiser.  It is justly galling to know oneself to be a finer craftsman than those one sees enjoying a degree of success one strongly suspects — with reason — one will never enjoy oneself.  On the other hand I really have no patience for the crowd that fancies itself “transgressive” or “engaged” or just simply cranks out thinly-veiled identity “narrative” crap, thinks itself artistic, and damns the world if we don’t agree.  If you really think that being a “creative” artist means your job is forever to épater la bourgeoisie, don’t be surprised when la bourgeoisie shows no interest at all in plonking down its hard-earned for your output.  If you want to write collections of short stories about women behaving poorly to the men in their lives and acting proud of it (this one conforms to my rule; I actually read this book many years ago . . . it was . . . well, it was precisely what you would have expected from its title), then I’ll remind you:  You just kissed off 49% of the human population as potential readers of your book.  And so forth.  Even good books, fascinating books — by which I mean to say the sort of books I link to in the course of this li’l ol’ blog — just generally don’t sell all that many copies, and the authors correspondingly tend to have what we can call “day jobs,” unless and until they hit that magic level where the writing fuels itself.

Writing — and the other creative/performing arts as well — are by no means the only self-congratulatory occupation to experience the ugly side of the long tail.  At one end, we have a tiny, tiny group of professors like Paul Krugman, who euchred the City University of New York into paying him well into six figures for doing not much at all other than pour forth his bile about conservatives in general or Republicans in particular.  And at the other end you have thousands upon thousands of part-time “adjunct” faculty who will never have tenure, will never have any employment benefits, will never have any hope of teaching a truly interesting course, or being offered a job more permanent than next year’s contract renewal.  People like Krugman make a handsome living decrying “income inequality.”

The long tail pattern holds true even in larger contexts.  Consider, if you will, how much of the aggregate wealth of the world is engrossed by the populations of the West, versus how much of the world’s population that works out to be.  Here’s a map dividing, just for illustrative purposes, the world into seven separate areas, in each of which are contained one billion people.  Notice that both American continents and Australia only make one billion, and to get the Europeans (inclusive of European Russia) up to the one billion mark you have to lump them in with all of the Middle East.  When you consider that “the West” is usually a short-hand reference to Western Europe, North America, and Australia, and then look at that linked map, you realize that “the West” accounts for maybe one-seventh — 14.3% — of the world’s entire population.  I’d have to say, just guessing, that we 14.3% of the population probably enjoy — create, in fact — something along the lines of 70% of the world’s aggregate wealth.  Now look at where that wealth is concentrated within those Western societies, and you see what the long tail looks like with spikes on it.

All of which gives, or should give, us pause when we hear politicians undertaking somehow to reverse a nearly universally observable statistical pattern.  Sure you may do something about “income inequality,” and you may also invent an anti-gravity belt.  You’ll just have to pardon me if I don’t buy a lot of shares on margin with you.

From the Dept. of Well, Isn’t This What You Wanted?

A couple of weeks ago, a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina pulled over a car for having a broken tail light.

The police car’s on-board camera shows the officer go to the driver’s window and retrieve the driver’s license.  While the officer is running the license and tags, the driver panics, gets out, and runs.  Chase ensues, followed by scuffle.  Driver then hoofs it again and the police officer squeezes off eight rounds at an unarmed fleeing man.  At least one round strikes the driver’s heart and he falls dead.

Why did the driver run in the first place?  We can guess at why he might have run the second, fatal time.  He’d just had a physical altercation with a police officer.  But why the first time?  The car wasn’t stolen.  He wasn’t driving without a valid license.  He wasn’t wanted for any sort of drug- or violence-related crime.  He was a gainfully employed father of four.  Why did he run?  Obviously we can’t ask him now.

What we do know is that there were outstanding warrants for his arrest.  For unpaid child support.

I have not seen the victim’s court files, of course, and so I cannot tell you whether he had been held in civil contempt of court for failure to pay, or in criminal contempt, or both.  I don’t practice domestic law in any event, and so I have no way of telling what sort of experience he had awaiting him if he had been successfully nabbed instead of shot down like an animal.

Cue the squawks about “debtor’s prison.”

By this is meant the imprisonment of people for failure to pay money.  Of course there’s a verbal sleight-of-hand going on when you hear the left-extremists use the expression.  Genuine debtors’ prisons were prisons where you were locked up for failure to pay your lawful debts . . . to private creditors.  With one exception, on which more later, what are now being referred to as “debtors’ prisons” by the left-extremists at shops like the Puffington Host are the mechanisms for the incarceration of people who have not paid the government money.  Usually — with that one exception — what we’re talking about are criminal fines, fees, and costs, the responsibility for which is imposed as a matter of law in connection with conviction of a criminal offense or a plea arrangement in which the inducement is avoiding either a conviction on one’s record or incarceration for a conviction.  In other words, these are not people who have to go borrow some money from a title-pawn outfit to pay for the week’s groceries, discover they can’t pay, and end up in jail on a revolving basis.  These are people who have been charged with a crime and, in order to avoid the risk of even longer incarceration they agree to some sort of arrangement, maybe but not necessarily involving a guilty plea, but nearly always involving some kind of probation, for a period of time.  And they promise to pay court costs, any criminal fines, as well as the fees and expenses of the probation process (not infrequently contracted to private service providers).

Let’s leave apart the question whether the state should be contracting any portion of what is, after all, inherently a function of sovereignty — the imposition of criminal penalties.  Let’s ignore for the sake of argument whether the crimes with which these people are charged even ought to be crimes in the first place.  In point of fact until the relevant statutes are repealed they are crimes, lawfully proscribed behavior as determined by elected representatives of the people.  The people caught in the toils of the system are in fact people whose behavior has been sufficiently objectionable as to come into contact with the criminal justice system.  [Aside:  We are also ignoring for the sake of argument the phenomenon of grotesque over-charging, so tellingly portrayed in Instapundit’s own “Ham Sandwich Nation,” a practice that reliably produces guilty or similar pleas by people who in fact may well be not guilty of the crime to which they plea — or even any crime at all — but who dare not risk the decade or more in hard time if they go to trial on all the litany of offenses they’ve been charged with.]

I will admit that it is perfectly within reason to debate the idea of whether how we finance our criminal justice system is a good idea or a bad idea.  Reasonable people can in good faith disagree on whether this fines-costs-fees hamster wheel that in practice seems to feed on itself, as criminal defendants/convicts can’t pay the freight, thereby getting re-arrested, with more costs, more fines, more fees, and so forth, is a net benefit to society or not.  I will also join ranks with those who execrate places like Ferguson, Missouri, where they in exactly so many words decided to use their municipal criminal court to pay for their city, instead of taxes.

But what about that exception?

Well, yes.  That exception is unpaid child support.  The reason why the victim in South Carolina had warrants for his arrest.  Those debts are in fact owed to a private party — usually the mother.  Of course, if the mother is receiving government benefits, then federal law requires the state to seek to recover those benefits from all persons who are liable for the support of the child for whom the benefits are being paid.  As a taxpayer I don’t have any problem with this at all.  Why should some useless slug force me to pay for his baby-momma while he hangs around on the street corner drinking out of a paper bag or shooting dice in a government-provided apartment’s kitchen?

Does Gentle Reader remember one of the most popular hand-writing causes of the 1980s and 1990s — the Deadbeat Dad?  Almost weekly if not more often we got to hear horror stories about women struggling to raise children whom the fathers simply refused to support.  The fathers just walked out and point-blank refused to chip in anything, whether or not they had the ability to pay.  And the courts were letting them deadbeat dads get away it!!  I can no longer recall anywhere near the sheer number of articles in the newspaper, in news magazines, on the television which I saw on how awful it was that The Law Wasn’t Making These Fathers Pay.

And you know what?  There was a tremendous amount of truth in those stories and the conclusions we were asked to draw about the system.  The court system was egregiously lax in forcing parents of otherwise indigent children to pay up, and most of those delinquent parents were fathers.  I could spit-ball any number of theories as to why that might have been so, but for whatever reason the System was doing it, the reality was that if you were a mother of a child to whose father you were not married, you had precious few effective remedies if that father told you to go pound sand, he wasn’t paying.

And you know what else?  The legislatures and the bench listened.  Special agencies were set up, or special task forces within existing agencies were set up, the sole mission of which was to pursue deadbeat dads — and all at taxpayer expense, not at the expense of the single mother, by the way — to go after the deadbeats.  Judges got measurably less forgiving.  I still recall one day sitting in court, waiting for my client’s case to be called.  Ahead of us on the docket was a child support matter.  The father was attempting to convince the judge that your honor I Just Can’t Pay This.  The judge looked at him and said, “You don’t have to work but a half a day, and I don’t care whether it’s the first twelve hours or the second twelve hours, but you’re going to support your child.  Do you understand me?”  Another judge around here was widely known at contempt hearings for adjourning a 9:00 a.m. hearing to the 1:00 p.m. docket, and telling the respondent parent, “We’re going to adjourn this hearing until one o’clock.  At one o’clock I want you back in front of me with one of two things:  A check for <however many dollars> or your toothbrush.  Do you understand me?”  And as that same judge was wont to observe, it’s amazing how many people managed to find a money stump between 10:15 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.

So it was the South Carolina legislature’s and bench’s response to what was a very real problem that provided the background for what happened in North Charleston the other day.  Without the aggressive enforcement of child support orders, that shooting victim would not have had arrest warrants outstanding, would likely not have fled from the police or got in a fight with the officer, and would be alive and well today.  On the other hand, he can be viewed as a regrettable casualty, collateral damage, so to speak, in a battle that is much larger than he is.  It is not unreasonable or heartless or cruel to suggest that the damage avoided by that same aggressive enforcement mechanism — the systematic economic neglect and abandonment of children — is of sufficient social importance that, while we must regret this man’s death, and while we must punish vigorously the officer who gunned down an unarmed fleeing man, we still must not allow the tragedy of his death to cloud our judgment of why he needed to have those arrest warrants out.

It is simply an unfortunate truth that most of us are no better than we need to be.  Without the knowledge that non-payment equals jail time, there are just too many fathers out there who will refuse to pitch in to house, clothe, and feed their own children.  If that fear of jail time expresses itself in some non-compliant fathers not in a willingness to pay but rather in decisions to engage in demonstrably foolish behavior, like running from a cop, getting into a fist fight with him, then running again, I humbly suggest that is a price that we as a society should be willing to pay.

[Update 10:35 a.m., 21 Apr 15]:  The New York Times weighs in with an article on the dynamics of effective enforcement of child support orders.  Perhaps unusually for the NYT, the headline actually captures the essence of the process:  “Skip Child Support.  Go to Jail.  Lose Job.  Repeat.”  That about says it.

The article gives some sense of the treadmill aspect of it.  Get behind on your support payments.  Get hauled into court.  If the court determines you have the ability to pay and didn’t, then you go to jail for some period of time.  While you are inside, your employer fires you, so that when you come out you have no income to catch back up on the support obligation, which continued to accrue while you were inside.  And so forth.

I’d like to press, however, on a couple of points brought out in the article.

The initial one is that the North Charleston shooting victim, Walter Scott, lost “the best job [he] ever had” over a failure to pay support, by getting locked up for failure to pay.  That “best job” was paying him $35,000 a year in Charleston, South Carolina in around 2001-02 (to judge by the time line stated in the article).  Listen up, chief:  I was living in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1991, making right around that same $35,000, and you could more than just get by on that income.  I strongly question whether that situation would have changed by 2002.  For that matter, $35,000 is to this day right around the national median household (not per capita) income for a family of four.  So what precisely was Walter Scott doing with his $35,000 per year other than supporting his four children?  I’m going to need some convincing that his stepping onto that treadmill was someone’s fault other than his own.

The second is a bit harsher on Comrade Scott.  Apparently the mother of his first two children (born out of wedlock; the latter pair were born to his wife, from whom he later separated) was on the public tit, and Scott resented it.  Well yes, I perfectly understand that.  But this isn’t a playground argument over who has got more time on the teeter-totter.  This is about an obligation — to support your children to the best of your ability — that exists independently of anyone else’s efforts.  Just like to point that out.

The final point in the article I’d like to weigh in on is this statement:  “But experts said problems could arise when such tactics were used against people who had little money, and the vast majority of unpaid child support is owed by the very poor.  A 2007 Urban Institute study child support debt in nine large states found that 70 percent of the arrears were owed by people who reported less than $10,000 a year in income.”  Here’s a link to the study; the relevant chart is on page 22.  People who “reported”; get it?  Make that “self-reported” and you get closer to the truth of the matter.  That study draws its data from child support numbers matched to national quarterly wage and unemployment insurance data.  As the study itself honestly points out:  “Although obligors may not have reported quarterly wages or unemployment insurance, it does not mean they do not have the ability to pay any child support. Some of these obligors may be employed in areas that are not covered by quarterly wage data, such as those who are self-employed or independent contractors. Others may be working in covered industries, but they are working under the table to avoid paying taxes or child support. Still others may be engaged in illegal activities.”  Working under the table precisely to avoid paying taxes and child support?  Gee whiz, Sherlock, what was your first clue?

I once saw pointed out, many years ago and in a different context, the basic fact that you simply cannot rely on reported income figures to obtain a meaningful picture of any aspect of life in modern America.  Among the more pernicious effects of byzantine tax and employment regulations is a black-market economy that is truly staggering in its scope.  No; if you want to find out how much Group X is making, you have to measure their spending, not their reported income.  Someone who regularly spends $3,000 a month and reports income of $400 a week is lying.  Thus the Urban Institute’s (and the NYT‘s) picture of the child support system unfairly standing on the neck of the down-trodden, locking up men who truly, genuinely cannot pay to support their children, needs to be taken with several heaping tablespoons of salt.

Every lawyer out there who has practiced domestic law for so much as three weeks is familiar with the deadbeat parent who shows up in a recently-purchased, very nicely appointed vehicle, whose iPhone 6 is clipped to his belt, whose Facebook page shows him off doing his hobby (fishing on his bass boat, golfing, at the beach with New Girlfriend, or otherwise doing things that undeniably cost money), whom you’ll see cutting his yard on his zero-turn mower (check out what even a used one of those costs), and so forth.  He’s working for cash, frequently in construction, landscaping, or some other hard-to-pin-down trade.  Oh! but he’s “disabled,” walking into court on a cane . . . right before he goes out to tune up his tree stand for deer season.  Cry me a river.

I suppose it’s easy to tell where I shake out on the sympathy spectrum in respect of Walter Scott and his peers.  He sure as hell didn’t deserve to get killed, and certainly not like he was killed, but he gets very, very points from me about the arrest warrants that appear to have triggered his flight from that police officer.  And by the way, if he exhibited as poor decision-making skills in respect of his child support obligations as he did in running from, fighting with, and then again running from a police officer, just how much of a surprise can it be that he got and remained side-ways with the system?

Things That Must be Repudiated

Today is April 20.  On this day in 1889 Alois Hitler and his wife had a baby boy.  They named him Adolf.

Yes, it is downright weird to imagine a pudgy little bundle of smiles and drool, playing with mommy’s fingers as she feeds him and tries to get him to eat his vegetables (little Adolf of course grew up to become among history’s more prominent vegetarians).

Allow me to state that I don’t think anyone will ever know, in the sense of understanding at any meaningful level, how Hitler became Hitler (or how another Adolf — Eichmann — became Adolf Eichmann).  I sure as hell don’t think that anyone will ever understand how an entire people could so take leave of its senses as joyfully (and they did it joyfully) to follow the Nazis down the path they did.  I do not think the reasoning human mind is capable of understanding evil of that depth.  I’m not even sure the people who stood by the roadside, throwing up the Nazi salute and screaming themselves hoarse as the big open-top Mercedes crawled past with the brown-haired little man with the odd haircut and funny moustache standing in the back, returning their salutes, could explain it, even if only to themselves, afterward.

Godwin’s Law has become something of an insider’s reference in the internet.  Very briefly summarized, it holds that as the length of discussion of any topic increases, the probability approaches 1.0 that someone will make a comparison to Hitler and/or the Nazis.  As a rule of thumb, this is the point at which further discussion becomes pointless, and in fact marginal intellectual return on investment turns negative.  On the other hand, the historical fact of the Nazi party’s trajectory, and the sinister enigma at its center, in fact do spread a smorgasbord for meaningful moral comparison and reflection.  I mean, generally speaking, if you find yourself proposing a moral or political position which was propounded by the Nazis, you’re very likely doing something wrong.

There are other helpful Just Don’t Go There reference points out there in history.  The other day I got to listen to someone inveighing against abolishing the federal estate tax.  I pointed out to my interlocutor all the flaws, financial, legal, practical, and moral about keeping this idiotic tax in place.  And I finally observed that if your support for keeping an extortionate tax on gratuitous transfers is just to suppress some group of society (in this case, the successful, whether they built their success on their own or not), then you’re proposing to use the tax system to punish individuals and that’s no different from how Medieval Europe treated its Jewish population.  “As a general rule, if you find yourself supporting something that closely aligns with how the medieval Europeans treated the Jews, you’re doing something wrong.”

But the spectacle of perhaps the most over-educated, hyper-cultural, super-literate society on the planet (I once saw a comparison of literacy rates among the major combatants in World War I; the Germans were head and shoulders above everyone else) willingly embracing that system just provides such grotesqueries as to be unsurpassed as a source of admonitory comparison.  I mean, how likely are we here in the U.S. to be able to draw any useful inferences from Mao’s Great Leap Forward at any but the most abstract level?  American society has never looked like mid-20th Century China.  Ever.  Not even when Jamestown was starving to death in the early years.  The vicious, degraded, semi-savage settlements that Charles Woodmason visited, and about which he so scathingly wrote, didn’t resemble that China.  Even the Russia that became the Soviet Union is sufficiently far removed from what Western Civilization has ever been that it’s hard to understand the parallels even when we observe them.

But the Germans under Hitler?  The reason why those comparisons sting is that like it or not the Germans are us.  Something like 40% of the U.S. population claims some sort of German descent.  Our university system is patterned on the Prussian model.  The modern welfare state traces its origins to 1881 when Otto von Bismarck established the first comprehensive social security system.  The outdoors Sunday as a day of healthful recreation, including especially physical recreation, in the open air is a creature of German immigrants; until then the Scotch-Irish and English had decreed that Proper Folk glumly sat around all day, reading from the Bible or being hectored in church.  We herd our tiny tots into kindergarten. We instinctively reverence our professoriate, even when its constituents have long since forfeited any reasonable claim to that deference.  And so forth.

So here I’m going to violate Godwin’s Law.

Modern left-extremist America has joyfully embraced the notion of society not atomized into individuals who may freely combine to form (and yeah, I know this analogy is clumsy, but it’s valid) compounds whose properties are not only different from their individuals elements but wonderfully, usefully so, but rather compulsorily grouped into tribes of mutually repellent elements.  The left-extremists (and here I would remind Gentle Reader that all leftists are inherently extremist) not only postulate that everyone is the member of a tribe, but they vehemently deny that the tribes can ever belong together, or mix in mutually beneficial ways.  For that matter, “mutually beneficial” is a concept they do not recognize.  In their cosmology, for any tribe to advance necessarily implies the diminution of the other tribes.  The notion that your prosperity is no cause of my misfortune thus violates a fundamental premise.  The recent silliness at a convention of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs is — while thoroughly, thoroughly silly — still perfectly emblematic.  Likewise the White Privilege Conference (I thought it was a joke when I first came across reference to it, but it’s real . . . all too real).

Compare and contrast Point No. 4 of the Nazi party program, adopted on February 24, 1920:

“4. Staatsbürger kann nur sein, wer Volksgenosse ist. Volksgenosse kann nur sein, wer deutschen Blutes ist, ohne Rücksichtnahme auf Konfession. Kein Jude kann daher Volksgenosse sein.”

Here’s an English translation of the whole platform.  Point No. 4 is rendered: “4.  Only those who are our fellow countrymen can become citizens. Only those who have German blood, regardless of creed, can be our countrymen. Hence no Jew can be a countryman.”

The Nazis’ official position and the modern left-extremist position coincide beautifully.  The world is divided into groups who do not overlap, whose interests cannot overlap, who can never be each other’s fellows.  Each requires for its actualization the suppression of the other(s).

In fact, examine very closely all of the specific demands of that 25-point program.  How many of them would or would not be applauded at an Elizabeth Warren rally?  At an Occupy gathering?  At a conclave of Dear Leader’s closest advisers in the Oval Office?

I’m afraid I just busted Godwin’s Law all over the floor.  My apologies.  But the fact remains:  If you agree with the Nazis, you’re very likely doing something wrong.

More Evidence, as if Needed

That, as Instapundit has observed on many occasions, incentives work, even perverse incentives.

One of the many reasons I enjoy reading the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (other than in order to slow the atrophy of my language skills) is because from time to time they’ll have an article or series of articles on issues which we have to contend with here in the U.S.  Only here in the U.S., and especially since the advent of Dear Leader on the scene, you can’t discuss much of anything without the toxin of “race” being injected into the conversation.  Unless your position is to crank open the money spigots without condition and without consideration for the future — societal, financial, political — you’re a racist.  So it’s nice to eavesdrop on a conversation where “race” doesn’t render the substance of the debate into something like the the bastard child (no pun intended) of a fraud and a farce.  [Of course, in Germany they have, instead of “race,” the “immigration” issue that is increasingly accomplishing much the same corruption of logic.]

In Germany the national equivalent of America’s federal welfare system is referred to as “Hartz IV,” referring presumably to . . . well, whatever it refers to.  As near as I can make it out, it encompasses the whole panoply of direct transfer payments, subsidies of services, and in-kind benefits.  If I understand correctly (this may not be correct, so don’t hold me to it) it was a consolidation and rationalization of multiple formerly independently administered programs, and may have been an outgrowth of the same considerations and meta-policy decisions which produced the liberalization of the German labor and the tightening of the retirement laws back towards the beginning of the century.  Those were the economic reforms which enabled Germany to weather the 2008 melt-down much better than America, an experience which only cemented the predominance of the German economy in the EU.  Interestingly, perhaps ironically, those reforms were initiated by the SPD government then in power, a government in which several key players had been involved — some very prominently — in the 1968 student protests, which were of course explicitly Marxist in inspiration and goals.

Reality is powerful medicine indeed, even if some societies, e.g. Greece, seem to have built up immunity to it.

In any event, the FAZ recently ran a very short article to the effect that more children under the age of 15 are living off of Hartz IV than at any point in the last five years, and that fully half of them are children of single parents.  Specifically, 1.6 million under the age of 15 now derive their subsistence from the state.

Five years ago was of course 2010, in the depths of the crash.  Germany didn’t escape it, but thanks to Angela Merkel’s refusal to follow Dear Leader down the path of limitless borrowing and pouring sand down rat-holes of “shovel-ready projects” (remember them, Gentle Reader?), it didn’t hit there with anything like the ferocity it did here.  Of course, Germany also didn’t have Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac consciously inflating a fraudulent housing boom, either.  In any event Germany came out of it much faster, much stronger, and the long-term effects of it seem to be much less than here.

So why has the number of children completely dependent on the state mushroomed?

Maybe it’s something as simple as when you offer people money to do things that are actually self-destructive, things they might under other circumstances avoid doing or at least defer doing — you know, like having a child out of wed-lock, or before you acquire a trade, or before you have any financial cushion built up — you get more of that behavior across the overall population than you used to.  Maybe.  Although in any particular instance you might point to any number of specific motivations, Gentle Reader must keep in mind that we’re talking about the laws of very large numbers.  Anecdote and pattern are different things; it’s why we use different words for them.

The comments to the article run from the predictable on one end to the predictable on the other.  It’s all capitalism’s fault.  It’s welfare queens.  It’s all the indigent immigrants we’re letting in with their swarms of indigent children.  It’s the dead-beat dads.  It’s our need for cheap oil (ergo: it’s fossil fuel’s fault, and therefore . . . Koch Brothers!!).  And so forth.

Articles like this one, and discussions like the one intimated in the comments, are helpful to keep in mind as we think through the same issues in the U.S.  Here’s the apparent paradox:  Increasingly generous benefits for poor children and their unmarried parents, combined with a shrinking population and repeated lamentations by industry that they can’t find good help seem to exist side-by-side with increasing and record numbers of poor children and unmarried parents.  And all without “the legacy of slavery” or the disintegration of the Black Family or “structural racism” to blame it on.  Perhaps something else is going on?  Like maybe incentives work?  Who’da thunk it?

Human nature is, after all, universal, a reality which not seldom escapes even otherwise unusually perceptive people.

Bang the Tin Drum Slowly, Ch. 2: Some Answers, Some Questions

I’d thought of doing this as an update to my earlier post on the death of Günter Grass, but as it turned out longer than I’d planned, I figured I’ll just do it as a separate post.

The question about whether Grass’ Waffen-SS unit engaged in war crimes is not an idle one.  In today’s FAZ we have a report on an appearance at the University of Frankfurt by one Robert Hébras, who was among the very few survivors of the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane in Limousin.  On June 10, 1944 units of the Waffen-SS armored division Das Reich rolled into town, herded the townspeople into the square, separated the men from the women and children, and then proceeded to massacre 642 innocent civilians.  The men were shot in the lower body after being crowded into in a barn, which was then set on fire over their heads.  The women and children were burned alive in a church (and shot if they tried to escape the flames).  Here’s the Wikipedia write-up on the event; it does not mention a single hanging among the perps.  Shameful.  Did Grass have anything remotely like this on his conscience?  Even a random civilian bicyclist stood against a tree and gunned down?  Maybe a gang-rape of one of the eastern Untermenschen?

It appears that at least someone in fact has attempted to figure out just what the 10th SS Armored Division (“Frundsberg,” named after a famous 16th Century commander who directed his cavalry to get off their horses and fight on foot, after the fashion of the Swiss) was up to.  It was formed in 1943, with the bulk of its recruits coming from the Reichsarbeitdienst, the labor organization into which Grass was drafted.  So that would seem to bolster rather than cast doubt on his claim he was a draftee into the Waffen-SS.

We do know something of the division’s next-to-last commander (up until May 1, 1944, in other words well before Grass would have joined the unit):  Karl von Treuenfeld was a material participant in the 1942 retaliatory crimes against the Czechs for the killing of Reinhard (“Hangman”) Heydrich (q.v: Lidice).  After getting cross-ways with the Gestapo later, he was transferred to the Waffen-SS.  Eventually he was captured by the Americans in Italy, and committed suicide in 1946.  Men with clean consciences had nothing to fear from the Americans in 1946, although it isn’t clear whether what suggested to him avoiding too narrow an inquiry into his war-time deeds was on the one hand his participation in massacring Czechs or on the other his actions in command of the armored unit, or both.

In early summer 1944 the division had been transferred from the Eastern Front to northern France, where among other jobs it was involved in resolving the Falaise Pocket battles.  How it behaved itself in northern France is at least hinted at by its last commander’s receipt, in 1984, of a commemorative medal from the city of Bayeux (of the tapestry) “in the spirit of Franco-German reconciliation.”  It is difficult to think that a French city would so honor the commander of any enemy unit which had earned the reputation for serious misbehavior towards the civilian population.

In December, 1944 the unit participated in defeating Operation Market Garden, its commander receiving swords to go with his earlier award of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

We next see the division around Colmar in January-February, 1945, fighting against the U.S. 6th Army in the Colmar Pocket.  Grass may well have been with the unit by this point.

After that the unit was transferred to the area of Cottbus, in the far east of what became the Soviet Occupation Zone East Germany, where its peculiar job was to stand by to mount a rescue operation to Berlin to grab Hitler out from in front of the Soviets, a mission which never came to pass.

About the only thing that can be said with certainty is that during the time when we know Grass would have been with his unit, it was stationed in Germany or in areas which Germany viewed as its own (e.g. Colmar).  Thus there would have been much diminished opportunity for doings such as Oradour-sur-Glane.  On the other hand in the late winter and spring of 1945, as Nazi Germany was coming apart at the seams, with hostile armies over-running its borders east and west, we must bear in mind it was awash in slave laborers, prisoners of war held in slavery, and political prisoners and offenders (as tyrannies circle the toilet bowl they if anything step up their repressive measures against their own populations).  This was a time in Germany when you could find yourself shot more or less summarily for “defeatism” if you observed that the “Final Victory” seemed somewhat less likely now that your town, well inside Germany proper, was within ear-shot of the Soviet artillery barrage.  It was a time in which prisoner camps were liquidated, the inmates shot and burned and the facilities razed; in which factories were destroyed to deny them to the enemy (and their slave labor forces likewise either marched off barefoot in the dead of winter or shot outright).  There would, in other words, have been ample opportunity for Grass to have participated in atrocities, atrocities which have never seen the light of day.

Complicating things is that there is no extant official war diary for the unit.  For the internal workings of the unit and its constituent units we’re more or less cast upon third-party sources or the veterans’ own narratives.  History is not only written by the victors; it’s written by the survivors generally. Anyone want to bet how many surviving veterans of the Frundsberg Division there were in 2006, when Grass finally poked his head up out of his biographical burrow?   How much of the Frundsbergers’ history has been written out of existence by its survivors?  You have to assume that the men in the unit, to the extent that they privately recorded any misdeeds, would have found it expedient for those written records to disappear after the war.  Likewise they would have joined the German national omerta about their war-time activities, and so not be eager to mention too loudly their personal recollections (like Grass, in other words).

How many potential third-party witnesses would there have been in 2006?  Where prisoners and slaves were liquidated there would be no survivors to tell the tale.  In areas where the civilian population had, to the extent possible, already fled there would be correspondingly fewer civilian witnesses to survive.

In the end we are left with only a concrete data point, and an inference, and a question.  Data:  For over 60 years Günter Grass repeatedly spoke and wrote about the Nazi years in Germany and Europe, without once fully and accurately describing his own participation in the events of those years.  Inference:  He had some positive reason to desire that story not be told.  Question:  What was that reason?

Unless some soldier’s diary surfaces, or that of a civilian, or a box of documents gets discovered in a barn somewhere, we may never know the answer.



Once Every 35 or so Years Won’t Spoil Me

I have to suppose that I’ll weather the challenge to what’s left of my virtue.

Back in the 1960s, right about the time my little then-nearly-completely rural county was desegregating its schools (the last graduating class of the “colored” high school was 1964, I think), they built a new high school in the largest of the county’s five incorporated towns.  Back then the county had three high schools in different areas of the county, and each high school was very much an integral part of the social peculiarity of the part of the county it served.  My home county isn’t all that big — the only interstate highway through it has exits that happen almost exactly to coincide with its opposite borders, and those exit numbers are 19 miles apart — but for generations each part of the county was, if you were so inclined, a world unto itself.  People tended to marry within the geography; they went to church near where they lived; for decades the county was dotted with tiny one-room school houses (some of which still exist, forlornly out in the weeds); they worked in “their” part of the county, and that’s where you’ll find them buried.  There are nearly 300 family cemeteries in my tiny little county.

In the early 1970s they consolidated all of the high schools into one rather large facility located in the largest town, and the three former high schools became junior high schools, running 7th through 9th grades.  When I came through that high school in the very early 1980s there was still quite a bit of the initial culture — I don’t know if it’s the right word, really — shock aspect when each year’s 10th graders got to the county high school and suddenly there you were in class with a bunch of strangers, people whose frames of reference were to places and activities you were largely unfamiliar with.

You have to understand that back then children around these parts were, while largely “free range” within their own part of the county (in the summer time I’d vanish into the woods or wherever after breakfast and I’d be back for supper), also largely immobile in terms of other parts of the county.  If you lived up in the “north end,” there were certain creeks where you went swimming or fishing; you went on hay rides with certain families; you rode your horse on certain lands; you went hunting in specific woods and fields.  If you had a paying job, it would have been on someone’s land or in someone’s business you could ride your bike to, or bum a ride with an older sibling or neighbor (usually in the back of a pick-up truck).  Ditto in the south end, the middle, or over towards “the river.”  So in addition to never having been in school before with all these strange people, you had had very little interaction with any of them outside school.  By the time I came along the acculturation process went pretty rapidly and by the end of the second or third week of school we were all one seething mass of pimples and hormones.

All three of the former high school buildings are still school board property, and two of them in use as middle schools.  The third houses what my generation knew as the “jail school” for disciplinary hard cases, the ones a thoughtfully administered three of the best out in the hallway couldn’t adequately tune up.  The parents hated it when you got sent there because the school bus didn’t stop at that school.  The parents had to carry you there, and if your parent worked in the next large city, 45 miles in the opposite direction, that was a pain in the butt. And so it goes.

The former high school, then junior high, now middle school in the central, largest town is typically hideous late-1950s/early-1960s institutional architecture.  Looking at it you take some convincing that at one point this joint was considered sleek.  In that next city over, there are numerous much older school buildings still in use and almost without exception they exude a character that the architecture of that period just seems to lack.  It is architecture that looks like it was made — predestined from the deepest recesses of all time — to be painted institutional green.  My mother taught in that school for 142 years, and it must have been soul-crushing.

Back when it was new, however, back when boyfriends carried their girlfriends’ books, when those girlfriends would get their butt sent home if they showed up at school with a skirt above their knees and the boyfriend likewise if he showed up in a t-shirt, someone built a tiny little burger joint right across the street from it.  It was called The Frosty Jug, or simply “The Jug.”  [Aside:  Perhaps someone will as an exercise in dredging up useless trivia calculate how many hundred thousand burger-and-coke joints there are out there with that name.]  They had curb service, still, even when I was in what was by then the junior high school.  It was where those kids who didn’t have after-school jobs or chores back on the farm could congregate, poke their noses under each other’s hoods to admire the new Holly four-barrel or the breather cover, gossip, and do what teenagers back then did.  I imagine it must have looked more than a little like something from a story-board from a Happy Days script.

When they consolidated the high schools The Jug entered a decline from which it’s never really salvaged itself.  Junior high school kids seldom had jobs and therefore spending money, and so the market for The Jug dried up.  You could still go and get a greasy burger, ditto fries, a flat coke, buy a can of “dip” (i.e. “smokeless” tobacco such as Copenhagen (“Cope”) or Skoal), or play pinball on one of their beat-up machines.

By the time I was in junior high The Jug had acquired a further function, as the venue (behind the building, where you weren’t so visible from the street) for the kinds of vicious fights that would get all participants and most of the spectators thrown out of school, had they been staged on school property.  I still remember one day seeing this thug named Mike G. walking back towards the school building, his face an absolute mass of blood.  He’d been over at The Jug, where he had fought another thug, John F., and at some point John had applied his belt buckle (this was the heyday of the redneck belt buckle as big as a small hubcap) with energy and dexterity to Mike’s face.  John F. later went on to distinguish himself by getting sent to one of those teenager Gulag facilities where the parents have to sign over legal custody of the child to the jailers.  While there ol’ John made a name for himself as one of their hardest cases, ever; last I heard Mike G. was in prison somewhere.  Right, in other words, where the rest of us need him to be.

The Jug closed completely shortly after I left high school.  It was vacant for a good period, then it was any number of equally forgettable things, most recently a barber shop.

Within the past year or so someone bought the building and has re-opened it as a burger-and-coke operation.  Much smaller scale than it was, because middle schoolers have even less disposable money than junior high kids, and besides, nowadays as soon as school’s out the remorseless grind of “activity” starts, with grim-faced parents and hapless children dragooned to a never-ending series of practices, recitals, games, tournaments, exercises, and so forth.

Today, for the first time since about 1978 I think, I had a hamburger and fries at The Frosty Jug.  It was pretty good, I have to say; I’ll be back.

I must confess that before I left I crept behind the building to check.  I’m pleased to report that the ghost of John F. does not haunt The Jug.

14 April 1865

I suppose the temptation to weigh in at least a little bit on Lincoln’s assassination, 150 years ago today, is just too great.

Even the Europeans, who can find little good to say about the U.S. except for the fact that we elected Dear Leader twice — but perversely refuse to close ranks behind him and gratefully bow our heads beneath his yoke (a continent of atheists and agnostic whispers in our ear: “His yoke is easy, and His burden is light”; have they no sense of irony?) — relax their rules about envy and scorn, for example, here, under the headline “Death of a Savior“.

Among the numerous navel-gazing questions about Lincoln and his life, the question of what would have happened to his reputation had he lived remains right up there with the most popular.  The City Point conference, between Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, and Porter formed the basis for both Grant’s surrender terms to Lee and Sherman’s to Johnston.  Grant’s have been — rightly, as I think — hailed as the first step towards restoring the U.S. to a single country.  Sherman’s, which were repudiated immediately upon their becoming known, were and remain condemned as handing the farm back over to the foxes.  In truth Sherman’s terms, at least to the extent that they addressed themselves to the political reconstitution of the nation, were beyond what he was authorized to offer.

So why did Sherman, who according to a recent biography was self-admittedly most comfortable in the No. 2 Role, even when that No. 2 Role involved vast, largely-independently-exercised authority, go so far into what he must have known was forbidden territory?  Well, between Grant on April 9 and Sherman on April 18 Lincoln had been shot.

While Sherman must have known he was exceeding his authority, let us not, 150 years after the fact, and with the experiences of all that has come during that time to inform our thinking, be too eager to excoriate Sherman.  The simple fact is that in April, 1865 everyone was facing a universe of facts that had never in recorded human history converged.  For the first time — ever — a republic had successfully weathered a full-blown civil war.  The Roman republic weathered a slave insurrection, but its civil war shattered it, and in fact the next successful republic of any size, Venice, did not arise for another thousand-odd years.  The next geographically extensive republic did not arise until 1789, with the United States.

No one knew in April, 1865 how the Union was to be restored, or even whether it would be in its former form.  Certainly there were not a few voices in the North who vocally opposed re-admission of the Southern states, on any terms.  When I wrote “successfully” in the paragraph above, I said that in the sense that there was still a republic in its pre-war form . . . in the North.  That republic had not been destroyed, but no one had ever re-grafted geographically-defined rebels back onto the body politic of a subsisting republic.  The war was also “successful” in the sense that the rebellious areas had been recovered; they would not form any part of a foreign country.  But beyond that much, no one knew or could know when or if we could once again have a United States of America, covering the continent and constituted as it had been.

Moreover, we’d just shot a president.  That had never happened before, either.  The Army of Northern Virginia had laid down its arms and was in the process of disbanding.  But there were still large numbers of armed Southerners out there.  Sherman must have viewed as among his very highest priorities transforming them into formerly-armed Southerners.  Was it so unreasonable to fear that Lincoln’s killing might be used as the occasion for renewed combat, either by Southerners thinking they were back in the game or by Northerners seeking the kind of scorched-earth victory urged by dimwits like the author over at The New Republic whose article I excoriated the other day?

In any event, Sherman’s terms were rejected by the new administration and by Congress, as doubtless they would have been by Lincoln had he not been shot (of course, in that event it’s unlikely that Sherman would have offered the terms in the first place).

There are two schools of thought about how, in terms of reconstruction, a second Lincoln administration would have played out.  The first takes the saintly view that Lincoln would have multiplied the fishes and loaves and all would have come aright, with nine million illiterate, unskilled, destitute former slaves seamlessly integrated as full participants in the socio-political fabric of a society in which they’d been, a very few years before, the chattel property of the majority group.  This is a species of the same thinking that ordinary Germans and Soviets, caught up in the grinding mechanisms of their respective hells on earth, used to exclaim at the most recent outrage observed or experienced by them:  “If only the Führer knew!”  “If only Stalin knew!”

The second view — more realistic, I think — holds that Lincoln would have run aground on the shoals of a Congress which was packed with people who wanted vengeance, neither more nor less.  While the North had not experienced the demographic devastation the South did — fully one-quarter of all Southern males of military service age were dead or wounded, many maimed with arms and/or legs missing, eyes shot out, festering abscesses where bullets remained lodged in their bodies — there were full many towns across the North who could engrave the names of a large proportion of their sons on the monument out on courthouse square.  The North had to pay for its war as well, and that can’t have sat very well with the electorate.  What kind of chance would Lincoln’s overall notion to “let ’em up easy” have stood in that Congress?  Recall that Lincoln was emphatically not viewed at the time with any kind of the same reverence we hold for him.  For many people he was just another politician temporarily holding office.  Everyone who counted in the North knew that on March 4, 1869, Abe Lincoln was going back to Springfield.  In contrast, the political machine run by Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s first secretary of war and a man of whom it was said that the only thing he wouldn’t steal was a red-hot stove, lasted for years and years after the war, longer than reconstruction itself.

For that matter, how would Lincoln have reacted when his overtures toward the South were rejected, when his generosity was abused?  What would he have made of the Black Codes that swept across the landscape in the war’s aftermath?  We know for a fact that Lincoln could be, when he saw the need, just as brutal a politician as anyone who’s ever practiced the craft.  Witness how Maryland got treated at the war’s outset.  Lincoln wasn’t about to take a chance on having Washington isolated by enemy territory from the rest of the country, and so Maryland got to feel the weight of Lincoln’s boot on its neck.  Lincoln also fully approved of Sherman’s march to the sea, the sole objective of which was the civilian population and its means of support.  Is there any reason to suppose that a victorious Lincoln, having let ’em up easy only to get kicked smartly in his shins for his trouble, would have reacted with any greater forbearance towards those who kicked him?  It’s not at all inconceivable that, so far from burning his political capital to ram-rod a gentle settlement down the Congressional throat, Lincoln would have in response to the South’s continued resistance embraced every last single measure of what we know today as Reconstruction.

But John Wilkes Booth saw to it that we were spared the spectacle of a tarnished hero.  Every society must have its saints; it is an illusion to suppose that humans can do without figures of divinity.  We already had Washington, but Washington belongs to another world, a world in which the U.S. was a feeble string of recent colonies whose very existence as a nation the rest of the world wasn’t going to accept and didn’t accept fully until 1815.  Washington is also tainted by the very sin — slavery — which Lincoln excised.  Lincoln, struck down in the hour of his triumph, a figure unmarred by the inevitable filth of having to pick up pieces and re-assemble them, is a figure so dramatic that if he hadn’t actually existed, we would still be seeking to invent him.

One more set of thoughts on Lincoln.  It is fashionable these days — from a remove of 150 years, of course, and from people who will bear neither moral nor political responsibility for having been wrong — to execrate Lincoln for not coming to office pledged to do whatever it took to end slavery.  The argument goes something like this:  Slavery was recognized as a wickedness by wide segments of the population.  There was and could be no good-faith disagreement whether it must end.  So to say that Lincoln approached it with the attitude of his time is a bullshit cop-out excuse.  He should have made the extirpation of slavery the center-point of his administration from the first day and never deviated from it in the slightest degree.  That he didn’t is justly an indictment of him.

How trite.  People whose putative, hypothetical choices — 150 years later — can carry no moral responsibility for the blood, horrors, and death of civil war, for the destruction of the world’s only functioning republic (which was the first truly representative republic in, you know, fucking forever), for the splintering and crashing to rubble of what actually then was “the last, best hope of the earth,” can safely sit upon their moral thrones and hurl scorn at the man whose real-world choices would and did bear that responsibility.  People today can build into their “well I would have done thus-and-such” proclamations the unspoken knowledge that the country did survive, that government of the people, by the people, and for the people did not perish from the earth. The people whose decisions would make the difference between survival and destruction of that nation had no such luxury.  They had no idea whether a republic could survive a civil war.  Remember that the entire knock on republics as a form of government was that they must inevitably fly apart, riven by faction.  It’s why everyone, from Washington on down, described the United States as an experiment.

Today’s moralizers overlook that the most crucial outcome of the war was not the abolition of slavery, but rather the once-and-for-all-time determination that the United States was a permanent union.  If the answer had been anything other than that, then abolition would never have happened.  The Civil War amendments to the constitutions, with the possible exception of the 13th, would never have come about.  Instead of the world’s most vibrant, flexible, potent economy ready and willing to act as the arsenal of democracy, we’d have squabbling little penny-ante states, all divided by mutual suspicion and seeking nothing so much as their neighbors’ undermining.

Lincoln anticipated as much in his House Divided speech.  He was right: A house divided against itself cannot stand.  He did not expect the house to fall, but he did expect it to cease to be divided; it would become all one thing or all the other.  What happened over the course of 1862 is that Lincoln came to the conclusion that the abolition of slavery had become necessary to save the union now, without which saving the eventual abolition of slavery would have been a vanished hope (at least for his time).  Without saving the union now — in 1862 — none of the reasons for which the union’s preservation was sought — including the abolition of slavery — could be hoped for.  Once the union was lost, it could never be re-established, north or south.  And so in the crucible of war the eventual political objective — destruction of slavery — became a political predicate for its own enabling circumstance — union.  A result truly “fundamental and astounding,” to borrow Lincoln’s own words.

And those people who claim that Lincoln should have campaigned in 1860 and come to office in 1861 on a platform of immediate abolition?  They demonstrate only their own foolishness, and their own cavalier disregard for what remains the last, best hope of the earth.

Thus today we observe the passing of our only unblemished secular saint.  It is intriguing, but ultimately unproductive, to speculate on what would have happened had he not died when he did.  It is morally contemptible to damn him for not acting as we — safely removed from responsibility and with the solid rock of indissoluble union beneath our feet — in our moral purity claim he should have.

Although his Gettysburg Address is the more widely quoted (in fact it is, by a wide margin, the longest single entry in my mother’s 1953 edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and the only speech given in full), I have long felt much more deeply moved by the peroration of his Second Inaugural:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

More than which cannot be said, and better than which has never been said.


Bang the Tin Drum Slowly

Günter Grass has died, at the age of 87.

Not quite 30 years ago I read The Tin Drum (in the original).  Haven’t read it since, but the ol’ boy’s death suggests I might ought to re-read it.  I also saw the film version a number of years ago, but in all honesty I can’t say I recall much about the movie.

The Tin Drum is set in and around Danzig (as it then was), a city whose 20th Century past was, to put it mildly, troublous.  That part of Europe — where what had been Poland for centuries was finally partitioned out of existence in 1795 — had long been a mish-mash of ethnicities, and Danzig was no exception.  The novel begins before the war and ends after the war, in an insane asylum in what had by that time become West Germany.

Grass’ own life arc mirrored the turbulent history of his home town.  Born too late to serve in the Wehrmacht during its triumphant years, by the time he was subject to compulsory service the war had irretrievably turned against Germany.  His first, unsuccessful brush, with military service was when he attempted to volunteer for the U-boat service in 1944.  He was turned down, most likely because of his age (he’d just turned 17), thereby setting himself up to survive the war.  Had he been accepted for U-boat service there is a strong likelihood he would not have lived; of the 40,000-odd men who served aboard the boats, almost exactly 30,000 never came home.  By 1943 Germany had lost the Battle of the Atlantic.  In March, 1943, the Allies sunk over 40 U-boats in one month.  Doenitz withdrew them from the North Atlantic patrol after that and from then through the end they were hunted beasts; many boats didn’t even complete a single patrol before their destruction.

Shortly after being turned down for the U-boat service he was drafted into the Waffen-SS, where he served in an armored unit from February, 1945 until his wounding on April 20.  He was captured by the Americans (again a fortuitous circumstance: most of the Germans captured by the Soviets were sent to their deaths in the Gulag) and eventually released a year or so after the war.  By then Danzig had become Gdansk and the Poles, to whom it was turned over, had ejected all ethnic Germans (in fairness, the Soviets had ejected the Poles from the 150 or so miles of Poland that Stalin took as part of the post-war Great Carve-Up).  Grass fetched up in the Ruhr district, where for a time he worked in a mine and later did an apprentice as a stonemason.  He began writing in the 1950s; The Tin Drum was published in 1959.

For years he was a reliably left-wing voice, although he did speak against the most radical elements, at least in terms of their aim of immediate socialist revolution.

In 2006 the facts about his service in the Waffen-SS came to light.  In all his prior and very public statements he’d never mentioned it.  Not a few people took him to task for it, precisely because he had been such a prominent critic of Germany’s engagement with its Nazi past.  In truth he ought to have known better than to let something like that lie fallow for so long.  If he actually was drafted, and unless he did things in uniform he’d just as leave we didn’t know about, then there was no reason to have buried his past.  If anything you’d think it would have made him a more credible, more effective advocate for his public positions.

Was Grass a volunteer or a draftee?  I have no way of knowing whether any draft papers or other illuminating documents would have survived this long.  What did his unit do while he was on active service with it?  If it was on the Eastern Front it most likely spent most of its time getting shot to pieces by overwhelming Soviet forces.  But was it involved in massacring a few civilians on its way out of town?  I haven’t seen anything one way or the other.  You’d think that, given how Grass suppressed a biographical phase that the ordinary viewer would see as highly significant — one way or the other — someone would have taken the time to dig up the facts.  That is, after all, how Kurt Waldheim came to grief.  His unit was known to have been in the Balkans during his service and it was easily discovered what it had been up to during that period.  It didn’t bear the light of day very well.  [Aside: I still remember seeing Waldheim’s campaign posters from 1986 in Vienna, when he was running for president:  “An Austrian the World Trusts”.  Cue Inspector Clouseau:  Not any more.]  I may be entirely wrong:  That investigation may already have been undertaken and discovered that there’s a whole lot of absolutely nothing at all to see.  If that’s the case, however, then why did he bury his past so long?

Grass expressed some trepidation about German reunification, a sentiment in which he was hardly alone, either in the world at large or even within Germany itself.  Konrad Adenauer was far from the last German not entirely to trust his countrymen with their own power.  Among Americans, I still recall a professor of mine, who’d fought in the U.S. Army during the war, laconically observing that he got “a very peaceful feeling” when he contemplated the existence of a forcibly divided Germany.

Nonetheless, the collapse of the international communist experiment and the unwinding even of large aspects of the European social democracy model left Grass, like many on the left, casting about for some point of relevance.  In the U.S. we see the left-extremists clustering around two overall approaches to the problem:  The first is to embrace the descent into irrelevance, as with the “social justice,” “micro-aggression” would-be thought police.  The other is doubling down on the 1930s-vintage neo-communist expansion of the state, as with the EPA’s nascent attempt to regulate your back-yard hamburger grill.  In Europe it’s taken, and is taking, the form of collaborating in the Islamization of the continent, and its hand-maiden, hatred of Israel.

In April, 2012, Grass published “Was gesagt warden muß,” (“What must be said”) a so-called “prose poem” in which he takes issue with Germany’s delivery of a nuclear-capable submarine to Israel.  He claims to fear that Israel may assert a right to an alpha strike on Iran, in order to prevent its development of nuclear capability.  He asserts that a nuclear-capable Israel endangers a fragile world peace.  He claims to speak now, because he is tired of the hypocrisy of the West.  And so forth.  The piece is short; here’s a translation of it in The Guardian.  Read it all.

Left unsaid by Grass is any mention that of the two states he specifically names, one — Iran — has adopted for its formal policy the extermination of the other, its “wiping from the map,” and the killing of as many of its citizens as possible; the other — Israel —  for whom Iran has such sanguinary and explicit intentions, has adopted no such policy in respect of any other nation or people.  One of the two nations — Iran — at that time was, and remains today, a known sponsor of some of the most bloodthirsty islamo-fascist terror groups in the world, almost all of whom expressly address their violence against the United States and its interests.  The other is not a sponsor of international terrorist groups.  One of the two nations — Iran — hangs homosexuals from construction cranes, stones adulteresses to death, and regularly practices torture on its own population.  The other — Israel — does not.  One of the two nations — Iran — sentences Christians to prison or death for practicing or preaching their faith.  The other — Israel — has in its parliament political parties representing its minority ethnic populations.  One of the two states Grass mentions gives every reason to fear its possession of any weapon of mass destruction.  The other has never.  One state — Iran — has never been the object of an attack by its united neighbors with the intent of eradicating it.  The other — Israel — has repeatedly weathered these attacks.

There is no other way to characterize Grass’ point:  Iran and Israel are morally equivalent quantities.  The attack of either on the other would be equally worthy of condemnation.  The attack of either on the other is equally to be feared (although, you know, Israel has, you know, never actually, you know . . . attacked Iran).  The world, presumably, would be equally injured by the extinction of either.  The attack on Iran by an Israel fearful that the mullahs mean precisely what they say about wiping Israel from the map, and Germany’s having enabled any of that attack, would splash a further taint of guilt on an already guilty-ridden land which could never be washed clean.

At the risk of understatement:  I am profoundly uninterested in any person, in any ideology, in any theology which cannot tell any material difference between the Iran of the mullahs and Israel, the only functioning democracy in that entire area of the globe.

Maybe his poem was nothing more than a desperate grasp for relevance in a world in which his chosen politics has been refuted pretty thoroughly by the march of time.  Certainly his later bleat in favor of Greece, and how awful it is that the rest of Europe, and Germany in particular, are just being such meanie-pokers to decline to shovel sand down a rat hole indefinitely, argues in favor of that hypothesis.  Or maybe it could be something more sinister.  Maybe it has something to do with why Grass chose for some 60 years to cover up his service in the SS.

In any event, we have lost another anti-Western voice from the world’s babble.  Whatever his talents as a writer may have once been, he won’t be missed.