Is Democracy a Drag on Civilization?

Yes, dear reader, that is a deliberately outrageous title, although it invokes one of my favorite maxims, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.”

That’s a short maxim.  A mini-dissertation follows below the jump.

In the commercial sector, we take that as a matter of course.  The canonical argument is “[N]ot a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make [a pencil].”  For most of us (the inframarginal producers and consumers, to get technical) the making and marketing of pencils is something we don’t have to think about: on the various margins, the lumber mills allocate timber among pencils, furniture, and packing crates; the graphite factories allocate the material for the “lead” among pencil factories and users of dry lubricants; while the educational institutions express a preference for pencils that leave easily corrected marks and the legal institutions might prefer pencils leaving more evidence of erasure.

When we turn to the political sphere, whether we are what the trade calls “base” (inframarginal) or “swing” (marginal) voters, do we get better electoral outcomes because the voters are thinking about things?  To return to The Irony of Democracy, a political science textbook from years ago, let me first quote a quotation from Murray Edelman (it’s page 161 of my book, citing page 162 of The Symbolic Uses of Politics):

The mass public does not study or analyze detailed data about secondary boycotts, provisions for stock ownership and control in a proposed space communications corporation, or missile installations in Cuba … It ignores these things until political actions and speeches make them symbolically threatening or reassuring and it then responds to the cues furnished by the actions and speeches, not to direct knowledge of the facts.

The issues listed are what you’d expect from a 1964 book; the sentiments, though, are typical for students of politics as well as advocates of more operations being tendered to the political sphere.  A Ronald Reagan style, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” is too simplistic, and its effect on turning voters out is probably suboptimal.  See page 163:

Even though they are not especially well informed, the “floating voters” do provide some mechanism of control.  Unfortunately for those seeking political office, the stimulus to which the “nature of the times” voters respond is usually beyond their control.  The information level of the “floating voters” is substantially less than those who are consistent partisans but is greater than the information level of those who are infrequent participants in the electoral process.

The greater the turnout, the more likely voting, particularly on a large bundle of policies, is likely to produce poor outcomes?  Turnout is a desirable thing per se to the political class, and turnout along with a broader role for the institutions of government in our daily lives appears to be desired by Irony‘s authors.  Turn to page vii.

To say that America is governed by a small, homogeneous elite may be interpreted either as praise or as criticism of this nation, depending on one’s personal values.  That is, elitism [as an organizing paradigm for understanding political institutions — Ed.] may be thought of as either “good” or “bad,” depending on one’s preference for elite or mass governance.

Actually, the authors themselves disagree about whether the elitism they perceive in American politics is “good” or “bad.”  One author values radical reform as a means of establishing a truly democratic political system in America — a system in which individuals participate in all decisions that shape their lives, a system in which individual dignity is preserved and in which equality is realized in the social, economic, and political life of the nation.  He believes that, through radical resocialization and a restructuring of educational, economic, and governmental institutions, the anti-democratic sentiments of the masses can be changed.  In contrast, the other author values an enlightened leadership system capable of acting decisively to preserve individual freedom, human dignity, and the values of life, liberty, and property.  He believes that a well-ordered society governed by educated and resourceful elites is preferable to the instability of mass society.

In summary, The Irony of Democracy challenges the prevailing pluralistic ideology [briefly understood as lumps of countervailing power, to use a Coasian term — Ed.] and interprets American politics from the perspective of elite theory.  The reader is free to decide for himself whether the political system described in these pages ought to be preserved, reformed, or restructured.

And that seventeen year old college freshman is humming, “I wish that I knew what I know now.”  It’s likely that both authors would approve of Hillary Clinton’s notorious characterization of Trump voters.  I wonder if the first author’s “restructuring” goes as far as participatory economics, and if that means those re-educated masses are now voting on allocating lumber among crates and pencils.  That’s a non-trivial problem to be entrusted to “educated and resourceful elites” (you might contemplate a story in An Empire Loses Hope about what happened when Poland’s state planners neglected to write hair pins into the Five Year Plan) and it strikes me as a lot of work to add more resource allocation tasks to your alderman, or your Member of Congress (Lauren Boebert or Ilhan Omar for choice of most likely to botch the job) or creating new offices of Pencil Management that we would fill by vetting potential officers over many more things than labor relations or missiles in Cuba.  Put simply, that’s a lot more things voters would have to think about before they voted, which is contrary to the favorite maxim.

A reader might note that allocating resources in the commercial sphere is often messy, and compared with Platonic guardians operating under conditions of omniscience, that expanded democracy might look good.  I note only the canonical triumph of state planning, which is to say, winning the War in the Pacific.  After it was over, our forces discarded all manner of serviceable airplanes and motor vehicles rather than haul them back to the mainland, and the Mint struck so many Purple Hearts in anticipation of large casualties leading to victory that until recently, the casualties of our nation-building wars were still receiving medals from that stock.  Better to have what turns out to be excess materiel on hand than to attempt to force the last Japanese to surrender with the last bullets in the locker, only to fall short.  It almost came to that with the Manhattan Project: had Japanese bitter-enders called President Truman’s bluff, it would have been a while until the next working nuke was available.
Do we, therefore, advance civilization by relying on political processes only sparingly?

97 thoughts on “Is Democracy a Drag on Civilization?”

  1. “I note only the canonical triumph of state planning, which is to say, winning the War in the Pacific.”

    I have to observe that it wasn’t *totally* about state planning. Consider for example the B-24 bomber and the Willow Run plant. There was no government directive requiring that these airplanes be built with assembly line methods. Ford had originally been asked by the government to quote on building some components for the bomber. After watching Consolidated’s process for a while, Charles Sorensen of Ford asserted that the *whole thing* could be put together by assembly-line methods. This very gutsy plan was approved by Edsel Ford on his own authority.

    Bet I could think of some other examples, may take a while though…

  2. Relying on an elite to govern has several risks. One is The Principle Agent Problem.

    When the elites choose to rule for their own advantage as seems to be the case the last 30 years.

    Then we reach a point where Corruption may be more efficient.

    Admittedly, corruption is a strange kind of virtue: but so is honesty in pursuit of useless or harmful ends. Corruption is generally held to be a vice, and viewed in the abstract, it is. But bad behavior can sometimes have good effects, and good behavior bad effects.

    Where administration is light and bureaucracy small, bureaucratic honesty is an incomparable virtue; but where these are heavy and large, as in all modern European states, Britain and Italy not least among them, they burden and obstruct the inventive and energetic. Where bureaucrats are honest, no one can cut through their Laocoönian coils: their procedures, no matter how onerous, antiquated, or bloody-minded, must be endured patiently. Such bureaucrats can neither be hurried in their deliberations nor made to see common sense. Indeed, the very absurdity or pedantry of these deliberations is for them the guarantee of their own fair-mindedness, impartiality, and disinterest. To treat all people with equal contempt and indifference is the bureaucrat’s idea of equity.

    Another problem with elites is their inbred and nepotistic society.

    When this majority discovered that virtually no one in a position of power in either party or with a national voice would take their objections seriously, that decisions about their money were being made in bipartisan backroom deals with interested parties, and that the laws on these matters were being voted by people who had not read them, the term “political class” came into use. Then, after those in power changed their plans from buying toxic assets to buying up equity in banks and major industries but refused to explain why, when they reasserted their right to decide ad hoc on these and so many other matters, supposing them to be beyond the general public’s understanding, the American people started referring to those in and around government as the “ruling class.” And in fact Republican and Democratic office holders and their retinues show a similar presumption to dominate and fewer differences in tastes, habits, opinions, and sources of income among one another than between both and the rest of the country. They think, look, and act as a class.

  3. A few disconnected thoughts…

    –Democracy is something like a ‘market’ for non-market activities…it is the only really meaningful feedback to political decision-makers from the people affected by their decisions.

    –The ‘bandwidth’ of the democratic process is quite limited; only a few items can be meaningfully understood & discussed by the electorate at any given time. The analogy might be with a huge complex and centralized company where all significant decisions need to be made by the CEO…who also has another full-time job.

    –The classical remedy to the bandwidth problem is, of course, decentralization. One variant of this is federalism, based on a geographical approach to decentralization. Another variant is departmentalization and decision-making by experts.

    –Peter Drucker had some thoughts relative to the latter variant:

    “Whether government is “a government of laws” or a “government of men” is debatable. But every government is, by definition, a “government of paper forms.” This means, inevitably, high cost. For “control” of the last 10 per cent of any phenomenon always costs more than control of the first 90 per cent. If control tries to account for everything, it becomes prohibitively expensive. Yet this is what government is always expected to do.
    The reason is not just “bureaucracy” and red tape; it is a much sounder one. A “little dishonesty” in government is a corrosive disease. It rapidly spreads to infect the whole body politic. Yet the temptation to dishonesty is always great. People of modest means and dependent on a salary handle very large public sums. People of modest position dispose of power and award contracts and privileges of tremendous importance to other people–construction jobs, radio channels, air routes, zoning laws, building codes, and so on. To fear corruption in government is not irrational.

    This means, however, that government “bureaucracy”— and its consequent high costs—cannot be eliminated.”

    The argument is that departmental decision-making leads either to bureaucracy–with its rigidities, which I would argue are more harmful than its direct financial costs–or to arbitrary rule and corruption. (Of course, both bad outcomes simultaneously are possible!)

  4. well bobert is a businesswoman, owned a restaurant, so the odds are good she would know,
    now are we dealing with even a republic at this point, magic eightball says not really, are the ‘,madness of the crowds’ operating alongside oligarchy often in parallel formation, look at Los Angeles or New York City,

  5. The fallacy here is the thinking that there has to be one single solution that applies to all things at all times.

    That’s not how the world works.

    Sometimes, you have to have an overall plan; other times, that’s a totally inappropriate solution–What you really need are a lot of independent operators going for their own solutions simultaneously and yet still working together in a “converging columns” sort of way.

    I think that what is most dangerous is this idea that we’re gonna do this thing once, and once only, and the solution will last forever. That’s the vice that gets us, every time. There are no “permanent solutions” only solutions to problems that arise in the flux of the moment. You need what amounts to an “ad-hocracy” that deals with problems and then dissolves, leaving nothing behind in the way of legacy institutions that will likely get captured by the various idiotarian types.

    There’s a life-cycle to every institution and every component of those institutions–That life-cycle begins with the identification of a problem, the assignment of high-quality personnel to solve it who’ve been granted the necessary authority and resources. It ends when the sclerotic result several generations down the line is finally identified as a major component of whatever problem is prevalent at that time…

    Only way to do business, in my mind? Nothing of permanence, except for the lowest level parts of the organization. Everything above the lowest working group should be a thing of temporary expediency, exalted when needed, dissolved when no longer relevant.

    Human beings are horrible at building lasting power structures that don’t collapse into corruption and malfeasance. You create a power sink, and the lowest common denominator scum will inevitably fill that sink to the brim, wallowing in the wealth and power you allowed to collect there.

  6. One notes that the people decrying “democracy” always have something else on offer, which generally accrues more power to them over time than they’d otherwise be able to attain.

    Witness all the climate change flummery, for an example…

  7. “Yes, but it’s better than the alternatives. H/t WSC.”

    I’m not sure that’s true anymore. Government as exercise of power, and the ability to bring the larger population onside to that end, is actually easier now in a democracy.

    Control of education and all the media, like in your country, allows you to, crudely: “Keep them dumb and feed them BS” This may be easier than running authoritarian governments now, as it is perhaps the most developed and ‘honed’ form of government.

    A good example is the UK where even in the face of a great deal of uncovered corruption, the Tories can still maintain a grip on power, by speaking to the fairly strong British racist streak, the reason for Brexit and controlling a great deal of the media.

    I think some dictators may be scratching their heads and wondering if there might be a better way. ;)

  8. What democracy? What civilization? Who, whom?

    I get the sense that the US is presently ruled by a set of fools who can’t stop patting themselves on the back because of the accomplishments of people long dead, that they generally despise.

    They take everything ever created by America for granted, including the banal fact that potable water comes out of a tap when they turn a valve and lights come on when they close a switch.

    Fun fact. You all know about the vaccine mandates mincing their way through the courts? That the Supremes have dodged multiple opportunities to block?

    Well, the mandate went away in my industry weeks ago, because someone got hit by a cluebat hard enough to realize that if they fired all the people unwilling to accept an experimental medical treatment the lights would likely go out and stay out.

    I presume that would have consequences ugly enough to get noticed even by our self-described elites, especially in winter.

    But I see tonight that our best of the best on the Supreme Court have once again declined to block a mandate, which at this point I can only assume is because the majority doesn’t have a problem with forcing an experimental medical treatment upon an unwilling populace, including unwilling critical workers.

    Did I mention the lights- yes, I did.

    I hypothesize that a floundering incompetent regime can shamble along far longer than it has any reasonable right to expect, ending only when its astonishing hubris leads it to take actions that are politically unsustainable.

    It seems to me our present regime has now missed myriad opportunities to course-correct, and is now on a glide path to oblivion.

    Hence, I’m not surprised to see arguments raised about abandoning elections, as elections are now apparently the one thing the regime still imagines it has reason to fear.

    The regime is wrong, but enough rambling.

  9. Tucker outlined the gerontocracy, pelosi biden, hoyer, the cbc chair, mcconnell, that apparently hates children and youth, he threw in frum (who some dub pinnete, because he’s gotten so fat) and krugman, who dismisses inflation outright

  10. yes alito, thomas and gorsuch, are the only ones with a lick of common sense, dread pirate roberts, kavanaugh, what a (redacted), and barrett, what was that churchill line about lady astor, the jab is being used to destroy institutions like the military and the police

  11. The more I see of the two sides, the more I wish both could lose–They’re equally delusional and inept, with worldviews at diametric opposition to any form of recognizable reality.

    People looking back at these years are going to think of them as “The Stupid Era”, and they’re going to blame the majority of us for not taking action against the manifest idiocy going on around us.

    It won’t be fair, but that’s what is going to happen. Just like the way everyone looks back at the pre-WWI era and says “What the hell were they thinking…?!?!?”.

    An unfortunate reality of our times is that the people we’ve thrown up to run the show are all incompetent boobs with little to no ability to even identify what is going on as it happens–Witness the current inflation. You would think that even a total idiot would be able to look at things, assess them, and then adjust what they are doing, but… Not the clown crew we have in office, whom we’ve tolerated committing electoral fraud on a scale incomprehensible to anyone.

    Ah, well… It’s too bad we don’t have a Mencken to chronicle the times. I’m sure he’d be coining pithy aphorisms 24/7. Or, suffering an aneurysm.

  12. Pure democracy, like that of classical Athens, is probably a drag on civilization. Athens was devastated by the loss at Syracuse and that was because the commander, Alcibiades, was recalled as the expedition set out because of an incident in the city that he was blamed for with no evidence. That is the sort of thing that pure democracies can do. The Trump-Russia thing is a modern example.

    The founders tried to avoid that problem by creating a republic. States’ rights were largely destroyed by the Civil War. An argument can be made that we would be better off if Lincoln had let the Confederacy secede. The Industrial Revolution would have quickly made slavery obsolete and the South would have stagnated.

    Now, we are faced with a new version of a civil war between states. I think we will see population shifts instead of war. I also think that we will see debt repudiation as the National Debt becomes unmanageable. States may go their own way. With a “Woke” military, I doubt we can defend ourselves anymore. It will be an interesting time, as the Chinese say.

  13. well the plague didn’t help either, athens under the esteemed pericles, got into a slog, cleon was blamed by the likes of thucydides, for continuing it, then came the syracuse enterprise, an exercise in over extention, john hale, a protege of the late donald kagan, encapsulated much of the story, through the vehicle of the trireme,
    Rome had a similar problem even though their window was longer, a series of quagmires, like the jugurthan war, which led to instabilities like the social war, (a war occasioned over the demands of a large social class) another warlord in mithridates of pontus, this exacerbated the schism with marius and sulla, the populist and the aristocrats carried over to caesar and the triumvirates, the whole catiline episode, devolving into the anthony and octavian dustup where the latter founded a dynasty,

  14. I’m coming around to the idea that government is basically one big con job, regardless of form. Unfortunately, it seems to be one that we cannot do without.

    The whole thing boils down to belief; if the body politic loses faith and stops believing in the whole enterprise, then you get what happened to the Soviet Union in ’89. The Romanians had a similar meeting-up with regards to the willing suspension of disbelief in the regime, and the Ceaucescu family suffered the consequences.

    I think there’s probably an equation that would describe the situation, one where the numbers describe the quantity of believers and the strength of their beliefs vs. the conditions obtaining at the time. If you have really hard times, contradictory ones, and you have insufficient “belief/believers”, you’ve got a problem. The French of 1940 would be an example of that. The whole thing could be conceived of as a bank account, and one could say that the French government of 1940 was way overdrawn on their “faith in the institution” account, due to the events of 1914-18. Germany didn’t overdraw their account until around ’45, and to some degree, that account is still in the red.

    A large part of our problem is that the people running things do not think in these terms–They just assume, as the French leadership of the late 1930s did, that the conditions of faith and trust in the institution will just keep going on as they always have, never needing to be worried about what they’re doing to erode those things. It’s the same deal with currencies, and just about anything else where human beings have to cooperate–Once you’ve convinced everyone else around you that you’re untrustworthy, you’re pretty much done if you need the cooperation of others.

    You’ll note that the idiots running Biden apparently think that what has gone before must continue to go on into the future, no matter what they do. They’re playing games with the money supply, certain that nothing bad will happen, ‘cos it never has before. They’re in for an ugly comeuppance, as are we all.

    I have this nasty suspicion that we’re going to see a simultaneous collapse of the Chinese house of cards and our own; what follows after? Who knows. We may just have to do what the ancient Hebrews did, and declare a Jubilee, forgiving everyone’s debts and starting all over again with clean books. An act, which in and of itself, will erode trust in the institutions…

  15. We can take a Toynbeean line, and argue that whatever the powerful think they are doing with their kingdoms and empires, others will be using their efforts for higher purposes.

    In his view the Roman Empire was just a way for a great faith to extend its sway; Vonnegut would call it a Gran Falloon.

    The Westphalian System that is collapsing now, all the striving conquerors and statesmen, may perhaps have served the purpose of extending good ideas to those willing to accept them.

  16. the Popular Front government wasn’r very, the Army still nursed grievances over Dreyfus, when they missed the boat, the Cagoule the proto Vichy militia, was funded by some powerful forces like L’Oreal’s Schundler, most of the military staff were like Petain dinosaurs from the last war officers of vision like Degaulle were few and far between,

    yes the braintrust (I use the word advisedly) that gives shambling man, his orders that told austin to put bishop rooker, as political officer, that selected mayorkas the cage man, want to go for broke, ‘fundamental transformation’ the worse the better from their point of view, they don’t care how many institutions are wrecked, how the lives of the young, middle class and old are wrenched out of place,

  17. Thing is, miguel… I don’t think they have a plan. I’m not even sure that there is a “they” behind all of this idiocy. I would actually feel better if there were, because what I fear the most is that this is just the result of feckless morons acting essentially randomly, in what they think are ways beneficial to themselves.

    There’s a reason that conspiracy theories are so damn popular; it is because it’s easier and more reassuring to believe that JFK was shot by a conspiracy of super-smart, all-knowing occupants of dark smoky rooms, rather than some random nutter like Lee Harvey Oswald that got randomly lucky that day in Dallas. That’s terrifying; the President of the United States taken down by some nobody. Most would rather believe that LBJ came to power because of some cabal of backroom conspiracists, because that would make sense of the senseless.

    Unfortunately, I think that the reality is that we’re not victims of some massive Bilderberg plot, or the Trilateral Commission. The truth is far worse–These idiots who’ve managed to get themselves put in charge of it all are actually this stupid, this blind to consequence, and we’re being led off the cliff not by the Pied Piper of Hamelin, but by Bozo the Clown…

  18. @Cousin Eddie,

    The Toynbees were always a little too pat, a little too optimistic in my view. I’d read their works, and I’d be sitting there thinking about the fact that I just didn’t see any of their vast historical movement and trendlines really going on around me. It was more farcical than that, more sublimely ridiculous. The Toynbeean worldview is a rational one; it just doesn’t account for the really insane way things work out, in the real world.

    I mean, seriously… Imagine you make contact, somehow, with an alternate reality that WWI never happened in, and you’re trying to explain the entire chain of events that led up to the greatest mass killings in European history. You start off by having to explain the sequence of events on the day that Gavrilo Princip shot Franz Ferdinand, how the bombs didn’t work, and how he gave up on the assassination attempt, only to have the car containing the Grand Duke and his wife stop, randomly, right in front of the cafe where he was indulging in a quick pick-me-up before making a run for it… Then, try to describe the diplomatic reaction to the assassination, the war, the denouement of the first war, followed by all that went on to lead into the second war…

    I think that about half-way through all that, whoever you were talking to in this alternate history would probably stop listening to you, refusing to believe a bit of this supremely ridiculous tale you were telling him–The contrived coincidences, the unlikely parties… I mean, who would believe that an unwashed Austrian painter would somehow manage to bring himself to the head of the German state, force a unification with Austria, and then conquer much of Europe before being brought down by a coalition including the United States, a democracy, the UK, an Empire, and the Soviet Union, a revolutionary communist state?

    You try telling someone whose history doesn’t include those actual events what went on, and they’re never going to take you seriously. I doubt you could even sell it as science fiction, in that hypothetical alternate reality where Princip didn’t pick that particular cafe, or where the driver didn’t take that route.

    The Toynbee view of history doesn’t account for all that sort of thing, which we know happens. I’d be curious to know what ridiculously unlikely and illogical things didn’t make the history books in the first place, simply because the historian in question couldn’t bring himself to describe the reality of it all. I mean, look at the Civil War, here in the US–Who could possibly write, with a straight face, the contrived way in which Lee’s “Lost Order” made its way into the hands of McClellan, and then how he botched having it so badly?

    Frankly, from having been on-scene at a few “historical moments”, and then being able to compare what I saw to what they said happened in the news and records…? I’m gonna vote for history being more a thing of farce than of grand, dignified movement towards “historical significance” of any sort, whatsoever.

    What this says about the universe and whatever designing principle lays behind it, I don’t know. I do somewhat expect to discover that there’s a deeply disturbed sense of macabre humor behind it all, though…

  19. so klaus schwab propagandizing a fourth industrial revolution, from his cave in davos, planning the lockdown strategy back in the fall of 2019, there is not one nexus, but the ones that do overlap, soros schwab steyer, like venn diagrams, ron klain went from algores renfield to shambling man, much of the security establishment is supping at doha’s table, like rob malley who gives that factotum at state his marching orders,

  20. well lets look a little closer, at 1914, it was an inflection point, however, the two behemoths the allies and the central powers were the moving parts, there were three close calls before,
    there were two many armaments sold by vickers, blohm and voss, et al, agadir the previous balkan wars, were all flashpoints,

    see pearl harbor, the control faction was craving war, they were striking singapore and phillipines, the colonies they had been denied by history,

    when you have large forces of men and material and motivation, it’s very hard to push back,
    vietnam was not inevitable except for the stupidity that underly kennedy and johnson policy makers,

  21. Kirk, I mentioned both a rational, sweeping, Whig version of History, as proposed by a man who found, or thought he found, patterns in the stories, and followed with the observation of a rational human, educated by the likes of Prof Toynbee, who lived through a reality the former never imagined–who concluded that it’s madmen all the way down. (But then, powerful madmen are part of a pattern . . . )

    As you say, who could have predicted the 20th C? One of my history profs liked to call Nazism “The Surprise of the 20th Century,” so your point is not a new one. Then again, it’s not really the business of historians to predict the future, though detecting long waves or patterns is as kosher as counterfactualism (or not, as you please).

    There is no God’s Eye View available to us, at least not one universally accepted. Personally I think Toynbee’s was a valiant effort to master and make sense of the unprecedented globalization he was living through, and the counter tendencies.

  22. Eddie: “One other thing. Lincoln had no legal authority to allow states to secede.”

    I missed the part in the Constitution where it says anything about the President having the legal authority (a controlling legal authority, as Algore might have said) to stop a State from seceding.

    There is, on the other hand, the 10th Amendment where it is clear that powers not explicitly delegated to the Union nor prohibited to the States are reserved to the States or the people. It seems fairly clear that if the people of a State wanted to exit the Union, that was their right.

    We might think that, on balance, Lincoln did the better thing by unleashing the massive destruction of a Civil War to prevent States from exercising their right to leave the Union — but we have to accept that he acted illegally and unconstitutionally in so doing.

  23. Whatever effect democracy has had on civilization will be confined to a little more than the last 200 years. None of the supposed democracies before ours would qualify if the definition of democracy included extending the franchise beyond a small, mostly hereditary oligarchy. It wasn’t until well into the 19th century that a British MP couldn’t fit all the men entitled to vote for him in a dinning room and know each personally.

    So you could argue that civilization got along for millennia without democracy. Of course, civilization before democracy also included a great many features that we would find rather distasteful.

  24. Gavin, nobody had any controlling legal authority. Lincoln was the properly elected chief executive, who had to deal with a sudden crisis manufactured by a small clique of Democrat politicians who arrogantly assumed that their own power was God’s will, and that they held the world economy in a stranglehold.

    I’ll come back later. Dinnertime.

  25. Reading the Federalist Papers, and all of the other documents surrounding the Founding, one rather gets the impression that the whole issue of succession was one that they sort of intentionally avoided, maybe on the theory that if they didn’t enumerate the details, it would never occur to anyone to actually, y’know… Try it.

    I think the original sin of the whole thing was trying to bolt together such disparate pieces into one country. The majority of the South was founded and run by scalawags, wastrels, and failed aristos from the bits and bobs of Merrie Olde Englande that Cromwell and the Parliament types threw out of power, and the New England states were founded and run by the people who’d mostly thought that the people throwing out the aristos hadn’t gone quite far enough. I think we’d have been better off either not trying to weld the whole thing together, or biting the bullet and doing away with slavery from the get-go. Either route would have been preferable to the festering mess we did make of things.

    The one thing I do have to say in Lincoln’s defense is that he most certainly did lance the boil, but his early death at the hands of a Democrat allowed the whole thing to scab over and fester some more, leaving us where we are today. You do have to wonder what would have happened had either one of two things happened–No secession due to his election, or no assassination. I think that if the South had refrained from taking their toys and going home with them, then Lincoln would have been forced into a series of compromises that would have likely led to a continuation of slavery under some form, and his likely one-term presidency. Had he lived, he might have either shipped all the blacks off somewhere else, or he might have done a better job at Reconstruction. Either way, it would have been different than we got. Not better, perhaps, just different.

  26. again it was a question there would be the schism, because of the different natures of the two worlds, industrial vs agrarian, maybe douglas would have won, and there might have been more slavery expansion, but that would have been countered down the line, would lincoln have been able to stay the radicals like thaddeus stevens,

    we saw what happened in this country, when the agrarian interests, bourbons reconstituted themselves, we had 75 years of jim crow,

  27. Easily distracted, I am.

    It is repeated ad nauseum that “The Winners Write The History,” which is trivially true. But easy slogans like that aren’t enough for historians, and in fact we can all name instances where the Losers were at least as industrious, if not more so, than the Winners. I grew up hearing and reading Loser History about the ACWABAWS, in a time and place when the vestiges of the Old South Myth were widely held, even by people who knew better.

    If one didn’t have experience of the serf-like deference that a lot of elderly poor B/black people still displayed out of habit, even to the lowest W/whites–who were vocal and visible–
    one shouldn’t prattle about the Bad Man Lincoln and whine that he didn’t let a quarter of the country walk off in a snit.

    Unless, of course, one can show actual damage to oneself from the events of the 1860s.

  28. So long as the South maintained slavery, war was pretty much an inevitability. I think the Founders truly thought that it would gradually wither away, and from the perspective of the time, that was probably true. Eli Whitney changed that single-handedly, and here we are in the timeline where it didn’t “just wither away”.

    It’d be interesting to see what the history would have been, absent Whitney’s invention. Alternatively, it’d be an equally interesting exercise to see what would have happened had the South gone in for bringing in free blacks as cheap labor, and paying them–Maybe even enlisting entire communities to come settle and do contract agricultural labor. Once you’ve factored in all the long-term costs of taking care of the slaves, I would wager that the economics might just have worked out in favor of contract labor.

    Of course, that fact would likely escape the sort of human animal that would own slaves in the first place, but there you go. I don’t think it was ever really a question of economics in the first place, more one of being able to lord it over other human beings and making their sweat your “profit”. It was always interesting reading the accounts of people who’d never owned slaves and who then fell into ownership of them through inheritance or marriage. I remember a set of letters I saw detailing the travails of a Scotsman who’d emigrated to the South and married into a tobacco-growing family, wherein he bewailed the expense and trouble of maintaining the whole plantation establishment and its attached slaves. If it had been up to him, he’d have either freed the lot of them on his inheritance of the plantation due to one of the period epidemics that swept through the region. Unfortunately, he was trapped in the system by that point, and unable to sell up or get out cleanly.

    Most of it never made a lick of economic sense, when looked at from a macro perspective.

  29. “Most of it never made a lick of economic sense, when looked at from a macro perspective.”
    Doesn’t that basically describe all of human history, always and everywhere?

  30. I will have to admit that I do not fully understand the premise or the question. But for the last few years I have wondered if the original premise of the Founding Fathers had held true – that only male property owners be allowed to vote.

    I have been meaning to rereading what was an assignment at UVa almost 50 years ago – reading James’s Madison’s diary of the Constitutional Convention, ie, the Federalist Papers.

    IIRC they brought forth in debates many things that we are facing today, and the arguments for doing what they did were enlightening.

    Perhaps even if that premise had mythically held, those people would have still voted their own narrow interests, and what would have been a majority of non-voting (and disenfranchised) people would have had a 2nd revolution.

    It is very demoralizing today to see the reasons people vote, but I believe in the long run, things correct themselves.

    It’s just the visualizing of the “long run” that is difficult.

    Alexis deTocqueville IIRC was also enlightening – able to pierce through the times of his day and analyze America.

  31. Define “democracy”, please.

    Every time I see one of these discussions, including this one, it seems like everyone is working from a different definition of what the word “democracy” means.

    Stephen, you started this discussion, perhaps you could give your definition.

    Technically, it means rule by the people. Another way to say that is “mob rule”. Or perhaps, as some claim, “majority rule”.

    Do we really want that? I think few people do.

    John Henry

  32. I was trying to think of some democracies that have stood the test of time. I could not. Many countries that we think of as democracies do not seem to be democracies in any real sense of the word.

    Some of our states are democracies to some extent. California perhaps the most visible with their referendums and recall provision. Even there it is not really very democratic. For example, the gay marriage proposition was opposed by the majority and they voted against it. Even the supporters of gay marriage, arguing in court to overturn the results, agreed that everything was legal, aboveboard and constitutional. But they did not like the results of the democratic decision and the state govt decided to allow gay marriage anyway.

    I take no position here on whether gay marriage should or should not be legal. I am merely trying to point out that if California were really a democracy, it would not be legal.

    The closest thing I can come up with to real democracy is homeowners associations. They are strictly opt-in. If you don’t want to be a member, live somewhere else. “Taxes” (dues or fees) are decided by direct popular vote. At our annual meeting we are asked “All in favor of a $100 increase, vote aye.”

    Board meetings are monthly and anyone can attend and speak.

    Board members and officers are elected annually by popular vote. My experience with my HOA and my understanding of HOAs in general, is that it is very difficult to find people to serve. Anyone that is willing can get elected to the board and an officership.

    We grouse about the bylaws and enforcement thereof. But if it was really important, they are easy to change. Perhaps 25% of homeowners attend the annual meetings and a majority can change any bylaw.

    Covenants are more difficult. Since they are written into the master deed that segregated the original lots as well as in each indivual deed, it may be impossible, as a practical matter, to change them.

    And so on.

    On the other hand, and to the point of the post, most of us ignore the HOA most of the time. The common areas get maintained, the gates stay functional, our part time administrator keeps after the utilities and city about services and so on. When someone violates the bylaws or covenants our lawyer sends them a bark letter then takes them to court.

    In other words, they are “government” as it should be. They do their job and I can ignore them 90% of the time. When I do need something, or when a “law” needs to be changed, it is taken care of.

    We should really be working to convert Congress to an HOA.

    FWIW: I’ve lived here for a few months shy of 40 years. Although an HOA and required membership is in the covenants, the developer never organized one. I was one of the folks that organized it, incorporated it and served for a number of years in various capacities. I’ve been on and off the board multiple times since. I have not been for the past 5-6 years and could not even tell you the names of any current board members.

    John Henry

  33. miguel cervantes Said:

    so you see three examples of circumstances that had to recurr, world war 1, 2, and vietnam,

    Did you mean occur there? And from whose standpoint?

    If you mean the US, we had no dog in any of those fights. American popular opinion was hugely against US involvement in any of them. In national elections just prior to our involvement, Wilson, FDR and LBJ explicitly ran on platforms of staying out of those 3 wars.

    Then, once safely re-ensconced in power, they draggged is kicking and screaming into them.

    US involvement in all 3 of those wars represents a failure of US democracy. By huge margins the public voted against it. And we got them anyway.

    John Henry

  34. I missed this earlier–Kirk referred to “the Toynbees and their works.” I wasn’t aware that his wives were co-authors. Toynbee worked with editors and abridgers of his output, but was sole authority IIRC.

    The Durants, Will and Ariel, they were the popular historians; I don’t know their philosophy of history.

    Toynbee is of interest to me because he was all about civilizational challenges and responses, and concluded that as many die by suicide as murder or old age. And many of the patterns he discerned seem to me real enough– the loss of elite self-confidence, creativity, and energy, the turn to formerly despised or rejected modes of art, rejection of tradition tout court . . . Happens over and over and.

    Seems highly relevant to me, but YMMV.

  35. Geoffrey Perret’s “Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph” is a good look at American popular opinion and sentiment from 1939-1945.

    By mid-1941 at the latest, polling showed that most Americans saw the growth of Nazi power as a direct threat to the US and supported active aid to Germany’s opponents. Isolationist tendencies (“Isolationism” is a bogus term) were strongest among Irish- and German-descended populations in the North, Midwest, and West; the most pro-Allied region was the South (in both wars).

    Great powers don’t get to stand aloof when other great powers get too ambitious, or they cease to be great powers. Blame the World Wars on the people who started them, and be glad that in both wars we had allies who were could do most of the dying.

    Vietnam was a war of choice of course, the arrogance of empire illustrated, as one of my history profs (WWII vet, retired US Army noncom) described it at a march here.

  36. the precipitating events would happen anyways, sarajevo, peart harbor and or tonkin gulf, on the part of one or another party, johnson really didn’t want to get involved in vietnam, he had been dodging that ball since dien bien phu, the ‘best and brightest’ socalled, turned a minor flashpoint into a full on dumpsterfire, that descended from the diem coup, onward, which put a clique even more detested then diem in power, somewhat similar things happened with the Soviets in Afghanistan and later Chechnya,

  37. I probably should have worded that “Toynbean”, referring to the entire school of historical treatment that he represented, among who I’d also include the pair of the Durants.

    There’s a whole lot of dignified, erudite description and attribution among all too many historians, wherein they try to ascribe rationality and reason to fundamentally irrational and totally unreasonable events whose genesis stemmed from essentially bizarre circumstance and personage. You hear it in how they describe Princip, making the whole thing in Sarajevo sound reasonable and the result of profound and meaningful historical force, and yet… It was actually the result of a nutjob with a gun, and some decidedly dodgy coincidences which would sound entirely implausible, were you to propose them to anyone as the plotline of a serious novel or political thriller. The actuality would have to be done as a farce, were it not for the historical veracity lent by the real events…

    This is what I object to, in a lot of the historical reading I’ve done. The vast majority of historians are ponderously serious people, who take everything so totally seriously that they manage to leave out the essential insanity of actual event–Which leaves anyone reading their work totally unprepared and unexpectant of reality when they’re exposed to it.

    I mean, seriously, here–Go look at most historical accounts of the Battle of Balaclava. Most of them leave out the ridiculous nature of the whole “Charge of the Light Brigade”, lending the entire affair a sense of seriousness that the actual events utterly lacked. There’s an utter lack of inclusion when it comes to the farcical nature of the personalities involved, the way the two brothers-in-law Lord Cardigan and Lord Lucan loathed each other. You read the majority of the histories, and it’s all “the forces of history”, seriously discussed with utter disregard for the whole lack of actual dignity involved. The Light Brigade mostly died because a couple of dumbass aristos who were in-laws hated each other’s guts, and few histories reference that little fillip of detail–One which renders one unable to really recognize or connect similar events actually occurring around oneself as being even remotely akin to that historical event.

    Historians like to say that those who are unable to learn from history are doomed to repeat it–Which is true. What they leave out is that much of the bloody problem with “learning from history” is that the historians themselves leave out a whole lot of pertinent detail, failing to describe fully what was actually going on, and how much actual random human folly was involved in the things they’re describing. As a non-historian, you keep looking for these lofty things the histories are talking about, and you’re always tripping over the sublimely ridiculous reality about you.

    Barbara Tuchman kinda-sorta got a chunk of it all right, with “The March of Folly”, but I think she did us all a disservice by lending the whole thing that air of respectability with the usual historian’s approach–And, when you encounter similar levels of total idiocy in the world around you, you’re taken entirely off-guard when it proves out that the participants in today’s farces aren’t much better than the ones who meandered off into “glory” back in 1914.

    I really think that “they” need to stop trying to lend any of it any smatterings of decency and dignity; real history does include such things, but it also includes the farce and the idiots they so often leave out, which makes it really, really hard to tease out the historical parallels with what you’re experiencing in the moment.

    That’s kinda what I’m trying to get at… Too often, the reality gets described only in the apocrypha, on the margins of the “official histories”, described only in ponderous tones of dignity and rational causes.

    Real history manifestly ain’t either one, dignified or rational. Leaving out the madness is madness itself…

  38. yes the brits picked the worst approach, the french had the harbor on the charnesse the turks had another devils advocate if fdr wanted to avoid a confrontation with japan, he probably wouldn’t have sanctioned indonesian oil, once that was done, for reason involving hornbeck and harry hopkins, well one could move the fleet out pearl, then what would the japanese have attacked civilian installations on the island? Re World War 1, princip was part of the black hand, which in turn was headed by colonel apis, who in turn had funding from the Russians if memory served, it hadn’t been him, it would have been another,

  39. The really farcical thing about Princip was that the Russians were the likely people behind the Black Hand, and who wound up murdered by the Bolsheviks in Yekaterinaberg…? Near-perfect karma, from one macabre standpoint.

    Of course, I rather doubt that Nicholas II had any idea what the Okhrana was doing in the Balkans, in his name. If he did, and he gave approval to the assassination attempt…? Talk about blow-back.

  40. Nice diatribe Kirk, but it’s old news. Gibbon didn’t leave out madness and the irrational, and neither have Historians since, in the main. Did Herodotus, or Thucydides? I can’t speak to the Durants–I haven’t read much of their work, but enough to know that they are better guides to history than say, Asimov.

    Toynbee noted a common thing. The men of action don’t matter as much as their p.r. would suggest. More important are the clashes and compromises of cultures and faiths, the exchange and adaptation of philosophies, cults, artistic forms and styles–and these are not planned or predictable, least of all by marble men.

    Since you brought up the Light Brigade, neither Wedgewood’s old treatment nor the most recent study I’ve read (I’ll look up the info later) fit your description of high-minded, “isn’t it all noble and heroic?” history. Even the 1970s movie shows the dumbassery of the milords, a rare case of movies about history getting something right. I would be interested to hear about the books that manage to overlook the human relationships and failures involved in the CLB.

    I can’t really respond to some of your other points. It’s hard to discuss past matters if the premise is that historians leave the important parts out . . . leave aside the epistemological question of how one then knows what has been left out.

    Trust me, I not only believe that records can be lost, improved, or spun, I’ve seen it done.
    And I’ve sat through many project post-morts that were mainly about praising and rewarding non-participants.

    Doesn’t change the fact that the projects got done, and a diligent historian could figure out how, or close enough.

  41. “When the people find that they can vote themselves money that will herald the end of the republic.” – Benjamin Franklin

    A few years ago the balance of takers to payers was just at the tipping point. I have to assume that the trillions to “fight” the wuflu have settled that decisively.

  42. Cousin Eddie,

    I don’t think we are disagreeing though we are talking about 2 different things. Yes, there was sympathy in the US population for the British, French and others. As FDR put it in 1939 or 40 “Nobody refuses to lend their neighbor a garden hose when their house is on fire.”
    Roosevelt slowly boiled the frog with financing, the “Lend-Lease” program, “selling” on the never-never plan old destroyers and new armaments. This escalated to the invasion of Iceland freeing several British divisions for fighting, American air support of British anti-submarine patrols, then US destroyers depth charging German submarines (What, you thought the USS Reuben James was just wandering innocently around in the north Atlantic when it was torpedoed?) finall in Sept 41, to issuing a “sink on sight” order to the US Navy to sink any German ship with no warning.

    Much of this was not really public. FDR had as sycophantic a press as Obama and Biden. Even so, enough got out that people got concerned that FDR was goading Germany into declaring war on us. He was and they eventually did, in Dec 41 citing the things I mentioned above.

    While most people didn’t get too upset about lending the garden hose, so to speak, there was tremendous and vocal opposition to getting into the war. Most polls in 1941 put it at 70% -80% against.

    FDR ran in 1940 specifically on a platform that he would NOT get the US involved in any foreign war. and that Wilkie would. FDR won a 3rd term 449-82. LBJ followed the same playbook in 64, Wilson had done the same thing in 16 “He kept us out of the war!”

    In a real democracy this should not happen. Leaders should be under control of the populace and should not be able to do this.

    John Henry

  43. Sorry, John Henry, but you are IMO factually wrong about attitudes and policies both, as well as shrugging off the reality of the risks posed to this country by Axis victory.

    Your poll results do not match with my memory of same, and I gave a source, a book by a person who has researched the matter. Opinion changed markedly with each German advance, and if you actually look at the poll questions–which were more sophisticated than “War: Good or Bad?”–its easy to see the shifts.

    As for “did I think the Reuben James etc?” Bite me. Why do you ask such an insulting question?

    That there was an undeclared naval war going on in 1941 is no secret, and if FDR was clever enough to goad the Nazis (those nice people who just needed some elbow room to make more Beemers to sell us?) into making more mistakes than they might manage on their own, good.

    Anyway, your complaint about ‘real democracy’ is rich. How much real democracy do you imagine would exist now if the Nazis hadn’t been stopped by a coalition of the desperate?

    Clausewitz said that war is always up to the choice of the defender. The conqueror will be happy to take as a gift what he would have to fight for otherwise.

    Wise leaders make powerful friends who share their countries’ interests. Unwise leaders lash out willy-nilly with no goals. FDR was not the latter.

  44. I dunno… I’ve been several places that made “the news”, and which I’ve read the official accounts thereof which made it into the history books. I can’t say that any of what I witnessed and experienced personally bore much, if any, relationship to what I read as the “official word” on what happened.

    As to Balaclava? That’s an example of what I’m talking about, not meant to be the main arguing point. Most of the “word” about that whole thing that I’m getting at was the stuff in all my textbooks and the “recommended reading”, which did not begin to include all the sordid details of it all until much later, and after I began doing deeper reading.

    It’s like the whole thing with Eisenhower and Kay Summersby; you look at the “official word” of what was accepted history, and she’s explained as his driver/mechanic in all the pictures of them together. Then, later on, the revisionists and “tear-down artists” started in on them, intimating a sexual relationship between them. Most recent reading I’ve done seems to be of a mind that no, they were not “involved”, but who can really say at this point?

    The reality of their relationship did not make it into the history books. As well, we really don’t know if it was of import, either–Just like a lot of the decisions on the Axis side that might have had bearing on what happened. We know the things that the participants wanted to tell us, but how much of that was self-serving BS that covered up a myriad of mind-boggling coincidence and stupidity?

    Goes the other way, too–Ask anyone today, and they’ll tell you that the occupation of Iraq was endlessly incompetent, and that there was no plan for anything. Reality? I was there; there was plenty of planning–It was just that the reality of Iraq was exponentially worse in terms of “nobody there to work with” than anyone on the US side of things had ever imagined. Plans for what we were going to do were predicated on there being some civil authority to work with in cities like Tikrit; the actual reality was that there was nothing there. It was an utter vacuum, one that none of the locals were willing to stand up and do anything about. Very much a case of what looked like “learned helplessness”, one that even the Kuwaitis commenting on things found deplorable and shocking. I remember a conversation with one young Kuwaiti technocrat we were working with, and he was as shocked at the way things were up north as we were.

    Which, again, is not a perspective that I’ve seen make its way into any of the “first draft” accounts of the conflict. Which leads me to question a lot of the other things I read in the history books, because if the things I see recorded aren’t quite true to my own experiences, then how much of what I read can actually be trusted…?

    Much of my cynicism on the matter comes from extrapolating Gell-Mann Amnesia out past the news I see. After all, what is touted as the “first draft of history”, and used as primary sources by damn near everyone? The newspapers, of course…

    Which I’ve demonstratively seen cannot be trusted. I’ve come to suspect that a lot of the hallowed “primary sources” relied upon by historians aren’t likely to be much better, in terms of reliability and truthfulness.

  45. Eddie: “Unwise leaders lash out willy-nilly with no goals. FDR was not the latter.”

    It is hard to avoid the conclusion that FDR’s real goal in WWII was to save the USSR and make the world safe for Communism. Was that wisdom?

    There are a lot of “Good War” myths around WWII. It seems fairly clear now that FDR was not honest and forthright with the American people. Maybe the lesson from that time is that we all should be much more careful about accepting anything that fallible humans in power tell us. And I am not just talking about Fauci!

  46. A bit off topic but I was reminded last night of why Americans were so opposed to getting involved in wwii in Europe pre. Dec 1941

    We were in WW1 for about 5 months.

    We had 115m military deaths

    56m were in combat

    204m wounded

    US population 92mm

    With No, zero, zip, nada, benefit to the us or general citizenry.

    Nobody in their right mind, especially young men, families or parents wanted to repeat that insanity. Especially because there was even less reason the second time round.

    But the govt of our “democracy” did not respect the overwhelming will of the people. They started scheming in 1939 (or earlier) to drag us into it.

    Some democracy.

    John Henry

  47. Nonsense, guys. The very first book I read about the Light Brigade was Wedgewood’s, and she didn’t varnish anything IIRC, despite the limitations of her sources. The Brighton book of 2004 used primary sources from witnesses and participants that weren’t known to earlier writers. A list of books about the Charge that leave out the important details would be interesting.

    I would say to Kirk, so what? Historians already know that records and memories can be wrong on purpose or by chance–in fact, it’s historians who have developed methods and processes by which to evaluate historical claims, and other historians’ work, and hopefully minimize the wrongness. But thanks for the advice.

    Congress declared war on Germany and Japan. Democracy. Free elections were held in 1942 and 1944. Democracy.

    Did FDR lie and dissemble? Color me shocked that a president could go so low. But we elect presidents to lie cheat steal and murder on our behalf, and have the chance to replace them. Democracy.

    I’m trying to figure out the source of John Henry’s disappointment over his country’s record in the World Wars.

    Gavin should take a logic course. If the results of the war indicate that FDR was a Commie, what do they say about Hitler? Should we conclude that Hitler’s intent was to get millions of Germans killed, the country divided between Commies and Anti-Commies, and Germany discredited across the world for the foreseeable future? If not, why not.

    Then again, Hitler’s Wehrmacht all over Europe and North Africa didn’t represent the kind of threat that Saddam’s tank brigade did at that border crossing in the middle of nowhere, by Gavin’s reckoning.

    A much better case can be made that America’s foreign policy in recent decades has been aimed at the strengthening and extension of Islam, than that FDR was working for the USSR.

  48. Eddie — With respect, you are unconvincing. And that is being polite.

    Read McMeekin’s “Stalin’s War“, and think about the information he assembled. It makes a strong case which is at variance with your assertions.

    You may be happy with Presidents and politicians lying to We The People. I am not.

  49. since the brits seem to be wanting to poke putin with a stick, in the proximity of the crimea (now with the prospect of nuclear weapons) maybe we should revisit how they got involved there, Palmerston, ultimately pushed them out, he was the prime mover on the Opium Wars, that the Chinese never forgot,

    Roosevelt was a riddle inside an enigma, there wasn’t much virulent isolationist sentiment till alger hiss, then on the nye committee, leaked documents to the press, he may have already been contacted by gru at the time, had he pushed for more weapons building, instead of the silly make work projects, hitler may have been deterrred,

    now the manner that wilson maneuvered us into provocations like the lusitania, fdr with the reuben james, etc prefigured what happened at tonkin gulf a generation later

  50. McMeekin’s on my list, Gavin. I just finished “Operation Barbarossa” by Dimbleby, which isn’t bad as an overview. It’s well sourced but the maps aren’t all that helpful. I appreciate that you cite a serious historian, and I won’t criticize what I haven’t read.

    Some here seem to think they’re waging a brave battle against an overwhelming conspiracy of historians to hide, obscure, or misinterpret the truth about the monsters we elect.

    But even if that is so, it’s historians who usually set the record as straight as humanly possible. I’ve studied WWII (and others) all my life, and am no stranger to the ideas you put forth–I just don’t find them convincing.

    Kirk, you are a smart guy and an effective writer. Do you know about the Carlisle Barracks collections? Your memoirs, written or taped might be of interest to them, and future historians. Some universities have oral history projects for veterans; I worked with our history department to find local veterans to interview, as well as collecting personal papers and memoirs. Must have been scores when I left in 2015, and (almost) all of them of real value. Most should be available at the Library of Congress.

    Anyway, I’m not afraid of new interpretations of old events, a.k.a. Revisionism. Re-vision is what historians are supposed to do. It can be hard to do well, though.

    Why start American provocations with Woodrow “Too proud to fight” Wilson?
    Remember the Maine? Remember the great villain James Knox Polk (“Old Hickory, hold my beer”) and his highly profitable bullying of corrupt, inept Mexico?

    And it was TR–everyone’s fave–who was pressing war on a reluctant nation and president.

    In the set ‘Lusitania, Pearl Harbor, and Tonkin” one is not like the others. In the first two a country that shared religions, cultures, and many interests with Europeans found itself in the role of last resort against large and able enemies. Tonkin was entirely manufactured in a remote and distinctly non-vital (to the US) part of the world, where Europeans had already failed against weaker indigenes fired by nationalist and revolutionary zeal.

    So far, the alternative history scenarios I see here amount to:

    Wars are bad. In 1917 and 1941, the US could have [wave hands] to achieve [wave hands] because nobody was really a threat because [wave hands]. If we’d simply [wave hands] everything now would be better because [wave hands].


  51. Vietnam was a tarbaby, we were stuck with for about 20 years before Tonkin Gulf, when the OSS dropped supplies in Yunnan, Paul Helliwell and the like, then when got deeper in with the Marshall Plan fund that ended up in Indochina, this baggage continued in the 50s, with Lansdale yadda yadda, of course the Kennedys bungled it with the hit on Diem,

  52. Gosh, that sure generated a lot of interesting commentary, and more than a little topic drift.

    Let me start with John Henry on defining democracy. Irony gives it as “democracy means popular participation in the allocation of values in a society.” But is that in the form of the Greek polis or the New England town meeting, or is it in the choice of agents to carry out citizens’ wishes, or in the agents making the citizens’ wishes at some instance of time (Kirk’s observation) permanent for all time, in the nature of the administrative state. Croly’s Progressive Democracy endorses the latter, with “public administration [is] intended to serve executive leadership at the expense of legislative control of the public agenda.” That way leads to what I understand as the cult of the presidency, and an administrative state that might be dedicated to the proposition that any contingency can be accounted for by a line in the Federal Register. (Good luck with that, as in a complex adaptive system, the set of contingencies is at best countable!)

    Irony also notes that an elite, whether of the uniparty form I think they envision, or of a more pluralistic form they set up as a foil, must have some movement of outsiders into the elite. If, as Mike K. observes, it becomes closed and self-dealing, it’s likely to lose legitimacy.

    As far as David Foster’s initial observation on the war effort, the usual sophomoric invocation of “indicative planning” or “collective action” might take either the form of a complete participatory economy (good luck with that) or an administrative state with a war production board and rationing, and some local latitude to make adjustments, although the only reward you get is the E-for-excellence certificate rather than extra money. But any of those arrangements might be consistent with one of the concepts of democracy as noted in the first paragraph.

    Where Cousin Eddie invokes Churchill’s maxim, that’s a valid observation, as long as one does not ask too much of popular participation. What works for the polis breaks down as the governing population grows: my pet formulation is something I call the aggregation problem of democracy, which as a mathematical statement would be something like the set of consensus on public affairs tends to the empty set as involved population increases. Thus we have voting, and representatives acting as our agents.

    But Irony suggests that won’t work either: competing candidates don’t offer clear policy choices, voters aren’t aware of the policy questions, elections don’t reflect majority preferences (a party manifesto is a bundle of policies, and the math is pretty clear on what follows) and elected officials don’t follow through on what they offer. Thus you don’t necessarily get the feedback that David Foster alluded to.

    In addition, any current structure of government is something path-dependent, and it might be that we avoid having to think about all the aspects of governance by trusting delegation, although whether that is to rely on existing rules of property, contract, and liability, or to consider ever more comprehensive administrative law or rulemaking is not settled.

    I have no position on the Crimean War. Stalin’s War is on the stack of stuff to read, and the upcoming chaos in the pro football schedule suggests there might be more opportunity to catch up on reading. Thanks for the spirited conversation.

  53. Eddie: “it’s historians who usually set the record as straight as humanly possible.”

    Thank you for your thoughtful response, Eddie.

    There may be two themes running through historical studies. One is what happened & why. Did Napoleon’s hemorrhoids contribute to his loss at the battle of Waterloo, for example; these are the types of questions driven purely by interest. The other theme might be — What lessons can be learned from history, so that we can apply them today?

    For example, history teaches us that whenever a regime begins to debase its currency, the situation always ends in tears. And history teaches us that democratically-elected leaders are just as likely to manipulate, mislead, and lie to their citizens as authoritarian dictators. Useful historical lessons, those.

  54. @Cousin Eddie,

    Don’t mistake my rants as blanket condemnation of historians, per se. Or, history–I just want a fuller picture to be recorded, and I want the whole damn truth while we’re at it.

    Part of the problem isn’t the historians, either–You’re alluding to the actual elephant in the room, the not-so-peripheral issue of the sad fact that the participants aren’t recording what they knew and saw. You want to know why we have the distorted views we do? The sad fact is, we just don’t have the perspectives from the actual involved parties, like Lord Cardigan’s batman or his runners. Those guys weren’t literate, weren’t the sort to write things down, but they probably saw a lot more of the reality than Lord Tennyson got ahold of.

    So, I blame the guys like me–Most of whom were not at all well-educated, and who were never the sort to write down what they saw or experienced. Most of them don’t even recognize that they had anything of value to contribute–So, they mostly did not. Which is why they’re having to go back and do all those interviews, and just hope to God they’re getting good information. Which I kinda doubt–Time has a way of wearing channels in memory, and effacing a bunch of pertinent data the men relating those memories have perhaps spent years trying to forget.

    So, while I rail against the historians, I should also make a point of railing against my peers who didn’t (and, still don’t…) bother to record. I think part of the problem we have is that there is too much of a line drawn between “doers” and academia. Nobody goes after trying to record that “tribal knowledge” of how things are done out in the work-gangs and squads; because of that, such knowledge is discounted and never studied, which in turn makes it all too easy for the academically-trained to dismiss the concerns that are inarticulately raised by the men who actually do possess the tribal knowledge saying “Yeah… Hey, this is a terrible idea, don’t do it…”.

    Doesn’t help that those inarticulate types can’t speak the language of their academically-trained executives, either. If you can’t put things in terms that the semi-autistic can relate to, no matter how much you try, they’re simply not going to understand and won’t listen.

    I’d blame the inarticulate classes, but the reality is that they’ve always been there, always discounted by their “betters”, and their essential nature ain’t changed a bit since the days of the Romans, when the centurions who knew how things worked failed to get across to Vegetius all the little nit-noid details of how the Legions marched…

    I think that if you’re going to be the side trying to reduce the world down to a carefully worded paragraph, maybe you ought to be the one reaching out to those inarticulate types who’ve been doing the doing since time immemorial, and making sure that you’ve gotten their voices and contributions fully recorded, rather than writing off all they know from experience because nobody’s ever bothered to actually try and record it…

    At the same time, the inarticulate bastards I knew and loved, working with? It’s about damn time they learned to pick up a freakin’ pen and record some of what they know, or it’s all going to be forgotten forever. What don’t make it into print doesn’t exist in a thousand years, as we can see from those “minor” details about what foot the Romans stepped off on, if they did step off in unison…

  55. Kirk, the Brighton book “Hell Riders” does use trooper and other witness accounts that weren’t known to earlier writers, and covers the dismal aftermath of that disaster too. (IIRC at least one veteran of the charge ended up in the Union cav in the Civil War.)

    I can say one thing though, about WWII and other veterans. Among the history department faculty, which I knew best, there were many, and not all ossifers. There were WWII and other vets in my undergrad and graduate classes, and a few audited my class when I taught.

    If they heard or read something they thought was BS, they let you know.

  56. Hey, fun to read all the history talk.

    Kirk, there are swarms of memoirs written by “common” soldiers covering many recent conflicts, including the US Civil War, my special interest. You surely should know this.

    I’d also recommend such historians as Hans Delbruck or Moses Finley for a different take upon ancient events.

    History is like a fractal. The closer you look, the more you’ll see. Pop history is often awful in my experience, which should inspire people to read better sources.

    I won’t hold my breath.

    Democracy should make civilization more tenable, as idiot elites can be voted out of power. Our recent election results indicate that’s not as easy as it sounds.

    We are living through The Fourth Turning collapse, right now. The regime is making ruinous mistakes but is too incompetent to understand the end result.

    We’re paying the price- but so will the Regime, in that it will end.

  57. We had a few dozen sets of original unpublished letters and diaries or journals from ACW enlisted soldiers in our collections, and always looking for more. I could name a half dozen noted scholars of the war who used them in books and articles.

    Nothing like the feel and smell of old rag paper, and gradually deciphering a tiny, sometimes penciled, scrawl to find something new and surprising. Or wondering why this one guy’s letters home were written in different hands . . . and realizing that he was illiterate.

  58. Kirk,

    Did you misspell heavy? As in “the charge of the heavy brigade”?

    Where the 300 dragons of the heavy brigade charged 2000 Russians and kicked their butts.

    There’s even a famous poem about it.

    John Henry

  59. General Scarlet’s Heavy Brigade, yes? His first and only battle after a long career IIRC.
    The Russian cavalry in the Crimea weren’t very skilled, or the Light Brigade’s efforts might have cost even more.

    As far as death rides, there’s von Bredow’s Brigade at Mars-la-Tour, and similar French displays at Woerth and Sedan in 1870.

  60. Let’s not forget Courtrai in 1302 (1302!) at which a bunch of Flemish civilians defeated the flower of French mounted knights — largely by taking advantage of terrain which prevented the knights from a massed charge. The Battle of the Golden Spurs.

  61. Thinking on it, 300 dragons, breathing fire against 2000 Russians would be a much more interesting battle.

    In seriousness, I’ve known at least sort of, about the charge of the light brigade all my life. Probably since grade school.

    I’ve known about heavy brigades and dragoons in general almost as long.

    I’ve read histories about the Crimea war, seen movies and docos. Not as a student of the war and I don’t claim any deep knowledge. But not ignorant either.

    But the first time I’d heard about “the charge of the heavy brigade” or at least the first time it registered was in the past year or so.

    First time I noticed it I thought it was an error and had to look it up.

    John Henry

  62. Yesterday I wrote a long comment about the Reuben James, how the govt obscured the fact that they were depth charging a uboat before they were torpedoed and how even today very few people realize that.

    Somehow the comment didn’t post.

    Part of that comment was an apology to Eddie who thought a previous comment on the James was insulting.

    Eddie, I was trying to be facetious, not insulting. I apologize that it did not come across that way. It was not my intention.

    John Henry

  63. The great Flashman..sleazy individual but generally a reliable witness…has a lot on the Crimea, including not only the Light Brigade but also the Heavy Brigade and the Thin Red Line. In ‘Flashman at the Charge.’

    The significance of the Lucan/Cardigan feud lies in the fact that higher authority tolerated this situation, and Cardigan’s often-objectionable behavior, because of their ‘credentials’…I mean, their ancestry and social position. Wellington was in continual receipt of complaints about Cardigan, and wrote that complaints should be “submitted to the general officer who is so unfortunate as to have the Regiment under his command”…so Wellington knew that all was not well with this officer, but apparently didn’t see just getting rid of him as an option.

  64. part of the reason is the Whig government of Lord Aberdeen, were not that interested in questions of war, the disputes over holy sites, that lay at the heart of the Crimean conflict,
    were almost an oversight, I don’t recall was their a parliamentary declaration behind this war

    the route from kabul to kandahar, that ended the first afghan war, ignominiously probably was in a similar vein, out of 40,000 compliment, they were down to one,

  65. A more perspicacious querstion might be; Is civilization compatible with democracy?

    I might be willing to argue that America was most democratic when and where it as least civilized.

    Pre-revolutionary France was the height of civilized sophistication. Yet while “Let them eat cake.” may be apocryphal, the starvation was real. Most places and most times, civilization has been a veneer over a brutal reality.

  66. John Henry, thanks. It’s easy to be misunderstood on the interblogs.

    I’ve enjoyed your observations for a long time; maybe that was part of the anger on my part.

    In my experience people are far more likely to be wrong or misinformed about something than willfully obtuse–though that happens too.

    MCS asks, “is civilization compatible with democracy?”

    Define “civilization.” Just kidding. Good question!

    Somebody once said that Americans went from barbarism to decadence, without ever passing through the civilized stage.

  67. If this WWII horse isn’t dead– CSPAN3 this p.m., all from New Orleans Museum, and a focus on the Japanese.

    Last week had a good panel with Millet, Toll, and Parshall, also Richard Frank and others on another.


  68. RE: The Reuben James affair. I’m not going to pretend that I’m a typical layperson when it comes to military history, but… I’m pretty sure that everyone who’s ever mentioned the sinking of that destroyer to me in the context of historical education has made it really clear that the Reuben James was escorting and actively defending convoys in international waters when the Germans sunk it. Not like there was a lot of that covered in any real detail, but… When it was, that was brought out–Sometimes in the context of the US having provoked the German response after Pearl Harbor.

    As well, in all the reading through of my grandmother’s stash of period references, which were pretty damn extensive, I don’t think I ever saw anything that really gave me the impression that people were trying to obfuscate what the Reuben James was doing, either. It was all pretty forthright; people were taking sides already, and it was only the odd “America First” type that was dissenting. Hell, there were articles in the hometown paper about it, because one of the dead crewmen or officers (forget which…) was semi-local, and nobody at all was claiming that what the ship was doing wasn’t an act of war. The people bitching about it were saying that FDR was wrong for authorizing the Navy to defend the convoys, more than anything else. Most of them were getting shouted down, in the “Letters to the Editor”, as well.

    I think I’ve got a reasonable handle on the zeitgeist of the period, from reading primary sources dating to it, and I’m not sure I’d agree that there was that much of an attempt at “obfuscating” anything about it. Sure, it’s a “forgotten detail” of history for a lot of people, but there was a lot of stuff that’s been entirely left out of the “One over the World” version of history that gets taught in the schools.

    Hell, there’s stuff I only know about the Philippines campaigns because the older brother of an old neighbor of ours was a tanker in that campaign, and him telling me about his brother’s death led me to doing the reading about it. You want to talk about historical esoterica, try digging up stuff about American tankers opposing the Japanese during 1942… There wasn’t a hell of a lot out there, until fairly recently; I actually got into an argument with an Armor officer back in the late 1980s over whether we’d even had tanks in the Philippines, and that was a guy who’d been a military history major at Norwich. He’d never even heard of us having armor in the theater until after we’d taken the PI back from the Japanese. I remember having to do some serious digging in the Green Books to find the necessary references–Our post library was missing a couple of volumes that covered that period, for some damn reason.

  69. Kirk, good stories. I’ve been taught things by guys who were there, but when it comes to the sort of anecdote about MacArthur’s tanks . . . I have a friend, a former colleague, who has a PhD in military history from one of the top programs. He has taught at Norwich and West Point, among other places.

    He said his most difficult students were invariably field grade officers, who thought they knew everything about everything military already, were devoted to one interpretation of events, and resistant to critique. Some were outright lazy, or simple b.s. artistes.

    The likelihood that guys (or girls now) like that know more about military history that they didn’t experience than a typical fairly well-read layman, if that, is pretty low. I did two non-military history graduate programs and knew the type, although they weren’t typical and as mentioned before some of my best profs were veterans in not retired lifers.

    My friend was in the Airborne–enlisted–in the early ’90s but always stateside.

    OTOH, if the hard cases want to tell about their own experiences, I listen and try to learn.
    I’ve had the limitations of my book learning exposed by people who lived it, and understand things better because of the perspective.

  70. @Cousin Eddie,

    A large part of my cynicism about academia comes from dealing with people like that. I’m sitting there, listening to him expound on how there wasn’t any armor on the Philippines to counter the Japanese, and I’m remembering my neighbor telling me about his older brother, who was one of the first Armor officers of WWII to die in combat, if not the actual first. So, I was a little put out to be informed that I was an ignoramus who didn’t know what he was talking about…

    Also, didn’t appreciate the reaction I got when I politely passed on the photocopied cites I had to spend a couple of weeks digging up. You’d have thought I’d molested his wife, or something.

    There are a significant percentage of the “educated” who are merely aping the attributes they imagine that educated people should display, and are not actually up for any sort of free and open discourse about much of anything. It’s notable when you encounter these types–They’re dogmatic “true believers” in whatever it was they last read or were told at university twenty or thirty years ago, and refuse to question anything that they got as “received wisdom” therein. It’s like their intellectual development and curiosity was frozen at graduation, and they’ve never read a book or changed a belief since.

    I used to look at things like the controversies surrounding continental drift theory and the persistent way they wrote off the evidence for the great post-Ice Age floods here in the Northwest as being things we now “know better” than to do, but… Nope. The advance of science and everything else seems to progress one death at a time, as the “old school” dies off.

    In my darker moments, I suspect we’d still be treating heliocentrism as a controversial idea, were most of the ancient authorities still with us… Thank God for finite lifespans, I guess?

  71. A CSPAN/academic story. A few years ago I was watching a presentation about early air power by a prof at the Air University. My first history interest–mostly if not entirely due to my father–was airplanes, and in particular WW I air warfare.

    So I was nodding along as the fellow on the screen ticked off the Italo-Turk fight in 1911 (shows slide of Italian crate), some Balkan Wars use (photo of something–maybe Greek?),
    Pershing’s air corps in Mexico (slide please), and then the main event.

    Gave some stats on force numbers, doctrine such as it was, etc., use for scouting and early experiments with bombing and plane-to-plane combat.

    The first effective, purpose-built fighter aircraft was the German Fokker monoplane in 1915, he tells us, and on the screen is a very nice photo of a Fokker D VIII of late 1918. Not the Eindecker 1, and about as similar as steak knife to butter knife.

    Kind of took the wind out, and I just turned it off when I realized he wasn’t going to correct himself and nobody else knew or cared enough to do it.

    And I’ll tell one on myself. A friend, fairly well-read in WWII, married a woman whose father,
    who I met once, had retired from the USAF as a very senior sergeant. At some point she mentioned his having flown–as a pilot–in the war. My friend thought that wasn’t right–all pilots were officers, unlike in some countries!–and I backed him up.

    Boy were we wrong. Both the Army and Navy had enlisted pilots. I felt really bad about doubting her father’s word, but they moved away and later divorced so I never had a chance to apologize.

  72. It’s surprising how much “conventional wisdom” we’re taught and which we read isn’t necessarily… So. The enlisted pilot thing was one I’d always heard, and I made the same mistake you did. Hell, I’ve heard it come out of the mouths of actual aviators of that era, and then watched them stand dumbfounded when they were corrected.

    I think you have to approach just about everything with the idea that while you may have always been taught something, there’s a chance that the people who were teaching you or writing about it didn’t really know what the hell they were talking about. As well, there’s the chance that you’re only getting a biased piece of the picture, and you have to respect the subject and approach it with humility. Hell, even the things you may personally witness? You’re only seeing one slice of the picture, in terms of time, angle, and perspective. Someone else might have seen a totally different view of the event, and yet possess perfectly valid yet diametrically opposed opinions as to what happened.

    Which is why I have such cynical views about the validity and accuracy of a lot of the historical “conventional wisdom”. I’ve taken witness statements after what you’d think should have been a very simple, very easily described event, and… Dear God, all I’ve got to say is “May I never be before a court of law, based on “eye-witness” testimonies…”. You only have to do that once or twice before you really start to have doubts about your fellow man’s powers of observation and/or rationality, particularly when it was something you witnessed or participated in, yourself.

    Honestly, I really do not understand how on earth anyone accepts “eye-witness” anything, to convict someone of something criminal. Video evidence? Forensic evidence? Sure. All day, every day–Human witness, in reference to something they were just “seeing”, with no particular reason to be paying attention, as untrained witnesses? Oh, HELL no…

  73. Well, first of all, the navy never had enlisted pilots. Or officer or warrant officer pilots either.

    They did have enlisted and officer Naval Aviators though.

    Army and af had pilots. Piloting is defined as navigation with reference to known landmarks. Much less skill required.

    I was at a Navy School in Norfolk in February 1971 when the last enlisted Naval Aviator retired there. It was a pretty major event.

  74. That’s interesting info, John Henry, and I’ll keep the distinction in mind. It makes sense.

    As for eyewitness accounts, you work with what you have and cross-check as much as possible. There are apparently now two well-researched recent books about Alvin York’s exploits that locate the action in quite different places, and that was only a century ago.

    Like Wellington said, the history of a battle is like the history of a ball–everyone will have their own experiences and PsOV and will recall different events and sequences.

  75. Can we stand one more comment about the Reuben James and Roosevelt’s duplicity thereof?

    I thought I remembered a speech by FDR on the occasion but when I went looking, I could not find it. I did find the following from UPI from 1941

    Nothing in it about depth charges, it was just convoying some ships when it was torpedoed out of the blue.

    I also found this article from last month from the Roanoke VA paper on the anniversary of the first Roanokan to die in WWII, on the James:

    Key graph: “In the frigid predawn hours of Oct. 31, the escort ships kept picking up radio pings that could indicate U-Boats. Everyone was on high alert. Just before sunrise Reuben James was dutifully investigating a sighting, unaware that she herself was being stalked by one of FDR’s rattlesnakes. Waiting for the perfect moment, the U-Boat fired two torpedoes at Old Rube. One torpedo hit near the bow, apparently exploding an ammunition locker inside. The good Reuben James split in two;…”

    Nothing about the James dropping depth charges.

    And this in an MSN article:

    A little more than a week after the Kearny attack, the U-boat U-552 was lurking off Iceland, approaching a convoy guarded by US warships. One of them was Reuben James, which was sent to investigate a suspicious signal near the convoy.

    “The US destroyer was between an ammunition ship and the U-boat when it was struck by a torpedo. It sank so quickly that in the early-morning darkness the commander of the escort force couldn’t tell which ship had been attacked until Reuben James didn’t respond to a check-in call.” (The headline should have been “…shooting BACK…”

    I found the Navy’s official statement on the James and there is no mention of depth charges. It was just torpedoed unprovoked!

    I could find dozens more along the same lines. The James was just minding its own business when it was tor

    It may be that I had been thinking of FDRs statement after a U-boat shot a torpedo at the USS Greer where he publicly announced the Shoot on Sight policy. The policy dated back to July but had been secret until then. The Greer tracked a German submarine with sonar for several hours giving locations to a British plane dropping depth charges. Seems pretty provocative to me. Even if there was no way for the sub to know where they were coming from.

    Here is what FDR saidin part :

    “Navy Department of the United States has reported to me that on the morning of September fourth the United States destroyer Greer, proceeding in full daylight toward Iceland, had reached a point southeast of Greenland. She was carrying American mail to Iceland. She was flying the American flag. Her identity as an American ship was unmistakable.

    She was then and there attacked by a submarine. Germany admits that it was a German submarine. The submarine deliberately fired a torpedo at the Greer, followed later by another torpedo attack. In spite of what Hitler’s propaganda bureau has invented, and in spite of what any American obstructionist organization may prefer to believe, I tell you the blunt fact that the German submarine fired first upon this American destroyer without warning, and with deliberate design to sink her.”

    It took a month and a Senate hearing for the bit about the depth charging to come out.

    Technically correct, sort of, the Greer did not fire first. It used its sonar to enable the Brits to fire first. Kind of like the Captain’s Mast for a rape charge I attended where the shithead’s defense was “I didn’t rape that girl, Captain. All I did was hold her feet.” While another guy raped her.

    And there is the USS Niblack which was depth charging a U-Boat on 10n April 1941.

    FDR, after explicitly running and winning on a campaign to keep us out of the European war was engaged in war with the Germans in the hope of pushing them into declaring war on us. He told Winston Churchill that pretty explicitly. Read their correspondance in Churchill’s “History of WWII” Their forbearance makes Job look Twitchy. After Pearl Harbor, they finally said as much:

    “The Government of the United States having violated in the most flagrant manner and in ever increasing measure all rules of neutrality in favor of the adversaries of Germany and having continually been guilty of the most severe provocations toward Germany ever since the outbreak of the European war, provoked by the British declaration of war against Germany on September 3, 1939, has finally resorted to open military acts of aggression.

    On September 11, 1941, the President of the United States publicly declared that he had ordered the American Navy and Air Force to shoot on sight at any German war vessel. In his speech of October 27, 1941, he once more expressly affirmed that this order was in force. Acting under this order, vessels of the American Navy, since early September 1941, have systematically attacked German naval forces. Thus, American destroyers, as for instance the Greer, the Kearney and the Reuben James, have opened fire on German submarines according to plan. The Secretary of the American Navy, Mr. Knox, himself confirmed that American destroyers attacked German submarines.”

    And so on. Read the whole thing.

    To drag this back on topic, in a democracy, or, one would hope even in a representative democratic republic, the President would not run for re-election on keeping us out of war while, at the same time engaging more or less secretly in said war with the intention of dragging us into it. He would not, after winning election, step up the provocations even more with shoot on sight orders.

    He would tell the truth about the Greer, Kearney, and James and who shot first, who was being provocative.

  76. I can’t refute the evidence you’ve shown there, but there were other sources that I’ve seen which fully acknowledged what the ships were doing in the North Atlantic, and there were numerous letters to the editor proving that people knew and were discussing it all. At least, in my Grandmother’s little corner of the Pacific Northwest. I wish I still had that stash of periodicals to access, but they were contributory factors in her housefire…

    I would point out that it is all too easy to find specifically angled cites for particular viewpoints, and that you’d need a deep dive through the archives of a bunch of other sources. There were, for example, a lot of very thorough and worldly reports to be found in between the lines of many publications catering to Methodist missionaries and the people supporting them here in the US–Probably with more accuracy about what was going on in China than you’d find the mainstream press of the period.

    So, while you can find things to support the idea that the activities in the North Atlantic were unknown to the public, there’s also stuff out there to be cited showing the opposite, which I’ve seen and read.

    Hell, somewhere out there is an entire book written about all the things FDR was doing to provoke war with the Axis powers, including sending a US-flagged ship through the Japanese Mandate areas. To a degree, Germany’s declaration of war on the US was really a recognition of an already existing state of affairs, one that you have to say that FDR hypocritically created, after pulling the same stunt campaigning that Woodrow Wilson did. Notably, he got away with it just as well, because of a compliant press.

    It’s almost the same, today–You can find sources in the mainstream press saying whatever the administration wants, while there are other, more accurate/truthful accounts to be found elsewhere. I’m not sure that the cites you provide really prove as much as it would seem, TBH.

  77. John H: “To drag this back on topic, in a democracy, or, one would hope even in a representative democratic republic, the President would not run for re-election on keeping us out of war while, at the same time engaging more or less secretly in said war with the intention of dragging us into it.”

    And yet FDR did — and suffered no political ill-effects from his lying. He even ran again President — and people voted for him!

    Democracy is dysfunctional. It seems that the process can work, provided the people (especially those in elected positions) are moral. Once a self-serving amoral Political Class forms in a nation, there is very little functional difference left between “democracy” and an autocracy or dictatorship.

    In theory, “We the People” could prevent the formation of such a tenured Political Class. But it has not worked out that way in practice.

  78. The Army has had thousands, probably tens of thousands, of warrant officers over the year flying helicopters. Back in the 60s at least, one could enlist out of high school to be a Helo driver.

    I had not thought much about why there are no enlisted pilots or aviators but it did cross my mind from time to time. I’ve been pigging out on Andrew Wareham books. Since Michael K got me started on them (“Just read one, kid. It will make you feel good”) I’ve read at least 50.

    There are 2 aviation series one WWI and the other WWII with continuing characters. Both are excellent. In one of the series, the main character, then commanding a squadron trains enlisted men to become pilots. This was in accordance with policy but a lot of officers did not like “other ranks” to be pilots who should have been gentlemen.

    Not general policy, but his policy, was to promote any enlisted pilot to an officer. His thinking was that all the pilots needed to fly together and fight together. He felt that having them sleeping and messing separately made them 2 groups and did not enhance unit cohesion.

    I don’t know if this is why the US did away with enlisted pilots. I don’t even know if it was true of the Brits. It’s an interesting theory, though.

    Re aviators: I was still in the navy in 73 when the POWs were released. I was enlisted. One would think that there would be good feeling about them getting home finally and there was quite a bit of that. There was also lots of official good feeling, speeches and so on.

    But among enlisted, there was also some resentment. Almost all the POWs were officers. Huge hoorahs for them. But in my nearly 8 years in the Navy there was almost nothing for the killed and wounded from the Navy or any other service. Most of them were enlisted. There was some feeling that let the officers celebrate the POWs. Not our puppy.

    I still see those black and white POW-MIA flags from time to time. I still have very mixed feelings about them. I think about Sr Chief Mooney who I worked with in the 70s. He was horribly burned in a white phosphorus incident on a riverboat in VN. He could have starred in monster movie with no makeup. Or my friend Richie G who lost an arm in VN. Or the 50,000+ who were killed?

    Where are the flags for them?

  79. not to beat a dead horse, and turn it into tasajo, but tennyson was going by william russell’s accounts in the Times, Trolloppe had a particular name for the paper, Much of British military history was replete with such ill considered flashpoints like rorke’s drift I just noticed they renamed the Transvaal province in South Africa, because they didn’t want to have any lingering echoes of the Boer War,

  80. I’ll leave FDR and the runup to war alone, other than to say, check what the anti-FDR papers were saying–I would bet they were making the same points John Henry does about who was provoking whom. And the now standard histories call the whole thing ‘the undeclared naval war against Germany.’

    Gavin’s point about dysfunctional democracy is merely a restatement of Madison’s(?) statement that the proper operation of the government will depend on the sense and morality of the people.

  81. Gosh, that’s some kind of a record for a comment thread on anything I’ve posted anywhere over the past twenty years. Maybe I’ll have to get that Fourth Turning post I’ve been drafting polished up.

    One observation, though, on MCS’s “Pre-revolutionary France was the height of civilized sophistication.” I tend to work with a more pragmatic understanding of civilization, building off the Greek notion of being able to work well with others in a city. That is, can we truck, barter, and exchange and rub along without taking too much umbrage? “Civilized sophistication” can degenerate into (as might have been the case in France) all sorts of Refined Things (paintings, dances, compositions, food) and at the same time rub people who aren’t in those social circles the wrong way. If that brings to mind public radio and the national endowments and social gatherings with the political class unmasked while the waitstaff have matching Biden muzzles, make the most of it!

    Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Until then we’ll muddle through somehow.

  82. What is civilization? What isn’t?

    Civilization is whatever is diametrically opposite the state of things in modern Somalia or any other failed state; in other words, you mostly know civilization by its absence.

    Civilized men don’t rob, enslave, or cheat each other, and if someone does do that, they don’t apply principles of private justice. In a civilized society, you work hard at something, you reap the rewards; in an uncivilized society, you work hard and someone bigger, meaner, and stronger than you comes along and takes what they want from the fruit of your labor.

    I don’t see “being civilized” as consisting of appreciating fine wine, sophisticated conversation about deep philosophical matters, or possessing refined tastes in art. Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering were both noted for their “art appreciation”, which they mostly indulged in by means of looting most of Europe to satisfy it. So, despite their aping all the forms, possessing all the trappings…? In the end, as the Russians say “Nekulturny”, which is pretty much how they express “uncivilized”.

    My feel for the zeitgeist of the times is that we’re all about to have some object lessons about these issues in short order.

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