Reprise Post; At the Tomb of Couperin – Thoughts on a Centenary

(For Veteran’s Day – a reprise post from 2018)

There is a lovely little classical piece by Maurice Ravel – Le Tombeau de Couperin, composed shortly after the end of the war, five of the six movements dedicated to the memory of an individual, and one for a pair of brothers, all close friends of the composer, every one of them fallen in a war of such ghastliness that it not only put paid to a century of optimistic progress, but barely twenty years later it birthed another and hardly less ghastly war. Maurice Ravel himself was over-age, under-tall and not in the most robust of health, but such was the sense of national emergency that he volunteered for the military anyway, eventually serving as a driver – frequently under fire and in danger. Not the usual place to find one of France’s contemporarily-famous composers, but they did things differently at the end of the 19th Century and heading all wide-eyed and optimistic into the 20th. Citizens of the intellectual and artistic ilk were not ashamed of their country, or feel obliged to apologize for a patriotic attachment, or make a show of sullen ingratitude for having been favored by the public in displaying their talents.

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The Light of Rutupaie Going Out

Rutupaie, the modern Richborough Castle, in Kent, England – was once the site of a notable Roman military garrison graced by an enormous marble triumphal arch visible to ships arriving in the port, a tall lighthouse, and a thriving civilian town with an amphitheater. The lighthouse and the triumphal arch are long gone, but a large portion of the circuit of twenty-five-foot-high walls still remain visible above ground. This was the terminus of Watling Streat, a keystone in the network of carefully engineered roads which covered Britain like a net. It was most likely the site of the original Roman bridgehead in the time of the Emperor Claudius, which would in large part become the province of Britannia. Rutupaie became the major port of entry all throughout the four centuries that Roman power held sway over that far and misty isle, their ships and galleys guided into safe harbor after dark by the fire atop the lighthouse.

In one of the opening chapters of the novel The Lantern Bearers, a young Roman-British soldier makes his decision to remain in Britain when the legions are finally and officially withdrawn by order of the Emperor. Having deserted his unit as they are on the point of departure for the last time, he lights the great fire atop the lighthouse, as the galleys row away on the evening tide; a last defiant fire, as darkness descends. Peter Grant, who blogs at Bayou Renaissance Man noted this week that Rosemary Sutcliff’s series of novels about the Romans in Britain and the long, slow, painful dying of Roman civilization there were being republished at a reasonable price in eBook. This reminded me again of my very favorite historical author; The finest and most evocative historical novel ever in English is either the Rider of the White Horse or her retelling of the Arthurian epic, Sword at Sunset. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s version, The Mists of Avalon, is overwrought trash in comparison.

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Heatwave

Yes, there is a heatwave going on in Northern Europe this week – or at least, to them it’s a heatwave. To those of us who live in Texas, it’s just a normal summer, with temperatures in the 90s and reaching three digits. Supercilious Europeans, Brits and Canadians, and lunkheaded Americans like perennial tween know-it-all Taylor Lorenz are forever chiding us about our excessive air conditioning in homes, government buildings and offices, little recking that basically, most of the United States is on the same latitude as the Mediterranean and North Africa – and without efficient air conditioning, large swathes of the southern states would just plain old be unlivable – and no, in the South it’s not a dry heat, but a soggy and humid exercise in physical torment. So I do feel for those suffering Europeans and Brits, I really do. My brother and sister and I spent the summer of 1976 in Britain, which turned out to have been one of the hottest on record, rather like the heatwave this year. We – accustomed to So-Cal summers didn’t at first really grok how unaccustomed the British public was to this kind of summer heat, what with the grass in the parks dying for want of water.

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Book Review: The Year of the French (rerun)

The Year of the French, by Thomas Flanagan

(This being St Patrick’s day, I’m again taking advantage of the hook to re-post this review, in the hope of inspiring a few more people to read this incredibly fine historical novel)

Ralph Peters calls this book “the finest historical novel written in English, at least in the twentieth century,” going on to say “except for ‘The Leopard,’ I know of no historical novel that so richly and convincingly captures the ambience of a bygone world.”

In August of 1798, the French revolutionary government landed 1000 troops in County Mayo to support indigenous Irish rebels, with the objective of overthrowing British rule in Ireland.  The Year of the French tells the (fictionalized but fact-based) story of these events from the viewpoint of several characters, representing different groups in the complex and strife-ridden Irish social structure of the time.

Owen MacCarthy is a schoolmaster and poet who writes in the Gaelic tradition.  He is pressed by illiterate locals to write a threatening letter to a landlord who has evicted tenants while switching land from farming to cattle-raising.  With his dark vision of how an attempt at rebellion must end–“In Castlebar.  They will load you in carts with your wrists tied behind you and take you down to Castlebar and try you there and hang you there”–MacCarthy is reluctant to get involved, but he writes the letter.

Sam Cooper, the recipient of the letter, is a small-scale landlord, and captain of the local militia.  Indigenously Irish, his family converted to Protestantism several generations ago to avoid the crippling social and economic disabilities imposed on Catholics. Cooper’s wife, Kate, herself still Catholic, is a beautiful and utterly ruthless woman…she advises Cooper to respond to the letter by rounding up “a few of the likeliest rogues,”  jailing and flogging them, without any concern for actual guilt or innocence. “My God, what a creature you are for a woman,”  Cooper responds. “It is a man you should have been born.”  “A strange creature that would make me in your bed,” Kate fires back, “It is a woman I am, and fine cause you have to know it…What matters now is who has the land and who will keep it.”

Ferdy O’Donnell  is a young hillside farmer on Cooper’s land.  Far back in the past, the land was owned by the O’Donnell family…Ferdy had once shown Cooper  “a valueless curiosity, a parchment that recorded the fact in faded ink the colour of old, dried blood.”

Arthur Vincent Broome is a Protestant clergyman who is not thrilled by the “wild and dismal region” to which he has been assigned, but who performs his duties as best he can. Broome is resolved to eschew religious bigotry, but…”I affirm most sincerely that distinctions which rest upon creed mean little to me, and yet I confess that my compassion for their misery is mingled with an abhorrence of their alien ways…they live and thrive in mud and squalour…their music, for all that antiquarians and fanatics can find to say in its flavor, is wild and savage…they combine a grave and gentle courtesy with a murderous violence that erupts without warning…”‘

Malcolm Elliott is a Protestant landlord and solicitor, and a member of the Society of United Irishmen.  This was a revolutionary group with Enlightenment ideals, dedicated to bringing Catholics and Protestants together in the cause of overthrowing British rule and establishing an Irish Republic.  His wife, Judith, is an Englishwoman with romantic ideas about Ireland.

John Moore, also a United Irishman, is a member of one of the few Catholic families that have managed to hold on to their land.  He is in love with Ellen Treacy, daughter of another prominent Catholic family: she returns his love, but believes that he is caught in a web of words that can only lead to disaster.  “One of these days you will say a loose word to some fellow and he will get on his horse and ride off to Westport to lay an information with Dennis Browne, and that will be the last seen of you”

Dennis Browne is High Sheriff of Mayo…smooth, manipulative, and devoted to the interests of the very largest landowners in the county, such as his brother Lord Altamont and the mysterious Lord Glenthorne, the “Big Lord” who owns vast landholdings and an immense house which he has never visited.

Randall MacDonnell is a Catholic landowner with a decrepit farm and house, devoted primarily to his horses.  His motivations for joining the rebellion are quite different from those of the idealistic United Irishmen…”For a hundred years of more, those Protestant bastards have been the cocks of the walk, strutting around on acres that belong by rights to the Irish…there are men still living who remember when a son could grab his father’s land by turning Protestant.”

Jean Joseph Humbert is the commander of the French forces.  A former dealer in animal skins, he owes his position in life to the revolution.  He is a talented commander, but  the battle he is most concerned about is the battle for status and supremacy between himself and  Napoleon Bonaparte.

Charles Cornwallis, the general who surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown, is now in charge of defeating the French and the rebels and pacifying the rebellious areas of Ireland.   Seen through the eyes of  a young aide who admires him greatly, Cornwallis is portrayed as a basically kindly man who can be hard when he thinks it necessary, but takes no pleasure in it.  “The color of war had long since bleached from his thoughts, and it remained for him only a duty to be scrupulously performed.”

This book is largely about the way in which the past lives on in the present, both in the world of physical objects and the world of social relationships.  Two characters who make a brief appearance are Richard Manning, proprietor of a decrepit and debt-laden castle, and his companion Ellen Kirwan:

The Great Liquidation

America is hanging by a thread.  A great liquidation is underway, with many of the structures that support American society..or, in some cases, any viable society…being kicked away, sold off piecemeal, or just wantonly destroyed.  I’m talking about physical structures, legal structures, and social structures.

I do not think it is too late to turn this trend around, but the situation is very serious, and I’m going to ask you to gaze into the abyss with me before I discuss some reasons for hope.

Consider:

–Significant parts of America’s energy infrastructure are being destroyed or targeted for destruction.  For example, the Indian Point nuclear plant, serving NYC, was closed in April, despite the fact that this closure will likely create grid instability–and will certainly result in the zero-emissions power it had previously produced being generated instead by sources which do generate emissions. (Yet at the same time, NYC is banning the use of natural gas in new buildings–which will further increase the demand for electricity!) The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, the largest source of electricity in California, is also scheduled for closure in 2025.  The cost of Diablo Canyon was $14.5B in present-day dollars, and I estimate that this represents at least 50,000 person-years of labor.  Something like 1200 working lifetimes, being wantonly trashed. Only a society which is very rich (for now)–disrespectful of its past accomplishments–and uncaring about the future would act in this way.

And these examples represent only a small portion of the assaults being conducted on America’s energy infrastructure. Peaker plants which ensure continued output under tough conditions, are being closed, with much hand-waving about how ‘demand management’ will solve any problems.  Oil and gas production are being squeezed. Pipeline construction is being suppressed, at the same time Putin is given the US green light for a Russia-Germany pipeline.  Energy is being transformed from an American asset into an American vulnerability.

–Billions of dollars of America military equipment were abandoned in Afghanistan and are now in the hands of the Taliban.  If we use a conservative estimate of $40 billion, that represents at least 400,000 person-years of human labor, thrown away. But that’s not the worst of it, of course: much of that equipment will now be used against us or our allies.  There are already reports of formerly-American weapons on their way to Iran.

The effect of the horribly-executed Afghanistan withdrawal on our credibility as an alliance partner will be devastating.  While many foreign policy types expressed worry about what expecting Germany to pay a larger % of the NATO bill would do to our alliances, any imagined impact of that was trivial compared with the impact of the current debacle.  The negative effect on American military recruiting, also, will be considerable, as discussed by several commenters at this blog.  Overall, America’s actual and perceived power position in the world has been greatly reduced over the past few months.

–American manufacturing has been negatively impacted by numerous policy choices and social factors, and America is no longer the world’s facto ry: that role now falls to China.  We have become extremely dependent on China and other countries for many products and components of products–as we found out during last year’s Covid crisis when we were subject to threats that we would ‘burn in the fire of Covid’ if China should choose to deny us critical pharmaceuticals and ingredients thereof.  We have become highly dependent on other countries for electronics manufacturing, especially microchips: a single Taiwanese company, TSMC, acts as the ‘foundry’ for a whole range of chips produced to the designs of many different American companies.  A Chinese takeover of Taiwan could be devastating to our industry, and such takeover appears considerably more likely than it did a couple of months ago.

Manufacturing was, for a couple of decades, considered by the approved-expert classes to be an increasingly-unimportant industry, populated only by those with inferior and uncreative minds. There is some recognition growing lately that this field may actually matter. But American politicians generally have so little comprehension of how the economy actually works that it is hard to believe that any remedies that they propose will be efficacious ones.  As example #1, I give you Joseph Biden: a man who asserted that anyone who can mine coal can ‘learn to code’, and who apparently believes that manually shoveling coal into furnaces is an actual substantial occupation in America today.  Biden also said, referring to China: “They’re not competition for us.”  This was in mid-2019!

America has given up much of its potential in manufacturing. and the consequences are severe for national security and for millions of people.  

–And, speaking of China: the United States has increasingly adopted a submissive position regarding to that country.  Major corporations are bending over backwards to avoid offending the leadership of that country…see my post here for some examples.  Universities, too, have become increasingly dependent on Chinese students and money.  At MIT, a board member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research raised concerns about whether a certain research collaboration with China was appropriate on national security grounds…other board members took offense, and even said that any serious inquiry into the ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party would be “racist.” She was told to ‘stick to science’ and not to mention China again.

The situation is unpleasantly like what Churchill observed in the Britain of the late 1930s, where he wrote of “the unendurable..sense of our country falling into the power, into the orbit and influence of Nazi Germany, and of our existence becoming dependent upon their good will or pleasure”…A “policy of submission” would entail “restrictions” upon freedom of speech and the press. “Indeed, I hear it said sometimes now that we cannot allow the Nazi system of dictatorship to be criticized by ordinary, common English politicians.” (quote from William Manchester, The Last Lion)

At the same time that the Biden administration is pushing for total electrification of transportation, they seem to have little concern about the fact that the US is far from self-sufficient in the minerals required for electrification technologies–and Biden’s son Hunter has been involved in a deal to give China a strengthened position in the supply of cobalt, a key material needed for battery production.  We are being positioned for a return to the kind of extreme energy dependence on other nations that for years gave the OPEC nations so much power and hence contributed to Middle East instability.

America’s relative strength vis-a-vis China is under threat not only as measured by traditional military, economic, and geopolitical factors, but in terms of the influence of the CCP on American internal politics and affairs.

–Media, academia, and increasingly business, indeed the majority of institutions in our society…are being taken over by an obsession with race and ethnicities.  People are not seen as individuals, but rather as members of ‘communities’, which term now refers to demographic categories.  Those who dare deviate from the political and social views assigned to members of their groups are denounced; see for example the attacks on the new Virginia Lt Governor Winsome Sears.

According to this 2018 survey, favorable race relations in the US peaked in 2009, with 66% of people rating them ‘good’…falling to only 26% assigning a ‘good’ evaluation in 2018.  A more recent Gallup poll shows that favorable views of race relations have fallen sharply over the past several years.

America’s colleges have been particularly race-obsessed:  see for example some college reading lists, with their assumption that ““diversity is defined by race or gender.” The link in the last sentence is from 2017…the obsession has clearly gotten much worse since then.

And it has gone way beyond colleges. “I’m so exhausted with being reduced to my race,” a girl at Grace Church School, an upscale private school in Manhattan said. “The first step of antiracism is to racialize every single dimension of my identity.” Kindergarten students at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx are taught to identify their skin color by mixing paint colors. The lower school chief in an email last year instructed parents to avoid talk of colorblindness and “acknowledge racial differences.”  These cases are only one example of a much wider phenomenon.

If this sort of thing continues, then at best…at best…America becomes something like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, about which historian AJP Taylor wrote:

The appointment of every school teacher, of every railway porter, of every hospital doctor, of every tax-collector, was a signal for national struggle. Besides, private industry looked to the state for aid from tariffs and subsidies; these, in every country, produce ‘log-rolling,’ and nationalism offered an added lever with which to shift the logs. German industries demanded state aid to preserve their privileged position; Czech industries demanded state aid to redress the inequalities of the past. The first generation of national rivals had been the products of universities and fought for appointment at the highest professional level: their disputes concerned only a few hundred state jobs. The generation which followed them was the result of universal elementary education and fought for the trivial state employment which existed in every village; hence the more popular national conflicts at the turn of the century.

A creaky and dysfunctional society like Austria-Hungary is the best outcome for America if the race obsession continues on its current path…it is possible, even likely, that the actual outcome will be something much darker. Categorizing people by groups and defining them by the single dimension of membership in such groups is very, very dangerous.  I’m reminded of something Ralph Peters wrote:

“Man loves, men hate. While individual men and women can sustain feelings of love over a lifetime toward a parent or through decades toward a spouse, no significant group in human history has sustained an emotion that could honestly be characterized as love. Groups hate. And they hate well…Love is an introspective emotion, while hate is easily extroverted…We refuse to believe that the “civilized peoples of the Balkans could slaughter each other over an event that occurred over six hundred years ago. But they do. Hatred does not need a reason, only an excuse.”

Excuses for inter-group resentment are now being manufactured at high speed, even mass produced.  Really want to go there?

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