Rising from the Ashes

Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt. Penguin Press, 2005.

I listened to the Audible version. The thing that struck me the most about this history was how different things looked from a European perspective. I’m a baby boomer, who grew up and entered adulthood in the period the book covers. In the United States, the history of postwar was about America and its friendly European allies, aka NATO, facing off against the dreaded countries behind the Iron Curtain, specifically Russia, aka USSR.  We were good, believing in liberty and free enterprise; they were bad, being communists. The space race was the big story that captured my imagination, along with the parallel developments in strategic nuclear weapons, missiles, etc. As I became more politically aware, the Civil Rights movement and the War on Poverty also began to concern me, followed by the environment.

Europeans, I learned from Tony Judt’s painstakingly detailed account, had a lot more to worry about and a more complicated relationship to the communist countries, many of whom were of course European themselves. Rebuilding economies, preventing a resurgence of fascism, establishing better social and political relationships and dealing with restive colonial possessions all mattered as much as the menace of communist dictatorship during the period from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet empire. Unlike the United States, where the Communist party was outlawed, Communist parties remained influential in many European countries outside Soviet control.

I will not attempt to summarize. This is a masterful account by a fine historian. I gained a whole new understanding of the complexities of European politics in that time, including the tumultuous late 1960’s, that throws light on what went on in the US in the same period. I am now largely in sympathy with his criticism of students’ and prominent intellectuals’ romance with third world revolutions, which I myself certainly felt in those days, even if I did not go much further than to canvass for Eugene McCarthy.

Some of the best chapters are on the events surrounding the breakup of the Soviet empire and the re-establishment of more or less democratic governments in the former satellite states. Judt gives a clear account of the causes and consequences of the tragedy of Yugoslavia. Likewise his account of how Spain, Portugal and Greece emerged from right wing dictatorships. He also covers the rise of anti-immigrant and racist sentiments, including the persistence of anti-Semitism. He does an excellent job of depicting the enormous diversity of Europe and Europeans, economic, social and cultural. The book makes clear how remarkable the achievement of European economic integration has been, as well as its limitations and the reasons for discontent with many of its features. This historical account makes it much easier for me to understand current events, like Brexit and the rise of ultra-nationalism.

There is much more: an enormous increase in affluence at most levels, changes in everyday domestic life, increasing travel and leisure and developments in popular and high culture. He discusses the changes in education, the rise of the welfare state and its dilemmas, the decline in birth rates and the decreasing influence of religion in many countries.

Overall, this is a great read for anyone wanting to understand more about the continent that gave us much of our American tradition and that constitutes one of our most important partners and rivals in the contemporary world.

What did Shakespeare know?

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt. W.W. Norton and Co. New York. 2004.

Image: Orson Welles as Macbeth, Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth (1948)

This is a very good read, full of interesting insights into Shakespeare’s life and works, even though it is often limited to speculation because of the scarcity of documentation. A more candid subtitle would be: How Shakespeare might have become Shakespeare.

Since this book has been in print for over a decade, and since it has been reviewed many times, I will only mention one bit that I especially liked. In the chapter on Shakespeare’s marriage, Greenblatt can tell us next to nothing about the sort of relationship that he had with Anne Hathaway, but he makes the claim that nowhere in his plays do we find a happily married couple. There are many pairs of lovers, who at play’s end get married, but we don’t see whether they lived happily ever after. In some cases, Greenblatt says, it seems unlikely or at least questionable that they will.

Among the couples who have been married for a longer time, he finds none who can be said to be faithful, loving and respectful of one another. Usually it is the husband who has other things at the forefront of his mind, like Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I. He loves his wife, but he puts little faith in her loyalty and discretion. I can’t think of a clear exception, but I intend to reread the plays with this question in mind. Meanwhile, he points out that there are two couples who seem strongly attached to each other: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and Gertrude and Claudius. Strongly attached, apparently fond of each other, but can people so enmeshed in evil of their own making be truly happy?

Greenblatt’s implied explanation is that Will and Anne were unhappy as husband and wife, and there are a few reasons to suspect they at least were not passionately fond of each other. There is, however, another possibility, summed up in Tolstoy’s opening lines of Anna Kerenina: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way (translated by Constance Garnett). So did Shakespeare not know what happy marriage was like, or did he just find it uninteresting?

If you are looking for a masterful but not overly scholarly literary biography of the Bard, I recommend this one. It might be read along with Park Hogan’s intriguing biography of Shakespeare’s great rival: Christopher Marlowe, Poet and Spy (Oxford University Press 2005).

Struggling for liberty, post Civil War

The Republic for Which It Stands, The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, Oxford History of the United States by Richard White. Oxford University Press, 2017, 968 pages.

I listened to the Audible edition, ably read by Noah Michael Levine. This is another entry in Oxford’s multi-volume history, which includes James McPherson’s excellent Battle Cry of Freedom, The Civil War Era. The author casts the history of the last third of the nineteenth century as a struggle among competing definitions of freedom. He builds much of his narrative around the way in which the ideals articulated by Abraham Lincoln shaped the struggles of the period. Republicans were the party of free labor, seen as the key to every man being able to build and maintain a secure home for his family. Free labor, which was taken to mean freedom of contract between employers and employees, was often invoked to justify government inaction in the face of unfair and exploitative relations. The ideal of the home drove both the efforts to support freed slaves and to acculturate Native Americans to the values and religion of whites, whether they liked it or not. Similarly, the home was man’s castle, but too often, it was the woman’s prison.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the future of millions of freed slaves was the most obvious problem facing the country. The efforts of the federal government to provide for these people and to protect them from the exploitation and violence they faced in the South were hampered by unwillingness to expropriate the lands of rebels, reluctance to maintain troops in the rebel states, and lack of resources to provide for the largely destitute freedmen. Racism contributed to northern indifference and southern resistance. On the other hand, the Republican Party saw the former slaves as a pool of potential votes. There was some success in the immediate aftermath of the war, but in the end, the “old barons,” the large landholders, were able to reestablish control in most of the South. The desire to put the freedmen to work and end their dependence on government provisions, forced most into labor or tenancy agreements that left them little better off than before emancipation.

Nevertheless they resisted the attempts to reduce them to something like their previous condition, and in some parts of the South, they were able to do so for awhile. As the old political order was reestablished, however, they were met with more and more violent repression. As the last federal troops left, the regime of Jim Crow was firmly established, cemented in place by disastrous Supreme Court rulings that allowed false promises of “separate but equal” to count for “the equal protection of the laws.” Despite the gains of the Civil Rights movement, generations later, the current Black Lives Matter campaign and the resistance it engenders show we remain short of the goal.

The other major issue was the future of the western states and territories, especially in the prairie and Great Plains. The Homestead Act and massive land grants to the railroads were intended to open up these regions to agriculture, as well as linking the Pacific Coast to the rest of the country. In the lands between the Mississippi River and the 100th meridian, this strategy was successful, leading to enormous demographic and economic growth. In the arid regions further west, it largely failed, as did efforts to remove the Plains Indians to reservations without bloodshed. Inconsistent policies and lack of understanding and respect for Native American cultures led to a string of broken treaties, wars and massacres by both sides. Railroads made the slaughter of the bison herds into a profitable business, and in the end the army forced the Indians into small reservations. [Ironically, the famous Buffalo Soldiers, black cavalry units including many Union Civil War veterans, were part of the forces deployed. According to one history I read, they suffered more violence at the hands of white townspeople in the communities they were protecting than from the Native Americans.]

In moving to the Gilded Age, White covers a vast array of developments, including the rapid rise of industry, especially steel and railroads, both for their economic importance and for their large role in the struggle for labor rights. He also details the conflict over monetary policy, especially as it split different interest groups and sections of the country and shaped the national political scene. He describes the rise of the temperance movement and the larger preoccupation with home and morality it was part of. White shows how all these developments were seen by the leading contemporary observers and activists. It is especially interesting to learn how the generation that had supported anti-slavery and free labor tried to understand the new realities that emerged with mass industrial employment, increasing immigration and rising wealth and consumption.

In thinking about all of these questions, it is impossible to miss the parallels to our era. We struggle with questions about rapid social and economic change, labor rights, the role of marriage and the family and immigration among others. One difference is that a populist insurgency has succeeded in electing its candidate President. So far though, there seems to be no stopping the momentum that is taking us back towards the economic inequality of the Gilded Age.

All in all, The Republic for Which It Stands is a detailed political, economic and social history that serves as a very readable (listenable) introduction to the periods it covers. There is a very extensive annotated bibliography. I’d like to try more volumes in this Oxford series.

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Discordant Visions

The Wizard and the Prophet : Two Remarkable Scientists and their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

I listened to the Audible edition, which was read with a great effort to sound dramatic and to pronounce every foreign name or word with a perfect accent, both of which I found distracting.

What is the right term for the series of issues that came to public attention in the last half of the 20th century? That is, those that involved the increasing human population, economic growth and intensive exploitation of the natural world, climate change, pollution, etc? Collectively, they can be characterized as “environmental,” but to say this was the era of environmentalism doesn’t exactly fit. Many of those involved would reject the label, “environmentalist,” seeing themselves as biologists, economists, social scientists, or ecologists in the narrow, scientific sense. The older label, “conservationist,” would fit some, but not all those involved. I don’t have an answer to the problem of saying in a word what this book is about.

Mann tries to sum up the tensions and perplexities of this broad historical phenomenon by following the lives and careers of William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. The first was a conservationist in the old sense, involved with groups like Audubon and author of an influential book in the late 1940s, Road to Survival, a neo-Malthusian polemic on population growth exceeding the carrying capacity of the Earth. He was a major influence on Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring, the book often cited as the major impetus behind Earth Day 1970. The second was a midwestern born and educated plant breeder who developed wheat resistant to stem rust and then added further improvements that greatly increased yields. First in Mexico, then in other developing countries, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, this work became the basis of the green revolution, and Borlaug received a Nobel prize.

Mann treats these contrasting stories as exemplars of the familiar dilemma: can science and technology allow us to keep expanding human demand, or do we need to reduce demand, primarily by stopping population growth and cutting our per capita consumption? He considers this in relation to four domains that he labels earth, air, fire and water, that is, food and agriculture, climate change, energy generation and water supply. For each he describes the “wizard,” approach – Borlaug – and the “prophet,” approach – Vogt. He takes us through technological solutions being developed by modern day wizards, and then tells us the views of modern day prophets, who say these solutions won’t work and who propose “greener,” more “sustainable” solutions of their own. At the end, he attempts a synthesis, but it is not clear whether there is a way to reconcile such starkly contrasted views. What I found interesting was not so much the contrast as the similarity between their conceptions of the way through the difficulties, or even catastrophes, they envisioned. Both saw the critical decisions as coming from the top, through national or international governing bodies, staffed by experts, although the experts in the two cases would be applying very different principles.

The trouble with this is that such solutions quickly lose sight of human values like equity and freedom. The green revolution greatly increased food supplies, but also largely destroyed small farmers’ lives and led to the growth of the developing world’s mega cities, with their sprawling shanty towns. Attempts to rein in growth often seem to place the heaviest burdens on the poorest people, while protecting the lifestyles of the already well off. At best, affluent folk get a steady bombardment of guilt-inducing environmental propaganda, along with promotions for exotic ecotourism destinations.

Economic liberalism and the global market economy have no use for restraint, so if there are limits to growth, it’s hard to see how the free market society can avoid hitting up against them. If there aren’t any limits, as many still insist, at least in the immediate future, does that mean we should continue to allow things to develop? In an earlier post, Climate Change, Equity and Security, I considered how a sustainable future might be possible, if more attention were given to equity in development, through the imposition of clear and simple limits (on speed, on emissions, etc.) to restrain the growth of inequity and waste, while leaving room for individual freedom and innovation. Likewise, efforts to constrain the growth of economic inequality could also ease some of the current threats to the global environment. Poverty seems to me to be a major driver of population growth, because it delays the demographic transition that rich countries have gone through.

People certainly need the vision, knowledge and advice of scientists like Borlaug and Vogt, but I’m not sure that they alone can offer solutions to the complicated collection of problems that result from human flourishing on Earth. The economic miracle of the green revolution, coupled with humanity’s incredible endurance, has enabled us to escape the catastrophe that Vogt foresaw, but it seems very clear to me that sooner or later we will exhaust nature’s resilience and human patience. Whether it is grain, meat, cars or human souls, more can’t always be better. We need to think more deeply about what we really need from the Earth and how, as free people, we can sustain our life together.

Despite the limitations of his either/or framework, Mann makes the stories of these two men interesting enough for a good read. You can enjoy those parts of the book, and skip the earth, air, fire and water, if you like.

Playful Explorations

Atom Land: A Guided Tour Through the Strange (And Impossibly Small) World of Particle Physics by Jon Butterworth. The Experiment. New York. 2018.

A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman. Simon & Schuster. New York. 2017.

Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway by Siobhan Roberts. Bloomsbury USA. 2015.

 These three books form a progression from the most concrete to the most abstract or, taking a different point of view, from the most serious to the most playful. At the same time all three are in different ways, highly imaginative.

The first is an account of particle physics, framed as a voyage into the unknown waters of the atomic and subatomic scales in the natural world, accompanied by charts at the beginning of each section that map physicists’ increasing knowledge as they probe matter at ever higher energies. The classes of particles recognized by current theory are shown as islands, while the forces that link them are shown as connections – electromagnetism as bridges traversed by cars, the strong force as sea lanes crossed by boats and the weak force as airplane routes. Butterworth describes the steps by which these waters were charted, from the development of the atomic theory of matter to the Standard Model, which culminated recently with the finding of the Higgs boson, using the Large Hadron Collider.

This model is a triumph of the partnership between theoretical and experimental physics, relying on both advanced mathematics and powerful machines, such as particle colliders  for achieving high energy at incredibly tiny scales and sophisticated detectors for examining the resulting products. Both the mathematical calculations and the engineering are among the most challenging being carried out anywhere in the world, and it is an open question how much deeper we can push these explorations.

Butterworth concludes by describing some of the conjectures and hints of what lies beyond (at even higher energies) cast in the form of sailors’ tales of the prodigies and monsters found in uncharted waters, like dark matter and energy, super symmetry and string theories. His account spares his reader all but the most basic mathematics and yet provides a very helpful overview of the current theory of our physical universe as well as an enjoyable tale.

The second book is a biography of the pioneer of communications theory, Claude Shannon, mathematician and engineer, whose work helped provide the basis for today’s digital computers and the entire structure of information technology built on their power. Shannon is a man who loved both thinking and tinkering and who was fortunate to be brilliant enough to be allowed to make those activities his career, without having to worry too much about where it all led. His most influential work, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, changed the way communications engineers thought about their work by eliminating the focus on the mechanism (telegraph, telephone, radio, television) and instead considering the fundamental logic of information. Among his key contributions were a focus on probability and his demonstration that all messages can be reduced to simple binary codes, consisting of “bits.” His basic measure of information is familiar to me from my days as an ecology graduate student, because it can be repurposed as a way of measuring species diversity in samples of organisms. This was one of my first experiences with the idea that information is a property of more than just human communications. The authors discuss the way in which the concept of information ( especially its conceptualization as uncertainty or randomness) pervades many aspects of modern science. They warn that this may prove just another version of the old “clockwork universe,” an example of the tendency to imagine nature in terms of our own inventions. Still, there is no doubting the extent of Shannon’s influence.

Despite his reputation, and despite being associated with many of the greatest minds of the twentieth century at Bell Labs and MIT, Shannon preferred his private family life and his playful activities, from robot building to unicycle riding, over fame and influence. He and his mathematician wife, Betty, spent much time devising toys and games, some quite sophisticated, including one of the earliest chess playing computers. He could accomplish amazing results with erector sets and a few switches and relays, like a juggling robot, dressed to look like W.C. Fields. He had earned, in the eyes of his employers, the right to pursue these activities by his amazing early achievements. Perhaps as robots and IT gradually take away the need for so many to spend lives in repetitive toil, more of us will be able to enjoy such a playful existence.

The last book suggests what a life of pure play might look like. I heard and saw John Conway at my institution many years ago giving a talk and demonstration on knots. It was a virtuoso performance, culminating it a dance in which a group of volunteers from the audience followed his directions to turn themselves into an amazingly elaborate pattern while joined together by a web of pieces of rope. I don’t recall the final result except that it was quite astonishing. Conway is widely known as the inventor of Conway’s Game of Life and of surreal numbers, among the numerous mathematical subjects that have engaged his attention over the years. The game of life has become a staple among computer pastimes, both because of the fascinating and sometimes beautiful patterns it generates and because of the way it models self replication and the universal Turing machine (the mathematical essence of computers). Indeed, as the Wikipedia article on the game notes, with those two properties, it can be thought of as modeling life itself, at least as mathematically defined.

Conway is in Roberts’ account perpetually at play, and like a heedless child, he leaves messes everywhere he lights. His offices at various venerable centers of mathematical research have been famous for the nearly impenetrable heaps of toys, games and paper constructions he accumulates. Conway loves games (he sees every game as a number, indeed games for him seem to underlie numbers, and provide a basic way to conceive of his surreal numbers). His method of solving problems is frequently to construct something or use a game as a model. His play leads to real mathematical discoveries, however, and other mathematicians, including some far more serious in demeanor than Conway, have been eager to collaborate with him on major projects.

Roberts biography is interspersed with accounts of her interactions with Conway during the time she was gathering material from and about him. Someone referred to the book as “metabiography,” since its making is part of the story, and it certainly manages to convey some of the strangeness of a life so dedicated to play. Mathematics, like tinkering, is one of the most primal forms play can take. When our educators come to understand that learning is about how to live and not just how to earn a living, they will have new and even better reasons to be sure everyone learns the fundamentals. We all need math to open up the horizons of beauty and pleasure.

 I know I’m going to keep rereading these books and also plunge into the colder waters of Wikipedia to try to better understand some of the concepts presented, but for now, I will post these impressions.

Palearctic travelers

The Horse, the Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony, Princeton University Press, 2007.

 This very rich and fascinating book details the development of our understanding of the history of the Indo European family of languages, from the latest common set of dialects spoken by people living in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian seas in southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia. David Anthony covers the time from the earliest diffusion of agriculture and domesticated animals out of Mesopotamia into southeastern Europe and the subsequent gradual spread out into the steppes. His key thesis is that the domestication of the wild horses of the steppes and their subsequent use as mounts, followed by the introduction of the wagon and the war chariot gave steppe tribes a mobility that enabled them to move long distances, eventually into central Europe and the Indian subcontinent, creating a bridge across cultural regions that by the late bronze age extended as far as China. Thus their language became the dominant family of languages over a vast geographic area.

 To begin with, Anthony, an archaeologist, provides an account of the linguistic evidence for a common ancestral language. The history was derived from careful analysis of phonetic and morphological changes among closely and distantly related languages. This work has been going on since the 18th century, when Europeans first began to suspect that their languages and those of India were akin to one another. This process is very much like reconstructing a biological lineage from genetic and morphological data on living or fossil specimens. It is always only the best hypothesis to explain the data at hand, but lots of work gradually leads to trustworthy results. Interestingly, linguists and evolutionary biologists employ many of the same computer programs. Anthony argues that with the predictive capacity of these explanations and the help of inscriptions dating to some of the earliest writing, we can be reasonably certain that we know some 1500 root words of Proto Indo European as well as many more terms derived from them.

 In a long series of chapters, he goes through the archaeological evidence to reconstruct the culture and characteristics of the speakers of Proto Indo European as well as how they came to be capable of leaving their steppe home and spreading out so far. Technological change is a key factor: the period covered extends from the late Neolithic to the Bronze Age. Tools, weapons, household goods and prestige items were all important. So was the domestication of the horse and the new kinds of both herding and livestock raiding that riding horses made possible. Climate change was another key factor: cold, dry periods favored herding over farming and led to wars that destroyed thriving agricultural settlements on the edges of the steppes. Cultural change was evident all along as settlement patterns, burial styles and material goods changed, indicating, according to Anthony, the rise of more male centered and hierarchical societies on the steppes – in other words the rise of the chieftain and possibly the priest, as had also happened in the city states of Mesopotamia. At some point the wheel spread into the steppe from the south.

 In the steppe, horseback riding and the wagon facilitated an mobile style of herding that also could be accompanied by cattle raiding, looting and trading, which in turn led some to accumulate greater wealth in herds and goods, including copper and bronze weapons and ornaments. Harsher climates also contributed to this increase in social inequality. Anthony argues from linguistic evidence that the speakers of Proto Indo European developed two key social systems that enabled them to dominate the cultures that they encountered in their expansion out of the steppe: patron-client and guest-host. The former stabilized and solidified the pattern of social inequality; the latter made possible firm alliances among groups from both similar and different cultures on the basis of reciprocal obligation (the Indo European root for “guest” and “host” is the same). These, plus the ability of mobile herders to make long distance migrations and easily establish themselves wherever pasture could be found, profoundly shaped the future history of Eurasia. Sometimes raiding and warfare must have been involved in the spread of these peoples, but not the sorts of mobile armies (think of the Mongol hordes) seen in the iron ages and Medieval times; those were a much later development. The primary way the Indo European culture spread, according to Anthony, was incremental. A few powerful chiefs established themselves in new territory, either as patrons or as guest/hosts, and their superior wealth, culture and technology gradually won over the locals. Horseback riding and chariots (possibly invented in the steppe) were rapidly adopted in Europe, the Middle East and China, while the Indo European language evolved into multiple major branches, eventually extending from the British Isles to India.

 Since the publication of this book, genetic studies of ancient Europeans have been published that are consistent with the overall picture given here. About the time suggested by Anthony for the initial spread of Indo European dialects into Eastern Europe, there was an significant spread of DNA, especially that of males, from the steppes north of the Black Sea into Europe. News reports from Science in 2015 and 2017 describes these studies as does a recent news article in Scientific American. The evidence, however, raises many questions. For instance, there are also significant indications that European genes spread into the steppes. This could be explained if long distance trading or raiding, involving wives or children brought back by returning parties were significant, as well as children fathered by the migrants/visitors in Europe. It doesn’t rule out long distance migration and colonization by steppe peoples as well, but it suggests that the picture was complicated. Genes, culture and language spread together, with or without large-scale migration, in Anthony’s scenario.

What makes Anthony’s account particularly cogent, and better than any of the news stories, is his attention to detail, particularly in laying out the linguistic and archeological evidence. It’s a lot to take in, but we can be grateful for his scholarship and willingness to cross disciplinary boundaries.