Chaplin, Joyce E., The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius, Basic Books, NY, 2006. 421 pp.
[cross-posted on Chicagoboyz]
Not too long ago, I reviewed Practical Matter: Newton's Science in the Service of Industry and Empire 1687-1851 describing the impact of Newton's Principia on the development of public science and technology. That book briefly mentioned the fact that Benjamin Franklin's influence was dramatically exhanced by the fact that he studied electricity ... a subject of great fascination in the mid-18th century in Europe.
Scientific American's podcast recently interviewed the author of a new biography of Benjamin Franklin, which looks at his life from the perspective of his science. Harvard professor Joyce Chaplin has written a wonderful book for anyone wondering how science (natural philosophy), politics, and personality blended in the amazing life (and subsequent myths) of Ben Franklin. Note: the book has no association with the famous magazine.
Ben was the first celebrity natural philosopher, as iconized in his day as Einstein is in ours. Unlike Newton, born in the 17th century and averse to public engagement, Franklin was born of humble circumstances in the early 18th century (1706) -- an era that saw the first real participation of the general public in the questions of "how the world works." As an apprentice printer, he was geared from a young age to read and generate his own printed material. His fascination with the world seemed endless and he wrote about what he learned and saw in many different formats. So it was Franklin, rather than Newton, who was to epitomize 18th century "genius" for both an English-speaking public and a Continental Europe that was struggling to deal with the new knowledge unleashed by Newton and the steam mechanics. Franklin could bridge that gap between an elite body of natural philosophers, and the practical businessmen and tradesmen who needed to build things, buy things, and trade things. This diversity of experience and origin seemed to have served the man well. He could get his hands dirty with experimentation (with fireplaces, lightning rods, and seawater temperature), yet his hard-won prosperity and social climbing meant that his words and experiments were taken very seriously at the highest levels of philosophical inquiry. As an example, Franklin was appointed to the committee which examined the claims of Anton Mesmer by the French king.
Chaplin has a distinct claim for Franklin, counter to our modern impression:
Science is knowledge of things; politics is power over people. During the eighteenth century, the two enterprises overlapped in fascinating ways. Franklin entered both realms but flourished especially in the territory they held in common. A man of science, he became a political leader -- indeed, the personification of a nation with a unprecedenteed history. A single book could not do justice to either one of these enormous topics, either Franklin's science or his political career. Instead, this book examines the most important ways in which Franklin made his pursuits in the sciences and in public affairs inform and support each other.
Benjamin Franklin was the first scientific American. He was the first person born in the Americas who became internationally celebrated (not just known and respected) for work in physical science. Put it another way. Franklin, an American, was the first person to be internationally celebrated for work in the physical sciences. A mere colonial of ordinary birth managed to achieve this stature. Several stories are embedded here, about America, about science, and about Benjamin Franklin. And ultimately, they are -- conveniently, marvelously -- all the same story.
How Franklin was able to convert his scientific reputation into a career as international statesman and Founding Father is fascinating. Franklin was curious, clever, and ambitious from the outset. A humble birth in a large Boston family, and an abruptly terminated formal education led to an apprentice with his brother as a printer. Running away to Philadelphia he befriended a man who sent him to London to acquire a press. Abandoned there he returned to the printer's art to survive, returning to Philadelphia to begin a printing business and participate in administrative activity and in communal intellectual activity. By his thirties, he was a prosperous businessman, retired from printing, and able to devote at least part of his time to intellectual and experimental pursuits. His initial foray into science, with a publication on the Pennsylvania fireplaces was followed by more elaborate work on electricity, for which he is famous.
Finding himself in London as an agent for several colonies, he continued to expand his research and theorizing, culminating in his publication in 1751 of Experiments and Observations on Electricity, which was immediately translated into French and triggered a wave of experimentatl replications across Europe. In 1754, the Royal Society awarded Franklin the Copley Medal -- a signal honour for someone neither a member nor a native. Franklin as a young man had lived in hope of an introduction, or at least a sight, of Sir Isaac Newton. Now he was acclaimed as a pre-eminent scientist by the most prominent and elite natural philosophy society in the English-speaking world.
World events were to intrude, however. After many years in London, and much effort to convey to the British elite and public the colonial views on taxation, trade, and development, he was caught in a controversy over his postmaster responsibilities. Returning to Philadelphia as a leading philosopher, he was drawn into the events of the War of Independence. Travelling to France, he acted as ambassador for the fledgling country, and played a part in both gaining French support for America and for arranging the terms of peace. Returning to the colonies he again was drawn into the discussions about the structure of the new country and the drafting of the U.S. constitution.
Chaplin manages to weave Franklin's philosophical and scientific inquiries into the broader sweep of his life. Despite a schedule which left little time for science, Franklin relished keeping up with discoveries by others, and his contributions on many aspects of natural and political philosophy are substantial. His careful cultivation of the friends and the businesses that would advance his interests was methodical -- "making haste slowly" as his pseudonymous Poor Richard's Almanack proclaimed. He set himself between the worlds of tradesmen and gentlemen at a time when that was very difficult, adopting one role or the other as the situation warrented. With his prominent role in the political restructuring of the British Empire, his homespun demeanour was inspiration to some and dire threat to others.
The author does a very good job of summarizing the vast literature on Franklin's science and life. From what I could see in the End Notes of the topics with which I'm familiar, she's given many additional solid references for any reader interested in the historical and philosphical details. In this, she has been greatly aided by a gigantic body of scholarship on Franklin. What comes across most in The First Scientific American is just how much fun those historians have been having. Franklin became famous at a time when the first breaks in the bonds of European social tradition and class were starting to appear. Whether electrocuting friends at riverside picnics, dropping in on Adam Smith in Scotland, arranging for American apple pies for friends in London, helping draft the Declaration of Independence, pondering the Gulf Stream during voyages across the Atlantic, or irritating the King of France with his wild popularity in Paris, Ben crammed a lot of life into an unusually long life.
Despite Chaplin's best efforts as a Harvard prof to frown upon the compromises and un-PC elements of Ben Franklin's life, and to caution us that our vision of him as a great "modern" is partly flawed ... it's hard to imagine that any modern American, or any scientist around the world for that matter, would hesitate for a moment to take old Ben Franklin into home or lab and begin a conversation. We would all expect him to be full of questions, full of interest, full of ideas, and full of good humour. Based on The First Scientific American, I think these fantasies are likely well-grounded.
It is a testament to both his accomplishments and the subsequent elevation of his life, that Franklin is a profoundly appealing character to us still, celebrating the three hundredth anniversary of his birth. For what is evident in his writing is the impact of the Enlightenment on ordinary lives. Franklin was an enthusiast for the settlement of America, and for the evident "political arithmetick" that would shift the centre of economic and political power from Britain to America. The political, philosophical, and religious changes that were necessary for that transformation were often on his mind, and just as often reflect upon in print -- sometimes pseudonymously. And Franklin saw firsthand the constant growth in understanding that led to our modern sciences of physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine. He was able to dabble in all these fields, and quiz the early giants of these sciences ... through personal visits, letters, books, and prestigious society memberships. In science and politics, he lived his life at the thick of things ... and would no doubt be gratified to see what his efforts in America came to. Ben Franklin dreamed big and the United States subsequently filled out entirely the scope and scale of his dream.
Interestingly enough, after Franklin's death, his genius for science and technology was underplayed ... and apart from his experiment with the kite in the thunderstorm (a parallel to the George Washington "cherry tree" meme) it was Franklin's role in the War of Independence which was placed in the foreground. Signer of the Declaration of Independence, of the Treaty of Paris, of the Treaty of Alliance with France, and of the U.S. Constitution, it would be hard to understate his importance in the birth of the United States. Consider that he was 70 when he began the diplomatic marathon necessary to acquire French support after 1776, then on to reconciliation with Great Britain (1783), and the great experiment in government that was the U.S. Constitution. The coda of his life was extraordinary by itself.
With the winter holidays approaching, it's a good time to consider how The First Scientific American might fit into your book-buying plans. If a well-written biography of Benjamin Franklin (of manageable size) immediately grabs your interest, then this title would make a great companion during the gap between Christmas and New Year's. And if you have a child between 15 and 25 that has any budding interest in science (while your tastes lean more perhaps to history, politics, and economics) ... this is a book that you both can read and find endless pleasure in discussing. Franklin's life will stick with you, for the rest of your life. For younger teens, a word of warning. While there's nothing salacious or inappropriate in the book, Franklin did have periodic conflicts with his family, his friends, his colleagues, and political establishments generally ... this is an adult biography in the sense that it doesn't gloss over how Franklin could be ruthless and ambitious as circumstances demanded. Snatched lightning from the skies, and sceptres from tyrants. And bruised plenty of toes in the process. So for younger kids, it may well be a book that you'd read together, to ponder how the specifics of a person's life alter the grander accomplishments we learn in grade school.
The First Scientific American is a book that succeeds in bringing together the history of science, the Enlightenment, and colonial America through the life of its very illustrious participant.
Oh ... and if passing through London, don't miss the newly opened Ben Franklin House documenting the man's scientific and political work at his Craven Street address in the years before the War of Independence!
Table of Contents
One Genius 1
Two Head and Hands 9
Three Man of Letters 39
Four Experiments and Observations 73
Five The Franklin Paradox 116
Six Distance 160
Seven Wrecked 201
Eight The Science of War 240
Nine Final Accounts 293
Ten Afterlife 336
Thanks to ELC, who quoted this in the comments section to the previous post.
Men say, Columbia, we shall hear thy guns.
But in what tongue shall be thy battle-cry?
Not that our sires did love in years gone by,
When all the Pilgrim Fathers were little sons
In merry homes of England? Back, and see
Thy satchell'd ancestor! Behold, he runs
To mine, and, clasp'd, they tread the equal lea
To the same village-school, where side by side
They spell "Our Father". Hard by, the twin-pride
Of that grey hall whose ancient oriel gleams
Thro' yon baronial pines, with looks of light
Our sister-mothers sit beneath one tree.
Meanwhile our Shakespeare wanders past and dreams
His Helena and Hermia. Shall we fight?
Nor force nor fraud shall sunder us! O ye
Who north or south, on east or western land,
Native to noble sounds, say truth for truth,
Freedom for freedom, love for love, and God
For God; Oh ye who in eternal youth
Speak with a living and creative flood
This universal English, and do stand
Its breathing book; live worthy of that grand
Heroic utterance—parted, yet a whole,
Far yet unsever'd,—children brave and free
Of the great Mother-tongue, and ye shall be
Lords of an Empire wide as Shakespeare's soul,
Sublime as Milton's immemorial theme,
And rich as Chaucer's speech, and fair as Spenser's dream.
Sydney Dobell (1824-1874)
The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (1913), ed. Arthur Quiller-Couch, # 304.
This is cool. Andrew Roberts, one of the best English historians of this generation, is about to have his History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 published. I have not gotten my hands on it yet, but here are two quotes, one from the extract on his website, and the other extracted from a review.
This from the extract: Just as we do not today differentiate between the Roman Republic and the imperial period of the Julio-Claudians when we think of the Roman Empire, so in the future no-one will bother to make a distinction between the British Crown-led and the American Republic-led periods of English-speaking dominance between the late-eighteenth and the twenty-first centuries. It will be recognised that in the majestic sweep of history they had so much in common - and enough that separated them from everyone else – that they ought to be regarded as a single historical entity, which only scholars and pedants will try to describe separately. A Martian landing on our planet might find linguistic or geographical more useful than ethnic factors when it came to analyzing the differences between different groups of earthlings; the countries whose history this book covers are those where the majority of people speak English as their first language.
Yes -- this lays out one of the most basic points very succinctly. Most of the people of the Anglosphere are so close to the matter that all we see is the visible differences, which are often just a matter of "ethnographic dazzle" -- colorful but fundamentally trivial differences. The more perspective the observer gains, either through cultural distance, passage of time, or geographical distance, the more the similarities and continuities of the Anglosphere stand out. Once you have gained this perspective, proper study of the Anglosphere can begin.
And here is a quote presented in Michael Burleigh's review: A Maori spokesmen expressed this very well in 1918 as he outlined why his people had fought so courageously for the British Crown:
‘We know of the Samoans, our kin: we know of the Eastern and Western natives of German Africa, and we know of the extermination of the Hereros, and that is enough for us. For seventy-eight years we have been, not under the rule of the British, but taking part in the ruling of ourselves, and we know by experience that the foundations of British sovereignty are based upon the eternal principles of liberty, equity and justice’.
An interesting footnote, and chilling foreshadowing that the Maori quoted could not have imagined when he spoke those words in 1918, is that the extermination of the Herero in South-West Africa in 1905 took place under the governorship of Paul Goering -- father of Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering.
I'm sure I will have much more to say when I have read the book. And I look forward to what Lex, James, Helen and our other illustrious co-bloggers have to say as well.
The National Film Theatre (an excellent institution and the only cinema that shows films worth seeing) has just had a two-month Carol Reed season.
Sir Carol Reed, known chiefly for “The Third Man” and “The Fallen Idol” was one of this country’s greatest directors, versatile, imaginative and wonderfully skilled in his craft. His earlier films gave the most wonderful picture of middle-class England with all the good points and bad. Firsts for me: the film of Priestley’s “Laburnum Grove”, an unexpectedly tense and humorous send-up of middle-class life in the London suburbs of the early thirties and “Kipps” in which Michael Redgrave portrays H. G. Wells’s draper’s assistant who goes on to greater things.
During the war, Reed, like many others turned his attention to war work, commonly known as propaganda. He made a number of superb films as a civilian, later joining the Army Kinematographic Service, where he made official training films and such classics as “The Way Ahead”. In the immediate aftermath of the war he made some of the finest dark thrillers of which “The Third Man” is the greatest, going on to vast extravaganzas like “The Agony and the Ecstasy” and “Oliver”.
On Bank Holiday week-end the NFT showed “Night Train to Munich” a spy thriller aimed at the American audiences as much as the British ones (Reed being one of the few British directors whose films were popular in the States), “The Young Mr Pitt” a biopic of the great Prime Minister and a seventeen-minute short, “A Letter from Home”, made under the auspices of the Ministry of Education for foreign consumption.
Let me deal with the short film first. It featured a young and heart-breakingly beautiful Celia Johnson, whose own husband, Peter Fleming, was away for all of the six war years, as a mother whose husband is at sea and children in New York, being looked after by an American family. She sends the little ones a loving letter, describing her day, which is full of the “same old boring things”. The film shows the reality of those boring things, the nightly raids, the casualties, the difficulties of getting even the simplest meal together, sleeping in the shelter, learning to deal with incendiary bombs and, above all, the determined, unvanquishable spirit of Londoners.
Made in 1941, it was intended to convince Americans of the reality of the hardships Britain was suffering from but also of the indomitability of the people. As the other two films, particularly “The Young Mr Pitt”, the short film emphasises the commonality of Britain and America – the war the former is fighting is for the ideas and principles espoused by the latter.
“Night Train to Munich” is often described as almost a continuation of Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes”, which also starred Margaret Lockwood. The Reed film has Rex Harrison instead of Michael Redgrave who had other commitments and revives the cricket-loving Charters and Caldicott as played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne.
It is, of course, a truism among film critics that Alfred Hitchcock was one of the greatest and few can come up to his standard. Well, in this case, the truism is wrong. “The Lady Vanishes” is a delightful film, full of the usual Hitchcockian touches and also full of the man’s ineffable silliness. Plots? What plots? “The Lady Vanishes” takes place in a country that is vaguely Ruritanian, gives the impression of being Switzerland but is possibly Germany. Or not. This lack of precision or any worry about it diminishes the tension of the story. After all, it is only fairyland and the good will triumph while the bad will come to a no good end.
“Night Train to Munich” is very different. It is timed and positioned precisely, taking place in the last few months before the outbreak of World War II, finishing in the train journey that takes place in the night of September 3, 1939 and a chase through Germany the following day, with a final escape to Switzerland.
Briefly: the British manage to spirit out a Czech scientist, who is working on a development in arms manufacturing that will revolutionize warfare, just ahead of the invading Germans. But the Gestapo arrests his daughter as she is trying to reach the airport and sends her to an internment camp. Immediately, one must note two very precise and realistic aspects. When the Germans talk about Czech steel production being superlative and their need for the armaments manufacturing in Czechoslovakia, the film tells the truth. The Czechoslovakia of the late thirties was one of the best producers of arms in Europe and the Germans were fully aware of this. As they took the factories of Sudetenland over, they transferred some to Austria and used others in situ. Czech tanks and vehicles were invaluable in the invasion of Poland and, later, of the Soviet Union.
Then there is the internment camp. The film was made in 1940 but already there is a depiction of the viciousness of the Nazi regime. Reed was so attentive to detail that he asked the advice of someone who had managed to get out of an internment camp and come to Britain.
The daughter, Lockwood, manages to escape and joins her father but they are both kidnapped by Gestapo agents. The second half of the film consists of the elegant but deadly British agent, Rex Harrison, trying to rescue them and bring them back to Britain. He is motivated largely by patriotism, a desperate desire to improve Britain’s chances in the war that is drawing ever closer, feelings of anger because he had, in his opinion, failed in his duty and, needless to say, growing love for the stunning Margaret Lockwood.
There is, of course, a great deal of hokum but, also, some telling points. The film was released in June 1940 and was, possibly, not as successful as it should have been because of the timing. As Reed himself pointed out, it was a pre-Dunkirk film shown in the post-Dunkirk time. The mood had become darker and victory was no longer seen to be easy or, indeed, probable.
Nevertheless, the propaganda must have been effective in trying to provide both a negative and a positive reason for fighting, that is, trying to explain what we are fighting against and what we are fighting for.
The Nazis are not all spectacularly evil in this film, though there is a good deal of nastiness in the depiction of the internment camp. There are also wryly amusing moments when Nazi officers say things like: “This is very urgent as any day now Poland will provoke us into invading it in self-defence.” (One can hear an echo of this statement in the conversation William Pitt has with the French ambassador Talleyrand in “The Young Mr Pitt” about the French invasion of the Low Countries.) On the other hand, there is no obvious disdain for the Germans either. Some are stupid, dishonest, and even, brutal. But others are intelligent and, in their own way, patriotic. It is the system that has been imposed on their country, the system of lies, hatred and brutality that is shown to be evil.
There is also a reasonable indication that many Germans are dissatisfied with the Nazi regime and hanker after the freedom, which Britain represents. That is the crux of the positive argument: what we are fighting for, the most difficult of all things to define.
When Margaret Lockwood manages to get to England from her internment camp, it is still summer and the war is merely looming. She talks happily of people laughing and feeling relaxed, unafraid. Well, one might say, Britain has not been occupied, unlike her own country, Czechoslovakia. But later, much emphasis is laid on the fact that the Nazis had been brainwashed, taught to repeat slogans; that they are no longer capable of thinking for themselves, unlike the British, who remain free and, therefore, ingenious in their ability to fight the enemy.
The two somewhat bumbling but basically very decent cricket-lovers, Charters and Caldicott, represent England at her best. They are smart, though not too smart; courageous though not foolhardy; decent and honest but capable of all necessary deviousness when faced with the enemy. At one point they find themselves dressed in SS uniforms, marching reasonably well behind Rex Harrison, also in disguise.
The values are conservative with a small ‘c’ – freedom, the right to live your life as you want to, decency, openness, courage and, if necessary, deviousness against the enemy. Above all, there is the determination not to give in (though this is matched by an equal determination on the other side). These are Anglospheric ideas, the link between British and American attitudes emphasised for propaganda purposes.
The theme of what is English or what is important to all the countries, Britain, America and those of the Empire and Commonwealth, understandably, preoccupied many of the film-makers. The ideas are there in straightforward war films like “In Which They Serve” – duty of service but also private affection and love of those close to one with little emotion displayed – or “The Way Forward”, which shows the birth and growth of the new, more democratic army, with even the officer, played by David Niven, being one who had risen from the ranks.
The most successful if somewhat eccentric of the “what we are fighting for” films are those made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (himself a Hungarian), such as “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, a strongly argued case for ordinary decency that uses the image, created by David Low and so despised by the Left, of the bumbling old-fashioned colonel, out of date in the brave new world. The film makes it clear: being out of date is not the worst thing that can happen to one, if it means adhering to old-fashioned honesty and decency.
Churchill did not like the film and, I think, I can understand why. The trouble with Blimp is that he is not terribly bright, while the only highly intelligent decent man in the film is his German friend, played by Anton Walbrook, who escapes from Nazi Germany and tries, without much success, to warn his British friend of the evil that is brewing in that country. I can imagine that Churchill was not too keen on any film that perpetuated the great British assumption that intelligence is somehow bad and suspect. On the other hand, Churchill, was, predictably, enamoured with the various historical films of those years, his favourite one being “That Hamilton Woman”, which Tory Historian has never seen, despite it stellar cast.
It is normal for countries to produce historical films during a war and even as one looms on the horizon. What the historical theme might be depends largely on the way that country sees itself. Most of the British ones dealt with the previous times when the country faced up to a strong enemy on the Continent, the two favourite topics being the Spanish Armada and the Napoleonic Wars.
Another film Churchill was rather fond of was “The Young Mr Pitt”. Film critics, largely a poxy lot, now that we do not have the late lamented Alexander Walker any more, tend to be a bit sniffy about this film. Oh dear, they say, it is so simplistic. We know so little about the reality of the political battle between Fox and Pitt. Not enough is made of the great battles won by Nelson. And, honestly, how … well, really, … how one-sided.
War films do need to be simplistic to a great extent. You can’t afford to let doubts creep in when the country is at risk, as it was when “The Young Mr Pitt” was made in 1941. Unusually for Reed, the shooting and the post-production took a long time and the film was not released till 1942 by which time the United States, part of the targeted audience, was at war. If “Night Train to Munich” was a pre-Dunkirk film, this one is definitely post-Dunkirk. The mood is mostly dark, though, clearly there are a few victories reported, notably that of the Nile and Trafalgar. Pitt, we have to remember, died when the Continental menace still loomed large.
“The Young Mr Pitt” is a remarkably skilful film, with quick episodes following one another to give an impression of the great prime minister’s career rather than a historical dissection of it. It is not inaccurate, merely impressionistic.
There is a clear link to Churchill, Pitt the Younger being the one man on whom the salvation of the country depends, as the scene where his temporary successor Addington is harassed by MPs shows. There is, also, the clearly designated American connection, it being of great importance to show that Britain at all times fights for the principles the United States was founded on and lives by.
At the very beginning of the film we see Pitt the Elder, the Earl of Chatham, speaking in the House of Lords against the war with the Colonists, proclaiming: “You will never conquer America.” He refers the ideas of liberty, the language and religion that the two countries have in common. This is echoed later by the younger Pitt, when he denounces revolutionary and Napoleonic France as being inimicable to English ideas of liberty and wanting to impose its language and its irreligion on this country. That, in a way, is the summary of what Britain is fighting for: her language, her religion, her ideas of liberty.
Unlike other war-time films, this one does not show the people en masse in a good light, taking its cue from Shakespeare and his fears of the mob. Individuals, like the two pugilists who support Pitt through thick and thin, or William Wilberforce (played by John Mills) who longs for peace but has to accept war, come out well. Even Fox offers to serve under Pitt when it becomes clear that nothing but all-out war will serve Napoleon’s purposes. But the people – oh the people are fickle. If there is a victory, they support Pitt. As soon as things go wrong, they throw bricks at his windows and rotten eggs at his carriage. One wonders whether this was a realistic picture of the mood in Britain in 1941 (without the bricks and the rotten eggs).
The film hinges on the great Robert Donat’s performance. Carol Reed had enticed him back to film-making because they both considered this to be important war work. He himself was of English, Polish and German descent, which accounts for the slightly odd surname but, like Leslie Howard, managed to play the quintessential English hero with no difficulty.
In “The Young Mr Pitt” his performance is superb and all the film’s shortcomings are swallowed up in that. He plays the aged Earl of Chatham as well as Pitt the Younger, whom he takes through from his early political years, when the bouncy young man can barely control his elation at being made prime minister at the age of 24 and has pillow chases up and down the stairs with the young siblings of Lady Eleanor Eden with whom he is obviously in love through the hard-working, hard-drinking dark days to the triumph of his post-Trafalgar speech at the Guildhall. The shadow of his early death hangs over that event and Pitt’s defiant toasting of his friends with wine rather than the medication poured out to him by his doctor.
There is one more point of interest: Pitt the Younger is presented as a romantic hero, the man who sacrifices his personal happiness and his life to his country and the idea of liberty, which his country represents. The country’s liberty and that of its individual people, that is what Britain fought for in the Napoleonic Wars and that is what it was fighting for in 1941. A simple, comprehensible, and all-embracing idea.
(Cross-posted, in an edited version from the Conservative History Journal blog. This will appear as an article in the Conservative History Journal.)
(Posted last night at one small voice.)
Five years ago this evening we Americans, and more broadly we Westerners, went to sleep comfortable and complacent. Five years ago tomorrow morning we were rudely awoken; we found our land attacked and our people violated; and we came face to face with the manifest existence of evildoers who wished to destroy us.
Then arose the refrain: "Why do they hate us?" "Is not Islam a religion of peace?" "We must have done something horrible to bring this on." "It must be our foreign policy, or our spiritual decadence, or our cultural imperialism, or even our very success in commerce, production, science, and technology."
I, too, wondered. I began a program of reading and research to understand the nature of the West and the nature of Islam. I still have much to learn. But I know now much more than I knew on September 11, 2001.
I know that the jihad of Islam against the West is not solely a battle of Muslims against Christians (or, in the case of most Europeans, the heirs to Christendom). I know that Islam has waged its so-called holy war against Zoroastrians in Persia, against animists in Africa, against Hindus and Buddhists in India and Southeast Asia, against Taoists and Confucianists in China, against Berbers in the Maghreb, against Jews in Palestine -- as much if not more than against Christians in ancient Syria, Asia Minor, the Balkans, Hungary, Iberia, Armenia, Sicily, Crete, Lebanon, and beyond.
I know that Islam is not a religion of peace. I know that Islam means submission -- submission to the arbitrary will of Allah in heaven, submission to the arbitrary edicts of authoritarian strongmen on earth. I know that the Koran enjoins Muslims to not make friends with those who do not believe in Allah, and even says to "seize them and kill them wherever you find them" (sura 4.89).
I know that Islam is opposed to science, technology, and progress. As one of the hadiths says, "Verily the most truthful communication is the Book of Allah, the best guidance is from Muhammad, and the worst of all things are innovations; every innovation is heresy, every heresy is error, and every error leads to hell."
I know that Islam is endorses slavery, oppresses non-Muslims, and is opposed to human dignity, especially the dignity of women. For example, under the sharia (the Islamic law), the testimony of a woman is worth half that of a man. A woman is not to seek her own fulfillment, but exists only to please a man.
I know that the West's struggle against communism in the twentieth century was merely a blip on the historical radar, whereas the struggle of Islam against all other cultures has been a constant of human history for almost 1400 years.
I know that many Muslims believe it is inevitable that all of humanity must eventually believe in Allah, his Prophet Mohammed, his holy book the Koran as the only source of human wisdom, his law the sharia as the only law; and that all other cultures must submit to the will of Allah, whether willingly or by the sword.
I know that many Muslims are not violent; but at the same time I know that the term "Islamic fundamentalism" is redundant, because to be a Muslim is to believe that the Koran holds all truth, that nothing new can be discovered because it was all discovered by Mohammed, that anyone but a Muslim is in error and shall roast in Hell for all eternity.
I know that it is claimed that many Muslims are moderates, not radicals; but at the same time I see no evidence of this so-called moderate Muslim majority rising up in protest against their extremist, terrorist, jihadist brethren, because in their hearts they know that the Koran condones and excuses and encourages all believers to slay the unbelievers wherever they may be found.
I know that we -- the peoples of the West, the peoples of Europe and America, indeed also the peoples of India and Russia and China and Africa -- live in what Muslims consider the lands of war (Dar al-Harb). I know that we are being warred upon and that we have been warred upon on and off for almost 1400 years. I know that this war will not end as long as there are people who believe in the Koran as the literal word of God, whose minds will never be open to innovation or science, who consider a woman to be half of a man, who consider the life of one who does not believe in Allah to be worth less than nothing.
I know that we must stop trading with those who want to kill us (or those who, directly or indirectly, fund those who want to kill us), that we must not tolerate them, not support them, not grant them recognition, not collaborate or negotiate with them in any way, shape, or form.
I know that there are many enemies of freedom and enlightenment, and that even the West contains such enemies. But I know that there is no greater enemy of freedom and enlightenment than Islam.
I know that there will be no peace until freedom and enlightenment reach the lands of submission (the Dar al-Islam). Yet I know that speading freedom and enlightenment is perhaps the hardest and subtlest struggle of any civilization, especially when the soil in which the seeds must be sowed is so virulently opposed to precisely freedom and enlightenment.
I know that it will be supremely difficult for the peoples of the West to maintain and expand their traditions of freedom and enlightenment while resisting those who would have us submit to Allah, Mohammed, sharia, fatalism, and authoritarianism. I know that it will be even harder for the peoples of India, Russia, China, and Africa, who lack the strong and deep traditions of freedom and enlightenment we take for granted in the West.
I know that the peoples of the Anglosphere -- the Americans, the Canadians, the Australians, the New Zealanders, the British, etc. -- are the greatest targets for the forces of submission, because our traditions of freedom and enlightenment are more deeply engrained and more fully developed than those of any other peoples on earth.
I know that, despite its faults, Western civilization is the greatest, freest, most enlightened, most open, most advanced, most peaceful, most ethical civilization in the history of humanity. I know that the West is the last, best hope of earth. I know that freedom and enlightenment must be defended, articulated, and indeed actively and confidently spread to every far corner of the earth if humanity is to survive and advance, as individuals and as a species.
I wish that it were not so, but I know that we live in difficult, challenging times, and that in all likelihood the times will become harder before they become easier.
I know that one small voice cannot have much influence on the course of history, but I know that each of us must do what we can to defend, articulate, and spread freedom and enlightenment. And I know that I will strive to do so every day of my life, because to do anything less would be to submit to the forces of slavery and darkness.
[cross-posted on Chicagoboyz]
In the past few months, I've had a chance to review two substantial books on the Fall of the Roman Empire and its after-effects (Peter Heathers' Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History, and Bryan Ward-Perkins' The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. These books summarize the post-WW2 archaeology and literary analysis covering the late Roman and post-Roman periods, and offer a useful corrective to a more recent trend in scholarship which has created a soft-soaped "Late Antiquity" ... in competition to the "Dark Ages" of popular imagination. For these revisionist scholars of the last thirty years, the migration of barbarians into the Roman empire (both eastern and western branches) was both justifiable ("they only wanted the Roman good life") and relatively benign ("they settled in and became staunch allies"). Heather and Ward-Perkins discredit this post-modern, New Age image of the Fall very thoroughly but we shouldn't be surprised if major portions of Western academia and literati will choose to hold onto such a rosy-hued version of Roman/barbarian relations. If only the Romans had been nicer to the barbarians, they'll proclaim, so much unpleasantness could have been avoided.
Equating America with Rome has been a spectator sport for a very long time. A dominant power -- economically, militarily, and culturally -- is widely resented, and subtly envied, whether by those pretending to dominance themselves, or those merely poor and hungry. Either too vulgar and decadent for ongoing success. Or too conservative and religious for such success. Either too powerful and entangled in every global squabble, or too disengaged and ignorant of the world's woes and complaints. The Rome analogy is an endlessly flexible tool, especially when historical examples can be drawn from the founding of Rome (roughly 750 BCE) through to the fall of the Eastern Empire in 1453 CE. There's something for every philosophical and political stripe in a Roman history that lasts more than two millenia. Pick and choose at will.
The Rome/America analogy has certainly been worked overtime since 9/11. Will Goliath topple? It's the question of the era, just much as it was in the early fifth century. It's not that people want the barbarians to win. It's just that they really, really want the new Rome to lose.
A particularly ham-handed example of the comparison was written by Niall Ferguson in 2004 called Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. The counter-arguments ... about whether America is an empire, about whether it's best days are past, about whether "pride goeth before a fall," about whether its decadence or its sanctimony is the greater global danger ... obsess the domestic audience as much as the foreign. So we should brace ourselves for a steady, indeed growing, stream of public commentary that seeks to make comparisons with Rome, and if Heather and Ward-Perkins are correct, seeks to portray any Fall of an American Empire as altogether a matter of minor inconvenience on the way to a far, far better place. The fact that we'd have to see the American economy retrench to the 1820s (before telegraphy and mobile steam power) in order to make the Roman/Late Antiquity analogy ring true seems to have escaped the chattering classes completely. The fate of the hinterlands of modern globalization under such a collapse hardly bears contemplation.
Let's take a look at a concrete example of how the academic confection called Late Antiquity will be applied to judging America and American options in coming years. Just recently, foreign policy academic Michael Vlahos wrote an article posted on TCS Daily called The Puzzle of New War. The article begins by noting that all the hand-waving about terrorism and guerrilla warfare being something "new" is in fact overblown. The Romans themselves dealt with a variety of antagonists: states (e.g. Dacians, Parthians, and Sassanid Persians), non-state actors (the various tribes, clans, and ethnic groups around Roman imperial borders), and mere "lawless elements" ... the bacaudae or bagaudae of fifth century Gaul and Spain.
Then the author describes the Roman solution to non-state parties: negotiation and elite subsidies. If that didn't work, legionary invasion and ethnocide were applied. The Romans had a very immediate practical use for conquered peoples, of course: slavery. Vlahos notes that the Roman way is clearly not the Israeli or American way. In the current Middle East conflicts, the goal has been the suppression of armed opponents, not the obliteration of civilian populations, let alone their enslavement. America (and Israel) won't eliminate such populations, so how, Vlahos wonders, can they deal with them ultimately?
The solution, it would appear is to make a convenient transition from defining these groups as "non-state actors" to "unrecognized armed communities." And here, the first whiff of post-modernism and Late Antiquity myth-making rears its head. For if these groups are violent merely because they are "unrecognized" and because they seek a more substantial legitimating "relationship" with the Goliath ... who could deny them? Really ... what honest, humane, thinking person could deny them?
Vlahos has written a substantial and useful article [.PDF] elsewhere on the distinctions that need to be drawn in the Muslim world between the Wilderness Ghazi and the Civil Militia. The former draw their inspiration from the patchwork quilt literary material of early Islam -- a corpus so deeply confused and compromised by non-Muslim theological sources that even to the discuss the subject now is to risk assassination. For Vlahos, the ghazi are inspired by a literary confabulation with little relation to historical reality. They are dangerous to both the Muslim and non-Muslim world for their willingness to court demolition in support of their dreams.
The Civil Militia, however, are more socially anchored to particular ethnic and religious institutions ... and are in resurgence in a post-Ottoman, post-colonial, world. Vlahos notes, rightly to my mind, that every effort to stabilize the Muslim world now confronts these revitalized communities -- armed and dangerous in the zero-sum political world they inhabit. Supporting repressive and corrupt national governments empowers these Civil Militias. Toppling their repressive regimes simply peels the lid back on the inherent antagonisms suppressed for centuries by the Turks, or the Persians, or the Indians, or the Indonesians, or the Thais, etc. etc.
America is in a quandry, then, much as Rome once was ... it had a multitude of state, non-state, bandit opponents with limited manpower and budget to address them.
Establishing two principles as givens, (1) Muslim armed communities seek recognition (not despoilation), and (2) America has an obligation to provide that recognition through greater "relationship", Vlahos can invoke the putative history of Late Antiquity. Just like the supposed Roman engagement with the Goths and Germans, the Americans should provide legitimation and sustenance for the Muslim world. By doing so, Vlahos proposes, America can assist the Civil Militias in suppressing the more nihilistic Wilderness Ghazis in their midst. Something of the sort is underway in Iraq, de facto and supported more broadly in a philosophical way by Robert Kaplan's invocation to Warrior Politics. To not assist this cultural housecleaning, Vlahos suggests, is to allow both the Ghazis and the Militias to compete with each other in demonizing the West, marginalizing any internal efforts at moderation in Islam, and closing off all options except the Roman tool of obliteration.
This all makes a kind of sense on paper. There's no doubt that the Muslim world (poor, illiterate, obsessed with victimhood, and stoked by a globalized media) is inevitably undergoing change, with or without American influence. There's also no doubt that if America just gave the Muslims what they want (the obliteration of Israel, the assumption of dhimmi-hood), the Muslim world would be far happier (and feel far more "recognized"). And America is destined, one way or the other, to be the world's bogey man for the indefinite future.
Unfortunately, I believe Vlahos suffers from what I've come to think of as Thomas Barnett disease -- the proffering of a plausible, credible foreign policy without reference to a plausible, credible American public that will execute it. As James Lileks noted earlier this summer:
When compared against some ideal country - say, a solar-powered pan-ethnic secular Switzerland with a socialist economy based on bartering hemp - the messy realities of America past and present come up short.
American foreign policy won't be executed by perfect humans plucked from Swiss hemp fields. American foreign policy won't be perfect and it won't be dictated by the constipated realities of the Muslim world alone. History is the allocation of tragedy. And that allocation will be subject to the vagaries of inheritance and circumstance of all parties involved. Vlahos not only requires modern Americans to act like Hemp Barterers, he must retroactively posit Roman Hemp Barterers as well (implicitly in his TCS Daily article, explicitly in his Two Enemies article). That's the only way that the acquiescence to, and "recognition" of, resurgent Muslim ethnic and tribal groups can seem like a remotely plausible alternative in American foreign policy.
We know, from Heather and Ward-Perkins, that the air-brushed version of the Fall of the Roman Empire has major archaeological and literary flaws. Many parts of Europe regressed to prehistoric economic levels after imperial collapse. No American, offered the Late Antiquity model of economic collapse, would be likely to sign up for a round of Muslim "relationship" and "recognition" in the hopes that those rickety cultural contraptions wouldn't simply implode from their own demographic, economic, and cultural instabilities. Nowhere, amidst Vlaho's discussion, do we see a recognizable America electorate that will vote or applaud its own demise.
If America was actually run by insulated diplomats in Foggy Bottom, we might hypothesize a slow, painful decline into second tier cultural status in the 21st century. In actuality, a far more compelling vision of America is described by Walter Russell Mead's "four schools" of foreign policy (Jeffersonian, Wilsonian, Hamiltonian, Jacksonian), which at least has the advantage of linking itself to actual ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups that live in the country. From Mead's culturally-based perspective, American foreign policy is a narrative synthesis that must call at least two of the "schools" to action.
More recently, Mead has written a great article that outlines how the Jacksonians (least indulgent of bullying and duplicity from the rest of the world) have religious strains that view the world as inherently corrupt (the fundamentalists) or inherently redeemable (the evangelicals). The debate over global withdrawal or engagement in American foreign policy will certainly not be phrased in terms of "recognition" of the post-Ottoman militias of the Muslim world. The major voting publics in America seek honest productive trading relationships with the world (while maintaining national safety). The current Muslim populace offers neither. In the face of such realities, American continued willingness to shoulder a "Muslim tax" every time they walk through an airport will reach a limit.
In the late fourth and early fifth century, waves of Goth, Germanic, and Hunnic peoples (men, women, and children) broke through brittle frontiers of the Roman Empire and were never expelled. Their social structure could survive by the predatory destruction of an undefended domestic economy but could not sustain itself afterwards except as illiterate warrior elites amidst localized, diminished economies. The Romans maintained their deep disdain for barbarian ways, and for those Romans who took the opportunity to form "relationships" with them for career gain. Given any opportunity at all, such as fell to the Eastern Empire's Emperor Justinian in the mid-sixth century, they resorted to the Vlahos' tried and true Roman solution -- obliterating their enemies (in that case, the Vandals of North Africa, and the Ostrogoths of Italy).
Now, in the 21st century, we are faced with hundreds of millions of poor, illiterate people fed their political philosophy for the first time through rabid television ... convinced, as they teeter on economic stilts built on oil income and Western techology/medicine, that their time (and their religion's apotheosis) has come. Unlike the Roman legions of old, the modern American divisions of citizen-soldiers have no venal use for the local people they are protecting in farflung corners of the globe, either as trading partners or as slaves. Any disengagement from the Muslim world will mean a painful adjustment for the industrialized West but the West is no more dependent on the people in the Muslim world than Roman economic sophistication was dependent on the Huns of eastern Europe.
Vlahos believes that the Roman tradition of exterminating enemies is unsustainable by the Western world. I believe he is right, barring acts in extremis by our own culture's "Wilderness Ghazi." But there are sins of commission and there are sins of omission.
Given sufficient provocation, a SARS-like epidemic perhaps, or the newly resurgent polio (spread courtesy of ignorant imams in Nigeria) will not trigger the normal outpouring of American money and technological sophistication that the globe has come to expect, and come to depend upon. Americans may not have the stomach to slaughter hundreds of millions, but they may well (given sufficient inconvenience and antagonism) be willing to stand aside (with their TVs firmly turned off) as hundreds of millions die from their own ignorance, incompetence, and economic vulnerability. Indifference can be a weapon, too.
What can the "golden myth" of Late Antiquity accomplish in the hands of a foreign policy wonk? An opportunity to misunderstand Rome, barbarians, and America it would seem, all at the same time. In Mr. Vlahos' neighbourhood, the Romans apparently forgot how to hate. That would be a poor historical lesson for the modern world to draw when it comes to imagining America as the New Rome.