" /> I write: March 2006
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March 26, 2006

The Roads to Modernity

(The British, French and American Enlightenments)
Gertrude Himmelfarb – ISBN - 1400077222

This is truly a wonderful book. It explores the three Enlightenments in scholarly detail, while defining their considerable differences well beyond that which has been done before. It is an expository review of the history of ideas formulated in the era of “enlightenment.”

She separates the French enlightenment, founded in the principle that reason ought to be supreme: that overturning the past, history, custom, and societal norms was desirable and hence required. Unfortunately, the end was not quite as planned inasmuch as the “intellectuals” ended up being guillotined along with the crown. The present, in my opinion isn’t much better.

While the French intellects were dogmatic about the hypothetical “idealized” man, while the genuine common man was despised. Emile, as it were, does not and cannot exist, and civilization, I’d add, does not keep man “everywhere in chains.” Nor is religion the opiate of the masses, though that is not a French concept, per se.

The English, in contrast, were far more interested in the development of individual liberty. Burke, Smith, Hume and even Wesley and Calvin, are discussed in reviewing the tolerant, pragmatic attitudes of the Brits, along with their concerns over the business community—at the time an extension of the crown—the community at large, the concept of empire, etc.. Important were historic institutions and societal mores: experiential notions developed over centuries, including religious attitudes widely accepted by the common man. These were incorporated in the pursuit of social virtue, compassion, benevolence and public welfare.

She argues that the American enlightenment, while firmly based (as the English) in moral philosophy, was, even more than the British, about individual liberty and personal rather than governmental involvement in, and responsibility for virtues like compassion and public welfare. She clearly favors the American enlightenment over the other two, and in my opinion backs her position with reason and scholarly excellence.

Others commenting upon her work are astonished that she attaches the American attitudes to “religious dispositions” and “morally upright capitalism,” thus attacking the French socialist and anti-religious attitudes—indeed, they foreswear the religious. One compares the American Civil War to the French Terror, even though the former was fought in defense of liberty. Kirkus Reviews comments that the book is: “all in all, a piffling and pet-peevish book, but sure to provoke merriment in cafes up and down the Champs Elysees.”

That, I would observe, is the “merry” culture about which, as recently as a year or two ago, Dominique DeVillepin (the current Prime Minister of France) commented seems unable to achieve the smallest of change without a revolution.

She concludes that the moral and social philosophy—humane, compassionate, and realistic (and religious), still resonates strongly in the America of today . . . far more than in Europe.

Posted by respeto at 12:07 PM

March 15, 2006

A Question of Loyalty

(the court-martial of Billy Mitchell)
Douglas Wallar - ISBN # 0060505478

Published in late 2004, this book--as interesting as it might have been in 1923--is further enhanced by the predictions of this legendary figure. It is adequately comprehensive, entirely balanced, and a breezy read which never bores, and will captivate anyone interested in air power from the time of WW I to the present.

Thruout, Waller laces the narrative with “thumbnails” of Mitchell’s life outside of his military career, but dedicates most of the book to the court-martial itself.

For those of you unfamiliar with Gen’l Mitchell, he was a decorated combat pilot/leader in the early air services of the military who grated on the governmental powers of the era, both military and civilian, because he was dedicated to, and convinced that, air power was to be the principal determinant in future combat. Most notably, he proved that air-power could support ground troops, sink battleships (which brought the Admirals to tears, literally), and predicted that Pearl Harbor would be attacked from the air, by the Japanese (18 years before they did!), that planes would ferry men who would jump from them into combat. As well, that planes would fly trans-continentally, carry passengers and military ordinance across vast oceans—in mere hours--and fly faster than the speed of sound. All of this was considered irrational, at best, by most of the command structure of the military, and the public as well.

While his crystal ball wasn’t always as accurate or retrospectively intriguing, he has been proven forward-looking, if not comprehensively clairvoyant, by history, as we all know now.

The personalities of the participants of the court-martial are well described, as well as the attitudes of the prosecution, defense and the jury. Again, it is a completely fair appraisal of all sides and participants. The trial of nearly five weeks was riveting, involved the entire country, and was covered in detail by all of the newspapers of the era. The public was, with unusual exception, favorable to Billy, considered him a hero (which in fact he was), and respected his abrasive bravado as much as the military disdained it. Today he is as respected in most quarters, including the military, as he was at the time. The debate is about whether he assisted or retarded the recognition and implementation of the potential of aircraft.

“He deserves a place in history. [His personal flaws notwithstanding] he was a brilliant and innovative officer . . . a brave and daring commander . . . an inspiration to his men . . . [and] a visionary willing to challenge the status quo. [An opportunist, perhaps, but one who in the end, laid] his military career and his reputation on the line for what he believed in. He had the courage of his convictions.”

In the end he was judged guilty of insubordination, severely chastened, and resigned from the Army shortly after the court-martial. All were results which he anticipated, yet he proceeded in order to expose the dismal state of the aerial combat strength (or, rather, the lack thereof) of the U.S. military.

Posted by respeto at 12:28 PM

March 11, 2006


(paying the price for the Clinton years)
Rich Lowry – ISBN 0-895260492

Not altogether unlike 1968 (reviewed in January), wherein Kurlansky resurrects the happenings of that year, Lowry reviews, and reminds us of the Clinton years. It is, indeed, the antidote to the misrepresentations and spin of that era. And it is much more!

A hard hitting, witty, acerbic and critical appraisal of the Clinton presidency, he offers the best yet summing of that period. History, while best studied some 50 years after the fact, is still based upon contemporary reports, and Lowry goes a long way into laying the groundwork for those who will use it as a source 50 years hence. Published in 2003, it was issued in paperback in 2005.

Thruout, I was reminded of the comment made early in the Clinton administration by the columnist George Will, that some seek the presidency to do something . . . others to be someone. Legacy speaks volumes about that, without ever mentioning it.

Lowry expands upon Morris’ Because He Could (reviewed in November.) His “take” on the subject is more comprehensive--and less complimentary--but Lowry does “allow” that Clinton was not a total disaster. He shares with Morris the sense that he could have been far better. Indeed, as a centrist Democrat Clinton could have made a very real difference if not for his character faults and his “mindless excesses” which compromised his effectiveness. Perhaps the most unfortunate fact, in the end, is that Clinton didn’t matter nearly as much as he might have. “He sought to bury his personal failings beneath his own inconsequence. Mission accomplished.”

Beyond his inability to achieve much domestically—and most of that forced upon him by Gingrich and the “94 Republicans”--his reluctance to seriously engage the foreign policy issues set the stage for the current problems with Iran, North Korea, and terrorism, to mention but a few. None, to be sure, were Clinton’s fault, but by kicking the can down the road he left us with the serious problems which we now face.

Lowry carefully reviews the details of myriad failings, including the first Twin Tower bombing, Rwanda, immigration control, airport security, etc. Nonetheless he gives credit where due, with Bosnia: dealt with belatedly, but at least dealt with. “Peace deals,” Arafat, missed opportunities to capture bin Laden, the “final days”, including pardons and the rest are dissected.

Of course he deals with Hillary, but beyond direct impact she is not the primary subject of the book. He does, however, emphasize the relevance of Clinton to the recent decade’s “feminization” of the military and America, and upon the rampant sexualization of our culture. Again, he is not the proximate cause, but is the near-perfect representative thereof.

“In December 1997 Clinton complained to the New York Times about how history seemed determined to rob him of a great crisis from which he could gain a great legacy. . . . [yet] A terrorist network had nearly leveled two American embassies simultaneously. He responded with a whimper.” As well, he was offered bin Laden by the Sudan, but couldn’t imagine a “legal way” to claim that capture, and the USS Cole was attacked on his watch, an act of war over which he did nothing. What Clinton accomplished is dwarfed by what he avoided.

Overall a good read, especially when paired with Morris. Good reportage by both.

Posted by respeto at 9:29 AM

March 8, 2006

Talk to the Hand

Lynne Truss – ISBN 1592401716

Rendered a household name with the publication of Eats, Shoots and Leaves (which is a rant over the current state of inattention to punctuation), Truss has now written a new rant, on the “utter bloody rudeness of everyday life [or] six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door.” The title is taken from the Jerry Springer Show.

As with her prior missive (or is it missile?) she fumes over a variety of situational offensiveness of modernity and the fashion in which contemporary “freedom” and “liberation” are manifest. And she is right on!

While she is from England, and writes about the English, you’ll find that it isn’t much removed from the United States when it comes to conduct. One doesn’t have to be Emily Post or Judith Martin to take offense.

Topics include the wait-staff in restaurants, clerks in stores, drivers (especially in traffic), business contacts, the incredible obnoxiousness of automated telephonic answering and visiting children who pay no heed to “Uncle John’s” valuables sprinkled about a home which isn’t childproof.

She reviews the origin and historic significance of manners, etiquette, and simple daily courtesies which used to be the norm, enquires into where and how they went, and ruminates about what might be done to resurrect them.

A rant, to be sure, but enlightening and entertaining; certain to arouse one more than a little, and maybe get the attention of the Philistines who ignore Miss Manners—or worse, are unaware of her existence.

Treat yourself to a delightful, quick read.

Posted by respeto at 2:08 PM