Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western FrontAll Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All Quiet on the Western Front is an extraordinary war novel. It has everything you would expect from a book about World War I: the mixture of boredom and fear; the constant specter of gore; the unrelenting threat of death from every direction; the strong bonds between fellow soldiers and the hatred of superior officers; the reduction of life to its most basic elements; the depersonalization of oneself and one’s enemies; the feeling of apathy and pointlessness; and the difficulty in re-adjusting to civilian life. This, by and large, is the common image of the First World War nowadays, so it is surprising to me that this novel sparked controversy when it was first published. The Nazis eventually burned Remarque’s books, and later decapitated Remarque’s sister.

I have never been in battle, thank heavens, and I hope never to be. Thus the conditions described by Remarque, though doubtless true enough, often struck me as unreal—ghoulish nightmares rather than reality. Indeed, the First World War in general is hard for me to wrap my mind around. That so much carnage could result from such petty causes—it makes my stomach tie itself into a knot the more I think about it. And then there is the, for me, strange collision of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries: Kaisers and the aristocracy, cavalry charges, bayonets, juxtaposed with gas bombs, land mines, and heavy artillery. Technologically, it seems that defensive weapons far outpaced offensive ones. There were heavy artillery and machine guns, but neither were portable and so of limited use in an attack. Thus the endless trench warfare and the pointless offensives, as both sides could beat each other back but neither could win a decisive victory.

The final effect for the soldier, if he escaped with his body intact, was trauma. This was a world before PTSD; back then it was called “shell shock,” and poorly understood. But as Remarque describes the conditions on the front line, it is no wonder that recruits were traumatized; rather it would be a wonder if they weren’t. The carnage—bodies stabbed, shot, blown to bits, and wounded in every other imaginable way—was ever-present and horrific. Added to that is the constant fear—of artillery, snipers, landmines, electrified barbed wire, or merely getting separated from your fellows and lost in no-man’s land. And then the soldier must endure the loss of his friends—his fellow soldiers, with whom he forms bonds of terrific strength—as the war takes more and more men.

The worst part, perhaps, is that after enduring all this, the soldier cannot easily return to civilian life. In war, life is reduced to its bare essentials: the search for food, warmth, safety. Every moment, even those of rest, is part of a struggle to survive. Thus the soldier is shocked when he returns to his home. Civilian life, though enviably safe and comfortable, also seems terribly artificial, oriented towards goals that, to a soldier accustomed to struggling for bare survival, can seem superficial and even despicable. Remarque portrays this brilliantly, as the returning Narrator finds himself unable to communicate his experiences when he goes home on leave. After reading Proust’s novel set during the First World War, which focuses on the ridiculous pontifications of the socialites far behind the front lines, treating the war as just another topic for gossip, I can see why returning soldiers could feel disgusted.

Just thinking of how young these soldiers were—just eighteen when they began fighting—one realizes that a whole generation of men spent some of their most formative years in the most brutal conditions imaginable. It is no wonder they considered themselves the Lost Generation. And what was it for? Although admittedly the propaganda seems to have been quite effective in whipping up anti-German, -French, or -English sentiment, many soldiers must have felt like Stefan Zweig did—that the conflict was pointless. Remarque captures the absurdity of the situation: powerful men in ornate rooms, signing pieces of paper that result in thousands of young men fighting and killing thousands of other young men, not because any of them have any grievance against one another, but for the sake of the Fatherland.

Remarque conveys all this with a gripping immediacy. The story moves forward at lightning pace; and yet there is nuance and depth, too, in this short novel. Even though this is hardly a story of adventure, you realize that merely to keep on going required a kind of daily heroism—an unglamorous, grueling, thankless heroism—the loyalty to one’s fellows and the determination not to succumb to despair. War brings out both sides of the human character: our enormous capacity for violence and destruction, and our capacity for selfless devotion and extraordinary endurance. This is why war has formed one of the most popular themes of literature, going all the way back to Homer. But between those two extremes we often forget that war is long, boring, and terrifying, and that many people lose everything. It is this daily horror, and the daily heroism required to live through it, that Remarque captures.

View all my reviews

Advertisements

Review: A People’s History of the United States

Review: A People’s History of the United States

A People's History of the United StatesA People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a country famous for its historical ignorance, Howard Zinn sold two million copies of a 700-page history book. In a country famous for its allergy to the left, Howard Zinn wrote a best-seller from a staunchly left-wing perspective. Every evaluation of his book must begin and end with this achievement. Whatever you like or dislike about Zinn, clearly he did something right.

As you set out to judge this book, you must first decide whether it is a work of inquiry or of advocacy. This distinction has worn thin in our postmodern age, as we have become hyper-aware of the inescapability of bias. Nevertheless I think the distinction holds good in theory, however blurred it may be in practice.

An inquirer searches for the truth, even if the truth contradicts her original opinion; an advocate attempts to motivate people, to bring about some action, even if the action is somewhat vague or far-removed. An inquirer will risk dense and dry writing to get her point across; an advocate will risk simplification and generalization to get her point across. An inquirer will highlight information that her thesis doesn’t account for, and will include counterarguments and consider their merits; an advocate will minimize inconvenient information and will knock down strawmen of counterarguments.

This book is clearly a work of advocacy. And it is important to remember this, since as a work of inquiry A People’s History of the United States has almost no merit whatsoever. Zinn mostly relies on secondary sources, and makes no attempt at addressing counterarguments or at accommodating different viewpoints. His aim is not to explain American history, but to use American history to spark outrage.

Granted that this book is advocacy, we must then ask two more questions: whether it is responsible or irresponsible, and whether it is altruistic or selfish. Responsible advocacy uses careful research, seeks out unbiased sources, and acknowledges those sources; irresponsible advocacy uses lies or severe distortion of facts, or simply lies by omission. Altruistic advocacy acts on behalf of a wide swath of people, not just a narrow interest; selfish advocacy does the opposite. As an example of responsible, altruistic advocacy, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring addresses an issue of broad concern using careful research. On the other hand, the cigarette industry’s fight against the researchers who uncovered the negative health effects of smoking was an example of irresponsible, selfish advocacy, fighting on behalf of a small group using outright lies.

It is worth noting, by the way, that these two values can come into conflict. In these situations the advocate is faced with a choice: What is better, to distort the truth for a worthy cause, or to tell the truth at the expense of that cause? You might say that, if dishonesty is required, the cause can’t be worthy; but the fact remains that careful scholarship is often at odds with popular success—and popular success is what advocates aim for.

I think Zinn faced just this dilemma in this book, forced to choose between a work that would satisfy academics and would sell well, and he chose popularity. Granted, given the constraints of a popular book, I think he is decently honest with his sources. And it is worth noting that Zinn is frank about his political biases and goals. Nevertheless, I think it is obvious that he relies on books—again, mostly secondary sources—that are broadly sympathetic with his views; that he selectively quotes those who aren’t; and that he questions the motivations of any who disagree with him. What we must ask, then, is this: Does Zinn’s moral aim excuse this approach?

I think, on the whole, it does. At the time Zinn first wrote this book, history books used in public schools were unabashedly nationalistic, omitting labor movements, women’s movements, civil rights movements, and pushing aside the atrocities committed against the Native Americans. In other words, the history commonly taught and known was a history of presidents and elections, wars and victories, a history that ignored large swaths of underprivileged people. Of course Zinn didn’t change this single-handedly; he was the beneficiary of an entire academic movement. But his book, by its popularity, played an important role in changing the status quo. By the time I went to school, we had units on women’s movements, labor movements, and the barbarous mistreatment of blacks and Native Americans. It is also largely thanks to Zinn, I believe, that there is a growing movement against the celebration of Columbus Day (a person who I don’t think we ought to celebrate).

It is eminently right that the injustices and oppressions and inequities of American history be laid before the public. For history is never a neutral series of facts. Every political ideology relies on some historical narrative. Thus, systematically omitting episodes of history is equivalent to squelching certain political views. And even though I am not always in agreement with its ideology, I think that the United States suffers from its lack of a strong leftist movement.

Just recently, the political power of history has been dramatically demonstrated through the conflict over Civil War statues. More and more people are coming to the conclusion, I think rightly, that having statues of Confederate generals is not politically neutral. Of course we must learn and commemorate history. But it is impossible to remember and commemorate everything. We are always faced with a choice; and this choice is shot through with ideological questions. What we choose to remember, and how we choose to remember it, is a moral issue; and I think Zinn is right to remind us of the struggles of the unprivileged and powerless against the privileged and powerful—not for their sake, but for ours.

This, in brief, is why I generally approve of this book. But I do have many criticisms.

Most superficially, I think this book suffers from a lack of organization. Many chapters feel like hasty cut-and-paste jobs, jumping from topic to topic, summarizing and quoting from different sources, without anything more than a sense of outrage to tie it together. In this way, the book is bizarrely reminiscent of a a Bill Bryson work: a hodgepodge of stories, thrown together in a loose jumble. I also think that Zinn should have highlighted more individual stories and condensed some tedious lists of movements, if only for dramatic effect.

More seriously, I think that Zinn commits the moral error of many on the left: by holding people to a stringent standard, the important moral differences between groups are minimized. This was most noticeable on his chapters on the Civil War and World War II, in which Zinn goes to lengths to undermine the moral superiority of the North and of the United States. I absolutely agree with Zinn that the North was hardly a utopia of freedom and equality (racism was almost universal), and that the United States was hardly a shinning beacon on a hill (think of the Japanese internment camps, the Dresden bombing, or the nuclear bombings). Nevertheless, I think that, with all their inequities and injustice, the Union and the United States were clearly preferable to the slave-owning Confederate or Nazi Germany. Minimizing this difference is dangerous.

I also object to the way that Zinn makes it seem as though the United States is controlled by a vast conspiracy, or that all the elements of power work together in one seamless ‘system’ (one of Zinn’s favorite words). He does, at one point, acknowledge that this system arose unconsciously, through necessity and in stages, and is not, for the most part, used intentionally by the powerful. But this, then, leads to the question: What is the difference between an unconsciously developed and unintentionally used system of control, and no ‘system’ at all?

Or consider this paragraph:

The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history. With a country so rich in natural resources, talent, and labor power the system can afford to distribute just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority. It is a country so powerful, so big, so pleasing to so many of its citizens that it can afford to give freedom of dissent to a small number who are not pleased.

Zinn’s message is clear: that this is an unjust situation created by powerful people. But think about what he is saying: The United States is a country where most people are content and where the discontented are allowed to express themselves. Phrased like this, the observation looses its outraged and semi-conspiratorial edge; indeed it doesn’t seem so bad at all. I cite this only as an example of Zinn’s use of rhetoric and insinuation to make political points, a dishonest habit. Another bad habit is his tendency to question the motivation of the people he intends to criticize. Every reform or government action aimed at equality is, for Zinn, just a concession aimed at promoting the long-term stability of ‘the system.’ Again, this leads to the question: What, in practice, is the difference between a self-interested concession and an honest attempt at reform?

I also want to note that Zinn’s effort to write a “people’s” history became, at times, a thin pretense. This was obvious whenever the general opinion didn’t match his own. Zinn was not simply chronically “the people”; he consistently chooses to focus on those who shared his ideals, whether they represented the majority or a small minority. This was most obvious in the chapter on the Second World War, which focuses on the small group of people who disapproved of it. But it was a tendency throughout. Here is a typical passage:

After the bombing of Iraq began with the bombardment of public opinion, the polls showed overwhelming support for Bush’s action [Bush Sr.], and this continued through six weeks of the war. But was it an accurate reflection of the citizen’s long-term feelings about war? The split vote in the polls just before the war reflected a public still thinking its opinion might have an effect. Once the war was on, and clearly irreversible, in an atmosphere charged with patriotic fervor … it was not surprising that a great majority of the country would declare its support.

This is special pleading at its worst. The people’s opinion, when it disagrees with Zinn’s opinion, is of course not really their opinion; it is just manipulation. But when the people do agree with Zinn, it is of course their “true” opinion.

This, by the way, is another nasty habit of the left: a pretense to knowing the true interests of the unprivileged, even if the unprivileged themselves disagree with the left and among each other. Thus all the differences that divide the unprivileged—racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia among the poor—are both excused and then dismissed as being superficial differences that mask a true unity, perhaps even instilled by the powerful to divide the poor. In a way this is a disrespectful view of “the people,” since Zinn apparently thinks that most people are far more easily manipulated than he is himself, and thus should be judged by a more lenient standard than the crafty powerful.

I am heaping a lot of criticism on Zinn; but I do think that, despite all this, Zinn is almost always on the morally right side: for equality, for pacifism, for democracy. And even though, largely thanks to Zinn, many of the episodes he covered in this book have made their way into school curriculums and the national awareness, I still learned a great deal from reading this. Both the Mexican-American War (which, to protest, Thoreau spent a night in jail) and the Spanish-American War (which resulted in prolonged, brutal fighting in the Philippines), two American power-grabs, still receive scant coverage in classrooms. And the long, ignominious history of U.S. intervention throughout the world, propping up dictators and plotting to topple governments, is still not widely known—and it should be.

I think Zinn has already been quite successful in changing people’s perception of history. But is this book inspiring or motivational? On the one hand, Zinn is a powerful writer whose every line carries a sense of justified outrage; and outrage, as Zinn shows, is what motivates many to fight for change. On the other, Zinn portrays movement after movement trying and failing—only about one in ten even partially succeeds, it seems—which can easily create a fatalistic cynicism. I was often reminded of the Onion article: “Humanity Surprised It Still Hasn’t Figured Out Better Alternative to Letting Power-Hungry Assholes Decide Everything.

It’s a joke, I know, but I do wonder about this. In a way this is the issue raised by—heaven help us—Game of Thrones: Is it really better, morally speaking, to be an idealist like Ned Stark, if that leads to your defeat at the hands of less scrupulous parties? This is one of the oldest questions in politics; and the way you answer it determines, to some extent, where you fall on the political spectrum. Zinn represents one answer, and I think it is one we too often forget in our cynical age.

View all my reviews

Review: 722 Miles, a History of the NYC Subway System

Review: 722 Miles, a History of the NYC Subway System

722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York by Clifton Hood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The seven train slowed to a stop in the Mets-Willets Point station and a distorted voice crackled onto the PA system: “Last stop, last stop everybody, this is the last stop, please exit the train.” Normally the seven goes to Flushing; but today it terminated one stop earlier because of track work. With a chorus of sighs and groans the passengers shuffled out and pushed down the stairs to the buses waiting on the street, a stopgap solution used when the subway is shut down.

The buses were much smaller than the train, of course, so we had to pack ourselves in tight. When the final passenger squeezed in, the doors shut and we started moving, throwing nearly everyone off balance. Most people were silent, but behind me a man began talking: “Honestly, this is unbelievable—unbelievable! Every week, track work, signal problems, delays. Every week another problem. And they keep raising the fare! We pay more money, more money, and the service gets worse and worse. These damn MTA people, they don’t even use the subway. You know who’s on the MTA board? Yoko Ono. Yoko Ono hasn’t taken the subway once in her life!”

Except for the Yoko Ono part (I don’t know where he got that from), the man was right: service on the subways is getting worse, even though the fares keep going up. The quality has gotten so bad lately as to approach a crisis. This summer we have had two derailments, and a track fire that sent several people to the hospital. Less dramatic, but no less important, are the delays: signal problems and overcrowding cause constant tardiness. On some lines, the trains are late more often than on time. Since nearly 6 million people use the subway per day, this is a serious political liability. True to form, the politicians have done what they do best: point fingers at each other. The mayor blames the governor, and vice versa, until finally governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency regarding the subways.

Living in Madrid has given me a new perspective on the NYC subway. Before I moved I had just assumed that, by their very nature, subways were dirty, uncomfortable places. The trains screech and wail on the tracks, and jerk back and forth when they pull into the station. The stations themselves are sweaty, claustrophobic, and full of garbage and rats; and the subway cars are always packed to the breaking point. But in Madrid I discovered that a metro can be clean, sleek, and comfortable—and, most surprisingly, cheap. For comparison, a monthly ticket on the Metro North, the railroad from my town in Westchester to Manhattan, costs almost $300; and a monthly subway pass costs an additional $120. An equivalent ticket in Madrid, including both commuter rail and the metro, costs about 100€—one-fourth the price for a cleaner, safer, and better service.

Subway Interior
Modern subway interior

I may sound like I’m disparaging the NYC subway, but really I have a great affection for it. The subway has a gritty, industrial aesthetic that I find strongly appealing. And despite the frustrations, the subway represents what is best about New York: a place where people of every background, doing every activity imaginable, are thrown together in a tight space and manage—just barely—to avoid killing each other. Just the other day, for example, I witnessed a woman violently push herself onto the subway, shoving everyone out of her way to get to a seat. As soon as she reached her prize a man rightly began castigating her, and a loud argument ensued. Luckily, another man began preaching in a loud voice, drowning out the argument and restoring a tense truce as we were given a sermon about the perils of hellfire. I simply don’t witness things like this in Madrid.

For this combination of reasons—a mixture of admiration and despair—I set out to investigate the NYC subway. First I visited the New York Transit Museum, and then I read this book.

The New York Transit Museum has two locations, a small shop in Grand Central Station, and their museum in Brooklyn. The shop in Grand Central has rotating exhibits in half the store. The latest one is about the history of the seven train, which runs from Manhattan to Queens. This line was recently extended to the far West Side, with the opening of the first new station in twenty-five years: Hudson Yards. The museum in Brooklyn, near Borough Hall, is in an old subway station. In addition to the historical photos and the information on display, the museum has examples of all the turnstiles ever used in the subway; and on the old platform there are antique subway cars, going back even to when they were made of wood. (Wooden cars got a bad reputation after the Malbone Street Wreck in 1918, a terrible accident that killed 93 people. The wooden cars splintered apart upon impact.)

Wooden Subway
Wooden subway cars

If you go visit this museum, I recommend a little stop along the way. The New York City subway was officially opened in 1904. The showpiece of the new system was the City Hall station, located right under the seat of the city government. This station was lavish: decorated with ornate tile-work designed by the Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino, using arches based on medieval Spanish churches. Beautiful as it is, the station had to be abandoned when the subway switched to longer cars. The short length of the platform, and the sharp angle of the turn, rendered the famous station useless. Now it sits, unused and empty, below City Hall. You can still catch a glimpse of this station, however, if you take the six train down to the Brooklyn Bridge station, and then stay on the train when it curves around to go uptown. The subway screeches horribly as it turns, but it is an eerie and fascinating experience to see the old abandoned station.

(I couldn’t get any good pictures myself, but you can find some in the gallery here. The Transit Museum does occasional tours of the City Hall Station, which you can find here.)

This book was the perfect accompaniment to the museum. Written by a professional historian, 722 Miles is, I believe, the most informative book on the market about the subway’s history.* As do many books by academics, this one began its life as a doctoral dissertation. It must have been substantially revised, however, since it is mostly free from academic stuffiness and scholarly squabbles. Hood casts a wide net, focusing on three interrelated aspects of the subway’s history: the political wrangling involved in getting it built, the role it played in the development of NYC, and the engineering methods and challenges of the subway. No engineer himself, the latter aspect is fairly basic; but the politics and the urban history are quite well done.

Old Interior
Antique interior design

The reader may be surprised (or maybe not) to learn that the subway has always been plagued with political wrangling and controversy. It was born in an era that saw major government spending and ownership as antithetical to sound business practices. But since private capital has always proven insufficient to infrastructure on this scale, the subway has been a public-private hybrid since its inception, with the state gradually taking on more and more responsibility. One reason the state had to step in was because the five-cent fare became a political stumbling block, something the public regarded as a sacred right; and so the fare remained a nickel even when the cost of a ride to the business was twice that amount.

Old Interior 2
Another old interior design

Originally the subway system was owned and operated by three separate entities: Interborough Rapid Transit (INT), Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT), and the Independent Subway System (IND). A relic of this origin is preserved in the subway’s odd numbering and lettering system: the numbered lines were the INT lines, and the lettered lines BRT and IND. These three were consolidated under city ownership by LaGuardia in 1940. From that year onward, there was very little development or even proper maintenance of the subways, in part thanks to the nickel fare. Another contributing factor was Robert Moses—the villain in every New York City story—who commanded most of the federal money available during the New Deal to build highways and bridges, diverting it from subways. Later, in 1968, the subway system was transferred to the newly created Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), by governor Nelson Rockefeller. This did little to help its finances, apparently, since by the early 80s the subway was a frightful, rundown, dangerous place. (Photos from that era have a haunting, apocalyptic beauty.)

The original purpose of the subway wasn’t just to serve already built-up areas in the city. Rather, several lines were run into undeveloped areas in the hopes of relieving population density. When the seven line was built in Queens, for example, it was running into almost pristine farmland and wild fields, where many still went to hunt fowl. It didn’t take long for this land to be urbanized. The muckraker Jacob Riis played a role in this development strategy, since it was he who documented the horrors of overcrowded tenements in lower Manhattan, prompting progressives to see the subway as a tool to make the city more livable and clean. This was done under the influence of Ebenezer Howard, the urban planner who originated the idea of the ‘garden city’ (which Jane Jacobs later opposed).

Turnstiles
Chronological turnstiles

Aside from the drier history, there are some fun facts in this book. The first underground train in New York was, I learned, not a proper subway at all, but a pneumatic train built in secret. This was the idea of Alfred E. Beach, who tunneled under Manhattan under the pretense of building a pneumatic parcel delivery system, to avoid the opposition of the corrupt legislature. In 1870 he unveiled his new train, which caused quite a sensation, despite being totally impractical for longer trips (Beach’s train only went a few blocks). I also learned that the tunnel that takes the seven train under the East River, on its journey from Manhattan to Queens, is called the Steinway Tunnel, because it was originally funded and promoted by that scion of the famous piano company. He was interested because he had a factory on the other side of the river.

This book was originally published in 1993, and it shows its age. This was a particularly bad time for the subway, when it was slowly recovering from its low point in the 1980s, and the book ends on a bleak note. Until fairly recently, the subway has been making quite a comeback since then. Just as many people are using the subway nowadays as they did in its so-called “Golden Age,” the 1920s and 30s, which amounts to almost 2 billion per year. The subways are no longer covered in graffiti and plagued by crime. Instead of posters warning passengers about mugging, they discourage ‘manspreading’ and promote basic etiquette. Viral videos also encourage passengers not to eat, clip their toenails, put their bags on seats, or to try to get on the train before other passengers have gotten off—a big improvement. We still have rats, though.

Even more impressive, the subway is building once again. Delayed for nearly 100 years, the Second Avenue line has just begun opening stations, which will relieve the overused Lexington Avenue line. We also have wifi in all the subway stations now.

Nevertheless, there are some serious problems to fix. The most daunting is to replace the subway’s signal system. This system is badly out of date. On some lines, they are still using equipment that dates from the 1930s. Having obsolete analog signals means that there are frequent malfunctions; and even when working properly, trains cannot safely run close to each other, since the old signals are not precise, which leads to overcrowding and more delays. This may seem like an easy fix, but it is estimating that it will take at least until 2045, and probably even later, to refurbish the whole system.

Despite these problems, and despite the expensive fares and the shrieking cars, I am still optimistic about the NYC subway. To me, the subway is a symbol of the entire city: dirty, grimy, overpriced, overcrowded, part worn out and part sleekly modern, where people of all sorts come to strive and struggle and suffer in a narrow space. New York simply wouldn’t be New York if it didn’t include frustration—and garbage—and rats—and loud energy; and the subway has all that in abundance.


*I’m not sure where the number 722 comes from. According to the Transit Museum, there are 656 miles of mainline track and 842 miles total. This number will be rising some more with the completion of the Second Avenue line.

View all my reviews

Review: The Power Broker

Review: The Power Broker

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New YorkThe Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Many are concerned about the monuments of the West and the East—to know who built them. For my part, I should like to know who in those days did not build them—who were above such trifling.
—Henry David Thoreau

“Who’s Robert Moses?” I asked my brother, after he bought this book.

Well, who was he?

To drive from my house to the city, you need to take the Saw Mill Parkway, across the Henry Hudson Bridge, onto the Henry Hudson Parkway. Those roads, and that bridge, were built under the direction of Robert Moses. If you have a flight to catch, you take the Hutchinson Parkway across the Whitestone Bridge to the Whitestone Expressway, which takes you the JFK airport; these, too, are Moses constructions. To get from my house to my old university in Long Island, you can take Bronx-River Parkway, which links up with the Cross-Bronx Expressway; then cross over the Throgs Neck Bridge onto the Long Island Expressway or the Northern State Parkway—and that bridge, and every one of those highways, is a Moses project.

Who was Robert Moses? He had formed the world around me. Robert Moses was the most decisive figure in shaping 20th century New York. But what was his job?

In his forty-four years as a “public servant”—from 1924 to 1968—Moses came to hold twelve titles simultaneously. He was the New York City Park Commissioner, with control over the city’s parks and parkways; he was the Long Island State Park Commissioner, with control over all the parks and public beaches on Long Island; he was the chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority, with near-total autonomy from the city or state government. He was the chairman of the New York Power Authority, the chairman of the State Council of Parks, and the head of Title I, which oversaw all the public housing in New York City—and this is not to mention his membership on the City Planning Commission and the City Youth Board—and his eventual title as the City Construction Coordinator, which gave him control over nearly all public works in the city.

Robert Moses was a master builder. He built hundreds of miles of parkways and expressways; he opened hundreds of parks and playgrounds; he built some of the biggest bridges and tunnels and dams the world had ever seen. In the process, Moses displaced hundreds of thousands of people, condemning and demolishing their homes, and tearing the hearts out of old neighborhoods. How did he build so many things, acquire so many titles, move so many people? How, in other words, did he get and hold onto so much power? This is the central question of Robert Caro’s biography. And I can’t give you an idea of Caro’s biography, or why it is so incredible, without giving you an idea of Robert Moses.

The old adage about power and corruption is repeated so often, in such different contexts, that it can sound stale and meaningless. Moses’s story gives meaning to the adage—and qualification. He began his career as an idealist and a reformer; he was an opponent of nepotism, graft, and privilege. Moses’s first major effort was to institute civil service exams and strict pay scales that would serve as checks on government inefficiency and corruption. This effort failed utterly, defeated by the forces Moses hoped to check, leaving him out of a job.

After that, Moses learned to change his tactics. He stopped being an uncompromising idealist and started working with the forces he had once hoped to subdue with his ideas. And once he began to use the tactics of his erstwhile enemies, his prodigious intelligence and drive allowed him to master every force in his way.

The more power he gained, the more he wanted, and the more adept he became at getting it. One strategy was legislative. He was very crafty at drafting bills, sneaking through obscure clauses that extended his reach. His first master-stroke was to give himself, as the Long Island Park Commissioner, power to condemn virtually any piece of land he chose to for his parkways. Later, he managed to pass a bill that allowed him to simultaneously hold city and state government posts. Later still, he wrote the legislation authorizing the creation of the Triborough Bridge Authority, an entity with so much power and wealth that it was essentially a separate government, unelected by the people and unaccountable to and uncontrollable by the city or state governments.

He used underhanded tactics to build his parks and roads and bridges. To get the approval he needed from government boards, he would give extremely low estimates for the construction projects; and then, when the money ran out when the project was half-complete, no politician could refuse him more money, since that would require leaving a road or a bridge embarrassingly incomplete. He used scare tactics to speed eviction of buildings, telling tenants that demolition was imminent and they needed to vacate immediately, when in reality demolition was months away. To outmaneuver opposition to his projects, he would wait until his opponents were asleep and then bulldoze and jackhammer in the night—destroying dockyards, apartments, old monuments—rendering all acts of defiance pointless.

Moses was a master organizer. He learned to use the selfish interest of the major power-players in the city to accomplish his own ends. The unions and construction companies loved him because he provided work on a massive scale. The banks were eager to invest in the safe and high-yield Triborough bonds; and Moses rewarded the banks by depositing his massive cash reserves into their coffers. Cooperative lawyers received lavish rewards as “payment,” hidden through third-parties and carefully disguised as fees and emoluments. In everything, Moses prized loyalty and doled out money, commissions, and jobs based on how much power was at stake. He also forged a close relationship with the press by throwing lavish parties and befriending many newspaper owners and publishers. His carefully cultivated public image—as a selfless public servant who Got Stuff Done—made him an asset to politicians when they worked with him, and a major liability if they antagonized him.

And the more power he gained, the more uncompromising he became. He surrounded himself with yes-men—he called them his “muchachos,” and others called them Moses Men—who never criticized, or even questioned, what Moses said. He would refuse calls from mayors and governors. He did not go to council meetings and sent delegates to City Hall rather than go himself. Once he had planned the route of a road, he wouldn’t even consider changing it—not for protests or activists or local politicians; he wouldn’t divert his road one mile or even half a mile. If you opposed him once, he would use all his connections and resources—in government, construction, law, and finance—to ruin you. He ruined his own brother’s career this way. He kept files on hand full of compromising information that he would use to threaten anyone who dared oppose him, and during the Red Scare he freely accused his enemies of being closet communists—and if that didn’t work, he would accuse their families.

Summed up like this, Moses seems to be a classic case of a man corrupted by power. He went from a hero, fighting on behalf of the citizens to create public parks, struggling to reform an inefficient and corrupt government, to a villain—bullying, blackmailing, evicting, bulldozing, handing out graft. However, as Caro is careful to note, power did not so much corrupt Moses, turning him from pure-hearted to rotten, as allow certain elements of his personality free play, unhampered by consequences. The most prominent of these elements was his monumental arrogance. There are not many clips of Moses online, but the few there are give some idea of Moses’s egotism. He was uninterested in others’ ideas and perspectives, and could hardly deign to explain his own thinking. He spoke about the removal of thousands of people in a tone of utter boredom, as if the families he was moving were less important than gnats.

Compounding his arrogance, Moses was an elitist and a racist. He built hundreds of playgrounds in New York City, but only one in Harlem. He kept the pools in his parks cold, in the odd belief that this would keep black residents away. He built exclusively for the car-owning middle-class, draining resources away from public transportation, even encouraging subway fare-hikes to finance his projects. He made no provisions for trains or buses on his roads, and refused even to build his highways in such a way that, in the future, they could be easily modified to include a railway. It would, for example, have cost only a few million to do this while the highway to JFK was under construction, keeping a few feet in the center clear for the tracks. But because Moses didn’t do this, the railway to JFK, when it was finally built, had to be elevated high up above the highway; and it cost almost two billion dollars.

Moses was also a workaholic. He worked ten-, twelve-, fifteen-hour days. He worked on vacations and on weekends, and he expected his subordinates to do the same. Politically, Moses was a conservative. Ironically, however, Moses was a key figure in the implementation of the progressive New Deal policies of FDR (who was Moses’s arch enemy, as it happens). Also ironic was Moses’s adoption of progressive, modernist urban-planning principles. His ideal of the city was, in its essentials, no different from that outlined by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, who was certainly no conservative—an orderly city of parks, high-rise apartments, and highways, with no messy downtown areas and no ordinary streets for pedestrians to stroll about. But perhaps the most ironic fact in Moses’s life is that this most fervent believer in the automobile, this builder of highways and bridges, never learned to drive. He spent his life getting chauffeured around in a limousine that he had converted into an office, so he could work and hold meetings on the go.

Now if you’re like me, you may think there is something obviously wrong with a racist and elitist planning housing for poor people of color. There is something wrong with a man who couldn’t drive planning highways for an entire state. There is something wrong with a workaholic who was never home planning homes; something wrong with a lover of the suburbs organizing a city. There is something wrong with a man who was never elected wielding more power than mayors and governors. There is something wrong with a man who was scornful of others, especially the lower-class, being allowed to evict thousands from their homes. There is something wrong with a man who did not care about other perspectives and philosophies, who never changed his mind or altered his opinions, wielding power for over four decades. Really, the whole thing seems like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it?

And, indeed, many came to see Moses’s policies as disasters. Caro certainly did. Moses thought that his legacy would speak for itself, that his works would guarantee him immortal gratitude. Rather, Moses’s name came to be synonymous with everything wrong with urban planning. Sterile public housing that bred crime and hopelessness; ugly highways that cut through neighborhoods and flooded the city with cars; top-down implementation that didn’t take into consideration the needs and habits of residents; cities that had superhighways but lacked basic, affordable public transportation. Even the harshest critic, however, must admit that Moses did some good. That both the city and the state of New York have such an excellent network of parks is in no small measure due to Moses. And if his highways were hopelessly congested when Caro wrote this book in the 70s, nowadays they work quite well, perhaps because they’ve since been supplemented by better public transportation.

While the value of his legacy is at least debatable, the injustice of his tactics is not. Moses was extremely fond of saying that “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” For him, the ends always justified the means. If a few people—maybe a great many people—would be inconvenienced or hurt by his projects, future generations would thank him. But I think his story is an excellent example of why this type of thinking is dangerous, since it allowed him and his followers to trample over the lives of thousands, destroying houses and neighborhoods, treating those in his way with neither respect or dignity, for the sake of the “common good.” It allowed him, in other words, to be a tyrant in good conscience. And the reason he was able to do this and get away with it was because, as an appointed official, his power did not derive from the public—something intolerable in a democracy.

And yet, as Caro points out, Moses does illustrate a conundrum at the heart of a democratic government. Moses tried to achieve his dreams through the normal channels of government, and failed utterly. It was only when Moses started circumventing the usual rules that he was able to accomplish anything. And I think anyone who has ever tried to make a group decision—whether at work or with friends—can appreciate how enormously inefficient democracies can be. Moses was unjust, but he was efficient. That’s a major reason why no mayor or governor dared fire him; while other officials were mired in red tape and board meetings, waiting for approval, allocating funds, holding public hearings, Moses was plowing through and building his works. As he was fond of saying, he Got Stuff Done. His record of achievement made him, for a time, into a political asset and a public hero.

Here is the democratic conundrum in a nutshell. Quick decisions require unilateral power. This is why the Roman senate appointed dictators in times of trouble. But just decisions require a legal framework, open debate, and the people’s approval—a slow and often painful process. And as the story of Caesar shows, it is a risky matter to grant unilateral power temporarily. Power, once granted, is difficult to take away; and power, once concentrated into one area, tends to keep on concentrating.

But the major lesson about power I learned from this book is that power is particular and personal. This is why this book is so eye-opening and shocking. Before reading this, my operating assumption was that power derived from rules and roles. You were elected to a position with a clearly delineated scope and legally limited options. Each position came with its own responsibilities and jurisdiction, unambiguously defined in black and white by a constitution or a law. Yet Moses’s story illustrates the opposite principle. The scope of a role is defined by who holds it; the power of the position is derived from the ingenuity of the individual. Everything comes down to the personality of the man (usually a man, then as now) in charge, his philosophy, his force of will, his cunning, his intelligence, as well as the personality of the people he has to deal with. Circumstances play a role too. Success or failure depends on the individual’s ability to take advantage of any opportunity that arises. Power is not embodied in an eternal set of rules but rather in an ever-changing set of particular circumstances.

Here’s just one example. Moses thought that his power over the Triborough Authority was inviolable, because he had made contracts with his investors, and contracts are protected by the United States Constitution. But when Nelson Rockefeller, the governor, wanted to merge the Triborough into the Metropolitan Transit Authority—a clear violation of the bond contracts—Moses couldn’t stop him, since the banks were represented by Chase, which was owned by Nelson Rockefeller’s brother—who wouldn’t take the matter to court. In other words, because of the particular circumstances—the family relationship between the governor and the bank—the most sacred rule of all, the Constitution, was broken and Moses was defeated. And the reason this happened was not due to any regulation; it came down to the incompatibility of Moses’s and Nelson Rockefeller’s personalities.

I have written an enormous review, and yet I still think I have not done justice to this enormous book. Caro weaves so much into this story. It is not simply a biography of Robert Moses, but a treatise on power, government, and city-planning, a history of New York City and New York State. Robert Caro is an excellent writer—dramatic, sweeping, and capable of weaving so many disparate threads and layers and levels together into one coherent narrative. The one virtue he lacks is brevity. This book is long; arguably it is unnecessarily long, full of peripheral details and sidenotes and rhetorical passages. But its length is what makes The Power Broker so engrossing. It is more absorbing than a fantasy novel, pulling you completely into its world. For three weeks I lived inside its pages.

I loved this book so much, and learned so much from reading it, that it seems peevish to offer criticisms. I will only say that Caro is clearly hostile to Moses and perhaps is not entirely fair. He is an extraordinary writer, but uses repetition as a rhetorical device a bit too much for my tastes. Also, despite this book’s huge scope and length, there are some curious omissions. Particularly, Jane Jacobs’s conflicts with Moses—which have become somewhat legendary, even the subject of a recent opera—are not covered. Jacobs, who articulated many of the intellectual criticisms of Moses’s approach, isn’t even mentioned.

All these are mere quibbles of a book that totally reconfigured my vision of power and government. I recommend it to anyone. And if you’re from New York, it is obligatory.

View all my reviews

The Old Croton Aqueduct and the New Croton Dam

The Old Croton Aqueduct and the New Croton Dam

The Old Croton Aqueduct trail runs behind my house, and I’ve been walking along its tree-shaded way for well over a decade now. As a kid, I thought “aqueduct” was just a name, until my mom told me that, buried underneath the pebbly ground, there is a tunnel that used to carry water to New York City from Croton, a couple dozen miles north. Even so, it never occurred to me to learn about the aqueduct. This a striking but common phenomenon: we travel to foreign cities and go on tours, but neglect the history in front of our eyes. It wasn’t until I began traveling abroad that I started to realize the scale and significance of the old aqueduct—along with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Eerie Canal, it is one of the major engineering feats of nineteenth-century New York—and so I set myself to investigate it.

The first step was to walk the whole thing. This is not an easy stroll. The original aqueduct ran about 40 miles from the Croton Reservoir down to Manhattan. The water first reached the Receiving Reservoir, which is now the Great Lawn in Central Park, and then traveled further along to the Distributing Reservoir in Midtown Manhattan on 42nd Street. On this spot now stands the iconic main branch of the New York Public Library, and you can still find remains of the old reservoir’s foundation in the library basement. An imposing structure inspired by Egyptian architecture, this distributing reservoir used to be something of an attraction. People would come to stand atop its walls, for what was then one of the best views of Manhattan.

After the aqueduct was phased out of service in the 1960s, a large chunk of the land—26.2 miles of trail, to be exact—was donated to New York State, to form a historic linear park that stretches from Croton, through Ossining, Scarborough, Tarrytown, Irvington, Dobbs Ferry, all the way down to the Bronx. I didn’t manage to walk the whole way, but I walked most of this distance, first going south to Yonkers and then north to Croton.

For most of the way, the Old Croton Aqueduct is a dirt or grass path, about ten feet wide or narrower, with a well-worn channel in the middle. It goes through some historic areas, taking the walker alongside the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, through the park of Lyndhurst (former residence of Jay Gould, railroad baron), and near Sunnyside (former residence of Washington Irving), and into the wonderful Rockwood Park (former residence of William Rockefeller). The trail is not always so scenic; sometimes you are basically walking through people’s backyards, and there are a few intervals where you have to exit the trail and walk through a neighborhood to get to the next stretch.

Ventilator
Trail and ventillator

The walker will notice a few structures along the way. The most common are the ventilators, which are hollow stone cylinders with a shaft that allowed fresh air to reach the water below. These were installed to prevent pressure from building up inside the tunnel. Less frequent are the weirs, square stone buildings with metal sluice gates inside that could be dropped like a guillotine to divert the water in case repairs were needed. (And since the growing population of New York put heavy strain on the aqueduct, they frequently were.) These are situated above rivers, into which the water could be redirected. There is one above the Pocantico River in Sleepy Hollow, another in Ossining over the Sing Sing Kill, and another in the Bronx over the Harlem River.

Weir
Sleepy Hollow Weir

In Dobbs Ferry stands one of the old Keeper’s Houses, where the aqueduct’s superintendents used to stay. There used to be six of these along the aqueduct, but the one in Dobbs Ferry is the only one that still stands. It is an inconspicuous white house now, but not long ago it lay completely in ruins; the restoration was just completed in 2016, by the combined efforts of the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, a non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to the aqueduct, and the State of New York. This house is open on weekends and is well worth a visit. It contains many exhibits about the aqueduct, with historical photos, engineering drawings, and maps, and also has several short documentaries you can watch.

Sluice Gate
Sluice gate

Up north in Ossining there is a stone bridge that carries the aqueduct over the Sing Sing Kill. (“Kill” comes from a Dutch word, meaning “river,” and is used in several place-names in New York.) A few times a year, The Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct give free guided tours that actually bring you inside this bridge. I recently went on one, and I recommend the experience. A group of about two dozen visitors descended through the weir into the aqueduct. The old sluice gate is a rusty mass of metal now. But the aqueduct tunnel itself, made of brick and waterproof concrete, has held up remarkably well. The only marks of wear are some cracks in the walls from running the aqueduct at full capacity. It made me giddy to think that I could walk through that dark and dank tunnel all the way to New York City.

Tunnel Interior
Inside the Aqueduct

Below this bridge, there is an elevated walkway (a “greenway”) where you can stroll alongside the Sing Sing Kill. This was just opened last year, in 2016, and is astonishingly lovely. From this you can see the spillway, which brought the water from the aqueduct into the river during repairs. As the guide noted, the water would spray out with such force that it scoured the bank on the other side of the river.

Spillway
Sing Sing Kill spillway

From the information available in the Keeper’s House and the Ossining Visitor Center—from permanent exhibitions and documentaries on display—I pieced together the history of this great work. The original aqueduct and dam were commissioned in the 1830s after it became apparent that New York badly needed more water. Outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera killed thousands; and the Great Fire of 1835 destroyed hundreds of buildings, largely because the fire department lacked the water to put it out. Manhattan is an island of marshy ground surrounded by brackish water, and before the Croton Aqueduct was built the only water supplies were local wells which could be easily polluted.

Greenway
Sing Sing Kill greenway

The man primarily responsible for planning and engineering the original aqueduct was John B. Jervis, who must be one of the great engineers of 19th century America. He had political as well as engineering challenges to surmount. The land needed for the tunnel cut through hundreds of properties, mostly farms, each of which required an individual settlement. Meanwhile, the two political parties of the time, the Whigs and the Democrats, were squabbling over funding. Upon completion of the project, Jervis rode in a rowboat through the tunnel all the way from Croton to New York. I don’t know how long it took him, but it takes the water 22 hours to make the journey. This slow speed was intentional, by the way, since it minimized wear on the tunnel.

High Bridge Ground View
Original High Bridge arches

The largest structure of the original aqueduct stands on the southern end. This is the High Bridge. Opened in 1848, this is the oldest bridge still standing in New York City. It originally resembled a Roman aqueduct, with tall stone arches carrying the water high overhead, just like the famous aqueduct in Segovia. Indeed, one remarkable thing about the Croton Aqueduct is that it uses the same principle the Romans used all those centuries ago—namely, gravity—transporting the water on its 40 mile trip with a slight incline, 13 inches per mile. The bridge had to be built so high (140 feet) to maintain this slope. The water tower Jervis designed still stands on the Manhattan side of the High Bridge, looking like the turret of some bygone castle. (This tower was needed to pump water to some areas in the Bronx, which lay above the Aqueduct’s slope.)

Water Tower
Water tower

In the 1920s people began to complain that the bridge’s arches were an obstacle to ships traveling through the river, so the middle stone pillars were demolished and replaced with a long steel arch. The bridge was officially closed to the public in 1970, apparently because of vandalism, and wasn’t opened until 2015—an astonishingly long time, if you ask me. (There are some excellent panels on the High Bridge, with illustrations of its history. I have attached the images at the end.)

High Bridge Top
High Bridge

As you can see from the High Bridge, the scale of the Old Croton Aqueduct is undeniably impressive: stretching about four times longer than the Aqua Appia in Rome (although, to be fair, I think the Romans built several aqueducts longer than the Croton Aqueduct), and requiring whole landscapes to be reshaped. The aqueduct was constructed by 4,000 laborers, mostly Irish, who made a dollar or less for ten-hour days. Having thousands of single men, with plenty of drink available (enterprising farmers began converting their barns into bars), predictably caused some ruckus. But it was a good job for the recent immigrants.

The opening of the aqueduct was something of a sensation. At the time, the Croton Aqueduct was one of the biggest engineering projects in the United States, only surpassed by the Eerie Canal. And the effect of the aqueduct on city life was scarcely less important than the canal’s. With a reliable source of clean water, the city began to expand at a remarkable rate. The original aqueduct was built with a maximum capacity of 60 million gallons a day. The engineers thought this would be enough water to supply the city for hundreds of years. But it wasn’t long until the ever-growing population of New York outstripped the capacity of the aqueduct. Indeed, it was largely thanks to the increased supply of fresh water that the city was able to grow so quickly.

Thus the aqueduct, designed to be used for centuries, was supplemented in 1890 by the New Croton Aqueduct, a larger tunnel that runs parallel to the old one. The Old Aqueduct stopped delivering water to the city in the 1950s. The New Croton Aqueduct is still in use—although it, too, has since been supplanted. The Croton watershed now delivers about 10% of NYC water. The majority of the water comes from the Catskill Watershed further north, ferried to the city by the Catskill and the Delaware Aqueducts. This latter tunnel, by the way, is the longest tunnel anywhere on earth, stretching 85 miles. New York is a thirsty city. (The current daily water supply of NYC is 1.3 billion gallons.)

Not only the original aqueduct, but the original Croton Dam was also replaced in the late nineteenth century. Jervis designed the original dam with an innovative S-shaped spillway to reduce damage from floods. But good luck seeing it now. Today, Jervis’s dam is underwater, submerged under the expanded Croton Reservoir, only visible in times of severe drought.

Croton Dam

For my part, I don’t regret this loss, since that dam was replaced by the New Croton Dam—a grand monument of the previous century. Made of cyclopean stones, standing at almost 300 feet tall, and stretching to 2,188 feet (almost the exact altitude of Madrid, coincidently) the dam is still immensely impressive. It is also beautiful, with the stair-like spillway allowing water to cascade down to the river below in an artificial waterfall. This dam was begun in 1892 and completed in 1906. Whole communities—cemeteries, churches, and farms—had to be moved to make way for the expanding reservoir. Standing on top of that dam, hearing the rushing water below you, does a better job than any statistic of conveying how much water a major city like New York needs.

Croton Dam Side

As part of my research, I also read the book in the Images of America series about the construction of the New Croton Dam. The story of this construction is told with dozens of old photographs, with commentary by Christopher Tompkins. You don’t exactly get a linear narrative this way; but the images alone are worth the price. It baffles the mind to think of what these men accomplished—redirecting a river, and erecting a structure 300 feet tall with cut stones, flooding an entire valley and displacing many communities—and all this using technology that looks, to my eyes, scarcely more advanced than what the Egyptians used. That’s an exaggeration, of course: the dam workers had steam shovels to excavate and railroads to bring stone from the quarry. But I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been to move those massive stones in a time before modern cranes, using only wooden derricks and pulleys and counterweights.

It is amazing to me that so much history—an engineering feat and a chapter in the history of New York—lay buried right behind my house, and that I’ve been walking along this trail for so many years, oblivious. Don’t wait until you travel to learn about history, to explore and go on tours. Take Thoreau’s advice: “Live at home like a traveler.”


These images are taken from informational panels on the High Bridge.

IMG_0241

IMG_0243

IMG_0242

IMG_0244

IMG_0245

IMG_0249

Review: The History of England

Review: The History of England

The History of EnglandThe History of England by Thomas Babington Macaulay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A traveler must be freed from all apprehension of being murdered or starved before he can be charmed by the bold outlines and rich tints of the hills.

Sir Thomas James Babington Macaulay, Baron of Rothley—more commonly known as Lord Macaulay—is yet another of those creatures of former ages who could fill volume after volume with excellent prose, seemingly without effort. He wrote reams: this work itself, in the original, runs to five volumes. And everything he wrote—from poems to essays, from speeches to history—was both instantly successful in his day and still remains a model of force and clarity. The power of his style is why Macaulay is most frequently cited nowadays. He is the only English historian (except perhaps David Hume) whose writing can be mentioned in the same breath as Edward Gibbon; indeed the two of them are grouped together as models of elegance, in much the same way as were Demosthenes and Cicero.

Brilliant stylists they both were; but quite different in their brilliance. Gibbon is stately, while Macaulay is luminescent. To borrow a phrase from Tocqueville, Gibbon tried to see history from God’s point of view: as a pure spectator, a neutral observer, emotionally unmoved but intellectually engaged. Macaulay imitated the more dramatic styles of Thucydides and Tacitus, narrating history as an enormous spectacle with heroes and villains. Here he is describing the fate of the Scottish colony of Caledonia during the failed Darien scheme:

The alacrity which is the effect of hope, the strength which is the effect of union, were alike wanting to the little community. From the councilors down to the humblest settlers all was despondency and discontent. The stock of provisions was scanty. The stewards embezzled a great part of it. The rations were small; and soon there was a cry that they were unfairly distributed. Factions were formed. Plots were laid. One ringleader of the malcontents was hanged.

Macaulay’s punchy, declarative sentences have an overwhelming effect when piled atop one another in cumulative description. Indeed, Macaulay never simply describes: he dramatizes. He pays at least as much attention to the emotional effect of his words as their literal accuracy. Granted, Macaulay is seldom as quotable or as graceful as Gibbon; but he is leaps and bounds more exciting to read.

This difference in style, as often happens, mirrors a difference in attitude. Gibbon had his fair share of prejudices, but he was not partisan. Macaulay is partisanship incarnate. He is largely responsible for popularizing what is commonly called Whig History. This is the thesis that sees English history as “the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement” caused by political reform. This thesis became historical orthodoxy for a time, until, like all orthodoxies, it bred a heresy that became the new orthodoxy.

Nowadays the idea that history is a grand progress from barbarism to civilization will strike many as terribly simplistic, mostly wrong, and nauseatingly complacent. After two world wars and the atom bomb, we are apt to view any suggestions of progress with skepticism. Nevertheless, to condemn Macaulay’s perspective for being old-fashioned would be to forget, what Hugh Trevor-Roper reminds us in the introduction, that the “severest critics themselves are generally unaware of the extent to which they depend on the achievement of their victim.”

The terms ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ appear with great frequency both within the book and in discussions of Macaulay; and yet these political positions can be bewildering for a non-British reader. This is in keeping with the general Britishness of this book. Macaulay’s history is a national history; it is a book written for Brits. For any British reader, I suspect this book will excite some strong emotions, positive or negative. For me it appealed mainly to my anthropological curiosity.

In fairness, Macaulay’s conception of Great Britain is wide enough to include Scotland and Ireland. And although this book is full of shocking insults against the Scots and the Irish (as a prophet of progress, Macaulay sees Scotland and Ireland during this time as hopelessly backward), Macaulay’s history was nevertheless important—or so says Hugh Trevor-Roper in the introduction—for treating those two realms as of integral importance to British history.

As Trevor-Roper also points out, Macaulay’s partisanship expresses itself most damagingly in his dealings with individuals. Macaulay is not an acute psychologist. He occasionally breaks off the narrative to engage in a lengthy description of some figure—such as his unforgettable portrait of George Jeffreys—but these descriptions are inevitably either philippics or eulogies. There are no memorable personalities in these pages; only flat heroes and villains. This tendency to choose good guys and bad guys often led Macaulay into errors or even chicanery. He deliberately misrepresents the evidence to blacken William Penn’s name, while going so far as to assert that “extirpate” is commonly understood to mean “disarm” rather than “eliminate” in order to clear William of the Glencoe Massacre.

Purists may have some misgivings about reading this abridgement. For me, I see abridgements like this as an ideal place to begin reading: it gives you a decent overview of the whole work, and allows you to decide if you’d like to commit to five volumes. Trevor-Roper did an excellent job with this edition, giving a satisfying overview of the narrative arc, providing the necessary connections between the missing parts, as well as enlivening the experience with his own cutting commentary. As a writer, Trevor-Roper is fully within the Macaulay school: sharp, direct, and unmerciful. The book is full of footnotes pointing out where Macaulay is erring or being underhanded. The introduction, too, is unsparing: “[Macaulay’s] descriptions of art, architecture, music are of a frigid, conventional pomposity if they are not positively absurd.”

To my surprise, I found this period of time to be relevant to contemporary American politics. James II—a bumbling, petty, egotistical monarch in league with a foreign ruler—couldn’t help but remind me of Trump’s Russia affair. The way that James would fill government posts with cronies, or would try to circumvent long-held traditions by browbeating his subjects in personal interviews, was eerily similar to what James Comey describes in his statement. Macaulay’s sections on the National Debt and the partisan squabbles between Tories and Whigs were also astoundingly applicable. This is curious, if not exactly meaningful.

Hopefully one day I will have the time and inclination to read the unabridged version of this masterpiece. Until then, I can say that Macaulay’s reputation is well deserved: as a stylist, and as a partisan.

View all my reviews

Review: A Study of History

Review: A Study of History

A Study of History, Abridgement of Vols 1-6A Study of History, Abridgement of Vols 1-6 by Arnold Joseph Toynbee

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the perennial infirmities of human beings is to ascribe their own failure to forces that are entirely beyond their control.

One day, a couple years ago, as I was walking to Grand Central Station from my office in Manhattan—hurrying, as usual, to get to the 6:25 train in time to get a good seat by the window, which meant arriving by 6:18 at the latest—while crossing an intersection, I looked down and found a Toynbee tile lying in the middle of the street.

Toynbee tiles are mysterious plaques, pressed into the asphalt in city streets, that have appeared in several cities in the United States. Small (about the size of a tablet) and flat (they’re made of linoleum), nearly all of them bear the same puzzling message: “TOYNBEE IDEA MOVIE ‘2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER.” Sometimes other little panicky or threatening messages about the Feds, Gays, Jews, and instructions to “lay tile alone” are scribbled in the margins. Nobody knows the identity of the tile-maker; but they are clearly the work of a dedicated conspiracy theorist with a tenuous grasp on conventional reality; and considering that they’ve been appearing since the 1980s, all around the US and even in South America, you’ve got to give the tile-maker credit for perseverance. (Click here for more on the tiles.)

I was stunned. I had heard of the tiles before, but I never thought I’d see one. I walked across that intersection twice daily; clearly the tile had been recently installed, perhaps just hours ago. I wanted to bend down and examine it closely, but the traffic light soon changed and I had to get out of the way. Reluctantly I moved on towards Grand Central; but I felt gripped by curiosity. Who is this mysterious tile maker? What is he hoping to accomplish? Suddenly I felt an overpowering desire to unlock his message. So instead of jumping on my usual train—I wasn’t going to get a window seat, anyway—I stopped by a bookstore and picked up Toynbee’s Study of History.

Toynbee, for his part, was apparently no lover of mystery, since he tried to explain nothing less than all of human history. The original study is massive: 12 volumes, each one around 500 pages. This abridgement squeezes 3,000 pages into 550; and that only covers the first five books. (Curiously, although the cover of this volume says that it is an abridgement of volumes one through six, it is clear from the table of contents that it only includes one through five. Similarly, though the next volume of the abridgement says it begins with book seven and ends with book ten, it actually begins with book six and ends with book twelve. This seems like a silly mistake.)

The abridgement was done by an English school teacher, D.C. Somervell, apparently just for fun. He did an excellent job, since it was this abridged version that became enormously popular and which is still in print. All this only proves what Toynbee says in the preface, that “the author himself is unlikely to be the best judge of what is and is not an indispensable part of his work.”

As a scholar, Toynbee achieved a level of fame and influence nearly incomprehensible today. His name was dominant in both academe and foreign affairs. In 1947, just after this abridgement of his major work became a best-seller, he was even featured on the cover of Time magazine. This, I might add, is a perverse index of how much our culture has changed since then. It is nearly impossible to imagine this book—a book with no narrative, written in a dry style about an abstract thesis—becoming a best-seller nowadays, and equally impossible to imagine any bookish intellectual on the cover of Time.

But enough about tiles and Toynbee; what about the book?

In A Study of History, Toynbee set out to do what Oswald Spengler attempted in his influential theory of history, The Decline of the West—that is, to explain the rise and fall of human communities. In method and content, the two books are remarkably similar; but this similarity is obscured by a powerful contrast in style. Where Spengler is oracular and prophetic, biting and polemical, literary and witty, Toynbee is mild, modest, careful, and deliberate. Spengler can hardly go a sentence without flying off into metaphor; Toynbee is literal-minded and sober. Toynbee’s main criticism of his German counterpart seems to have been that Spengler was too excitable and fanciful. The English historian seeks to tread the same ground, but with rigor and caution.

Nevertheless, the picture that Toynbee paints, if less colorful, is quite similar in outline to Spengler’s. The two of them seek to divide up humans into self-contained communities (‘cultures’ for Spengler, ‘societies’ for Toynbee); these communities are born, grow, break down, collapse, and pass away according to a certain pattern. Both thinkers see these groups as having a fertile early period and a sterile late period; and they both equate cultural vigor with artistic and intellectual innovation rather than political, economic, or military might.

Naturally, there are significant divergences, too. For one, Toynbee attempts to describe the origin and geographic distribution of societies, something that Spengler glosses over. Toynbee’s famous thesis is that civilizations arise in response to geographic challenge. Some terrains are too comfortable and invite indolence; other terrains are too difficult and exhaust the creative powers of their colonizers. Between these two extremes there is an ideal challenge, one that spurs communities to creative vigor and masterful dominance.

While I applaud Toynbee for the attempt, I must admit that I find this explanation absurd, both logically and empirically. The theory itself is vague because Toynbee does not analyze what he means by a ‘challenging’ environment. How can an environment be rated for ‘difficulty’ in the abstract, irrespective of any given community? A challenge is only challenging for somebody; and what may be difficult for some is easy for others. Further, thinking only about the ‘difficulty’ collapses many different sorts of things—average rainfall and temperature, available flora and fauna, presence of rival communities, and a host of other factors—into one hazy metric.

This metric is then applied retrospectively, in supremely unconvincing fashion. Toynbee explains the dominance of the English colony in North America, for example, as due to the ‘challenging’ climate of New England. He even speculates that the ‘easier’ climate south of the Mason-Dixon line is why the North won the American Civil War. Judgments like these rest on such vague principles that they can hardly be confirmed or refuted; you can never be sure how much Toynbee or ignoring or conflating. In any case, as an explanation it is clearly inadequate, since it ignores several obvious advantages possessed by the English colonists—that England was ascendant while Spain was on the wane, for example.

Now that we know more about the origins of agriculture, we have come to exact opposite conclusion as Toynbee. The communities that developed agriculture did not arise in the most ‘challenging’ environments, but in the areas which had the most advantages—namely, plants and animals that could be easily domesticated. But Toynbee cannot be faulted for the state of archaeology in his day.

The next step in Toynbee’s theory is also vague. The growing society must transfer its field of action from outside to inside itself; that is, the society must begin to challenge itself rather than be challenged by its environments. This internal challenge gives rise to a ‘creative minority’—a group of gifted individuals who innovate in art, science, and religion. These creative individuals always operate by a process of ‘withdraw-and-return’: they leave society for a time, just as Plato’s philosopher left the cave, and then return with their new ideas. The large majority of any given society is an uncreative, inert mass and merely imitates the innovations of the creative minority. The difference between a growing society and either a ‘primitive’ or a degenerating society is that the mass imitate contemporary innovators rather than hallowed ancestors.

Incredibly, Toynbee sees no relation between either technological progress or military prowess with a civilization’s vigor. Like Spengler, he measures a culture’s strength by its creative vitality—its art, music, literature, philosophy, and religion. This allows him to see the establishment of the Roman Empire, as Spengler did, not as a demonstration of vitality but as a last desperate attempt to hold on to Hellenic civilization. Toynbee actually places the ‘breakdown’ of Hellenic society (when they lost their cultural vitality) at the onset of the Peloponnesian War, in 431 BCE, and considers all the subsequent history of Hellene and Rome as degeneration.

But why does the creative minority cease to be genuinely creative and petrify into a merely ‘dominant’ minority? This is because, after one creative triumph, they grow too attached to their triumph and cannot adapt to new circumstances; in other words, they rest on their laurels. What’s more, even the genuine innovations of the creative minority may not have their proper effect, since they must operate through old, inadequate, and at times incompatible institutions. Their ideas thus become either perverted in practice or simply not practiced at all, impeding the proper ‘mimesis’ (imitation) by the masses. After the breakdown, the society takes refuge in a universal state (such as the Roman Empire), and then in a universal church (such as the Catholic church). (As with Spengler, Toynbee seems to have the decline and fall of the Roman Empire as his theory’s ur-type.)

To me—and I suspect to many readers—Toynbee’s theories seem to be straightforward consequences of his background. Born into a family of scholars and intellectuals, Toynbee is, like Spengler, naturally inclined to equate civilization with ‘high’ culture, which leads naturally to elitism. Having lived through and been involved in two horrific World Wars, Toynbee was deeply antipathetic to technology and warfare. Nearly everyone hates war, and rightly; but in Toynbee’s theory, war is inevitably a cause or an effect of societal decay—something which is true by definition in his moral worldview, but which doesn’t hold up if we define decay in more neutral terms. The combination of his family background and his hatred of violence turned Toynbee into a kind of atheistic Christian, who believed that love and non-violence conquered all. I cannot fault him ethically; but this is a moral principle and not an accurate depiction of history.

Although the association is not flattering, I cannot help comparing both Toynbee and Spengler to the maker of the Toynbee tiles. Like that lonely crank, wherever he is, these two scholars saw connections where nobody else had before, and propounded their original worldviews in captivating fashion. Unfortunately, it seems that coming up with a theory that could explain the rise and fall of every civilization in every epoch seems to be just about as possible as resurrecting the dead on planet Jupiter. But sometimes great things are accomplished when we try to do the impossible; and thanks to this unconquerable challenge, we have two monuments of human intelligence and ambition, works which will last far, far longer than linoleum on asphalt.

View all my reviews

Review: The Decline of the West

Review: The Decline of the West

The Decline of the WestThe Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All genuine historical work is philosophy, unless it is mere ant-industry.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is one of my favorite books, not only because it is written so beautifully, but because of the spectacle of decline—of a great empire slowly and inevitably crumbling. The scene is irresistibly tragic. Like a Macbeth or an Oedipus, the Empire succumbs to itself, brought down by its own efforts at self-expansion. Or perhaps the scene can be better compared to the Fall of Man in Milton’s poem, a grand cosmic undoing, followed by the heroic struggle against the inevitable.

Besides the sublime tragedy of Rome’s decline, it fascinates because it gives us a foreboding of what might happen to us. Indeed, maybe it is already? This would explain all the banality we see on television every day, all the terrible music on the radio. More than decline—a loss of political and economic power—this is decadence: a decay of taste, morals, artistic skill. Decadence seems observable in many historical instances: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines: they all petered out, losing cultural vitality until they disappeared completely. Couldn’t the same thing be happening to us?

Oswald Spengler thought so, and he turned this thought into the basis for an entire philosophy of history. He was not a professional historian, nor an academic of any kind. He worked as a school teacher until his mother’s inheritance allowed him quit his job and to devote all of his time to scholarship. This scholarship was mustered to write an enormous book, whose publication was delayed by World War I. Probably this was very lucky for Spengler, since the pessimism and anguish caused by that war set the mood for his grand theory of cultural decline.

The Decline of the West puts forward a radically unconventional view of history. Spengler divides up world history, not into countries or epochs, but into “Cultures.” There have been only eight: the Egyptian, the Babylonian, the Meso-American, the Chinese, the Indian, the Classical (Greco-Roman), the Arabian (includes the Byzantine), and the Western (European Culture, beginning around the year 1000). Each of these Cultures he conceives as a super-organism, with its own birth, middle-age, and dotage. These Cultures all age at a similar rate, and go through analogical stages in the process (Napoleon is the Western equivalent to Alexander the Great, for example). Spengler believed that he had delineated these Cultures and traced their basic growth and aging process, thus providing a valid scheme for all future history as well, if any new Culture should arise.

Spengler is a cultural determinist and a cultural relativist. This means that he does not see these Cultures as dependent on the talent of individuals to grow; the individual is a product of the Culture and not the reverse. He also thinks that each of these Cultures creates its own self-contained world of significance, based on its own fundamental ideas. There is no such thing as inter-cultural influence, he thinks, at least not on any deep level. Each of these Cultures conceives the world so differently that they can hardly understand one another, let alone determine one another, even if one Culture can overpower another one in a contest of arms. Their art, their mathematics, their architecture, their experience of nature, their whole mental world is grounded in one specific cultural worldview.

Because Spengler is a determinist, he does not present us with a Gibbonian spectacle of a civilization succumbing to its own faults, struggling against its own decline. For Spengler, everything that happens in history is destiny. People don’t make history; history makes people. Thus, while often classed as a political conservative, it is hard to put any political label on Spengler, or to co-opt his views for any political purpose, since he didn’t think we directed our own history. To be a true Spenglerian is to believe that decline is inevitable: decadence wasn’t anyone’s “fault,” and it can’t be averted.

Much of this book consists of a contrast between what he calls the Apollonian (Greco-Roman) worldview, and the Faustian (Western) worldview. The Apollonian world-picture is based on the idea of definite form and definable shape; the nude statue is its most characteristic art, the delineated human body; its mathematics is all based on geometry, concrete shapes and visible lines. The Faustian picture, by contrast, is possessed by the idea of infinity; we make fugues, roving explorations of musical space; our mathematics is based on the idea of a function, an operation that can create an endless series of numbers. Spengler dwells on this contrast in chapter after chapter, trying to prove his point that Western Culture, far from being a development of Classical Culture, is entirely incompatible with it.

His own Culture, the Western, he traces to around the year 1000, at the commencement of the Romanesque. How or why new a Culture begins, Spengler doesn’t venture to say; but once they do begin, they follow the same definite steps. It was inevitable, he thinks, that the Romanesque transformed into the Gothic, and then eventually flourished into the Baroque, the high point of our Culture, wherein we expressed our deep longing for the infinite in Bach’s fugues and Descartes’s mathematics.

Sometime around the year 1800, the Western Culture entered its late, senescent phase, which Spengler terms ‘Civilization.’ This is the phase that follows cultural growth and flourishing; its onset begins when a Culture has exhausted its fundamental idea and explored its inherent forms. A Civilization is what remains of Culture when it has spent its creative forces: “The aim once attained—the idea, the entire content of inner possibilities, fulfilled and made externally actual—the Culture suddenly hardens, it mortifies, its blood congeals, its force breaks down, and it becomes Civilization.”

The ‘decline’ that forms the title of this book is just this transition from Culture to Civilization, wherein major creative work is at an end. Civilization is, rather, the age of Caesarism, the consolidation of political power. It is the age of world cities, major metropolises filled with cosmopolitan urban intellectuals. It is the age of academics rather than geniuses, the Alexandrine Greeks instead of the Golden-Age of Athens. It is, in other words, the period that corresponds with the onset of the Roman Empire, a period of no substantial innovation, but of magnificent stability. The Western Culture, Spengler thought, was entering just this period.

Whereas those who are actuated by a Culture during its creative period feel themselves driven by inevitable impulses, which allow even mediocre artists to create great works, people within a Civilization are creatures of the intellect, not the instinct; and instead of being given creative power and direction by their Culture, they are left to substitute their own subjective tastes and whims for cultural destiny. Instead of, for example, having one overriding epoch in our artistic productions—such as the Gothic, the Baroque, or what have you—we have artistic ‘movements’ or trends—Futurism, Dadaism, Cubism—which, far from being necessary phases in a Culture’s self-expression, are merely intellectual fads with no force behind them.

Spengler’s theory does have the considerable merit of being testable, because he made very specific predictions about what the immediate future held. We had gone through the period of ‘Warring States,’ he thought, in which country fought country and money ruled everything, and were about to enter a period of Caesarism, wherein people would lose faith in the power of self-interested capitalism and follow a charismatic leader. This would also be a period of ‘Second Religiousness,’ a period of faith rather than reason—a period of patriotism, zeal, and peaceful capitulation to the status quo.

Nowadays, one-hundred years later, it seems these predictions were certainly false. For one, he did not foresee the Second World War, but thought the period of internecine warfare was coming to a close. What is more, economic power has grown even more important—far more important than political power, in many ways—and no Caesar has arisen, despite many contenders (including Hitler, during Spengler’s lifetime, of whom Spengler didn’t think highly).

Aside from its breadth, one thing that sets this book apart is its style. Spengler is a remarkable writer. He can be poetic, describing the “flowers at eventide as, one after the other, they close in the setting sun. Strange is the feeling that then presses in upon you—a feeling of enigmatic fear in the presence of this blind dreamlike earth-bound existence.” He can be bitter, biting, and caustic, castigating the blind scholars who couldn’t see the obvious, satirizing the pseudo-sauve intellectuals who populated the cities of his time. He can be lyrical or epigrammatic, and can write ably about art, music, and mathematics.

His most characteristic mode, however, is the oracular: Spengler proclaims, predicts, pronounces. His voice, resonating through the written word, booms as if from a mountaintop. He sweeps the reader up in his swelling prose, an inundation of erudition, a flood that covers the world and brings us, like Noah in his ark, even higher than mountaintops. Perhaps a flood is the most apt metaphor, since Spengler is not only overwhelming in his rhetorical force, but all-encompassing in his world-view. He seems to have thought of everything, considered every subject, drawn his own conclusions about every fact; no detail escapes him, no conventionality remains to be overturned by his roving mind. The experience can be intoxicating as he draws you into his own perspective, with everything you thought you knew now blurry and swirling.

Spengler is so knowledgeable that, at times, he can sound like some higher power declaiming from above. But he was a man, after all, and his erudition was limited. He was most certainly an expert on music, mathematics, and the arts, and writes with keen insight in each of these subjects. But in politics, economics, religion, and especially science, he is less impressive. He completely fails to understand Darwin’s theory, for example, and he thought that physics was already complete and there would be no more great geniuses (and this, in one of the greatest epochs of physics!). He doesn’t even mention Einstein. Spengler also thought that our scientific theories were culturally determined and culturally bound; the Western conception of nature, for example, would have no validity for the Chinese (which doesn’t seem to stop the Chinese from learning Newton’s theories).

His grand theory, though undeniably fascinating, is also impossible to accept. What is the nature of a Culture? Why do they arise, why are they self-contained, why do they follow the same life-course? Why would one single idea determine every single cultural production—from mathematics to music, from architecture to physics—in a Culture from birth to death? All these seem like fundamental questions, and yet they are not satisfactorily addressed—nor do I see how they could be.

By insisting on the Culture as the unit of history, Spengler seems to be at once too narrow and too broad. Too narrow, because he does not allow for the possibility that these Cultures can influence one another; while it seems obvious to me that, yes, there was influence from the Classical to the Western, as well as from the Classical to the so-called ‘Magian’ (his term for the Arabian Culture), and from the Magian to the Western, and so on. And too broad, because within any given Culture there are not only different ages but different areas. Is the cultural difference between Spain and England ultimately superficial, but between the Renaissance and Classical Greece unbridgeable? Really, the more you think about Spengler’s claims, the less credible they seem. After all, if Spengler were right, how could he, a Western intellectual living in the Civilization phase of Western Culture, delineate the fundamental ideas of other Cultures and produce what he regarded as a major intellectual achievement?

I am certainly not saying that this book is intellectually valueless. By comparison, Walter Pater had this to say about aesthetic theories: “Many attempts have been made by writers on art and poetry to define beauty in the abstract, and express it in the most general terms, to find a universal formula for it. The value of these attempts has most often been in the suggestive and penetrating things said by the way.”

This seems equally true with regard to Spengler’s universal formula for history. Although I think his theory is untenable, this book is nevertheless filled to the brim with suggestive and penetrating observations, especially about art, architecture, music, and mathematics. Spengler may be a failed prophet, but he was an excellent critic, capable of making the most astonishing comparisons between arts of different eras and epochs.

Even if we reject Spengler’s proposed theory, we may still savor the grand vision required to see all of human history as a whole, to scan one’s eye over the past and present of humankind, in all its forms and phases, and to form conjectures as to its destiny. And Spengler was undeniably original in his inclusion of Babylonian, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, and Meso-American Cultures as of equal importance as Western history; indeed, it is at least in part to Spengler that we owe our notion of world-history. Rich in ideas, set forth in ringing prose, invigorating in its novelty, breathtaking in its scope—here we have a true classic, yet another example of a book whose enormous originality outweighs every conventional defect we can detect in it.

View all my reviews

Crítica: La guerra civil española, por Anthony Beevor

Crítica: La guerra civil española, por Anthony Beevor

La guerra civil españolaLa guerra civil española by Antony Beevor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Esto es una traducción de un post en inglés.)

Como demostró la guerra civil española, la primera baja de la guerra no es la verdad, sino la fuente de la que procede: la consciencia y la integridad del individuo.

Hace unos meses, esperando curar mi ignorancia total de la guerra civil española, comencé a buscar un libro. Había escuchado diversas opiniones sobre la famosa historia por Hugh Thomas, y en todo caso su extensión no me pareció ideal como introducción. Mi compañero de trabajo, un historiador militar, me recomendó Ángel Viñas; pero sus libros son largos igualmente, y además solo están disponibles en español—español difícil. Sin embargo, quería practicar de leer español, y no deseaba un “introducción breve” o algo así. La versión de Anthony Beevor tiene la longitud correcta; y su dificultad, cuando es traducido al español, es ideal: desafiante pero factible.

Anthony Beevor es un historiador militar; y su libro es principalmente una historia de ejércitos y batallas. Las fuerzas que desestabilizaron el gobierno y crearon tanta tensión en el país están resumidas rápidamente; y las repercusiones —su legado, sus efectos persistentes en la vida política española, su significado más amplio en la historia del siglo veinte— todo esto está mencionado, pero no analizado. Como cualquier historiador, Beevor necesita poner límites a su material. Se centra en la península ibérica en los años entre 1936-39.

Beevor es un escritor excelente. Sus párrafos son minas de información; él resume, ofrece estadísticas y da ejemplos memorables. Inspecciona el campo de batalla como un observador aéreo; informa sobre luchas de poder como periodista investigador. No deja que su material le agobie, pero condesa eventos complicados hasta formar frases elegantes. Su enfoque está más en eventos a escala grande que en historias individuales. La narración pausa con poco frecuencia para analizar el carácter de una persona concreta, o para contar un anécdota, pero mantiene la perspectiva de un general observando sus tropas.

A pesar de su habilidad de escribir, Beevor no puede cambiar el hecho que esta guerra es complicada. Tantos actores están involucrados—comunistas, anarquistas, republicanos, sindicalistas, conservadores, falangistas, carlistas, monarquistas, vascos, catalanes, alemanes, italianos, soviéticos, estadounidenses, británicos, franceses—que es imposible presentar la guerra como una historia sencilla. Beevor divide la materia en 38 capítulos cortos, cada uno sobre un aspecto, en un esfuerzo representar justamente la complejidad del conflicto sin agobiar el lector. Es una estrategia efectiva, pero llega con el inconveniente de una fragmentación desagradable.

Sin embargo, este libro hace lo que he esperado haría: ofrecer un resumen del conflicto, sus causas inmediatas, sus actores principales y el curso de la guerra. Dicho esto, tengo que admitir que la historia militar del conflicto—las batallas, las estrategias, las armas—es solo de interés temporal.

Lo que quiero saber es—¿Por qué? ¿Por qué un país decidió desgarrarse? ¿Por qué ciudadanos, vecinos, familiares decidieron matarse? ¿Por qué radicalismo triunfó en la derecha y la izquierda? ¿Por qué una democracia fracasó y un régimen represivo tomó el poder? Estas son grandes preguntas, que este libro no dirigirse. Para entender el trasfondo histórico y la inestabilidad que siguió a la guerra, quiero leer el libro de Gerald Brenan, El laberinto español.

Mientras tanto, me han dejando con una imagen de un derrumbe moral. Al principio del golpe, habían asesinatos en masa de curas, obispos, monjas en los cientos y los miles; y la Iglesia Español, por su parte, fue cómplice con frecuencia en represión y tiranía. Se cometieron masacres y ejecuciones en los dos lados. Por ejemplo, cuando los republicanos estaban al mando de Málaga, 1.005 personas fueron fusiladas. En la primera semana después de la conquista de los nacionalistas, fusilaron más de 3.000 personas; y dentro de 1944, más de 16.000 fueron ejecutados.

En el lado republicano, decisiones militares importantes fueron tomados por razones políticas; la propaganda política fue tan penetrante que los dirigentes se sentían ciegamente seguros que iban a ganar, y actuaron para justificar sus presuntuosas predicciones. Llevaron a cabo ofensivos inútiles—en Segovia, Teruel y el Ebro—costaron miles de vidas y perdieron los recursos de la República, para capturar lugares de ninguna importancia estratégica. Confiando ciegamente en la alta moral, los anarquistas se negaron a regular la economía y disciplinar sus tropas, dando una “una justificación ideológica de la ineficacia.” Eventualmente, facciones estalinistas se apoderaron el poder en el lado “republicano,” suprimiendo violentamente otros partidos.

Voluntarios valientes llegaron a España desde muchos países, la mayoría para luchar contra los fascistas; sin embargo, su entusiasmo fue malgastado por dirigentes ineptos. Al tiempo de todo eso, Francia, Inglaterra, y Estados Unidos manteniendo una póliza oficial de “no intervención,” mientras la Italia fascista, la Alemania nazi y la Rusia soviética enviaron tropas y armas a España, probando estrategias y equipo que iban a usar en la Segunda Guerra Mundial.

Al final, Franco ganó. Los perdedores tenían pocas opciones. Muchos escaparon a Francia, en donde ellos estaban encarcelados en campos de concentración, en que comían lo insuficiente, vivían en condiciones antihigiénicas, en temperaturas bajo cero. En Saint-Cyprien, morían entre 50 y 100 presos cada día, y los otros campos no fueron mucho mejor. Después de una indignidad inicial, la prensa francesa olvidó la situación de los refugios españoles. Aquellos que se quedaron en España encontraron un gulag de encarcelamiento, trabajo forzado, y muerte. Unos escaparon a las colinas, y otros lucharon en bandas de guerrillas; pero normalmente no duraron mucho. Y si los estalinistas hubieran ganado la guerra, no está claro que las condiciones habrían sido mejores.

Una cosa que me llamó la atención con frecuencia era la diferencia en eficacia entre los nacionalistas y los republicanos. Mientras Franco reguló bien su economía durante la guerra y tomó decisiones militares eficaces, el lado republicano fue inundado por decenas de monedas, preocupado por formar sindicatos, y se preparando para la revolución inminente. El mismo día en que Málaga cayó, cuando tantas personas fueron ejecutadas, en Barcelona el gobierno estaba preocupado por la colectivización de las vacas.

Esto mostró una característica persistente en la derecha y la izquierda. La igualdad y la autoridad son dos valores conflictivos; y la mayoría de gobiernos intenta encontrar un equilibrio entre ellos. Cuando la derecha se convierte en extrema, prefiere la autoridad sobre la igualdad; y cuando la izquierda se convierte en extreme, la igualdad es una obsesión. De este modo, observamos el ejército se organizaron bajo del mando de Franco, mientras los republicanos dividieron en facciones luchando entre ellos, más centrado en sus esquemas utópicas que ganar la guerra.

La igualdad sin la autoridad crea justicia sin poder. La autoridad sin la igualdad, poder sin justicia. El primero es preferable moralmente y totalmente inadecuado en sus medios; y el segundo usa medios eficaces para cumplir objetivos injustos. En la práctica, esto significa que, en competición directa, la derecha extrema va a ganar, por los menos a corto plazo; sin embargo, a largo plazo, su énfasis en autoridad, obediencia y disciplina crea sociedades injustas y pueblos infelices. La izquierda extrema, por su parte, después de colapsar en facciones peleando, a veces revierte a la forma autoritaria, mientras un partido se convierte en el más poderoso y pierde su paciencia con discutir (algo que ocurre rápidamente en un crisis).

Un camino en el medio es necesario para navegar entre estos valores. ¿Pero cuál es el equilibro correcto? Supongo que esta es una de las preguntas más viejas de los seres humanos. En todo caso, mientras dejo el libro, me quedo una oscura imagen con muy pocos áreas iluminadas.

View all my reviews

Review: The Battle for Spain

Review: The Battle for Spain

La guerra civil españolaLa guerra civil española by Antony Beevor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the Spanish Civil War proved, the first casualty of war is not truth, but its source: the conscience and integrity of the individual.

A few months ago, hoping to cure my total ignorance of the Spanish Civil War, I set about trying to find a book. I had heard mixed opinions about Hugh Thomas’s famous history, and in any case its size didn’t seem ideally suited as an introduction. My coworker, a military historian, suggested Angel Viñas; but his works were equally long and, besides, only in Spanish—difficult Spanish. Nevertheless, I did want to practice reading Spanish, and I didn’t want a very short introduction or suchlike. Anthony Beevor’s account seemed to be just the right length; and its difficulty, when translated to Spanish, was ideal: challenging but doable.

Anthony Beevor is a military historian; and his book is mainly a record of armies and battles. The forces that destabilized the government and created so much tension within the country are quickly summarized; and the aftermath of the war—its legacy, its lingering effects in Spanish political life, its wider significance in 20th century political history—all this is hinted at, but not delved into. Like any historian, Beevor needs to set limits to his material. He focuses on the Iberian peninsula in the years between 1936-39.

Beevor is an excellent writer. His paragraphs are mines of information; he summarizes, offers statistics, gives striking examples. He surveys the battlefield like an aerial observer; he reports power struggles like an investigative journalist. He never lets the material run away from him, but compresses complex events into well-turned sentences. His focus is more on large-scale movements than on individual stories. The narration seldom pauses to analyze a person’s character, or to relate a telling anecdote, but instead maintains the perspective of a general examining his troops.

Beevor’s considerable powers of narration notwithstanding, he can’t help the fact that this war is complicated. So many actors are involved, all with different motives—communists, anarchists, republicans, trade unionists, conservatives, falangists, carlists, monarchists, Basques, Catalans, Germans, Italians, Soviets, Americans, British, French—that presenting the war as a clean story is impossible. Beevor breaks the material into 38 short chapters, focusing his gaze on one aspect, in an effort to do justice to the war’s complexity without overwhelming the reader. This is an effective strategy, but it comes at the price of a certain unpleasant fragmentation. The grand sweep of the narrative is obscured.

Nevertheless, this book does what I hoped it would: provide an overview of the conflict, the immediate causes, the principal actors, and the course of the war. Having said this, I must admit that the military history of the conflict—the battles, the strategies, the armaments—is only of passing interest to me.

What I really want to know is—Why? Why did a country decide to tear itself apart? Why did countrymen, neighbors, relatives decide to kill each other in mass numbers? Why did radicalism triumph on both the left and the right? Why did a democracy fail and a repressive regime seize power? These are big questions, which this book admittedly doesn’t address. To understand the historical background and the instability that led up to the war, I plan to read Gerald Brenan’s book, The Spanish Labyrinth.

In the meantime, I am left with little more than a picture of moral collapse. The really dreadful thing about this war is how few heroes there were in high places. Mass murders were committed on both sides. At the outbreak of the military coup, there are spontaneous slaughters of clergymen, monks, bishops, in the hundreds and thousands; and the Spanish Church, for its part, was too often complicit in repression and tyranny. Mass murders and executions were perpetrated on each side. To pick one example, when the republican side was in control of Málaga, 1,005 people were executed or murdered. In the first week after its conquest by the nationalists, over 3,000 people were killed; and by 1944, another 16,000 had been put to death.

On the republican side, important military decisions were made for political reasons; political propaganda was so pervasive that leaders felt blindly sure they would win, and tried to act to justify their boastful predictions. Useless offensives were carried out—in Segovia, Teruel, and the Ebro—costing thousands of lives and wasting the Republic’s resources, to capture targets of no strategic importance. Blindly trusting in high morale, anarchists refused to regulate the economy and discipline their troops, providing an “ideological excuse for inefficiency.” Stalinist factions eventually seized power on the “republican” side, violently suppressing other parties.

Brave volunteers from all over the world poured into Spain, most to fight against the fascists; and yet their zeal was squandered by careless leadership. Meanwhile, France, England, and the United States maintained a policy of “non-intervention,” while Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia poured troops and military equipment into the country, testing out weapons and strategies that they would later use in the Second World War.

Eventually, of course, Franco won. Those on the losing side had few options. Many fled to France, where they were imprisoned in what amounted to concentration camps, in which they were forced to live on insufficient food, in unhygienic housing, and in freezing temperatures. In Saint-Cyprien, there were 50 to 100 deaths daily, and the other camps weren’t much better. After initial outrage, the French press promptly forgot the plight of these Spanish refugees. Those who remained in Franco’s Spain faced a gulag of imprisonment, forced labor, and death. Some escaped to the hills to hide out, and others fought in scattered bands of guerilla fighters; but these usually didn’t last long. And yet if the Stalinists had won the war, it isn’t clear that conditions would have been any better.

One thing that repeatedly struck me as I read through this book was the contrast in efficiency between the nationalists and the republicans. While Franco regulated his wartime economy and made effective military decisions, the republican side was awash in dozens of local currencies, busy worrying about forming syndicates, and preparing for the imminent proletariat “revolution.” On the same day as Málaga fell, when so many were put to death by Franco’s forces, in Barcelona the government was worrying about the collectivization of cows.

This seems to show us a persistent feature of both the left and the right. Equality and authority are two ideals at odds with one another; and most governments concern themselves with finding a balance between these two values. When the right becomes extreme, it gravitates towards extreme authority at the expense of equality; and when the left is radicalized, the reverse happens, and equality is fetishized. Thus we see the nationalist army consolidating itself under Franco, while the republican side devolved into warring factions, more concerned with their utopian schemes than with winning the war.

Equality without authority produces justice without power. Authority without equality, power without justice. The first is morally preferable in its ends and totally inadequate in its means; while the latter uses brutally efficient means to achieve brutally unjust ends. In practice, this means that, in direct contests, the extreme right will most often triumph over the extreme left, at least in the short-term; and yet in the long-term their emphasis on authority, obedience, and discipline produces unfair societies and unhappy populaces. The extreme left, for its part, after collapsing into mutually squabbling factions, sometimes devolves into the authoritarian pattern as one party emerges as the most powerful and as they lose patience with discussion (which doesn’t take long in a crisis).

Some middle-path is needed to navigate between these two ideals. But what’s the right balance? I suppose this is one of the oldest questions of human societies. In any case, as I put down this book, I am left with a dark picture lightened by very few bright patches.

View all my reviews