Friday, January 23, 2015

What Balzac can tell us

Last summer, as some of you may recall, I read Stendhal's Le rouge et le noir and tried to start a blog devoted to the discussion of French literary classics. I am convinced there are hundreds of people scattered around the world who would enjoy such discussions, but I was not able to attract them, and the project never got off the ground.  I have however continued it on my own, and I am in the midst of the second of two large novels by Balzac, the first, La cousine Bette, (Cousin Betty) set in the 1830s and early 1840s, and the second, Les Chouans, set in 1799 in the midst of revolutionary struggles in western France.  Today I will be writing about Cousin Betty, which has a great deal more to tell us about our own world.

Balzac wrote a long series of novels about France from the late 18th until the mid-19th century, a series that was interrupted when he died.  He called it the Human Comedy, and he aimed at capturing the totality of life.  He himself was a member of a Prophet generation--indeed, I named his generation the Balzac generation in my article on Western European generations--born in 1799, rather like an American born in 1864 or 1944.  (While the Napoleonic wars continued, of course, until 1815, France itself was quite stable by 1803 and was clearly in a High by that time.)  Balzac was not only keenly aware of the influence of history upon people, but he was very much alive to differences between generations.   He obviously knew hundreds of people who had been young adults during the Revolution, and they play enormous roles in his books, even those like La cousine Bette that are set in much later periods.  Although many of them made fortunes under Napoleon, they tend to be careful and frugal with money, as our own GI generation was.  Balzac has particular respect for the old soldiers of the period, one of whom takes sick and dies in La Cousine Bette because his younger brother has disgraced his family.  In short, by the 1830s and 1840s, the era of the relatively liberal July Monarchy that came to power in 1830, the Napoleonic generation are aging relics of a glorious and more heroic past.  Most of the heroes of these books were either children during the revolution or were born in its wake, like Balzac himself.

Balzac sets his books all around France, but many of the most famous take place in the Paris of the Restoration (1815-30) and the July Monarch (1830 until his own untimely death in 1850.)  There he finds almost no heroes.  The rich in particular care only for social distinction, money, and sex.  Here and there, a lonely artist toils, like Balzac himself, to please a public lacking in taste, and some young men reach Paris determined to do good, but generally fail.  Here in the United States it took us at least 40 years after our last great crisis--that is, until the 1980s--to reach this state, captured so well by Tom Wolfe, a Balzac fan himself, in The Bonfire of the Vanities.  In France this happened almost instantaneously, perhaps because Napoleon had in the end lost the war, and a new elite had taken power composed largely of emigres who had spent the Napoleonic era in exile.  The society is, of course, utterly inegalitarian, and Thomas Piketty cited Balzac, along with Jane Austen, to illustrate the key features of societies dominated by inherited wealth.  The drama of Balzac's novels, including La Cousine Bette, often comes from rich men's tendency to squander all their wealth in pursuit of pleasure.  Women, meanwhile, scheme to share in the available riches by selling their companionship and their bodies.  Balzac even coined his own word, a "lorette," for beauties of the stage and the opera who became the high-priced mistresses of bankers and nobles.

What is lacking in Balzac's Paris is exactly what is lacking in the United States today: any widespread devotion to something larger than one's self.  That is why Balzac obviously feels nostalgia for the Napoleonic era even though he is a believing Catholic and a monarchist, just as the United States in the 1990s was seized by a fit of nostalgia for the era of the GI generation.  That is why most of his heroes are solitary artists.  Near the very end of La Cousine Bette I discovered this remarkable passage, delivered by a doctor, speaking to a virtuous woman who has heroically tolerated her husband's escapades for decades, and who now devotes herself to charitable work among the poor.

“This is the law of society.  The confessor, the judge, and lawyer would be helpless if the  state did not subjugate the human spirit. . .We, we have the pleasure of a successful cure, just as you have the joy of saving a family from horrible hunger, misery and poverty by finding it work; but what solace is there for the judge, the police commissioner or the lawyer, who spend their lives searching among the most heinous conspiracies of ambition, that social  monster that knows the pain of failure but never feels repentance? 

“Whence comes this great evil?” asked the baroness.
“From the lack of religion,” he replied, “and from the rule of finance, which is nothing but pure egotism.  Money in other times was not everything, one recognized other things of greater value.  There was nobility, talent, and service to the state; but today the law makes money a universal standard of value and the basis of political power!  Certain magistrates are no long eligible for it, Jean-Jacques Rousseau would not be eligible!  The endless division of inheritances forces everyone to think only of himself from the age of twenty onwards. And the need to make one’s fortune leads easily to depraved schemes, because the religious spirit is lacking in France, despite the efforts of those working for a Catholic restoration.  That is the opinion of all those who, like me, see into the bowels of society.”

Sadly, even the rhetoric of President Obama's State of the Union address hardly recognizes values greater than money.  "Middle class economics" simply argues, accurately to be sure, that some have much too much while most of the nation has too little.  But we too need "other things of greater value" such as nobility (of spirit), talent, and service to the state.  We are at a disadvantage in some of our overseas struggles because militant Muslims find things of greater value in service to their religion, however misguided they may be.  Balzac, by telling us that society has been here before, opens up the hope that it may some day escape again, as well. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Western values and the world

The shootings at Charlie Hebdo and at the kosher market in Paris, it seems to me, are not really helping France and the west as a whole to focus on the problem we face.  We are suffering from an excess of over-confidence, a failure to understand the place of western civilization in world history, past, present, and future.  Indeed, the whole West is suffering from the Hegelian disease they I have blogged about several times here.   Too many of us insist on believing that our values are so transparently correct that the world has a duty to obey them.  This is however a misreading both of the past and of the present.  A large and increasing part of the world does not share those values--and we have no means of imposing them upon them.

Let us look at two particular problems:  the killings in Paris, and the rampages in the interior of Nigeria by Boko Haram, now reported to have killed thousands of people.  Regarding the situation in Paris, we can say that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Muslims around the world now believe in theocracy and reject western notions of tolerance.  Such people are now actively holding power in parts of Syria and Iraq, and are contesting for power in many other places within the Muslim world, including nuclear-armed Pakistan.  Indeed there is no real evidence that the Saudi government, one of our leading allies in the Muslim world, shares our values, but they do keep order within their own territory.  And they have inspired some thousands of Muslims in the west--French, Belgian, Britain, and even American.  A few thousand of these people have gone to Syria and Iraq and Yemen to fight, and some have returned to their home countries  They are a serious security threat.  I honestly believe that some consideration should be given to laws decreeing that citizens of these nations, including our own, who go abroad to participate in Jihad forfeit their citizenship and their right to return.  But with or without such laws, we probably have to accept the loss of some dozens of lives in the west every year from Islamic terrorism.  Britain lost 47, 36 and 14 people to IRA terrorism in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, respectively. It takes very few committed terrorists to kill some people, particularly if they do not care about their own fate.  We have tried the alternative of imposing our values on Muslim nations with armed force, and it does not work.  Air power has halted the ISIS advance in Iraq, but it has not won back any territory.   I am afraid that more attacks in the west will provoke calls for more drastic action, which will only make things worse.

In the case of Charlie Hebdo,  militant Islam came across another late twentieth-century belief: the idea that offending traditional values is, in and of itself, a good thing.  Do not misunderstand me: I believe in the right to free speech as much as anyone.  Rights, however, do not exist to be abused, or to incite hatred.  The cartoonists had the right to do what they did, but that does not make it noble or wise.   It is no accident that some of them were veterans of the struggles of 1968 in Paris: that was the moment at which the mockery of the older generation's values became not merely a right, but a sacred duty.   We would not suffer if we gave up that particular legacy.

As for Boko Haram, it is, I feel sure, the first of a series of political crises in Africa.  The reason is simple: it is now more than half a century since most of the African nations won their independence.  That means that their initial post-colonial arrangements are dying off, along with the people who remember them, and that their future is up for grabs.  Already some elements of the western media are complaining that we are paying less attention to several thousand deaths in Nigeria than to a relative handful in Paris.  But Paris belongs to our civilizatin in a way that Nigeria does not, and in any case, what can we possibly do?  Dispatching western troops to restore order is called imperialism.  The West tried this 150 years ago or more, but gave it up in the 1960s.  The African populations are now much, much larger than they were then, and the task of imposing order is way beyond any coalition of western nations.  The Africans are in charge of their own destiny, and they will have to work things out.

Back in Western Europe and the US, it seems to me, the only way to reduce the appeal to Jihad--which is not large, but large enough to kill dozens of people a year--is to renew the meaning of citizenship at home by enlisting the young people of the nation in some common enterprise.  I do not see that happening in any major western nation.  The Boom generation and its somewhat younger European counterparts have been taking their inheritance for granted for too long.  Their leadership needs to do something about unemployment and economic inequality at home, too, to secure the active allegiance of the population.  We did not get where we are by accident, and there is no automatic mechanism to keep us here.

Friday, January 02, 2015

"It has been a bad year. .. .Next year will be worse."

So wrote the now-forgotten Harold Nicolson, a British diplomat, novelist, journalist, broadcaster, and diarist, on December 31, 1938, 76 years ago.  Things hardly look so serious today.  We have no enormous conflict raging in the Far East like the Sino-Japanese War, no civil war limping to a bloody conclusion in Spain, and no power in the heart of Europe overturning frontiers.  Yet a large, far more populous swath of the world, from the eastern Mediterranean to Pakistan, is threatened with anarchy.  Most crucially, then as now, the world lacks an organizing principle around which to build peaceful international relations, and long-term economic and demographic trends threaten political stability in some key areas.

The United States remains the leading world power--but the foreign policy elite of the United States, in both parties, believes in false assumptions.  As I blogged months ago in Time, we are stuck intellectually in the early 1990s, when Francis Fukuyama postulated that liberal democracy and capitalism had now achieved a Hegelian triumph over all alternatives.  American foreign policy makers, led by President Obama, still assume not only that we know what is best for everyone, but that history, with only a slight push from us, will make it happen.  Yet the evidence is overwhelming that much of the world, led by China and Russia, the second- and third-most powerful states on the globe,. do not share are values and are not moving towards them. 

My contemporary Michael Ignatieff, whom I first met when I was about three years old (our parents were friends), pointed this out very effectively in a Ditchley Foundation lecture that was reprinted in the September 25th edition of the New York Review of Books. (The original lecture is available here.)  Both Russia and China have become thoroughly capitalist, but they have also developed new forms of authoritarian rule. In China an increasingly corrupt Communist Party still monopolizes political power but works with economic oligarchs for their mutual benefit.  Russia is a sham democracy in which both the state and state-sponsored organizations intimidate and terrorize the opposition. Because of Russia's energy resources, its oligarchs are major players in western European economies and other important areas of western European life, such as the leading soccer clubs.  More importantly, Russian political life and public debate now revolves around the idea of a noble Russia beleaguered by enemies foreign and domestic--just as it did under the Communists.  This is the real link between Putin's KGB roots and his political strategy today.  Putin is also using milder versions of totalitarian techniques to secure his rule.  Netflix subscribers can stream a fascinating documentary, Putin's Kiss, about a youth organization, Nashi, which mobilizes young people to march and chant against Russia's enemies, led by home grown dissidents and human rights activists.  The climax of the movie involves the nearly fatal beating of a young leftist journalist by Nashi thugs.  The group reminded me very much of Mussolini's black shirts or Hitler's SA, but with two significant difference: they included women and well as men, and they wore no uniforms.  We no longer live in a uniformed world, but states can still build a consensus by rousing hatred against enemies.

Putin is, of course, now in the midst of a desperate gamble to carve several slices out of eastern Ukraine.  His forces are doing just fine on the ground, but the combination of western sanctions and the slump in energy prices has left the Russian economy in a very bad way.  It is tempting to western Hegelians like David Brooks to argue or imply globalization is dooming Putin's projects, but I am not so sure.  Neither Hitler nor Mussolini created any kind of economic paradise in their states in the 1930s, but they retained the essential support of their people.  In the absence of any mechanism for political change or of an effective broad-based opposition, economic distress may simply be an excuse for Putin to tighten his rule. 

Because, moreover, the world is no longer rigidly divided into ideological camps and because Russia is in its own way an economic power, Putin has other assets he can use to extend his influence.  A New York Times story just detailed how he managed to maneuver the Bulgarian government into agreeing to a new gas pipeline through the Black Sea that would open up much of the Balkans to Russian supplies.  The project is now on hold, but the story remains important.  He is also feeding money to extreme right-wing parties in European countries, including France, presumably because these parties oppose the postwar consensus and the EU.  And these parties are gaining, as Paul Krugman points out today, because the powers that be have been so shamefully unable to deal with Europe's economic crisis--a very troubling echo of the 1930s indeed.  Putin has made gains precisely because he does not believe that history or economic theory will inevitably breed human happiness, either at home or abroad.  He is actively trying to reshape his corner of the world and extend his influence into critical areas.

In response, the United States, apparently, continues to trust to history.  Nine months ago, on March 21, I suggested here how the U.S. might more reasonably have reacted to the Crimean and Ukrainian crises in a post entitled "Another Long Telegram."  There were indications during the summer of a possible compromise, but now the Ukrainian government, whose legitimacy Putin denies, is going on a diplomatic offensive of its own, abandoning its non-aligned international stance and, in effect, threatening to join NATO.  (Bulgaria, it is worth noting, where Putin successfully corrupted the government over the pipeline issue, is already in NATO, but that obviously has not turned it into a reliable democratic ally.)  The Ukrainian move drew negative comment from some independent observers in the United States, but I cannot find any authoritative report of the official attitude of the U.S. government. 

The Chinese government is not showing the same aggressive spirit in foreign affairs, although it continues to claim maritime rights that the rest of the world denies.  It has successfully coped with the pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong.  But it is equally hostile to the idea of universal principles of human rights which all are duty-bound to observe.  And for the whole of the Obama Administration, US policy has focused on organizing a regional coalition against China, not on trying to find a basis upon which the two nations can peacefully co-exist.

Once again I conclude with my  most serious warning: the West's defense of its values depends on making them work at home.  Writing his famous "X article" in 1947, George F. Kennan described what the United States had to do to make progress against Communism.  "It is rather a question of the degree to which the United States can create among the peoples of the world generally," he said, "the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time."  Yet we are not coping successfully with our domestic problems, and our increasing tolerance for inequality--a parallel, ironically, with what has happened in Russia--makes it much, much harder for us to assert any spiritual superiority over anyone.  The spectacle of our warring political factions and governmental paralysis will almost surely get worse during the coming year, as the Republicans try to use their majority to dismantle more of the government.  Meanwhile, things have already gotten much worse in Iraq and are likely to get worse in Afghanistan.  We do not face the threats that loomed on the horizon 76 years ago yet, but we do not have a Franklin Roosevelt at our helm, either.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Regional war

At the height of the civil rights movement,the journalist and historian Gary Wills coined the phrase "the Second Civil War" to describe the federal government's assault on segregation in the South.  Fifty  years ago, Washington and the civil rights movement won two huge victories, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but that was only the beginning of the new struggle between the South and the North.  The white South immediately flexed its political muscle in 1968, giving all its electoral votes save those of Texas to Richard Nixon or George Wallace.  After returning to the Democratic fold in 1976 to elect native son Jimmy Carter, it became pretty solidly Republican from then on.  Virginia, North Carolina and Florida are now swing states, but the rest of the region is almost entirely Republican. 

Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Texas have also grown enormously in population relative to the rest of the country.  In 1964 those states had 64 electoral votes among them.  A belt of industrial states from New York through Pennsylvania and the states on the shores of the Great Lakes had 161.  Now those four southern states have 95, while the northern belt has fallen to 134.  The exception to teh nationwide pattern is California, which already had 40 electoral votes in 1964 and now has 55.  Two days ago the New York Times ran a story about population movements to the South in recent decades, pointing out that many northerners and westerners have realized that housing and energy are much cheaper there, and now return north for the holidays.  Today another story pointed out that when Congress convenes, six of the House's standing committees will be chaired by Texans.

The South has been more backward economically than the North for the whole of American history, and it is still much poorer in per capita income and much more subject to various social pathologies such as teen pregnancy, crime, and poverty.  But in the late nineteenth century the South learned to turn this into an advantage by exploiting cheap labor.   In subsequent decades it managed to move much of the textile industry out of the North.  Those gains have not lasted--those jobs have now moved further south, to foreign countries--but the new service economy has proven even more suitable to this strategy, as I am reminded almost any time that I have to make a customer service call.

Whether you are calling your telephone company or your internet provider, the odds are that you will be connected to someone with a strong southern accent, no matter where you live yourself.  Their competence varies widely, but they cost relatively little.   Other kinds of calls--especially relating to computer hardware--take you much further, usually to somewhere in South Asia.  In today's economy here in the US there must be millions of over-qualified people, including recent college graduates, who would be glad to do those jobs--but they would have to be paid much more.  Since business schools have long since stamped out any feeling of national, much less regional,responsibility among corporate leaders, I doubt any of the leadership thinks to question any of this.

I have been most depressed over the years when I have to deal with customer service for the home delivery of my New York Times, or my subscription to The New York Review of Books.  There are obviously two sacred publications of the northeastern liberal elite.  The Times people are very frustrating to deal with, because they will not allow you to contact the local subcontractors who actually deliver your paper.  (No one knows this, but in 2012-13, when I was a visitor at Williams College, I singlehandedly got the town's Times delivered on time, instead of after 9:00, by making about 30 calls to the 800 number and eventually finding the local subcontractor myself.)  But what is really rather striking is that both the Times and the New York Review call centers are located in Mississippi.  Their employees, particularly those of the New York Review, are intelligent and competent--but it has not occurred to the management of either of these publications, apparently,. that they are contributing to the relative decline of their own region and the culture and values it represents by sending their subscribers' money into the Deep South.  Yes, both publications are surely running deficits, but wouldn't it be worth something to them to keep that money closer to home and help the educated but less-well-off members of their own community?

I had  brief moment of hope some months ago when I had to call my financial services firm, one of the nation's largest.  I was connected to a woman with a strong New York accent.  When we had finished our conversation, I remarked that it was nice, for once, to be connected from some one from my own part of the country. But the joke was on me: she was now living in Arizona.  The northeastern elite seems to have lost any feeling of responsibility towards its less well off neighbors, and they are paying a huge price for this in political influence.