Friday, April 26, 2013

The Uniquely awful presidency of George W Bush

George W. Bush is back in the news with the opening of his presidential library (when did these become a thing, anyway?).  There have been some weak attempts to defend him, and more repetitions of what we already know -- that George W. Bush was a poor president that made bad decisions, a man so obsessed with being 'the decider' that he banished any of the doubt and self-reflection needed for serious decision making*.

I've been returning to something that the great, curmudgeonly historian David Foner said -- that George W. Bush was the worst president ever.  Now I didn't think that then and I don't think that now -- we've had more wicked presidents (Jackson) and presidents that have presided over (and helped create) greater national disasters (Hoover, Buchanan).

But there is a narrow sense in which I think Bush is 'the worst ever' -- never before has a president -created- so many problems without any need or excuse.  Never before has a president been given such a strong hand -- a budget surplus, international leadership both moral and political -- and squandered it so completely, leaving us with financial collapse, trillion-dollar deficits, a misbegotten and mismanaged war, and Abu Ghraib.  The other presidential failures -- Hoover and Buchanan come to mind -- were given great challenges and failed spectacularly.  George W. Bush was given one significant but manageable challenge - 9-11 - and failed badly, and then he conjured up more failures (deficits, Katrina's aftermath) from thin air and sheer incompetence.

I've studied a bit of American history, and I think this is unique.  Other presidents (Nixon, Jefferson) mixed unforced errors with brilliant accomplishments, while others (Adams) had brilliant accomplishments amidst general incompetence.  George W. Bush doesn't just belong aside Harding and Filmore amongst the mediocre presidents, he belongs at the bottom of them all, circling the drain with Buchanan and Hoover.

*This probably has a bit to do with his MBA education and his stints in the corporate world, honestly.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

'Collectivism' and 'Statism' are useless words

As the last two posts from me indicate, I've been reading Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder.  Nazi and Stalinist atrocities have taken up enough mental real estate of late that I dreamt last night that my old elementary school was an underground prison.

But these atrocities are in a sense all around us; their memory is omnipresent, from their rather central role in school curricula to the use of Nazi and Soviet history as the ultimate in taboo humor.  They inform our discourse, and similes involving them are ubiquitous.

Most of these similes are too stupid to take seriously.  Comparing Obama to Hitler is so self-evidently moronic that I half suspect that no one truly believes it, people just want to believe it.  But more insidiously, some people use deliberately vague terms as a way to invite comparison between the democratic welfare state and authoritarianism.  Such comparisons are as useless and unenlightening as they are offensive.

They are not obvious, however.  Because one can define one's terms to make such a comparison true, in a trivial way.  You can, for instance, define all those who do not believe in absolute individual liberty as 'statists' or 'collectivists.'  By this definition, Roosevelt, Stalin and Hitler are all 'statists.'  But in so doing you have done nothing -- you've just invented a word that means 'everyone that disagrees with me' and applied it appropriately.  Such a word is not a term of history, but merely a propaganda tool, a linguistic trick designed to paint all your opponents with a Stalinist brush.

You may protest, that this is a philosophical term, one that accurately describes people's values, to which I would reply, simply -- hogwash.  On the contrary, such a way of speaking shows a perversely abstract way of viewing human belief, human morality and human action, where the bad thing about Stalin was not that he murdered millions, but that he did not believe in individual property rights.  Interestingly, on this point the libertarian agrees with the 1930's Communist apologist, who saw Stalin as just another progressive fighting for equality.

By their fruits ye shall know them.  Any term that turns us away from the actual impact that ideas have on human beings is a perversity, an intellectual temptation to lose sight of our fellow man.  To guard against this we must view 20th century atrocities not as myths or abstractions, but as historical facts, the products of particular systems.  Not merely a watchword for everything we hate.

Bloodlands: Something of a Review

I've finished Timothy Snyder's well-crafted but monumentally depressing book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Stalin and Hitler 1933-1945.  As I said before, it is a must read for anyone interested in 20th century European history, WWII or 20th century authoritarianism and its attendant atrocities.

I was struck by a few things about it.  For one, Snyder has enough literary and moral sensibility to place horrific events in a human and moral context without losing sight of cause and effect.  In particular, his conclusion, which combines history, ethics and politics, would make the book worth reading even if the rest of the book was just tables of fatalities.  This conclusion is by turns moving, intellectually probing and at times it presents a quiet challenge to the cliches we are so often fed about these atrocities.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Some Thoughts About How I Dress

The seasons are changing and with it my outfits, which has gotten me thinking about my clothes again. Believe it or my wardrobe (my clothing, shoes, accessories, jewelry, and outwear) is something that I've given a lot of thought to, in ways that may not show, so this post is an attempt to clarify why I dress the way I do.

I was a late bloomer, and subsisted happily on unfitted tshirts and jeans until 10th grade, when I got involved in theater, got a boyfriend, and realized I wanted to dress more like my peers. The first time my mom took me to the mall and I cared about what I was buying instead of going "yeah, whatever" I was quickly overwhelmed by the number of options out there and how to choose and combine them when I hadn't developed a sense of style and didn't have any female friends I felt comfortable asking to help give me one, and to boot all of it was SO expensive - especially the accessories. For $100 (an enormous sum when I was 15) I was going to end up with just a few outfits, not a whole wardrobe. About an hour in I shut down, much to my mom's disappointment, and never really recovered.

Since then I've gone about building up my wardrobe on MY terms, not the mall's or what's in style. In building up a wardrobe I've considered several factors - 1. body type, 2. price, durability and comfort, and 3. personal style, which I will explain below.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bloodlands: First Thoughts - the Explicability of Evil

I'm reading Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder.  It's a good book, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the history of WWII, Eastern Europe, The Holocaust, or the Nazi and Soviet systems.  That said, it's as relentless grim and numbingly brutal as one would expect, given it's subject matter.  Snyder does a good job of humanizing the victims, but in the end it is a litany of horrors, albeit well described, well explained horrors.

Early on in the book I was struck by a statement that Snyder made -- roughly that people approach the holocaust as an event outside history, an almost supernatural event of ultimate evil, and that this gives Hitler altogether to much credit, and comes dangerously close to agreeing with his view of his actions as an expression of pure will, directing, rather than dictated by, the course of history.  This observation seems quite true to me -- how many of us, when we studied the holocaust in school, could grasp the general outline of horror, but glazed over and repeated cliches when we tried to explain it?  Man's inhumanity to man and people's destruction and hatred of the 'other' is a description of what happened, not a cause of it, after all.

And to me it is very important that we always search for a historical explanation, if we believe that history can be studied at all.  No event is outside the flow of cause and effect.  This is not to say that everything is preordained or that we are all just avatars of the historical process, but that the explanatory methods that we use for ordinary events -- who wins elections, why nations go to war -- can be used to explain anything, no matter how horrible.

This method is a particular method, rather than a universal one.  We cannot look to universal laws of human nature but to individual circumstances if we actually want to say something useful*.  This means rejecting abstract, philosophical arguments about 'totalitarianism**' and 'modernity' and looking at the actual events.

In this regard Snyder is admirable.  He shows the 'how' of the terror famines, the great purges, the starvation of Soviet POW's and the Holocaust in enough detail that we see how the machinery of death was set in motion.  He also answers the most proximate 'whys' -- why did the Germans start killing Jews en masse in 1941? why did Stalin deliberate starve the Ukraine?  The deeper whys (why the Nazis hated the Jews so much, why ordinary Germans and Ukraineans and Balts went along with it), however, he is silent on.

And this is perhaps inevitable.  He is writing a history of the eastern European borderlands between Germany and Russia from 1933 to 1945.  The deeper causes lie within the minds of Hitler and Stalin and in the natures of the movements that they led and the states they ran.  But if you do read Bloodlands (and I would recommend it), please remind yourself that the answers are out there.  After all, these are not devils, but men.

*I believe it's presumptuous to assume that we can know the nature of human beings as such, but aside from that, if humans have a nature then it is the same at all times and in all places.  The question then, is why some people (with the same natures as everyone else) are genocidiers when others are not.

**A useless word, except as propaganda.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Questions and Answers

Please excuse me, this is a bit of a personal musing, or perhaps navel gazing.

It's been 5 years since I graduated from St. John's college.  I arrived there a pretty doctrinaire 18 year old who thought he had all the answers, and I left at 22 being somewhat less sure of myself, or at least less settled in my ideals.  Even if I didn't learn humility (it will take more than a college to teach me that, I think) I learned that I couldn't, personally, find the answer to everything.

In between those two points I was surrounded by questions.  "Can virtue be taught?"  "Does Anselm Prove that there is a God?"  were some specific ones.  Behind them were more general questions 'What is the right way to live our lives?' 'How do we know what we know' and other such things.  With a few exceptions -- does Anselm prove that there's a God?  No.  -- these questions were not answered.  Questions like that are odd because people ask them earnestly, and yet, if you ask the asker, they will be forced to admit that they don't expect to find an answer.

What is the point of a question that has no answer?  When I was at college people spoke of 'loving the questions' and some authors (such as Heidegger) seemed to assume that asking them was the only point.  But language is a set of tools, and a question is a tool get an answer.  If a question cannot be answered, isn't it a defective tool, or a tool being misused?