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Archive for January 2015

Gas, Honor and Industrial Killing

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One hundred years ago, on 31 January 1915, the German Army initiated the first large-scale gas attack against the Russians at Bolimów. The attack was a failure; the chemical failed to vaporize when released because the weather was too cold.

Use of asphyxiating gas was in war was already forbidden under international law. The Russians should have reported the incident to their allies, but did not, more likely out of bureaucratic inertia than willful concealment.

Back in August of the previous year, few people in any of the participating powers believed that the fighting would have gone on this long without resolution. Men thought they would be “home before the leaves fall.” The few voices that questioned these beliefs were drowned out in the patriotic euphoria.

Both sides went on to use gas on each other. As the war dragged on with no prospect of victory, the belligerents reached for any means to prevail over the other side. After all the sacrifices that had been made, peace without victory was unthinkable.

The realities of the war were an experience for which the participants were not prepared. Never before had such mass armies been set against one another. There were no flanks anymore. The Western Front became a continuous wall of entrenched soldiers from the Channel to the Swiss border. The Eastern Front was more fluid, as it was typically about four times longer than the Western Front and the combatants could not be strong along the whole front.

There was no room for an elegant military maneuver now, little scope for an inspired tactical stroke. The two sides would bleed each other white until one or the other dropped from exhaustion. Battles ran together into relentless campaigns. A German soldier wrote:

Those who are only at home cannot possibly imagine it. There is no day, no night, no Sunday, no weekday.

Pre-war standards of courage and honor had not reckoned with mass armies backed by the industrial might of modern nations. Before the war, the French thought that cran — nerve — would carry all before it. In Britain, Lord Baden-Powell had founded the Boy Scouts on the belief that they could win the next war if they could find the young men who would “be prepared to die.” As the war bogged down and men settled into prepared positions, valor could turn to folly in an instant. An entire battalion of brave soldiers could be mown down in minutes by two pairs of raw recruits entrenched with machine guns having interlocking fields of fire.

The education of young men had not prepared them for anything like this. The change can be seen in art and literature. This is a translation of the part of the Odes from which the phrase Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country) is taken:

To suffer hardness with good cheer,
In sternest school of warfare bred,
Our youth should learn; let steed and spear
Make him one day the Parthian’s dread;
Cold skies, keen perils, brace his life.
Methinks I see from rampired town
Some battling tyrant’s matron wife,
Some maiden, look in terror down,—
“Ah, my dear lord, untrain’d in war!
O tempt not the infuriate mood
Of that fell lion I see! from far
He plunges through a tide of blood!”
What joy, for fatherland to die!
Death’s darts e’en flying feet o’ertake,
Nor spare a recreant chivalry,
A back that cowers, or loins that quake.
— Horace, Odes, 23 BC

British recruiting poster for World War I, 1915

British recruiting poster for World War I, 1915

Jessie Pope wrote poems to encourage her countrymen to enlist in World War I. “Who’s For the Game” was one of her more reknowned efforts at the time.

Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played,
The red crashing game of a fight?
Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid?
And who thinks he’d rather sit tight?

Who’ll toe the line for the signal to ‘Go!’?
Who’ll give his country a hand?
Who wants a turn to himself in the show?
And who wants a seat in the stand?

Who knows it won’t be a picnic, not much,
Yet eagerly shoulders a gun?
Who would much rather come back with a crutch
Than lie low and be out of the fun?

Come along, lads— but you’ll come on all right—
For there’s only one course to pursue,
Your country is up to her neck in a fight,
And she’s looking and calling for you.
— Jessie Pope, 1916

Wilfred Owen was an officer who served and died on the Western Front. He wrote poetry about his experiences that was published after his death. He would have known Horace’s Odes from school, and was familiar with the work of Jessie Pope, for whom his remarks to “my friend” were originally directed.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!–An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
— Wilfred Owen, 1917

What did honor mean in a situation where being honorable meant being first in line to die a gruesome death? Was there some sort of perverse natural selection at work, so that the honorable would die and the shirkers and hangers-behind would live?

"The Trench", Otto Dix, 1923

“The Trench”, Otto Dix, 1923

Otto Dix was a German non-commissioned officer who had served on the Eastern and Western Fronts. He saw action during the Battle of the Somme. After the war, he painted scenes that captured the sensations of being in battle. When the Nazis came to power, they banned his work as “degenerate art.”

Generals could work at their desks far behind the lines, but captains and lieutenants had to lead from the front. In 1914, Austria-Hungary lost almost 20,000 officers; three out of four were junior officers. The other great powers experienced similar distributions of loss. Graduates of the English public schools, such as Eton and Harrow, fell at a greater rate than did the British as a whole. These were the young men who, in the pattern of previous generations, should have become the political and economic leaders of their nations in the thirties and forties.

Nor could anyone see an honorable way out of the impasse. How could the French or Russians make an honorable peace with so much of their territory under German occupation? How could the Germans honorably give up their hard-won gains? So the combatants sought to pull others in on their side: neutral nations dreaming of territorial gains, alienated peoples in Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, exiled Russian communists hoping to seize power. Both sides hoped for eventual victory where, as one German bureaucrat wrote, the victors would make good their sacrifices with a Carthaginian peace and the defeated side would pay “the leaden weight of billions” in reparations.

In October, 1917, a senior official in the German Foreign Office wrote in his diary:

Where is the world headed? I try to think about this in order to transform this nonsense of Europe’s demise into some kind of sense. I do not succeed. The nonsense is too nonsensical. Only one thing is certain: Europe will either come to an understanding or it will go under. The first is impossible and so the second follows.


Written by srojak

January 31, 2015 at 3:05 pm

Sarah Bunting, Fictional Class Warrior

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The season of Downton Abbey currently airing is set in 1924. Unlike some of the past seasons, the outside world is impossible to ignore. Ramsay MacDonald has become the first Labour Party Prime Minister ever. Economic realities are squeezing the Crawley’s household staff. Penniless displaced Russian nobles have washed up in England.

And here comes Sarah Bunting sharing her abundant opinions. Sarah has a talent for wearing out her welcome, not only with the Crawleys but with many viewers as well.

Being a fictional character in a melodrama, Sarah would not merit extensive comment if she were not representative of real people who lived in Britain at the time and can still be found there today. Allow me to introduce Polly Toynbee:

By comparison, Downton’s conservative aristocrats would have been far more abusive – verbally and actually: mocking, sneering and complaining about their servants was standard Edwardian and inter-war conversation. Instead we see the Crawleys’ deep concern for their staff’s welfare, compassionate when one is charged with murder and another revealed as jailed for jewellery theft. In life, they would have been turfed out without references at any whisper of scandal.
— “What if Downton Abbey told the truth about Britain?”, The Guardian,

I’m sure some were abusive, small-minded and self-absorbed. Like any population, I would expect a wide variety of behaviors. As for the subset who were as described by Ms. Toynbee, really, who wants to watch them?

The British person who wants stories with cardboard, one-dimensional characters — brave, downtrodden, horny-handed working-class heroes and smug, nasty rich brats — can obtain these in abundance from The Guardian. Really, Polly, is it wise to cultivate competition for your audience?

Downton Abbey humanizes aristocrats, domestics and socialist agitators. Set in the years during and after World War I, it exposes those characters to forces of social, economic and political change for which they were completely unprepared. Gwen, Thomas, Daisy, Moseley and Shrimpy illustrate the gains and losses that these forces have wrought.  At its best, the series makes us care about the characters. Judging by the following it has, the series has been rather successful at that.

Being Lord Robert

The milieu in which a man such as Robert would have been raised was a shame culture, where honor was emphasized (Civilian America in 2015, by contrast, has a guilt culture; we are bereft of shame). There were relatively small circles of people with whom one had to get on, so reputation was critical. Whatever you were really like as a man, there were definite expectations of your behavior. Nobody cared a fig about authenticity; you were to do what was expected of you, even if you had to bend yourself into a pretzel to do it. Whereas we deplore a phony, the man of honor expects proper conduct in public, whatever one was like behind closed doors.

A man who failed to meet these expectations was a cad: “a man whose behavior is unprincipled or dishonorable.” Once your reputation was ruined, there was no retrieving it. There was no possible option to move to another part of the country and start afresh. However, a duke who was a cad was still a duke, entitled to all the accompanying prerequisites and social standing. He might be someone you would never speak to but he could still walk into a public ceremony in front of you.

The distinguishing hallmark of a person of social standing was leisure. It would not do for a man to shovel coal into his own furnace or for a woman to cook her own meals (and for a gentleman to cook his own meals — don’t even go there). One had servants for that. When Matthew, who is the heir apparent, announces his intention to work at a local law firm in season 1, it is not well-received. Matthew originally does not want to have a valet, but Robert prevails upon him to keep Moseley on, as much out of obligation as personal ease.

It wasn’t right, Carson. I just didn’t think it was right.
— Robert, series 1 episode 1, having reversed his decision to dismiss Bates

Even when the nobleman was serving as an army officer on campaign, it was unthinkable for him to be without a servant. A gentleman would not pitch his own tent or saddle his own horse. The officer would select one of the soldiers under his command to serve as his batman: a combination of valet, horse groom and gofer. A batman was expected to do anything the officer did not have time to do for himself, did not know how to do for himself or simply did not want to do for himself. In Downton Abbey, Bates had performed this role for Robert in the Boer War.

If you must know, when I think of my motives for pursuing Cora, I’m ashamed. There’s no need to remind me of them.
— Robert, series 1 episode 1

How representative is Robert’s character of an English lord at that time? To what extent does he vary from the norm? I shall have to leave that question to others whose experience includes encounters with earls and viscounts. I can say that he demonstrates the noblesse oblige, honor and self-examination that the aristocracy espoused, however much living examples did or did not live up to these standards.

If I’d screamed blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me at Eton, I’d have been hoarse within a month.
— Robert, series 3, episode 8

The British upper class standards emphasized tight emotional control. A man with Robert’s background and upbringing would strive to react with equanimity to whatever life could throw at him. His boat is not easily rocked, but Sarah has the knack.

Sarah and Robert

Sarah has lived in a world that Robert has never seen. She would likely have experienced real hardship. She is earnest in her convictions. She is apparently a very effective teacher. Were she a real person, it would undoubtedly chafe at her to see leisured people who don’t have to concern themselves with issues that confront her every day. She is also strident, very tiresome and does not know when to climb down from the soapbox.

All I’ve proved is that Lord Grantham would like us serfs to stay in our allotted place from cradle to grave.
— Sarah, season 5, episode 4

Serfs? You said it, not me. Not only have you verbally identified yourself as a serf, but your behavior is dishonorable. The word cad derived, a hundred years earlier, from caddie. When a person insults a man under his own roof, attributing beliefs to him without even knowing him well enough to speak from fact, in his code she demonstrates that she is only fit to carry his clubs, not to play the course as an equal. Sarah should be — and I mean this in all the richness of the word that the foregoing discussion entails — ashamed of herself.

With communist takeovers and revolutionary terror in Russia and Hungary quite fresh in everyone’s mind, Sarah’s remarks are quite threatening. Many enlightened people hoped for change, just as they had in the early years of the French Revolution. Defenders of the revolutionaries excused the casualties, saying, “You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.”

I have seen the future, and it works.
— Lincoln Steffens, 1919, after touring Soviet Russia

Seen across the gulf of the past 90 years, this viewpoint is also rather naive. However, people in 1924 didn’t fully understand what was going on in the Solovki Special Purpose Camp, pilot project for the Gulag. We now know that revolutionary ardor is not a justification for upturning a society. Maybe we should have known earlier, because we were told:

All you intended when you set us a-fighting was merely to unhorse and dismount our old riders and tyrants, so that you might get up and ride in their stead.
— John Lilburne, 1646, at his trial in the House of Lords

Sarah and the Exiles

One can view the Russian aristocracy as a ruling class gone horribly wrong. While they were “dancing and shopping and seeing their friends,” millions of people whose lives they influenced lived in poverty and squalor. Finally, the nation stumbled into a modern war with a feudal economy. Germany held France and Britain off with one hand for three years while battering Russia into submission with the other. There were aware, committed members of the aristocracy who wanted to reform Imperial Russia, but not enough of them.

Sarah would see the Russian exiles getting a taste of how the other half lives. Now you have nothing, just like the people you lorded over all those years? Cry me a river.

To Robert, this is uncharitable. Whatever they have or have not done prior to the Revolution is water over the dam now. These people are here, living in poverty. There is no reason to be unkind to them and certainly none to pour salt in their wounds.

Later a real Russian would write, of a person much worse than any of these exiled nobles:

No, I have no intention of forgiving everyone. Only those who have fallen. While the idol towers over us on his commanding eminence, his brow creased imperiously, smug and insensate, mutilating our lives—just let me have the heaviest stone! Or let a dozen of us seize a battering ram and knock him off his perch.
But once he is overthrown, once the first furrow of self-awareness runs over his face as he crashes to the ground—lay down your stones!
He is returning to humanity unaided.
Do not deny him this God-given way.
— Aleksandr Solzehnitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 3, p. 436.

Sarah and the Future

People like Sarah and Robert would stand together to defend Britain, and the liberal state with it, in 1940. They would then allow the country to become such a mess by 1979 that Margaret Thatcher was needed to save the country from itself. I doubt that either Robert or Sarah would have had a good word to say about the Iron Lady. Robert would have found her ungenerous and objected to her readiness for conflict. Sarah would have vilified Lady Thatcher on class principles.

The obvious musical reference for Sarah is to the Beatles’ Revolution. But that has already been done, so I am going in a slightly different direction.

And there’s always a place for the angry young man
With his fist in the air and his head in the sand
And he’s never been able to learn from mistakes
So he can’t understand why his heart always breaks
And his honor is pure and his courage is well
And he’s fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell
And he’ll go to the grave as an angry old man
— Billy Joel

The strident polemicism of Sarah is alive and well. Take it away, Polly:

Downton rewrites class division, rendering it anodyne, civilised and quaintly cosy. Those upstairs do nothing unspeakably horrible to their servants, while those downstairs are remarkably content with their lot. The brutality of servants’ lives is bleached out, the brutishness of upper-class attitudes, manners and behaviour to their servants ironed away. There are token glimpses of resentments between the classes, but the main characters are nice, in a nice world. The truth would be impossible without turning the Earl of Grantham and his family, the Crawleys, into villains, with the below-stairs denizens their wretched victims – a very different story, and not one Julian Fellowes would ever write.
— “What if Downton Abbey told the truth about Britain?”, The Guardian, loc cit.

Not only would Julian Fellows never write the story Polly Toynbee wants, but we would never watch it. I see no purpose to devoting an hour a week to watching a story about servile victims, abusive villains and abrasive proletarian rabble-rousers behaving in entirely predictable ways toward one another, with no complexity, no richness of character and no possibility of redemption. I would rather have a root canal.

The class warriors, like the post-restoration Bourbons, have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. It’s all about class divisions. Life is materially determined. The rich, who never deserve their station, continue to exploit their downtrodden, wretched victims until we, the Enlightened Ones, march to power and put everything right. The history of the twentieth century, in which many eggs were broken and no omelet was made, just a mess on the floor, is conveniently overlooked. We just have to try harder next time.

Then and Now

Prior to World War I, it is evident that most of the country across all social strata believed that the men of the gentry and nobility ruled the country because they were most fit for it. After World War I, there was a crisis because many of the young men from the upper class had not come back from France. Who was going to run the country? The experience of seeing Britain continue to function without them changed people’s minds about the inevitable necessity of having the “toffs” in charge.

There were some desperate rearguard actions where people attempted to preserve the social order. One notable instance was by the English educational psychologist Cyril Burt. During the 20s and 30s, Burt conducted studies by which he concluded that he proved that IQ was genetically heritable, thus supporting the idea that breeding mattered. After his death in 1971, investigation concluded that he had cooked his data to support the conclusion he wanted to reach.

Downton Abbey gives us a chance to look at a lost world and examine what happened to it. When the series is firing on all cylinders, it provides human examples of change bringing good and bad effects into people’s lives. Gwen got a chance to prosper by leaving domestic service. Moseley, not so much. Daisy is gaining confidence. Carson, not Lord Robert, is asked to be on the war memorial committee. Shrimpy and Susan might actually go public with their marital dissatisfaction, in violation of the code. Robert has to worry about where the money is coming from to support his obligation to convey the property to his heirs intact. Even Edith, who in prior times would have been destined to be a spinster aunt, might hope for a fuller life. We can see the consequences of change and consider what we have gained and what we have lost.

Americans are drawn to Downton Abbey, just as we are fascinated with the British Royal Family. It’s something we don’t have, with a heritage and deep roots. The closest thing we have to a castle is Fort Ticonderoga.

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.
— US Constitution, Article I, Section 9

There is a reason that this prohibition exists. We don’t want to have a society based on inherited privilege. However, there are still issues important for us in the picture of life shown in Downton Abbey. Our error was that we thought, with those words in the Constitution, that we had dispensed with the nobility. In fact, given our political aspirations, what we need is for a majority of the voters to be noble. Not by birth but by behavior. Noble in outlook, in worldview, in standards of honorable conduct in the public square.


Written by srojak

January 29, 2015 at 2:15 pm

Simon de Montfort and His Good Idea

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Even in the Middle Ages, kings did not give the orders and have everyone just obey. The powerful nobles who provided service to the king — the earls and barons — had their own ideas about what ought to happen. The nobles believed that the king should consult them in the tradition of the Great Council (Magnum Concilium) that had been established by the Norman kings. When the king tried to ignore them and rule through court favorites, which happened often in medieval England, the nobles would rebel.

Simon de Montfort (c. 1208-1265) was the 6th Earl of Leicester. Originally, he had been a favorite of King Henry III, but the two fell out. Simon shifted his position and made common cause with other disaffected nobles. By 1258, de Montfort had become a leader of the nobles who opposed the king. Henry attempted to assert his authority forcibly, the nobles fought back and a civil war called The Second Baron’s War began.

Simon was initially successful against the king. However, he wanted to consolidate his own power base. Unlike the king, who was anointed, Simon was just another noble among many. He needed a political counterweight to the various other barons in order to establish his own power and to attempt to keep his coalition together.

Simon hit upon the idea of bringing the voices of people outside the nobility into governance. Along with the nobles  and bishops who were customary members of a Great Council, de Montfort invited ordinary knights and representatives of important towns to a Parliament. This opened on 20 January 1265. It was the first time that commoners were invited to participate in governance.

Simon had mixed motives and his actions to feather his own nest helped tear his coalition apart. Before the year was out, the son of Henry III — the future Edward I — defeated and killed de Montfort in battle.

After this, it would have been typical for any rebel innovations to have been discarded and forgotten. However, Edward I summoned Parliament in 1295 to fund his plans to invade Scotland. Edward also included representatives from outside the nobility in his summons, but separated them from the nobility. This became the Model Parliament, so called because it was the model for the organization of future Parliaments. The nobles and bishops formed the House of Lords, while the others formed the House of Commons.

Today, the House of Commons is marking its 750th birthday. It is an historic milestone for an institution that is an important part of our Anglo-American political heritage.


UK Parliament

2015: Parliament in the Making


Democracy Day

Simon de Montfort

Memorable Speeches from 750 Years of Parliament


Written by srojak

January 20, 2015 at 2:03 pm

He Who Is Not Against Us

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After the Rose Bowl, where Oregon defeated Florida State, several Oregon players were chanting “No means no” in the cadence of the cheer Florida State uses. You can see a clip of it here:

In an article on ESPN, Kate Fagan takes a dim view of this, saying:

In that context, the Oregon players seem to be using rape, and consent, as the fuel for some trash talking against a beaten opponent. In that context, the moment no longer seems like a strong stand by a few socially conscious athletes. In that context, the chant seems tasteless, further trivializing sexual assault, which is actually a very serious problem on college campuses, including at Oregon. In that context, “No means no” is being wielded as a joke, a way to gloat.

I respectfully disagree that the chant trivializes sexual assault. And I should also note that the Florida State player in question was never charged, which is why his name does not appear here.

I do agree that it is a way to gloat. But think about that for a minute: An opponent is being called out for his reputation for sexually predatory behavior. That reputation is seen as a weakness, something to exploit. Isn’t that a step in the right direction? Isn’t that better than having it seen as something to brag about to his friends?

To get social norms turned around so that everyone knows having a reputation for sexual assault is Not OK, we need more than a few socially conscious athletes. We need the vast middle who are not socially conscious to buy into the not-OK-ness of being known as a sexual predator. It’s a fundamental difference in how one believes social change comes about.

Discussing the reactions to the video, Fagan writes:

Some people felt the athletes were bringing awareness to consent, while others pointed to the spirit in which the players were chanting — the words were not used to offer support and solidarity with victims but rather to mock an opponent.

The Oregon players absolutely were mocking their opponent. But five years ago, would it have even been thinkable that a player could be mocked for his reputation as a sexual predator? The fact that this is seen as something to mock, something to call someone out on, seems like progress to me.

In the stumbling, three-steps-forward-two-steps-back way that humans achieve social progress, this looks like a good thing to me. This looks like a social norm moving away from “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” and toward “this is not OK.”

Fagan complains:

In that context, it is not social activism. Those Oregon players are not contributing to a solution. As nice as it would make us all feel if our beloved football — the sport didn’t have the best 2014, after all — was helping to make positive social change, that’s not what happened here.

But it is, in its own clumsy way, social activism. It may not have motives that Ms. Fagan — or even I — would consider pure. But when you want to create social change, you can’t depend on the people whose motives are pure. They are too much of a minority to move the needle. You need to penetrate into the perceptions of people whose motives are impure and mobilize them to change everyday behaviors. You have to create a coalition of people who don’t necessarily share your motives but still see the issue at hand the way you do.

If all the colonies had to have the right reasons to vote for independence, there would never have been an American Revolution. If all the soldiers who fought for the Union had to believe that slavery was an injustice, we would have had a very different outcome in the Civil War.

The Oregon players, in their eagerness to taunt a defeated opponent, are actually saying the words: No means no. Whatever their motivation, they are buying in. They are accepting the premise that sex without consent is rape. They are publicly spreading the word. This is helpful.

No, rape is not a joke. But if a reputation for committing rape is cause to mock someone, rather than something to just not talk about, I believe that will be a factor in causing men to refrain from forcing themselves on women. For my money, that’s an advance. That’s society getting better.

Written by srojak

January 5, 2015 at 12:09 am

Posted in Ethics, Politics

Tagged with , ,