For thirty-six hours, as of this writing, Germany has been in uproar over something in Erfurt, the capital of Thüringen, a state in Germany. It was an election. Ninety assembled delegates, popularly elected late last year, assembled to choose the new head of the state government. Once elected, the head of the sttae government (Minister-President) would appoint cabinet ministers and get on with the business of things.
All the commotion is about the party known as the AfD, which was crucial in electing the winner. It appeared that the AfD would be “in” (though not leading) a state government for the first time ever. The AfD had broken through the cordon sanitaire.
This may not sound like a big deal, but it is, at least in Germany, and I have been seeing it unfold live, if from a distance. I would compare it metaphorically to a case of significant civil unrest, or a war panic. “Constitutional crisis” gets much closer to non-metaphorical accuracy.
No doubt many are unaware of the Lee–Jackson Day holiday. The two sons of Virginia, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, have birthdays about this time (Jan. 19 and Jan. 21, respectively), a coincidence which gave rise, a long time ago, to the holiday in Virginia. It remains in effect today, even if backed by no enormous media machine.
As for Stonewall Jackson, I can think of no better way to commemorate him than Stonewall Jackson’s Way, which is a song (below), but more a musical portrait.
It is a great piece of art in that it is an effective portrait of the general, his men, and the campaigning that brought fame and renown to both.
The song “Stonewall Jackson’s Way” was originally written in 1862 and appearing in poem form but also quickly becoming a hit song. The song’s composer was unknown for years. Testament to how alluring was the legend of Stonewall Jackson, by 1862, is the fact that an northern admirer had actually written the poem/song, a fact only finally revealed in the 1880s.
The version recorded by Bobby Horton in the 1980s is good (below); Horton rightly deserves his fame as a Civil War music interpreter/popularizer.
“Stonewall Jackson’s Way” Lyrics, as sung by Bobby Horton (below, a few more comments below on the figure of Jackson, and on my feelings on Lee–Jackson Day):
(News, senior Iranian general killed in US airstrike.)
It looks like the inner circle of Washington power-players, who imagine themselves Great Game players in the Middle East, have either failed to make a New Decade’s Resolution to get off the intervention-addiction, or, if they did make such a resolution, have spectacularly failed to keep it for more than three days.
Killing a foreign general in peacetime. Not a good look.
Since my “current-events awareness” and political consciousness began to take shape in the 1990s, these kinds of interventions have been a constant. No matter who is in power, they always seem to happen; no matter what is said on the campaign trail, they always seem to happen.
The Iraq War of the 2000s, which drifted along for years after the March 2003 invasion (at enormous cost and with second-order effects generally recognized to be bad) was the most egregious case, but many others, large and small, fall into the same general category.
I have been against these interventions since 2002 while still a mid-teenager. What benefit they are to us, I do not see.
For reasons I don’t know, I began to re-read the classic history of the Thirty Years War by C. V. Wedgwood. In it I was reminded of a political point about that war I had forgotten, and one similar to one the US may be, today, at the cusp of.
The crisis began in 1618 because of an electoral tipping point.
There are fairly direct parallels between the Thirty Years War origin and the US institutions of the electoral college system and the nine-member Supreme Court system (see below) and fears about the ‘flipping’ thereof.
The Holy Roman Empire, a nominal political arrangement encompassing most of central Europe for most of the second millennium AD and ruled (in theory if not practice) by an emperor of the Hapsburg Dynasty for much of that time, had seven “electors” (Kurfürsten). These were seven seats which held the right to cast one vote for emperor when the need arose.
Like many, I have an interest in the question of why cultural-political entities “decline” — call them states (or proto-states), cultures, or, most-grand of all, civilizations. (This includes “lost civilizations.”)
I recall once being put on a team of three and given ten minutes to come up with something that made sense on the following question: “Was the the French Revolution inevitable?“
This is a classic question, or maybe better stated is a variant on the classic question, Why did the French Revolution occur. Many, many volumes have been published on this.
This question was posed to be by a Dr. C. Ch., in a course in my first semester at graduate school, fall 2016. The course had an elaborate name but was effectively on European political history from 1648 to 1945.
I think the team was split between Yes, No, and Unsure. At my suggestion, our team finally agreed on a ‘No’ general response. It was not inevitable. The single critical element was poor leadership. This not only at the level of the king or royal court alone, who definitely are guilty of mismanagement, but all throughout the leadership classes in France and they didn’t seem to “want it” anymore, had stopped trying. Phrased another way is, there was a crisis of confidence in the mid-late 18th century in France.
I might be able to record some kind of useful insight into the “what a think tank is” question, based on my own experiences this year and by what I know of a few other think tanks I have been able to observe at close quarters in the past few years (sometimes doing some sort of work for them, sometimes just as an observer).
The think tank hired me to do research on Asia; to help with various of their publications and projects, some new and some ongoing, especially Korea-related.
It was a small think tank, not without its problems. I was the most Korea-knowledgeable person there. I was a regular employee, but those of us at low levels were under a contract for a certain period of time.
The best way I figured out for how to describe (to a certain kind of person) what it’s like at a think tank is this: It’s a series of elaborate, somewhat-interrelated, large-scale, long-term graduate school projects. Unlike actual graduate school projects, money flows towards those doing the work.
The above sounds good, I expect. On the negative side, most think tanks are quasi-academic and therefore remain always at risk of falling into the same kind of “jealous guarding of little fiefdoms” problem so often observed in academia. Needless to say, this can sometimes create a negative environment.
Another useful way to conceive of this negative side may be: The think tank as a “team version” of graduate school. For many, graduate school itself is, at least intellectually speaking, an intensely personal experience in which you usually have full creative control over your own work, and in which collaboration, to the extent it meaningfully occurs, is voluntary and limited. I would imagine it would be unbearable, for many people who end up in graduate school, if every assignment they did were decided by committee, with the “committee” being several other, let’s say randomly selected, graduate-student-personalities.
Another complication is the competing ‘layers’ of authority:
The 1930 film was based on a 1929 novel, Im Westen Nichts Neues ([lit. “In the West, Nothing New [to Report]”) by a German veteran of the 1914-1918 war. The book was a major hit of its time.
A June 1930 printing, English translation (“All Quiet on the Western Front”) was among my grandfather’s books, and it is the rediscovery of it that is inspiration for this post.
Aged a not quite ninety years, here is the book as it appears today:
My grandfather died in the late 1990s but his books and other papers and files remained intact until the 2010s (as my aunt continued to reside in the house) at which time I was able to discover many of them, preserved as they were twenty years or so before, some from decades earlier still.
The oldest few books in the house I believe belonged to my grandfather’s grandfather [1857-1917], which I base on years of publication, subject matter, language, and especially the font used (a few of the oldest volumes use that awful font called Fraktur). Some of the books were those my grandfather bought himself. Others somehow ended up, this way or that way, over the decades, at the house (which my grandfather, his wife, daughters, and other relatives lived in from the 1940s through the 1990s), as in those from relatives. This copy of All Quiet on the Western Front is one of those. It originally belonged to George Kosswig, my grandfather’s brother.
Now, I think this is a great discovery not because it is a rare book (which it is not; it would be easy to find for free in any library, and probably without difficulty online for free somewhere in PDF form, in a pinch, if you really want the text). It is rather, I would say, an example of a “time capsule” in book form.
(Expanded from a draft from mid-August 2015. I was reading about Fiji at the time before I was to spend twelve hours in that mysterious, tropical island-country as part of one of my returns-to-the-USA in late August 2015. I was coming from Brisbane, Australia, visiting my cousin, Mel. W. The long layover in Fiji was also the cheapest option. From my perspective fortuitous as it would give me a foray into Fiji on the cheap.
In the weeks before I was to briefly spend time in Fiji in August 2015, I looked around for material. One thing I found to be so amazing as to be worth recording here. It is something published in March 1859, which concludes with a series of futurist predictions about Fiji and the world. Reading these predictions from 1859, I am amazed.
The predictions have (nearly) all come true:
(Final two paragraphs of an anonymous, ten-page book review appearing in The Knickerbocker [March 1859 issue] . The reviewed book is the 1858 Fiji and the Fijians by Thomas Williams and James Calvert (ed. George Stringer Rowe). The Knickerbocker was a New York literary magazine with an 1833-1865 publication run. It was similar in style, and likely a partial antecedent to and/or inspirtation for, The Atlantic [first issue published in 1857]). The entire March 1859 edition of the Knickerbocker is online here.)
First, my own brief experience in Fiji, then an attempt to evaluate the Knickerbocker writer’s predictions with the distance of 159 years of time elapsed since publication. Summary: Very accurate.
A Brief Foray into Fiji, Late August 2015
Fiji is not like any place I have been, before or since.
Austria’s 2017 general election has come and gone, following Germany’s a month ago. The key issue in both elections was the 2015-2016 Migrant Crisis, disgruntlement over which appears to have energized large numbers and shifted the political discourse to the right; turnout was high. In Austria’s case, parties of the right will have over two-thirds of the seats in the new legislature, and that is with proportional representation.
The age of the new Austrian Chancellor has been the main coverage of the election I have seen. It is amazing, actually, that he is so young. The German press has called this character a ‘Young Metternich’ ever since he became Foreign Minister, at age 27, a few years ago. He is now 31.
Sebastian Kurz (b. 1986), is Austria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs [Dec. 2013 to Present], and Head of the Austrian People’s Party (OVP) from mid 2017. His party will control 34% of seats in the legislature as the largest party, and Kurz will soon be Chancellor, the youngest head of government in the world.
The original Metternich (1773-1859) is characterized as a political genius who dominated Austrian politics from the 1810s to the 1840s, starting, as Kurz has, as Foreign Minister.
Metternich’s great achievement is the preservation of Austrian power. At that time, Austria was a true power, a major power, but could have disappeared after the Napoleonic disruption. Metternich gave the Austrian Empire another century of life, for better of worse. The Austria of that era was a multi-national, pan-central-European empire with a German ruling minority and a long-established royal family (the Hapsburgs). It era represented a Catholic, multi-ethnic, ‘multicultural’ alternative model to north-German Protestant ‘Prussianism’ based in Berlin.
(Having long since lost the struggle against Berlin, Austrian/Hapsburg power ended forever in 1918, after the loss of legitimacy caused by its poor performance in the war and an embarrassing-and-obvious dependence on Germany from summer 1914 onward (actually earlier). With Vienna discredited and totally unable to suppress ethnic secession movements, the pan-central-European ‘Austria’ fell apart and this new German-Austria, as we know it today, was born.)
The ‘Young Metternich’ appellation for Kurz doesn’t make much sense, to me. The Austria of today is, unlike its imperial predecessor namesake, a very small state (7.5 million citizens in a Europe of 750 million). Also critically for this comparison, modern Austria is, by tradition, not a player in international politics. It is not now and never has been a NATO member, and, for a Western country, was quite a late entrant into the EU (1995, about forty years late).
Kurz and Metternich might be compared in broader terms. Metternich is credited not just with preserving/restoring Austrian power after the Napoleonic crisis, but with being a/the central figure in doing the same for the whole of Europe’s quasi-aristocratic order which was seriously threatened, discredited, and injured during Napoleonic period. A lot of ‘centrists’ around today’s Europe dream of a figure to play this role of defending the European post-1945 order of social-democractic liberal democracy in a time it is (widely believed to be) “under threat.
Skeptics would say that Kurz is not such a figure, even discounting the small size and disengagement of Austria, as he led his party to a 7.5% popular vote gain using, many have said, a watered-down version of the rhetoric of the insurgent Austrian Freedom Party (FPO). The latter is a party of the populist-nationalist right, whose campaign was based on slogans like “Stop the Islamization of Austria.”
“A new style. It’s time.”
Who will be Kurz’s coalition partner?
He can form a ‘coalition of the Center’ with the Social Democrats (SPO), or he can rule in a right-wing coalition with the FPO. If the latter coalition governs, Austria will seem to have entered the ‘Viktor Orban’ Wing of European politics.
We tend to think of “history” and “progress” as synonyms. But….A few weeks ago, I borrowed a book from my friend Jared, on his recommendation. The title is The Birth of Classical Europe: A History from Troy to Augustine. Chapter Two deals with the period 1100-800 BC. Therein I find this:
[T]he archaeology paints a depressing picture of the Greek world in the centuries after the fall of the Mycenaean palaces [circa 1200 BC]. Overall, the number of inhabited places in mainland Greece fell by two-thirds in the twelfth, and by another two-thirds in the eleventh century. This was the low point, and recovery then began: settlement numbers doubled in the tenth century, and doubled again in the ninth-eighth centuries.
Of course, settlement numbers on their own mean nothing: the crucial variable is settlement size. […] [I]n fact, the scale of settlements in the early Iron Age [i.e., circa 1100-800 BC] is generally smaller than that in the periods on either side. […] Not only did the number of settlements fall, but the places themselves were less complex than what had gone before.
This points to a civilizational catastrophe for early Western Civilization, the scale of which is enormous, of “Old Testament” proportions (and it is contemporaneous with Old Testament times).
Let me try to present the data in a simpler way:
Number of Inhabited Places in Mainland Greece (Mid-1200s BC=100 [arbitrary; for easy comparison])
1200 BC: 100
1100 BC: 33
1000 BC: 10
900 BC : 20
700 BC : 40.
During the long decline, the remaining settlements were smaller-scale, so we have to magnify the drop even more in real terms. If the settlements were half as dense at the 1000 BC nadir as before the long decline began, that implies a 95% population drop from 1200 BC to 1000 BC in mainland Greece, a cradle of Western Civilization. Other cultures in the region fared similarly. Political, economic, and cultural collapse. The authors say that literacy came grinding to a halt in these centuries; writing was all but lost; we find no monuments at all from these centuries.
There are always people around warning about impending collapse but few are ever listened to and even fewer are ever right. One such man I know of today who has a substantial following is John Michael Greer. He is one of the most prominent Peak Oil theorists. He writes something called the Archdruid Report. I have read some of his writings. He writes well but I don’t know what to think of his grand thesis, that industrial civilization is slowly coming to an end, with perhaps a population fall-off similar to the one described above in ancient Greece coming to us in this century. This is too radical an idea to easily believe. (I am likewise sure that the same was said by Greek intellectuals in the late Bronze Age, in the 1200s BC, when someone tried to point to signs of coming decline, whatever those may have been.)
The amazing thing is that nobody knows why things fell apart so dramatically starting around 1200 BC. The authors reject an old theory that it was caused by pressure from seaborne raiders. They say that while raiding did increase at this time, it was the effect, not the cause, of the civilizational decline. They start talking about internal social and political problems within the states affected, and soon their explanation bogs down in the muck and leaves the reader unsatisfied. They don’t offer any kind of firm explanation for the “collapse”. It remains a mystery.
“The worst disaster in ancient history”
— Historian Robert Drews on the Mediterranean world decline beginning ca. 1200 BC