Archive for the ‘History’ Category

That damned electoral college, again

November 11, 2016

Sixteen years ago, in the wake of one of the most contested presidential elections in American history (and one in which, as in the recent one, the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral one), I wrote an essay in which, among other things, I analyzed the effect of changing our electoral system without amending the Constitution, by having the electors in each state determined by proportional representation rather than by winner-take-all. The result was that, in that election, Gore and Bush would have received 263 votes each, and Nader 12. Under the Constitution, then, the election would have been decided — even more undemocratically — by the House of Representatives. But of course the different system would probably have produced different results in the vote, and, as I wrote then, “in a system in which ‘third-party’ candidates are potential recipients of electoral votes, the electors might regain some of the discretion that the framers of the Constitution had intended for them to have.” It was perfectly possible, I wrote further, “that the state Green Party organizations would operate on the lesser-evil principle and instruct their electors – ahead of time, of course, so that voters would know – to vote for Gore.”

I subjected the recent election to a similar analysis, and found an equivalent result: 265 for Clinton, 259 for Trump, 12 for Johnson, and one each for Stein and McMullen. If the scenario I just imagined were to occur, what would Johnson’s electors do?

I have always thought of self-styled Libertarians as Republicans who liked to smoke pot, and I believe that their electors would choose Trump over Clinton.

This is exactly what would happen in the impossible case of replacing the electoral college with direct elections. Neither major candidate having received a majority of the popular vote, a runoff would be required, and I suspect that most of the Johnson vote would go to Trump (he is, after all, if not exactly a libertarian, at least a libertine), giving him the victory.

Now all we need is for all fifty states to adopt the principle of proportional representation for presidential electors.

Charisma on the left

November 11, 2016

Let me quote from an article, purportedly written by a German journalist after John F. Kennedy’s Berlin speech in 1963.

[T]here is another term with which American journalists describe John F. Kennedy, and his speech justified the description. The term is charismatic.

We are used to thinking of charisma in Max Weber’s terms: as “an individual’s quality regarded as beyond the everyday (originally… as magically induced), by virtue of which he or she is treated as someone with powers or qualities that are supernatural or superhuman, or at least beyond the everyday and not accessible to just anyone, or as God-sent or as exemplary, and therefore as a ‘leader.’”

In politics, this is the form of charisma that we have seen in dictators. But we see a reflex of it in certain democratically elected leaders as well, leaders whom the people treat with a trust and a deference bordering on awe: Churchill, Eisenhower, De Gaulle, Adenauer. Note that these leaders were all in their sixties when they first attained their positions of power. Their charisma is that of what Freud called a “father figure.” Note also that all these figures are all, politically, on the right.

John F. Kennedy’s charisma is different; Freud might have called it that of a “brother figure.” It power resides in making the people believe that he is one of them, not above them à la Weber. And Kennedy’s German phrase, with the emphasis – perhaps unintentional – on ein, embodies that power.

I posit that it is this kind of charisma, which is already coming to be known as Kennedyesque (the President is said to share it with his younger brother, the Justice Minister Robert F. Kennedy), that is necessary for political victory by a leader on the left.

In a democratic state, a vote is an act that is directed toward the future, and the way one votes expresses the way one feels about the future.

And what are our feelings about the future? Typically, a mixture of fear and hope. If the predominant feeling is fear, then one’s vote represents a desire for the fear to be quelled, and it will go to the party that promises security and stability. That, normally, is a party of the right, whether it calls itself conservative, Christian, or a people’s party.

But if the predominant feeling is hope, then the vote will go to whoever can kindle hope with a promise of progress, and such a vote will typically go to the left. In the United States, this is the role of the Democratic Party, as typified by the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The difference is this: for the promise of stability, charisma is not necessary, except perhaps at times of crisis; an appearance of competence is normally sufficient. But to kindle hope one needs that special something that I call charisma on the left. It was possessed by Roosevelt and by Louis St. Laurent (whom the press called ‘Uncle Louis’), and it is what we find in John F. Kennedy, the embodiment of hope in present-day politics.

And who among us has, on the left, the ability to kindle hope? The man with the greatest potential, despite his loss two years ago (though with greatly improved results for his party), is still Willy Brandt, Kennedy’s friend, who stood with him in front of the Schöneberg City Hall during the speech. Those who wish the SPD well can only hope that it stays with Brandt until such time as hope wins out over fear in the hearts of West Germans.

But as a Hamburger – a relatively new one, but one baptized by last year’s storm tide – I would like to add that our own Helmut Schmidt is another man with the potential of inspiring hope, as he demonstrated by the way he led us out of that disaster.

The reason I wrote “purportedly” is that the German journalist is actually a fictional character in a novel of mine, written in 2009.  It was of course written in hindsight, with the knowledge that Brandt, and Schmidt after him, would be elected (and in Schmidt’s case reelected) as Chancellor. And now I can extend the list of politically successful left-of-center leaders who possessed that kind of charisma: Olof Palme; François Mitterrand; Felipe González; Tony Blair; Bill Clinton; Lula da Silva; Trudeau père (and potentially fils as well); Barack Obama.

The statement I put in boldface has to be qualified by recognizing that occasionally non-charismatic leaders on the left of center do make it to the top, but it’s almost always due to peculiar circumstances, as in the cases of Lyndon B. Johnson (the Kennedy assassination), Jimmy Carter (the scandals of the Nixon administration), José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (the Madrid bombings), Gordon Brown (Blair’s resignation), and most recently François Hollande (the unpopularity of Sarkozy). Johnson and Zapatero, somehow, managed to get reelected because of genuine accomplishments, but not Carter and Brown, and probably not Hollande.

Hillary Clinton, for all her virtues, is not charismatic. The 2016 US presidential election seemed to have provided one of those peculiar circumstances  — the candidacy of Donald Trump — that might have allowed her to win anyway. But Trump, apparently, projected enough of  that “appearance of competence” to enough people to give him the usual fear-driven right-wing victory.

For the Democratic Party to win in 2020, one of two things is necessary: a disastrous Trump administration, or a candidate endowed with charisma, Kennedyesque or otherwise (such as that shown by Bernie Sanders). Otherwise the party is doomed yet again.


Truth from a Polish Jew

August 10, 2016

I have just read a book titled Leap for Life by Rut Wermuth Burak, published in 2010 and subtitled A Story of Survival and Reunion. It’s the first memoir by a Polish Jew who lived through World War II in Nazi-occupied Europe that has struck me as truthful.

Actually, the book that I read was the Polish original, published in 2002, titled Spotkałam Ludzi (“I met people”) and subtitled (in Polish) “A story about a tragic beginning aend an extraordinary ending.” The author is presented as Ruta Wermuth; not only is her married name absent from the title page but it’s referred to only by its initial in the book, for some reason unknown to me.

I have already written about the tendency of my fellow Polish Jews to overdramatize, if not fictionalize, their experiences during World War II; well-known examples include Jerzy Kosiński, Luba Tryszynska (“the Angel of Bergen-Belsen”), Solomon Perel (“Europa, Europa”) and Herman Rosenblat {“An Angel at the Fence”). I have also found this tendency in personal accounts by acquaintances. Perhaps they took their inspiration from the originator of the genre, Elie Wiesel, whose hugely successful Night trilogy was later admitted by him to be semi-fictional.

But Rut(a) Wermuth, unlike the people cited above, did not write her memoir for a Western audience; the English version seems to have been an afterthought encouraged by her brother’s non-Polish-speaking family in England. Instead, she wrote it for her fellow Poles. (I have long maintained that Polish Jew does not equal Pole, but she chose to become a Pole by marrying one, living in Poland and hiding her Jewishness until late in life.) And not only do Poles know a little more about the reality of World War II in Eastern Europe than Westerners do, but they are likely to judge any such account by a Jew critically if not suspiciously.

Not only is the book (in my view) truthful but it’s fascinating and deeply moving. I recommend it.


May 19, 2016

The Associated Press story reporting on yesterday’s death of the historian Fritz Stern includes this information:

He was born in the former German province of Silesia (now in Poland) to a prominent family that had converted from Judaism to Christianity. But the Sterns felt increasingly menaced by Hitler’s reign and left in 1938 for New York…

Why “but”?

Apparently someone at AP thought that there was a contradiction between conversion to Christianity and being menaced by Hitler. That is, they are confusing Judaism — a religion — with Jewishness as an ethnic or “racial” category. To Hitler, of course, it was only the latter than mattered. In other words, his regime persecuted Jews, not only those who also happened to be Judaists.

A common confusion, to be sure.

Catalanisms in Mexican Spanish?

April 25, 2016

The San Francisco Bay Area has numerous streets and institutions nutamed Alemany, Portola and Serra, and a few named Alberni, Palou and Yorba. These are all Catalan surnames belonging to bigwigs (political and ecclesiastic) during the Spanish and Mexican domination of California. (Palou and Serra were Majorcans, the others Catalonians.) Elsewhere in Mexico, however, one is hard put to find Catalan surnames; they are nowhere near as common among Mexicans as they are among Cubans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. It appears to me, from what I have managed to find out from reading, that until the nineteenth century Catalans who went to the Indies to make their fortune tended to return home once they had made it and so did not leave many descendants in those countries that were no longer under Spanish rule. In Wikipedia’s listing of  Mexican people of Catalan descent, most of the names belong to people who are twentieth-century immigrants from Spain or their immediate descendants.

But, oddly enough, Mexican Spanish seems to me to have more elements that correlate with Catalan than any other variety of Spanish besides that spoken in Catalonia itself. Here are some examples.

Nomás, seemingly a calque of només, is the common word for ‘only’, not solamente or solo.

Estimado/a, like Catalan estimat/da, is usually used for ‘dear’ in the salutation of a letter, not querido/a.

Mande, almost the equivalent of Catalan mani’m, is the usual response to hearing one’s name called or to not catching what was said, not or cómo.

Almuerzo is, as in Catalonian Spanish, the equivalent of esmorzar, a mid-morning snack, and not lunch as elsewhere.

I would need to know more than I do about the presence of Catalan-speakers in Mexico during the formative era of Mexican Spanish before I could say that these are indeed Catalanisms. Hence the question mark in the title.


Spain and Syria

April 22, 2016

Yesterday I heard a radio interview with Adam Hochschild, the author of a recently published book about American fighters in the Spanish Civil War. Hochschild pointed out the great disunity among the various factions supposedly fighting on the Republican side — Stalinists, Trotskyites, anarchists, Catalonian and Basque separatists, and others — as being among the factors (aside from the lack of international support, except by volunteers) that led to their defeat by the highly unified nationalists led by Franco.

The nationalists were, of course, rebelling against the Republic, the legitimate government of Spain.

In Syria it is Bashar al Assad who is, technically, the legitimate head of state. But he is a ruthless dictator very much in the Franco mold, and the various rebel groups fighting his forces can be readily likened to the anti-Franco groups in Spain. And, like the letter, they are spending as much energy fighting one another as they are fighting Assad. Similarly, they receive only token support from governments that would be expected to favor them, be they Western democracies or Sunni autocracies, while Assad receives substantial support from Putin much as Franco did from Hitler and Mussolini.

Marx was wrong. Here we have tragic history repeating itself as tragedy, not farce.


February 9, 2016

It occurred to me, as I was riding a stationary bike at my gym this morning, that there have been three times when I have been deeply disappointments by decisions made by political leaders whom I had admired.

One was a long time ago, in the summer of 1950, when President Harry Truman gave General Douglas MacArthur the go-ahead for crossing the 38th parallel into North Korea, plunging the US into another three years of needless war. Truman realized his mistake, and tried to make up for it by firing MacArthur, but it was too late.

The second was in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter allowed Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, the deposed Shah of Iran, to come to the United States for medical treatment — a decision that led to the Iran hostage crisis and ultimately the election of Ronald Reagan.

The third was in 2008, when Barack Obama decided to forgo public financing of his campaign and opened himself up to Wall Street. The consequences are still with us.

These disappointments seem to be happening at 29-year intervals. What will happen in 2037? I will then be 102 years old (my mother’s age now). Best not to think about it.

O’er the land of the unfree

August 26, 2015

My fellow Americans, it’s time to change the words of our national anthem.

I don’t know what Francis Scott Key, born on a plantation in Maryland, meant when he referred to his nation as “the land of the free.” According to Wikipedia, he seems to have had a conflicted relationship with slavery. He owned slaves, but freed some of them; as a lawyer he “represented several slaves seeking their freedom in court (for free), as well as several masters seeking return of their runaway human property.” One source is quoted as writing “Mr. Key convinced me that slavery was wrong–radically wrong.” But he actively opposed abolitionism and “remained […]  a strong critic of the antislavery movement until his death.”

But this is, by American standards, ancient history. At present, the United States has the greatest number of unfree people — those in prison — in the world, in both absolute and relative terms. “Land of the free” sounds like a bad joke.

Besides, o’er the land of the unfree, with the extra syllable, fits the music better.

Of the French

August 15, 2015

In cryptic-crossword clues, “of the French” is usually translated as the sequence DU or DES, since the French words du and des can both be translated as “of the” — the former in reference to a singular masculine noun, the latter to a plural of either gender. For singular feminine it would be de la, but I don’t recall ever seeing DELA so clued.

I don’t mean to write about crosswords, however, but about the fact that for a year or so (1791-92) following the French Revolution, when France was a constitutional monarchy, Louis XVI’s title was changed under Constitution of 1791 from King of France and Navarre (Roi de France et de Navarre) to King of the French (Roi des Français). The same style was adopted later by Louis-Philippe (1830–1848), and an analogous one (Emperor of the French) by both Napoleons. Only under the Bourbon Restoration (1815–1830) was the old style revived.

Moreover, every time that France has been governed as a republic it has been as République Française (French Republic), not, say, République de France. It seems as if the use of the demonym rather than the toponym made the regime seem less autocratic and more “popular.” But, as the royalist historian Guy Augé has pointed out, the change to Roi des Français was a “curious and unconscious return to the expressions of Medieval Latin.” In fact, the Old French Rei des Franceis was a meant as a literal translation of the Latin Rex Francorum, a title that had been used continuously until about 1190 and intermittently — alternating with Rex Franciae — thereafter. I have found only one instance of Rei des Franceis in an official document; it dates from 1266, a time when such documents in anything but Latin were extremely rare.

Rex Francorum (King of the Franks) was originally a tribal title, first used in the 5th century by Clovis I, at a time when Germanic warrior tribes moved around Europe and their rulers governed whatever territory they happened to conquer. Clovis ruled over much of what is now France (the French consider him to be their first king), but divided his kingdom among four sons, every of whom was also called Rex Francorum, and so it went on for the next several centuries when the kingdom was repeatedly reunified and redivided.

The Franks, like the other Germanic peoples who invaded various parts of the Roman Empire, came to constitute a warrior caste that governed their territory, and Rex Francorum meant, essentially, something like warrior in chief. The territory that they ruled came to be called Francia. In the 9th century, under Charlemagne, a distinction began to be made between western (Occidentalis) and eastern (Orientalis) Francia, the latter being the land inhabited mainly by Germans. The division became official at the Treaty of Verdun (843), in which a middle kingdom (Francia Media) was also created, but this soon thereafter became known as Lotharingia. During most of the 9th century several of the Frankish kings (east and west) also held the title of Roman Emperor, which was the primary title they used, and those who didn’t usually called themselves simply Rex so as not to limit the extent of their reign, in contrast with the fact that in reality their actual rule did not extend beyond their immediate fiefs while their vassal dukes and counts became more and more independent.

In the 10th century the imperial title became a monopoly of the Eastern kings, who stopped using any reference to the Franks; the first of these emperor-kings, Otto I, was not a Frank but a Saxon. Now only the Western kings, beginning with Charles the Simple, used the title Rex Francorum, and by the 11th the term Franci (Franks) lost its ethnic significance and came to mean all those who were vassals of those kings, if only in name. Normandy and Catalonia, for example, were at the time a virtually independent duchy and principality, respectively. The former’s dukes were, of course, ethnic Norsemen, and the latter’s princes — known as Counts of Barcelona — were of Visigoth descent. Nevertheless, in the Bayeux Tapestry the Normans conquering England are called Franci, and in the Poem of El Cid francos refer to Catalans.

By the 11th century the name Francia, previously confined to Latin documents, passed into the vernacular as France. Before that, France had another meaning. In the 9th century the counts of Paris were also called Duke of the Franks (Dux Francorum), and the territory of which they were overlords — Paris and some counties surrounding it — was also called Francia. It is much more likely that a term will be adopted into the vernacular if it corresponds to everyday experience, and the denizens of this region came to call it France, alongside the demonym franceis (modern Français), to contrast it with neighboring regions such as Normandy and Champagne; the larger Francia was not of much importance to ordinary people. This usage survives in place names, such as Roissy-en-France (the home of Charles de Gaulle airport) as distinct from another Roissy which is in the old county of Meaux, at the time a fief of the counts of Champagne, and in the division of geographic formations such Vexin to the west into Vexin français and Vexin normand, and Brie to the east into Brie française and Brie champenoise. But in the 11th century Franceis came to be the French equivalent of the Latin Francus, and was used retroactively in the Song of Roland, interchangeably with Francs, to refer to Charlemagne’s Franks fighting in Spain.

Note, however, that all these references to Franks or Franceis are to fighting men, from knights to dukes, and not to commoners. The title Rex Francorum (or Rei des Franceis) continued to carry the meaning of leader of the warrior caste, not of the common people. The change to Roi de France meant that the king ruled over all the people of his territory, including the increasingly important merchant and artisan classes of the cities, which struggled with the crown for autonomy throughout the later Middle Ages. This is just the opposite of what the French revolutionaries had in mind.


Brat’s end

July 15, 2015

No, I don’t mean Congressman Dave Brat, about whom (or rather about whose name) I wrote last year. Instead, I am referring to an essay I wrote some nine years ago, in which I characterized Greece as “the spoiled brat of Europe.” I wrote:

Examples of what Greece has managed to obtain by throwing tantrums include admission to the European Union despite its non-contiguous location, admission to the Euro zone despite not meeting the stipulated fiscal criteria, and a ban on calling ‘feta’ the common white cheese of the region when it is not made in Greece.

But perhaps the biggest such tantrum has been about the fact that a country to the north of Greece, formerly a part of Yugoslavia (and before that of Serbia), chose, on attaining independence, to call itself the Republic of Macedonia.

But now it seems that Greece’s knack for getting away with spoiled-brat behavior has come to an end. I feel very sorry about the hardships that the people of Greece (whom I prefer to call, as I explain in the cited essay, the Grecian rather than the Greek people) are suffering and will continue to suffer as a result of the constraints imposed upon them by the political and financial authorities of Europe. But it was the Grecians who elected the governments whose irresponsible actions have led to the present situation.

The spoiling of Greece has a long history, going back two centuries. In order to get the major European powers’ help for securing independence from the Ottoman Empire, Greek leaders played two different parts: to Russia they were the embodiment of Eastern Orthodoxy; when addressing the West, they took on the mantle of ancient Greece (and, for the first time in a millennium and a half, began to refer to themselves as Hellenes rather than Romaioi, that is, Romans). This ploy coincided with the tide of Philhellenism that was began to sweep over Western Europe in the late 18th century, making waves in Britain (with Lord Byron a famous disciple), France and especially Germany. King Ludwig I of Bavaria was so enamored of everything Greek that he changed the spelling of his kingdom’s name from Baiern to Bayern because the y made it look more Greek than the i, and offered his younger son Otto as the first king of Greece installed by France, Britain and Russia.

While German Philhellenism, at least in its political form, may have cooled when Otto was overthrown in favor of a Danish prince married to a Russian princess, in France and Britain it continued unabated to the present day, and Greece’s political leaders learned that with enough whining they could get what they wanted, even membership in the very Western EU with which they had little cultural or economic affinity. When this happened, in 1981, Germany — at the time under Social Democratic rule — went along. But since then global capital, with the German financial empire as one of its pillars, has taken over the world. Profligate spending on such trifles as pensions, healthcare and education for the people is behavior that the system will not tolerate. And so the brat is spoiled no more.