Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Review: "A Legacy of Spies," by John le Carre

Sydney M. Williams
30 Bokum Road – Apartment 314
Essex, CT 06426

Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selected Readings

                                                                                                                                 March 20, 2018

“A Legacy of Spies”
John le Carré

A professional intelligence officer is no more immune
to human feelings than the rest of mankind.”
                                                                                                John le Carré
                                                                                                A Legacy of Spies

At 86, John le Carré has not lost his touch. Much of what we know about the “dark side” of the Cold War comes from Le Carré, particularly George Smiley. It is not always a pretty picture. Smiley first appeared in Call for the Dead (1961). We got to know him better in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). In A Legacy of Spies, he makes a cameo appearance – the first since The Secret Pilgrim, in 1990.

While we think of Le Carré as the chronicler of spies during the Cold War, twelve of his twenty-four novels were written after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. This story is told in the present through the eyes and memory of Peter Guillam (whom we first met in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). Guillam was a former field agent and lieutenant to Smiley. He has been ordered back to England from the Brittany farm to which he has retired. It is because of events in the former book that make for the story in this one.

Guillame is interviewed by a pair of unsympathetically-portrayed, current employees of the “Circus,” as MI6 is known. Like intelligence services in the U.S. today, MI6 is under attack. Two individuals – now middle-aged – are seeking answers to questions as to how their parents died. The story reflects the conflict between two cultures: today’s, where youth have lived lives protected from the harshness of reality, harbored in cocoons of “safe spaces;” and, yesterday’s when spy-warriors encountered physical risks (and moral dilemmas), while working for the defense of their country. The Cold War was real for those who lived and fought it. But because that shadowy war used deception and was fought under cover, the younger generation has little knowledge of how it was fought or understanding as to why. The young professionals in the story can’t comprehend the mind-set of grizzled veterans, like Peter Guillam. What makes the novel compelling is that the reader knows that the success of “Windfall” (the mission in question) came at the expense of individual lives – and, while the young interviewers are not sympathetically rendered, we recognize there is some legitimacy to the truth they seek.

Nevertheless, our sympathies lie with Peter Guillame, even though we know, in his younger days, he could be merciless and was a womanizer. We watch his memory recall the good and seal off the bad. We also witness him, at times, be intentionally deceptive to those interviewing him. Age and years of retirement have not provided him trust or caused him to shed the shell that protected him for so many years. The story is told through interviews, the re-reading of memos written “to file” at the time, flashbacks and encounters with the children of those with whom Guillame had worked, and who died.

Mr. le Carré (real name David Cornwell) spent six years in intelligence, becoming a full-time author in 1964, which lends realism to his stories. This one will encourage you to re-read some of your past favorites.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

"Gentlemen, In an Age of Narcissism and Trump"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Gentlemen, in an Age of Narcissism and Trump”
March 11, 2018

Mr. Crawley was recognized to be a gentleman by all who knew him, high or low,
rich or poor, by those who thought well of him and by those who thought ill.”
                                                                                                Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)
                                                                                                The Last Chronicle of Barset, 1867

In Trollope’s day, an English gentleman could be identified by his bearing, his speech, education and manners. John Henry Newman (1801-1890), an Anglican priest, Oxford don and theologian who became a Catholic Cardinal, once ironically wrote: “A liberal education makes not the Christian, nor the Catholic, but the gentleman.” (At the time, less than one percent of Englishmen were university graduates.) One was either born into a class of gentlemen, or one was not. We look back with nostalgia at those days of social rigor in England. We should not. It was nigh impossible for one born into lower orders to become part of the gentry. Social stratification was almost impenetrable. We complain today about wealth and income gaps, but they are nothing compared to the social gaps that then existed. While it doesn’t always seem that way, we have evolved for the better, at least in the West. And among those changes has been increased social mobility, which provides the opportunity for any male to become a gentleman – if he chooses.

In medieval times, a “gentleman” referred to the lowest rank of English gentry – below an esquire (a young nobleman training to become a knight) and above a yeoman (a freeholder). By the 18th Century that definition had changed. The Irish writer Richard Steele (1672-1729) suggested the term “gentleman” should “never be affixed to a man’s circumstances, but to his behavior in them.” George Washington’s “…great genius,” the historian Gordon Wood stated, “lay in his character…It was his moral character that set him off from other men.” Seventy years later, Robert E. Lee considered conduct the defining force: “The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He cannot only forgive, he can forget, and he strives to let the past be but the past.”

George Washington did not want the Presidency to be hereditary. He had no interest in the trappings of a court, but he understood the importance of respect due the office and of the moral conduct of he who held it. Richard Brookhiser wrote of Washington, age 16, copying out “110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior,” “…a system of courtesy appropriate to equals and near equals. When the company for whom the decent behavior was to be performed expanded to the nation, Washington was ready.”

The term “gentleman” has an old-fashioned ring, yet civility derives from gentlemanly behavior. Its absence, in part, is responsible for movements, like #MeToo. Mr. Weinstein was many things, but I doubt he was ever accused of being a gentleman. The 1997 Gentleman’s Guide to Life states: “Being male is a matter of birth. Being a man is matter of age. Being a gentleman is a matter of choice.” So, where have all the gentlemen gone? There is, after all, a need for civility, in all aspects of life, especially in Washington.

Politics has always been the art of the possible, which requires courtesy, respect and a willingness to compromise – traits common to gentlemanly behavior. But, C-SPAN, 24-hour news and talk shows elevate narcissistic tendencies within politicians – fueling the partisanship that divides us today. Yet, we know that when reasoned and respectful debate is allowed solutions emerge that reflect the broad and diverse views of the American people. It may be entertaining to hear one Senator snidely refer to his opponent as “the distinguished gentleman…” and then level insults that would give credit to Don Rickles at a Friars Club roast, but hubris should not deter reconciliation. Washington’s Rules of behavior should be read and absorbed by those we send to the nation’s capital: “turn not your back to others; submit your judgment to others with modesty; use no reproachful language; associate…with men of good character; be not forward, but friendly and courteous; think before you speak; be not tedious in discourse;” and “labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

When writing about today’s want of gentlemanly comportment, the dominant figure in the room is the looming presence of Mr. Trump – a man seen as the antithesis of civility and respectfulness. Thus why, you might ask, have I not joined the chorus of those who condemn him for the boor that he is? The answers lie in two parts. First, the election of 2016 did not pit a charlatan versus a paragon. It pitted a braggart against a mountebank – both are devoid of traits that make an individual a gentleman (or a lady). Thus, as one who fears the octopus-like reach of a government whose tentacles increasingly touch all aspects of our lives, I chose (as did the country) the one who was for less government and who best reflected my preferences.

Second: a year into his Administration, I like what Mr. Trump has done; though I cringe when he speaks. I like his willingness to take on Washington’s arrogant establishment and patronizing coastal progressives. I like the tax cut, the judges he has appointed, and I respect most of his cabinet appointees. I especially like the reductions in regulations that have unleashed the economy, lessened the power of unelected bureaucrats, increased employment and driven consumer confidence levels to new highs. I like his willingness to confront ISIS and to stand firm in Syria against a despicable regime, despite the confrontation it poses with Russia. I like his standing up to the administrative state that is Brussels, which relies on us for defense, yet which berates us as destabilizers. I prefer his directness in foreign affairs, as opposed to the nuanced approach of those whose livelihood depends on maintaining a sense of crisis. I like that he calls out Iran and North Korea for the exporters of terror they are, and his willingness to call Jerusalem the capital of Israel, which it is. I am not a fan of his decision about tariffs, but it remains to be seen if this was a negotiating tactic for NAFTA and other trading agreements. A gentleman he is not, and I abhor his massacring of the English language. But could a gentleman survive today’s political campaigns? I like to think so, but Mitt Romney, who is a gentleman, was ripped to shreds by President Obama and the media.

Authors have long expounded on gentlemen. Shakespeare wrote of two from Verona. Anita Loos said they prefer blondes. And P.G. Wodehouse told us what they aren’t – aunts. In his Autobiography, Mark Twain defined traits he would have needed, should he have wished to become a gentleman, (which he probably did not): “…courteous to men, faithful to friends, true to my God, and fragrance in the path I trod.”

Like King Arthur’s Knights’ search for the Holy Grail, gentleman-hood is a quest on which all men should embark. It is not birth, position or wealth. It is character: dignity, civility, virtue and respectfulness. A gentleman should be self-effacing and empathetic, intrepid in what he undertakes, humble in success and honorable in defeat. It is a portrayal that does not describe Mr. Trump, but neither does it define the patronizing media, the supercilious in Hollywood, the leeches on K Street, or smug insiders in Washington.

I am left dismayed, but not defeated. Have decency and respectfulness been subsumed by political correctness? Have arrogance and braggadocio replaced humility and decorum?  Is chivalry dead? Have identity politics and partisanship so divided us we can no longer work together? Can the establishment be challenged by one other than a Mr. Trump? In an age of narcissism, can one fight for a cause in which he believes, while adhering to Washington’s Rules of Civility? The questions and answers suggest a need for a cultural overhaul. But, I have hopes. Pendulums always swing back toward the center.

Monday, March 5, 2018

"Indulging Victimhood"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Indulging Victimhood”
March 5, 2018

You always have to play the hand you are dealt.
If you’re dealt a bad hand, you still have to play it.”
                                                                                    Clarence Thomas (1948-)
                                                                                    Supreme Court Justice (1991-)
                                                                                    At a panel, Library of Congress, February 2018        

No person chooses their parents, their place of birth, their nationality or their color. We have no say as to whether we will be born to a rich family or a poor one, to an educated or uneducated one. We are not given options as to physical or mental attributes. As Justice Thomas said, we must play the hand we are dealt.

Certainly, some are more privileged, but that has been true throughout history. However, almost all immigrants to America, whether they came in the 17th Century or the 21st, emigrated because they were poor and persecuted. But early settlers did not consider themselves victims. They couldn’t. They would not have survived. Through belief in themselves, hard work and perseverance, they converted difficult circumstances into opportunities. In Justice Thomas’ words, they played well the hand they were dealt. Some failed, but most succeeded. Had they not, we would not now have the country we have.

Setting aside the role chance plays, success is a function of aspiration, creativity, tenacity, hard work, risk-taking and being opportunistic – a “can-do,” positive spirit. Justice Thomas grew up in the Jim Crow South, with few options open to poor, rural blacks. He never knew his father, and when his mother’s home was destroyed by fire he went to live with his grandparents on their hard-scrabble farm. Every critic of Justice Thomas – and they are legion among progressives – should read his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, so as to understand the obstacles this man overcame. A bust of his grandfather, a dirt-poor Georgian with nine months of education, sits in his office. It is inscribed with his grandfather’s favorite quote: “Old Man Can’t is dead. I helped bury him.” His grandfather was victimized against but was not a victim.

Victimization has been (and is) a legitimate experience for many. Most ethnic groups (especially blacks) have been (and are) victims of discrimination. Slaves were victims of slave traders and owners. One thinks of now fully integrated groups who were once subject to discrimination, like the Chinese, Irish and Italians in the 19th Century, Germans during World War I, Jews from the 1920s through the 1950s, or Japanese who were interred during World War II. Early (and pre-union) factory workers were victimized by wealthy manufacturers. Vulnerable women were (and are) victims of unscrupulous men. The seventeen children murdered and wounded in Parkland, Florida were obviously victims.

Those who have been victimized deserve our support. But, as Arthur Brooks wrote over two years ago in The New York Times, “the line is fuzzy between fighting for victimized people and promoting a victimhood culture.” Victims and their advocates rely on free speech to relay their message, as did Martin Luther King in the 1950s and 1960s. A culture of victimhood, on the other hand, inhibits speech; it protects the sensitivities of those allegedly victimized. The first gave us Civil Rights. The second gave birth to “trigger warnings” and “safe places” in colleges and identity politics in Washington that create feelings of self-indulgence and dependency.

Identity politics, an outgrowth of victimhood, has become institutionalized. It was described in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Edwin Meese and Mike Gonzalez: “The artificial segmentation of Americans into antagonistic groups organized along often imagined ethnic, racial and sexual categories.” It is, they assert, “tearing America apart.” A consequence has been policies that promote victimhood and discourage personal independence. Unstated, but embedded in these policies, is a rejection of virtues that lead to success: work, determination, self-reliance, responsibility and independence – characteristics that allow people to become masters of their futures.  

In no sector have government policies (and cultural norms), which foster victimhood and dependency, had a more devastating impact than in the black community. In a recent issue of the Weekly Standard, Joseph Epstein wrote about Chicago, where he was born in 1937 and where he grew up. He wrote of neighborhoods divided by ethnicity, of individuals and families striving for success, to become part of the American dream. He wrote of the city’s long history of violence, and organized crime that has morphed into gang violence. And he wrote of the “dismal” failure of black leadership: “…no one has emerged to organize and lead Chicago’s black population out of the wilderness of their increasingly crime-infested neighborhoods, where drug trafficking, high unemployment, and disproportionate poverty rates reign and seem unlikely soon to decline.” Blacks comprise 32% of Chicago’s population, yet 75% of those murdered are black and 71% of murderers are black. Yes, those killed are victims, but not the killers. Mr. Epstein writes that no black leaders have “stood up to ask why, if black lives truly matter, black-on-black murders have been allowed at the horrendous level they have.”  Politicians find it easier to put the onus on victimhood, rather than encourage the dignity that comes from work and the acceptance of personal responsibility.

Victimhood leads to self-pity, that someone else is responsible for one’s inadequacies. This is not a new phenomenon. The author Allan Massie wrote a dozen years ago in The Spectator that Hamlet could be seen as “a mixed-up kid, immature, uncertain of himself, veering from self-love to self-lathing by way of self-pity.” It is wrong to indulge this sense of sorrow, as supporters of victimhood do. In The Last Chronicle of Barset, Anthony Trollope writes of Reverend Josiah Crawley, a poor vicar who has been accused of stealing twenty pounds. His poverty and pride made him unreachable to those who might help. He is in despair, knowing he is innocent, yet unable to prove it. His wife speaks to him: “I will not let you pass, Josiah. Be a man and bear it. Ask God for strength, instead of seeking it in an over-indulgence of your own sorrow…Yes, love – indulgence. It is indulgence. You will allow your mind to dwell on nothing for a moment but your own wrongs.” Victims of victimhood are entrapped in self-indulgent webs of self-pity.

A sense of victimhood is not limited to the left. In 2000, sociologist Professor Mitch Berbrier of the University of Alabama argued that behind the white supremacist movement is a carefully crafted victim ideology – victims of coastal elites. Following the shooting in Parkland, Florida, a demonized NRA is at risk of following the same self-indulgent path. Conservatives who are denied the opportunity to speak on university campuses must take care they do not consider themselves victims. Movements like the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, which allow citizens to gather and protest, to express discontent, are the positive manifestation of a free society. But when they tilt from victimization to victimhood independence and self-respect are lost. And America loses. When he spoke of his grandfather, Clarence Thomas said: “At some point, we’re going to be fatigued with everybody being the victim.”

Those who have experienced real victimization, the kind I never have, might consider my musings as those of an elderly, privileged white man who never suffered the ignominy of being a minority. They would be right. But, like most, I have had setbacks. I dropped out of college. I lost jobs and have gone through periods where I did not know from whence my next dollar would come. But I am an optimist who takes inspiration from Nat King Cole, “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again,” and from the can-do attitude of Justice Thomas and his grandfather. My advice: don’t think of yourself as a victim. Ignore “trigger warnings” and avoid “safe places.” Life can be trying but don’t indulge in self-pity. Be responsible and self-reliant. Work hard. Be independent and, if necessary, be willing to start all over again.