Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Burrowing into Books - "After the Party" by Cressida Connolly

Sydney M. Williams

Burrowing into Books
“After the Party” by Cressida Connolly
July 16, 2019

England feels so reassuring and safe to me.
I couldn’t stand the thought of another war.”
                                                                                  Phyllis Forrester on her return to England after years abroad
                                                                                  After the Party, Cressida Connolly
                                                                                  Penguin Random House, UK, 2018

The story Ms. Connolly tells is one of how easy it is to be subsumed by innocuous-seeming decisions that have long term negative consequences. From the perspective of several decades, we know the evil done by Sir Oswald Mosely and his British Union of Fascists (BUF) – that he (and his followers) wittingly, or unwittingly, supported the monstrous programs of Adolph Hitler. But this story is best understood if the reader is able to divorce him or herself from the knowledge we have today and to place ones’ self into that time, twenty years after the Great War in which 700,000 British soldiers lost their lives.Ms. Connolly writes aboutmothers of children who attend the BUF camp run by Nina and Eric, sister and brother-in-law to the heroine Phyllis Forrester: “Their conviction and commitment to the cause of peace was very real. Many women would already have lost brothers, uncles, fathers – even, among the older generation, sweethearts – to the dreadful toll of the 1914-18 War. Another such conflict simply could not be countenanced.”

Ms. Connolly begins her novel with a rubric, a line from Iris Murdoch’sA Word Childabout how a wrong turn taken and persisted in – a single mistake – can wreck the rest of one’s life. This story, which bounces back and forth between 1938 and 1979, opens in 1979, with Phyllis reflecting on why her life turned out so miserably. She recalls her release from prison in the fall of 1943. She had been imprisoned in late spring 1940, along with her husband Hugh, for being a member of Mosely’s BUF Party. In March of 1940, two months before she was taken to Holloway Prison, Phyllis thinks: her justification and her naivetéare exposed, “…people outside the Party were apt to mistake the Peace Campaign for a lack of patriotism, little understanding that those within it felt a passionate loyalty to very notion of Great Britain.”

In 1938, Phyllis and her much-older husband, a former Commander in the British Navy during World War II and now retired from the rubber business, return to England after many years abroad. They go to Sussex in England’s southeast where Phyllis’ two married sisters, Patricia and Nina live. Nina and her husband manage a BUF camp about which Nina is discrete, describing it as educational, promoting peace and a place where the children will have fun and meet others. “Phyllis found it electrifying to be among such a number of fellow souls, all united in in their passion for the cause. It was a wonderful feeling to belong. When Sir Oswald took to the stage to address them, she joined others in giving him a standing ovation.” Most of these women were not political, nor were they aware of the evil Fascism and Nazism represented. It was the memory of the last war that was fresh in their minds and that dictated their actions.

By spring 1940, the war had been underway for eight months, in what was called the “Phoney War” – so-called because all was quiet along the western front. Nevertheless, English lives had been lost in naval encounters. Mrs. Manville, who takes care of the mother of Phyllis and her sisters (their father recently died), suffered the loss of her sister’s nephew when HMS Courageous was torpedoed off Ireland in September 1939. She knows Mosely for what he is and calls out Phyllis and her sister Nina for “your salutes and uniforms and speechifying…,” but Phyllis is not traitorous, though one could not say the same about others in the organization, including her sister Nina and brother-in-law Eric. She is, however, naïve. She tells Mrs. Manville: “If ourPeace Campaign had been put into operation, this calamity might have been averted.”  Mrs. Manville’s response: “That’s balderdash!”

Phyllis and her husband are imprisoned. Through Ms. Connolly’s telling, we learn how families turn on one another. We read of a single incident in December 1938 that happened to Phyllis, for which she was not to blame, but that will nag her for the rest of her life, as she believes it led to her best friend’s death. We learn of the emotional strings of women like Phyllis on which Mosely played so adeptly. We come to better understand why so many wanted to believe that a second war could and should be averted; thus, were willing to follow Mosely down his path toward sedition. On a lighter note, this being a book by a British author writing of events eighty years ago, we meet new words, at least new to me, like “trug,” “jibbed,” secateurs” and “fug.” We learn about Holloway Prison and the Isle of Man and of the fact that those imprisoned were without recourse to habeas corpus or even to lawyers. Phyllis and her husband are separated and there are rumors of executions. “Phyllis didn’t really believe that her husband had been executed; yet if she could be taken from her home, locked up without trial, without committing any crime, without explanation, perhaps anything was possible after all.” She questions British justice.

Life rarely turns out as expected when we are young and dream of the future. Luck plays a role, but actions we take, decisions we make, the people with whom we associate have long term consequences, thus a word of caution permeates the story. When well-researched, historical fiction has advantages, which straight history does not. It allows the reader to get inside the minds of people portrayed. The title is a “double entendre,” in that it could refer to Mosely’s BUF Party, or it could refer to the party in December 1938 that held such consequences for Phyllis. What makes this story so compelling, though, is it could happen to anyone. The reader who sanctimoniously concludes that it was either Phyllis’ stupidity or deliberate complicity that caused this tragedy misreads the author’s interpretation of how decisions are made, without benefit of hindsightRetrospectively, we are all wise. Prospectively, few of us are.

Monday, July 15, 2019


Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
July 15, 2019

The most important thing to keep in mind about reparations is that it is never going to happen.
No Congress is going to pass, and no President is going to sign, a bill that takes money from
the great majority of American voters to pay a debt they don’t feel they owe.”
                                                                                                Thomas Sowell (1930-)
                                                                                                “Risks of Slave Reparations Campaign”
                                                                                                The Kitsap Sun, Bremerton, Washington
August 4, 2001

Periodically, the issue of reparations resurfaces, brought on not by those who might stand to gain, but by politicians who see political advantage in issues that never come to fruition, like immigration or climate, neither of which they would like to resolve, as long as they serve a higher purpose – their re-election.

Slavery was the blemish on our founding. Most of the Founding Fathers understood that. Nevertheless, the decision made was to proceed with unification of thirteen separate states under a Constitution and Bill of Rights to which all attendees agreed. Was it perfect? No, because it allowed the practice of slavery to continue. But liberty was the essence of our founding. It was understood by the Founders that at some point a Civil War would have to be fought, but they wanted to delay that inevitability until the Union had solidified into a unified and respected country. They knew it would have to be able to withstand the rending of its heart, which a civil war would cause. As the first half of the 19thCentury advanced, it became obvious that the cancer that was slavery did not fit a country whose values were based on individual freedom. The abolitionist movement grew stronger and advocates of slavery more isolated. It was felt that if the curse of slavery persisted it would mean dissolution of the union. But if it were abolished the union would be preserved, even though the cost would be high and the time for healing long.

In 1775, slavery was to be found in most of the northern states. As late as 1820, there were still an estimated 20,000 slaves in New York. But by 1860, slavery had been abolished in the north. Virginia had fewer slaves in that year than they did in 1820. It was not that they had been freed but were sold to cotton plantations in the deep south. And, while northerners railed against slavery, some were conflicted. For example, cotton brokers in New York became wealthy selling the slave-produced commodity to buyers in England.

The Civil War was fought and, while it was initially couched in terms of preserving the union, both sides understood the real cause – slavery. On January 1, 1863, with more than two years to run in the War, Lincoln issued the Proclamation Emancipation, declaring “…that all persons held as slaves within the rebellious states are and henceforward shall be free.” Over four years and 620,000 deaths, slavery in the United States ended. The Union held, and the slow process of reconstruction began – not just of broken families, farms, homes, mills, factories and towns, but of men’s souls. With the adoption of the 13thAmendment in December 1865, slavery in the U.S. and its territories was constitutionally abolished. With the passage of the 14thAmendment in 1868, all persons born in or naturalized in the United States were declared to be citizens. But the path forward was not easy: Lynchings were common, especially in rural parts of the south. The Ku Klux Klan peaked, in terms of membership, in the 1920s, sixty years after the Civil War. Segregation was a fact of live. It was more than eighty years after the Civil War before President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981in 1948, integrating the armed forces. Racially segregated public schools were common, under the misguided concept of “separate but equal,” until 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Miscegenation was a crime in some states until the Court in Loving v. Virginia ruled it unconstitutional in 1967. And it took a hundred and one years from the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Progress advances, but at rates too slow for us who must be content with life spans of eighty years. But, as Richelle Goodrich wrote in Slaying Dragons, “Progressing at a snail’s pace is still progress, and slow progress is better than no progress.”

So, while the history of slavery is ugly, we have moved forward. We should never stand still. We should advance in unison, and we should acknowledge progress when it is made. We should never be satisfied, but we should never be hateful. There are those who gain by fomenting dissension – race hustlers and ideologues. Apart from the power that comes with political success, there are others who gain, as Mr. Sowell wrote in the essay quoted above, “self-righteous satisfaction from denouncing other people.” We are a different people today than we were fifty and a hundred years ago. Almost eighty million have immigrated to the United States between 1865 and 2017. With their progeny, they account for about two thirds of the American population. Despite those who see us a “salad bowl” rather than a “melting pot,” our backgrounds are increasingly mixed. Most Americans do not solely descend from one nationality, but rather from multiples. The number of interracial marriages rose from 3% in 1967 to 17% in 2015. A 2017 Pew Research survey said that 39% of those surveyed felt that interracial marriages were good for society, up from 10% in 2010. So, while if one only listened to politicians, one might conclude we are more segregated than we were a few years ago, while the opposite is true. At a hearing on reparations in mid-June, Senator Cory Booker said: “As a nation, we have yet to truly acknowledge and grapple with the racism and white supremacy that tainted this nation’s founding and continues to cause persistent and deep racial disparities and inequalities.” This is an odd statement from a man who is a product of a mixed heritage, grew up in middle class environs, captained the Stanford football team, won a Rhodes Scholarship and graduated from Yale Law School. Kamala Harris’ call for reparations was even more conflicted: as her father, a professor of economics at Stanford, noted, she is a descendant of slave owners in Jamaica.

In the demand for reparations, a comparison can be drawn with the radicals of the French Revolution. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke took aim at the seizure of property belonging to the Catholic Church. The revolutionaries who seized the property were not, as Liam Warner wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal, “avenging the vices of the current clerical generation;” they were “seeking retribution for centuries of crimes.” Mr. Warner concluded his op-ed: “Our efforts would be better spent directing the future than auditing the past.”

One of my eight great-great grandfathers, George Augustine Washington, as proprietor of a tobacco farm in Tennessee, was a slave owner. Because he sired a son, Granville Washington, around 1830, I have African American cousins, one of whom, John Baker, Jr., authored a well-received history of his family, The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation[1]He wrote toward the book’s conclusion: “African American descendants from Wessyngton now live all over America. They became physicians, lawyers, poets, teachers, civil rights activists, ministers, painters, artists, authors, bankers, brokers, professional athletes, movie stars, airplane pilots, business owners, accountants, genealogists, writers, singers, entertainers, policemen, and government and public officials.” They are part of the fabric of America. This is the spirit of America we should celebrate – the strides made by descendants of those once enslaved – not the separation of people into compartments that serve the interests of a few politiciansThere is more to be done, but as Thomas Sowell wrote, a call for reparations is an empty promise.

[1]The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation, John Baker, Jr., Atria Books, 2009.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Review: "Conservatism," by Sir Roger Scruton

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
Review: “Conservatism,” by Sir Roger Scruton
July 10, 2019

Conservatives are not reactionaries. As Burke said, ‘we must reform in order
 to conserve,’ or, in more modern idiom: we must adapt. But we adapt to change
 in the name of continuity, in order to conserve what we are and what we have.”
                                                                                                Conservatism, 2017
                                                                                                Roger Scruton (1944-)
                                                                                                Philosopher and Writer

Labels are misleading. The terms “liberal” or “conservative” confuse substance with abstractions. To paraphrase Humpty Dumpty, labels mean whatever we want them to mean. If told I am conservative is it meant I am a tightwad in fiscal matters? Does it mean I favor martial law to a democratic process?Does it mean I am antediluvian in cultural ways? Does it mean I am anti-progress, preferring the past to the futureDoes it mean I am racist, xenophobic or misogynist?Does it mean all, or none of the aboveI know what I mean when I claim to be conservative, but do others?  For me, conservativism is about freedom – free to speak, write, assemble and pray. But it also includes respect for tradition and for the opinions of others; being responsible for one’s actions and accountable to other. It means a belief in the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and a commitment to values, like honor and duty. I believe strongly in family and in loyalty, and that the Constitution provided freedom for religion, not from religion. I believe government is an instrument of the people, not the other way around; that we must be ruled by laws, not men; it assumes a vigorous military, but one reflective of the nation’s citizens and under the control of a civilian president; it is the welcoming of legal immigrants and those legitimately seeking asylum; and it is an understanding that debt, while having useful purposes, when excessive has consequences, including political pressure to keep interest rates artificially low. 

The subtitle of Mr. Scruton’s short book is “An Introduction to the Great Tradition,” and that is what this book is – a primer on conservatism, a guide through the history of the discipline.  “…modern conservativism arose as a defence of the individual against potential oppressors, and an endorsement of popular sovereignty.” But it also recognizes the role communities and government must play in civil society. In institutions and traditions, there are kernels of wisdom without which, Mr. Scruton writes, “…the exercise of freedom is as likely to destroy human rights and entitlements as to enhance them.” 

We are taken on a sleigh ride from Aristotle to Niall Ferguson. He writes of Edmund Burke (1729-1797), “…the greatest of British conservative thinkers…” and Adam Smith (1723-1790), who “…provided the philosophical insight that gave intellectual conservatism its first start in life.” He cites Thomas Jefferson’s (1743-1826) contribution to conservativism, in his “insistence on continuity and custom as necessary conditions for constitution building and also for his warnings against the centralization of political power.” He writes of Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) and their belief that “only in a free market do prices provide a guide to the economic needs of others.” He notes the role of cultural conservatives, like T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), George Orwell (1903-1950) and Allan Bloom (1930-1990). He quotes George H. Nash (1945-) on William Buckley (1925-2008), as “the pre-eminent voice of American conservatism, and its first great ecumenical figure, ecumenical because Buckley attempted to synthesize in his writings and his life the three principal aspects of the American conservative movement: cultural conservatism, economic liberalism and anti-communism.” 

Scruton differentiates conservatism from libertarianism, where the latter is interested only in the bare minimum of government necessary for the maintenance of individual freedom, while conservatives believe more is at stake: “Society depends for its health and continuity on customs and traditions that are at risk from individual freedom, even if they are also expressions of it.” He adds, “The philosophical burden of American conservatism has been to define those customs and traditions and to show how they might endure and flourish from their own inner dynamic, outside the control of the state.”

Conservatism has long been portrayed in pejorative terms, as privileged white males who, as Franklin Roosevelt once said, “stand on two legs but never go forward.” Conservatism has been under attack more recently by intolerant liberals purporting to fight for equality and fairness. It has been most common in universities, where administrators and professors blindly reject alternative opinions. We have seen “liberal” entertainers call for the assassination of President Trump. We have witnessed this hatred manifested in violent attacks by Antifa, most recently on journalist Andy Ngo in Portland, Oregon. Roger Scruton has not been immune from this scourge. George Eaton a deputy editor of the New Statesman interviewed him last November. By taking Scruton’s responses out of context and resorting to Twitter, Eaton was able to get Scruton fired from his unpaid position as chairman of the UK commission, Building Better, Building Beautiful. Indicative of his own character, Eaton then posted a photo of himself online clasping a bottle of champagne: “The feeling when you get right-winged racist and homophobic Roger Scruton sacked as a Tory government advisor.” He later deleted the photo.

Perhaps, though, there is a shift in the winds. There are a few on the Left who have begun to realize that they may have gone too far, that they are partaking in a “sort of progressive feeding frenzy,” as Victor Davis Hanson recently wrote. This tendency toward extremism is not new to the left. It periodically surfaces. We saw it in 1968, in the attack on police in Chicago at the Democrat National Convention, and in the militaristic occupying of college campuses in the late 1960s by groups like SDS. When attacked by George McGovern on his policies in 1968, Lyndon Johnson, who had pushed through Congress the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, told a reporter: “You know the difference between cannibals and liberals? Cannibals eat only their enemies.” But attitudes may be changing. In his 2019 book, A Thousand Small Sanities, the left-of-center Adam Gopnik wrote: “The contemporary left can sometimes seem to have an insufficient respect for the fragility of the very same liberal institutions that allow its views to be broadcast without impediments.” In These Truths, Harvard professor Jill Lepore bemoans that studying the United States as a nation fell out of favor. She has migrated from the progressive fascination with identity politics to the Declaration of Independence as her guiding star. While she does not whitewash America’s past, she wrote: “There is also, in the American past, an extraordinary amount of decency and hope…” There are defenders of conservatism, like Boston College professor Kenneth Kersch’s recent book Conservatives and the Constitution. As well, the “Intellectual Dark Web,” or IDW, has become prominent, a group that includes Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson and Joe Rogan, all who have articulated opposition to identity politics, political correctness, multiculturalism, intersectionality theory and perpetual grievance.

So where does President Trump fit into this discussion. I like what he has done overseas, in terms of accentuating the hypocrisy of global institutions, bringing attention to supercilious Europeans who have taken advantage of the U.S. in terms of their own defense; I like him for calling out the Chinese for having done the same in trade and in stealing our technology, for naming the Iranians for what they are  – seekers of the bomb and exporters of terror; and I admire him for defending Israel and being honest about the Paris Agreement, which was nothing more than a glorified mechanism to transfer wealth. I like what Mr. trump has done for the economy, in terms of taxes and regulation. But he is coarse, inarticulate and egotistical. However, like George M. Cohan (as played by James Cagney in the 1942 film “Yankee Doodle Dandy”), he knows what ordinary people want. But he is not a defender of classical conservatism. Just look at the increase in national debt. As well, conservatism incorporates contrition, manners and respect for others. One might argue those traits are no longer possible in today’s dog-eat-dog world. Perhaps? I hope they are simply taking a temporary leave of absence.

Sir Roger’s book is timely. Freedom is fragile and must be constantly tracked. The risk to our democracy is less the threat of terrorism, global warming or an attack by Iran or China, and more dissolution from within. When the central government assumes too much power, over-regulates and/or puts in place laws that constantly monitor and govern people’s behavior, freedom is the loser. To ward against that threat, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo established a Commission on Unalienable Rights at the State Department to be chaired by Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon. The purpose: to ensure that our human rights – those granted by government – are grounded in America’s founding principle of unalienable rights, which are universal and not granted by government. They include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In this post-Soviet Union period, those rights have been challenged by ad hoc (or human) rights, which include healthcare, old age pensions, education and basic income. Real freedom depends on the pursuit of unalienable rights. A focus on human rights, while desirable in a compassionate community, can detract from those that make us a free and independent people.  It is not that human rights should be abolished; though we must be wary of suffocation by kindness. It is that we cannot lose sight of those rights that are unalienable. Keep in mind, anything that government grants, they can take away, and that as dependency waxes independence wanes. 

In the 2006 revised edition of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, George H. Nash asked: “Whether conservatives could thrive indefinitely without victory in the context for our culture wars was, perhaps, the great unanswered question about American politics.” The question, in my opinion, remains unanswered, as intolerant professors and skittish administrators dominate our universities and colleges, as the incident regarding Oberlin College and the Gibson Bakery so vividly demonstrated, and as mainstream media serves as advocates for progressive causes, rather than as skeptical reporters indifferent to political philosophies. Scruton writes of the need to adapt – to change in the name of continuity, “in order to conserve what we are and what we have.” He emphasizes the importance of the first-person plural “we,” as it binds us together. Our identity is not one of gender, race, sexual preference or religion; it is one of being American – citizens of a sovereign state, governed by laws not men, where we are free to write, speak or act, subject only to rules of civility – that what we write, say or do does not infringe on the same rights of our neighbors. 

Roger Scruton has done a public service in producing this small book (155 pages). Not all will agree with his conclusions. He is controversial, scorned by the left and too often undefended by the right. But a reading should cause thinking people to question their assumptions and to decry the use of labels that do more to confuse than clarify.