Monday, March 26, 2018

"One American's View of Europe"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“One American’s View of Europe”
March 26, 2018

But the problem is not social democracy as such, but rather the
 perception that the center-left has forgotten the fundamental values.
                                                                                                Mette Frederiksen
                                                                                                Leader, Social Democratic Party of Denmark
                                                                                                Financial Times, March 12, 2018

These thoughts are those of an observer, not an expert. They reflect my reading of current events, which convince me that the people of Europe are vulnerable to a loss of basic rights. My concern is for the kind of omniscient government James Madison warned against in Federalist No. 47. I appreciate the success the international system in Europe has had in the years since World War II – how it avoided wars that devastated the first half of the Twentieth Century, how it largely eradicated the poverty and disease that are war’s accompaniments, and how it helped democratize former totalitarian states. Nevertheless, there is no alpha and no omega to history’s timeline. The “deep state” that is the EU grows larger and more intrusive. As well, bad men and women lurk on sidelines, biding their time, waiting for opportunities to seize power. It is the threat of authoritarianism that concerns, no matter whether it emerges through an individual or via the state, or whether it comes from the Right or the Left.

Something is wrong in Europe. If today’s EU were so desirable, would Brexit have happened? If the EU is such a positive factor, why do administrators in Brussels feel a need to punish the UK for leaving? Why do they rail so aggressively against those who disagree with their concept of union? Why have populist parties risen, like Podemos in Spain, the Five-Star movement in Italy and the Freedom Party in Austria? Consider the political malfunctioning in Germany and Poland. The glue that binds the Union has weakened. Why?

Bureaucrats in Brussels have become more autocratic, in terms of demands on member states. For example, it is estimated that between 60% and 65% of laws, regulations and directives governing the British people were made in Brussels. London and other democratic capitals have become vassals to the EU, in terms of borders, trade, rules, regulations and laws. On the other hand, disintegration of the Union, it is feared, could lead to the nationalist policies that helped start the First World War, the depression that followed and the Second War. No sensible person wants to re-create another period similar to 1914-1945.

The catalyst for the discontent has been immigration on an unprecedented scale, affecting the economy, along with cultural and democratic institutions. It is true that most refugees have a humanitarian need. They come from towns and cities devastated by Islamic extremists – principally Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq in the Middle East; Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan in North and Sub-Saharan Africa. But, it is also true that among those refugees are radicalized young men. It has been the numbers and the manner in which all were admitted that have created dissension. Keep in mind, those most affected by the influx, both economically and culturally, have been the poorest and least politically connected. For elitists in London, Paris and Berlin, migrants are more of a theoretical problem, while for those in smaller cities and towns the problems are real, adding to a sense of xenophobia. The economy, already strained from the financial crisis of ten years ago (and on-going, aging populations), has become burdened with additional costs associated with the care and security of migrants. Social welfare has been a staple of the European experience since the end of World War II. But, given demographic shifts and a rush of migrants, is it sustainable?  

Multiculturalism accelerated as millions of Muslim migrants came to live in countries noted for historic cultural monuments, institutions and mores. Again, these immigrants mostly ended up in working-class cities, like Marseilles, France (20-25% of the population); Birmingham, England (20%) and Offenbach, Germany (14%). Cultural wars have been aggravated by a spate of Islamic terrorist attacks. According to the EU Terror Report, in 2017 Europe experienced 142 “failed, foiled and completed” Islamic terrorist attacks, killing 142, an increase over 2016. The attitude of Islamists toward women and gays is alien to Europe’s culture of respect and equality. As well, anti-Semitism is on the rise, abetted by Islamic refugees. France has a population of 67 million, of whom about 5 million are Muslim. Church attendance by Christians is estimated at 11%. About 5 million Muslims now live in the Country, where mosque attendance is estimated at 40%. The ratio of Muslims will continue to expand (as will their influence), due to immigration and higher birth rates. Question: In a hundred years, will France be a Christian nation?

Sharia Law may well affect European justice systems. Brussels appears to be more interested in accommodating immigrants than caring for the needs of native populations. The result: a decline in the influence of the people, of national and local governments, and a rise in populism.

Demagogues rise from ashes of unrest and fear, fostered by economic disruption. It was the financial demands imposed by the Allies after World War I that gave rise to Fascism in Italy and the Nazi Party in Germany. They boosted the ascendancies of Mussolini and Hitler. That is not Europe today. In the seventy-three years since the War in Europe ended, Democracy and free-market capitalism have allowed people to fare well. One reason has been an increase in social spending, which has risen in France, as a percent of GDP, from about 15% in 1970 to close to 30% today. The result has been a decline in poverty, an improvement in living standards and an equalization of incomes. But, Europe has been able to do so, in part, because of a bull market in bonds, which saw interest rates decline for three decades; low levels of defense spending, as the U.S. served as back-stop during the Cold War; and demographics that, because of the War, created a surfeit of workers and a want of retirees from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s. While it is too early to tell for sure, the bond bull market appears to be ending, the Trump Administration has made it clear that Europeans will have to pay more for defense, and demographics have reversed

In recent years, economic growth has slowed, as demands to sustain the social welfare state have impinged on free-market capitalism. In Brussels, bureaucracies, in accordance with Parkinson’s Law, have expanded, with no limits to their girth. An aging population has meant fewer workers supporting a growing number of retirees. (Young, working Muslims could alleviate the problem, but that depends on assimilation – more a wish than reality.) Migration has added expense and size to government. At some level (if we are not already there), regulation and government spending will manifest itself in even slower economic growth, a down-ward spiral demanding higher taxes, more spending and less growth.

Being negative as regards human progress, as Steven Pinker so eloquently observes in his latest book Enlightenment Now, has meant betting on the wrong horse. But when forces of reality (limited income) clash with dreams of social do-gooders (unlimited spending), will struggle ensue? As to the cause of Europe’s malaise, I am reminded of Walt Kelly and his comic-strip character Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” In Federalist 47, alluded to in the opening paragraph, James Madison wrote: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive or judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” Those words, written more than two hundred years ago, were of a man of the Enlightenment, one who understood that tyranny, no matter whence it comes or what form it takes, is incompatible with the forces of freedom and democratic capitalism.


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.