Wednesday, April 24, 2019

"Churchill: Walking with Destiny" by Andrew Roberts

 Sydney M. Williams

                April 24, 2019

Burrowing into Books
“Churchill: Walking with Destiny,” by Andrew Roberts

Words spoken with fleeting breath, the passing expressions of the unstable fancies of the mind,
endure not as echoes of the past, nor as mere archeological curiosities or venerable relics, but 
with a force and life as new and strong, and sometimes far stronger, than when they were first
spoken, and leaping across the gulf of three thousand years, they light the world for us today.” 
                                                                                                Winston Churchill (1874-1964)
                                                                                                February 1908, Author’s Club, London 

Churchill was much more than the man who saved England (and western civilization), though that was his greatest gift. Over the course of his long life, he wrote thirty-seven books. He produced 400 paintings. By the time he was 25, as Mr. Roberts tells us, Churchill had written five books and fought in four wars on three continents. He was brilliant and well-read. He could quote Roman generals, Scottish poets and Anthony Trollope. He was the conscience of England during his years in the wilderness, as Fascism, Nazism and Communism emerged as a consequence of the Great War. He was a Victorian aristocrat who reflected the virtues of his age. He believed in the Empire and bore a sense of noblesse oblige. But he was not a snob

In 1891, at age sixteen, Winston Churchill wrote “…it will fall to me to save the capital and save the Empire.” Almost fifty years later, on becoming Prime Minister, he wrote in his diary: “At last I had the authority to give direction over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.” Andrew Roberts clearly likes and respects his subject, but his love is not blind. He recognizes his flaws. The reader is exposed to the naked man, not the one clothed by adoring fans, nor the one dressed by those who found him vain, mercurial, brilliant but without judgment. That Churchill’s could be strikingly wrong can be seen in Robert’s description of Gallipoli, India’s bid for independence, Mussolini, Spanish Nationalists and the abdication of Edward VIII. But, as regards the greatest risk to face the free world in the first half of the Twentieth Century, it was Churchill’s clairvoyance and determination that saved European democracy and, in fact, the world.

Churchill loved the English language and became its master. At the Author’s Club in 1908, Churchill spoke: “Someone – I forget who – has said: ‘Words are the only thing which last forever.’ That is, to my mind, always a wonderful thought.” During the Battle of Britain, in October 1940, to the dismay of his wife Clementine and to those paid to keep him safe, Churchill would ascend to the Annexe roof, wearing a great coat, steel helmet and smoking a cigar: “When my time is due, it will come. I take refuge beneath the impenetrable arch of probability.”  Early on, Churchill recognized the importance of wooing President Roosevelt for Britain’s salvation and for the cause of freedom: “No lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt.” After FDR’s death, a teary-eyed Churchill said simply, “I loved that man.” In 1942, when Germany appeared invincible and England was at its most vulnerable, Parliament voted on a motion of no confidence, Churchill, viewing the scene, quipped that everyone “was as excited as a virgin being led to her seducer’s bed.” As we all know, he survived the vote. 

In 1914, the day before Antwerp surrendered, Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, asked Prime Minister Herbert Asquith for a military command. Asquith granted his wish and described the 39-year-old Churchill to the British socialite Venetia Stanley: “…He is a wonderful creature, with a curious dash of schoolboy simplicity…and what someone said of genius – ‘a zigzag streak of lightning in the brain.’” He foresaw Prussian militarism in 1914, Nazism in the 1930s and Soviet Communism in the aftermath of World War II. Churchill led Britain while it fought Hitler alone in 1940-1. He rejoiced when Hitler turned on the Soviet Union and when Germany declared war on the U.S. He rallied his people during the dark days of 1941-42. By the end of his life, Churchill had published 6.1 million words – more words “than Shakespeare and Dickens combined,” Roberts writes. He wrote another five million words that he used in speeches, letters and memos. If that weren’t enough, Churchill read deeply in history and literature, became an accomplished artist, constructed brick walls at Chartwell Manor, and collected butterflies.

We are witness to his complicated relations with his father, a man he always tried to please, but always felt he fell short. Lord Randolph appeared in a dream in 1947, as his son was painting in his studio. He tells his father that he makes his living as a writer but doesn’t tell him of his wartime premiership. His father is unimpressed. Yet Winston Churchill achieved a greatness surpassing not only his father, but also that of his two great heroes, Napoleon and John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, the recipient of Blenheim and his illustrious ancestor.

Andrew Roberts has given us a fascinating, comprehensive and readable biography of Winston Churchill, perhaps the greatest man of the Twentieth Century. We are taken from his cello-playing youth when Victoria reigned over the Empire, through his speeches and travels during the Second World War to honorary citizen of the United States in April 1963, less than two years before his death. Don’t let the book’s size intimidate youIt is worth its weight in reading pleasure.

Friday, April 19, 2019

"Backlash and the 2020 Election"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Backlash and the 2020 Election”
April 19, 2019

We inhabit a backlash moment in American History of uncertain duration.”
                                                                                                Joseph Ellis (1943-)
                                                                                                American Dialogue, 2018

Backlash is defined as a strong and adverse reaction or protest by a large number of people, especially to social or political developments. What we saw in the Middle East and North Africa beginning in late 2010 and going into the spring of 2011 and what we see today in Sudan and Algiers are backlashes against authoritarian governments. History does not proceed in straight lines. It is replete with consequential setbacks. Sometimes they are for the better – the English Civil War of 1642, the American Revolution in 1775, the world-wide women’s suffrage movement that began in the 19thCentury, and the U.S. Civil Rights movement that ran through the 1950s and ‘60s. Sometimes they are for the worse, like the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the rise of National Socialism in Germany, following the 1919 Treaty of VersaillesAnd sometimes the verdict is unclear, like Brexit. In 2016, it was a backlash against elitism and the establishment that catapulted Mr. Trump into the White House.  

In any society there will always be groups that rise up to make a point, highlight a grievance, or correct a wrong. Generally, they are without (or with limited) violence. They manifest a dynamic society and, while temporarily disruptive, they often change things for the better. We think of women’s liberation in the 1960s and the more recent gay-rights movement, positive developments that reflected changing mores. Other backlashes are political, like Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, with the intent to garner power rather than righting a social or cultural wrong. It is how we move forward. They are not unlike creative destruction in economics, a term used by Joseph Schumpeter to describe innovations in manufacturing.

Now, it is the continued enmity toward Mr. Trump that is causing Democrats to push beyond the boundaries of decency and common sense, even disrespecting those non-Trumpians whose conservative ideas and opinions differ from their own. Consider a few non-issue issues that are claimed vital to leftist elites, but are of little concern to middle class voters:

Social Justice:               The concept that society consists of oppressors and victims. Oppressors are whites, Asians, male, heterosexuals, Christians and Jews. Victims are people of color, Muslims, females, bisexuals, homosexuals and transsexuals. Anyone who supports Mr. Trump is either an oppressor or an ignoramus. Elites pride themselves as supporters of victims.
Political Correctness:     This occurs when language and policy are excised of any possibility of insult or offense, especially to one considered a “victim.” Taken to extremes, political correctness leads to a dumbed-down electorate incapable of defending him or herself. Anything President Trump says or does, according to these false paragons of virtues, is politically incorrect. 

Identity Politics:            This is the tendency for people to form groups, for political purposes, based on race, religion, sexual preference, or any such outward appearances, which have nothing to do with political ideas or ideologies. In the empty minds of those on the left, one cannot have a political philosophy that differs from what has been sanctioned.

Climate:                       The left has trivialized science to serve their political ends. There is a refusal to debate causes of climate change. The assumption: if you do not agree with us that climate change is caused by man you are a “climate change denier,” an absurd statement, especially for anyone having grown up in New England. 

Multiculturalism:          This is a term that has been hijacked by the left to infer that if one does not agree with their belief that all cultures are equal, one is a xenophobe, homophobe or a misogynist. The term no longer defines a society, such as America’s, which has people from myriad racial and religious backgrounds living together but tethered by the laws of our country and the customs and traditions of our common history. In invoking multiculturalism today, the left assumes a patronizing attitude toward those who believe it was principally the magnetism of liberty that drew immigrants to these shores.

Equality:                       Free-market capitalism has been the principal reason poverty has declined over the past two hundred years. In his 2018 book, The Economics of Poverty, History, Measurement and Policy, Martin Ravillion suggests extreme poverty rates in 1800 were about 85%. Today, Action Against Hunger puts that number at 10.7%, with 90% in Asia and Africa. The lowest rates of poverty are in those countries where democracy and capitalism have flourished. The poorest in countries where Socialism and authoritarianism have thrived. It is equality of opportunity that needs be encouraged and offered. Outcomes are based on aspiration, effort and ability, qualities that differ from one person to the next. A promise of equal outcomes is an empty promise, as it can never be fulfilled without violating the rule of law and impinging on the rights of people.

On all of these issues the left has taken extreme positions, and they are standing fast. Too often, they let blind hatred of Mr. Trump guide their behavior. As well, they have ignored a large swath of the American public, calling them “deplorables.” On issues like immigration and education, the left has taken stance from which they are immune from any negative consequences, because of where they live and where they send their children to school. On others, like climate and political correctness, they ignore the costs, both in terms of dollars spent and/or freedoms lost.                               
At its essence, the difference between the right and the left on these issues has to do with our expectation for government. What is its role and what is its purpose? The preamble to the Constitution says it is to “…establish Justice, to insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity…” Does the welfare for ourselves and our posterity include the redistribution of taxes collected? Or has government become so intrusive that it impedes our rights as individuals? These are questions over which reasonable people will disagree. The Founders left some of these terms vague, knowing interpretation will change to reflect new societal norms. But they did emphasize the rights of the individual, and I doubt they expected the adamancy, nastiness and partiality so prevalent today. 

When passions rule reason, reactions occur and often not the ones intended. Hatred for Mr. Trump can be seen in the refusal to accept the findings of the Mueller report, an investigation initiated and supported by the left. This is not a defense of Mr. Trump’s manners and etiquette. They leave much to be desired. But he doesn’t deserve the blind disdain he has received. His tax and deregulatory policies have helped economic growth and especially minorities. He has faced down those who, while misusing government agencies like the IRS and the FBI, would wrench away his Presidency. Would those conservatives who played by the Queensbury Rules have fared as well? From the perspective of this unrepentant conservative, the upside to the emotional display of Trump-hatred and the concomitant disarray among Democrats is that a backlash against the supercilious, arrogant elites now in charge of their Party might well lead to the re-election of Donald J. Trump in 2020. That is not the outcome those creating the backlash would prefer.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

"A Call for Freedom in Vienna"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“A Call for Freedom in Vienna”
April 13, 2019

The streets of Vienna are paved with culture,
the streets of other cities with asphalt.”
                                                                                    Karl Kraus (1874-1936)
                                                                                    The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus
                                                                                    Edited by Jonathan Franzen, 2014

We were sixteen. We came from eight countries – Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Guatemala, Poland, Spain, Switzerland and the United States. Our ages spanned forty-five years. We were men and women. What drew us to Vienna was a belief that free societies and free markets are inextricably entwined, and that the key to their success is the individual. The colloquium we were asked to participate in was at the invitation of the Austrian Economics Center in Vienna and the Liberty Fund of Indianapolis, Indiana.
The Austrian Economic Center, a privately funded, politically independent research institute, is committed to disseminating the ideas of the Austrian School of Economics, which emphasizes the role of the individual and competition in the success of a free, prosperous and responsible state. The Liberty Fund is a privately funded educational foundation dedicated to the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals. Those sitting around the table at the Hayek Institute had spent their careers as entrepreneurs, foundation heads, academics and journalists. As a retired stock broker, who later in life took up an interest in politics, history and economics, I was an amateur in a sea of professionals.

In preparation for two days of round-table sessions, we read dozens of papers and books written by economists, politicians and historians, including Margaret Thatcher, Edward Gibbon, Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Luca Einaudi and Alan Milward. We discussed the wealth of nations and questioned the material prosperity of the welfare state. We reviewed the economic origins of the European Community and the challenges it faces as it looks to its future. We talked about the difficulty the right has in disseminating their message, at a time when government has grown ever bigger, more intrusive and less accepting of new ideas – when dependency threatens the freedom that has allowed individuals, markets and societies to thrive.

While some at the table consider themselves libertarians, I dislike labels. Such words purport to be defining, but are, in fact, confining. Better to work with ideas and not feel that because one is a member of an organization, a tribe, or this political party or that, one must conform to what that group’s message may be. (One of us suggested that elections might turn out differently, if people voted on principles, on ideas, rather than for or against a specific party or individual.)

Speaking for myself (and using my definition of terms), I am conservative in my desire to preserve the government we have, one based on three separate, co-equal branches – a limited government that operates under the rule of law and that protects private property, our natural rights and those rights enumerated in our Bill of Rights. I am conservative in that I want to preserve those social institutions that underlie our values and are reflected in our culture and traditions, principles of universal truths that are critical to people living harmoniously, especially family and community civic organizations. I am conservative in that I believe in civility and respect. I believe in the Golden Rule. But I am progressive in that I would like to see us regain the liberty we have lost, to free ourselves from a dependency on government, to take more responsibility and to be accountable for our successes and failures. I am progressive in that I believe in competition, whether it be for goods and services or education, that the consumer benefits when many seek his or her commerce. I am progressive in that I believe innovation and progress stem from an individual’s willingness to take risk, and that he or she does so because of the potential for profit. I am liberal in that I believe individual freedom is the ultimate goal of men and women, especially to anyone who has felt the yoke of oppression. I believe that power concentrated in centralized government, no matter its claims to do good, risks rendering people dependent and, thus, less able to fend for themselves. I am liberal in that I believe colleges and universities, in denying a podium to those with whom they disagree, violate a right guaranteed by our Constitution.

I am realistic in that I recognize that politics is a blood sport, that elections are about power. To gain power, politicians on the left promise gifts of material goods and services, while those on the right promise abstractions, like liberty and freedom, and I know that the latter is a more difficult message in an age of entitlement. I am realistic in that I understand the difference between promises of equality of opportunity and promises of equality of outcomes – that the former is critical to fairness, while the latter is a dream that can never be. And I am realistic in that I know that democracy is under siege by those at home who believe that democratic socialism is a better system than democratic capitalism – that the physical well-being of the people is worth the price of freedoms lost. Also, I am realistic (and concerned) about Russia’s aggression, but I am especially worried about a rising, all-powerful China. In a battle for global dominance, the difference to the world between a democratic United States and an authoritarian China is stark and has real consequences for smaller (and larger) nations around the world. And, I am saddened by the fact that too few of our young study history. We cannot learn from a past with which we are unacquainted.  

I recognize that man is most free when he is left alone – the “noble savage” of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Except I know he is not. He must find water to drink, food to eat, shelter for protection and security from enemies. He is at risk of being robbed or killed by someone, or some group, stronger and more devious. As well, he is ignorant, as there is no one to instruct him. To live in society, to thrive economically, man must surrender some of his freedoms. However, at the other extreme, man is least free when he submits – willingly or unwillingly – to the care and protection to some government or person – a sovereign who, in exchange for obeisance, provides security.

So, it is balance for which we search when we make political choices – how much independence are we willing to give up for a comfortable dependency? Over the past eighty-five to ninety years, we in the United States have relentlessly and insidiously drifted away from independence and personal freedom. Many are happy with the direction we have been moving, but, like the lobster that is ducked into a pot of tepid water before the heat has been turned up, we may find ourselves trapped, like H.G. Wells’ Eloi, unable to extricate ourselves before the water begins to boil. Politicians who promise free healthcare, tuition-less colleges and a guaranteed basic income may be well-intentioned, but that doesn’t make them right. We all know that nothing is free, so we are told that dollar costs will be borne by the wealthy. What is left unsaid is that costs are also measured in freedoms lost, and those costs cannot be passed onto another. Increased dependency means less independence. How valuable is your freedom and independence? No two people will answer that question the same. What is important is to understand that freedom is not free, that dependency has a cost that cannot be measured in dollars, euros, rubles or yuan. 
In our elevation of the individual, we reject the movement, common among those on the left (especially in academia), that Western society should tilt toward “social justice.” “Social justice” is based on the Marxist precept that the world is divided into oppressors and victims. That vision of a singular moralistic world view is what the ancient Hebrew tribes practiced and what caused the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages to condemn non-believers to Hell and damnation. It was the attitude of New England Puritans who punished women as witches. It was that same divisive, intolerant view of mankind that had the Nazis see the world in terms of either pure or inferior races. And, we see it today in the Islamic view that one is either a follower of Allah or an infidel. These were some of the issues we discussed and debated, based on our readings and our life experiences. We spent a total of nine hours in formal discussions and talked informally over two lunches and three dinners that went late. We were fortunate to be in Vienna, a city that produced two of the most prominent economists of the Twentieth Century, whose works are still read by those who appreciate the connection of free markets to political liberty: Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992).

Why do institutes like the Liberty Fund and the Austrian Economic Center take the time, make the effort and spend the money to conduct these sessions for those who are already believers? Why do participants travel so far to be with like-minded people? The answers have to do with the passion we feel for the cause of freedom – to be re-assured and to be re-invigorated. Every thinking person has moments of doubt. When one spends his days combatting a political and cultural tide that has moved inexorably toward centralization, and away from the shores of individual freedom, it is easy to become wearied. We who speak and write on these subjects need to be re-charged. For we are proselytizers for a cause that says the greatest gift man has ever been given are his natural rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Vienna is ancient and beautiful, with the Danube running through it. It is filled with unique and attractive buildings; some, like St. Stephens, date back almost 1000 years. It is a city of surprises. It is claimed that one can walk underground from the banks of the Danube to the Vienna State Opera on the Ringstrasse. First known as Vindona, Vienna was where, in 180AD, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius died. Seven hundred years later, in a clash with Bavaria in 881, the name Vienna first appeared. As Jim McKay would have said, it is a city that has“known the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”Throughout the centuries, the City has been besieged and occupied by the Hungarians, the Ottomans, the French and the Germans. It was from Vienna that the Hapsburg family controlled the Hapsburg, Austrian and Austro-Hungarian Empires for over four hundred years. Vienna is rich in culture, especially music. Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn all lived here. It is where the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud first used dialogue to help treat mental illnesses. For over four hundred years, the Spanish Riding School has had skilled equestrians riding white Lipizzaner stallions in the Imperial Hofburg – the once winter home of the Hapsburg family. Today, Vienna is vibrant, with cafes and coffee houses lining tourist-filled sidewalks and streets restricted to pedestrians. Yet a dark cloud of anti-Semitism has periodically visited the City. Jews were expelled in 1421, and their rights were restricted in 1637. However, by late 19thCentury many had returned, and Vienna became one of the most prominent centers of Jewish culture in Europe. But it didn’t last. In 1938, Austria was annexed by Hitler’s Nazis, in what became known as the Anschluss (a joining). The Jewish people fled, were killed or were sent to concentration camps. Their absence is still felt. In 1923, Jews represented 11% of the city’s population, today about 0.5 percent. Anti-Semitism has not died.

Despite that blemish, Vienna is a beautiful city. I was honored to have been invited to attend what was a fascinating and informative round-table discussion and, in doing so, to make good friends.