The Trains Did Not Run On Time

May 18, 2015

9780394716589

I would describe my reaction to reading Mussolini:  A Biography, by Denis Mack Smith with two words:  shock and astonishment.  How could a treatment of the political life (the author describes it as a “political” biography of Benito Mussolini) evoke such reactions?  I mean, he’s been dead and documented for seventy years, right?  Well, I never knew much about him or his reign, mostly because Hitler and the Nazis attract so much more attention and treatment in the media, but his story is indeed incredible.

I came to this book after reading Mack Smith’s biography of Cavour, and parts of his history of modern Italian politics, as preparation for visiting Turin and the Piedmont region.  Cavour was the first prime minister of the newly united Italian state and was a count in the Piedmont region which dominated the new nation, and from which its constitutional monarch, Victor Emmanuel, came.  Some readers of the biography of Mussolini complain that it lacks in-depth analysis of its subject, or the historical context, and this is true:  at times it reads like a chronicle of choices made and statements uttered, and there is some significant repetition in his evaluation of these, but the simple chronology and recounting of events is itself so outlandish that it has tremendous value, I think.

Reading this biography, I have to doubt that I even understand something I thought was very clear:  What is fascism?  Or what was it?  Certainly it has taken on a life of it’s own, down to the recent history of Chile and Argentina, to mention a few states, but when Mussolini invented it, coined its name, created its symbols, it was, as this book shows, simply a vehicle for him to gain power.  Hitler, monstrous as he was, had a program that extended beyond himself:  he saw a 1000 year Reich based on his hellish principles.  Mussolini simply juggled about 100 balls at once, keeping them all in the air, so he could continue to rule – that was Fascism for him.

The incredibly detailed and notated biography reveals that Mussolini’s rule was based on several basic principles:

  • Use violence to extort, intimidate, and sow chaos among enemies and neutral parties.  Use it without stint, and keep an eye out for the opportunity to extract advantage.  He did not deny his penchant for violence, he celebrated it as a central principle of fascism.
  • Control the news completely:  Mussolini started his political life as a journalist and newspaper operator, and to a great extent, his reign resembled that of a ruthless media tycoon who also happened to control an army of violent thugs willing to do his bidding.
  • Divide and rule without reserve:  Eventually, the Fascist party Mussolini himself created became a potential threat to his own power.  He had no compunction at setting its members against one another to keep it as weak as he needed it.
  • Abandon consistency:  Perhaps this is the most truly astonishing part of Mussolini’s rule.  The freedom with which he would contradict himself, often within a day, was incredible.  He started as a revolutionary socialist, then he advocated corporate industrial control of society, later he went back to the socialist stance.  It all depended on who he was trying to outmaneuver at the time, and since he controlled all the press, each contradictory expression would be reconciled with his other statements by judicious “erasures” within the archives.

With complete control of the press, comes the freedom to create the big lie.  Italy has the greatest army in Europe, ten million men at arms (his generals knew that it had barely 1/10th that number), a major military defeat is trumpeted as a great victory, the train system is proclaimed the best in the industrialized world, running 100% on time (journalists from abroad noted, before they were ejected from the country for saying it, that the system was a shambles.)

His government was totally centralized in his own person, and he became increasingly remote from reality, surrounded by sycophants who posed no threat, and who were totally incompetent in their posts.  Mussolini seems to have actively sought dullards and incompetents to appoint to positions of nominal power, but he rarely listened to them anyway.  Many times he delivered himself of incorrect opinions on matters of economics or military import and refused to be corrected – that would diminish his prestige – even to the point of accepting awful terms in the negotiation of foreign treaties rather than backtrack.  It was rule by an egomaniac “play-actor” backed up by vicious criminal gangs who made out while the gettin’ was good.

How did this gimcrack, ramshackle, jerry-rigged chaos come to run a modern state?  The author’s explanation seems to be that two principle factors were at play in the post-WWI era that was threatening to many established regimes:  Mussolini was some kind of a political genius; the liberal political establishment let him take power.  He was brilliant at picking the right moment to act, ruthless in employing lies and violence, totally without scruple, principle, or consistency, other than in his drive for power, and he knew how to inspire loyalty.  He was a demagogue, in other words.  And the liberal bourgeois establishment, which could have destroyed him easily at many critical moments in his rise to power, feared him less than the communists, a familiar story.  Like Hitler, he too was voted into power, a fact which annoyed him greatly as he felt it was more proper for a fascist leader to seize power with violence.  But he was willing to live with that…  Even when Mussolini was still only member of parliament and was personally implicated in a murder of a prominent opponent, the dominant establishment parties dealt lightly with him.  They sat and listened as he insulted and harangued them in speeches, even as his party members instigated fights on the parliament floor.  They were utterly exhausted as a political class, and this was both a cause, and a rallying cry of the Fascist ascendancy.

Needless to say, once he was in power, the industrial interests were happy to connive with him in his program, confident that his outlandish plans for the economy would never be implemented, the case with most of his pronunciamentos.  As Mack Smith frequently notes, the actual effect of his proposals and pronouncements was not so important;  to keep those balls flying in the air, the appearance was all that mattered.

Benito-Mussolini


New Orleans: Black, White, and in Color

November 29, 2013

I finally got down to New Orleans for a visit, city of levees, necropolises, music, food, and mixed races.  I understand now why people get so emotional about it – it’s quite a place, unlike any other I know in the USA, mostly in a good way. It’s also a city that is so deeply formed by the geography and hydrology of the region that for a civil engineer cum geographer, it’s a no-brainer for a great vacation.

   
Outside our B&B there was a WWI memorial arch (first in the USA they say) that lists the men killed in action. Separate plaques for White Men and Colored.  I think it was placed there because that neighborhood, Bywater, was the point of embarkation for the troop ships.

One thing that did surprise me about New Orleans was the racial segregation, or shall I say, lack of integration, visible everywhere.  Living around and working in NYC, which is one of the most residentially segregated urban areas in the USA, I still experience a dizzying mix of people while commuting, during my workday downtown, and in many entertainment venues I frequent, but in NOLA, not at all.  I wasn’t surprised that neighborhoods weren’t  integrated (this is the USA), but I didn’t expect that when I went to a jazz club, everyone in the audience would be white, but it was almost that way.  At times, I felt as if I were in a fancy college town.  I’m not sure why it is that way, but I didn’t expect it.

As everyone says, there is music everywhere, inside and out.  And these aren’t just any old street pick-up bands.  The level of the musicianship is amazing!  At the end of this post there is a brief video of this band doing their work for the crowd.

New Orleans has a unique American history of racial mixing:  the French, then the Spanish, then the Anglos ran the place.  The Creole culture of francophone colonials was not quite the same as the Anglo slave-owning society; there was a bit more nuance in the racial caste system as opposed to the “one drop” rule.  Sometimes I see statements from people from Brazil and other creole-influenced cultures about how they have no racism in their culture – they’re creole – but it’s usually just an excuse.  Nevertheless, there were historical differences, and the Anglo rule was more harsh.

Today, other cultures have been added to the mix, including a recent influx of Hispanic people, many from Mexico.  I like this food truck’s moniker, a mash-up of Mexican, Palestinian, politics, and commercialism.

multi-cult

Levee is French for raised up.  That’s the bank of the Mississippi, here reinforced with concrete on the river-facing side.  The entire lower Mississippi is controlled and channeled, and this levee is upriver of the city, next to a plantation we visited, the Laura Plantation.  The place was kept in creole hands for its entire working history as a family business, and the mansion is a functional and spare work of architecture.  The excellent tour of the place emphasized its nature as a business, a family corporation to extract wealth from the land through the labor of slaves.  None of that Gone with the Wind tripe.

levy

New Orleans shows an admirable directness in labeling its manholes, and sometimes a fine aesthetic sense.  Sometimes, they let the drainage just all hang out.

The southern latitude sometimes gives the lower density neighborhoods a lush, jungle atmosphere.  We stayed in Bywater, downriver from the French Quarter, an area that was spared flooding because it is near the river.  (More on that later.)  The area boasts a type of architecture that is reminiscent of the Caribbean islands, and that also reminded me of Kerala, South India.

jungle

 

crea creole

bywater

In the old city, the French Quarter, in Pirates Alley, there is this house where Faulkner wrote his first novel, and which is now a small and excellent literary bookstore. The picture on the right shows a house reputedly built to house an exiled Napoleon (he never arrived) and gives a view of a typical street in that area.

faulkner boney

In the Warehouse District, where we spent our last afternoon, largely at the excellent Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the sidewalks often look like brick, but to my surprise, turned out to be blocks of wood, probably swamp cedar.

cypress

This book, by local scholar Richard Campanella, is an excellent treatment of the history of New Orleans that focuses on geography and demographics.  The entire text and all the illustrations are available as individual PDF files online.  He is at pains to emphasize that the city of New Orleans was founded, and remained for some time, completely above sea level.  These days, one often hears expressions of wonder that anyone would be so stupid as to build a city below sea level.  Well, it wasn’t, but large parts of it, most notoriously, the Lower 9th Ward, became lower than the sea after they were surrounded by levees and pumped out for development.  The removal of water from the soil causes saturated ground to settle and compress, sometimes by as much as nine or ten feet.

This effect is seen in many places around the world:  In Bangladesh, they refer to polder areas, after the Dutch name, where they have diked agricultural fields and de-watered them.  As a result, the fields subside, and they grow less productive because they no longer are periodically flooded with life-giving nutrients from flood waters.  When there is a very big flood, the dikes sometimes break, the fields become bathtubs, and there is no way to pump them out again because equipment is lacking.  In Holland, where the practice of polder reclamation originated, they plan for this, but it costs a lot of money and requires constant engineering work.  But in Holland, they have nowhere else to go!

Oh, and a word about those cemeteries.  Historians tell us that the custom of above-ground burial was adopted when the Spanish took control of the city, not in response to soggy, water logged ground unsuitable for burial.  Remember, the city was all several feet above sea level!  Another reason for above-ground tombs is that is is an admirably efficient use of space – each tomb can hold many generations of a single family.

The image on the left below shows a typical river landscape in most of the world:  the terrain drops as you approach the river, a standard river valley.  In New Orleans, we are in a delta landscape, the end of the line for a huge drainage system (Drainage is Destiny!) and the landscape is reversed, which initially puzzled the French settlers.  The river is constrained by natural levees that form when the channel periodically, and inevitably, overflows.  The heavier sediment is deposited close to the original channel, forming, over many years, an elevated bank on either side.  New Orleans was founded on one of these naturally elevated regions, and the riverside neighborhoods fared best during the disaster of Katrina.

And on a happier note:


Government Dysfunction?

October 10, 2013

Divided (we stand) Government

There is endless prating about our dysfunctional government, our divided, dysfunctional congress, and so on.  The idea seems to be that our federal government is somehow “broken,” not working as it is supposed to.  Well, I beg to differ.  Here is an alternative view:  blame the Negroes!

In this view, the government is working just as the Founders wanted it to work.  It is divided, and the majority is unable to force its will on the fanatical and united majority.  And who were those fanatical folks present at the creation?  The slaveholders, of course.

Yes, I know, the idea of multi-chamber government was presented by the likes of Montesquieu, and there were many reasons that the Founders feared a despotic executive, but the most consistent motivation was the desire of the South to protect itself, and its “States Rights” from the anti-slavery North.  That was the reason for the great compromise that elevated/degraded the slaves to 3/5 of personhood.  (The South wanted slaves to count one-for-one in the census, to bulk up the slave states’ representation in Congress.  The anti-slavery contingent didn’t understand why people who were slaves, and certainly could not vote, should be counted at all just to enhance the power of their owners.)

Well, here we are 150 years after the Civil War, and most of Tea Party zealots are from the South and border states.  And they are still screaming, and still using divided government to their advantage.  Just according to plan…


Argo

November 18, 2012


Last night, I caught the recent Iran caper, or Canadian Caper film, Argo, created by Ben Affleck.  It tells the story of a CIA clandestine operation to get six Americans out of Tehran after the U.S. Embassy was stormed, initiating the interminable hostage crisis for the Carter Administration.  The six took secret refuge in the Canadian embassy.  The successful plan involved creating a cover story of a Canadian film crew scouting exotic locations for a tacky sci-fi adventure story with a middle eastern look to it.  A Star Wars rip-off.

The story is basically true, and the film was entertaining and suspenseful.  It was particularly good, I thought, at showing the tension of the six fugitives as they struggled to accept the least bad of a lot of bad choices for getting out of Iran.  It also conveyed the release of the pent-up rage and near hysterical revolutionary fervor (that’s what happens when you keep the lid on people too long) of the Iranians rather well.

Personally, however, although I was entertained, I wasn’t buying it.  The last minute glitches, and their skin-of-the-teeth resolution, the airport getaway finale, the Alan Arkin old-Jewish-guy producer character…it all seemed invented for Hollywood to me.  (Of course, Affleck has to add a deeply personal note at the end, as the main character reconciles with his wife – why, we don’t know…)

As it turns out, a perusal of the Wikipedia article indicates that all those things were invented; dramatic license. There was some undiplomatic bashing of the Brits and other diplomats as well that was resented and refuted by those governments.  And there were some trivial historical manipulations – showing the giant Hollywood sign in ruins (I remember it well) when it was actually repaired in 1978 – I wonder why ‘artists’ do that sort of thing in a film like this, but I’m just a viewer…

I was in Iran for about a week, leaving just a few days before the crisis erupted.  I only spent 45 minutes in Tehran:  as dumb as I was, I knew that was not a city to hang around in then.  We met some soldiers on a train from the north, and they led us by the hand through the streets, filled with enormous packed crowds of men with black beards, all staring at us, until they saw us safely deposited on an express bus to the gorgeous city of Isfahan in the south.  No crowds there.  Just anti-American posters, and a lot of people who told us how much they loved Americans, and hated our government.


Esa mitología cubana viejo…

October 16, 2012

[NOTE – 10/22:  On the news today, I heard a statement that Kennedy “quietly removed several obsolete missiles from Turkey” in exchange for the USSR turning backs its ships with nukes for Cuba.  More jingoistic spin.  If they were obsolete, why where they placed there (and in Italy) just the year before?

By calling them obsolete, the idea is conveyed that JFK gave up nothing significant, only making a gesture to help Kruschev save face. ]

An Op-Ed piece in the times today (The Price of a 50-Year Myth) examines those old myths of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and their destructive effect on subsequent American policy.  I’m not so sure about his teasing out of the policy implications, but the notes on the distortions of what actually happened during the crisis are illuminating.

JFK, for all his ideological bluster and image mongering, was a practical, some would say cynical, guy.  Maybe he was one of the ruling elite who did not believe his own propaganda.  He was willing to cut a deal to avoid a nuclear conflagration, and he did so.  After all, he provoked the crisis by placing nukes in Turkey, right up against the USSR border, something they regarded as threatening – wonder why? – so he took the option of removing the missiles in exchange for Krushchev turning back his ships headed with nukes to Cuba.  The article points out that the boats were thirty hours sailing time away from the US blockade when they turned back – not quite the eyeball to eyeball macho facedown of legend.  The writer thinks that the power-elite believed their own spin, and used it to justify future exercises in destructive brinksmanship. 

Well, brinksmanship was brought to the public eye by John Foster Dulles, and was a well established posture for dealing with the USSR, so the Cuban Missile Crisis was not its source.  And JFK, as William Manchester said, was almost as good at crisis management as crisis creation.  I give him credit for not caving to the militarist lunacy of advisors like General Curtis LeMay (a.ka. Colonel Jack Ripper.)  But the image of an American president who negotiates with a powerful adversary to avoid a crisis, and even backs down from a provocation, is not part of the American self-image of global swagger, so it has been covered over with political pabulum and secrecy.


Slaves of Capital, All

October 10, 2012

 

A few weeks ago, Alexander Saxton died, so I went and read his essay on blackface minstrelsy.  You can read the complete paper here.  I had heard of it, but never actually read it, and it was interesting.

So then I decided to read one of his books, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic.  It contains a chapter that is basically the same content as the minstrelsy essay, and covers the political history of the 19th century USA with a focus on the importance of race, but each chapter can almost be read as a separate piece.  It is not a history of racist ideas, but a political history of the USA, but the depressing fact is that racist ideas are integral to that history.

The book isn’t even exclusively about racism regarding Africans, despite the seismic disturbances caused by slavery in the early Union.  No, the other race, the one that had to be exterminated, the Native Americans, is treated at length, and it is instructive to see how various parties sometimes took divergent views on the two.  The Jacksonian Democrats wanted to liquidate the Indians to get their land, and restrict slavery, and blacks, to the South because they hated the planter aristocrats, and feared black labor competition.  The Whigs, the upper-crust opposition to the Jacksonians, wanted to protect the Indians, all the while hoping they would gradually die off or assimilate, in order to have an excuse to limit slavery to the South.  They were happy to have free blacks in the territories as they had no love for a labor monpoly by the Jacksonian producers.   Besides, they were looking forward to industrialization, and they just wanted free labor, free to accept their wages.

Along the way, a lot of unsavory racial ideology is unearthed and associated with people you might not otherwise think of in the history of imperialism and racism, such as Walt Whitman:

Who believes that Whites and Blacks can ever amalgamate in America?  Or who wishes it to happen?  Nature has set an impassable seal against it.  Besides, is not American for the Whites? And is it not better so?

Editorial in The Eagle, 1858

Yes, the whole thing is quite sordid.  After the Civil War, the northern Republicans went to town on their industrial program, and racism continued to serve handily, and was often employed by workingmen against one another.  Meanwhile, heroes such as Teddy Roosevelt, took up the pseudo-science of race to justify imperialism abroad and oppression at home, although the negroes did do a fair job at San Juan Hill.  And those Indians..?  Now that they were almost all dead, it was time to wax sentimental about them to assuage one’s guilt at having helped along with their massacre.  Thus, Teddy’s statue in front of the Museum of Natural History in NYC shows him mounted like a Roman emperor, aided by his noble and faithful servant, a red chieftain.

And through it all, the driving force of capital remaking our nation, then the world.  Monuments such as the one of Teddy, dedicated in 1940, seem quaint now.  There is no longer any desire, perhaps no need, to cement the image of heroic, white overlords.  In the midst of our multi-cultural society, with its wide tolerance for racial and ethnic difference, the moving power of great wealth does not need to show its face, to justify itself at all! Abstract corporate art serves nicely. Human figures just arouse controversy.

Saxton refers to the 1890s as a hegemonic crisis, during which the ruling elite actually feared for, perhaps rightly so, their privileges.  They had carried on so brutally as to foment a political counter attack.  Now we have a political system that stages ‘debates’ that seem like grade-school reenactments of democracy.  No public interaction – the audience is just for show.  But the debate is the real show, displaying the importance and control of the corporate media.

Just by coincidence, as I was reading the book, I saw the obituary of another scholar of the slave societies, Eugene Genovese.  The author of Roll , Jordan, Roll:  The Lives the Slaves Made, repudiated his radicalism, and died a repentant and fully-fledged Catholic conservative.


Dreams of Canon Law

September 5, 2012

In my high school days, happily loosing myself in medieval history, tracing the rise of languages, governments, architectural styles, and nation states themselves, I dreamed of a happy life if I had been born centuries earlier, and found myself cast by fate in the role of a canon lawyer arguing for the supremacy of the pope over bishops and even kings. I dunno…it’s a project!  A mission, something to do…  Spending my days retrieving monastic forgeries and corrupt texts, coming up with novel arguments to dispossess the local feudal barbarian lord or the king of the revenue from some benefice, monastery, town, and so on. 

The papal supremecy issue was whether the pope or the regional bishops were primary – the pope was only the bishop of Rome, according to the anti-papal line, or whether the pope or the local king had control of the vast revenues of the church, the power to appoint bishops, and on and on.  It all seems tedious and pettyfogging, but momentous issues of power and money were at stake.  Sometimes the pope won, sometimes he lost. 

What’s a poor Jew-boy to do but hitch his cart to the papal star?  Not hardly…but I could dream.  I even started to learn Latin, just for the fun of it.

I just finished a book on Jean-Baptiste Colbert, The Information Master, that deals with the other side of the equation, and a later period, i.e., the effort by the secular state, specifically Louis XIV, to gain absolute power over the nobles and the church, and the role of Colbert in that effort.  The book, by Jacob Soll, describes Colbert’s relentless aquisition of documents and libraries in the service of the absolute monarchy.  Knowledge is power says the old saw, and when it came to making a legal case for the king’s right to confiscate, tax, or simiply claim all or a part of local revenue, documents were essential.  The endless battle to aggrandize Louis’ power over France was fought on paper, not on the battlefield – not since The Fronde, when he was a boy, anyway: an experience he did not wish to repeat! – and Colbert was the general.

He created archives, libraries, secret information gathering cadres, and recruited a corps of document writers, to produce an endless stream of propaganda justifying the royal perogatives.  In other words, he actively engaged in what is called today knowledge production, in the manner of think-tanks, institutes, and foundations we have now.  The monks of the medieval period were known to sometimes create deliberate mis-information, e.g. The Donation of Constantine, but Colbert relied on overwhelming his adversaries with real documents.  Often, the nobles  were unprepared:  what did aristocrats care for deeds and charters, and scribbling?  They learned the error of their ways.  Churchmen, with centuries of infighting behind them, were usually better placed to make a counter-claim, but they lost over time.

Colbert also did Louis’ dirty work, including creating the ‘overwhelming’ case against Fouquet, who had mightily pissed-off Louis.  As was typical in such affairs of state, the first arrests included paper as well as people:  whole libraries were carted off to the royal archives to deprive the victim of documentary evidence in his support, and to supply more ammunition for the king.

The book is well written, but falls into breathless comparisons between Colbert and Bill Gates, his archives and Google, that show more about Soll’s lack of understanding of database technology than anything about l’Ancien régime.  There is far too little description of how Colbert’s archives actually worked, rather than Soll’s repreated remarks that he developed many new techniques to manage the storage and retrieval of the vast amount of paper.  Indeed, there is too little discussion, I think, of how effective these efforts were:  We are told that they were crucial to Louis XIV’s absolutist project, but we are given few concrete examples of how they brought it to fruition.  I felt a suspicion that Colbert was perhaps an information-obsessed control freak who seemed more effective than he was. 

In fact, in his conclusion, Soll writes that Colbert ‘misunderstood the nature of  his own project,’ and that his penchant for secrecy undermined his goal of building an efficient state machine.  After Colbert’s death, the system fell apart, Louis perceived it as a threat to his power, and he reverted to a pre-bureacratic mode of kingship that focused on playing minsters and power centers off against one another.  So, who was the master?