The Trains Did Not Run On Time

May 18, 2015


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.


Chris Christie and Henry II

January 12, 2014

Christie participates in interview during the Wall Street Journal's CEO Council annual meeting in Washington Royals Peter OToole

Let’s think about how Christie is not like Henry II, just for fun. Well, Christie will never be played by Peter O’Toole, or anyone like that actor.  But then, we don’t really know what Henry looked like. Enough on that point.

Henry had problems with his over-zealous staff too.  He was pissed at his former protegé, Beckett, who wouldn’t toe his line. In a rage, he let loose with, “Will no one rid me of this priest!”  Some staff members obliged, the murdered archbishop was made a saint, and thus we have The Canterbury Tales, fictional stories told by some pilgrims to pass the time on their journey to the shrine.

There wasn’t much of a tradition in those days of plausible deniability, but still, it did take Henry II four years to do public penance at Canterbury. Things move faster these days.  Christie has said that he’s sorry, that his trusted aides were stupid, that he knew nothing about it, that he is humiliated, etc. etc. etc.  Can we hope to see him barebacked, in a toll collection lane, kneeling on the pavement and facing Fort Lee while he scourges himself with a knotted whip?

That would be something!

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…

Instinct and the Power-Elite

September 12, 2013

A news item in the NYTimes today quoted Joe Lhota, Republican candidate for mayor of New York:

Mr. Lhota said that Mr. de Blasio’s “knee-jerk response to any new program is to raise taxes,” an approach he said was “instinctively wrong.” Instead, Mr. Lhota said the mayor should look to find efficiencies in the city’s budget.

Ah…you can’t make this stuff up.  A “knee-jerk” response to increase revenue is bad, but cutting the budget is obviously good, especially since he and his friends will not even feel it.  But how does he know this for a fact?  Raising taxes is “instinctively wrong.”  Might we say that Mr. Lhota has a knee-jerk response to tax hikes on the wealthy?  Sure seems like it.  It’s just pure instinct.

Of course, Mr. Lhota’s response to increased taxes for the wealthy may be instinct only among his social circle, so it is probably a learned response, with no instinct involved at all, but it sure seems like a reflex!

The article also includes this:

He mounted a direct attack on Mr. de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” campaign theme, saying that Mr. de Blasio was trying to “separate classes” as a political strategy.

“Calling it a tale of two cities, that level of invective has no place in any campaign, at all,” Mr. Lhota said. “It divides people. What we really need to do is to work together and provide a solution, not separating people and then saying that the ends justify the means.”

I would like to know what level of invective is appropriate in a campaign according to Mr. Lhota?  Tale of two cities seems rather tame to me.   By all means, let’s work together to raise taxes on Mr. Lhota.

Done Deal?

August 27, 2013

I have not been posting to this blog lately, and I am not sure why. Part of it is that I am taking to heart Nietzsche’s line:

And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.

That is, much of the time my comments are critical attacks on things I notice day-to-day.  As for the positive stuff, appreciations of literature and movies, etc, I dunno:  who reads it anyway?

But I just have to set all this aside and comment on a story that has been featured in the NYTimes several times in the past few days, always with the picture shown above.

Environment: Climate Warming Confirmed

A new United Nations climate report — the fifth since 1988 — has concluded that the basic facts about global warming are beyond question: it is caused by human activity and if it continues it will lead to melting of land ice, extreme heat waves, difficulty in growing food, and dramatic changes in plant and animal life, including large numbers of extinctions. The new document is not final, but experts expect the essential findings will survive review.

(Empahsis added)

It’s all in, science is settled, and the heat is on!  The picture is clear…or is it?  I suspect that that ominous plume is actually steam, that is, water vapor, and not smoke or other effluent filled with heat-trapping gas.  Except that water vapor is, after all, the most efficient and common greenhouse gas that you never hear about.

The thing about this news snippet is that it is so great a distortion of what the IPCC 5th Assessment actually says (or will say, when it’s released).   Aside from the fact that the report is not much different in its statement of alarm from the previous, fourth, report, it does not make the statement that is highlighted in bold.  It does say that most of the warming that has been observed over the last fifty years has been caused by human activity.  What is the significance of this, and what does the statement leave out?

  • “Most” means more than half, 51% or more.  Not all.  Therefore, we can say that the warming has other causes as well.  (It does not say that the human causes are all the result of burning fossil fuels either.)
  • It speaks only of the warming that has been observed.  (It does not mention that there is much controversy over precisely how much warming has actually been observed.  Nor does it mention that the observed warming that is claimed by the IPCC is on the order of one degree C, and is, in itself, not alarming to anyone.)
  • The statement does not note the fact that there has been no observed atmospheric warming for the last fifteen years or so, an observation that the IPCC accepts.
  • The statement refers to dire consequences if the warming continues, but actually those consequences will come about only if certain extreme projections of the warming trend continue.  The IPCC documents a wide variety of possible outcomes for the climate, even at current levels of fuel consumption.
  • This statement implies a direct cause and effect relationship between conditions rife with uncertainty and projected conditions, when in fact, the confidence that scientists have in any single one of these projections is very limited.

Basically, the statement, as with all statements from the IPCC, is an interpretation of current scientific work – a policy statement based on negotiation, that reflects the dominant forces at work within the organization.  (The IPCC is not and does not claim to be a scientific organization.  It is a policy guidance group, a think-tank if you will, that reviews current scientific work.)  There is no more reason to accept the conclusions of the IPCC regarding the future of the climate than there is to accept the pronouncements of the Brookings Institution (liberal) or the Cato Institute (conservative) on questions of social or economic policy.  Those organizations both look a the data, or the parts they care to notice, and make their interpretation.  The IPCC is no different.

Finally, must one point out that much of the world has “difficulty growing food” now, and that human settlement and land-use patterns over the last century or so have introduced dramatic changes to plant and animal life, including an increased rate of extinctions, without benefit of global warming?  This is not a good thing, but how much worse will the anticipated warming make this situation?  If it only makes it worse than we have made it already, might we not ask if it is the most important element in these problems?

The United States of Fear

June 20, 2013

Tom Friedman has outlined his latest installment in the ideology of fear, backed by his fellow mainstream writer, Bill Keller.  Friedman tells how us how he stops his worrying (or at least, worrying about the wrong things) and has learned to love Big Brother, and Keller says he is making an “important point”:

Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11 — abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened. But I worry even more about another 9/11. That is, I worry about something that’s already happened once — that was staggeringly costly — and that terrorists aspire to repeat.

I worry about that even more, not because I don’t care about civil liberties, but because what I cherish most about America is our open society, and I believe that if there is one more 9/11 — or worse, an attack involving nuclear material — it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it. If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: “Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.” That is what I fear most.

So, here in the Republic of Fear, we appeal to the best in our citizens,their abject terror of something bad happening.  The print by James Gillray at the top recalls an earlier historical episode of the Security State, the British effort to root out atheists, freethinkers, and revolutionists in its midst.  Gillray was paid by the Tories, but he couldn’t help seeing how ridiculous they were, despite his politics. 

Bad things do happen all the time, it’s true, although usually to other people, but surely those terrorists are targeting me!  It follows, that we must cast principles by the wayside and go all out to provide security.

This security apparatus doesn’t do a very good job, although it never ever makes mistakes.  A recent FBI review of 150 shootings by agents concluded that every last one of them was perfectly justified.  That beats the NYPD hands down!  The NSA, CIA, etc. did a great job of preventing the Boston bombing, and we all know how well the CIA did before 9/11 (See Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower).  Was a lack of data the problem?

The head of the NSA has testified that the snooping has foiled 50, yes 50 terrorist plots. I’m sure he has a list, and it seems to have grown since the uproar started.  Not many details offered, however.  All top-secret.  I wonder…  Another acolyte of the Security State has argued for the necessity of gathering all of our phone records by saying, “If you are searching for a needle in a haystack, first you need a haystack.”  Is this really the best way to protect our country?  It’s remarks like this that made the phrase “Military Intelligence” an oxymoron.

Once they have this data, mistakes will be made.  They have been made already.  Sometimes with dire consequences, such as rendering suspects to countries that are willing to torture them without limit (Syria’s no longer good for that, however.) or just upending their lives because a name appeared on a list somehow, like the lawyer in Washington state who converted to Islam after he married a woman from the middle east.  Ah…the price we pay for liberty!

Welfare for the Wealthy?

June 6, 2013

Yesterday, I read a piece by Mark Bittman on the current state of The Farm Bill in Congress.  He notes that enormous sums are being directed to ‘support’ farmers (not all farmers) who are quite wealthy, and calls this “welfare for the wealthy.”  I agree with his analysis for the most part, only taking issue with his sarcastic references to “the food system,” and “industrial agriculture.”  Industrial ag, thanks to the Green Revolution, keeps a lot of the world’s population from starving to death, but that’s another discussion.  I am finding myself, however, very weary of the term “welfare for the wealthy”.

This term is used by liberal critics of government policies that favor the wealthy, those who clearly do not need our favoring.  It’s not just farmers:  the military-industrial complex is another target often tarred with this brush.  What bothers me so much about it these days is that it  sets up a false equivalency between the poor takers of welfare, and the rich takers of subsidies.  The point is, these policies must be bad:  they’re welfare!  But for the rich!!  We all know how bad welfare is.  That’s why we cheered when Bill Clinton ended it, at least as we knew it…

That’s all garbage.  Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), aka Welfare, goes mostly to children.  Mostly to white children, a fact that is lost on those who rant with Saint Ronnie about welfare queens driving Cadillacs and feasting on food stamps.  It was never more than a tiny part of government expenditures, and it did, and still does, what’s left of it, tremendous good.  I don’t see much in common between a program that gets food and income support to struggling families with one that is fine tuned by highly paid lobbyists to direct rivers of cash from Congress towards their clients for…not growing stuff?  Growing stuff where they shouldn’t grow stuff?  To pay insurance to the farmers when their ill advised crops fail, the ones they were subsidized for growing?  And so on…

The term welfare for the wealthy implies that the problem is welfare.  Welfare directs money towards those with the least resources and power in our society.  The problem is that those with the most resources and power have been increasingly successful in turning our economy, a collective enterprise, into their cash cow.  That’s their idea of farming.