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Cold War Hot: Alternate Decisions of the Cold War
Cold War Hot: Alternate Decisions of the Cold War
by Peter G. Tsouras
Edition: Hardcover
62 used & new from $5.83

18 of 33 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Alternate History-Right wing Armchair General Version, January 20, 2005
"What if" history has an inherent interest and it is not surprising that much of it deals with battles. The writers of these alternative essays are all military officers and only one of them is a professional historian. The result is quite deadly: this is not remotely as provocative a book as Niall Ferguson's Virtual History because there is no real discussion of historical events. None of the essays shows much interest in the relevant historical literature. Whether it is the Berlin Blockade, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the various Israeli-Arab conflicts or the Afghan war, the authors show no interest in examining the scholarship on the opposing side's motives. Carolyn Eisenberg, Bruce Cumings, William Stueck, Kathryn Weathersby, Jian Chen, Raymond Garthoff, William Duiker, David Elliott, Robert Buzzanco, Neil Sheehan: none of them make an appearance.

A basic principle of counterfactual history is that except for the basic change posited in the "What if" you only minimally change the events in question. For example, once you have Lee win the Battle of Gettysburg, you can't give the South nuclear weapons. But the authors know too little about history to know what is a minimal change. As a result there is little control over the author's flights of fancy, except their own prejudices. As such, one possible alternative, nuclear war, never appears. The chapters on the Berlin Blockade, The Six-Day war, a Soviet-Sino war, and the Yom Kippur War all ends properly contained. One suspects this relatively happy result is because the authors realized a nuclear war would undermine the anti-Communism and nuclear deterrence they have devoted their lives to supporting. Another author has Jimmy Carter winning re-election and thereby insuring the Soviet victory in Afghanistan, which involves both the Soviet Union manipulating India to attack Pakistan, and Pakistan under its despised military dictator successfully resisting. One would think after September 11th, even American conservatives would realize not to glamorize the Taliban's patrons. Peter Tsouras comes up with a strikingly silly chapter in which a Soviet invasion of Western Europe is stopped and reversed simply by flooding the invaders with good vodka.

More seriously we have two attempts to refight the Vietnam War. In one the war is easily staunched in 1963-64 because the Americans buy out the landlords, get rid of corruption, and get Britain, Canada and Italy to send military help. Now where is the constituency in Vietnam who will both fight the NLF and allow the Americans to do this? Where was the constituency in the American army and pro-war supporters who believed that both corruption was a problem and that land reform was a solution? The second is even sillier: the United States plans an invasion of North Vietnam and it works perfectly! Now since the United States couldn't crush the NLF and the North Vietnamese Army after more than a decade in South Vietnam, if they couldn't crush them in the 1970 invasion of Cambodia, if their South Vietnamese proxies had to run away with their tails between their legs in Laos in 1971 and if the Americans couldn't rout the North Vietnamese invasion in 1972, why should we think they could easily beat the North Vietnamese in their own country in a matter of weeks? If the idea was possible you would think someone would have seriously suggested it at the time. Indeed, the whole article is strategically flawed. The whole invasion depends on the idea that China will stay neutral, except the right-wing braggarts who might have pushed the idea in 1970 hated China, and could therefore not provide a reason why China would not intervene. But then everything goes well. The Americans have excellent intelligence in the North before the invasion (yeah, right); notwithstanding the major preparations for an invasion the Americans gain complete tactical and strategic surprise, and they decapitate the North Vietnamese leadership with a series of brilliant raids. Why not just have a fairy wave a magic wand and make the North Vietnamese go away?

However it is the one paper by a professional historian, Sean Maloney, that is the worst in the book. Desperate to make his native Canada a player in the imaginary Cold war, he has a major crisis over Quebec in 1968. Everything about this scenario is silly. De Gaulle is assassinated (by whom?), a left-wing government takes his place (how? The Fifth French Republic has distinct procedures when a president dies), who're actually Soviet agents (who? When?). The Germans agree to reunification on pro-Soviet terms and NATO collapse (why?). One might think this is more important than anything in Canada, but Maloney has the FLQ launch a major insurrection and the Canadian government powerless to stop it. Now to understand what's wrong with this, you have to realize that the FLQ were a small group of malcontents who exploded a few bombs, and in 1970 murdered a Quebec cabinet minister and kidnapped a British diplomat. Once they did they were promptly crushed. The FLQ had minimal popular support and Quebec society was not such that it would ever gain the limited sympathy that the IRA and ETA did. The idea that it could ever launch a major insurrection that would not only paralyze the Canadian government but also require American intervention is a fantasy. It is like thinking that the Weathermen and the Back Panthers could overthrow the American government. Moreover, once after having concocted this idiotic fantasy, Maloney criticizes the Canadian government for not being able to defeat his fevered dream. This book says little about alternative history. It does provide some light on recent events though. The authors show little capacity for self-criticism, blame civilians for making things worse, and have no respect for their enemies. No wonder Iraq is such a mess.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 16, 2008 5:01 PM PDT


Savage Reprisals: Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks
Savage Reprisals: Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks
by Peter Gay
Edition: Hardcover
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16 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Peter Gay's liberal failure of imagination, September 28, 2004
Peter Gay has over the past five decades gotten a reputation as a leading moderate liberal historian, writing on Voltaire, the Enlightenment, Freud and the sexual life of the 19th century middle class. He has shown himself as a moderate, common-sense historian with Freudian interests. This book, part of the Norton Lecture Series, asks to what extent is great literature reliable history? He looks at three major realist masterpieces: "Bleak House," "Madame Bovary" and "Buddenbrooks". Why these three were chosen, instead of, say "Middlemarch," "The Sentimental Education," or "The Maias," is never made clear. Nevertheless by looking at the pyschological problems of Dickens, Flaubert and Mann, he gives a negative verdict for the first two and a more positive one for Mann. He then spends a conclusion arguing against postmodernist nihilism and then praises "The Autumn of the Patriarch."

Unfortunately, this book does not do much credit to either Gay's critical skills or his historical abilities. Indeed, it confirms the worst opinions of European liberalism as being too unimaginative to appreciate the extremes of human behavior. Gay also uses Freudian theory in its most unimaginative way, as a simplistic supporter of order who reduces all differences to someone's abnormality. For a start, Gay's understanding of the books is not all that firm. His discussion of "Bleak House" starts with the death of the non-existent character Richard Carstairs, whom he has confused with Richard Carstone. Miss Flite does not expect an imminent judgement in her endless Chancery case; in fact she confuses judgement with the Final Judgement. It is not quite true that Mrs. Snagsby thinks her husband is having an affair; she actually thinks, utterly wrongly, that Jo is his illegitimate son. Flaubert does not jump in one famous passage from 1848 to 1867, but from 1851 to 1867. The gap, from the beginning of the Second French Republic to its end, is not a minor one, either historically or in the novel. It would be mistaking a gap in American novel from 1861 to 1880, when it is actually starts from 1865.

A more serious problem is Gay's superficiality. Given the revolution in literary criticism over the past three decades it is somewhat alarming to have Gay believe that Marxist criticism ends with George Lukacs. He is prone to making sweeping statements about Dickens, such as that Gradgrind and M'Choakumchild are merely caricatures, or that Leigh Hunt wasn't really like Harold Skimpole, or that the portraits of mothers are mere lampoons. There is no evidence or argument to support these statements: just flat assertion. There is a certain psychological superficiality as well. There is an interesting discussion of Esther Summerson's and Agnes Wickfield's excessive virtue arising out of extreme guilt. But Gay ignores the fact that of the unambiguously middle-class characters in "Bleak House", almost all are horrible parents. Mrs. Guppy is merely silly and Mrs. Woodcourt slightly foolish in her Welsh nostalgia. But Skimpole, Turveydrop, Smallweed, Mrs. Jellby and Mrs. Pardiggle are uniformly repulsive. Vholes incessantly mentions his daughter and father to justify his vampiric behavior, Carstone's foolishness kills himself before his son is even born, while Mrs. Chadband is a cold surrogate mother to Esther. Ironically the one middle-class parent who truly loves her child had her out of wedlock. What would a Freudian analysis make of all this, or the distorted families of Clennam and Dorrit? But Gay has no interest.

Instead he sees Dickens governed by rage, personally irritated by the Law over an unsuccessful lawsuit, and somewhat suspicious of his mother (he does not point out that Skimpole is a more malevolent Micawber, and therefore a more malevolent version of Dickens' father). "For all his protestations to the contrary, Dickens's commitment to the Reality Principle was at best intermitten." he says patronizingly. His main complaint against Dickens is that he underestimated the reforming intentions of good liberals like Gay himself. It therefore rather severely undercuts his case that Gay says that the Second Reform Act of 1867 gave the vote to most men when, in fact, it did not. He also criticizes Dickens for ignoring reforms that were starting right when he writing the novel, as if their success was assured and didn't need Dickens' polemic. It certainly takes a certain lack of imagination to say that there were no Bounderbys, Vholes, Dedlocks, Barnacles, Mrs. Clennams, Podsnaps or Veneerings in Victorian England. Gay's discussion of Flaubert is little better, and views his anger at the bourgeoisie as phobic rage. Allowing for certain self-dramatizing moments on Flaubert's part, this strikes me as obtuse. The July Monarchy was a narrow, illiberal oligarchy, notwithstanding its "liberal" elite; the Second Empire started out as a bloody dictatorship before it ended in ignomious defeat. Here is a man who writes one of the masterpieces of world prose and instead of being honored by his country is put on trial for obscenity. A certain contempt and indignation is all too well deserved. In trying to refute Flaubert's picture of provincial Rouen, Gay notes that one man (out of 100,000) bought impressionist paintings. Well, this is certainly a step up from Abraham, who had to prove five good men so as not to have Sodom incinerated. Here one good man refutes "Madame Bovary."
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 28, 2008 9:26 PM PDT


Juan Carlos: Steering Spain from Dictatorship to Democracy
Juan Carlos: Steering Spain from Dictatorship to Democracy
by Paul Preston
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $31.50
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Good King, September 25, 2004
Royalty demands sycophancy from its subjects, and this is especially the case for royal biography. Notwithstanding that it doesn't take too much for people to realize that most monarchs are deeply unattractive people. Whether it is the selfish, irresponsible house of Savoy so acutely delineated in Denis Mack Smith's Italy and its Monarchy, or the houses of Hohenzollern and Romanov leading their countries to disaster, or the fundamentally mediocre British monarchy as seen in the essays of David Cannadine, or for that matter Juan Carlos' irresponsible, shallow brother-in-law, Constantine II, the last king of Greece, monarchs are people who believe the rest of the world owes them a living.

In 1931 it seemed that the Spanish branch of the Bourbons had met its own well-deserved fate, as King Alfonso went into exile and his countrymen formed a democratic republic. As Preston puts it, the royal family does not take exile well. Hemophiliac uncles, morganatic marriages, adulterous affairs, a deaf and dumb uncle whose son will be used by Preston to make Juan Carlos' life even more miserable, it all looked most unpromising. One detail that comes to mind is a picture of a four year old Juan Carlos in military uniform. It was only after he had been standing in it for hours that people realized that his books were too small and his feet had been rubbed raw. But on the whole this is a picture of Juan Carlos that is fairly sympathetic to him. After he appears on the scene, there is little gossip of the Eurotrash aspect of things. (Although we do learn that Juan Carlos accidentally shot his brother to death.)

Juan Carlos, born in 1938, and his father Don Juan had to find a way to restore the monarchy after the Spanish Civil war. The problem was simple. Franco at the time made monarchist sentiments and many monarchists were among his followers. The problem was that he had no desire of sharing power with anyone, and himself had little respect for the previous monarchy which had tolerated a limited parliamentarianism. He suspected Don Juan might try to reconcille his divided country, and remove it from Franco's regime of divine vindictiveness. The problem for Don Juan, who spent most of Franco's reign living in Portugal, was that he had little to offer and little power to use it. Although much of the Francoist elite would have prefered to see a monarchy, they were not going to risk their power trying to force the issue. And so for until 1968 Don Juan waited, endured Franco's condescension and lies, occasionally got angry, was separated from his son for long periods of time at considerable psychological stress for both of them, and ended up doing what Franco wanted. Franco got the idea that Juan Carlos might be more ameneable to Francoist propaganda and so in 1948 he was sent to Spain and educated under Falangist tuetalage. Finally after two decades of toying with them, Franco made Juan Carlos, not his father, his heir apparent.

Juan Carlos' prospects were not promising. Being made heir was better than having to look over his shoulders at Carlist and other pretenders. But now he, although of generally liberal opinions, was stuck in a regime that was firmly reactionary. Franco had no desire to step down, and would remain in power almost until the very end. Consistently he and his entourage took the most reactionary path. Had his prime minister Carrero Blanco not been assassinated in 1973 by Basque separatists, the transition to democracy would have been much more difficult. And even when Franco grew less malevolent as old age, senility and death came upon him (the last a process that took months to complete) Juan Carlos still had to worry about the reactionary entourage of Franco's wife.

And then Preston discusses how Juan Carlos managed to ease out the more reactionary Francoists from the cabinet, got the more moderate Suarez to make a transition to power, and, most dramatic of all, stopped the coup of February 1981 by making his clear his unconditional oppostion to it. For this transition to democracy Juan Carlos is beloved by his subjects and the Spanish monarchy appears as stable as Britain, Scandinavia and the Benelux countries. There are some points I would like to mention here. For a start, although there is new detail, much of the storyline can be seen in Preston's earlier books "Franco" and "The Triumph of Spanish Democracy." Second, one should point out that Juan Carlos was assisted by the Spanish Socialist and Communist parties, who agreed to let Juan Carlos remain, instead of pointing out that he had no popular mandate to do so. Third, it does seem unfair that the Spanish monarchy should get the credit for Juan Carlos' bravery, since the same crisis is not likely to be repeated again, and the absence of republicanism in contemporary Spain appears less as an act of gratitude than the whole post-socialist failure of imagination.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 4, 2013 6:13 PM PDT


Sentimental Education (Penguin Classics)
Sentimental Education (Penguin Classics)
by Gustave Flaubert
Edition: Paperback
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125 of 140 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Of special value, September 20, 2004
There is a special value in "Sentimental Education" that puts it among the highest class of novels. Better than Thackery, better than Stendhal, better than Austen, better than Balzac, better than Eliot, it offers something that Dickens or Melville, for all their virtues, do not provide. Here is a portrayal of a society, where the author looks deeply and thoroughly--and does not flinch. The contrast with Thackeray, whose sarcasms and coldness cannot hide a fundamentally conventional mind, is obvious. But there is also not the self-satisfied amusement with its own proprieties that we see in Austen, or the something for everyone that we see in Trollope, or the sentimentality so obvious in Dickens, or the way the captain goes on and on in "Billy Budd" saying he has no choice but to execute the fundamentally innocent Billy, or the fundamentally abstract obsession with unity that we see in Eliot. Here we see a story of a venial, petty monarchy, the hopes and illusions of the second republic, and its suppression and replacement by a new Napoleonic regime. If many of the friends of Frederic Moreau are shallow and complacent in their "democratic" phase, that does not alter their fact that their opportunism and moral corruption is a gruesome business. It does not remove the shock on reading the death of the one truly decent person in the book, murdered by a dead ringer for David Horowitz.

This is not a popular book in the English speaking world. Frederic Moreau does not have the dignity and moral weight that a moralistic criticism demands. Much of his time is spent wondering how to seduce Madame Arnoux or how he should snag "The General." Of course, French 19th century fiction is distinguished from its Victorian counterpart by a greater degree of sexual realism. But the point of the book is not to discuss Moreau's apparently aimless life. Instead the point is how there are alternatives that would give his life meaning, whether it be love, artistic creation, professional achievement, politics and a genuine interest in civil society. Moreau fails to achieve some of these because he does not have the energy to get them, he fails to achieve others because he runs out of time, he fails others because he is betrayed by people he trusts, and he fails others because otherwhelming forces remove options from the tables. Moreau does not fail simply because he is weak, he fails for reasons that most people fail. And in that sense Flaubert shows an exemplary realism.

And of course, Flaubert is the master stylist. Who can forget his description of the wealthy opportunist Dambeuse "worshipping Authority so fevrently he would have paid for the privilege of selling himself." There is the perfectly controlled realism: we do not have the cheap tricks and garish effects of middlebrow writers. But we still have the poetic and the imaginiative: "the smoke of a railway engine stretched out in a horizontal line, like a gigantic ostrich feather who tip kept blowing away," "The women wore brightly coloured dresses with long waists, and, sitting on the tiered seats in the stands, they looked like great banks of flowers, flecked with black here and there by the dark clothes of the men." "the warm breeze from the plains brought whiffs of lavender together with the smell of tar from a boat behind the lock." Moreau's passion for Madame Arnoux may be weak, but it is more real and more convincing than all but a handful of romances in 19th century fiction. The political scenes present a picture that has almost no equals: a left chattering fashionable platitudes, but with a leaven of genuine indignation, a right who covers itself in hypocrisy and lies until it can find the moment to strike. And of course there is the ending, a discussion of nostalgia and lost hopes that many English critics find sordid, but is one of the most heartbreaking in all fiction.

There is a complaint among people who should know better, like Peter Gay and James Wood, that Flaubert shows a certain unnecessary bitterness. This shows a certain ignorance of history. After all Flaubert wrote one of the great novels in world literature and instead of being praised by his own government he was put on trial for obscenity. His contempt did not come lightly. One could contrast it with Naipaul's, whose solution to the mediocrities of Trinidad was to move to a very different country and to be generously praised, by some for his art, and by others for appeasing conservative consciences. Certainly Naipaul's path is not an alternative available to most of his countrymen. Nor was Flaubert's distaste for contemporary life simply the result of the particular nastiness only confined to French politics. There were things equally vile or worse in Trollope's Ireland or in the end of Reconstruction of Henry James. That they did not perceive the same kind of foulness surely is a mark on the limits of their imagination, and a point in Flaubert's favor. Sentimentality is often described as unearned emotion. But in Sentimental Education, every emotion is well deserved.
Comment Comments (14) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 14, 2014 6:49 AM PDT


God's Last Words:  Reading the English Bible from the Reformation to Fundamentalism
God's Last Words: Reading the English Bible from the Reformation to Fundamentalism
by David S. Katz
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $32.34
69 used & new from $1.84

18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars What this book isn't, September 17, 2004
In order to appreciate David Katz's "God's Last Words," it is important to recognize what it isn't. It is not a history of the bible's influence on the English people over the past five centuries. It is not a history of the role the bible played in English politics, English philosophy or even Anglican theology. It is not a history of how people slowly developed a more critical attitude towards the Bible. There are aspects of all three things in this book, but there are also important things missing. For a start, this is not a book that looks at how Milton, Dryden, Bunyan, Blake or many others used biblical material for their art. Nor is it a history of how the English population reacted to the vernacular bible.

Instead Katz starts by discussing the growth of a proper biblical criticism in the Renaissance. For centuries the Bible in the Western World was the Latin Vulgate, translated more than a millenium earlier by Saint Jerome. There were a number of problems with this. For a start, in the many copyings over the past thousands years errors had accumulated, and there was a natural desire to use a more authentic text. Second, and much more importantly, the bible was never actually written in Latin. The Jewish bible is written in Hebrew (with the exception of parts of Daniel and Ezra, which are written in Aramaic) while the New Testament is written entirely in Greek. And so scholars sought to find a proper Greek testament. Erasmus was a leading figure here, though Katz points out that when he didn't have proper Greek documents, he simply translated the Vulgate into Greek. This sort of undermined the whole point of the exercise, but absolute accuracy was not that important a goal. (Katz also reminds us that the very first translation of the New Testament into Hebrew occurred in the 16th century.)

After discussing Tyndale, Katz bascially skips a century, with only a brief discussion of the writing of the King James Bible and starts a somewhat meandering tone that the book continues to the end. There is a discussion of sabbatarianism (Katz quotes a scholar who suggests this is the only English contribution to Christian theology) and the ubiquity of millenialism in Cromwell's England. Then we go on to Newton and Locke, and how Newton worked on a proper chronology for biblical events, teasing out speculations from the contradictory statements in the Old Testament. We get discussions of such strange documents as the Sybilline Oracles, the Samaritan Penateuch, and the Islamic forgery "The Gospel of Barnabas." We learn about 18th century scholars who emphasized the aesthetic values of scriptures. We also meet the Hutchinsonians, at the time an influential group of scholars who worked with the fact that the Hebrew scripture originally had no vowels. This led them to the crackpot idea that one could manipulate the consonants into saying whatever mystical ideas came into their heads. The last third of the book deals with the long nineteenth century. We get discussions of Milman's controversial description of Abraham as a shiek, controversies over "Essays and Reviews" and Bishop Colonso in the 1860s and James Frazier's "The Golden Bough."

It is important to recognize what we do not get here. We do not get a full history of the rise of biblical criticism. We get a discussion of the various impossibilities of the Biblical exodus. But we do not get a discussion of such major issues as the authorship of the Gospels, the Q hypothesis, or the historical Jesus. Indeed, the criticism of the New Testament in largely ignored, while such questions as the origins of Daniel or the structure of Isaiah get short shift as well. There is some discussion of Hobbes, but Spinoza is only mentioned because Matthew Arnold finds him interesting, while the rest of the Enlightenment goes unmentioned (there is no real discussion of Paine's 'The Age of Reason'). Granted that much biblical scholarship occurred in Germany, we get only a brief discussion of Wellhausen, while less important Germans get more attention. The book concludes with a brief discussion of Fundamentalism that does not really clarify its relation to other Protestants or to the traditions of conservative biblical scholarship. The book is certainly well-documented, but the reader may well wonder what the point is.


Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony
Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony
by Paul Ginsborg
Edition: Hardcover
55 used & new from $0.84

22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Tale is Told of You, September 13, 2004
Italian politics since 1945 has often seemed too unstable and esoteric for most Americans. Paul Ginsborg's short polemic about Silvio Berlusconi shows why people should pay attention. The Berlusconi phenomenon is an amazing, and quite appalling, one. From 1992 to 1994, it was revealed that the conservative Christian Democratic party, which had held uninterrupted power since the war, was deeply, deeply corrupt. So corrupt in fact, that the revelation caused its disintergration. But instead of the Right losing the next elections, a wealthy businessman came along and simply bought a new political party. Silvio Berlusconi's "Forza Italia" was not a party devoted to political debate and discussion. It was staffed by his cronies and devoted to his political cult. With it he won the elections of 1994, even though he was himself deeply compromised by the old regime. Serious allegations of corruption soon led to his loss of power and his electoral defeated in 1996. But he returned to power in 2001. Now in point of fact, the charges against him are more than just "allegations", as that infamous left-wing rag, The Economist, has pointed out. Berlusconi has perjured himself about his membership in a conspiratorial, anti-democratic, quasi-fascist masonic lodge. (He benefited from an amnesty). In the seventies his keeper of one his (one-horse) stables was a notorious mafioso. His personal lawyer, Cesare Preveti, has been convicted of 11 year and 5 year sentences for corrupting judges, though he remains free on appeal. Berlusconi delays his trials to run up against the limitations laws. He amends the limitations laws to render himself immune. He changes the rules of evidence so that trials will be further delayed. And when all that fails, he passes laws giving himself immunity, while seeking to undermine the independence of the magistrates.

This is bad. And it gets worse. For as Ginsborg notes Berlusconi is still backed by more than 40% of Italians. His defeat in 2006 is by no means a sure thing. Indeed he plans to become a powerful President of the Republic. This despite his judical troubles, an anaemic economy, and support for a massively unpopular war. This despite his failure to simplify administrative procedures, or start promised infrastructure projects, though he has reduced the penalties for accounting fraud. Ginsborg himself is one of the leading historians of modern Italy, and he points out Berlusconi's origins in the Milan building trade. He points out how Berlusconi benefited from the intervention of the infamously corrupt Bettino Craxi, who in 1984 ignored the courts and constitutional mandates for a proper broadcasting law to pass a decree without which Berlusconi could not maintain his broadcasting monopoly. (He also points out how Craxi was the godfather of Berlusconi's child out of wedlock, and how Berlusconi comically elides his adultery in discussing the end of his first marriage.) Although Ginsborg tries to be fair, there is not much to be said about about Berlusconi's media: the absence of proper news coverage and documentaries, rampant bias in Berlusconi's favor, more advertisements than the rest of Europe combined, two-hour documentaries about stigmatic priests, a sexism that sometimes seems to have come out of Lolita.

Berlusconi is not a fascist, but he is a threat to democracy. To be exact, he wishes to make democracy safe for the Right and for wealthy people like himself. One should be wary of a man who claims "Better fascism than the bureaucratic tyranny of the judiciary." The party euphemizes the fascist past, with public places and spaces named after "acceptable" fascists and with Berlusconi claiming that Mussolini didn't murder anyone. Whether it is the Bank of Italy, the civil service, public broadcasting, magistrates or the public health system, all have their independence and integrity threatened by Berlusconi. Meanwhile he deals with Murdoch and his own media empire as if conflict of interest laws don't exist, which in Italy they don't. His model polity is a world in which mass apathy is punctuated by his biased media and his political image, where people consent, but do not choose. Ginsborg points out how this project is encouraged by the weaknesses of a centre-left which, purged of its Marxist past, cannot seek to mobilize support, which seeks to compromise and which cannot inspire with its technocratic biases, and which, for one reason or another, cannot attack Berlusconi's venality. Ginsborg's book is not perfect (a law undermining magisterial independence is not made clear, while Ginsborg overestimates the influence of the late Canadian media lord Izzy Aspser). But in an era with declining voter turnout and declining independent media, where media monopoly advances with partisan and unscrupulous conservative politics, and where the left, the centre, and the right-centre are too nervous and exhausted to resist, there are good reasons to fear that Berlusconi's Italy could soon be our world.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 11, 2010 6:46 AM PST


The Wall
The Wall
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Probably the best way to end the seventies, September 9, 2004
This review is from: The Wall (Audio CD)
Ah, December 1979. Inflation is high, recession is coming, the hopes of Iranian liberty are being slowly but quite surely throttled by a nasty theocracy, Suharto and Botha can look to another decade of blood-drenched power, The Soviets are invading Afghanistan, the Americans are thereby giving yet another bloodthirsty Pakistani junta an undeserved lease on life, the Italian Christian Democratic Party has wiggled out of a well deserved nemesis, Thatcher has taken power, Reagan is rising, Archbishop Romero has only a few months to live, American cinema is on the brink of financial disaster, followed by artistic collapse, and most pop music sucks. (I mean really, "I Love the Nightlife"?) So it's time to get back to the basics, and here is "The Wall" to do it.

The obvious objection to "The Wall" is what has Roger Waters got to complain about. Pink Floyd has already produced (at least) three well-received albums that decade, one of them one of the most insanely successful in history. That Eastern Europeans should confuse the title of this with the Berlin wall certainly shows a lack of proportion, does it not? Why should we care about the self-pity and solipsism of a wealthy rock-star? Well, first, because it is not all his fault. Waters/Pink is an orphan. Dying at Anzio is no doubt better more productive than dying on the Somme, but it doesn't make being orphaned any happier. British education can be horribly life-denying and petty. There is good reason for Waters to be terrified at the prospect of nuclear war in "Goodbye Blue Skies." After all, the cold war was an enormous gamble, and as Iraq shows, not all "realist" or neoconservative gambles work. Secondly, it's not as if perfect maturity and mental health was or is the default setting of our modern world. If people's marriages fall apart, if their families are claustrophobic, if they are full of impotent and not so impotent rage and hatred, it's not as if we could simply pride ourselves on our superior morality and ignore them. Lovelessness and solipism are not simply Waters' fault.

Third, the music's great. Waters' and Gilmour's voices are perfect for the roles they play, the one self-pitying, guilty, spiteful, and angry, the other blandly horrible in an especially British way. There is a certain evil reality in such lyrics as "Cold as a razor blade, tight as a tournequet/dry as a funeral drum" as they describe despair better than anything else. There are the opening bars, with a certain false lightness, of "Nobody Home." There is a real insight in the desperation, and authentic misogyny, of "Don't Leave Me Now." "Bring the Boys Back Home" is brief, but heartbreaking. There is the heartbreaking "Comfortably Numb," as beautiful childhood experience is purged from the memory, and there is the threat of fascism in "Run Like Hell." There are the ominious (perfect!) undertones of "Another Brick in the Wall, Part One". But there are few seconds as powerful as the last bars of "The Happiest Days of Our Lives," where the crescendo of imperial glory crashes into the nightmare of Britian in 1979. There should have been another way, but since there wasn't "The Wall" is the best way to end the seventies.
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A Conspiracy of Paper: A Novel
A Conspiracy of Paper: A Novel
by David Liss
Edition: Hardcover
218 used & new from $0.01

3 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Charming, but only up to a point, September 9, 2004
"A Conspiracy of Paper" is both a historical novel and a murder mystery. As such it is charming, on its own terms. Benjamin Weaver, formerly Benjamin Lienzo, is a professional "thief taker" and the 1719 equivalent of a private investigatior. Before that he was a highwayman and thief, and therefore has acquired a certain amount of useful experience. Before that he was a professional boxer, and before that he was a Jew, who ran away from his stockjobber father. Now he is asked to investigate the suicide of an investor, only to learn that the accidental death of his father was actually a murder. In the course of his investigations he stumbles upon the South Sea Company, just months before its collapse in one of the greatest scandals in English history. He must re-encounter his father's family, including his wily merchant uncle and his late cousin's lovely widow. He must worry about Jonathan Wild, another professional thief taker, who is actually the leading criminal in all of London. He must worry about the South Sea's great rival, the Bank of England, a baronet who lost crucial letters to a thieving prostitute, and several associates of his uncle's whose allegiance is unknown but sinister. Twice he ends up facing a judge on (unfair) charges of murder, hoping he can find a way to bribe him, while worrying about the justifiable homicide he did commit. So far, so interesting. And in all of this Weaver, who narrates the novel, speaks in the literary style of the 18th century. He is not quite as lugubrious as Gibbon. He's a bit more readable, like Fielding, though references to London's unsanitary conditions also remind one of Smollett. Like both he has a certain wit. Liss was completing a dissertation in English literature and students of period can guess from which monographs he got his details. (I recognized a passage about tobacco workers from Peter Linebaugh's "The London Hanged," while there is a minor theme in the novel about Jacobitism, a fashionable subject in 18th century studies, which will be more developed in this book's sequel.)

But if this is interesting, is it enough? The classic mystery novel, by say, Agatha Christie, combines extreme ingenuity about the nature of the crime, with a complete absence of interest of psychology or depth. This is partly because nearly all mystery writers are hacks, and partly because if we could see the participants in all their psychological complexity we would soon find out who did it. Well, Weaver certainly seems more ambiguous and complex than Hercule Poirot, and the coda to the book does sort of give it a "Chinatown" ambience. But a closer look reveals that Weaver is not intrinsically more interesting than Christie's fastidious, pompous, unsympathetic Poirot. On the other side of the equation, this is certainly not an elegant or cleverly conceived mystery. There are in fact several complicated conspiracies invovled. And while it appears more realistic for Weaver to stumble upon clues, to spend much time diligently looking for evidence with little result, to bluff his way to getting real answers, not unlike a real detective, it is dispiriting the way he actually finds out involves so little ingenuity on his part. Moreover, the problem with conspiracies is that they are too complicated. There are several gambits by Weaver's clients and Wild that are overly complicated. And why does the actual murderer go to such elaborate lengths to get rid of Weaver, when there are much simpler ways of going about it? There is certainly nothing of Christie's simplicity at her best. So without character, and without ingenuity, one cannot have great literature.

And there is also a problem with the historical novel. There is such a gap between the present and the past that is hard for the novel not to call attention to it in an artificial way, in what James Wood calls "a certain desperate quality ot the detail." The problem is that Weaver, who is supposedly writing his memoirs several decades after the event, is not and would not have been writing a bestselling murder mystery. So instead of discussing whether or not his father was actually murdered or not, he would first say this is the story of how I found my father's killer. On first encountering the killer a real Weaver would point this out, not wait for hundreds of pages to reveal that fact. In reading Liss' account we get a discussion of the 18th century English pub, check, the narrowness and dangerousness of 18th century English streets, check, a fashionable masque at a fashionable new house, check, a medical doctor who mentions the infallibly wrong-headed technique of bleeding, which Weaver wisely rejects, check. In bringing the past alive, Liss forgets that Weaver would not tell people what they already know. Meanwhile the subplot of Weaver's Jewish identity, while not clearly inaccurate, also shows no real insight. There is a certain hollowness about the whole enterprise.


The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia
The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia
by Richard Overy
Edition: Hardcover
66 used & new from $1.04

45 of 57 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Point Counterpoint, September 9, 2004
If one wanted to do a comparative history of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, then Richard Overy would not be the worst choice. He is one of the leading historians of the Nazi dictatorship, with his books on the air war, Goering and why the Allies lost. By contrast, his reading skills in Russian are limited, and his archival sources are non-existent, but he keeps a close eye on the scholarly literature. What Overy has done is not write a comparative biography of the two men, but a comparative history of their two regimes. He starts off by looking at the two dictators, and the circumstances in which they won power. Then he discusses the way they ruled things, their utopianism and their attacks on religion. He then looks at official culture, how they organized their economy, how they organized their armies, the way they fought their wars, their policies on nationalities and the regime of their camps.

The result is a hugely informative book that provides the latest research on a whole host of topics, and presents a complex view of many issues. Like many recent scholars he emphasizes the way consent, not coercion, undergirded the regimes. He points out that the Gestapo had only 20,000 people to watch over all of Germany, including the secretaries, while once one removed the staff and the border guards the NKVD only had 20,000 people to look over the USSR. Whether it is the Nazi campaign against the Gypsies (not as genocidal as the Holocaust), or the way each side treated the prisoners of war from the others (the Soviets come out better here), whether it is the hierarchies of the concentration camps, or the assassination attempts against Hitler, or the Communists' strategy against the Orthodox Church, on topic after topic we have a thorough, complex and well-researched discussion of the issue. Overy also provides many striking details. When Hitler came to power he promoted the judge who gave him an extremely lenient sentence for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch. Stalin loved hunting, Hitler hated it. For all of Hitler's Wagnerian aura, his favorite opera was actually "the Merry Widow". At the height of the German Eastern Advance, the Soviet Union could only call upon 23% of the coal output and 28% of the iron output of The Third Reich. More members of the German Communist Politburo were killed by Stalin than by Hitler. For their many minorities the Soviet Union offered 92 alphabets in 125 languages, and for the centenary of Pushkin, produced 27 million copies in 66 languages.

Although he is critical of the totalitarian interpretation, Overy tends to emphasize the similarities of the regimes. The dictators themselves, he notes early on, had very different personalities with the empty Hitler who lived only for mass charisma contrasting with the more gregarious Stalin who slowly mastered the party and had to work to achieve his cult. The Nazi Party was more influential, and oddly more lawless, with Stalin's Russia too big and rural and illiterate to achieve the same kind of depth. But both regimes shared a similar utopianism, and a similar hostility to religion, capitalism and intellectual freedom. Of course, Overy points out that while Stalin was willing to use war as a tool, he was fundamentally defensive. There is no question here that the Soviet Union was the victim of an aggressive attack. There is also no question that the Soviet Union, with help from lend-lease, managed an amazing mobilization of its economy, in contrast to the Nazis who could not do so until it was too late. Nazi racism was genuinely genocidal, while the Soviet Union genuinely believed in the diversity of its people, though that did not save it from outbreaks of xenophobic paranoia. In the world of concentration camps, 40% of the Nazi's prisoners died, while about 15% of the Gulag's did. But then most of the Gulag's victims were not political prisoners. (In the Nazi extermination camps, of course, everyone was supposed to die, and at Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor more than 99.9% of them did).

There are some criticisms one can make. Much of the case on Hitler's "anti-capitalism" is based on his rhetoric, or on gestures like the mass wearing of uniforms. (David Cesarani's new biography of Eichmann suggests he was not the low-class beneficiary of Nazi social mobility that Overy suggests.) Overy also relies of Herman Rauschning, a source Ian Kershaw's biography was much more skeptical of, while Richard Steigmann-Gall has pointed out that Hitler's Table Talk, which Overy cites to demonstrates Hitler's hostility to Christianity, has been mistranslated in key places. The conclusion is somewhat mediocre. Science is blamed, while Overy says the two dictators were united by illiberalism, a hostility to the "liberal idea of progress" and a hostility to diversity. But both regimes supported some sort of progress, and the Soviet Union supported a diversity of cultures certainly as liberal as its predecessors or successors. An emphasis on ideology as a cause overlooks the fact that one reason why the Bolsheviks were so dogmatic, cruel and intolerant was because there was so little purchase under Tsarism, the first World War and the Russian civil war for open-mindedness, charity and mercy. By contrast, nothing in Germany's 20th century experience explains Nazi anti-semitism. Nevertheless, this is the leading book on the similarites and differences of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.


The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments
The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Edition: Hardcover
36 used & new from $4.02

76 of 150 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Chauvinist Enlightenment, September 2, 2004
For centuries Anglo-American conservatives have contrasted the happy fate of their country under the empirical, conservative moderation of their best thinkers with the ruinous fate of France under the disastrous theories of the Enlightenment. Over the past few decades scholars have pointed out this is a rather simplistic version of events. Now Gertrude Himmelfarb, leading conservative historian and Distinguished Professor of History at New York University has come up with a volume that is almost exactly the same as the old conservative version. There is just one slight difference. The good Anglo-Americans are the followers of a Good Enlightenment, while France is the follower of a Bad Enlightenment. Actually a majority of the book discusses the Enlightenment in England. The term is appropriate, because although many of her subjects are actually Scots (Smith, Hume and the moral philosophers), Wales is ignored and Ireland only appears in a footnote. We get a chapter on those moral philosphers who saw an innate moral sense in people. We get discussions of Hume and Smith, while Burke gets a whole chapter, as a model of Enlightenment moderation and decency. The more radical group around Paine get a less appreciative chapter, while John Wesley and Methodism get a chapter that also gets them placed in the Enlightenment. Finally, there is a discussion of the glorious age of moderate philanthropy that followed the Enlightenment ideas. There is also a concluding chapter on the wisdom of the American Enlightenment. Notwithstanding the violent war that broke out between the two the two are basically in agreement on everything, with special emphasis placed on their high opinion of religion. By contrast, the French get everything wrong. They are dogmatically opposed to religion, contemptuous of the public, opposed to philanthropy, supportive to Enlightened Despotism while their emphasis on reason over all leads directly to the Terror of the French Revolution. The book concludes with a paean to compassionate conservatism.

This is a middlebrow history. Instead of serious analysis, we get quotations from Tocqueville. We have an admiring chapter on Burke that is as admiring and uncritical as dozens of other conservative tributes. We also have a surfeit of double standards. Himmelfarb mocks Price and Priestly's millenial speculations, while John Wesley's opposition to Copernicus and belief in witchcraft go unmentioned. Voltaire's anti-semitism is condemned, while Hume's racism goes unmentioned. (Himmelfarb also says that the philosophes hated Judaism more than Christianity, but provides nothing to support this.) The Anglo-American Enlightenment is viewed as pro-education largely because of Smith's plans for public education in The Wealth of Nations. They were not implemented in Britian for decades to come, yet she dismisses Condorcet's plans for public education because they were not implemented quickly either. One theme of Himmelfarb is that the Anglo-American Enlightenment was genuinely democratic while the philosophes were snottily elitist. But this is simply playing with words: Himmelfarb obviously knows that Hume was not a democrat, that Burke vociferiously opposed them, and that the intensely hierarchical and fiercely authoritarian Methodists did not care for universal suffrage. And if the French philosophes were so anti-democratic and anti-semitic, why did France become a democracy and French Jews full citizens before England? The discussion of philanthropy is completely uncritical. It is odd that one seeking to defend the Enlightenment Project would discuss prison reform as if Michel Foucault never existed. It is clearly unconscionable to discuss poverty without mentioning K.D.M. Snell and praise the anti-slavery as if David Brion Davis never existed.

Slavery, indeed, is a bit of a blind spot for Himmelfarb. The American dilemna over slavery and the treatment of Indians is treated with a good deal of sympathy by Himmelfarb (more certainly than she gives to the slaves and the Indians). By contrast, there is no sympathy for French revolutionary leaders who face severe financial crisis, an absolutist political culture, a haughty Catholic establishment, a treacherous King and foreign invasion. On slavery Himmelfarb lamely suggests that the writers of the constitution were somehow vaguely anti-slavery. The fact that Jefferson, Madison and others had careers beyond 1787 lasting for four or five decades is not examined. She ignores Jon Butler and Leonard Levy on religion in the American repubic. A whole host of scholarship on slavery and the American Revolution goes unmentioned, as does more critical scholarship on Indian-American relations. Her empahsis that everyone in the Anglo-American Enlightenment thought that religion was useful, blurs the fact that state Anglicanism argued that Christianity was true, that non-Anglicans should be deprived of crucial rights, and that non-Christians were damned. There is also no discussion of modern science, while critics of the whole Enlightenment Project will not be satisfied with her brief, superificial discussion of empire. One would not learn, as one would from Emma Rothschild's recent book on Smith and Condorcet, that far from being mutually appreciative of each other, Burke's Scots admirers denounced Smith's admirers as atheists, subversives and traitors. There are errors on Methodists and the American Revolution (Wesley ordered all his missionaries to leave the ungrateful rebels, and all but one of them complied), as well as the Methodist attitude towards education (Wesley's conservative successors opposed teaching Sunday School students how to write well into the 19th century). And finally, Himmelfarb is unforgiveably catty and snide towards Wolstonecraft and Condorcet. This is especially striking, since if Himmelfarb had to rely on Burke and Wesley to get women's rights she would not be the Distinguished Professor of anything.
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