Monday, January 25, 2021

Close Reading

 In a letter of January 4, 1950 to Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh wrote of Robert Gathorne-Hardy's book Logan Pearsall Smith that

The only way modern books are readable is by reading them between the lines. I see so many unconscious and conscious dishonesties in the book which is two books put together -- the Boswell and an apologia for his treatment of the final heir.

In the essay "Flashbacks", collected in At Century's Ending: Selections 1983-1984, George Kennan describes his duties in Riga during 1932:

I know the Russian language, and I, with two or three others, go thoroughly and systematically through the Soviet newspapers and magazines, reporting to our government on what they reveal of life in the Soviet Union. It is through these thousands of pages of small-type, poor-quality newsprint that I am obliged to form my first picture of the great Communist country that lies so near at hand and extends so far away to the east. I, like my colleagues, am appalled at the propaganda that pervades every page of this official Soviet literature--at the unabashed use of obvious falsehood, at the hypocrisy, and above all, at the savage intolerance shown toward everything that is not Soviet. ... And I am surprised to find how easy it is, if one looks carefully and thoughtfully, to perceive what does lie beneath these gray and brittle pages, and to realize that the meaning of the propaganda is not in the literal text but in the subtle changes that  occur in it from day to day--changes that every sophisticated Russian knows how to decipher and to interpret, as we ourselves, in time, learn to do.

 In "The Art of Interpreting Non-Existent Descriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page", collected in The Hall of Uselessness, Simon Leys describes the method that made Father Lazlo Ladany's weekly China News Analysis "infuriatingly indispensable" (infuriating not to Leys, but to many of its western readers, who wished to think better of the People's Republic):

What inspired his method was the observation that even the most mendacious propaganda must necessarily entertain some sort of relation with the truth; even as it manipulates and distorts the truth, it still needs originally to feed on it. Therefore, the untwisting of official lies, if skilfully effected, should yield a certain amount of plain facts. Needless to say, such an operation requires a doigté hardly less sophisticated than the chemistry which, in Gulliver's Travels, enabled the Grand Academicians of Lagado to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and food from excreta.    

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Johnsons

 Last year, I read Janet Lewis's novel The Invasions and enjoyed it. I had set it aside, and was not thinking about it, when I noticed in Journey to America, a collection of De Tocqueville's journals edited by J.P. Mayer, a passage of August 6, 1831, from the Sault Ste. Marie:

The Johnson family (conversation forgotten) at the camp of the Indian traders.

Now, the family of The Invasions spelled their name "Johnston". It is true that names are often misspelled, and that Tocqueville had difficulties with English orthography. Yet Johnson is not an uncommon name, and there could easily have been other Johnsons or Johnstons then living near the Sault.

If Tocqueville did speak with William Henry Johnston's family, it is curious that he did not record the conversation and make more of it, given the interest his journals show in the relations of the races. A family with a Bishop of Belfast as great-uncle, and a notable chief of the Ojibways as grandfather should have been worth recording. Sam Houston's brief marriage to the granddaughter of a Cherokee chief is mentioned in another notebook--but then perhaps Tocqueville had more time to talk with Houston.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Allow Us to Explain

I regularly read explanations of American politics--of America in general--from persons not resident here, and not apparently well acquainted with American conditions. It is only fair to say that I read explanations of the same quality from native-born Americans with half a century of residence, but somehow not a lot of acquaintance with the US outside their neighborhoods. Still, it is curious to read explanations of the Georgia election returns from persons I suspect of not knowing Athens from Atlanta.

 Over the last several months, as I have read some of these explanations, I have thought of a passage from Scoop:

Upstairs in his room, Mr. Wenlock Jakes was spending his afternoon at work on his forthcoming book Under the Ermine. It was to be a survey of the undercurrents of English political and social life. I shall never forget, he typed, the evening of King Edward's abdication. I was dining at the Savoy Grill as the guest of Silas Shock of the New York Guardian. His guests were well chosen, six of the most influential men and women in England; men and women such as only exist in England, who are seldom in the news but who control the strings of the national pulse. On my left was Mrs. Hogbaum the wife of the famous publisher; on the other side was Prudence Blank, who has been described to me as "the Mary Selena Wilmark of Britain"; opposite was John Titmuss whose desk at the News Chronicle holds more secrets of state than any ambassadors . . . big business was represented by John Nought, agent of the Credential Assurance Co. . . . I at once raised the question of the hour. Not one of that brilliant company expressed any opinion. There, in a nutshell, you have England, her greatness--and her littleness.

(The true fans of Waugh will remember that a bit later on Wenlock Jakes let us in on the Archbishop of Canterbury's control of Imperial Chemicals.)

I do not complain. In fact, it flatters my patriotic vanity to see the world explain America so tirelessly. Yet I think many of the explainers could do with a bit more information.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021


 A headline in today's Washington Post says "Demand snarls vaccine effort." The text of the story suggests to me that it is lack of supply and difficulty in organizing distribution that are impeding the effort. I'll leave it to the economists to decide this one. In the meantime, the District of Columbia has vaccinated 5.8% of its residents, Maryland 4%, Virginia 3.4%.

Monday, January 18, 2021


 On Saturday morning, the District of Columbia website accepted registrations to be vaccinated. One had to live in certain wards and to be 65 or over, or qualify by kind of employment. There was some glitch early on, so that one could pass though the forms, then find no sites offering vaccination. Eventually this was resolved, and we arranged to be vaccinated about 1:30 today at the Giant Foods at 7th and O Sts. NW. We found street parking on O, walked in, and fairly quickly filled out the forms.

Nearly everyone getting the vaccination was 65 or over, often enough well over, but there were a few men in their 30s or 40s. One sat until sent to a pharmacist's table, where the pharmacist reviewed documents, offered a caution or two, swabbed the shoulder, and then injected the Moderna vaccine. The pharmacist then gave one a card for the next appointment, in four weeks. We were asked to stay in the waiting area for fifteen minutes or so, in case there was some kind of reaction. There was not.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Cancel Culture?

In John Jay Chapman's essay "Emerson", he writes

"I know no country," says Tocqueville, who was here in 1831, "in which there is so little independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America." Tocqueville recurs to the point again and again. He cannot disguise his surprise at it, and it tinged his whole philosophy and his book. The timidity of the Americans of this era was a thing which intelligent foreigners could not understand. Miss Martineau wrote in her Autobiography: "It was not till months afterwards that I was told that there were two reasons why I was not invited there [Chelsea] as elsewhere. One reason was that I had avowed, in reply to urgent questions, that I was disappointed in an oration of Mr. Everett's; and another was that I had publicly condemned the institution of slavery. I hope the Boston people have outgrown the childishness of sulking at opinions not in either case volunteered, but obtained by pressure. But really, the subservience to opinion at that time seemed a sort of mania."

(Martineau was in the United States not long after Tocqueville.) He goes on to quote Wendell Phillips:

The general judgment is that the freest possible government produces the freest possible men and women, the most individual, the least servile to the judgment of others. But a moment's reflection will show any man that this is an unreasonable expectation, and that, on the contrary, entire equality and freedom in political forms almost invariably tend to make the individual subside into the mass and lose his identity in the general whole. Suppose we stood in England to-night. There is the nobility, and here is the church. There is the trading class, and here is the literary. A broad gulf separates the four; and provided a member of either can conciliate his own section, he can afford in a very large measure to despise the opinions of the other three. He has to some extent a refuge and a breakwater against the tyranny of what we call public opinion. But in a country like ours, of absolute democratic equality, public opinion is not only omnipotent, it is omnipresent. There is no refuge from its tyranny, there is no hiding from its reach; and the result is that if you take the old Greek lantern and go about to seek among a hundred, you will find not one single American who has not, or who does not fancy at least that he has, something to gain or lose in his ambition, his social life, or his business, from the good opinion and the votes of those around him. And the consequence is that instead of being a mass of individuals, each one fearlessly blurting out his own convictions, as a nation, compared to other nations, we are a mass of cowards. More than all other people, we are afraid of each other. 

In the article "The Fixation of Belief", published as part of the series "Illustrations of the Logic of Science", Charles Saunders Peirce wrote in 1877 that

The method of authority will always govern the mass of mankind, and those who wield the various forms of organized force in the state will never be convinced that dangerous reasoning ought not to be suppressed in some way. If liberty of speech is to be untrammeled from the grosser forms of constraint, then uniformity will be secured by a moral terrorism to which the respectability of society will give its thorough approval. Following the method of authority is the path of peace. Certain nonconformities are permitted; certain others (considered unsafe) are forbidden. These are different in different countries and in different ages; but, wherever you are, let it be known that you seriously hold a tabooed belief, and you may be perfectly sure of being treated with a cruelty less brutal but more refined than hunting you like a wolf.

 It is fair to say that since Wendell Phillips wrote, the United States has grown so that there are many segments of society that care little for opinions of certain other segments. Still, each segment has its own bounds for what one can say. This is not surprising, not at all new. What is perhaps new is the eagerness to proclaim oneself a martyr to the cause of free expression. But the prestige of victimhood has been with us for a while.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Russia Leaves the War

 I remarked last month on the oddity of a book reviewer suggesting that America's intervention at Murmansk and Archangel was unknown, basing my argument on George F. Kennan's The Decision to Intervene. About New Years, I took from the shelves its predecessor volume Russia Leaves the War. I had mistakenly thought that I had already read this book. 

 I'm glad that I now have. The book gives a very readable account of America's relation to Russia from the time of the overthrow of the Provisional Government on November 3, 1917 through the Soviet ratification of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in mid-March 1918. It makes a good deal clearer some of the personalities one encounters in the The Decision to Intervene. It also revisits themes that recur in American history, some of which Kennan has taken up elsewhere.

For example, there is the habit of appointing the politically connected as ambassadors. Sometimes this works out splendidly, as when one sends a John Quincy Adams to St. Petersburg. For the most part, it seems to be inefficient, sending to an important country someone who knows nothing about that country, commonly not the rudiments of its language. (I doubt J.Q. Adams knew much Russian; but as Tolstoy says, the Russian aristocracy of that day was more comfortable in French than in Russian.) David Francis, a sometime governor of Missouri and generally an estimable man, was not really suited to represent the United States in St. Petersburg in 1916.

There is the tendency of a president to suppose that he can address the people of a foreign country directly, and achieve results beyond what he would be dealing with its government. Wilson may have been given to this more than most presidents. It did not work well with Russia, where those who counted were the Bolshevik leadership and in principle opposed to Wilson's government.

There is the habit of working through unofficial envoys. To be fair, this is not solely an American weakness, for one reads in The Decision to Intervene that the the French government sent Henri Bergson to the US to work on President Wilson. But perhaps the French were trying to imitate our amateur ways. (It is not clear from the book that Bergson and Wilson ever met. Nor can I imagine what they would have discussed, had they met. They were both academics, but nothing in Wilson's background that I have heard of suggested an interest in speculative thought.)

During the period covered by The Decision to Intervene, the United States dabbled in influencing the Russian government by means of

  • The Root Commission, a delegation of prominent men led by Elihu Root, sometime Secretary of State and Secretary of War
  • The Red Cross
  • The Office of Public Information

The US also sent the Stevens Railway Mission, though this spent most of the period covered in Yokohama, making it to Harbin in March 1918.

Between its reluctance to recognize the Bolshevik government and its need to communicate with it, the US ended up using Raymond Robins, an official of the Red Cross, as its unofficial liaison. Robins was an intelligent and patriotic man, but out of his depth in assessing the situation. It is unlikely that anyone more qualified at assessment would have done better under the circumstances, though.

The two volumes of Soviet-American Relations 1917-1920 make for fascinating reading. Unfortunately, Princeton University Press has them available only through print-on-demand, at about $70 per volume. They are not hard to find used, though, for nearer $10.