James S. Lee “The Underworld of the East”

[suggested soundtrack: Tom Waits “Shore Leave”]

“The Underworld of the East” invites the reader to the world of dense Asian jungles and decadent ports of call, seen through the eyes of a British engineer with a curious mind and open eyes. A colonial world swarming with man-eating tigers and head hunting tribes; Chinese quarters rife with vice and iniquity; exotic river banks covered in a dreamy opium haze. And, what the book is most famous for, copious use of drugs – morphine, cocaine, hashish and the mysterious Elixir of Life, all taken extensively and with positive results.

James Lee was a British mechanical engineer, commissioned in the 1890s to supervise mining and railroad constructions, first in India, then in Sumatra and China. Bored by the bland, monotone life back home, he took a great interest in exploring the hidden parts of life in the colonies, and the use of drugs in particular; driven, in his own words, by desire to “delve below the surface, and to find out all I could about the drug habit there”. Lee records his day to day life, from engineering work to travels and, of course, experiments with drugs. While the adventures are not special by themselves (ranging from an encounter with a man-eating tiger to visits in opium dens), what shines through is Lee’s remarkable curiosity and keen, intelligent mind. Always “ready to learn anything that I can see which seems to be out of the ordinary”, he comes across as a warm, open-minded and likeable person.

Of course, the most interesting part are his drug experiments and narcotic visions. Lee developed a system which allowed him to take in enormous amounts of morphine, cocaine and other drugs, seemingly without adverse effects or developing an addiction. In fact, he found drugs to be an immense source of happiness and vital force, if only used responsibly. Of course, back in his time everything was legal, and he only stopped his drug use when anti-narcotic legislation was enacted (wasn’t the world more normal 100 years ago than it is now?). He took great interest in trying out various native plants, especially hallucinogens, and he book contains many records of hallucinogenic visions. Again, these are not exceptional by themselves (nothing beats Witkacy’s “Peyote”, anyway), but it’s very interesting that a plain engineer had a more curious and open mind, in this respect, than most of his contemporaries (and let alone all future bigots decrying drugs as the source of all evil). It’s a pity that his “Finding No. 2”, or “The Elixir of Life”, a Sumatran plant supposedly capable of clearing all adverse effects of other substances, had been lost for good.

While Lee modestly declares that “the reader must not expect to find this book written in the language of a professional writer”, the prose is surprisingly readable and atmospheric. Stories of his life and exploits are interpersed with thoughts on the nature of evolution, spirituality and the universe, often drug-inspired. These, combined with frequent loneliness among the exotic scenery of dense, savage jungles, evoke a somewhat dark atmosphere. Although the backdrop of colonial exploitation will be jarring to a modern reader, Lee was a decent fellow, caring about the working conditions and well-being of his workers much more than a typical colonial administrator.

I found Lee’s book via “The Drug User: Documents 1840-1960”, an anthology of essays and stories about drugs. It’s a very interesting read, containing an enthralling selection of texts about various periods and substances. Though, it left me with a sad feeling that 100 years ago, we lived in a better world, where people could experiment freely, without the drug hysteria that’s so prevalent today. Well, maybe I’ll live long enough to see Sasha Shulgin treated with the same respect as Chopin or Shakespeare, and don’t even get me started about Steve Jobs…

I’ll end with two marvelous quotes from reviews that capture the book’s spirit:

(from Erowid) “Far more than almost any other example of the turn-of-the-century travel genre, it presents our jaded palates with the sort of Orient of the Mind which we imagine far more often than we get: a twilight world of ports, red light districts, drug dens and secred chambers of vice from Aden to Kyoto, and our guide not some prurient flaneur protesting his shock and disbelief at every step but a mining foreman from Yorkshire who, during the course of the book, is largely preoccupied with smoking, swallowing and injecting as many drugs as possible.”

(from Goodreads) “A work of rare transcendental beauty presented with none of the pretence of solving anything, or reassuring anything, a certain sadness and a definite acceptance of the abyss, albeit to Lee a divinely created abyss, related as a pragmatic travelogue – if only Michael Palin had filled his veins with morphine and cocaine like this.”

[thanks for Piotr Achinger for giving me “The Drug User” as a gift]

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Simon Sebag Montefiore “Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar”

Reading Aleksander Wat’s “My Century” (a great read especially for Polish readers) has fuelled my appetite for Soviet history, already whetted by other books waiting on the shelf [1]. My choice landed on Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar”, a recent and universally acclaimed biography of one of the darkest individuals in the 20th century. Incongruous as it may sound for a book dealing in large part in murders, famine, deportations, torture and ubiquitous terror, reading was a pure delight and came as close to “started reading in the evening, finished and it was light” as possible for a whopping 700-pages tome.

Stalin was a complex, multifaceted personality and this finds reflection in Montefiore’s dense narrative. The prelude of the story is set in a perfectly dramatic moment – the 1932 suicide of Stalin’s second wife Nadya, in all aspects a decisive turning point in Stalin’s life. On the personal level, by Stalin’s own words, with Nadya’s suicide “died the last warm feelings for humankind I ever had”; in parallel, it was about that time that USSR’s political system began transforming from oligarchy, with Stalin at its head but by no means the autocratic ruler he would later become, to dictatorship, with Stalin’s power increasingly more and more unilateral. This impact of family life upon state matters was in a way typical of Bolshevik’s ruling style – Bolshevik magnates were close to each other not only as members of Politburo, but also personally, often intermarrying, forming a kind of extended family revolving around Stalin. This eponymous “court of the Red Tsar” is the focal point of Montefiore’s story – the reader gets to know the whole cast of Stalin’s courtiers and members of the inner circle of power; “Stone Arse” Molotov, a skilled diplomat and the most devoted and ruthless of Stalin’s followers; stupid but loyal Voroshilov; the dynamic “Iron Lazar” Kaganovich, nicknamed “Locomotive”, in charge of railways; the dapper Mikoyan, arguably the most decent and civil of Stalin’s cronies; later, the cast is joined by “hideous creatures”, the secret policemen Yezhov and Beria, and a host of younger generation bureaucrats. In the background there are women surrounding Stalin – usually relatives – vying for his attention and intriguing against each other; some of them are reputed to have been Stalin’s lovers after Nadya’ death. In a few years, closeness to Stalin would prove toxic, as most of his women courtiers were later arrested, deported or executed and his family obliterated – with Stalin’s knowledge and approval.

Before the calamity of purges and Great Terror, however, we learn Stalin’s surprising (given the standard political portrait as a psychopathic dictator) side as a supremely intelligent and charming individual. This semi-educated cobbler’s son, who took Ivan the Terrible as his role model, was a book addict, devouring history and fiction alike, and probably the best-read Russian ruler from Catherine the Great to Vladimir Putin. Stalin was not incapable of warmth and affection and in the early days of his rule, his sway over Party magnates was based not on fear, but on personal charm, culminating during idyllic evening parties when Stalin would sing Georgian songs with his excellent tenor (in fact, his voice was good enough that he could have become a professional singer, which Montefiore calls “a mindboggling historical possibility”). With time, political needs and vision took priority over everything else, the atmosphere in his inner circle grew poisonous, and the idylla of the early days degenerated into a caricature of itself. After the war the old and increasingly paranoid Stalin, already showing signs of encroaching senility, tormented his guests and comrades with dinners full of excruciatingly boring reminiscences of his youth and took pleasure in humiliating them by getting them blind drunk.

Naturally, the bulk of the book concerns the political scheming and plotting of Stalin and his cronies – each period is marked by an eruption of terror and state violence. First, we witness the nightmarish forced collectivization and industrialization of early 30s, resulting in the Great Famine in Ukraine, a debacle in which Khrushchev played a major role. Then, in 1937 and 1938, comes the lunacy of Great Terror and “yezhovschina”, with its notorious show trials of Old Bolsheviks and insane quotas for number of killed and deported, which local NKVD had to fulfill. The last bout of state terror comes after the war, when Stalin launches a campaign of virulent anti-Semitism starring characters even more repulsive than Yezhov and Beria. As Montefiore skillfully highlights, resorting to violence and terror had been, ever since the Revolution, the cornerstone of Bolshevik politics and the favorite way of solving political problems. Far from being excesses of a deranged dictator, the horrors of Stalin’s reign were a natural product of Bolshevik mentality and Communist system. All Bolshevik magnates were at least partially complicit in serving the terror machine which most likely destroyed more people than any other political system in last century, although some of them, especially Khrushchev, managed later to partially whitewash their biographies.

A striking development, a fleeting moment of weakness in Stalin’s Tsar-like supremacy, occurs during the German invasion, when Stalin and his proteges’ appalling incompetence in running the war results in terrible blunders costing millions of lives of Soviet soldiers. When Hitler approaches Moscow, Stalin suffers a nervous breakdown and leaves running the state in hands of his Politburo comrades. This was the only moment when the magnates could have deposed Stalin, who in fact expected to be arrested, probably leaving Molotov or Beria to succeed him – however, all political challengers had been already purged during the 30s and Stalin survived the ordeal unharmed, just in time to launch a counteroffensive. This poignantly shows how total the devotion and faith in Stalin were, even if mixed with fear and loathing – it was unnerving to see those proud men whose wives and family were killed or taken away on Stalin’s orders, and yet they remained loyal followers. There must have been a strong element of quasi-religious faith, the blindness of true believers, but psychological subtleties of “doublethink” required for survival in Stalin’s court might have been even more complex and twisted.

Montefiore’s brilliant narrative and vivid style perfectly conveys the intensity of these terrible times. I found it flawless, as enlightening and informative as it is, perhaps morbidly, enjoyable. The looming presence of Stalin in politics and lives of people who experienced his overwhelming presence is best captured by the very last paragraph of the book, a quotation from an interview with Molotov taken many years after Stalin’s death. Asked if he dreams of Stalin, Molotov responds: “Not often but sometimes I dream of him, in very unusual circumstances. It is a sort of destroyed city and I cannot find my way out. After that, I see HIM… ”

[1] “Red Plenty” by Francis Spufford, a novel on glory and decline of planned economy, and Trotsky: A Graphic Biography by Rick Geary, a comic/biography about Trotsky. Both coming from Cosma Shalizi‘s book recommendations.

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Jay Feldman “Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance and Secrecy in Modern America”

The US history reading binge continues. After Stephen Budiansky’s “The Bloody Shirt” (reviewed here), Daniel Ellsberg’s “Secrets” (reviewed here) and with Richard Rhodes’ “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” (a solid piece of scholarship, I don’t have anything to add, so won’t review it here) enqueued, time has come for Jay Feldman’s “Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America”. Post-9/11 reality has put civil liberties under heavy barrage and it seems worthwhile to study how it has come to this from a historical perspective. Feldman delivers such an outlook by visiting dark corners of American history, revealing in the process a profound, deeply-rooted antilibertarian and antidemocratic streak running beneath the seemingly-democratic surface of social and political life – a streak which is, in light of Bush era’s misdeeds, alive and well. Far from being isolated abuses of power, recent infringements fit frighteningly well into a century-long pattern of civil rights opression which began with persecution of German immigrants and labor workers during World War I and abated only with the 1972 death of J. Edgar Hoover – FBI’s “director for life”, the arch-villain of illegal governmental surveillance.

War and need for surveillance – which begets which? As conspiracist as it may sound, could entering WWI have been a pretext to tighten government’s grip over its citizens? Once country goes to war (the US entered WWI in 1917), it seems only reasonable and innocuous to put enemy aliens – in this case, Germans – under increased surveillance, perhaps involving occasional arrests and deportations of particularly suspicious individuals. Even if the net is cast a bit too wide, patriotic (read: unqualifiedly pro-war) mood enforced somewhat too forcefully, fear of espionage overblown – exceptional circumstances seem to justify the means. Once, however, a powerful governmental machinery is set in motion, it starts living a life of its own, oblivious to ends which made it spring into existence. After the German peril faded away, committees and agencies charged with national security were hungry for a new target. Luckily, the October Revolution came in handy, and soon hounding socialists, communists, labor unionists, anarchists, pacifists, “subversives and radicals” – all conveniently lumped together as “Bolsheviks” – was fair game. This first “Red Scare” (the second came with McCarthy in the 50s) paved road for all future surveillance techniques: illegal mail opening, use of agent-provocateurs, deportations and arrests based on flimsy evidence, administrative usurpation (such proceedings usually had purely administrative character, without right to judicial appeal), gathering files on “potentially subversive individuals” (a dangerously broad label, often belonging to labor union was enough). The “Communist threat” was so blown out of proportion (the real danger of Communist infiltration was negligible), the persecution so fervent, the atmosphere so hysteric that it’s hard to not believe that the real goal of scapegoating was crackdown on liberal and radical elements – including Emma Goldman, the queen of American anarchists, and hundreds of labor activists whose activity ran contrary to interests of industry and large enterprise.

The scale and character of scapegoating paranoia is hard to describe concisely, and naturally, it didn’t end there – before Cold War began, similarly oppressive campaigns had been enacted twice more, against Mexican immigrants and all Japanese Americans during World War II. The latter case was particularly appalling, with thousands of Japanese aliens and citizens forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to internment camps, all for completely unfounded fear of Japanese “fifth column” sabotaging American war effort (in reality, the number of Japanese found guilty of sabotage or espionage under newly enacted laws was zero). The economical motivation for internments – desire to drive Japanese farmers and businessmen out of competition – makes the ordeal all the more repulsive. Far more ominous than repressions themselves was that they set a precedent for future infringements. To ensure that the machinery ran smoothly, Roosevelt increased the power of FBI led by J. Edgar Hoover, making it the foremost surveillance institution in the country. After FDR, Hoover was unstoppable and results were discovered as soon as the war ended.

With the advent of Cold War, red-baiting became a hot political topic again. There was a lot of cynicism in both political parties – Truman himself did not believe the threat of Communist infiltration and thought accusations of Communist cooperation exaggerated, but nevertheless gave green light to anticommunist mania to snatch ground from Republicans, who could have otherwise accused him of “being soft on Commies” (a political death sentence). With intensive anti-Red propaganda in place, after Alger Hiss case the country was primed for a firestorm. Enter Joseph McCarthy, Wisconsin senator and one of the most notorious figures in American post-war politics. The supreme red-baiter, McCarthy flung wild accusations of Communist sympathies or being a Communist agent, keeping the country in terror for a couple of years and wrecking uncountable careers and lives. It was no secret that McCarthy held a close cooperation with Hoover, who supplied him with ammunition for his political onslaught. Over the years, Hoover had developed his intelligence files into a fearsome collection ripe with blackmail material, giving him grasp over many major political players. McCarthy eventually went overboard – for Eisenhower, hurling insinuations at the Army went too far – but Hoover prevailed. He could now follow up with his own counterintelligence initiative, a group of secret surveillance programs nicknamed COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program; he would have had hard time choosing a more ominous abbreviation).

Once again, telling the full story of COINTELPRO, one of the most blatant violations of democratic and liberal principles in any democratic country in 20th century, lies beyond the scope of this review. Illegal wiretaps and secret intelligence gathering with disregard of law and civil liberties became rampant. Hoover made COINTELPRO his private turf and used it to wage war against any social elements he deemed “subversive” – for the extremely reactionary and conservative man that Hoover was, this could mean pacifists, university students, minority leaders, leftists, feminists – anyone challenging the existing social and political system. Once you were targeted, the director would unfold the whole power of his agency upon you, employing blackmail, slander, harassment and denunciations, any means to eliminate you socially if not physically. Academia was terrorized, teachers blackmailed and student communities stuffed with informers and provocateurs. Particularly vicious were his attacks on Martin Luther King, whom Hoover hated and aimed to destroy completely. In some cases, FBI did not shun from political assassination – one of Hoover’s goals was crushing Black Panthers, which he achieved first by driving wedges between its leaders and by constant harassment, then by a carefully orchestrated action in which one of the leaders was shot in mysterious circumstances, purportedly in “self defence” as FBI agents raided his home. In short, COINTELPRO is a story of a state-within-a-state, a nexus of unchecked bureaucratic power which could persecute citizens with utter disregard for the law, trampling civil liberties on a massive scale – a homegrown police state.

It was chilling to read how precariously close the US at times was to a fully-fledged police state. One of the most disturbing fragments describes one officer’s proposals for antiliberal legislations, amounting to blueprints for a true police state, with concentration camps for political dissidents and dramatic curtailment of constitutional rights. With Bush’s presidency, the antidemocratic tendencies have successfully resurfaced, continuing the well-established tradition of government illegally using its powers to spy and oppress its own citizens. For me, it seems that hatred for liberal principles – democratic checks and balances, right to just legal process – lies in the very nature of institutional power, independent of beliefs of individuals who comprise it. The corrupting nature of bureaucratic institutions invities more exploration (“The Wire”!). Every sound political system must not only not assume good faith on the part of political players – including government agencies and operatives – but perhaps should actively assume bad faith, that is, treating as a default that any unchecked bureaucratic entity will have a natural drive to expand and increase its power in the most authoritarian way possible. If this sound like too pessimistic an assumption, the sad history of US government surveillance and repressions in the 20th century lends it much credibility.

And just for flavor, I give the table of contents of the book – chapter titles should give good impression of what’s in store:

1. The Fine Gold of Untainted Americanism
2. A Democracy Gone Mad
3. The Heel of the Government
4. A Peculiar Sort of Mental Hysteria
5. The Gravest Menace to the Country
6. A Skimming of the Great American Melting-Pot
7. A Lawless Government
8. Grave Abuses and Unnecessary Hardships
9. The Utmost Degree of Secrecy
10. A Jap Is a Jap
11. Scare Hell Out of the Country
12. A Neurotic Nightmare
13. There Were Many Wrecked Lives
14. There Are No Rules
15. We Never Gave It a Thought
Epilogue: An Aggressive Assault on Civil Liberties

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Daniel Ellsberg “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers”

Leaking top secret documents has become a somewhat run-of-the-mill business, partly due to Wikileaks which spits out (or used to, at least) secret government memos and cables like a broken pipe. The ur-leak at the roots of the whistleblowing movement was undoubtedly the Pentagon Papers. The 7000-pages of top secret government documents, exposing the US President’s and government’s lies and deception about the Vietnam War, was leaked to the press in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg, a feat which elevated him to the status of saint of whistleblowers, the American hero. Ellsberg was an unlikely rebel, starting his career as a military analyst in the government machine who did a fair share of lying deception himself. “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers” is a self-exegesis in which Ellsberg tells his story – a story of the ultimate Washington insider turned, in the words of Richard Nixon, “the most dangerous man in America”.

Naturally, the bulk of the book concerns American policy in Vietnam, both the political and military side of the war. This story – a morbid tale of spiralling folly – had already been told elsewhere and if you’re not familiar with it, you might be better off starting with the brilliant “The Best and the Brightest” by David Halberstam, at least to get acquainted with dramatis personae1. The power of Ellsberg’s memoir is that the story is told from the inside. Ellsberg began his career as a nuclear policy whiz-kid at the epitome of cold war policy planning, the Rand Corporation. Then, for several years, he worked as a military analyst with higher-than-top-secret security clearances and access to classified documents which reflected an internal decision process flatly contradicting what the President and his cabinet told the public about the war. The book starts on an almost Hitchcockian note – though not exactly an earthquake – with Ellsberg witnessing the 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident, American provocation which gave green light to military escalation set in motion by Lyndon Johnson. Purportedly, an American destroyer had been attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats, which led to threats of American retaliation and prompted the Congress to pass almost unanimously a bill enabling the president to wage a full-scale, open-ended war. There was one problem with this story – the North Vietnamese attack was completely bogus. The whole incident was engineered by the government to trick the Congress into supporting an escalation that had already been planned for years. From then on, the strand of deception grew only thicker and the President waged the war in almost complete secret from both the Congress and the public.

Ellsberg, at first a genuine hawk and cold warrior, went aboard with the policy. Soon, however, as he obtained more and more expertise on Vietnam, he started to become disillusioned. After a long stay in Vietnam, during which he learnt the true picture of the war from most knowledgeable local experts, including the legendary “troublemaker” John Vann, he saw a growing chasm between the official version of the war – that victory was almost around the corner and the war would end perhaps in a year or two – and grim reality. The reality that America had been involved in a bloody stalemate, a dismal reenactment of the French colonial war from 1940s, a war it had no prospects of winning, repeating the same mistakes as the French and backing up a South Vietnamese government that would collapse to Vietcong as soon as US forces moved out. As the Pentagon Papers revealed, top government figures were well aware of the impossibility of victory – how this debacle could come about, then, is a topic for a separate book (though Ellsberg manages to convey the decision process in elaborate detail). For Ellsberg, who had been growing more involved in the anti-war movement, the tipping point came with Nixon’s presidency – Nixon, who came to power promising no wider war, secretly intensified the bombardment campaign, now covering not only Vietnam, but Laos and Cambodia as well, and, as revealed by his conversations with Henry Kissinger, thought of nuclear weapons as viable possibility. Seeing the impending disaster, Ellsberg resolved to stop the war no matter what, which prompted him to copy and leak the Pentagon Papers in the hope of deterring Nixon from pursuing his disastrous policy.

Initially, the Pentagon Papers were a killer. While Ellsberg went underground hiding from the FBI, newspapers all around the country printed the Papers2, sparking a fire which Nixon only helped fuel with his attempts at making the court stop the publications (a step blatantly against the First Amendment, not that the law mattered to Nixon anyway). However, as the Papers concerned the US policy only up to 1967, the public could not be convinced about Nixon’s true intents, still believing he was about to end the war as soon as possible. Instead, Pentagon Papers ended the war indirectly, by making Nixon precipitate his own downfall. Turning paranoid about possibility of further leaks, Nixon set about to solve the problem by starting a secret unit – the notorious “plumbers” – aiming at discrediting or disabling Ellsberg, whom Nixon suspected of having more damaging documents (he particularly feared exposure of Laos and Cambodia bombings), not to mention wiretapping political opponents and other dirty business which led directly to Watergate affair. When these attempts were uncovered, Nixon was forced to step down and Ellsberg was acquitted on the grounds of gross governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering. A sort of “happy end”, after all.

Ellsberg is not only a brilliant thinker, but a top-notch writer – the whole story is captivating, especially the last fragment, concerning the Pentagon Papers release and subsequent trial, which reads almost like a political thriller (which it was, really). Having skimmed through Tom Wells’ “Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg”, an unflattering biography depicting Ellsberg as an egotist, narcissist and sexual maniac, I was positively surprised that Ellsberg the writer comes across as rather level-headed, if intense, and manages to keep his ego in check, with no self-aggrandizing. The book contains numerous memorable conversations, perhaps the best known is this conversation with Kissinger, in which Ellsberg warns him about the dangers of secret knowledge (predictably, Kissinger didn’t quite heed the warning). Some of them are rather creepy, as the one in which Nixon advises Kissinger to “think big!” (read – don’t hesitate to use nukes), but probably this conveys the spirit of the era, in which nukes were still considered a real means of conducting foreign policy.

Compared with Ellsberg’s intensity and strong purpose, Assange’s Wikileaks seem rather inconsequential. While Ellsberg had a clear goal and good timing, Assange fires in full automatic mode hoping that some stray bullets will hit the target. In result, the public only gets bored and the important documents get lost in a deluge of random unsorted cables. If this is the new generation of whistleblowers, it doesn’t bode well for keeping the governments of the world in check (which is as important as it was 40 years ago). Without doubt, Ellsberg is a hero – unfortunately, reading his memoir and observing current events left me with more pessimism, and distrust for authorities, than before.

1 Or The Making of a Quagmire by the same author – it’s much shorter and covers only the Kennedy period, but this only makes it more striking (as it was clear as early as 1963 that war couldn’t be won)
2 The media played a big role here – see The Powers That Be (again, by David Halberstam), which devotes a lot of space to Pentagon Papers.

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Stephen Budiansky “The Bloody Shirt: Terror after the Civil War”

(disclaimer: I know next to nothing about US history in the 19th century)

The 1865’s surrender of Confederate rebel forces, marking the end of US Civil War, left the southern Negro with every reason to celebrate – the Republican government and new US Constitution amendments gave him political and economical freedom, promising an end to the long period of disenfranchisement and slavery. Under new law, the Negroes in the Southern states would become citizens of equal status to the whites, with the power to vote and elect their officials. Little could they know that in less than ten years, the defeated white supremacists would raise their heads once again and, through an organized campaign of terror and violence, take this hard won political freedom away. By 1875, the last Republican state government in the South had been overthrown, in what almost amounted to a military coup, and the achievements of the Reconstruction had been overturned. “The Bloody Shirt” by Stephen Budiansky chronicles the events of the Reconstruction era, telling the stories of a couple of noble and idealistic politicians, enterpreneurs and military men who did their best to advance the political cause of Blacks in the South – only to witness the triumph of brutal racist force over the rights they had fought so hard for.

The narrative depicts the stories of five brave men – Adelbert Ames, a Union officer turned state governor; Prince Rivers, a former slave who rose to the position of a community leader; Albert Morgan, a Yankee plantator and enterpreneur seeking good fortune in the South; Lewis Merrill, a cavalry officer charged with fighting the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist militias; and James Longstreet, the right hand of General Robert E. Lee, advocating reconciliation between the North and the South. Each of them tried to transform the South in accordance to the Reconstruction laws, granting full political freedom to the Negro – and each met with a resistance so virulent and intense it was hard to believe that is was coming from the same people who, only a few months before, have suffered a crushing defeat and were forced to surrender. The Southern elites, self-righteous and loath to step back even an inch in their complete dominance over the Blacks, were determined to resist the new order by all means, be it political scheming, coercion or sheer violence. Morgan, who tried to employ Negroes as free workers, was persecuted and driven out of business; Longstreet, after publishing a letter urging the former Confederates to endorse the new government, found himself ostracized by his former comrades and with his wartime reputation tarnished in a campaign of lies and slander. Merrill and Ames, charged with the duty of bringing law and order to their tumultous states, had to admit an utter defeat; Rivers faced the most bitter end of them all, ending his life driving a coach in some forgotten town, the same job he performed as a slave.

The tactics employed by former white slaveholders and aristocrats were those of a terrorist organization fighting an occupant force (indeed, the Northern presence in the South was often decried by Southern newspapers as “occupation” and “despotism”). Defrauded public funds were used to fund armed militias, “rifle clubs” and “white men leagues”, whose sole purpose was to spread terror and intimidation. Any Black challenging the old order or trying to exercise his right to vote ran risk of being beaten or murdered, and a band of mounted white men, armed with rifles, entering a town to “hunt for niggers” was a commonplace picture. A view of legitimate state official or sheriff jumping out of the window to escape a bloodthirsty mob was not uncommon. In a few cases, the terror took the form of an outright military takeover, when the legitimate government of a town was chased away with shotguns and artillery. State officials implored for federal troops, but most often to no avail, and when the military aid did come, it was woefully inadequate in strength and numbers (indeed, inadequate help for people in mortal danger seems to be a recurring motif in recent history). The opponent was not a bunch of extremists, but an entrenched, ruthless elite, desperate to hold power and ready to use any kind of violence to make sure that the “damned niggers” will not dare to raise their heads.

A true gem of the book lies in Southern newspaper clips from the period, filled with racist propaganda so intense and vitriolic as to be almost ludicrous. Here is an excerpt from “The Meridian Mercury:

“With a sigh of relief, thank God, we can announce that it is over, the election, the most disgusting, disgraceful and degrading thing ever devised by the malice of man. Thank God it is over! And pray His holy name to remove the sin-created and sin-creating thing, negro suffrage, the most abominable of abominations, the “sum of all villainies”, to which the sin of slavery is as snowy white is to coal black; to remove it from the land, and sink the hell-deserving authors of it to everlasting perdition! Confound them; blast them, scorch them with His righteous anger, and sink them to the lower depths, deeper down that the sympathy of the Infernal Spirits that inhabit the blazing regions of Hell can ever reach.”

Another fragment denounces the white supporting the Republican cause and ends with a statement of purpose:

“Between them and us there is not a murderer or thief in the world for whom we have not more respect that we have for the vagabonds who are seeking to impose negro rule upon the people of South. The most abandoned criminal, the most cowardly murderer, the most despicable highwayman, that ever expiated their crimes on the gallows, in the State prison, or the galleys, are honorable and princely gentlemen compared to such wretched sneaks.”

Absurd as it may be, the saddest part of the propaganda came after the last pro-suffrage government was overthrown, when the racists took to writing the history. The supremacists made every effort to expiate themselves and represent the terror as a “political necessity”, needed to combat the “negro despotism and oppression”. How this could succeed remains totally baffling, but sadly, it did succeed to large extent, and the violence became clouded beyond the mystique of “cavalier South”, proud and defying the Yankee authority. Budiansky makes his point by citing the 1876 massacre in a town called Hamburg, in which dozens of Blacks were killed by a white militia. After the riot, the whites erected a monument dedicated to the only member of the mob that Blacks managed to kill in self defence. A few years ago, the monument was catalogued in a historical inventory – as a monument “to the only resident of Hamburg to be killed in the Hamburg riot of 1876”.

The narrative in the book is flawless, conveying the dramatism of events in an almost novel-like fashion. The biggest shortcoming of Budiansky’s description is that it almost completely lacks a deeper analysis of federal government’s policy toward the South in the post-war period. It is implied that pleas for military help and reports of impending disaster were met with Washington’s indifference or, at best, a lukewarm response; however, the reader does not learn much about the inside politics at the White House. I find it difficult to understand how a nation that fought so hard to win the war could forfeit its goals so easily – since, at least as far as Negro suffrage is concerned, in ten years the results of the war had been completely reverted. Perhaps the cause of Negro was sacrificed at the altar of realpolitik of the day, or the president Andrew Johnson lacked the political will and acumen to deal with the Southern insurgency properly – a more detailed analysis would certainly be welcome. Nevertheless, I found the book engaging and compelling and can earnestly recommend it.

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Philip Gourevitch “We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families”

“I hear you’re interested in genocide,” the American said. “Do you know what genocide is?” I asked him to tell me. “A cheese sandwich.” he said. “Write it down. Genocide is a cheese sandwich.” I asked him how he figured that. “What does anyone care about a cheese sandwich?” he said. “Genocide, genocide, genocide. Cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich. Who gives a shit? Crimes against humanity? Where’s humanity? Who’s humanity? You? Me? Did you see a crime commited against you? Hey, just a million Rwandans. Did you ever hear about the Genocide Convention?” I said I had. “That convention,” the American at the bar said, “makes a nice wrapping for a cheese sandwich.”

The conversation Philip Gourevitch, the renowned American journalist, had at the bar with an American intelligence officer sums the story up pretty well. In his now-classic book “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families”, Gourevitch investigates the 1994 Rwandan genocide, one of the most disturbing events in recent history. In a period of just a few months, the “international community” witnessed the worst genocide since Holocaust, not only remaining passive and allowing about a million of Rwandans to be butchered, but actively supporting the “genocidaires”.

Roots of the genocide can be, indirectly, traced back to the system of colonial exploitation set up by the Belgians in the 19th century. Before the Belgian colonial rule, two main ethnic groups in Rwanda, Hutu and Tutsi, lived more or less mingled together, sharing common language and culture, though always with the Tutsi minority playing the role of aristocracy. The new colonial rulers readily started to exploit existing inequalities and ethnic distinctions to strengthen their rule – with the official mythology of Tutsi superiority, Hutus were subjugated and exploited in a slave-like manner; soon, with the introduction of ethnic identity cards, the ethnic divide was widened. Shortly after the Second World War, the oppressive system was overthrown by a Hutu revolution claiming to “democratize” the country. The ethnic cards continued to play a major role, but now with the roles reversed – if you were a Tutsi, often your only chance of getting education and social status was obtaining a counterfeit Hutu card. Hutu rule soon transformed into a dictatorship no less brutal than the one of Belgian predecessors, and the officially espoused ideology of ethnic hatred prompted several massacres, the fear of death becoming a constant part of Tutsi’s life. Although the president Juvenal Habyarimana, backed by help from Western powers, in particular France, managed to keep the violence under some control, in the late 80s he proved unable to contain the more violent and extremist wing of his political base, a group of fanatics calling themselves Hutu Power. With little risk of oversimplification, Hutu Power’s ideology can be briefly wrapped up as “eradicate all Tutsis from the face of Earth”. Virulent anti-Tutsi propaganda was followed by intensive preparations for an all-out killing fest, in an atmosphere reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. In the early 1990s, the inner group of Habyarimana’s court decided to assassinate the president (who purportedly died in a plane crash) and take the power. Almost instantly, the killings began.

There is little interesting to be said about the genocide itself, except maybe for the takeaway lesson that to annihilate a people quickly, you don’t need anything as fancy as a gas chamber – a well-organized mob armed with machetes and clubs will do. Grenades, maybe, if you want to do the job really fast. Killings proceeded rapidly all over the country for a few months, with the total death count estimated as about a million of dead ans several thousands displaced and forced to flee. Finally, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel Tutsi force which had been waging a guerilla war for a few years, entered the country and quickly reclaimed power, driving off thousands of Hutu Power extremists. With hordes of “genocidaires” forced to flee the country, the international community proclaimed a humanitarian crisis and set up refugee camps in neighbouring countries to accommodate the mass of refugees – which comprised ordinary Hutus and Hutu Power fanatics alike. This is where the biggest irony of the genocide unravels.

Up to this point, most Western powers were content with simply ignoring the genocide, with the notable exception of French, who nonchalantly sold arms and [provided mercenaries] for the Hutu Power. The UN-backed intervention force, UNAMIR, had a mandate so pathetically restricted and numbers so slashed down that it could basically only sit behind the sandbags and watch the killings. Now, with the refugee camps being the focus of TV news daily, the UN felt the need to act and started pouring millions of dollars in humanitarian aid into the camps – directly into Hutu Power’s leaders’ pockets. The leading “genocidaires” quickly seized control of the camps, turning them into military installations ruled by terror. With the wide stream of humanitarian aid funds under their control, they continued the pro-genocide campaign, with even more money to finance weapons and train militias. The camps became known as “death zones” and were rightly treated by Rwandans as a mortal danger. With the threat of the next genocide over their heads, Rwandas urged the UN to close the camps as soon as possible, but apparently the international community had no will or coherent plan to do so. Thus, while Rwanda was utterly devastated and in need of every international aid it could get, the Western powers instead happily continued to feed the killers.

As a reporter, Gourevitch narrates the genocide mostly via concrete events or individual people’s stories, painting the political landscape only in broad strokes. In this way, unfortunately, he leaves out arguably the crucial piece of the whole story – the details of the decision process behind the western countries’ choice not to get involved. The moral outrage at the world’s, particularly the UN’s and USA’s, decisions is justified, but sheds little light on why they chose to pursue such a weak and gutless policy. This is in contrast with one of my favourite books, David Halberstam’s “War In A Time Of Peace”, a book about the Yugoslavian conflict during the Clinton era, which does excellent job at explaining the nuts and bolts behind the American foreign policy in Yugoslavia – a policy with uncanny resemblance to the one employed in Rwanda.

At a certain point when the genocide was unwinding, the UNAMIR’s commander asked his superiors for more money and troops, fairly certain he could bring the genocide to a rapid halt with only 5000 soldiers. It seems that five thousand soldiers would have been enough to avert the murder of a million people. Naturally, the UN said no and instead slashed the intervention force down to 270 soldiers, a force unable to ensure its own safety, let alone protect the Tutsis. From now on, the Rwandans could be assured nobody in the world would help them in any way. What was the decision process behind such a ridiculous and cowardly move? The answer comes in the words of Bill Clinton, who summarized the whole US policy towards Rwanda and the refugee camps concisely: “We don’t want to look like chumps”. That’s the whole policy.

Come to think of it, the decision not to get involved is more than a bit puzzling. After all, the political risk of sending an intervention force (of 5000 soldiers) wasn’t really high at the moment – at least, nothing a determined and purposeful administration couldn’t handle. Of course, Clinton’s administration was anything but determined and purposeful – the whole US foreign policy about Yugoslavia or Africa was terribly incoherent and driven mostly by the fear of doing anything even slightly risky. Clinton was concerned more about winning the next election and keeping the domestic economy in reins – foregin affairs could wait. And, after all, Rwanda is some small distant country – and these Rwandans, are they really the same species of people as you and me? You’ve gotta be kidding.

An outrageous moral weak spot, lack of conscience, or plain incompetence as the world’s leader? Whatever the verdict, one wonders if things could have been different had Clinton been replaced with a politician of greater format. I don’t know the answer, but I find little comfort in observing that any country’s political system consistently filters out people with any empathy or moral sense. To make it to the top, you have to survive and win tough party infighting, engage in all kinds of scheming and manipulations – people who emerge from this process as the political leaders are more than likely to be psychopathic and devoid of any conscience. I should stress that in the case of Rwanda, in my opinion doing the “right thing” was more a matter of conscience and resolve than having the political calculations right – as mentioned above, the risk to US national interest was relatively small compared to the possible benefit, so there really was no legitimate reason not to act. The decision was more of a moral flaw than political necessity. Whether the society can grow political leaders of bigger moral frame, or more generally – is it possible to design a political system that results in politics slightly less immoral, is an interesting question in itself.

Much could be said here about how the UN seems to be a completely dysfunctional institution, how the West aggravated the situation in Africa by supporting any dictator, no matter how cruel or corrupt, who was seen as anti-Communist, or how this led to a similarly disastrous post-Cold War policy, with the “democracy” replacing “anti-Communism” as the new fetish etc. Instead of pursuing political analysis, Gourevitch concentrates on particular stories, raising interesting questions about guilt and moral responsibility or what post-genocide life looks like when your neighbour next door killed your whole family. This short review can’t do justice to the complex narrative Gourevitch presents, so really, go and read the book. I’m not sure, though, whether there are any lessons to be learnt from here – in view of the world leaders’ cluelessness, I’m rather certain that things similar to Rwanda (or labor camps, or Second Congo War, or insert your favourite atrocity here) will happen over and over and over again. Meanwhile, Rwanda remains an appalling shame for humanity. If anybody had doubts whether the Holocaust taught us anything, they have the answer on their plate now. Time for a cheese sandwich.

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Lucio Russo “The Forgotten Revolution”

The Hellenistic period, between the third and the second century BC, is usually thought of (or, at least this is the picture we get from school) as the time of fragmentation and cultural decline, eclipsed by the art, literature and philosophy of classical Greece. Stoic and Epicurean philosophy from that period bears less historical significance than works of Plato and Aristotle, and scientific discoveries are taken to consist of the “lone genius” of Eucild and Archimedes. Hellenistic culture and science commonly gets shoved in the confines of “Greek-Roman world”, whose prescientific character was overcome only with the advent of 17th century scientific revolution. Lucio Russo’s “The Forgotten Revolution” is a bold attempt at dispelling this myth.

The author carries out a painstaking reconstruction of the Hellenistic scientific heritage, resulting in shifting the birth of scientific methodology by 2000 years, back to the 3rd century BC, in particular to Alexandria – a thriving scientific and cultural center of that period. Explosive growth of science and technology produces manifold achievements: in mathematics (work of Euclid and Archimedes, Apollonius’ theory of conic sections), optics (advanced theory of lenses and mirror, lying at the origin of the “Archimedes burning mirrors” legend), shipwrighting, geography (the famous measurement of Earth’s meridian by Eratostenes), astronomy (heliocentrism, atempts at gravity theory), ballistics (construction of war machines), technology (production of machines and precise metal tools) and medicine (foundations of empirical medicine by Herophilos). In many of these fields, a comparable level was not achieved up to the scientific revolution, which drew heavily from newly recovered Hellenistic writings. Archimedes or Euclid were not lone geniuses, but members of a broad scientific community embracing a coherent methodology.

Particularly noteworthy is methodological self-awareness of Hellenistic thinkers. In contrast to slow, incremental and purely empirical growth of knowledge, characteristic of older civilizations like Egypt or Mesopotamia, Hellenistic thinkers intentionally employ a theoretical method based on distinction between conventional theoretical models, dealing with theorems about abstract entities, and observable phenomena, connected to the model by certain correspondence rules. For Alexandrian scientists, the possibility of describing the same physical phenomena by conflicting theories (e.g. geocentrism and heliocentrism) was clear from the start. This awareness was later lost and even Kepler conceived of the celestial spheres, introduced by Greek scientists as a purely theoretical construction whose conventional character was well acknowledged, as a material object whose thickness he tried to estimate using theological arguments. Euclidean mathematics or Herophilean medicine demonstrate a deep understanding of conventional nature of scientific definitions and terminology, an understanding that Platonic thought, bound by essentialist concept of language, could not reach for next two thousand years. Curiously, the more intensively empirical-deductive method was developed, the less acclaimed Aristotelian philosophy of nature became – a trend which was quickly reversed and dominated scientific thought up to 18th century.

The ebb of this wonderful growth of science and technology comes at the end of 2nd century BC, due to Roman conquests and political persecutions of Alexandrian scientists (of unclear origin). Scientific centers undergo a rapid decline and Greek scientists are taken as slaves. In the period of Roman Empire, Hellenistic works are rediscovered, but understanding of their methodology had long been lost – writers of that period, like Heron or Ptolemy, are mostly content with commentaries and compilations of old theories, often with only partial comprehension. The Roman culture absorbs Hellenistic practical achievements, but not their method and worldview. Many works are forgotten and other become distorted and corrupted by editors and commenters – scientific thought, lacking institutional support, withers. An acute example of how low the level of Roman theoretical thinking was is the explanation of honeycomb’s hexagonal shape – while in Hellenistic writings we encounter the concept of shape optimization, one of Roman thinkers explicates that honeycombs are hexagonal… because every edge corresponds to one of bee’s limbs.

Part of Hellenistic writings is recovered in the Middle Ages, via Arabian and Byzantine sources. Knowledge in optics and astronomy is assimilated from Hellenistic theories, often misinterpreted and corrupted – a culture contaminated by religious and Aristotelian thinking will not be able to reproduce a real scientific methodology for next few hundred years. Even figures of such accomplishment as Galileo, Kepler and Newton base their discoveries upon reading and understanding ancient writers (in particular, working on astronomy and theory of gravity), eclectically mixing it, in Kepler and Newton, with theology, metaphysics and Hermetic tradition. The interpretation that ancient Greeks “presaged” many modern discoveries, e.g. the heliocentric theory, should be reversed – it was the moderns who assimilated a 2000 years old scientific tradition. For example, Leonardo da Vinci’s “wonderful machines” were indeed a product of different epoch – inspired by reading Alexandrian engineers and scientists. The myth of modern science as a fully autonomic endeavor, created by geniuses like Galileo or Newton, is fabricated only as late as 18th century, when Enlightenment thinkers deliberately reject exegesis of old texts. The heliocentric theory now becomes “Copernican”, Voltaire assaults Hellenistic thinkers for their amorality, and Newton’s texts demonstrating his theological-metaphysical worldview are concealed from public view.

An obvious question is why such an intensive scientific and technological development, with direct economical significance, did not become a driving force for some kind of industrial revolution, which arrived only in the 18th century. Other than political reasons (Roman conquest), a vital deficiency seems to lie in lack of “critical mass” in Hellenistic world, resulting in scant demand for applied science. For example, positional digit system was known to Archimedes, but logarithmic tables, replacing geometric computations with arithmetic, were introduced only in 16th century – most likely, the amount of effort required to compile such tables could pay off only with substantial economical demand for precise calculations, absent in Hellenistic Greece. Likewise, the ancients were capable of manufacturing precise optical elements, but sources do not indicate any broader use, despite obvious applications in artisanship (spectacles can extend professional activity of an artisan by several years) – once again, an obstacle might have been the lack of critical mass that would have industrial growth profitable; also, capitalist institutions such as credit system or capital markets were alien to the Greeks.

Witnessing the history and influence of “the forgotten revolution” on modern science is undoubtedly fascinating – alas, many of author’s claims remain speculative. Many writings from the period are lost forever, other had been corrupted beyond recognition, so reconstructing Hellenistic discoveries is possible only partially – often, the author resorts to “available sources do not forbid the following interpretation…”. Sometimes, he seems to be getting carried away by his enthusiasm, claiming that Greeks seem to have developed a prototype of evolutionary theory or applauding their methodological self-awareness (e.g. claim that 19th century mathematical logic copies, to large extent, Stoic theories seems a bit risky). The analysis also lacks in more detailed explanation for the role of economical and social conditions that made the eruption of scientific development possible, although here scarcity of primary sources is an insurmountable obstacle. Regardless of that, the book is certainly worth recommending and changes the view on “orthodox” history of ideas and scientific discoveries.

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Graham Farmelo “The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius”

“The strangest man” – this is how Paul Dirac was thought of by many of his friends and this how the great physicist’s biography, “The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius”, authored by Graham Farmelo, is entitled. Pathologically reticent and introverted, almost autistic, and at the same time a genius compared by his contemporaries to Newton and Einstein – this is how the author portrays him, leading us through Dirac’s life, from his unhappy family life, through the “golden 1920s” of 20th century physics, when quantum mechanics was born, to mature life and decline, when the applauded physicist retired from mainstream physics.

It is not uncommon for mathematicians and physicists to exhibit, to some extent, character traits typical of autism or its milder version, Asperger syndrome: narrow and obsessive interests, social ineptness, poor empathy, preference for predictable situation, literal-mindedness, visual thinking. While the borderline between “Asperger” and only “more nerdy than the norm” is not clear cut, Dirac demonstrated the whole range of autistic syndromes; “Dirac stories” concerning his peculiar or eccentric behavior were widely circulated among his friends. While it is not clear whether these traits were innate or shaped by his upringing (despotic father and overbearing mother), without doubt autistic-type mind strongly influenced, positively and negatively, his scientific output and style of doing physics.

A main figure in the foundations of quantum mechanics, Dirac shone as a very young star, similar to other creators of quantum theory (Born, Heisenberg, Jordan, Pauli, and Schroedinger and Bohr from the older generation), who brought about the revolution before they were even 30. It is safe to say that late 1920s and early 1930s were the “Golden Age” of 20th century physics, when the progress was lightning-fast and new discoveries lay like low-hanging fruits. In the 1940s Dirac commented bitterly, in view of problems quantum field theory was having at the time: “Then, a second-rate physicist could do first-rate work – now, it takes a first-rate physicist to do second-rate work”. Every physicist would love to live in such “interesting times”, when a new unexplored scientific territory opens up. However, the times were also “interesting” in the political sense, which, especially in Germany, did not bode well. For me, the period when quantum mechanics emerged remains the paradigm of “golden youth”, later overshadowed by dark clouds, both in science (when devising quantum field theory proved much more challenging than pioneer discoveries) and individual life, when politics and history divided erstwhile friends: Pyotr Kapitsa was imprisoned in Soviet Union, Bohr and Schroedinger fled Germany, Heisenberg worked for Hitler on nuclear bomb, Oppenheimer directed the Manhattan Project, finally, Ehrenfest shot himself.

The apex of Dirac’s brilliant career comes in the Nobel Prize of 1933. Soon afterwards Dirac marries Wigner’s sister and starts a family. Receiving the prize makes Dirac wonder whether he too will be afflicted by “Nobel disease”, the feeling that after the Nobel Prize, the best years are gone and it will be only downhill from then. Sadly, this is what happened to Dirac – after his groundbreaking work he never made a comparable contribution to theoretical physics. He wasted his talent, struggling to construct field theory not marred by infinities (he rejected renormalization as abhorrent), trying his luck in cosmology and relativity, where did not score major successes, and finally drifted away from the mainstream, remaining isolated from the new discoveries in particle physics.

Looking for reasons of Dirac’s decline, the first candidate would be his approach to physics, based on “top-down” approach, where one starts from elegant mathematical structure and uses it to predict experimental facts, as opposed to “bottom-up” methodology, fitting the theory to known experimental results. Dirac’s style brought dazzling outcomes when, based on purely mathematical considerations, he found the relativistic equation describing the electron, which predicted the existence of antimatter, found experimentally within years of his audacious prediction. Later on, however, attempts at developing relativistic theory based solely on mathematical beauty led nowhere and lead was taken by physicists inspired mostly by experimental discoveries. Dirac never acknowledged any other method than seeking beautiful theories, whose correspondence to reality was only a secondary consequence, so he never came to terms with renormalization, at best a sort of patch on quantum field theory – however, his efforts to build field theory purely axiomatically eventually failed.

Regrettably, some part of Dirac’s failures could be blamed simply on psychology and life events – after starting a family he had, naturally, less time for work and after first successes he could have, even unconsciously, rested on laurels, knowing he had already secured a foremost place in the pantheon of great physicists (or, brutally speaking, got old, since blunting of one’s ambition is the first symptom of senility). Moreover, Dirac shared his ideas very reluctantly, a true loner – without intellectual contact with peers, even the greates genius might eventually burn out. It is unfortunate that even though after marriage Dirac opened up to people around him and led a life more balanced than from the time of his obsessive work on quantum mechanics, he almost grew more passive, satisfied with his family and social position.

A closer look at Farmelo’s book provokes a few questions. When describing relationships between physicists, the author pays much attention to competition, yearning for prestige and acclaim, oneupmanship etc. It is interesting whether the prevalence of such motivations is common to all men or stems from the fact that at the time, physics was a male occupation – the academic community, as well as e.g. the political system, ran by women could look entirely different. For a long time I’ve been puzzled what makes mountain hiking and climbing so popular among physicists – Dirac was an avid climber and I feel that this popularity of climbing is not just a coincidence or subjective feeling. Also, studying the origins of quantum mechanics invites the question of describing the dynamics and structure of newly emerging scientific fields as well as factors which contribute to scientists’ achievements and failures in given time and place – although it is debatable whether the history of science up to now yields any discernible patterns (on the individual level – how to choose the most promising field, on the social plane – how to create an environment fostering the qualitative development of science).

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Robert Caro “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York”

New York at the dawn of 20th century – a city deep in administrative chaos and corruption, where an orderly budget is quite a recent invention, party bosses from Tamanny Hall wield absolute power and everything, from a janitor’s job to electing the city administration and million dollar contracts, rests upon connection, palm-greasing and loyalty to the (Democratic) Party. In such political reality one Robert Moses – the governor’s young advisor – carves out for himself a seemingly unimportant niche, construction of public parks. 30 years later the niche had grown into a sprawling empire, and his creator – into a despotic emperor. On the space of over 1000 pages Robert Caro depicts the biography of a man who, thanks to his creativity, genius, lust for power and utter lack of morals, rose from an ordinary clerk to the ruler of New York, the eponymous “power broker”, man who controlled mayors, built bridges, cut the city with expressways, welcomed tributes and crushed his enemies, transforming New York to his whim.

Moses began his career as an enthusiastic, almost dogmatic idealist, faithful to the idea of honest administration and professional civil service free from political pressure. Hired by a reform-minded mayor to fix the New York administration, which he finds in miserable condition, Moses single-handedly devises an all-encompassing reform plan, promising the New York a modern and efficient civil service. The plan gets scrapped – the mayor loses fight with the “Tamanny Hall tiger”, and embittered Moses ends up without a job. This first lesson – that even the most idealistic plan is useless if not backed by political clout and real, tangible power – soon bears fruit. Connections secure Moses the position of advisor to the New York governor, Al Smith, where he quickly learns the nuts and bolts of political play. Smith orders Moses to oversee the construction of public parks, which the New York’s population desperately needs. Moses’ genius transforms this post, to a regular clerk nothing more than an administrative chore, into the foundation of his future “state within a state”, an institution completely independent, politically and financially, from the public opinion, voters subsequent mayors and governors.

From the very beginning Moses demonstrates an exceptional talent and creative energy. His minds constantly springs with ideas of new public projects – huge parks, gigantic bridges and freeways – designed in meticulous detail, each and every one of them almost a work of art. The grandeur of his vision makes architects and engineers doubt its practicality, but for Moses nothing is impossible. He works incessantly, morning to midnight, building with lightning speed, almost obsessively. During Moses’ reign New York overshadows, in terms of number and scope of public projects, every other state – architects and constructors from all around the world come to New York to learn the “Moses’ method” at his feet.

Enormous public projects would have been impossible without the second kind of genius, which Moses had in abundance. His extraordinary talent with politics and bureaucracy, allowing him to find ways of extending his power in ostensibly peripheral places, shows early on, during his studies, when Moses, rejected as a Jew by social elite, creates a niche in academic community, running his own literary journal. Soon he becomes known as “the best bill drafter in Albany” – using manipulation, legal deception and downright fraud, he transforms the post of park administrator into an independent center of power. Blessed with irresistible charm, he skillfully exploits people using disinformation, lies and any dirty trick to make real his ideal of power – absolute, concealed from the public and responsible to no one.

Moses was a born despot. The first dose of real power – a true drug, and Moses was a user – liberates him from any idealism he once had, as well as morality. At first power serves only as means to an end, “getting things done” and making his visions come real, but soon it becomes an end in itself. Moses tolerates no dissent, destroys his opponents completely and with undeniable joy, often ruining careers for even moderate criticism. Whoever opposed Moses, no matter how brilliant an engineer he was, could be sure that he would never find job in New York again. Moses would resort to all sort of foul play, from false insinuations to accusations of Communist sympathies (a deadly weapon in the 30s), to crush his opponent. His critics derided him as “the most unethical man in the US” and his political system – the most corrupt political machine New York ever witnessed (Moses himself boasted that “nothing I have ever done was tainted by legality”).

The only criterion Moses uses to decide where and what to build is his own personal vision. Needs of New York’s residents matter only as far as they fit his schemes. Thus, he would split Bronx with a gigantic highway, resulting in urban decay and destruction of many prospering neighborhoods, whose residents had to resettle in slum areas. He wouldn’t hesitate to tear down a neighborhood to avoid building road through some influential businessman or politician’s lot. While in the beginnings of his career Moses was lauded by the public opinion (he was the only person who could build parks and roads fast enough to meet the city’s needs), later he was a classical example of a despot isolated from reality. Surrounded by loyal sycophants, he forced projects deaf to rational arguments, acting on whim; he builds more and more roads, even when it became clear that only mass transit and subway can alleviate nightmarish traffic jams. Always despising lower classes, he rejects plans for buses and public transport, intentionally building viaducts low enough so that buses would not be pass through (!).

Moses’ success would not have been possible without the sympathy from media and public opinion. In his early years, when Moses and his superiors needed voters’ support, he created his reputation of an independent, incorruptible civil servant, above politics and money (indeed, he never received salary), man who fought inefficient bureaucracy and got things done (making sure not to reveal his methods). When building parks made him famous, idealist and reformers knowing him from the past considered him “one of us”, long after he shed his old ideals. Up to 1950s nobody had challenged the myth of Moses the brilliant politician, Moses the savior – later, when the facade began to fade, he was powerful enough to ignore the press and the public. His decline and fall from power in the 1960s was brought about not by any democratic process, but by Nelson Rockefeller – a man as ruthless and powerful as Moses himself.

Although Robert Caro tries to describe Moses’ life as impartially as possible, it is hard not to feel disgust towards the book’s main character and his methods. Moses’ style and concept of power – authoritarian, based on secrecy and deception – does not align with any democratic, or even quasi-democratic, standard purportedly present in USA. Combined with grandeur of his visions, Moses would feel much more at home in Soviet Union during Stalin’s reign. “The Power Broker” is a brilliant (and extremely well written) treatise on technology of acquiring and exercising political power – in this respect, it is on a par with other positions from my “handbook of politics” (including “The Wire” and David Halberstam‘s books).

A minor shortcoming of the book is that Caro fails to convincingly explain how it was possible for the “Moses myth” to pass unchallenged for over 30 years, even though the press was relatively independent of his influence (although he had personal connections with the owners of “New York Times”, which often served as propaganda tool). If the public opinion had become aware of his schemings, Moses’ career would have certainly broken or at least come to halt. Since Caro does not mention any cases of media being intimidated or manipulated, the blame is on the public (for whom parks were more important than legality or morality of their creator) and the press, which lacked criticism and diligence (with the exception of a group of brave journalists uncovering Moses’ wrongdoings in the 1960s, in an effort not unlike the legendary work of Woodward and Bernstein a decade later). The book is also a bit too long (and it was abridged from over 3000 pages to a mere 1100) – Caro has a wonderful pen, but still, leaving out some one or two hundred pages would do the biography no harm.

As a side remark, I dream of a science fiction novel (even a space opera) which would describe politics, power plays etc. at the level of precision matching that of Caro or Halberstam. Most SF novels focus on technology and its consequences for individual of social life – it would be very interesting to see how SF ideas affect the political relations, style of exercising power etc. (is the “space empire”, a space-opera standard, different in structure from the court of Hajle Selasje or the bureaucratic “state within a state” of Moses?) Alas, I don’t see any authors capable of this task – apparently, it’s time to ditch mathematics and start writing….

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Jonathan Israel “A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy”

I have just finished reading a book drawn from Cosma Shalizi‘s recommendations: “A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy” by Jonathan Israel. About 200-odd book is a an introduction, or rather a summary, to the grand, three volume history of the Radical Enlightenment that is currently in production. The author is a historian who, apart from Enlightenment, studied e.g. European Jews and the history of Netherlands (the latter is covered in a 1200 pages long tome “The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477-1806”, which I once almost borrowed).

The main thesis of the book concerns the role that Radical Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that emerged from the French encyclopaedist group, including philosophers such as Holbach, Diderot and several less known thinkers, played in the intellectual and political life of the 18th century Europe. Emphasis is put on the impact of “revolutionary” philosophical writings that paved the road for “liberal” revolutions at the end of century – American, French and Dutch. However, the focus is not on revolutions or any particular economic and political events, treated in a rather cursory way, but on dichotomy between Enlightenment’s “mainstream” – the works of Locke, Voltaire, Hume, Kant, Montesqieu, Burke and Adam Smith, virtually all important philosophers and writers – and radical “subversives and troublemakers” (Holbach, Diderot, Thomas Paine). Calling these gentlemen “saboteurs” is not an exaggeration – their writings were at best semi-legal and their doctrine, as politically, morally and religiously dangerous, was fought by monarchs, led by the “Enlightened king” Frederick the Great, and ancien regime’s intellectual henchmen, with Voltaire as ringleader, blistering the radicals for amorality and atheism (Voltaire himself subscribed to a variant of deism which today would be termed “intelligent design”).

I found quite surprising that ideas we usually associate with “Enlightenment values” – democracy and abolishment of monarchy, repealing class privileges, equality before law, religious tolerance, personal freedom, restraining monarchs’ powers, anticlericalism, pacifism, ethical universalism – were clung to in their full extent only by a small bunch of thinkers who were considered dangerous radicals. Most intellectualists, including individuals as acclaimed as Voltaire and Kant, were content with the “soft version” of Enlightenment, i.e. appealing for more religious equality, restricted democracy and regulating international affairs, but with the political and economical system left intact (including class inequalities, dominance of aristocracy and clergy etc.) A thoroughly conservative position. Only a few subversives – outside France gathered in underground secret societies (e.g. the Illuminati in Germany) – urged to oppose the marriage of throne and altar, censorship and religious discrimination, vowed for democratization of public life. Ideas we now take to be the foundation of democratic society were treated by almost all rulers and intellectualists (including fathers of modern economy – Adam Smith and Anne Turgot) as perilous and subversive.

As interesting as the content is, the book suffers from verbosity and at times wanders off into generalities. Nonetheless, it presents an interesting angle on history of ideas we now take for granted, and of course provides lots of “to read/learn” fodder (the French Revolution, history of 18th century America and Netherlands).

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