Monday, December 31, 2012

If Republicans really want to cut the budget

I don’t believe the Republicans really do want to reduce the size of the federal expenditure, but if they do, there’s a way. It’s the same way the socialists had to turn to when the United Kingdom finished the war broke in 1945.
Britain sold off its overseas investments to buy weapons and food and entered 1946 facing a world in which its overseas markets consisted of ruined people who could not afford to buy things; while at home, a wornout industrial plant was in no shape to produce efficiently and the residual effects of the Great Depression were unresolved.
In the ‘30s, Britain (under a coalition National government that was in spirit extremely conservative) had run austerity budget after austerity budget without much success in reviving its economy. The socialists who came into office in mid-1945 were disposed to spend money on domestic services and indisposed to spend money on an empire.
But even if the Tories had been in office, there was no money to spend overseas. The Bank of England went begging to the U.S. for a billion-pound loan to keep the currency from crashing.
As a result, Britain quit India, dumped its plans to support Greece against a communist rebellion and could not even fund a small force to keep policing Palestine.
Without an empire, it cut its military to prewar levels, which had been very low. There were aberrations. A useless battleship, HMS Vanguard, was completed, but generally the way Britain negotiated itself out of its fiscal crisis was to demilitarize. It took over a decade and was accomplished in part by relying on the United States to provide military muscle where needed.
The situation of the United States in 2013 is not nearly as critical as it was in Britain in 1946, but there is no question that some reduction of national expenditures would be helpful, along with a return to the kinds of tax rates (and concomitant infrastructure investment) that the U.S. charged during the period of its greatest prosperity.
You see, the Republicans understand nothing about public finance. Taxes are not a problem. Taxes are a solution. If you doubt that, try privatizing garbage collection and see where it gets you. (It gets you a lot of garbage dumped secretly on public property.)
So, no matter what else is done, if the Republicans want a smaller national expenditure, they need to make a large reduction in military spending.
A lot of that is locked in. By starting two wars, they obligated themselves to provide veterans benefits to men and women in their 20s and 30s who will live into their 70s and 80s. The Republicans have shown a strong disinclination to pay that bill, but it will get paid, nevertheless.
Republicans love to buy shiny toys, especially if they go boom. They are going to have to cut that out.
Here are some realistic cuts that could be and will eventually have to be made:
Zero out the Marine Corps.
Cut 80 or 90% of the ballistic missile submarine fleet.
Reduce the air force bombers, perhaps to just B2s. Rein in the army’s air force, which is about the same size as the Air Force’s air force.
There are some real problems with reducing the military budget. The biggest is that the force we have is disastrously short of infantry, which is (taking into account veterans’ benefits) a very expensive kind of force. The price we paid for not having any infantry in Iraq was that we lost that war.
Assuming we are going to use our military in the future, the infantry (always and still 'the "queen of battle") needs to be much larger.
If you read the papers, you know that the Republicans want to spend more money, not less, on armies, navies and air forces.
Not going to happen.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book review 263: Britain's Moment in the Middle East 1914-1956

BRITAIN'S MOMENT IN THE MIDDLE EAST 1914-1956, by Elizabeth Monroe. 254 pages. Johns Hopkins

It was a short moment, just 42 years, less then 1% of the Middle East's history. Journalist Elizabeth Monroe's 1963 book also is brief, but concentrated in the way that some English writers have.

It holds up well, too, after half a century, which is more than most books written about the Middle East in the '60s do.

When Britain came in as a colonial power, the Moslems were weak, hungry, sick, ignorant, illiterate, politically incompetent and resentful. This was more true of the Arabs, somewhat less so of the Persians, with the Turks somewhere in the middle.

When Britain left, the Koran Belt was marginally better fed, healthier and literate. It remained resentful, ignorant and politically incompetent. The British were, and still are, blamed for this. This hardly seems fair to the Turks, who were colonial masters for hundreds of years.

The historian A.J.P. Taylor used to distinguish between governing and merely administering. The late Ottomans could barely even administer, and the British has no interest in governing, either.

By the mid-19th century, England had more empire than it cared to look after and was loath to acquire more. Thus, its first acquisition in the Middle East, Aden, was a port that controlled the Red Sea. The British neither knew nor cared what happened in the medieval Yemen that lay outside the walls of Aden.

Their thinking was entirely strategic, and so is Monroe's analysis.

No one cared what the locals did or thought as long as they were quiet.

At first, Britain's strategic intent was to block the move of Russia on India. Russia was then gobbling up the khanates of the Caspian Area, people even more backward than most of the Arabs.

Britain preferred a barrier of independent but non-hostile states – Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan. It wanted the French corralled in the western Mediterranean but had no interest in places like Egypt, Palestine or Syria for themselves.

Thus it opposed opening a canal at Suez. However, once the canal was opened, Britain, in the name of protecting India, had to start taking over the Middle East. Monroe explains clearly how that messy situation evolved and then goes on to marvel that Britain managed to ride out the vagaries of Moslem politics during the interwar years in a chapter called, without irony, “The Years of Good Management.”

While generally excellent, Monroe gives insufficient attention to the overriding concern of the British colonialists, which was not Russia but the prospect of what used to be blandly called communal disturbances.

The Moslems were not then, as they are not today, nationalist in spirit, except for a tiny film of western-influenced (and sporadically important) elites. They were Moslems.

Often Britain had a policy it would have liked to impose in India but did not for fear it would set off riots in Egypt, and vice versa. This vitiated whatever feeble intentions toward modernization British rulers may have felt.

As a result, the Middle East came out in the mid-1950s as backward politically as it had been in 1750.

Oil later became a complicating factor, and Monroe provides a brief overview.

After the war, Britain faced what she calls a “loss of nerve.” This is the imperialist viewpoint. More realistically, an impoverished England could not afford an empire any more, besides which the socialists running the government didn't want one on any terms.

It is by no means clear that even if the modern powers had wanted to assist the Moslems to modernize, they could have done so. They have made a complete hash of it on their own for the last half century.

Thus Monroe's imperialist assessment of the Balfour Declaration as “one of the greatest mistakes” makes sense only if you also believe that the Arabs are capable of self-government in a modern state.

That they are incapable of democracy is obvious. “Democratic systems were later to be discarded in country after country with a readiness that was tacit acknowledgment of their unsuitability for the less developed countries,” writes Monroe.

As we observed in 2012, the peoples of the Koran Belt are not even capable of operating modern despotisms.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Another gun nut belief proven wrong

It appears that having an armed person at the door is not enough to deter a shooter. And it is obviously not true that gun-free zones are the places of choice for shooters.

Nor is it true, if this report from New Jersey today is correct, that being armed is a good defense against an assailant.

Seems someone got a cop's gun and shot 3 cops with it.

The crime scene tape around the police cars seems to say that all the blather from the gun nuts is just so much hogwash, doesn't it?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Book Review 262: Between Two Seas

BETWEEN TWO SEAS: The Creation of the Suez Canal, by Lord Kinross. 306 pages, illustrated. Morrow

The building of the Suez Canal is one of those historical events that are summed in a few paragraphs or pages in relevant histories, but whose detailed story is far more interesting and complicated than potted summaries allow for.

Lord Kinross’s history, written for the centenary in 1969, restores to a heroic position Ferdinand de Lesseps, who in American history tends to be tarnished by his later failure in Panama.

It turns out that Lesseps was one of the supreme adventurers of the adventurous 19th century, taking on and defeating two empires with one hand, subduing Bedouin robbers with the other; and all the time displaying patience, diplomatic adroitness and a higher degree of honesty and rectitude than any of his many foes.

However, he was a businessman, and in  the end, under financial pressure, he, too, resorted to underhanded schemes to bring his vision to fruition.

Kinross, a knowledgeable and evenhanded writer about Ottoman subjects, is well-suited to this complex task.

Ironies abound, which he relates without making much of them, Although Lesseps was the “onlie begetter” of the canal, he could not have done it without various allies of dubious character.

Among these were successive Viceroys of  Egypt, who were, ineffectually, desirous of bringing their province (which they hoped to make into their kingdom) into something akin to a modern state, though they had no real idea how to do so; Emperor Napoleon III, who at the same time he was trying to extinguish Mexican independence was doing something that might -- had the Egyptians been smarter -- have done something to protect Egypt’s; and his wife Eugenie, who used the power of the boudoir to save Lesseps more than once.

He was, in many ways, a giant of a man. Kinross lists his personal qualities as “resolution and patience, his diplomatic dexterity and practical resource, his talent for handling and inspiring associates and workers alike, his dedicated, single-minded commitment to a work of creation.” Here was a man. The day after the canal opened, when he was 64, he married a girl of 20 and she gave him a dozen children.

His opponents, many of whom have high names in (at least) Whig histories, turn out to have been full of sententious blather but in practice not nearly as high-minded as they claimed -- or as Lesseps was, most of the time.

As an engineering feat, the canal was not remarkable although it did require its French contractors to design and build new kinds of excavating machinery. As an organizational feat, it was rather more impressive. The Suez Canal Company was, on the whole, a humane and trustworthy employer, which could not be said of many of the other great private enterprises of the age of unrestrained free trade.

Kinross says, however, that the story was not about engineering but about political maneuvers, and in the obviously corrupt Ottoman and Second French empires, and the more mealy-mouthed but equally corrupt British Empire, being a political operator was a dangerous game. Lesseps was a passed master. His achievement equals that of Bismarck, but Bismarck had an army as Lesseps did not.

Britain opposed the canal, largely (a point underemphasized by Kinross) because of strategic considerations directed against Russian expansionism. (During this whole period, Russia was gobbling up Moslem khanates, which she found indigestible but which alarmed England, which was  anxious about India.)

Ironically, Britain, which wanted no canal and did want Egypt preserved as part of the Ottoman Empire, ended up with the canal and in control of a technically independent Egypt.

That story is alluded to only briefly by Kinross, who in one of his few errors writes that in 1969, for the first time in its then 99-year history, it was closed (as a result of the Six-day War). In fact, during several years of World War II, while the canal was open, the Mediterranean was closed to British shipping. When it came down to it, the canal was not the threat to India that England feared up to 1876, nor the lifeline to India that it thought it was after 1876.

Opening the canal changed the geography of the world, as Kinross saw it, but technology disregarded it. For oil, the supreme maritime cargo, the route around the Cape of Good Hope became safer and more economical in the age of the supertankers.

It was, and is, a remarkable story, not less so for the fact that history proved all its backers and foes wrong on important points later on.

How the Second Amendment really works

A few weeks ago, when headlines announced a flap between Dick Armey and his pressure group FreedomWorks, I paid no attention. Such dustups among political fringists are common and usually insignificant.

Insignificant this one was, but it turns out that the sordid details were especially sordid and -- in light of the renewed push by gun nuts to offer themselves as saviors of the rest of the country -- well worth examining. Thanks to the Washington Post for washing Armey's dirty laundry in public.

Recall to begin that a main, in fact the principal argument of the nuts in favor of an armed populace is that only those privately armed citizens temper and, at need, resist the tyranny of government. They still say this although in over two centuries, these heroes never have resisted tyranny with force; first, because they have had no occasion to; and second, because in one instance when government troops were used to control a restive populace (the former Confederate states, 1865-76), the armed populace thought better of testing the bluecoats.

When the federal troops were withdrawn, the armed populace then did unleash a reign of terror against the people (one of whom was my grandfather), but when there was danger of actually getting shot by a soldier, they were timid and complaint.

So, if these numerous weapons are not being used to intimidate the anchors of state power, against whom are they being used? Most recently against unarmed young women working for the Tea Party pressure group FreedomWorks. Says the Post:

 The day after Labor Day, just as campaign season was entering its final frenzy, FreedomWorks, the Washington-based tea party organization, went into free fall.

Richard K. Armey, the group’s chairman and a former House majority leader, walked into the group’s Capitol Hill offices with his wife, Susan, and an aide holstering a handgun at his waist. The aim was to seize control of the group and expel Armey’s enemies: The gun-wielding assistant escorted FreedomWorks’ top two employees off the premises, while Armey suspended several others who broke down in sobs at the news.

It could have been tragic rather than comic if Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the leading gun nut group, the National Rifle Association, were right in his belief that all American office buildings are protected by armed guards. Who can say what the outcome would have been had FreedomWorks or its landlord had an armed savior present -- perhaps someone like George Zimmerman, a zealot for protecting the defenseless public?

Fortunately for all concerned, LaPierre is a psychotically delusional paranoid crybaby, and no shots were fired. FreedomWorks was saved from the depredations of the armed nut, though. The Post reports:

 The coup lasted all of six days. By Sept. 10, Armey was gone — with a promise of $8 million — and the five ousted employees were back.

I hope an imaginative District of Columbia prosecutor treats this as a kind of bizarre delayed-action armed robbery; or perhaps as extortion, and that Armey and his wife spend the rest of their lives behind bars; and that the young women they terrorized sue them for every ill-gotten penny they have. But I doubt that will happen.

I regret this terrific story was published on Christmas Day, because relatively few people will have taken the time to read it, but Christmas is over and I commend it to your attention now.

And henceforth, every time some gun nut asserts that without having guns freely available to citizens, people will be robbed and intimidated, save the link and remind him that when it came down to it, the people who were robbed and terrorized were employees of a rightwing nut pressure group, and that the terrorizers were not scary black men, or even liberals with long hair and chardonnay breath, but rightwing crazies.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Why putting armed citizens at schools is a stupid idea

From a Bloomberg News story that had nothing whatever to do about firearms:

After being dismissed from her job as a Midtown Manhattan securities attorney in October 2009, Christina Tretter-Herriger hitched a used horse trailer to her Dodge Ram pickup and drove 1,628 miles to Texas.
The 32-year-old lawyer sold skin-care products in Houston before finding work as the assistant general counsel of a futures-trading firm where an irate customer punctuated a recorded voice-mail message with gunfire.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Read 'em and weep

My suggestion for closing the budget gap

Tax the churches.

Tens of trillions in tax subsidies for organizations that contribute, so far as I can see, nothing measurably positive, although I admit they provide a psychological crutch for people who cannot face reality.

I call as a witness Bill O'Reilly, who opined a week or so ago that it is OK for the government to allow sectarian outbreaks in the public space of all of us because "Christianity isn't a religion."

As the Cockneys say in East London, I 'eard diff'rent.

However, O'Reilly is a leading exponent of the religious approach to public life. He says that the Constitution would ban public favoritism toward, say, Presbyterians, because they are a religion (I'm sure the Presbyterians thank him for that, and he should be grateful because history teaches that an angry Presbyterian is a fearsome thing).

Well, does that mean we can at least start taxing the tens of thousands of non-denominational Christian churches?

My suggestion for gun control

Define firearms as attractive nuisances, like swimming pools, so that owners are strictly liable for injuries caused by the guns. That ought to cool the ardor for ownership (without excluding those who genuinely need to keep a firearm).

It would require a national registry and tracking system, without loopholes.

Even if it didn't cause some twitchy folks to dispose of their shootin' irons, it would at least prod them to take better care of them. Unlike, for example, Smart Pawn in Kansas City, which supplies free assault weapons to local thugs:
But this recent theft is now the third time guns have been stolen from Smart Pawn in the last year, including a theft in October where thieves emptied the gun cabinets. A Smart Pawn manager told FOX 4 that corporate is looking at ways to improve security.
Last year, Smart Pawn told the media “We also share the community’s concerns about access to firearms by theft” and said the new store would be protected with state of the art alarms and security.


Monday, December 17, 2012

Adam Lanza, he-man

Two days ago, in an uncharacteristic display of restraint, RtO suggested mildly enough that if gun control zealots are going to go forward they need to find a new kind of penis substitute for the all the gun nuts.

I was tempted, believe me, to express it more harshly.

I should have given in to temptation.

Thanks to Little Green Footballs, I have since learned about the Bushmaster company's "Consider Your Man Card Reissued" ad campaign for the kind of rifle that Adam Lanza, well-known studly child-killer, used at Newtown.

Just as well, I suppose, I didn't try, because calling on all the vituperation at my command, I couldn't have expressed more eloquently than the Bushmaster company what a sick, conscience-less pack of whining  creeps worried that their peckers are too short the gun nuts are.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The first step toward gun control

Lots of my friends are demanding restrictions on firearms.

As a practical matter, they're going to have to come up with a new kind of penis substitute to replace all the guns they take away.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Book Review 261: Power, Faith and Fantasy

POWER, FAITH AND FANTASY: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present, by Michael B. Oren. 778 pages. Norton, $35

Michael Oren contends that the development of the United States has always been much more closely connected to the Middle East than anyone would think at first. While I think he overstates the case, it is true in both significant and insignificant ways that the two places have interacted more often than standard histories would suggest.

A significant way was the early American crisis with the Barbary pirates. Oren contends that it was the inability of the associated government under the Articles of Confederation to deal with the pirates that largely motivated the change to the Constitution. Even after signing the Constitution, the US was so weak that, despite the misgivings of Washington, the country spent 10 percent of its national budget on tribute.

While the irritation of the pirates was significant and meaningful, there were plenty of other reasons to dispose of the Confederation, from Indian relations to state debts.

An insignificant, but amusing, example was the origin of the Statue of Liberty. The original proposal, linked to the Suez Canal, was for a statue of a somewhat zaftig feminine Egypt "bringing light to Asia." Only the bankruptcy of the khedive repurposed the sculptor's vision to the more svelte Lady Liberty facing Europe.

In Oren's view, the relationship of America and what he does not call the Koran Belt was always more fraught than we think, composed of three usually antagonistic elements: government power (not originally in favor of America), religious outreach (always one way) and fantasy (an image derived mostly from the "Thousand and One Nights" which isn't even Arab or Turkish, although most of America's interactions were with Arabs or Turks).

The religious component is the most typically American, bizarre and muttonheaded. At the same time that missionaries were landing in Hawaii, where they remade a traditional society, other American missionaries were landing in Syria, where they were complete failures as far as faith goes.

Given the one-way attitude of Muslims toward missionizing, this was predictable. Stubbornly refusing to give up, the Americans turned from gathering souls to opening schools and hospitals. Oren attributes to them the infection of modernism in the Koran Belt.

True, many of the opponents of the Ottomans were exposed to western ideas in missionary schools, but the Ottomans themselves sent their promising young men to France, and well before the Americans arrived. Oren overstates this aspect in two ways. First, he makes the infection seem exclusively American, which it was not; and, second, he makes it seem important, which it never became.

As we see now ("Power, Faith and Fantasy" was published in 2007) with the reversion of the misnamed Arab Spring to atavistic social and political norms, the infection of modernism never caused more than a temporary rash in the Koran Belt.

The book is fun to read, with caution. Oren tends to underplay the immiseration of Muslim society and overplay its openness to change. The influx of Americans to the region in the 19th century was tiny, even if it included names we know, like Mark Twain; and not happy for the Americans.

It seems that the usual fate of these sojourners was to die of disease, or if not that, to be murdered; or if they ever got out, to end their days in poverty and obscurity.

But enough did get back alive to infect America with a continuing hankering to do good or do well in the region. Most of this infection was centered on Princeton University. Oren does not tell (though it is no secret) that he, too, holds a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies from Princeton.

He is an Israeli of American origin (since publication of this book, his country's ambassador to Washington), and the names of his collaborators as given in the acknowledgements are almost entirely Jewish.

Despite his militant Zionism as a political actor, he is scrupulously even-handed as a historian in his books (also his history of "The Six-day War"). You would hardly guess, from the texts, that he has been an active player in the latest uproars in the Middle East.

This fairmindedness, which ought to be a virtue, is in the end a flaw. By treating all players -- Americans, Turks, Muslim Arabs, Jews, Arab Christians, Persians etc. -- as equally free actors in history he leaves a misleading impression.

His short history of US government policy since 1945 is scathing, but does not acknowledge the big fact that led to failure: In an interaction between one side that is (however imperfectly) motivated by democratic principles; and another that is (perfectly) constitutionally impervious to democratic principles, the first side can never hope to prevail.

It sometimes seems as if Oren has read everything. (He hasn't really; a platoon of graduate students in New Haven, Cambridge, Washington, Princeton and Jerusalem ransacked the libraries for him.) Among the authors he cites is the Syrian political scientist Bassam Tibi. He misses Tibi's masterful insight.

Tibi wrote that Arabs are not interested in democracy. This is obviously the case. Any book, no matter how judiciously intended, that assumes a different possibility is going to be fundamentally misleading, and in that sense, "Power, Faith and Fantasy" is misleading.

It is, nevertheless, required reading. Oren says, I think correctly, that no one had tried to write the story of America in the Middle East (a term invented by an American, Alfred Mahan) before.

Bank messenger

The $1.9 billion settlement agreed to by UK-based international bank HSBC for laundering terrorist and drug money was described by American authorities as a message.

Senator Carl Levin, who chaired in inquiry, said, ""The HSBC settlement sends a powerful wakeup call to multinational banks about the consequences of disregarding their anti-money laundering obligations." 

A message was indeed sent, but in the other direction. The message -- a lesson that market skeptics like me learned long ago -- is that in a competitive market, somebody will always estimate that it is more lucrative to take the extreme position and take it.

No HSBC managers were charged as individuals and, indeed, while they are indecent human beings, what they did as business managers was -- by market standards -- acceptable, even commendable.

Markets are immoral. Not amoral. Climate is amoral. Hurricane Sandy did not target Manhattan. Markets are immoral. Their only goal is to increase profit. There are no limits as to how. 

The market values HSBC at about $200 billion. The day the settlement was announced, the value of the shares rose more than half a percent -- about a billion dollars. So half the so-called fine was gained back by the shareholders in a few hours.

Some commentators who have been critical of the leniency of the settlement pointed out that the money came not from the managers but from the shareholders. But they're wrong.

I don't know how much additional profit HSBC generated by taking blood money, but when you add that to the approval of the market of the settlement, it is obvious that the shareholders came out ahead on the wrongdoing. I do not anticipate that any of them will feel obliged to disgorge their dirty money.

Since HSBC had already been caught twice before laundering money, there is no reason to think that it will not do it again. Laundering money makes money. The market approves.

Not only the market as an impersonal mechanism. The people who operate the market also approve. The demonstrated indecency of the HSBC managers will not harm their position as marketeers. No one in the banking business will decline to do business with them because they are immoral. Socially, none of them will be asked to resign from their clubs in London. 

If it made money, then it was the right thing to do. The only thing that will get you frozen out is passing up an opportunity to take a profit.

If the market approves, it will happen. If the market thinks you are worth more to it dead than alive, it will arrange to have you killed.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Restating the obvious about firearms

From a review I wrote of a book about Irish police work:

The Irish are not a peaceable people. Several of the murders recounted by Reddy were IRA assassinations (the only famous crime in the selection is the bombing of Lord Mountbatten's fishing boat, a political assassination). And the murders selected were not chosen by Reddy to make any points about firearms or causes of murder, but only to illustrate good forensics work,

But it is remarkable how hands-on Irish murderers have to be.

Guns are common in the countryside, for hunting, and there is a shotgun murder here. But there are many more strangulation murders and beatings.

It is a lot easier to kill in the heat of the moment if you have a pistol handy.

American gun nuts are fond of saying that guns don't kill people, people kill people. That's true, but people who have guns are able to kill a lot more people than people who have only a knife, candlestick or bare hands.

Ireland, like Somalia, has suffered from the increase in the population of cheap but reliable handarms. After an offduty Garda officer was shot by bankrobbers, the minister of justice, Patrick Cooney, said: "Those who have introduced this cult of the gun into Irish society have a lot to answer for."

Book Review 260: The Freemasons

THE FREEMASONS: A History of the World's Most Secret Society, by Jasper Ridley. 357 pages. Arcade

Whether the Freemasons are really powerful or not -- author Jasper Ridley does not really demonstrate much power -- they can glory in the finest lineup of foes of any society, secret or free, anywhere.

All the most evil men of the past 300 years have condemned the Masons -- the popes, the Nazis, the Communists, the Facists, the Phalangists, assorted emperors and tyrants.

Not bad for a social group devoted merely to tolerance, conviviality, a vague deism, social equality (more or less) and friendship.

But if ideas have power, Jasper Ridley shows -- with a wicked tongue -- just how frightened the bad guys have been by the idea that men, some of them prominent, were gathering together privately to praise liberty, equality and fraternity, even if wrapped up in childish mumbojumbo.

Ridley, a graceful writer, goes back to the origins in a labor union of carvers of stone who went to work on medieval cathedrals and bridges after the rough masons had put up the structure. For obscure reasons -- perhaps because the freemasons had to travel around to their work -- this union was susceptible to ideas of tolerance and leveling once these got a certain traction in reaction to the murderous intolerance of the 17th century religious fights. He describes the early Freemasons as "intellecutal gentlemen who favored religious toleration and friendship between men of different religions and thought that a simple belief in God should replace controversial theological doctrines."

Most lodges banned discussion of religion or politics. They went so far as to admit women, colored people and Jews, at times reluctantly.

That the Freemasons were, and are, regarded as subversive of oppressive regimes will seem odd to Americans, who know them mostly as Shriners, an excuse for grown men to fool around like 9-year-olds under the coloration of raising money for sick children. It's a measure of their diabolical cleverness that they go to such lengths and effort just to mess around.

Ridley, an Englishman, pays little attention to the Americans, though they make up about half the world's Freemasons. He is more concerned to debunk the notion that Masons were a self-serving circle out to subvert government.

At length, he shows that in ordinary political wars and disputes, Masons were on both sides; the stories about Masons letting captives free on seeing a secret sign are fantasies.

There have never been any Masonic armies, Masonic manifestoes or Masonic political parties (though there was an Anti-Masonic Party in the United States, where most of the men who led the nascent Republican Party cut their political teeth).

So it is hard to imagine what power Ridley imagines Masons wield. It seems that their influence was indirect, a place for men of like thoughts to learn of each other's existence and network. In Latin countries, the Lautaro Lodge did spawn revolutionaries, but more as a midwife than as a revolutionary movement itself. There have never been any Masonic Black Shirts.

In the 20th century, Ridley writes, antimasonic writings reached new levels of insanity. All -- or at least very many -- of the forces of antimodernity recognized Freemasonry for what it is: a stalking horse for modernism.

Tomas Masaryk, the father of Czech modernism and independence, put it in a nutshell: "Freemasonry is the guilty conscience of the Catholic Church." And not only of that body; all rightwingers have hated masonry, though antimasonic feeling has never figured too prominently among Muslims. (There are Muslim Masons; they hold a Koran during their ceremonies, while Jewish Masons use the Talmud.)

After all this sturm and drang, "The Freemasons" ends almost on a note of comedy, where Ridley lists some of the accomplishments of men who were Freemasons. (Though Ridley is sophisicated about European and Latin American history, he is pretty shaky about American popular culture, labeling Lowell Thomas as Thomas Lowell among several other flubs).

Did you know, for example, the Hubert Eaton, the man who introduced flat grave markers so lawnmowers could roll unimpeded over the corpses, was a Mason?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

'Fiscal cliff' in a nutshell

Never, ever worry about the poverty of people who have more money than you do.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Good bread for everybody

Lots of people are posting fond memories of Jose Krall, the baker and pastry cook at Maui Bake Shop & Deli, who is missing since his plane crashed Saturday. Here is my favorite.

Jose’s productions were first-rate and priced accordingly. A strawberry dressed up in a tuxedo made of dark and white chocolate, for example, cost about $3. The exception was his baguettes, the bread that is the staff of life for the French.

When a sort of imitation baguette was available at local supermarkets for $3 or so, a genuine, crusty, hard baguette from Jose cost just $1.25. I once asked him why his baguettes were so cheap when his other loaves were priced around $6. I cannot recall his exact words, but the gist was:

“Everyone should be able to afford to eat good bread.”

In his old shop, before his brief retirement, he had a poster that read, in French, “In his (the baker’s) hands, the essence of good bread.” Jose Krall was a master baker who took his craft seriously. He walked the walk.

The text above is what I posted at Kamaaina Loan's blog. Since Kamaaina Loan's outlook is generally positive, I stopped there. The rest of the story is that Americans won't eat hard, sour bread.

Over the years, Jose's baguettes got fatter and softer, and the price also converged with the imitation baguettes in the supermarket trade.

I never asked him about it but I think I knew him well enough to guess that he was disappointed that people wouldn't eat his best production even when it was cheaper. As we used to say in East Tennessee, some people, if they didn't have bad taste, they wouldn't have no taste at all. (Photo from The Maui News)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Book Review 259: A Gardener Touched with Genius

A GARDENER TOUCHED WITH GENIUS: The Life of Luther Burbank, by Peter Dreyer. 403 pages, illustrated. Luther Burbank Home & Gardens.

I don't know if Luther Burbank is still a household name. When I was a boy in the '50s, everybody knew that Burbank was the world's greatest plant breeder, although other than creating a white blackberry, I don't think many of us knew what he had done. But we understood that a man who could conjure up a white blackberry was a genius.

According to Peter Dreyer's meticulous life -- necessarily incomplete as the records are not that good -- the white blackberry was one of Burbank's failures. Not especially good eating, it disappeared once the novelty of it wore off.

Burbank himself believed that any character could be coaxed out of a plant by a sufficiently skilled breeder, because he believed that all qualities existed in the germ plasm. He disbelieved in mutations.

This was an open question when Burbank began his plant nursery in the 1870s. Before his career ended in the '20s, knowledge had caught up with Burbank but he did not change his opinion.

He was a -- perhaps almost, the -- stellar example of the self-made Yankee artificer. Only Thomas Edison, perhaps, had a greater reputation with the public. He was also one of the first to benefit from and be tortured by the modern pulicity apparatus.

Newspapers and magazines were insatiable for copy, and while Dreyer emphasizes the magazines and never mentions the Sunday supplements, it was the supplements that ensure that everyone knew the names of Burbank, Edison, Einstein and Fitzgerald. The Hearst papers alone printed 30 million copies, seen by at least 60 million, Americans -- nearly half the population.

The supplements were not too discriminating nor reliable. Burbank was not so widely admired by professional botanists. but like Alfred Wagener (the author of continental drift), Burbank's real achievements were discounted by the professionals. Public opinion was, in his case, more nearly accurate.

He gave his enemies plenty of ammunition to use against him. In business, he fell into the hands of stockjobbers, who boomed his enthusiasm for prickly pear cactus as a desert cattle fodder. (Burbank tried to breed a spineless variety, never quite succeeding.)

Ironically, his greatest achievement was not in breeding. It was his sharp eye that spotted a potato seed pod (a very rare event, it was the only one Burbank ever encountered), saved it, selected two offspring and gave America the Burbank potato -- now more commonly called a russet, baker or Idaho potato, but at one time sold as a Burbank potato.

His entrepreneurial acumen was remarkable. The breeder of the Concord grape (also a New England boy) went broke trying to defend his discovery from poachers. Burbank sold his stock, and all rights, to nurserymen for lofty prices (sometimes $3,000 in the 1890s), and left it to them to market, publicize and protect the rights.

To make this work, he had to produce thousands of new varieties, some scores each year, and he did. A summary of his introductions published as an appendix in "A Gardener Touched with Genius" runs to 110 pages.

He died very well-off though unsuccessful as a breeder personally. His two marriages were barren and his relations with women generally were unhappy.

The story of Burbank is worth remembering. "Charisma is a double-edged instrument," writes Dreyer. "He was trapped by his admirers."

The admirers have passed on now and we can appreciate Burbank better for what he was and what he wasn't -- one of the greatest Americans of the early modern era, a man with opinions on many other subjects besides plants, some of them worth thinking about today.