“The English and Their History,” by Robert Tombs

I picked up Robert Tombs’ The English and Their History after I read David Frum’s review. (MR also had nice things to say.) Professor Tombs is a historian at Cambridge who’s spent most of his career writing about France. The book consists of 900 pages of British history, focusing especially on the English people; it’s dense and comprehensive, covering every issue of historical importance, and usually quite briefly.

The book is tremendously satisfying to read. I enjoyed it at every moment, and wished that it would go on further as I approached the end. Here are some impressions, with a focus on things I’ve learned:

1. To my regret, I’ve never taken formal coursework in European history. Although I’ve lived briefly on the continent, I don’t have much solid knowledge of what was important in various epochs. This book corrects at least a bit of my ignorance around the history of Britain.

For example: I never really knew who the Normans were or when the Conquest took place. As it turns out, the Norman Conquest was an 11th century invasion of England by a French nobleman, William II of Normandy. He raised a fleet and an army to depose the Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson. After William secured England under his rule, major parts of state and society tilted towards French sensibilities. His status as the new English king combined with his possessions in France were major factors for centuries of warfare between the two countries.

The list of these illuminations goes on and on. Who were the Jacobites? Who fought whom in the English Civil War? How did the British get everywhere? Who are the eight Henrys and which of them were significant? Who ruled the Admiralty? Knowing a bit more about these questions is a nice confidence to have.

2. The English and Their History isn’t just a textbook. It gets beyond the dry recitation of facts by presenting various contrarianisms.

Frum’s review discusses three: 1. The English were enthusiastic participants in the slave trade, but reformers also took the moral lead in abolishing it throughout the empire. (A fact I found impressive: “The Royal Navy placed a permanent squadron from 1808 to 1870, at times equal to a sixth of its ships, to try to intercept slavers off West Africa.”) 2. English workers lived relatively well, usually better than their counterparts on the continent; the Dickensian depictions of squalor were the exceptions, not the rule. 3. The post-WWII obsessions with decline was quite a cultural exaggeration; the English misremember the past for being greater than than it was, and they understate how well off they had become.

And here are a few more quick ones I thought to present:

  • Contra Keynes, Tombs makes the case that Germany could have paid war reparations after all. For Germany, reparations were a greater political problem than an economic one.
  • In general, Britain’s island status made it easier, not harder to be invaded. For a long time, it was impossible for the state to defend every part of the coast; a fleet can sail up a bit further to a less guarded spot if it intended to invade. Before Britain could protect most parts of the island, it could only pray that poor sea conditions turn away foes. William the Conqueror and William of Orange were lucky; Philip II and Napoleon were not.
  • As often as not, Britain was a reluctant imperialist. Expansion was usually driven by local problems. Tombs lists a few reasons: “to control settlers; to restrain them from attacking natives; to defend them from reprisals when they did; to secure frontiers by pushing outwards, thus replacing existing problems with new ones; to fight wars against neighboring entities seen as a threat,” etc.

3. British foreign policy appears to have been consistent over the course of centuries: When a European country became too powerful, Britain financed its rivals. If Britain had to go to war, it used its overwhelming sea power to raid and blockade, rather than deploy its usually lackluster standing army to meet a threat head-on.

That strategy was well-implemented by the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Britain was the paymaster of the coalition that set Dutch, Prussian, Austrian, Russian, and troops from other countries against the French. (To finance these efforts, it relied on an income tax, trade with its colonies, and selling bonds abroad.) Its troops did fight and win, but it was really the fleet that put the most pressure on Napoleon and made a mockery of his Continental System.

Of WWII, here’s Tombs: “This was the last great imperial struggle, the fourth great war in which Britain was victorious by being able to mobilize global resources against a European hegemon.”

4. The formidable sea power resulted from centuries of investments in the Royal Navy:

“Trafalgar was in reality a one-sided battle, as was now invariably the case when the totally dominant Royal Navy got to grips with its enemies, inferior in training, morale, and physical health.”

“From 1793 to 1815, (the Royal Navy) lost only one line-of-battle ship to enemy action, but captured or destroyed 139… (the navy) was the most important and expensive project ever undertaken by the British state and society, and left few aspects of national life unaffected.”

“Blockades of French ports were progressively tightened as the navy learned how to spend long periods on station without its crews quickly falling sick—Admiral Collingwood, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, had not set foot on shore for eight years before he died on board in 1810… British sailors spent far more time at sea, giving the Royal Navy the advantage of tough and well-trained crews. They were led by a meritocratic and experienced officer corps… Food and drink were good and plentiful—about 5000 calories a day, including a pound of bread, a pound of meat, and a gallon of beer.”

Certain warships cost as much as the annual budgets of small states.

5. The book is comprehensive and readable. It covered all the things you ought to know about in sufficient depth, and the writing is always bright and clear.

Of course, being comprehensive entails the usual complaint: You wish that certain topics were covered in greater detail. The War of the Roses, for example, is discussed in a mere seven pages. As a casual Game of Thrones fan, I’d have cared to read much more.

6. In roughly the first half of the book, nearly all discussions focused on political and royal issues. Who was the reigning monarch? What was his/her relationship to Parliament? Which war did his death and succession cause?

And then in the latter half, the focus shifts almost entirely. After Victoria, the monarch is rarely brought up. Instead of offering an evaluation of the king or queen, Tombs doesn’t write about many at all. I’d have liked some acknowledgment of that. Did the sovereign start to matter less as Parliament took on more power? Was there too little materialistic and economic development to be written about? Did domestic issues and foreign policy become more important as England stabilized? Was it a matter of record keeping, in which economic developments were hard to track, but court machinations well-recorded?

The earlier focus on royal personalities made certain paragraphs bewildering. At some point there were too many Edwards, Henrys, and later on Georges, for me to keep track of. I gave up on certain sentences because I didn’t want to browse back to see which Charles/Edward/Henry was being referred to after all.

7. And here’s a slightly different form of the complaint above: Though there are many great discussions of culture, there’s still too much focus on kings and wars.

I wish that there were more discussions on economically interesting things. Enough on the personalities of queens and prime ministers. How did people adapt to the steam engine and the railroad? How did elites deal with the rise of German and American industry? How complementary were the colonies to the home economy? What was the social and economic impact of all of its scientific innovations?

8. Monarchy was in general not a stabilizing force for the country. Tombs mentioned that about the only succession to go well in a 100-year time span was that of Henry VII to Henry VIII. (The latter managed to provoke massive instability all on his own, without the assistance of succession problems.) Before George I, nearly every succession led to some lengthy war.

These succession issues made me think of Scott Alexander’s Neoreactionary FAQ. Strong monarchs may produce stable kingdoms, but their succession usually provoked political upheaval. The weeks after a monarch’s death were terribly fraught for all factions. There were always questions about the best claim; or people would be upset that the wrong religion now controls the throne; or foreign actors decide to take advantage of chaos to launch military action. I don’t much read neoreactionaries, and I hope that they acknowledge the fact that succession issues were the source for some of the worst wars.

9. To wrap up, here’s a gentle plea from Tombs to remember Britain’s contributions in WWII: “Had (Britain) made peace with Germany in 1940, Nazi dominance of Europe for the foreseeable future would have been unchallengeable, and American isolationism confirmed… Germany would have held the global initiative, with free access to oil, food, and raw materials. The subsequent defeat of an isolated USSR, simultaneously assailed by Japan, would have been inevitable, accompanied by a planned genocidal depopulation of much of eastern Europe.”

“In a nutshell: the defeat of Japan was overwhelmingly American; the evisceration of the German army was mainly due to the Russians; but the strategic defeat of Germany as a whole and that of Italy were primarily due to Britain.”


I’ll reiterate that I really like this book: It’s a comprehensive, readable account of the political and cultural history of a major power.

Another history quite excites me at the moment: Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century. I flipped it open in a bookstore, to land on a section describing the varieties of monarchies in Southeast Asia. How can one resist?

Now a question: Every country deserves to have its history written up like this, but right now I’m most interested in finding two; what’s the equivalent for France and Germany? In other words, which German/French history substitutes for a textbook, but is more gracefully written and viewpoint-driven? I’ve asked a few people, none of whom have offered pointers. I’ll appreciate any suggestions: danwyd@gmail.com.

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Thiel and Trump

In the spring of 2011, a year before he locked up the Republican primaries, Mitt Romney went to have breakfast with Peter Thiel in San Francisco. Thiel offered some political advice. Here’s the account from George Packer’s book, The Unwinding:

Romney said his campaign was going to focus on the economy, not social issues, and let the numbers make his argument. Thiel found him extremely polished and impressive, and he offered Romney a prediction: “I think the most pessimistic candidate is going to win, because if you are too optimistic it suggests that you’re out of touch.” In other words, it would be a mistake for Romney just to argue that Obama was incompetent, and that things would automatically be much better with a different president.

Romney didn’t take it up. Here’s Packer again:

It was a point that Romney couldn’t grasp. He assumed that the more optimistic candidate would always win. He assumed things were still fundamentally working.

I thought of this passage as I listened to Donald Trump’s speech at the RNC Convention. Twitter lit up with indignation even as he was speaking, as people denounced the speech as dark and full of despair.

An hour before Trump took the stage, Peter Thiel went up to speak. Not only did Thiel speak on behalf of Trump, he also went through the trouble of becoming one of his national delegates. I couldn’t help but wonder if Thiel gave exactly the same advice to Trump that he did to Romney: Go for darkness and pessimism.

If he did, Trump exploited it ruthlessly. Note that Trump’s closest competitor in the primaries, Ted Cruz, has enjoyed a longer relationship with Thiel. And he wasn’t exactly a ray of sunshine himself. Both Trump and Cruz have managed to weaponize pessimism. Perhaps it was already Trump’s instinct to offer a bleak vision and didn’t need any convincing from Thiel. Still, his success in the primaries is evidence for Thiel’s idea that pessimism is the right tone to strike.

I’ve seen many takes on why Thiel is supporting Trump. In general I think they overcomplicate. I’ve never spoken with Thiel about his motivations, and I suspect that no one except himself knows why he’s doing this. But let me share my own speculations on his support of Trump:

What important truth do very few people agree with you on? Being a contrarian means taking contrarian positions. What could provoke greater delight than to take the complete opposite stand from (almost literally) every single one of your peers, who are public and passionate about their distaste for Trump? When one sees this degree of unanimity on any position, can a good contrarian possibly resist taking the other side? It’s too delicious of an opportunity to pass up.

(This is also kind of the “he’s a troll” explanation.)

He agrees with Trump on policy. Thiel has become less supportive of free trade; Trump bashes NAFTA all the time. Neither are enthusiastic about foreign interventions. Both want to blow up political correctness. Both have made positive noises on single payer healthcare, as well as raising the minimum wage. Both want to “build big things.” And isn’t Trump quite friendly towards the LGBTQ community? On a lot of major issues, the two are at least rhetorically aligned. When else is Thiel going to get this mix of left-right positions?

Still, I think that Thiel’s agreement with Trump on policy is being over-indexed by most commentators. A commitment to detailed policy proposals isn’t the key to understanding either man.

By the way, I don’t think that using Thiel’s background is the right way to understand the relationship. Thiel doesn’t make a big deal out of his identity, and in some cases you can read contradictions into them. It’s better to start instead from his beliefs.

He really doesn’t like Clinton. Thiel founded the conservative Stanford Review in the late-’80s, and published The Diversity Myth in 1996. All indications are that he was a righteous Republican in the ‘90s. And what unified all Republicans then? A hatred of the Clintons. It could be so simple that Thiel really doesn’t want the Clintons back in the White House.

He’s an accelerationist. Here’s the explanation I like the least: He’s supporting Trump to hasten the collapse of capitalist democracy/a functional government/social institutions. I think that Thiel’s distaste for democracy, if it even exists, is overblown. Thiel’s a fan of Benjamin Friedman’s work, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. He wants to see growth more than anything else, so that people can come together to discuss how to increase the pie. That’s as opposed to having no growth, in which people bicker about how to divide a static pie. Everything is worse when the pie shrinks.

Consider his most original essay, The Optimistic Thought Experiment. He considers it foolish and irresponsible to make bets on the end of the world. This was quite a big theme for him before he took up discussing technological pessimism.

One last thing: Two of his most famous philanthropic ventures involve getting people to drop out of college and to create self-governing societies. I’ve seen people refer to these to prove that Thiel wants society to blow up after all. But that’s quite wrong. Thiel is not trying to blow anything up. Instead, he’s advocating to exit decaying institutions, and to build new ones instead.

Hedging his positions. Thiel used to be a derivatives trader and managed a hedge fund. According to the betting markets right now, Trump is around 30% likely to win. Most of Thiel’s peers are rooting for the other side, and his support for Trump can be a hedge for the tech sector as a whole.

Potential payoff. There could be a lot for Thiel if Trump wins; traders have made fortunes from far worse odds. A cabinet position, perhaps? I’ve cheekily suggested that Thiel would make an excellent Secretary of Defense. The Pentagon has the biggest budget and a mandate to develop new technologies. Imagine what Thiel can do with the Army Corps of Engineers, which has worked on the Panama Canal, the Manhattan Project, and the Kennedy Space Center.

$500,000 was a small price to pay for getting in on Facebook early; becoming a delegate and speaking at a convention is a cheaper price still, for a far greater potential payoff. And in any case, Thiel’s funding of various unpopular causes has already sufficiently alienated him with polite society; he’s not about to lose many followers now.

And it’s not just the direct personal payoff. With the executive branch on his side, he stands to help out a lot of his portfolio companies as well. Many of his investments are in high-regulated industries, and stand to benefit a great deal from federal contracts, not to mention executive relief from Energy, Health and Human Services, Education, and on and on.


I wasn’t so surprised to learn that Thiel had become a delegate for Trump when news broke in May. Certainly I didn’t expect for him to go through the hassles of actually becoming a delegate, but his declared support needn’t have shocked. This is the sort of thing he does, and in this case I expect that he acted with gusto.

Here’s a not quite related point, to conclude: In 2014, Thiel said that Trump is “sort of symptomatic of everything that is wrong with New York City.” I’d love for him to unpack that. What is so bad about New York, and about the culture of the east coast more generally? And which person embodies the very best of New York?

Addendum, 9.6,16: Thiel publishes an op-ed in the Washington Post on his support of Trump. It focuses on his belief that Trump will improve the effectiveness of government.

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“Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox,” from John Brooks’ Business Adventures

A friend recommended that I pick up Business Adventures by John Brooks. It’s a book made recently popular by Bill Gates, who borrowed his copy from his friend Warren Buffett.

Business Adventures is made up of 12 chapters, each of which was separately published as articles in the New Yorker. It covers topics like insider trading, stockholder meetings, an early Wall Street bailout, and more. The very first chapter I read was “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox,” which profiles the company that was so important to the city of Rochester, where I went to college. (The story mentions the university quite a few times.) The company was initially named Haloid, and it struggled to develop a product before it found major success.

Brooks’ storytelling is superb. Here are a few things from the chapter that resonated with me. And at the end of the post, I’ll share a few of my favorite sentences.

1. In 1964, the company spent a year’s advertising budget to underwrite a series of ads supporting the United Nations. The UN is well established now, so it’s easy to ignore, or not know at all, that its growth was a matter of major controversy. Xerox’s CEO justified the expenditure in high-minded terms: “World cooperation is our business, because without it there might be no world and no business.”

The company ran into a storm of opposition. Thousands of letters poured in to denounce Xerox. They didn’t all come from members of the John Birch Society, although most did: some purportedly came from the presidents of major companies, who threatened to remove all Xerox machines from their offices unless the ad series was canceled. The company declined to give in.

It does not seem self-evident that the responsibility for promoting world cooperation should fall so heavily on a company selling photocopiers. How often do major companies take stands on positions of genuine public controversy? And how often do they maintain these public positions when their customers expressly threaten to cancel business? It feels remarkably brave.

2. Here’s bravery of a more obvious sort: The company invested a great deal in R&D for the product, at a time when it wasn’t clear that a breakthrough was possible. No one else had figured out how to build a cheap, efficient xerography machine that could print on untreated paper. Developing the machine eventually became a do-or-die affair for the company. Several early employees really stuck their necks out, including forgoing a salary and mortgaging their houses to help with the research effort. They were duly rewarded, but they may well have all been ruined.

3. I’ve never quite realized how important Xerox was to the city and to the University of Rochester. It’s fun to read the profile of the company and recognize so many names I’ve seen around campus. Joseph C. Wilson was variously the chairman, chief executive, and president of the company; his name is on the main boulevard of the university and one of the three major dining halls. The school has named its science library after Chester Carlson, who developed one of the processes critical to xerography. I haven’t seen the names of Sol Linowitz (a chief deputy) and John Dessauer (a chief researcher) around, but I’m sure that their names adorn professorships or different parts of campus.

Someone once told me that the University of Rochester had a massive endowment in the ’60s, second only to Harvard’s. Now it all makes sense.  Before Xerox had its breakthrough, the university bought a huge number of shares out of concern for helping out a struggling local employer. When the company took off, the university’s position did as well. Alas it wasn’t so successful at managing the money. Rochester’s endowment is now around $2 billion, while Harvard’s is around $32 billion.

Xerox was important to the city, not just to the university. I remember reading a 1971 book that describes the city this way: “Rochester prides itself on being one of America’s cultural crown jewels; it has its libraries, school system, university, museums, and its well-known symphony.” That was the heyday of Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb. But it wasn’t able to keep growing or maintain momentum; the city’s population has been in decline for the last few decades, stabilizing only in the last few years. Instead of being able to tout these multinational industrial giants, the city’s largest employers have become the University of Rochester (because of the hospital system) and Wegmans (a grocery chain).

4. I’d always thought it a little funny that Xerox’s name so resembled Kodak’s. It turns out that it was intentional of the upstart to copy Kodak’s near-palindrome. The decision to change the name to Xerox from Haloid ran into virulent opposition from the firm’s marketing consultants, who declared the name unpronounceable and to sound too much like “zero.”

The chapter is my favorite so far in the book. Others I’ve read don’t come close to being as interesting, though perhaps I say that only because it has personal resonance. At some points Brooks is a brilliant writer, but at other times I’m put off by his self-consciousness. Anyway, here are three of my favorite sentences, all from the Xerox chapter.

In a society that sociologists are forever characterizing as a “mass,” the notion of making one-of-a-kind things into many-of-a-kind things showed signs of becoming a real compulsion.

I sent a couple of afternoons with one 914 and its operator, and observed what seemed to be the closest relationship between a woman and a piece of office equipment that I have ever seen. A girl who uses a typewriter or a switchboard has no interest in the equipment, because it holds no mystery, while one who operates a computer is bored with it, because it is incomprehensible. But a 914 has distinct animal traits…

Xerox salesmen are forever trying to think of new uses for the company’s copiers, but they found again and again that the public is well ahead of them.

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Casual Carpool in Oakland and Berkeley

I’ve been living in north Oakland/south Berkeley for two months. This is a post about one of my favorite institutions: casual carpool.

Every morning I walk 15 minutes from my house to a spot in Rockridge, Oakland. There I’d find a line of cars waiting to pick up passengers. I’d get into a car and be driven across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, where I’d be dropped off two blocks away from my office in the Financial District. All of this is free.

The system is called “casual carpool.” It’s not app-enabled or have much to do with the internet. Instead it emerged since the ‘60s or ‘70s as a way for East Bay’ers to get into the city. It’s an excellent trade: Passengers get a free ride into the city. Drivers can use the carpool lane, saving on average 20 minutes and $4 on their morning commutes.

It works simply. A small sign is all there is to designate a pickup spot. There are about two dozen such spots in the East Bay, concentrating around East Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley. The designated drop-off spot is the first exit off the Bay Bridge; it just so happens that my office is close by.

Casual carpool is structured to be maximally easy for everyone. For passengers, these spots are close to parking spaces or within walking distance of public transportation. The spot I go to is right before a highway entrance, to make it especially compelling for drivers to take passengers: If you see people lining up to save you time on your commute, why not pick them up?

The experience is shrouded in some etiquette. There typically isn’t a great deal of talking. It’s up to the driver to initiate conversation, and I’ve chatted perhaps a third of the time. It’s rude for the passenger to carry out a phone conversation over the whole ride. NPR is almost always on, loudly. You should to ask for permission to have food and coffee in the car. Drivers and passengers are supposed to match on the basis first-come-first-served; a driver should not look for the most attractive woman in the line and ask her to get in.

I find especially interesting the driver rhetoric towards accepting money. Occasionally someone will ask for a dollar, but more often I’ve had drivers insist to me that they won’t take payment. They say they do it “to be nice” and to be environmentally friendly. Of course we acknowledge that everyone saves time: When we drive past unmoving lines that are 50-cars deep, we wonder why more drivers don’t pick people up.

Two stories: I was once picked up by a person who turned out to be a federal judge of the United States; he sits on the court of the Northern District of California, and has been driving people from Berkeley for the last twenty-five years. He reported that exactly two of those experiences have been unpleasant. My favorite ride was when I rode across the Bay Bridge in a Fiat convertible, top down in the summer sun. It’s gorgeous to watch the sun rise over the city; sometimes you can see ships across the bay.

Alas casual carpool doesn’t work so well in the evening. There isn’t a centralized drop-off spot and there’s a much greater range of people’s after-work commute times. I take BART home.

I don’t know if casual carpool works like this anywhere else. For all the talk of Berkeley/Oakland friendliness, I think this has been so sticky because it’s a third-best response to the housing shortage of the city, the size of the population across the bay, and the constraint of the lone Bay Bridge as the only way to get into the city.

Casual carpool is so marvelous that I don’t particularly want to move into the city. I enjoy my morning commute; how many other people can say that?

Addendum, 12.13: As Samuel Hammond said in a tweet—isn’t this the original sharing economy?

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I had intended to read Peter Watson’s The German Genius before I left for Germany. Instead I got to it only now, after I’ve returned. Here anyway are some thoughts.

The book is an intellectual history of Germany. Watson largely ignores political intrigue, bringing out instead the ideas of philosophers, musicians, scientists, historians, and industrialists. It’s to make a simple point: There’s a lot more to the country than the 12 years between 1933 and 1945. He regrets that the Third Reich so dominates popular imagination of Germany, and this 850-page book is his corrective.

To prove the point he makes to overwhelm with the sheer number of important German thinkers. It’s not just Kant and Goethe and Beethoven and Hegel and Freud and Wagner and Schiller and Nietzsche and Einstein and Marx and on and on. Take a look at these chapter titles: Physics Becomes King: Helmholtz, Clausius, Boltzmann, Reimann; Sensibility and Sensuality in Vienna; Munich/Schwabing: Germany’s “Montmartre”; Masters of Metal: Krupp, Diesel, Rathenau.

The approach is sometimes frustrating. Watson typically serves up a brief bio and an explication of a thinker’s main ideas. Most people receive a few paragraphs before they’re dismissed. So just when you think: “Hmm, tell me more,” Watson has already moved on to the next person. I found his treatment of quite a few people to be unsatisfactory. He skips over the fascinating details of Albert Hirschman’s work during the war, noting only that Hirschman was assistant to Varian Fry; on the intellectual side, he brings out Hirschman’s scholarship on development economics, but says nothing of his work on political science. What interesting details has he rushed over in the lives of other people? If you pick up this book, just be aware that he’s trying to be encyclopedic, and that breadth here is the point.

Watson is British, but some of his sentences feel very… German. Take this: “Gödel imagined (or rather, worked out mathematically) that if the universe were rotating, as he calculated it was (this was now called a “Gödel universe”), then space-time could become so greatly warped or curved by the distribution of matter that were a spaceship to travel through it at a certain minimum speed (which he calculated), time travel would be possible.” Then he moves on.

Consider another excerpt. This gives a better sense of what Watson is trying to do: “The pithiest way to show how German refugees affected American life is to give a list of those whose intellectual contribution was such as to render their names, if not household words, then at least eminent among their peers: Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Rudolf Arnheim, Erich Auerbach, Paul Baran, Hans Bethe, Bruno Bettelheim, Arnold Brecht, Bertolt Brecht, Marcel Breuer, Hermann Broch, Charlotte and Karl Bühler, Rudolf Carnap, Lewis Coser, Karl Deutsch, Marlene Dietrich, Alfred Döblin, Peter Drucker, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Hanns Eisler, Erik Erikson, Otto Fenichel, Ernst Fraenkel, Erich Fromm, Hans Gerth, Felix Gilbert, Kurt Gödel, Gottfried von Haberler, Eduard Heimann, Ernst Herzfled, Julius Hirsch, Albert Hirschman, Hajo Holborn, Max Horkeimer, Karen Horney, Werner Jaeger, Marie Jahoda, George Katona, Walter Kaufmann, Otto Kirchheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka, Erich Korngold, Siegfried Kracauer, Ernst Krenek, Ernst Kris, Paul Oskar Kristeller, Fritz Lang, Paul Lazarsfeld, Kurt Lewin, Peter Lorre, Leo Lowenthal, Ernst Lubitsch, Heinrich Mann, Klaus Mann, Thomas Mann, Herbert Marcuse, Ernst Mayr, Ludwig von Mises…” That’s not even all of “M,” and yes it goes to “Z.”

Now I don’t want to give the impression that this book is merely a bio mashup of important Germans. Watson takes all this material to argue that there is something of a German character after all. He brings up the term Sonderweg, which means “special path,” a German equivalent of “American Exceptionalism.” As I understand it, Sonderweg usually refers to Germany’s particular political development, but Watson relates it instead to the profundity of German culture.

So here’s what makes German thinkers German. Watson shows that Germans have always prized inwardness, or Innerlichkeit. It manifests for example as Kant’s ideas on the inwardly-looking structures of the mind; consider also the symphony, which is (usually) wordless and beyond words. Watson shows the historical roots of the concept of Bildung, which refers to self-cultivation and the desire to “enlarge” ourselves and those around us. Both are German tendencies which have been explicitly named and praised as virtues over many centuries.

Watson also cites other features that help explain the idea of a German character. He shows that German development has been affected by a relatively large educated middle class. And he brings out historical arguments that Germans are apathetic towards politics and tend towards a nationalist cultural pessimism. (He also shows how modern Germans no longer hold these ideas.) Finally, he considers whether the Nazi regime was a necessary development given these tendencies; read the book, I won’t try to discuss that idea here.

Last thing on Watson’s arguments before I present a few scattered thoughts. In the conclusion he writes: “Kant, Humboldt, Marx, Clausius, Mendel, Nietzsche, Planck, Freud, Einstein, Weber, Hitler—for good or ill, can any other national boast a collection of eleven (or even more) individuals who compare with these figures in regard to the enduring influence they have had on modern ways of thought?” Maybe, right? Britain is a candidate. Hume preceded Kant, Smith preceded Marx, Newton preceded Clausius, Planck, and Einstein, Darwin preceded Mendel, Locke and Mill preceded Nietzsche. It’s not just a question of chronology; the British thinkers came up with the fundamental ideas that the German thinkers built on.

Here are a few more short thoughts:

  • Three data points that support the idea for a large educated middle class: In the early 19th century, Germany had 300 universities to Britain’s 4. In 1900, it had 4221 newspapers to France’s 3000 and Russia’s 125. And before 1933, Germany had more Nobel Prizes than American and British scientists put together.
  • Reading ideas from certain German thinkers made me think of China. In both cultures there’s an emphasis on reading and education, and perhaps a philosophical cultivation among the upper class. But there’s also less happy stuff. Racial identities featured prominently in both cultures; people are or have been a bit too eager to believe that their race makes them especially inventive or philosophical. Prominent writers from both countries have offered arguments that their people are particularly allergic to liberal values, and that authoritarianism best suits their country. These ideas are now so out of the mainstream in Germany, but it’s disturbing how easily you can come across them in China now.
  • Watson wants us to think beyond Nazis, but I thought that the book’s strongest section was the part about the damage that Nazis caused. It’s the section that engages most actively with history, presenting how the political situation thoroughly profaned the intellectual culture. (One example: A few prominent scientists, including some who won the Nobel Prize, were actively encouraged to leave the country.) My favorite chapter was the one on German refugees in America. It discusses how they mostly failed to assimilate to American culture and how many returned to Europe (with most settling in Switzerland) when they got the chance.
  • Here’s a paragraph I found intriguing: “Dewey’s first point was that history has shown that to think in abstract terms is dangerous. It elevates ideas beyond the situations in which they were born and charges them with we know not what menace for the future. He observed the British philosophy, from Francis Bacon to John Stuart Mill, had been cultivated by men of affairs rather than professors, as had happened in Germany (Kant, Fichte, Hegel)… In particular, he thought that Germany—and its well-trained bureaucracy—had ‘ready-made channels through which philosophic ideas may flow on their way to practical affairs,’ and that Germany differed from the United States and Britain in that this channel was the universities rather than the newspapers.”

Watson collected a few dozen short quotes about Germany and German culture at the beginning of the book. Here are my favorites:

German problems are rarely German problems alone. – Ralf Dahrendorf

The word “genius” in German has a special overtone, even a tinge of the demonic, a mysterious power and energy; a genius—whether artist or scientist—is considered to have a special vulnerability, a precariousness, a life of constant risk and often close to troubled turmoil. – Fritz Stern

The Germans dive deeper—but they come up muddier. – Wickham Steed

The Allies won [the Second World War] because our German scientists were better than their German scientists. – Sir Ian Jacobs, military secretary to Winston Churchill

Schneehügel mit Raben

(Above, Caspar David Friedrich’s Schneehügel mit Raben, Snow Hill with Ravens. Watson remarks that Friedrich rarely depicts direct sunlight, and instead paints scenes of dusk, dawn, or fog… via Wikimedia Commons.)

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Technological predictions: 1903 – 1970

Popular Mechanics has been making predictions of technological innovations since it first started publishing in 1903. Greg Benford, a science fiction author, has collated some of them in a short book called The Wonderful Future that Never Was. They’re predictions on the future of cities, of transportation, of home life, and more, presented in short blurbs set with hand-drawn futurist art.

These predictions were made in magazine issues published up to 1970. It’s fun not just to see what they were and which came true. Studying them is informative for anyone curious to see how science enthusiasts talked about the future. The confident tone is as much a pleasure to read as any of the bold predictions. These types of matter-of-fact declarations are common: “scientists assure us that startling breakthroughs are only a decade away…” or “these remarkable advances are expected to come to the home in a short matter of time.”

I’ll share a some of these predictions, followed by a few general observations in the next section.


My favorite entry is a 1951 prediction of personal helicopters, accompanied with an illustration of a man pushing one into a garage: “This simple, practical, foolproof personal helicopter coupe is big enough to carry two people and small enough to land on your lawn. it has no carburetor to ice up, no ignition system to fall apart or misfire: instead, quiet, efficient ramjets keep the rotors moving, burning any kind of fuel from dime-a-gallon stove oil or kerosene up to aviation gasoline.” It’s not so much that I want a helicopter. Instead I love that the promise of ease is made with such earnestness.

There are lots of entries here on efforts to prolong life, for example with radiation, heavy water, and artificial organs. Scientists then talked of treating old age as a disease with a cure.

Self-driving cars, sort of, predicted in 1965: “Out on the highway, a new era is about to embark: the automated trip. GM’s proposed ‘Autoline’ is a complete speed and directional control system for vehicles, using remote-control electronic signals. Its main components are the inevitable computer, a control cable beneath the automated highway lane, and sensing devices and servo-mechanisms in automobiles that can actuate their controls. When perfected, Autoline will let drivers ‘phase’ into an automated expressway lane with their cars completely in command of the auto-line controls. Cars can thus speed along, virtually bumper to bumper, at 50 mph.”

Here’s a quote from a 1950 entry: “It’s the idea of one of America’s most practical scientist-executives, Dr. Irving Langmuir. ‘There is no fundamental reason,’ says Doctor Langmuir, ‘why we could not travel at the speed of 2000 to 5000 miles an hour in a vacuum tube. The Pacific coast might be only an hour away from the Atlantic.’” Isn’t that the Hyperloop?

Frozen meals (1947) were one of many attempts to industrialize food, but it’s about the only one to be broadly commercialized. In 1926, scientists talked of making food from coal and extracting fats from petroleum. Chemists made a serious effort in 1940 to make grass digestible, so that it can be powdered and sprinkled on bread for the vitamins. Cellulose in the form of sawdust flour was predicted in 1962 to gain wide usage, for example as cookie dough.

Reading these food predictions made me blanch. They are far too grim, even for a Soylent enthusiast such as myself. See this, from the scientist who wanted to derive butter from petroleum: “Prof. Norris declared that food supply will never become an acute problem, so long as we have chemists.” I went to look up the process of making Soylent after reading that.

An IBM computer was used to translate Russian in 1954. It could process six basic rules of grammar, had a vocabulary of 250 words, and operated by punchcards. Here are some other computer-related predictions that we’re familiar with: video calling (predicted in 1940), virtual doctor diagnosis (1957), mapless driving (1967), and “downloadable” digital reading (1938). The last item involved radio delivery of newspapers every morning to a machine at home. From that entry: “Only perfection of certain technical details stand in its way, according to radio experts.”

This isn’t exactly a technological prediction, but it’s the one I’m most glad to not be realized. 1950: “In the year 2000, any marked departure from what your fellow citizens wear and eat and how they amuse themselves will arouse comment. If old Mrs. Underwood, who was born in 1920, insists on sleeping under an old-fashioned comforter instead of an aerogel blanket of glass puffed with air so that it is light as a thistle-down, she must expect people to talk about her ‘queerness.’ It is astonishing how easily the great majority of us fall into step with our neighbors.” No, what’s astonishing is how smug someone can sound when they want to enforce social conformity, on the preferences of blankets no less.

I spent a long time looking at an illustration of a “city of the future.” It’s long, so I’ve put it at the bottom of the post.

Now some general observations:

At this point I should disclaim that this is a picture book, filled with whimsy and not systematic rigor. Still, a few thoughts.

  1. How many of these predictions came true? I think it’s possible to summarize these in a fairly simple way: “Most predictions made before 1950 were realized; most made afterwards were not, with the exception of anything involving communications.” It’s not just that the engineering was difficult: scientists overestimated the enthusiasm for certain products (see: petroleum fat, sawdust cookies) and many ideas probably wouldn’t survive scrutiny of today’s regulators. On the other hand, people didn’t see cellphones, the internet, or software as we know it coming. The most ambitious communications technology portrayed here is the “television phone,” an expensive, awkward precursor to Skype.
  1. Now a question: What would the world look like if just one more field resembled communications, which succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of most futurists? Communications technologies are significant in themselves, but they also impact many other areas. What if another technology improved so much that it could have discernibly broad and deep effects on other fields? There are many to wonder about, pick your favorite: medicine, rocketry, transportation, and so on.
  1. Improvements in energy could have even broader effects than communications. A lot of the failed predictions would stand a chance of working out if energy were super cheap, as a lot of people in the ‘50s thought would be the case when the country fully adopted nuclear energy. So to what extent is the failure of these predictions really a failure of the nuclear dream, in which we’d get clean energy that’s too cheap to meter? “Nuclear is eating the world” brings up entirely the wrong kind of image, but still we can wonder. On the other hand if Noah Smith is to be believed, maybe the hope isn’t dead, and lies in solar instead.
  1. A related point to #2: “High-tech” now refers almost exclusively to communications technologies, and the “tech industry” has become shorthand for software businesses centered around Silicon Valley. Isn’t that linguistic evolution a concession that the other fields have stagnated? Peter Thiel has made this point, and he tells us that “technology” in the ‘30s was understood as many things, including airplanes, the movie industry, secondary oil recovery, plastics, chemicals, and more. “Tech” today doesn’t have that broad connotation, and I wonder if that implicitly puts limits on our imagination.
  1. Let’s say you want to make these big predictions come true. How do you go about it, and I mean this in a general way? Are you supposed to pursue a PhD in the sciences? Which company do you aspire to join? And what do you do if you’re non-technical but want to work anyway on developing the technological future? It doesn’t seem like there are any obvious answers, and I wonder if that’s part of the problem. I’ll confess that I’m pretty removed from the world of science and engineering, but from a distance, it seems that being an academic scientist is no guarantee that you’ll get to work on world-changing projects. Are there modern equivalents of Bell Labs or Xerox PARC? Or are they just more fragmented, out of the public eye but not hard to find if you’re an insider?

Thanks to Michael Gibson (@william_blake) for recommending the book. I like how it ends: “The enormous challenge demands new approaches, fueled by visions of futures that are utopian, even if we don’t get quite all the way there. The magazines of the twentieth century show us how to dream, with constraints. Our great problems all involve new technologies. But no one can achieve anything that he or she does not first imagine.”

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Game of Thrones: A Girardian Reading

I’ve recently been reading René Girard. As an exercise I decided to try my hand at something he does so well: applying the ideas of mimetic theory to works of literature. Here’s a Girardian reading of the books and the show that have become popular.

Girard’s ideas are tricky to summarize, especially in a way that attempts to convince. Instead I’ll leave all concessions to the reader, with encouragement to check out Girard on Wikipedia or to read this introduction from Imitatio.

This is by no means an exhaustive discussion of mimetic issues in A Song of Ice and Fire. I’m interested instead in pointing to broad themes. Please do let me know where I’m off in my grasp of either Girard or the ASOIAF storyline. (With respect to the latter, I’ll disclaim that I’ve kept up with the show but have not read the last book.) Now let me present the idea that mimetic desire is a significant part of Martin’s world.

External mediation by Targaryens

The books begin in the reign of King Robert Baratheon. Robert’s royal ascent is a recent one. It came about only recently after he led a rebellion against the Targaryen dynasty, which until then had ruled the realm for hundreds of years.

Why did the Targaryen reign last so long? We can begin by noting that the family was literally a race distinct from the rest of Westeros. The Targaryens were a slightly magical people who came from a different continent, bringing with them their own language, religions, and customs. They helpfully had control of dragons, which they used to destroy unfriendly kingdoms. Thus began their rule.

Were the Targaryens were able to keep the peace for long because they were so different from the people they ruled? In Girardian terms, the desire by great houses (Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons, etc.) to seek the throne has been externally mediated. The other kingdoms weren’t sucked in to mimetic rivalry because the Targaryens were on a different plane. There was not a sustained, general rebellion against them before Robert’s. The same is not true for the great houses in various kingdoms. House Reyne, for example, attempted to depose House Lannister, and every great house has had trouble keeping smaller houses in line. No one dared challenge the Targaryens, but smaller houses would gamble on rebellion to control a region.

The Targaryen power declined over the course of a century. They gave up their religion, lost their ability to play with fire, and couldn’t keep breeding dragons. Robert rebelled when the Targaryens lost not just most of their might, but also most of their distinctiveness. It wasn’t just a question of power. It had been decades since the Targaryens had dragons, and it’s not clear how without them they could have warded off the invasion of another ambitious house. After people realized that they weren’t so special, the Targaryens were conquered by Robert.

And how long did Robert keep the peace? A meager two decades. When lords realized that Westeros could be ruled by a non-Targaryen, their envy stirred. The Iron Throne switched from being a source of external mediation into a source for internal mediation. That may be the most fundamental reason for why war broke out in multiple places as soon as Robert became weak.

The collective murder of Jon Snow

Jon Snow is at once an extreme insider and an extreme outsider. He is at once a Stark and not a Stark. He’s the commander of the Night’s Watch but out of sync with his subordinates. He’s one of the few people who joined the Watch without lordly compulsion. He’s the perfect victim, a nonviolent person in a culture ruled by violence; it was he who wanted to save wildlings instead of letting them be killed by White Walkers. In one sense he’s barely a fit member of the Watch, and in another sense he’s an extreme one.

The show sets Jon up as a Jesus figure. I want to fixate not on the question of his resurrection, but instead on the facts of his murder. Since I haven’t read the last book, I’ll rely on the interpretation presented by the show.

The situation is precarious. Winter has come, a mutiny tore the Watch apart not long ago, and wildlings have been moving south en masse, some mingling with members of the Watch. Jon’s position as commander is hardly secure; he was elected recently and with a slim margin. And what is one of his first acts? To go on an expedition to save wildlings, the traditional foes of the Watch, and bring them south of the Wall.

Mimetic contagion spreads through the Watch. Brothers are starting to show visible hatred towards Jon, without presenting arguments against his actions or suggesting alternatives. A mimetic snowballing rolls through the group. Eventually a consensus emerges that Jon must die. It’s not clear if the conspirators plan anything beyond this move, since the act is mostly a way to express their rage. They determine that Jon is the cause of the crisis and also the agent for its resolution.

Jon’s murder is a collective one. It takes many stabs from many people to kill him. Everyone gets a go, and no one can be pinpointed as the murderer. In the books, the attack is led by Bowen Marsh, a fellow steward, the same class that Jon belonged to. In the show, the final stroke is left for Olly, again a fellow steward.

See the parallels to the Girardian Christ? Jon died in part because he refused to engage with the mimetic cycle. The proximate justification for his murder is that he saved wildlings rather than ordered their destruction. It’s very much a turn-the-other-cheek renunciation of violence. And it was an effective invitation for the community to rally against him.

Shakespearean, not Marxist conflict

Here’s a more general point. 

There are dragons and zombies in the stories, but the stories are not primarily about dragons and zombies. That’s partly why the books and the show have earned critical acclaim. They’re mostly about people fighting each other, with rich depictions of ambition, betrayal, corruption, etc. amongst humans. Dragons and zombies are still peripheral to the story, and instead we’re served tales of intrigue between various houses. 

Knowledge that these monsters are out there hardly seems to disturb the various lords. Instead they view them as distractions to their main enemies: hostile houses.

And so we get a fundamentally Shakespearean, and that is to say, Girardian, model of conflict instead of a Marxist one. People are obsessed with fighting others like themselves. Wars aren’t fought to defeat collective, existential threats. Instead they’re fought to avenge honor, or sometimes for political or territorial gains. It’s Montagues vs. Capulets, not the huddled masses vs. capitalists.

Winter as mimetic crisis

At the time of the first book, magic had largely disappeared for at least a few decades. Lords came to rely on a supposedly rational order of maesters, a sage class with a scientific bent. The re-emergence of magic might be taken as a sign of mimetic crisis.

Consider a specific magical event: the Long Night. It was a winter that lasted for “a generation,” descending on the continent 8000 years ago. Ice zombies called White Walkers emerged from the north, raising wights to fight the living. Finally a hero drove these monsters back, and people built up a wall to seal them off. This was an event far in the past, one barely believed by the few who’ve heard of it. 

Let’s read this as a mimetic crisis. The cold, the snow, and the darkness are brought about by mimetic tensions; the conditions resemble a plague, in which animals die and crops don’t grow. The emergence of monsters may be a metaphor for the violence brought about by mimetic contagion. What does it take to defeat these monsters? A human sacrifice of an apparently random person. Azor Ahai first attempted to stop by the crisis by sacrificing a lion. When that didn’t work, he sacrificed his wife. The reasons she had to die are never particularized. Yet she is the person chosen to resolve the crisis, and her sacrifice is divinized because it allows the hero to forge a magical sword. He duly drives the monsters back.

Let’s look at winters more generally. One of the most interesting features of Martin’s world is that seasons arrive at uneven intervals. They’re apparently not tethered to any natural events. Perhaps that’s because they’re responsive to social events? I submit it’s not a coincidence that a new winter began and magic started to re-emerge at the end of Robert’s reign. The winter, the attacks by White Walkers, and the birth of dragons may all be a sign of the precipitating mimetic crisis, in which brothers turned upon brothers and the country broke out in a war of all against all.

Other instances of mimetic desire

There are many examples of Girardian ideas at play. I’ll only gesture at them here but leave them untouched.

Can we consider the varieties of orders that swear off mimetic desires (e.g. the Night’s Watch, maesters, the faith) to be especially successful organizations? Do the unharmonious relationships between brothers (e.g. Victarion/Euron, Renly/Stannis) outnumber the unharmonious ones, and is Jaime/Tyrion’s the exception that proves the rule? Can we find passages explicitly demonstrating how the Iron Throne mediates desire? How does the Ramsay/Roose relationship resemble the Jon/Ned relationship? And what’s with the many surrogate fathers of Arya?

Final thought

I haven’t digged up a direct connection between George R. R. Martin and René Girard. Martin isn’t exactly Proust or Cervantes, but I see him as modeling Girardian ideas. Does anyone else think that his world fundamentally revolves around mimetic desire?

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