30.12.09

THE LONG TWILIGHT STRUGGLE. President Kennedy took the short view, according to Harvard's Niall Ferguson. The thesis of his The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West is that the beginning of World War II is difficult to establish, although the September 1939 German invasion of Poland is probably too late, and that the spring and summer 1945 surrenders did not end many of the other conflicts spawned by the same forces that led to the main event itself. Thus Book Review No. 49, which will recommend the book for the author's provocative and often contrarian assertions about the tensions in the European colonial system that led to both World Wars and that contribute to the ongoing clash of civilizations, if that is, indeed, a proper description of the current state of world affairs.

Before I turn to the substance, I have to vent. Far too many of the books I have reviewed, this year and previously, have the annoying habit of providing references to some supporting material in endnotes numbered consecutively, chapter to chapter, while offering other supporting material in footnotes identified with asterisks and other typesetter's symbols more properly displayed in railroad timetables. My preference is for all references to be provided in consecutively numbered footnotes. If the printer must collect them as endnotes, I would prefer that all such references be done that way. Enough with the hermaphrodite reference systems.

Let me offer a few provocative claims for your consideration. Try this, at page 104, on the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand. "From a modern standpoint, the only European power to side with the victims of terrorism against the sponsors of terrorism was Germany." Or identify the speaker (see page 223).
We must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife. With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.
He goes on to contrast the responses of the United States, where political institutions retained much of their traditional form in depression and war, with those of Germany, where the Nazi state emerged. "To attempt to explain why is to address perhaps the hardest question of twentieth-century history." (p. 225) I suggest the American Civil War: the first republic to hold elections during a rebellion, the first republic to reconstitute itself upon the surrenders of the main rebel armies, the first republic to suffer more loss of life in civil war than it has ever suffered in international conflict, is a republic that will tear its principal institutions apart only very reluctantly. That ought give pause to advocates for, and critics of, today's tea-party movements. You'll find the uncertain start date of World War II on page 312.

So where does the long twilight struggle, in which the developing nations of the rest of the world have inherited their borders and many of their resource endowments from the European colonial dispositions (that's the same point Christopher Hitchens has made in the popular press) leave us now? Professor Ferguson suggests that it hasn't ended, and that the tensions between the West (secular or Christian) and the developing (particularly Islamic) world continue much as they did at the beginning of the 20th century, albeit with the divisions in every major European city, rather than at the gates of Vienna or somewhere in the Balkans. (For a crabbier version of the hypothesis, see Mark Steyn.)

That's a possibility, but it need not be the only possibility. One of the comments on Mr Pants-on-Fire's failure to destroy that jet over Detroit is that al-Qaeda has a victory, in that air transportation will become more inconvenient, and Moslems in the United States and in other secular or Christian Western nations will be treated less well by their neighbors. That's a possibility, but it need not be the only possibility. Consider the history of religious persecution of Catholics and Jews in the United States. On the one hand, yes, nativist organizations have used those traditions as their hobby horses. On the other hand, Reform Judaism got rid of the black coats, broad-brimmed hats, and beards. John Kennedy became President, and the Roman Church permitted congregations to conduct masses in the local language. That transformed a belief system associated with teeming immigrant slums (Slavic, Mediterranean, Hispanic, Irish) and incomprehensible rituals (Credo in unum Deo, et expecto ...) into just another prelude to the afternoon Packer game. It's called assimilation, and I'd be surprised if there aren't already Moslem congregations on these shores considering holding services in English.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

1 comment:

David Foster said...

"He goes on to contrast the responses of the United States, where political institutions retained much of their traditional form in depression and war, with those of Germany, where the Nazi state emerged. "To attempt to explain why is to address perhaps the hardest question of twentieth-century history.""

A very good source on Germany between the wars is Sebastian Haffner's "Defying Hitler," based on his own experiences as a young man during that era. I'll be putting up a review of it sometime in the next few days.