Europe

Guest Post: The Universal Spider

Here’s another fascinating essay from the Vacuous Wastrel. You can read the original here.

At the end of my boyhood and at the age of being able to manage a horse, I was brought to Lille before Duke Charles of Burgundy, then called the Count of Charolais, who took me into his service. This was the year 1464.

 A quarter-century after that meeting, Philippes de Commynes was released from imprisonment (he has spent two years in prison, including five months trapped in a small iron cage), and set about catching up on his correspondence. One of his most pressing concerns was responding to a request from an old friend, an archbishop named Angelo Cato, for a contribution toward a history book the latter was hoping to compile, and Commynes appears to have set about dictating a reply as soon as he was free to do so. That reply would take him several years, and was to be divided into six volumes – two further volumes offering an update concerning more recent events would follow in the subsequent years.

Commynes was not, he was at pains to point out, a historian himself. He lacked all of the necessary skills of a historian: he did not speak (at least not with any fluency) Latin; he did not have the literary skill to invent appropriate speeches and episodes to enliven his narrative; his scholarship was far too inadequate to allow him to appropriate finesse historical events into the required classical and Biblical analogies; and his reluctance to lie meant that at times his recollections would fail to give full and dutiful praise to his social betters. He was not a historian – merely a source of information for Cato, who would use it for respectable, literary and historical purposes (and even in that regard, Commynes recommends others who may recall some details more fully). Instead of producing a work of art himself, Commynes laments, “I am merely sending you what immediately comes to my mind.” In place of respectable, scholarly, history, all Commynes can do is describe what happened, and why.

As a result, the Oxford Companion to English Literature describes Commynes as “the first critical and philosophical historian since classical times”; others have called him simply “the first modern writer”. Closer to his own time, Emperor Charles V referred to his manuscript – published after the author’s death and quickly translated into languages across Europe – as “a textbook for princes”.

Although Commynes himself protests that he is providing source material for a biography of King Louis XI of France (and, in the final two volumes, of his successor, Charles VIII), his work soon came to be known by the publishers and scholars as Commynes’ “Memoirs” – understandably, given that the narrative begins before Commynes meets Louis, and continues after the latter’s death. In this edition, the final two books are removed, along with a few digressions, and the scholar responsible believes that they have in this way, as the title indicates, produced a biography – perhaps the first true modern biography – of the monarch known as The Universal Spider. In truth, Commynes’ history is considerably broader than that: a portrait, not of one man, but of an era.

It is an era of immense importance. At least three of the defining events in the last half-millennium of European geopolitics take place in these pages: the rise of a modern, centralised France; the foundation of the Hapsburg empire; and the resolution of the Wars of the Roses. We do not learn much, except implicitly, of the broader social currents of the times; but we are treated to intimate and incisive portraits of the men who shaped the times, not as Great Men, but as terribly flawed men – and above all, the book offers contrasting analyses of two men with whom Commynes was as closely familiar as anyone ever was: Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and Louis the Prudent, King of France. The fate of Europe rests in the hands of these two men.

Picturea

Let’s set the stage. Commynes is a Burgundian – a native of the confused border area between the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. The Duchy of Burgundy has always been, in law, a vassal of the King of France – but as France has been brought close to ruin, by enemies foreign and domestic, Burgundy has become a de facto independent state, swollen by advantageous marriages to the point where the Dukes now dream of an empire that stretches from sea to sea, from their dominions in the Netherlands through to the possessions of their allies in Provence and Savoy. As our story begins, Burgundy is perhaps the richest and happiest nation in Europe: its rich soils thriving under light-touch taxation, it has been at peace for over three decades under the benign, wise rule of Philip the Good, one of the richest men in the known world. Philip is ailing, but the nation waits eagerly for his successor, the fearless, charismatic Charles, Count of Charolais. Philip was godfather to young Commynes, and when the latter is orphaned as a child, the Duke brings him to court, and places him close to Count Charles.

France, meanwhile, has undergone a far more traumatic succession, only a few years earlier. Charles the Victorious, who, with the aid of Joan of Arc, somehow managed to save the nation from English dominion, and from her own civil wars, quarrelled terribly with his son (who once chased Charles’ mistress through the palace with a drawn sword), exiling the young Dauphin, Louis, first to the Dauphiné, and then from France entirely – the young prince was forced to take refuge in, of all places, Burgundy, a glorified beggar at the ducal court. When Charles died, Louis returned to Paris with an avenging fury, purging and disinheriting all those who had wronged him – most of the nation’s wisest and most experienced statesmen have fled to neighbouring princes, and the mood of the nobility is angry and bitter; the king’s own brother plots against him. The king’s writ struggles to run beyond Paris, as feudal vassals like the Dukes of Burgundy and Brittany, and the Count of Provence, are independent in all but name. In 1465, the year after Commynes comes to Philip’s court, France rises up, the great nobles of the land declaring a ‘War of the Public Weal’, a war of nation against king, for the common good. France is on the verge of a final dissolution, and Burgundy’s triumph will soon, it seems, have no obstacle. At that moment, Charles, the Burgundian heir, rides for Paris at the head of a vast army, his godbrother, Commynes, at his side.

Twenty years later, Burgundy will no longer exist. Its core domains will have been reabsorbed into a resurgent France, along with those of Brittany; while its peripheral territories will have fallen into the hands of the rising Hapsburg dynasty, a geographical anomaly that, Commynes seems to recognise, will set the stage for centuries of war. It’s an astonishing reversal of fate. As Commynes puts it:

It seems to me that at that time [the Duke of Burgundy’s] territories could more truly be called lands of promise than any other domains on earth. They were overflowing with riches and in complete peace – as they never have been since. The standard of living and the clothing of men and women were extravagant; the feasting and banquets were on a more prodigal scale than in any other place I have known of; the bathing parties and other entertainments with women were lavish and lax – if a little on the seamy side. In sum, it then seemed to the subjects of this house that no prince was a match for them – at least that none was capable of oppressing them. And in this world today I know of no princely house so desolate.

This is, at heart, the question that plagues Commynes, the question that he sets out to answer through psychology, through military history, and through philosophy: how could it be that Burgundy could fall so rapidly from such grace?

Commynes’ answer, needless to say, is that God did it. And at first, that might seem like a cop-out, but of course it’s not: Commynes is not insisting upon faith in a Godless world, he’s using the concept of a God within a conceptual system in which God is unavoidable. He is, as it were, only rephrasing the question: if nations fall when they fall from God’s favour, why do nations fall from God’s favour? Commynes’ answer has nothing to do with scripture, and little to do with doctrine: again, Commynes’ God is not a creature locked within a bible, but the animating principle of the entire world. To understand the world is to understand God; and although that might be impossible, that’s not reason not to try.

Commynes never really offers a coherent ideology of fate – that would, after all, be hubris. But he believes in a system in which God helps those who help themselves, yet moderated by a sort of karma. Those who do wrong face justice – in the next life, but also often in this. Evil, foolishness, and violation of the constitutional norms of states and societies are often repaid in the same coin, whether on the land – a prince who breaks his word to others finds his subjects break theirs to him – or in the soul – a prince who plots against his courtiers himself plagued by irrational, paranoid fears of his best advisors.

So while his theories may be lofty and divine, their application is more down to earth, and at the heart of Commynes’ history is a pair of contrasting portraits, psychological and political sketches of the two ‘great men’ who he believes have shaped the fates of their nations, for better or worse: Louis and Charles. One French; one Burgundian. One the paragon of a bygone age; the other the herald of modernity.

Duke Charles the Bold (sometimes translated ‘the Rash’) was, we’re given to believe, almost the perfect mediaeval monarch. He is attractive, strong, and intensely charismatic, the kind of man who can turn a battle by riding through it and exhorting his men one by one. He has an indefatigable energy and, Commynes tells us, an almost supernatural ability to suffer: he asks no more of his men than he is willing and able to undergo himself, and his men know it. He is decisive, and courageous not only physically but politically. His ambitions are sweeping. He can be violent, but he is not unusually cruel for his age, and he is good company for his court.

Louis, on the other hand, is a coward. He is plagued, as even he acknowledges, by a big mouth and a sour wit, and he is constantly offending people. He is not physically impressive. He overtaxes his people, and appears to have little sense of shame; nobody likes to spend time with him. He can’t really be trusted – his nickname is ‘The Universal Spider’ after all – and he is instinctively a vindictive, occasionally mass-murdering, arsehole.

But Commynes’ at-the-time-controversial thesis is that it is Louis who is the great monarch, and Charles the deluded prince who dooms his people.

Put simply, Louis has two key strategies at all times: avoid any true military contest; and, if in doubt, bribe everyone. He’s a political and military cockroach, constantly retreating, constantly negotiating (with multiple people, in contradictory ways), constantly stalling for time. He reminds me, if you’ll forgive the fantasy/pop-culture reference, of George RR Martin’s Littlefinger: he doesn’t exactly have a plan, as such, but he continually sows chaos, knowing he will eventually, somehow, benefit from it. Every alliance is against him is turned against itself. He follows a terribly Christian theory of politics: if your enemy strikes you on one cheek… thank him, applaud him publically, write the man a great big cheque, and ask him to slap someone else for you.

This is why, partway through the book, Commynes abruptly flees Charles’ military encampment and becomes one of the King’s chief advisors. It’s not just him – everybody does it. The pay is better, and the life much easier.

Ultimately, Louis’ greatest strength is his willingness to appear weak. He may remember slights, but he publically forgives them, and promotes his enemies; he may be opinionated, but he listens to his advisors, and he corrects his mistakes. At times, he even uses his weakness as his trump card, and works to maintain it. He gives advice to his enemies on how to defeat his allies (because he wants his enemies to feel strong, and hence to feel able to wait, rather than weak, and hence desparate to act). At one stage, fearing an explosion among the common soldiers that will destroy an alliance, he intentionally makes himself visibly vulnerable, to shame his allies into de-escalating the situation. It’s behaviour Charles – who at one point humiliates Louis by in effect holding him prisoner – could never endure. Charles is a more traditional, vain prince who cannot abide disgrace – and it’s ultimately that stubbornness that dooms him, and Burgundy, when he first attacks, and then refuses to retreat from the seige of, Neuss, despite being needed urgently elsewhere. It’s what leads to him lying dead in a ditch, his corpse unrecognised. Throughout Commynes’ account, Louis’ prudence, his ruthless exploitation of his own impotence, is contrasted sometimes explicitly but more often between the lines with the vanity and vainglory of the other princes of his age: Louis’ willingness to be weak, whch Commynes suggests is a lesson from his time as a beggar at the Burgundian court, is in effect a form of power. Perhaps the most striking example is when Louis is “forced” to pay “homage” to a number of English lords – he obsequiously sends them regular tribute, via an intermediary who, naturally, needs their signatures to prove to Louis that he hasn’t stolen the money for himself. It’s humiliating for Louis and a clear win for the English, they believe, even if they allow that the transactions can remain secret for the sake of Louis’ dignity… …except that now, if those lords ever give their king advice that’s not in Louis’ best interests, he can reveal (to their king or their public) that they are secretly on the payroll of a foreign power, receiving a regular pension for their services, and he has the carefully-catalogued original receipts to prove it. Only Louis can make being conquered into a form of dominance.

Commynes never exactly gives us a rounded or deep portrait of his king, as we might expect from a modern writer. And yet, through descriptions and through anecdotes, he constructs a striking and understandable image – reading Commynes, we feel as though we know Louis, just as we know Charles. Other characters benefit in this way as well, although many – such as the Count of St Pol – are too historically insignificant for the reader to really invest in. Others are shown briefly, but brilliantly – one of my favourite moments is the only appearance of Emperor Frederick III, who responds to a detailed military-diplomatic proposal with a rambling parable about bear-hunting. It’s a moment that perfectly displays both why Commynes can’t stand the man (he’s over-cautious to the point of inaction, lazy, pretentious and not that bright) – and why he deeply respects him (he’s an old man whose experience has bought him considerable wisdom, and he’s the only ruler secure enough in his position to be able to fob off monarchs with irritating parables without any consequences).

After the two duelling princes, probably the third character in the story is Edward IV, whom Commynes sees only from a distance (it’s disputed whether he may have served as an ambassador to England at some point, but it’s not mentioned here in any case). Edward is a monarch famed for his military prowess and valour, but, unlike Charles, he’s really only in it for the quiet life, prioritising food, women and entertainments. Through overconfidence, he manages to lose his entire kingdom in only 11 days. But this is England, where, as Commynes constantly laments, politics is not very stable or sophisticated – so he’s able to invade England, win two major battles, overthrow and kill the Earl of Warwick, and Henry VI, and the Prince of Wales, and complete a round of mass executions of his enemies, all within the span of another 26 days. Everything hinges on his being welcomed, while still virtually without troops, into the city of London, and Commynes explains the three main reasons why, after some debate, he was given access: his wife had just given birth and, awh, a royal baby, how exciting and cute!; he was deeply in debt to many of the richest merchants in town, who realised that if he didn’t regain the crown he’d never be able to pay them back; and most importantly, he can rely on “the influence of many ladies of rank and rich citizen’s wives”, because after a decade of womanising they were all “very good friends indeed” of his, and they nag their husbands until they let him in. It’s a reputation that gives Louis pause, and one of his priorities in negotiating with the English monarch is ensuring that the man never, ever visit Paris: “He’s a very handsome king,” Louis worries out loud to Commynes. “He’s crazy about women. He could find some clever sweetheart in Paris who would say such nice things to him that she’d make him want to come back…”

Pictureb

It’s a bizarre conjunction of great affairs of state – seasoned with little philosophical asides – with the intimately personal. It’s not, perhaps, great history by modern standards – broader social developments get only a sentence here or there – but it’s a very entertaining way of writing. It’s half Macchiavelli, half gossip column.

That intimacy, indeed, is sometimes almost shocking in its modernity. Commynes is emphatically not writing a mediaeval hagiography – sure, he he doesn’t go into many details on the sexual side of things, and he glosses over many things that might be of interest to a modern reader. But he depicts his characters as human beings – human beings who he in many cases knew extremely well. This is particularly striking in the later parts of the narrative, when the fortunes of the princes decline in turn. Charles is beset by mental illness after a military defeat, and although Commynes never uses that exact term, there’s little ambiguity in his description – he’s not shy about calling it an illness, and he’s not shy about the fact it’s primarily an illness of the mind. He even hypothesises a little about the appropriate treatment. The doctors and priests of the day favour blood-letting, and making the man bloody well shave properly for a start; Commynes, on the other hand, suggests beginning with humility before God, before moving on to talking therapies, discussing one’s fears and shames openly out loud, not worrying about disgrace, in a safe environment with a trusted friend or advisor (as “it is ineivtable since we are men, that deep griefs stir violent passions”). Sadly, trust is a rare commodity for rulers, which may explain why so many of these princes are at least a little mad…

 

Picturec

Charles the Bold, Commynes’ first master

 

[it’s another example, incidentally, of how God is used in this world-view, not as a tool of superstition but as a call to reason. Commynes believes that when a man like Charles loses a campaign, it’s appropriate to ask what went wrong. But he mustn’t become lost in self-recrimination, and religion offers him a way out: instead of asking what is wrong with him, he can ask why God may have failed to favour him on this occasion. It allows reflection and consideration of one’s actions, without self-blame. Throughout the book, we see this mindset in which God is central not because of what he does – Commynes does not believe in a God who actively performs miracles willy-nilly, and does not even particularly stress God’s role as a rule-giver, except indirectly – but because of how human beings act toward Him…]

Similarly, Louis’s quality of life rapidly deteriorates when he suffers a series of debilitating strokes. At one point, Commynes literally has to hold the king as he spasms, and Louis’ speech is at least temporarily so impaired that Commynes has to translate what may be a deathbed confession to a priest who can’t understand what the king is saying. To say that Commynes was close to his subjects is an understatement.

It’s true that the book is closer to a series of anecdotes than to an academic historical analysis, although there are elements of the latter: Commynes does lay out a fairly detailed chronology of the wars and the diplomacy, and does his best to explain events in geopolitical, psychological and theological-philosophical terms. But it’s the anecdotes that stand out, combining a clear and personal touch with a lacing of dry, observational humour. It’s suprising just how modern Commynes feels in style, if not always in beliefs, and many moments continue to resonate with modern readers, either because of how things have changed (Commynes’ frequent exasperation toward the barbarian English and the way their leaders never fail to be equipped with a suspiciously convenient prophecy) or because of how they haven’t (Commynes’ old-man complaints about self-important minor celebrities these days constantly telling you to “speak to my people!”…). And while there are moments of tragedy, there are also a suprising number of moments of pure farce. At one point, for example, Louis is hosting a messenger from one of the Duke’s vassals, who is thinking of coming over to Louis; Louis, pretending joviality, baits the man into doing insulting impressions of the Duke, pretending to be a little deaf so that the man does his impressions as loudly as possibly; but, in the time-honoured traditions of Frence farce, what the messenger doesn’t realise is that Commynes is crouched alongside the Burgundian ambassador, hiding behind a suspiciously large screen in one corner of the room. The ambassador is outraged on the Duke’s behalf, and Louis succeeds in sowing even more disquiet between the Duke and his vassal.

[other monarchs would have seen the vassal as an ally, helped him, and used him against the Duke. But Louis knows you can’t trust a traitor. Instead, by weakening the vassal still further by betraying him to the Duke, he forces the vassal to come to him in a more fearful, and hence dependent, state, while distracting the Duke, and pretending friendship with him. In Louis’ world, you help your enemies and you hurt your friends…]

[Of course, sometimes Louis sees the right time to strike directly. He summons one enemy/friend to court, for example, by pleading for his help in a difficult time, saying that he could really do with having “a good head” around to advise him at a time like this. He then, having dictated the letter, observes to his henchmen by way of explanation: “I do not mean us to have his body – only his head. The body can stay where it is…“]

The greatest virtue of this books, however, and of Commynes as an author, isn’t just his access, or even his deadpan wit (which is always interesting, and amusing, but too dry to really be lovable). Instead, it’s his wonderful honesty. Now, apparently in the 20th century it was fashionable, particularly among offended Belgians, to paint Commynes as a serial liar, fundamentally dishonest in every word – but while that seems hard to believe to me (or to the editor of this translation), it doesn’t really matter in terms of the book’s value as a narrative, rather than as a historical source. Because either Commynes is truthful, or else he’s the most gifted liar in literary history, and in either case it’s the impression of honesty that is so powerful in reading these memoirs. Commynes has his own opinions, but he is scrupulously even-handed in discussing even his personal enemies. His goal throughout – perhaps reflecting the origin of this project as source material rather than a published text – is not to definitively paint history, but to understand it, and that requires him to see both sides of every dispute, and recognise the virtues as well as the vices of every participant. The result is a far more complete and sympathetic portrait of his life and times than we might expect… and a more accurate depiction of the conflicting thoughts common in his age.

Because if the book is interesting as a specific history, and as a guide to statesmanship, it’s most fascinating as a window into a bygone age – a window refreshingly devoid of the usual stained glass. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this comes close to being absolutely required reading for any fan of fauxdiaeval fantasy or historical fiction, and should certainly be obligatory for anyone wanting to write a story set in a similar culture.

Most strikingly, Commynes provides a very different picture of twilight of the middle ages not because of differences in how he sees the ruling systems, but because of the context of those systems. Put bluntly: this is not a little world of feudal clockwork; this is a vast, largely empty world in which a tiny number of feudal overlords play their games amid a vast ocean of people who, most of the time, don’t care in the slightest. Yes, by modern standards all these rulers are brutal dictators. But what Commynes shows us, and which is essential to understanding that brutality, is the naked weakness of a mediaeval prince, and the near-total impotence of all their structures of power. Charles, after all, yearns to construct an empire, but even this great leader of a great nation cannot accomplish it; Louis’ driving ambition is to modernise and harmonise the French legal code and bring a universal rule of law to the whole nation, but even this intelligent and ruthless man cannot accomplish it. These are men beating their heads against unbreakable walls, while at the same time holding on for dear life.

Surprisingly, it is the people who are at the heart of Commynes’ perception of politics. He is not a great fan of the ordinary people trying to rule themselves – he rolls his eyes at the predictable brutality and naivity of the endless revolutionary committees of the Low Countries – but he believes unshakeably that power comes only through the consent of the people. He sings the praises of the Parliament of England and its democratic powers – while he has no time for commoners making decisions, he does see them as a valuable veto force standing in the way of tyranny and foolish monarchs. But for him, the question is not whether the people should have power – that is an absurd question, because it suggests that there is any way to remove power from the people – but how it can be better organised. The power of the people is omnipresent throughout this narrative. It’s the power that lynches dozens of nobles every day whenever anger breaks out in a Belgian town (the nobles may be bastards, but they’re mostly legal bastards, whereas the commoners send for the hangman the moment they’re in charge); it’s the power that slaughters every English straggler and leaves their bodies in ditches, regardless of what peace treaties may be made between monarchs, and the power that sends commandos creeping through the streets of Peronne, happily willing to murder both King and Duke in their beds. It’s the power that coalesces a bunch of Swiss peasant farmers into what will become the most feared military force of the age; it’s the power of the common soldiers, who in the end decide not only how to fight, but whether to fight, whatever their generals might want. When the Pazzi family decide to launch a coup d’etat in Milan, it’s the power that determines, in a matter of minutes, which family will have its entire membership swinging from the church rafters by the end of the day, and which family will be in power. Above all, it’s the power of cities to control their own walls.

Because again, this is a huge world, and these are very small kings. In all these wars, very few armies are ever larger than the militia that could be mustered by a medium-sized town: a city like Amiens or Liege is a major challenge even for a monarch to subdue, and a city like Paris or London is effectively impregnable – the size of army necessary to either beseige or storm such a city simply is not achievable in this era. The fate of kingdoms rests, therefore, on the whim of common townsfolk. It’s the people of London who choose to accept Edward IV – then almost without resources – as their king, and in so doing doom the Earl of Warwick; just as it’s the people of Paris who decline to yield to the Duke of Burgundy and his allies, and in so doing leave Louis as their king and France as a viable nation.

Pictured

Louis the Universal Spider, Commynes’ second master

As for those princes – well, it’s not long into the book that we’re thrown into the Battle of Conflans, and we see its absurd chaos, its contingency, its nonsense. Commynes tells us quite explicitly; monarchs and generals may form up their strategies, but there is no monarch on earth who can direct a battle according to his plan. A general does not so much direct his army, as ride it. So too, a monarch sits in his saddle upon the roiling chaos of his nation, prodding here, whipping there, offering carrots in one direction or another, but by and large able to do no more than desparately keep his seat, or else fall and be unceremoniously trampled.

These men are half statesmen, half petty mafiosi. It’s very easy for simplistic accounts to see them as only one and not the other – all politicians, or all robber barons. But Commynes shows us how they can be both at the same time. “In all of them were good and evil” he warns us, speaking of the great princes of his day, “for they were human beings.” 

The depiction of women is also of interest (among many other topics). Commynes is writing in an extremely male-dominated world, and most of the women of the story go entirely without mention (there’s no way to tell, for example, that Commynes himself is married, and you’d have to read very carefully to notice that either the Duke or the King were married). Commynes essentially takes it as read that it’s men’s role to dominate, politically and socially, just as that’s also the role of the upper classes. And yet there is a refreshing lack of misogyny. Commynes doesn’t have to insist that men are superior, or argue that women shouldn’t have power – because in his culture, those questions don’t even arise. God has simply willed that men have power – there’s not need anyone inventing notions like male superiority to explain why that may be. Which means that when individual women do have power, Commynes has no grounds to object. He may depict Marie of Burgundy as naïve – after all, she inherited one of the greatest empires of Europe when she was still a teenager – but he doesn’t fail to respect her goodness, her popularity, and the beginnings of a sharp intellect. He is almost fearful, yet respectful – and depicts Louis as almost fearful – of the intelligence and ruthlessness of the Duchess of Savoy. The autonomy of women seems greater than one might expect here: not only can women veto arranged marriages at least some of the time, they can even insist upon love-marriages, even when strongly against the interests of the families and nations. Louis, for instance, is forced to accept the marriages of the Duchess’s two daughters, which strengthen his enemies, when the Duchess points out that the women are in favour of the matches, and that they’re not just political ploys. Similarly, even at a time when Marie is tantamount to held hostage by commoners, they are unable to pressure her into marrying their preferred candidate (Commynes wryly notes that it was seeing him and getting to know him that probably doomed his suit with her…). There are also surprisingly hints at a chivalry out of keeping with the general violence of the world: during a war, when soldiers are being murdered on the streets, Louis has his secret messages conveyed by a young woman, on the grounds that a woman alone can travel freely without harrassment, where a man would be at risk of attack by brigands. [Commynes, interestingly, does not make clear that it’s actually a woman who ends up imprisoning him in a tiny cage for six months…]

In short, where these memoirs excel is in vividly, intimately and fair-handedly depicting this late-mediaeval world and its characters, and in doing so with wit and insight.

Picturee

Where they fall down, however, is in the sheer complexity of the events under discussion. It’s here that Commynes does indeed fail to be a true historian: what we are given is not so much a narrative as a whole mass of information, in mostly (but not always) chronological order. Take any few pages, and the sequence of events appears clear, because Commynes writes clearly; but as the pages mount up, so does the sheer assembly of places, dates, titles and, every few sentences, shocking betrayals. [Betrayals that sometimes fail to betray anyone, because the betrayal is betrayed before it can betray anyone…*] It’s not unclear, it’s just… a lot. It’s very dense, and that’s why it too me a surprisingly long time to read through the book, because after ten pages or so of the count of this and the bastard of that and trying to remember which one is Corday and which ones is Cordres, I just needed a change of scenery. Of course, that’s partly my fault, for not being in the righ frame of mind – as I say, Commynes does try to make these confusing events understandable, and I’m sure if I were in an academic mood I’d have no trouble with it, but as light entertainment reading I found it was making my head hurt.

[It doesn’t help that Commynes adopts mediaeval naming practices, which is to say he usually called people by their titles. This means that the same person can be known by two different names in one sentence (at one point he notes something along the lines that a person has been of service to the Count of Charolais, and was rewarded by the Duke of Burgundy – the latter being the same person as the former, but several years later), while the same name can refer to multiple different persons (as the name is inherited when its holder dies). When you have people like the King’s brother, who wears about six different titles in six years, this can get confusing…]

Some help, to be fair, is provided by the translator/editor, Paul Murray Kendall, who remains largely on the sidelines but who does chip in with the occasional explanatory footnote. Those coming to the text for academic reasons may be frustrated at how little commentary is provided, but for the casual reader I think it’s about the right amount – enough to let us understand what’s going on, but little enough that the narrative still feels like the work of the original author. Further background information on the author and his time period are provided in a forward, which could perhaps be more detailed in places but does probably as much as is strictly required. As regards the translation itself, it’s pretty good – there are moments when it seems to veer too far into modern colloquialism, or else too far into stilted archaism, but this will be a problem with any translation of a historical text that attempts to retain something of its character while still fully conveying its original meaning. By and large, I think the tone is successful – it has a clarity and straightforwardness that suit the style of the author, without appearing to try too hard to be contemporary. One small irritation is the way Kendall edits out some of Commynes’ tangents, replacing them with brief summaries – this is either done too much, or else it’s done too little. I can understand why an editor would want to trim the fat here and there, as Commynes does ramble on a little at times; but Kendall includes so much of the original text that it’s a little head-scratching why he’s bothered to edit out the handful of extra pages that he’s excised, while leaving other things in – I think I’d have been happier either with a more ruthlessly focused text, or else the whole thing in all its glory. But as we do only lose a handful of passages, this is honestly a very minor quibble.

[Another such quibble: not only as the translator stuck on the striking but non-original title, “The Universal Spider: The Life of Louis XI” to Commyne’s text, but the SAME translator has also written his OWN biography of Louis XI, using the exact SAME title. This is understandable – “The Universal Spider” has to be one of history’s coolest soubriquets, and it’s understandable the writer didn’t want to waste it on just one book title – but also probably a bit of a pain for people trying to find this specific edition (which is, incidentally, the old Folio Society edition).]

*this is a book in which a vassal can attempt to murder his liege and their entire family with a cannonade, and the next page we can be told with a straight face that “never was any man more loyal to another than [vassal] was to [liege]”. Oh, and while he’s trying to murder his liege’s family with cannons, the vassal also sends out two flasks of wine, because the liege’s daughter is giving birth, and it seems the decent thing to do to ease her labour a little. I mean, obviously he’s not going to not murder her or anything, but it would be unchivalrous not to give a woman wine when she’s in labour…

Picturef

Marie the Rich, the tragic Duchess of Burgundy

In conclusion, in writing a text entirely for his age, without the pretenses of history (indeed, several times Commynes declines to describe some well-known event, because “you”, being people of the same era as him, will no doubt know just as much as he does…), Commynes has inadvertantly written something both invaluable as a historical document, and at the same time timeless. It’s a fascinating resource for anyone interested in the time period or its culture, not only for its intimate, first-hand account, but also for its combination of unvarnished honesty and wry irony; it is also remarkable as a study in political leadership, and one that has had a great deal of influence throughout the centuries. It’s dense with action and a little prone to tangents, and casual readers probably shouldn’t expect to skim through it all in an afternoon unless they have excellent heads for details, but fundamentally it’s an entertaining and understandable account, translated attractively. I thoroughly recommend reading it.

And if that’s my conclusion, what conclusion did Philippe de Commyne reach, half a millennium ago? In the end, this student of statescraft is left extolling the virtues… of the quiet life.   By the end of the book, Louis is dead, his life crippled by paranoia – a king, Commynes says, who had so often condemned his enemies to dungeon cells is left, in his castle reinforced with iron towers, with no more freedom than a single courtyard, across which he is too frightened to walk to mass. Charles is dead, his lust for glory and military fame ending anonymously in the dirt – his mind and his courage stripped from him, and his body at the last left naked and unmarked in a common field. Marie is beautiful, witty, and phenomenally wealthy, held virtually hostage by her people, and dead of a tragic accident. Edward IV is dead; and his sons are dead, killed (Commynes believes) by his brother, and his brother is dead on the field at Bosworth. Charles, Duke of Berry, is dead, as is Francis, Duke of Brittany, and Frederick III will soon follow. Commynes, from being the closest friend and advisor to the king, is cast into an iron cage. France is set for a new round of wars, and Burgundy, Commynes’ homeland, has been destroyed and subjugated. So why, in the end, wonders Commynes, should anyone bother with ambition? Nobody can more fully subjugate a man than by his own fears; to be fearless is to treat others well, and that requires having as little to do with great affairs of state as possible. And so I’ll end where our author ends, and give Philippe the final words…

“Thus you have seen so many great men dying within a few years of one another, men who laboured so hard to increase their power and attain glory, but who experienced such sufferings and toils, and thus shortened their lives – and perchance their souls could be the worse for it…

…But to speak plainly, as a man who has no learning, save for some little experience he has gained, would it not be better for them and all other princes, and for men of medium station who have lived under these great ones and will continue to live under those now reigning, to choose the middle way in these matters? That is, to burden themselves with fewer cares, to work themselves less hard, to undertake fewer enterprises – and to have greater fear of offending God and persecuting their people and their neighbours by cruel means… …and, instead, enjoy ease and honourable pleasures? Their lives would be the longer for it, illnesses would come later, and their deaths would be the more regretted by a greater number of people, and looked forward to by fewer, and they would have less reason to fear death.

The most splendid examples of humanity give us to realise what an insignificant thing is a man, and how miserable and brief this life is. Neither the great nor the small, as soon as they are dead, are anything; and everyone holds the corpse in horror and loathing, while the soul, on the instant, must be judged. And already sentence has been passed upon it, according to the works and merits of the body.” 

 

 

 

Standard
North America

Was that joke on us?

In last year’s Republican primaries, there were two somewhat charming, sometimes ferocious Northerners, both running in ways that were neither conventionally “establishment” (like Bush, Rubio, and Kasich) nor conventionally “anti-establishment” (like Cruz, Carson, Fiorina, or Perry).

Both of these candidates were fat—though one had once been skinny, while the other had once been humungous. One was your common politician type, willing to make a deal with the devil in order to rise to power. The other was the devil; who, as usual, did not adequately reward the deal.

Okay, I think you see where I’m going with this. One was named Donald Trump and the other Chris Christie. Trump ended up getting 24.3 percent of the votes in the Iowa Caucus, and 45 percent of the primary votes nationally; Christie just 1.8 and 0.2 percent.

Christie ended up becoming Trump’s attack dog, famously helping to take down Marco Rubio in a primary debate just before dropping out of the race to endorse Trump. Christie was not picked as Trump’s VP in return for this, as many had expected him to be, nor was he even offered a high-ranking cabinet position. Trump, as we know, opted to stack his cabinet with businessmen, far-right types, Reince Priebus, and family instead.

Now, why did Christie do poorly in the primary? There are several possible reasons, but one theory, at least, has to be that he was taken down by the media. He was the (big) butt of many, many fat jokes, and even more Bridge-gate jokes. This seems like history now, but in 2013 and 2014— just when Christie’s future had otherwise looked so promising because of his weight loss, re-election, and love of Bruce—it was constant.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not so squeamish as to be against fat jokes of political figures. And I am not so naive to doubt Christie having been highly corrupt in Bridgegate. As his strong support of Trump has since displayed, Christie’s ambition has few limits.

The question is whether the media’s negative coverage of Christie was proportionate to his crime. I don’t have any data to say whether it was or was not, but, from my own recollection, I would guess that it was highly disproportionate. This is not surprising, really, since any event involving New York City — which Bridgegate did, of course — is likely to be covered more than it deserves to be. Moreover, the media tends to be at least somewhat left-leaning, and inhabited by skinny people, and so is perhaps not so disposed to be sympathetic to fat Conservatives like Christie.

Finally, the Republicans themselves did not rush to Christie’s defence in the wake of Bridgegate, at least not to the extent they typically do to their own (and, indeed, as they have since come to Trump’s, whose crimes—at least against morality, if not also against the law—are far worse). This may have been because both the Conservative establishment and Tea Party saw Christie as a possible threat in 2016. They were afraid of the wrong Northeasterner. But then, why should they have been worried about Trump, who at the time was still just a crazy celebrity making Youtube videos about how his people were trying to locate Barack Obama’s birth certificate?

Many people would say I am underrating Christie’s crime (and, maybe, overrating his political charisma). They may be right, of course. Obviously we don’t know what Christie’s odds against Trump would have been had there never been a Bridgegate, or if comedians did not find fat jokes amusing.

Is there a lesson here? I don’t know that either. (But I am sorry for asking so many rhetorical questions). If there is, it may go something like this: if you work in the media, and see a fat corrupt man get taken down, think twice about piling on. That fat corrupt man might be the only one capable of obstructing the bridge the devil must cross on his road into Washington D.C.

 

 

Standard
North America

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Mackinaw-what-a-comeback-for-the-Liberals!

trudeau

Let’s talk, very quickly, about Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Justin Trudeau, and the resurrection  the Liberal Party in Canada underwent during the country’s most recent election, 20 months ago.

Before Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister at the end of 2015, the Liberals controlled only 34 of the 308 seats in Parliament. They had become the third party for the first time in their history. They had not won a majority of seats in Quebec for nine consecutive elections–not since Pierre Elliott Trudeau won big in Quebec in 1980.

Today, on the other hand, the Liberals have the largest majority in parliament that any party has won since the election of 1984 (the same year that Pierre left office), and they control a majority of Quebec’s seats to boot.

If you look at the electoral map from Justin Trudeau’s first victory in 2015, and the map of Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s final victory in 1980, you will see that the similarities between the two elections may or may not stand out more than their differences.

Canada_2015_

canada 1980 election

In both elections there was a clear East-West divide. The Liberals fared far better to the east of the Ontario-Manitoba border than they did to its west, regardless of which Trudeau was on the ticket. Both won flat-out majorities in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland, and both won a significant majority of seats throughout the country as a whole.

Justin Trudeau, however, fared far better than his father in the Maritime provinces (he swept all 32 ridings, whereas his father lost in Nova Scotia), worse in Quebec (he won 51 percent of Quebec’s seats; Pierre won 99 percent), and better in Ontario (66% vs 55%), Manitoba (50% vs 14%), Saskatchewan (8% vs 0), Alberta (12% vs 0), and British Columbia (40% vs 0). Further north, Justin swept the Territories’ three ridings; his father lost all three.

Two other important differences between 2015 and 1980 were the price of fossil fuels and the strength of the North American economy. In 1980 the price of oil was over 100$ per barrel when adjusted for inflation; during Justin Trudeau’s victory in 2015 oil was only at 40$ a barrel, having dropped by 60$ in the fifteen months leading up to election day. And while the economy of the United States was in relatively decent health in 2015, in 1980 it was still in the midst of “stagflation“, with negative GDP growth and an unemployment rate around 6-7%.

Canada oil and gas production

Source: RBC, predictions from March 2015

With decent US economic growth decent and oil prices falling substantially, Ontario and British Columbia appear to have grown the most among provincial economies in 2015; Alberta’s and Newfoundland’s may barely have grown at all.

can-us 50 land:water

For more about the graph above, see Ontario: the Borderland Economy

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll close here by showing a graph I made which I think is interesting, but which probably (definitely) should be taken with a very large grain of salt. The graph shows a relationship between four variables: the price of crude oil (in West Texas Intermediate prices, adjusted for inflation); the employment rate in the United States (which we are using as a proxy for American economic health in general); the success of Conservative parties* and the NDP in Canadian federal elections; and the success of the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois in elections. The basic idea is that because western Canada benefits from expensive oil whereas eastern Canada depends more on a strong American economy, and because Conservatives and the NDP are generally more associated with western Canada whereas the Liberals and Bloc are associated with the eastern half of Canada, there should, maybebe some links between these variables:

Canada Politics Graph

Conservative parties include the Progressive Conservative, Canadian Alliance, Reform, or, since 2003, the Conservative Party. The Bloc Quebecois, meanwhile, was founded in 1991

This graph covers the same time period, from Pierre Trudeau’s final election in 1980 to Justin Trudeau’s first election in 2015. It shows that in the elections immediately following Pierre’s departure and immediately preceding Justin’s arrival – namely, in the elections of 1984 and 2011 – the Conservatives and/or NDP did extremely well relative to the Liberals and/or Bloc Quebecois. In 2011 Harper won his only majority government and the NDP become the official opposition for the first time ever, while in 1984 Pierre Trudeau resigned prior to the election and Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives won by the largest margin in Canadian history.

Every year shown on the graph above corresponds with a Canadian federal election, with the exception of 1998. 1998, however, was the year in which oil prices fell to their lowest point in nearly a century, even as the American economy was not in a recession, as it usually is when oil prices fall. With US employment high and oil prices low, the blue line on the graph above is far higher than in any other year. In the subsequent election, in 2000, Jean Chretien would go on to win a large majority for the Liberals, and the BQ a majority of ridings in Quebec. 2000 was the last time that any party won a majority government until 2011, and the last time the Liberals won a majority until 2015.

For more on this subject, check out Trudeau Walks A Tightrope, published on MacroGeo earlier this week.

Standard
North America

Canada Needs A Red-Green Party

redgreen2

Watching the candidates for leader of the Conservative Party debate in Halifax last week was interesting. Thirteen out of the fourteen leaders in the debate argued against the implementation of any cap-and-trade systems or carbon taxes, on the basis that the Conservative Party should remain against tax increases in general.

Quebec MP Steven Blaney said: “they say you can put the lipstick on a pig and it’s still a pig, well you can add Green to tax and it’s still a tax. So no, there is no need to have such a tax in Canada…we’re all conservative after all.”

Brad Trost said: “taxes must go down. Taxes do not need to go up on anything, particularly not on heating and driving and lighting our homes”.

Andrew Saxton said his first act as Prime Minister would be to “axe the tax”. He did also say that he would try to work with Trump toward a “harmonized” North American solution to climate change. Of course, that may be trickier than he suggests, given that Trump often claims to be a climate change denier and is not known for pursuing harmonies of any kind.

When Michael Chong, the sole dissenter on the issue, pointed out that it might be more desirable to adopt a revenue-neutral carbon tax model similar to the one that exists in British Columbia, calling carbon taxes “the most conservative way, the cheapest way, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”, he was challenged by several of his fellow candidates.

Rick Peterson, for example, told Chong that the BC carbon tax is not truly revenue-neutral, because it disproportionately hurts residents in towns like Dawson Creek, who lack the alternative means of transport like “SkyTrains and bike lanes” that Vancouverites have access to. Yet this was an unsatisfying rebuttle even if one does accept Peterson’s premise that small towns should drive Canada’s tax policies, since other types of taxes could still be reduced in order to fully compensate small towns for any new carbon taxes they have to pay.

Kevin O’Leary, meanwhile, argued that carbon taxes are not needed because Canada’s forests mean that it is already a net carbon sink for the world. In other words, that because we as Canadians are blessed with forests that we did not build, we have the right to emit lots of greenhouse gasses from power plants and cars we did build.

O’Leary also argued that we should not have carbon taxation because Canada only contributes a small portion to global emissions. This same argument was also mentioned by a number of the other Conservative candidates in the debate, none seeming to be aware of the existence of straws or of camels’ backs. Yet not a single candidate seemed to think it relevant enough to point out the fact that, on a per capita basis, Canada has the highest emissions of any significant economy in the world, apart from Saudi Arabia, the United States, or Australia. (Canada emits an estimated 1.5-2 times more carbon dioxide per person than is emitted in the European Union or Japan, 2.5 times more than China, and 9 times more than India).

The debate drove home a certain point about Canadian politics: there is no way of voting for a party or party leader who is Conservative on issues like government spending but at the same time Green on issues concerning the environment. While left-wing voters are given at least one, and arguably three, Green parties to vote for —most obviously the Green Party, but also arguably the Liberals or the NDP, and certainly the Leap Manifesto faction within the NDP — right-wing voters are presented with no such option.

A Red-Green voter — a voter who loves the outdoors as much as he or she hates tax increases or having to debate young social activists; the type of voter that a character like Red Green would himself probably approve of — has nobody to vote for in today’s system.

(This assumes that Red is the colour of the Right as in America, rather than the Left as in Europe. I know, I know, Canada tends to use the European colour code, but I’m willing to look past that for a moment because I really want this reference to the Red Green show to hold up…)

This is a real shame, and not only because left-wing parties may not win enough MPs to enact Green policies on their own. It is also a shame because it might, at least in certain circumstances, be the case that right-wing policies would actually serve the cause of environmentalism more usefully than left-wing ones do.

Most economists, for example, would be in support of a conservative proposal to use carbon taxes to reduce other taxes such as sales taxes, capital gains taxes, or corporate taxes, rather than use carbon taxes to grow the overall size of government budgets as some left-wing leaders might be more inclined to do.

Trudeau’s plan, in contrast, which is to allow cap-and-trade rather than carbon taxes in provinces like Ontario and Quebec, and also to allow the provinces to decide on their own whether or not their systems will be revenue-neutral, most economists are less thrilled about.

Ontario’s cap-and-trade plan, for example, will not be revenue neutral, for a number of reasons including that Ontario is going to spend some of the revenues on projects like wind farms rather than give the money back to the population of Ontario in the form of tax rebates.

An even more pressing environmental issue than carbon taxes is animal welfare. It is, sadly, the case that the food industry in Canada tortures or mistreats tens of millions of mammals and birds each year, and that poor treatment of animals can be dangerous to humans as well because of the overuse of antibiotics and risk of poor farm conditions allowing dieases like Avian bird flu to spread. The environmentalist Left, however, which cares about this issue dearly, is not large enough to have yet made animal welfare a government priority. And some of the solutions that many on the Left champion, namely vegetarianism, veganism, local farms, and small-scale farms, may not be the most practical courses of action, even if they are the most laudable ones.

A more conservative approach, such as mandating that large-scale industrial farms adopt humane methods — the “large pastoral” approach championed by Canadian writer Sonia Faruqi in her excellent and hilarious book, Project Animal Farm — may prove to be more successful in providing a more effective model for animal welfare than would the promotion of small or local farms. Yet among the modern Conservative Party, the issue of animal welfare is generally not even viewed as urgent or worthy of discussion. If only there was some sort of barbaric cultural practices hotline we could call to report the Conservative Party for such a cruel negligence…

An environmental issue that the Left has been particularly negligent on, meanwhile, but which the absence of a Red-Green movement means that the Right has not at all stepped in to fix the Left’s mistake, is the marijuana industry. Because the Left has long seen smoking weed as being cool and weed prohibition as a bad policy — and, by the way, they are correct on both those points — it has for the most part turned a blind eye to the vast environmental destruction that marijuana production often causes. This destruction is actually needless in most cases: it stems from the desire among consumers for weed that is both cheap and blemish-free, rather than for coarser “shwag”, even though the former is of only slightly higher quality. (Read Stanford professor Martin Lewis’s article on the topic to get a fuller picture of this key issue).

With legalization impending, this issue should be addressed in government. But instead what we have mainly gotten from leaders like Trudeau is tough talk on the need to keep THC away from the developing brains of young adults. The truth, though, is that it would be far easier to prevent needless environmental destruction than it would be to stop students from taking drugs.

There is, finally, the issue of local pollution and quality of life. It seems odd that the party that claims to best represent salt-of-the-earth Canadians puts relatively little priority on maintaining landscapes that these same Canadians might otherwise be able to enjoy themselves. It would, again, seem only sensible that Conservatives should prefer taxing things like air pollution, noise pollution, and visual pollution, rather than taxing sales or middle-class income. That way at least Canada’s GDP can grow, even if its oil sands or suburban sprawl grows too.

The argument you frequently hear Conservatives imply, that the economy and environment are at odds with one another because eco-taxes would imperil economic growth, misses the point entirely. The status quo —the Harper majority government status quo — is one of medium-high taxes in general, which limits economic growth, and intensive resource extraction and suburban sprawl, which harm the environment. A Red-Green movement would ideally serve market-lovers as well as nature-lovers. Today’s Conservatives, in some respects, often do neither.

Who will lead this new movement? I hereby nominate Robert Herjavec, the self-made business mogul and surfer with Trudeauesque hair, who sits to O’Leary’s right in the Tank/Den. (If nothing else, a sharkfight between Herjavec and O’Leary could raise Canada’s profile south of the border). While a Red-Green Party might have little chance of electoral success at first, the creation of such a party by a prominent Canadian could help to chip the Conservative Party towards the Green. It’s time to step up and serve your country Robert!

Standard
North America

Presidential Beginnings and Regionalism in America

Hillary Clinton would not just have been the first female president. She would also have been the first modern Democratic candidate born in a northern state to have become president. The past four Democrats who have won presidential contests (or five, if you count Al Gore’s ambiguous election result) were not from the North.

This is counting Obama as a non-Northern politician, which may not be entirely unfair: Hawaii is the southernmost state in the US, Obama was raised by his Kansas-born mother and grandparents, and African-American society in Illinois remains recently rooted in the South. Obama himself has a bit of a southern accent that he is able to turn on or off as required. (Hillary Clinton had one too back in the early 1990’s, when she was still living in the governor’s mansion in Arkansas). Indeed, you have to go back all the way to John F Kennedy in order to break this pattern—but not to Truman before him, a Missouri-born Democrat.

In contrast, on the Republican side all the recent presidents who have won elections (in other words, all the recent Republican presidents apart from Gerald Ford, who inherited Nixon’s presidency post-impeachment) have had close ties to either California or Texas. The Bush family, though originally aristocrats hailing from New England, adopted Texas as their home, with Bush Sr. representing it in Congress for four years and Bush Jr. later serving as its governor for five years. Eisenhower too was from Texas. Reagan on the other hand was a Hollywood actor turned governor of California, while Nixon was born and raised in California and represented it in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Trump’s victory in a sense breaks this pattern (at least, if you ignore the fact that the new Celebrity Apprentice is being filmed in California). Trump will be the first New York-born Republican president since Teddy Roosevelt, and the first New York-born president of either party since Franklin Roosevelt. Trump is also the only Republican president to have ever lost the Texas primary (he got just 27 percent of the vote there; Ted Cruz got 44 percent) and was the first Republican presidential nominee to have lost the Texas primary since Ford lost it to Reagan in 1976, in an election Ford later lost to Jimmy Carter.

These patterns are telling. Most of the post-election discussions thus far have been devoted to the ethnic, rural-urban, class, age, or gender divisions that helped Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton, but this is partly a result of the fact that two of America’s other political macro-divisions — the North-South divide and the California-Texas divide — appear so obvious and are so normalized that they have been dwelt upon very little by comparison.

The North-South divide is partially obscured by the fact that there are large numbers of African-American and Hispanic voters living in most states in the South. Thus, Clinton fared worse in heartland states like Idaho, Utah, and the Dakotas than she did in southeastern states like Alabama, Georgia, or the Carolinas, even as her worst showing of all was among white Southern voters. More than 70 percent of white voters in Texas and in most of the Southeast (apart from Florida) did not vote for Clinton—a stupefying level of political unanimity for such a large region and demographic group. Nationally, by comparison, even an estimated 28 percent of white voters without a college degree voted for Clinton. Even white voters in the coal-producing states of Wyoming and West Virginia were not enticed to vote for Trump in such large proportions as Southern ones were.

Note: this is a map of poll-based projections from just before the election; it does not show the actual results of the election. I couldn’t find a map that does show the results of the election based solely on white voters

 

Trump, meanwhile, received an estimated 49 percent of white college graduates, 23 percent of non-white college graduates, and even 29 percent of Hispanic-Americans, yet in California got just 33 percent of the overall vote, less than in any other state apart from Hawaii or Vermont. In Massachusetts Trump got just 33.5 percent. In New York he got 37 percent, the first time a president failed to win his own home state since Lincoln lost Kentucky in 1864.

Still, as with that 1864 election, race proved far more divisive even than intense regionalism; Trump only won 8 percent of African-American votes. By contrast, Trump received at least 29 percent of the overall vote in every state. Only in Trump’s future home of Washington D.C. was he blown-out, getting just 4 percent of the overall vote there.

Compared to the bitter North-South divide, which dates back to America’s early years, the California-Texas divide is extremely new and emotionally far less encumbered by historical(-racial) divisions. California and Texas have not voted in unison only since 1988. They have voted in unison in 5 of the past 13 elections — twice for Reagan (a Californian), twice for the Nixon (a Californian), and once for George H W Bush, who had been Reagan’s vice president prior to the election. Indeed, Texas and California also voted in unison seven out of ten times between 1952 and 1988, and fourteen out of nineteen times between 1916 and 1988. During this span California voted for the Republicans nine out of ten times, while Texas voted for the Democrats four out of ten times.

Today, however, it is already becoming difficult to believe that this ever used to occur. The growing division between California and Texas has perhaps more than anything else defined modern American politics. California and Texas are the most populous states in the country, accounting for 17 percent of the electoral college votes in the election. The next most populous state, the swing-state of Florida, has just 52 percent the population size of California and 74 percent that of Texas. Illinois, the most populous state in the Midwest and the fifth most populous state in the country, has just 33 percent the population size of California and 47 percent that of Texas. Had Texas voted for the Democrats in this past election, Hillary Clinton would have won the electoral college by a score of 270 to 268. Had Trump fared better in California, he would not have lost the popular vote.

(The division between California and Texas might also be preventing both from pursuing their shared interest of achieving structural reform in the Senate. While Democrats are outraged that Trump and George W Bush both won the presidency even after losing the popular vote, what is arguably much more troubling is that tiny states like Rhode Island and Wyoming still receive as many votes in the Senate as do giants like California and Texas. Given the difficulty of amending the structure of the Senate, such reform would require at a minimum the cooperation of Congressional representatives from Texas and California).

Past presidents also used to transcend the more deeply entrenched North-South divide on occasion. Bill Clinton did it to a certain extent when he won in states like Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Reagan did it when he swept the Northeast twice, as to a lesser extent did George H W Bush. And Carter did it when he swept the entire Southeast, even as he failed to win any of the 16 states in the lower 48 west of Texas or Minnesota.

Carter.png

Carter defeats Ford in 1976; in that election the divide was east-west, not north-south

If such occurrences are impossible nowadays, we might see more elections in the future that are not too dissimilar from the recent one, with the Democrats no longer running a Southern candidate, the Republicans no longer running one from California or Texas, and both of the parties instead focusing their efforts squarely upon the Midwest, Florida, and a few other smaller states like Arizona. Perhaps, though, these divisions will not persist. Maybe a Northern Democrat will have a shot at winning states in the South next time—instead of just some Yankee showman like Trump.

Standard
North America

Electoral College Blues

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama

In the recent presidential election Donald Trump received the support of 45 percent of voters who have college diplomas, 37 percent of voters who have graduate degrees, and 35 percent of college-age voters. Trump won the presidency in spite of these relatively low numbers, however, because he is set to receive 57 percent of the votes within the electoral college.

Democratic voters are not at all happy about this. Many are now calling for the abolition of the electoral college, or at least, wishing that it was not so incredibly difficult to abolish. They are unhappy that both Donald Trump and George W Bush were able to reach the White House even after losing the popular vote.

I am sympathetic to this view, and if it were up to me I would agree to replace the electoral college with another type of voting system — though what system exactly would be best I am not certain about. That said, I would like to point out a few things to the Democratic supporters who have been discussing this issue of late, if only because I have yet to hear anyone mention them:

1) Obama lost the popular vote in the Democratic primary of 2008. He received roughly 0.7 percent fewer votes than Hillary Clinton received in that race, but won because he got 53 percent of the delegate count. This was not as large a margin as Trump’s 2 percent popular vote loss to Clinton, but it was greater than Bush’s 0.5 percent loss to Gore.

Granted, a primary is obviously not as important as general election, and involves many fewer voters.There is also the complicating factor of the several states which caucus rather than vote directly in primaries, as well as the fact that Obama was not on the ballot in Michigan. This has led some to claim that Obama would have beaten Clinton in a popular vote if there had been a fairer and more direct primary system.

All the same, it does perhaps speak a bit poorly of some of the Democratic supporters, who did not make such a fuss when Obama came to power after appearing to have lost a key popular vote. They do not even mention Obama’s popular vote loss now, even as they complain frequently about Trump’s and Bush’s.

(Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, did well in the 2008 primary in part by winning in the Rust Belt states and Florida, states which have now propelled Trump to electoral college success. Trump’s victory was the second time Clinton has won a key popular vote and still lost an election)

2) It is not at all clear that the unfairness of the electoral college is deserving of the huge amount of attention it has been receiving of late, when the unfairness of the voting system in the Senate is in certain respects enormously greater than that of the electoral college, yet by comparison tends to receive almost no attention in the national media.

Senators, of course, are not as important as presidents, but still, anyone complaining about the presidential voting system should probably also be complaining about the fact that tiny states like Rhode Island and Wyoming receive as much representation in the Senate as do giants like California and Texas.

George W Bush and Trump, after all, only lost their respective popular votes by approximately 0.5—2 percent, whereas California and Texas have nearly 40 and 28 million inhabitants, respectively, yet receive the same amount of representation in the Senate as do each of the six American states which have fewer than one million inhabitants, or the 14 states which have fewer than two million inhabitants, or the 20 states with fewer than three million inhabitants.

3) It is not clear that the Democrats would actually benefit from getting rid of the electoral college. While most Democrat supporters who want to get rid of the electoral college would like to do so because they feel it is unfair, rather than because they feel it hurts Democrats, some do want to change the system mainly because they feel it has been hurt their side during the Bush and Trump elections.

What is interesting here is that the Democrats have spent much of the past decade telling themselves that they are well-placed to win future electoral colleges because they have a “coalition of the ascendant” — notably, that they may be set to benefit from having young Spanish-speaking, black, and white-liberal populations continue to grow quickly within  swing states like Florida, Colorado, Virginia, or possibly even Georgia. Trump’s electoral college victory does not change this trend. What is more, Trump’s popular vote loss to Clinton may not prevent the Republicans from winning future popular votes by receiving high support from white voters.

Indeed, this recent election might, counter-intuitivitely, indicate that Republicans could be able to win the popular vote in the future because of white voters being willing to switch from Democrat to Republican, or because of Democrat voters staying home on election day. If, as hopefully will not happen, electoral politics continue to become more divided along racial lines, then it is not inconceivable that white Americans would remain a predominant voting bloc even if they eventually no longer account for a majority of the electorate.

Of course, it is probable that for the foreseeable future Republicans will continue to fare better in the electoral college than in the popular vote, a result of the fact that most Democrat voters tend to live within Northeastern or Pacific coastal cities, outside of typical swing states. Still, any Democrats who hope to somehow get rid of the electoral college in order to benefit their own party should, maybe, be a bit careful in making this a Christmas wish.

Standard
North America

In Politics, the Triple Crown is Even More Elusive

wash

Last year, the horse American Pharaoh became the first since 1978 to achieve the Triple Crown, winning in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. Having a single political party win all three branches in Washington, however — controlling the White House and Congress and having a majority of Supreme Court justices nominated by a president of your party — is even rarer. The Democrats last achieved it in 1969. The Republicans managed it for four and a half years under George W. Bush, but before then had not done it since 1931.

With the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this year, however, both parties now have a shot at the political Triple Crown in the upcoming election. The Democrats can achieve it if they can somehow retake Congress, the Republicans if they can somehow retake the White House. Both Clinton and Trump therefore have a chance at making history this year. One of them could soon become a political stud, while the other (hopefully Trump) could be sent off to the glue-factory.

Democrats and Republicans

The last time the Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress (but, not the Supreme Court) was during a two-year span from 2009 until 2011, at the start of Obama’s first term. Before then, the Democrats had not controlled both branches of government at the same time since 1992-1994, and before that not since 1976-1980. They did not manage to control Congress at all between 1995 and 2007, and in 2007 and 2008 only controlled it narrowly with the help of left-leaning Independent senators Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman.

The Republicans, on the other hand, have controlled both houses of Congress since 2015, and did so also from 2003 until 2007 and from 1995 until 2001. (The 2001 streak ended half a year after George W. Bush was elected when, in May of 2001, sitting Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican party to become a Democrat-leaning Independent). Before then, however, the Republicans had not controlled both houses of Congress simultaneously since 1953-1955, during the first two years of the presidency of Republican Dwight Eisenhower.

For a long time, the Republicans’ bane was the House of Representatives. For forty years, between 1955 and 1995, the Republicans failed to win the House even once. Yet they have reached the promised land since: they have won the House in nine of the past eleven elections, and today control the largest House majority they have had since 1928. Winning big in the House in the election of 2010, the first election following “the Great Recession, was particularly nice for the Republicans, as in 2011 the US had its once-a-decade redrawing of congressional district boundaries. The Republicans were therefore able to redraw four times as many districts as the Democrats were. Taking the House back is by far the main hurdle the Democrats will have to winning the political Triple Crown.

In contrast to the House of Representatives, the Senate and White House have not been kind to the Republicans of late. They have lost the Senate in four out of the past five elections and the White House in four of the past six presidential elections (or four of five, if you count the Bush-Gore-Nader election in 2000 as a wash). That they have staved off a Democrat Triple Crown during this period is only because they have enjoyed Republican-appointed majorities in the Supreme Court for decades. Their Supreme Court dominance has been legacy of having controlled the White House for 20 out of 24 years between 1969 and 1992, under Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush. By the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency, only one of nine justices had been appointed by a Democrat president.

This huge Supreme Court majority was in part a lucky break, however. It was a result of Democrat Jimmy Carter (president from 1977-1981) having been one of just four presidents in US history, and the only one since the 1860s, not to get to appoint any Supreme Court judges. Clinton only appointed two in eight years, meanwhile, whereas Bush Sr. and Reagan together appointed five in twelve years and Nixon and Ford together appointed four in eight years. According to some Democrat supporters, this Court majority was not only unlucky but also, eventually, unjust, since it was the majority-Republican Court ruled that Bush defeated Gore in Florida during the 2000 election, which in turn resulted in Bush getting to appoint another two justices to the Court during his two terms in office.

Odds For 2016 

According to Nate Silver’s data journalism website FiveThirtyEight, Trump has roughly a 13 or 26 percent chance at beating Clinton (depending on whether you use their “polls-only” or “polls-plus” forecast). While FiveThirtyEight has not released their predictions for Congress yet, they have also explained why they see the Senate race as possibly being a very close one this year. They have said as well that for the Democrats to retake the House will require at least a Clinton landslide victory (defining landslide as a double-digit popular vote margin, which has not happened since Reagan, Nixon, or, for the Democrats, Lyndon Johnson) — and they have the odds of such a Clinton landslide at 35 percent or lower.

Historical Circumstances

It is clear that, in modern times, it usually takes fairly special circumstances to bring about a situation in which one party controls the Congress and White House at the same time. The Democrats did it for two years after the 2008 election because of excitement over Obama, disappointment with George W Bush (and Sarah Palin), the financial crisis in late 2007, and frustration with the Iraq War. The Republicans did it for a few years under Bush Jr. — during which time they also had a Supreme Court majority — but they only achieved this through the narrowest of victories over Al Gore in the 2000 election, and they may also have been bolstered by 9-11, which occured just over eight months into Bush’s presidency.

The Democrats, similarly, did it for the first few years of Clinton’s presidency, in the wake of the 1991 recession and Desert Storm, and with the help of Clinton’s political skills and a unique ticket headed by two Southern Democrats (Clinton from Arkansas, Gore from Washington D.C. and Tennessee). Republicans Reagan, Bush Sr., Ford, and Nixon never managed to have their party run Congress, but another Southern Democrat, Jimmy Carter, did so during all four of his years in office, which he came into in the election following Watergate and the end of the American Vietnam War. It probably also helped that, unlike Clinton’s – and even Obama’s – mostly feigned religiosity, Carter was in actuality a devout Christian.

Before that, though, one party controlling multiple branches of the government used to happen quite frequently. The Democrats dominated Washington D.C. during the eras around WW1, the Depression, WW2, and most of the post-WW2 generation, while the Republicans dominated the post-Civil War generation and the “Roaring ‘20s”, then took office again following Democratic president Truman’s waging of the Korean War and Democratic president Johnson’s massive troop surge into Vietnam. In the twentieth century, the Democrats had the political Triple Crown from 1939-1952 and from 1962-1969, while the Republicans had it from 1921-1931. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency was particularly impactful, not only because of the Depression and War but also because he had personally appointed eight of the nine judges on the Supreme Court by the time he left office.

That is all in the past though. For the 2016 election, going by the odds of FiveThirtyEight and by other predictions that have been made, there is perhaps a 10-20 percent chance the Democrats will win their first Triple Crown since 1969, and also a 10-20 percent chance that the Republicans will get their first Triple Crown since 2006. Clinton or Trump, then, could end up becoming the next American Pharaoh.

Standard
North America

Guest Post: Babbit, by Sinclair Lewis

This is a guest post from the blog Occasional Mumblings. You can read the original here:

“I wish I could have written Babbitt” – H.G. Wells

Babbitt is an oddity for me: not only because it’s literary fiction, and social realism at that, but also because it doesn’t really need a review. It’s one of the iconic works of the 20th century. Its title became a common noun – you can still find it in dictionaries – and a word that symbolised one of the great social divides of the 1920s and 1930s. Babbitt was a bestseller: the tenth-best-selling book of 1922, and the fourth-best-selling book of 1923. It was one of five top-ten bestsellers by Lewis that decade, the most by any author of that era (tied with Zane Grey). Two of those novels hit number one, and another hit number two. Meanwhile, in 1930, Lewis became the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; Babbitt was widely considered to be the book that won it for him.

In other words, you don’t need my review on this one. If you have any interest in literature, whether for historical or for artistic purposes, Babbitt should already be on your to-read list.

But since I’ve read it, I may as well say a few words for those who haven’t read it yet…

babbit

Babbitt is a 1922 novel by Sinclair Lewis, a thematic sequel-of-a-sort to 1920s Main Street, the work that had catapulted him to fame (Main Street has been described as the publishing sensation of the century, and ‘not so much a novel as an incident in American life’). Main Street was a dissection of the life of the American small town – so fundamental in its critique that Americans still use its title to symbolise ordinary people and small businesses; in Babbitt, Lewis moved his attention to the big city. In this case, the city is Zenith, a booming Midwestern town, and the focus is middle-aged Republican real estate broker George F. Babbitt, proud upstanding member of the Chamber of Commerce, the Athletic Club, the Boosters Club, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

The plot is, for the most part, non-existent. Rather than following a simple, coherent narrative, Babbitt meanders back and forth, displaying step by step haphazardly the breakdown of Babbitt’s world of certainty and contentment. Babbitt, you see, may be prosperous, successful, blessed with a wife, three children, a business, the respect of the community, and most importantly a motor car, but all is not quite well somehow. At night, he dreams of a beautiful fairy child, and in dark moments, he remembers that he always wanted to be a lawyer and a statesman – just as his friend Paul Riesling always wanted to be a violinist – and wonders how and why that never happened. He is, in short, in modern terms, a man on the precipice of a mid-life crisis.

This core conceit – a picaresque tale of the crisis of a frankly not wholly admirable and yet still pitiably sympathetic respectable man – is highly reminiscent of Cabell’s Jurgen, which I strongly suspect is not a coincidence given Lewis’ admiration for his contemporary. [Cabell’s works are namechecked in Babbitt, and I think a few of the lines are homages, or in-jokes for fellow fans]. But where Jurgen is a timeless flight of whimsy into fantasy, Babbitt is a work of pedantic social realism, rooted obsessively in its place and period. Lewis isn’t writing Babbitt just to tell the story of Georgie Babbitt: he’s telling that story at least in part as an excuse to write the first Great American Novel in the modern sense, a sprawling, encyclopaedic summary of the totality of American life in the 20th century. Or, at least, one chapter of the Great American Novel: later novels by Lewis would reach into areas George Babbitt couldn’t penetrate, such as the medical and academic subcultures of Arrowsmith, the fundamentalist revivalism of the banned Elmer Gantry, and the upper echelons of society (who spend most of the novel on tour in Europe) in Dodsworth.

The realism and observation of Babbitt are remarkable, and are the basis of the reader’s primary reaction to the novel. Most striking is Lewis’ decision to accurately reflect the contemporary patois of the American middle-classes, with a sensitivity that allows us to discern the changes between generations and the gradations between social classes. To the modern reader, however, the effect is nothing like what is intended. On the one hand, the constant barrage of “swell”, “slick”, “fourflushing”, “gee whillikins”, “gosh all fishhooks”, “takes the firebrick necklace” and “pep” is inherently ridiculous in the modern age – it probably was for Lewis too, but in an entirely opposite way (Lewis is writing about cool new slang that sounds silly and uncouth to his paternal ears, whereas for the modern reader anybody who actually says “gee whiz!” is hopelessly antique, quaint, postcard-picturesque). On another hand, the slang is intriguing, magnetic, interesting in the way a crossword puzzle or a mysterious photograph in a family album may be interesting: what in Lewis’ time was unprecedentedly real, lifelike, ordinary, to us has become alien and other (the way that the prefix “he-” is used as an all-purpose indicator of admiration and respect and manliness (sorry, he-manliness) is both disarmingly, charmingly quaint and at the same time subtly horrifying). The interest has been inverted. And there is also the unfortunate fact that between rampant he-slang, gradual but vital shifts in word usage, and changes in cultural and material life, there are occasionally moments of real puzzlement and confusion, and of unintended humour. These may tantalise; they may also distract.

More generally, the impact of Lewis’ he-realism has been blunted by the passage of time: we have nothing but the amazed testimony of contemporaries to reassure us that this picture he paints is indeed an accurate one: Lewis’ mirror of life has become (for those of us who are not professional historians) our only testimony to the nature of that extinct existence. As for the finer points Lewis makes, the subtleties that rely on our contextual knowledge, these are lost entirely in our ignorance of the past, in a way that more stylised, universalised classic he-novels are more able to sidestep. Oliver Twist does not rely on us knowing precisely the relative social status of a syndicated poet and a traction company land-purchaser, nor does it hope to pack a world of import into a short description by saying simply that a man looked like the sort of man who would work as a soda fountain clerk. What is the social significance attached to a 1920s realtor’s decision whether or not to let his manicurist apply protective nail varnish?

Yet after we have struggled through the shock of the old, what really hits us is how modern this all is, or how antique we all are. As Babbitt wanders through his world, from business meetings to domestic arguments, from evangelical preachers to over-eager, over-friendly episcopalian priests and to lectures by new thought gurus on cultivating the inner sun spirit, from derided old socialists to tub-thumping anti-immigrant he-populism, from celebrity culture to industry conferences, from worker’s strikes to the difficulties women have in finding employment, from teenage revellers to over-earnest young activists, to lower-middle-class guys who spend all week waiting to get hammered at the weekend, to ‘phone-fixated hipsters Bohemians (they have real he-names like ‘Capitolina’), to young girls looking for sugar daddies, from Republican primaries and the need for “a sound business administration” (Warren Harding is duly elected – a real swell he-President) to the way science is corrupted into the service of big business, from advertising jingles to learn-in-a-week-with-this-one-weird-trick-discovered-by-a-Zenith-housewife postal scams, from corrupt real estate deals to torturous suburban dinner parties… the world of Zenith is our world. The paraphernalia may have changed – more people have cars now, and fewer have maids, and these days we don’t have to go through the rigmarole of pretending to observe Prohibition (in the West, at least). But in all the important ways, Zenith feels modern in a way that other writing I’ve encountered of this era and before it just doesn’t.

Part of that may be Lewis’ unromantic realism, and his interest in depicting the way the world was going, rather than the way it saw itself or the way it had been. I think also that some of it is about place, not time. When I have read about the early 20th century, it has usually been the early 20th century of England – as in the recently-read Lady into Fox, for instance – a time and place that feel familiar yet very distant. How much things have changed, I thought. But the contemporaneous Babbitt makes me instead wonder how much that change has less been historical progress and more simply the rise to preëminence of America: the world, or at least the UK, has become part of America, an America little-changed from the America of Babbitt (just as, in fairness, the America of Babbitt still feels like a colony, like a strangely-warped province of the British Empire, still looking to London and its aristocracy for approval and guidance the way that people now look to America).

In fact, it’s all a bit depressing. Sure, some things have changed for the better. The position of women and of African-Americans (and Jews) has improved massively since the time of Babbitt: the treatment of women now reads as unpleasantly antiquated, while the treatment of African-Americans is positively cringe-worthy, to the extent that they’re present at all (Zenith is a northern city before the mid-20th century migration of the black population to the northern cities, and is clearly not very multicultural). That’s intentional – Lewis is writing a satire here – and Lewis would be overjoyed to see how much progress we have made in these areas, which were particular personal passions of his. The plight of women in particular is a common thread throughout his novels, and highlighted in 1917’s The Job (about the difficulties a woman faces in attempting to have it all and juggle both a working career and a family life) and 1933’s Ann Vickers (about suffragettes, progressives, abortion, women’s prisons and so forth). He turned explicitly toward race relations in one of his last works, 1947’s Kingsblood Royal, in which a respectable white man discovers he has African ancestors and, adrift and purposeless in life, begins to adopt an African-American identity and in the process provokes increasing prejudice from his white friends and family: the novel was rubbished as unrealistic by white critics (why would anybody want to suggest that there was still racism in America in the 1940s? Nonsense!), but praised by black intellectuals for its perceptive and honest treatment not only of racial prejudice but of issues of class, identity and ‘passing’ in black America.

[Kingsblood Royal was based on extensive research (all his novels reflect extensive research!) with the aid of the NAACP, and particularly of its president, the blond-haired, blue-eyed, white-skinned black man Walter White. White’s father, born a slave, once collapsed and was taken to hospital, where he received excellent care, because nobody could tell he was black; when they discovered that, despite his colouration he was ‘really’ a black man, they dragged him through a rainstorm to the Negro Ward instead – he died in the process. White would later go on to make use of his flawlessly European appearance in investigating and publicising over forty lynchings in the South: passing as black, he could persuade witnesses to talk to him, but passing as white he could avoid being lynched himself, and even at times joined up with KKK groups as an undercover agent. On one occasion, a lynch mob was indeed sent after him when the KKK discovered that there was ‘a black man pretending to be white’ in the area –he escaped because a helpful lynch mob enthusiast told him about the plan, not realising that White was in fact the black man in question. An acclaimed novelist, journalist, activist, and president of the NAACP for twenty years, he was eventually disavowed by much of the black civil rights movement, and disowned by his own family, for the sin of marrying a white woman (black commentators couldn’t agree on whether the marriage proved that he had always been a white man who had merely been passing as black, or just proved that he was a race-traitor, but neither interpretation was positive; the accusations from black and white alike that White was only ever a man who was, as one commentator put it, “negro by choice”, may be why he, apart from the pun, named his autobiography A Man Called White). None of this really has anything to do with Babbitt, except thematically… it just seemed like something people should mention…]

So, racial and gender issues have improved. It’s also true that the general… well, the babbitry has improved. The extent to which people were entirely and ruthlessly controlled by fashion and by public opinion. The same pressures that confronted Babbitt confront us now, but with more room for mercy and tolerance and heresy (at least, if you don’t count internet progressivism…). Part of that I suspect is the lingering effect of our encounter with fascism. Lewis is also known for his 1935 alternative-history novel It Can’t Happen Here, about an authoritarian regime rising to power in America, and reading Babbitt you can already see the groundwork being laid. In 1920, there already is a totalitarian control of civil society, Lewis tells us… it’s just disorganised. The Elks, the Boosters, the Republicans, the Chamber of Commerce, the Athletic Club, the Episcopalians, the banks, the newspaper barons… they have the power, they just aren’t united enough to use it. The structures are in place, they’re just waiting for a single charismatic leader to take them over (and the modern reader can’t help but be a little worried by the rise of the new Good Citizens League during the course of the novel…), and a dictatorship of optimistic niceness will be enforced… to some extent, I think that the rise of genuinely fascistic states perhaps has helped us be more skeptical of the sort of deeply controlling, deeply (and vacuously) idealistic society that Lewis describes.

So that’s improved. But not entirely for positive reasons. For one thing, civil society now is less powerful because civil society now has collapsed. These organisations, the clubs and leagues and secret orders, that gave support and comfort and a sense of place and belonging to the lost little Babbitts of the world, have largely ceased to be, or at least have lost their size and power. That they can no longer wield the club of public opinion so surgically is good; but we are also now without their potential benefits.

Particularly striking is the rise of income inequality. We don’t tend to see the roaring twenties as a time of equality and fraternity, but even in Lewis’ horrified, condemning satire, his world seems like utopia by modern standards. Babbitt is a man in an exalted position: owner of his own real estate company, a seriously important local businessman. And yet he is constantly aware of his own smallness. He looks up to more connected comrades like Vergil Gunch, or to more educated comrades like the professor Howard Littlefield and the commercial poet Cholmondeley Frink, but more than that he is aware of the profound distance between him and the real success stories, men like the industrialist Charles McKelvey, who owns a string of national enterprises. At one point Babbitt notes that Charles is always friendly to him when they happen to meet, yet never seems to invite him to dinner. At another, he sees Charles’ wife alone in a railway carriage, but she ignores him as though he were not there. At another, we discover that George and Charles went to university together.

The thing is, the depressing thing is, today men like Babbitt would not have gone to university with men like McKelvey. McKelvey would have gone to private school, and then to Harvard or Princeton or Yale or the like, not the local state university with Babbitt. He would not bump into Babbitt at lunch, or at the golf club, or at the chamber of commerce, or at the barber, or the church, or at a meeting of the local Republican party, or anywhere else: he would eat his lunch, play his golf and have his hair cut somewhere altogether exclusive, or at his own home, and he would not go to the chamber of commerce because that part of civil society is almost dead, and he would not have anything to do with the local Republican party but would only send dollars and demands to the national committee or to a superPAC, and he would not go to church, though he might have personal spiritual advisor. His wife would not have to blank men like Babbitt on the train because his wife would not travel by public train, but by private helicopter. Throughout the novel, Lewis wants us to get this sense of there being many Zeniths all living side-by-side, different worlds all lived in the same space, but overlapping; at one time, Babbitt is on a committee alongside the august old-money banker/aristocrat William Eathorne, and at another, prohibition forces him into a low dive to source some alcohol from people from an entirely different Zenith… the worlds of drug traffickers and prostitutes, of business, of high-society, are all just moments away from one another.

Now they aren’t. That’s what’s changed, the idea that these worlds could be permeable to one another: visible, if not attainable. Now, these worlds barely have the slightest material contact. The McKelveys and the Dodsworths and the Eathornes now live on an entirely unrelated planet to the Babbitts. Actually, I’m not sure the Dodsworths and the Eathornes – the pioneer families turned banking oligarchs – even exist anymore, except perhaps in relic form, as curiosities, somewhere in Connecticut, retaining some of their money, little of their conservativism and almost none of their power. Their place in the world has been adsumed by the McKelveys. Except it hasn’t really, because how many industrialist magnates are there now? Some, mostly in tech companies. Mostly we’re ruled by… well, Stanley Graffs, I guess, people even Babbitt would have looked down on, but who have somehow elbowed their way to the top of the pole, and had the morals and manners skinned off them in the process. Babbitt himself is hard to find these days, the Prominent Local Businessman. Most of them have lost their jobs to the growth of the great national and international chain stores, that were no doubt once founded by the McKelveys, but are now run for them by distant Graffs. Babbitt, if he survives at all, is probably a put-upon middle-manager now, come a long way down in the world.

If I sound depressing, that’s the point; because that’s what’s changed, in a way. Lewis’ satire is aimed at the horrors of the modern world, but in particular at modern optimism. The everyday American of Babbitt is relentlessly positive, bursting with pep, committed to boosting, filled with hope and zing. Sure, part of that is a steadfast denial of their real problems, and part of it is a scared façade, nobody wanting to be the one to let the team down. Lewis’ America is a nation of brutally enforced mass happiness, in which to acknowledge pain or discontent is tantamount to treason – only socialists, or worse, those damn long-haired liberal ‘intelligentsia’ speak that way about America. Don’t they know America is the greatest, swellest he-country in the world? U – S – A! (to quote the novel). Gee whiz.

[If you’ve seen Pleasantville… Babbitt is the perfect world those guys in the 1950s were trying to recreate after the horrors of war and Depression. The chief difference in tone is that in the 50s, it was an imitation, and a settling – in the 20s, it was real and it was striving]

And yet… there is also a real sense of hope here, a sense of progress, a sense of a brighter future, a sense of growth (Zenith’s inhabitants keep close count of the city’s population, which is its score in its competition against all the other growing young cities). The very blind optimism that is the chief target of Lewis’ derision seems now… charmingly young. Endearingly, painfully, sincere. You poor saps, the modern reader is likely to think, don’t you know that this is (nearly) as good as it gets? And Lewis may mock it, but he carries it too. Why satirise American society this way, we might think, when there is no alternative? Nothing can ever change, so why bother to complain? Sure, Sinclair, capitalism sucks, but it’s not like there’s any alternative. Seneca Doane isn’t a pioneer of socialist progressivism, he’s a deluded old dinosaur ensnared by the false audacity of hope. Yes, we’ll invent all sorts of technologies and liberating forms of communication, but obviously they’ll just be used to enact, so much more efficiently, the same sort of personalised repressions that they needed Athletic Clubs to enforce back in 1920, and in a more depersonalised way. Bohemianism won’t offer a way out – the respectable, commercial world will simply accommodate it, and sell to it, and market it. Lewis mocks the idea of “competition”… doesn’t he know that that will be unchallengeable dogma for the rest of human history? He puts his faith in the new generation – Babbitt’s daughter, we discover, reads Cabell and Hergesheimer, and Mencken, and the poetry of Vachel Lindsey* – doesn’t Lewis know that Babbitt’s son and daughters will grow up to be the Gatsby generation**, no less facile or less money-grubbing than their parents? Doesn’t he know that the Great War that he fears has indelibly scarred the psychology of the older generation is only going to be reiterated in the lives of Babbitt’s future grandchildren? And doesn’t he know that Cabell, and Hergesheimer, and Lindsey, and to a lesser but still considerable degree Mencken and Lewis himself will be swept aside in a tide of Faulkners and Hemingways*** and Steinbecks – real swell manly he-literature, as Georgie Babbitt would admiringly call it – and erased from public consciousness almost entirely? [Oh, sure, Babbitt and co. would frown and tut about Steinbeck being a dangerous socialist who needed to be kept an eye on, but better a misguided socialist than some punk longair – and Steinbeck did make some real he-sales!] There is an eager earnestness about Lewis, and about his characters, that is at once amusing, embarrassing, and somewhat pitiful. It’s all a bit depressing…

*Lindsey returned the favour by writing a poem all about babbittry.

**Its worth noting how fresh it is to read a story about the parents of the Gatsby generation – to see the famous Roaring Twenties from the other direction, as it were. Lewis, to his credit, despite putting his faith in that generation, allows us to be under no illusions about their virtues, or their general annoyingness…

***Lewis admired Hemingway, called him one of the few truly important, “and almost savagely individual” writers living in their age. He not only mentioned him in his Nobel acceptance speech as a future winner, but went ahead and nominated him. In return, Hemmingway, the true American he-man, mocked Lewis mercilessly for years, in conversation, in journalism and even in his novels, mostly for his physical appearance, which Hemingway found insufficiently he-masculine. He even took a detour in Across the River and Into the Treesto taunt his older cheerleader, through a very specifically-described background character, a compatriot of the American protagonist who has ‘outlived his talents’, specifically with the purpose of mocking Lewis’ skin cancer. The Lewis-stand-in character, Hemingway says, is Goebbels, if Goebbels had ever been trapped in a burning plane. He peers about constantly, as though truth could be discovered through query. His skin is pockmarked, and his soul and heart are pitted in the same way. Where Hemingway’s Mary Sue sits with his adoring teenage sex-toy and thinks about sex, Lewis’ image is trapped talking to a respectable old woman. He looks like a disappointed weasel. He looks like he has been run half-way through a meat grinder and then been boiled, lightly, in oil. Spit runs down his face from the corner of his mouth when he speaks. He drinks too much. He is a waste of time not worth talking about. His face looks like the hills around Verdun after the war. In Italy, nobody bothers to pay attention to him – he arouses neither love nor hate nor fear nor suspicion. He writes rapidly, late into the night – “I dare say that makes marvelous reading” mocks Mary Sue; “I dare say,” sniffs the sock puppet on Hemingway’s second hand, “but it was hardly the method of Dante.” He is a drawing by Goya. He is so ludicrous (surely that’s a wig?) that Mary Sue will hope to have him by to laugh at whenever he feels sad.

The difference in how they speak of their rivals rather encapsulates the difference in approach from the two men; and indeed it can hardly be a surprise, given this, that Babbitt and his fellow he-men soon fell in love with Hemingway, and forgot about old, querying, liberal, effeminate Lewis.

And some of that depression is intentional. Lewis may not realise quite how pitiable his dreams are, but he does realise how pitiable the dreams of the Babbitts of the world are. Babbitt is not a maudlin book – too full of boosting, and he-pep, and zing!!! and zip! and zow! and “LIFE’s ZIPPINGEST ZEST”!!!!– but it has maudlin moments. There is a soul of melancholy and of desperation under the shell of fixed smiles: from the quite moments, driving through the streets at night, to the dreams of a fairy child, to the moments of doubt and dread and existential anger. There is a sense that everybody in the book is perhaps only a few feet from self-destruction – that society itself is walking on ice over a cold abyss. There is at the best moments a suggestion of duality, of ambiguity: are the characters tied up with ropes, constrained, imprisoned… or are they roped to one another, to pitons, are the ropes all that are holding them up?

At times, in its quiet, restless, sad moments, the novel approached beauty.

That, however, was not its selling point. That side of things may have helped it with the critics, but it isn’t why it sold. [And in Babbitt, everything must be evaluated by whether its sells, pulls, and/or earns]. It sold because it’s funny. What Lewis did was write a novel that was not only breathtakingly, precisely realistic, and shockingly, unprecedentedly modern (the novel attempts to capture the era of 1920-1921, and was published in 1922… there can have been few novels that so audaciously combined scholarly attention to time and place and a hot-off-the-press, journalistic recency)… but took that world that people saw around them and mocked it mercilessly, to the extent that even Lewis’ enemies were soon admitting the veracity of its barbs. Even the Babbitts owned up to being Babbitts. And that’s because of Lewis’ combination of ferocious satire with a fundamental humanity: everybody is mocked, but nobody is rubbished. There are many conflicting viewpoints, all are flawed, and none are precisely promoted: the pervading sense, indeed, is one of confusion, of being at a loss as to how to proceed.

It’s the humour that sold the copies. Unfortunately, it’s also the humour that comes close to sinking the whole novel.

https://futureeconomicsdotnet2.files.wordpress.com/2016/07/d8741-babbitt-lewis.jpg

Lewis, you see, has all the subtlety of a concrete block to the head. It begins in the prose. Lewis just isn’t a great prose stylist: he imitates Cabell, but does it worse. That’s not to say he’s bad – mostly it’s perfectly adequate, and there are moments, particularly the more sincere, slower moments, when he approaches beauty. He also gets in the odd well-formed, memorable line. But there isn’t the deftness, the subtlety, of a great stylist, so when he tries for deadpan irony, there’s never the slightest ambiguity about it, the slightest consideration for the tone or the context. It’s like the guy who always uses the same ultra-sarcastic voice to make jokes, no matter where you are, whether it’s a wedding or a funeral. It’s not necessarily that he shouldn’t make the jokes, but just…. can’t you try to have a little delicacy about it? It grates. And it’s not just the delivery. Lewis is paranoid that you might not get the joke. So he makes you get it. He makes you get it twice, just in case. When a couple talk about how horrid it is to deal with people of a lower social class than them, or a middle-aged person talks about how boring the elderly are, you can be sure that Lewis isn’t going to leave the interpretation up to common sense, reading ability, and intense sarcasm. No, he’s going to give you word-for-word mirroring scenes, immediately after, when the complainer is complained about in exactly the same terms by someone of even higher class, or who is even younger.

But that’s still sort of implicit, and it also takes time. So Lewis doesn’t stop there. When, for instance, he describes a soulless, perfectly-provisioned fashionable house without the slightest indication of personality or romance… he finishes by explaining that the house is perfectly provisioned except for lacking any personality or romance. “In fact there was but one thing wrong with the house: it was not a home.” Really, Sinclair? That was the point you were trying to make, was it? I hadn’t realised.

Thanks for clarifying that for me!

But although I thank him for clarifying it for me, really I understood it all along, and I was only thanking him sarcastically. Because, you see, he’s explaining his jokes?

Just to clarify that for you.

So he’s the guy who follows you around 24 hours a day, keeping up a thoroughly sarcastic commentary/catalogue of all your actions, and then explaining why he’s being sarcastic and what he really means. In other words, he’s really, really annoying. That doesn’t stop him sometimes being funny, I should be clear. Sometimes he is funny. He’s just really annoying too.

Of course, the cynic may now point out that Jurgen may have been a publishing success, but Babbitt was a publishing behemoth. So maybe assuming a slow audience and spelling everything out carefully was a successful business decision. Certainly, it provides at least a floor of enjoyment for the novel. With something more subtle, like Jurgen, you may worry that a reader might miss the joke; they won’t miss the joke of Babbitt.

Unfortunately it’s mostly the same joke every paragraph for 400 pages, and it’s not a subtle joke the first time.

[Though, to be fair, the sheer violence with which Lewis mocks his readers is in its own way impressive to behold, and is probably not just part of why people liked reading it, but also part of why they were so shock-and-awed by it. In today’s atmosphere, few writers go quite as full-bore in eviscerating readers, critics, and society, even though that pose of contempt has become a fashionable posture for literary authors – in Lewis’ day, that’s not what writers were meant to be for! (more on which in the postscript). You can almost hear the collective gasp, echoing across the decades…]

Where does that leave us? With three different novels. On the one hand, there is an encyclopaedic survey of American society circa 1920. This is fascinating, but rather dry, particularly as large sections seem to be there solely for the purposes of cataloguing an aspect of society, with or without any thematic or narrative motivation. On a second hand, there is a broad satire of social attitudes. This is often annoying, but is sometimes genuinely funny – occasionally very funny – and although it lacks subtlety, if you like this sort of thing it’s better than a lot of other things you could be reading. It’s funnier than a lot of modern comedians. And then there’s our third hand, on which Babbitt is an intense and melancholy psychological novel about ennui, alienation, culture clashes, but also hope, progress, community, and so forth.

Unfortunately, not only do these three novels not quite hit the mark individually, they all seem to be tugging in different directions. Then again, sometimes that’s for the best: when one novel lags, the others can sometimes fill the gaps.

The serious novel is the quietest but by far the best, and it comes increasingly to the fore in the second half of the novel. I fear that many readers won’t make it that far. To be honest, here: many, many readers will quite rightly find most of Babbitt plotless, dreary, irritating and dull.

Personally, my reaction followed a curve: brief delight when I found it much funnier than I was expecting; irritation when the joke just kept repeating and we struggled through a terribly boring Day In the Life of a Boring Man; boredom alleviated by historical curiosity and amused delight at the dated language; the beginning of a feeling that actually things might end up interesting; real engagement and enjoyment near the end.

So in conclusion, it’s a novel with really good material in it, both comic and serious, and I enjoyed it in the end, and don’t regret reading it, and I would recommend it to people who might like this sort of thing. But you’ve got to really like the humour, or else really be interested in the era, or else just be really patient, because it’s 80% filler and it takes a long time to get going. You can totally see why generations of authors were deeply influenced by Babbitt, and why he got the Nobel; it’s got great ideas, great moments, it’s stunningly original for its day (but endlessly imitated); but you can also see why so many authors thought that they could do it better…

In other words, Lewis was an author badly in need of an editor…

Adrenaline: 2/5. I’m being generous. Most of it is a 1/5. But toward the end, the creeping oppression of Babbitt’s society does get quite tense – and the boredom of the book, frankly, is part of that. It leaves you, like Babbitt, frustrated and desperate to escape… overall, however, it’s a book that intrigues rather than excites.

Emotion: 3/5. Much of it is unemotional, intentionally – it’s a sterile world where any real emotion that might exist is concealed. But there are moments where it breaks through to the surface, only more powerful for having been pushed down under such pressure.

Thought: 4/5. Between the historical parallels, the everyman applicability, and the continual puzzle of working out what these people are talking about what is that expression even meant to mean?, it kept my head very active indeed.

Beauty: 3/5. There are beautiful moments… but a lot of other material to wade through to find them.

Craft: 3/5. I’m sorry, did I just give 2/5 for the craftsmanship of a Nobel Laureate? Yes, yes I did. OK, I did, but then I put it up a notch. In some ways, you could argue 2 was deserved. The prose is often too clunky, the structure is too flaccid, the characterisation frequently far too broad, and the jokes spelled out. He does have his moments. But most of the time, it’s not one of those moments. That said, the writing is never terrible, and there are good bits, and moving beyond the prose to the content I do think was able to capture certain characters and moods very well. He also captures the era with a great deal of attention to detail. So… good and bad, I think a par score is fair.

Endearingness: 3/5. I’m conflicted (nothing new there). I enjoyed bits a lot; I… unenjoyed? bits a lot. Will I be rushing to reread it? I doubt it. And yet I’m left with some sort of lingering affection for it. Much like the character of Georgie Babbitt, I guess, who is so visibly stuffed with flaws, much too full of himself, and yet somehow is impossible not to have some creeping fondness for, like a particularly idiotic dog who constantly misbehaves accidentally, and then looks at you with big sad puppy eyes…

Originality: 3/5. Fair’s fair: in terms of the actual novelty of the book, when it came out, this was culturally world-shattering. The problem is, we’ve now had 94 years of flagrant imitators. Thanks in large part to Babbitt, “realistic, witty novel about middle-aged middle-class white guy suffering ennui as he goes about his day-to-day life, occasionally tempted to have an affair” has basically become the archetype for the “literary fiction” genre. If you want a Platonic Ideal of Literary Fiction, this isn’t far off it (except perhaps that it’s more overtly humorous than most). But it does gain some marks for being so pedantically researched, so precisely and pervasively of its time. You may have read about this guy before, and you may know this plot already, but you probably haven’t seen it set in exactly the summer of 1920 in a Midwestern city… there are a lot of imitators, but you’re not going to confuse Babbitt itself with any of them, I don’t think.

OVERALL: 5/7. GOOD.

I originally gave it 4/7 (‘not bad’) and wrote:

…and now I feel embarrassed. Nobel Prize, idiot! Seminal work of 20th century literature! The Guardian rates it in the top 50 novels of the century! How the bloody hell do you wind up giving it the same score as (pulp horror-fantasy undead killfest D&D novel) Dance of the Dead!?
But… is that wrong? I mean, really? I’m not rating Babbitt for its historical significance, which is obviously tremendous, its influential even beyond the bounds of literature. No argument there. And I’m not really rating it for its value as a histeriosociographical source document, although in that regard it’s fascinating, and by all accounts painstakingly researched and true to life. But none of that really makes it a good novel, does it? Novels aren’t just there to tell us about the past in an informative manner (although that’s nice, don’t get me wrong).

Babbitt does show us a window into the human soul. That’s worth something. And at times its funny, and often interesting, if it interests you. But a lot of novels show us a window into the human soul. I can’t honestly say that what Babbitt showed was informative and novel in that regard, nor that it was particularly emotionally powerful, at least when counterbalanced with all the pages that did not display any particular insight into human existence. But Dance of the Dead had zombies, and weremink, and a talking psychopathic rabbit, and Babbittdid not have any of these things, and there is also that to consider.

After letting passions cool for a while, however, I’ve reconsidered and pushed it up to a 5. I stand by the above, in that I do believe the gap between a good pulp entertainment novel and a historical important literary novel can be much less than you’d imagine. Just because something is Important and is read by Cultured People, that doesn’t automatically make it a great work.

But… I think it’s more accurate to describe Babbitt as ‘good’ than as ‘not bad’. It has a lot of flaws, and frankly anybody calling it one of the books of the century on artistic, rather than historical, grounds is either very badly read, or more likely is a weak-willed charlatan reciting a line they’ve been given and don’t dare challenge. In prose, in structure, in themes, in vividity and acuity, the novel is nothing special. And yet Babbitt is genuinely an interesting, moving, funny, and impressive novel.

We live in an age in which everything is either brilliant or terrible – and The Classics, in particular, are either Overrated (probably due to racism/sexism) or else True Immortal Works of Genius. Babbitt… isn’t either of those things. It’s somewhere inbetween – worthwhile, valuable, impressive, worth reading, and yet frankly not all that earth-shattering.

I began by saying that Babbitt should be on your reading lists. I still agree with that, if we mean a list of Books You Ought To Have Read – and if it is on your lists, don’t treat it with dread, there is enjoyment to be gotten out of it. But at the same time, I’m not going to be putting it anybody’s Books You Must Read Because You Will Love Them list – not unless I think they’re really a perfect fit for it.
That said, while critics may still mention it, I don’t think many people are reading it still. And I think that given its quality, and its continued relevance to the modern world, it ought to be read by more people. Because Babbitt is… well, it may be odd and heavy-handed and meandering, but it’s also… actually pretty good.

P.S. Babbitt did not win the Pulitzer Prize. There’s probably a story behind that. I don’t know it, but I do know the stories behind the Lewis novels that flanked it, and those stories, ironically, get to the heart of why he wrote Babbitt in the first place.

You see, Main Street, the preceding novel, was a contender for the Pulitzer. More than a contender: the jury decided to award it the prize. Unfortunately for Lewis, however, the jury don’t get the final say – and the Pulitzer Prize Board overruled their expert jury, choosing to instead hand the prize to a supposedly lesser, but much less controversial, nominee (a little novel called The Age of Innocence, by a certain Edith Wharton). This is probably why Babbitt is dedicated to Wharton, though whether this represents an olive branch or a sarcastic slow-clap I’m not quite sure.

Now, the Prize Board weren’t wholly opposed to Lewis, or else with his continued acclaim they finally saw the light. Because the novel after BabbittArrowsmith, DID get the Pulitzer. Or at least, it won the Pulitzer. Because this time it was the author who wouldn’t coöperate: Lewis refused the prize.

Why does any of this matter? Because Lewis didn’t turn down the award purely out of spite or for revenge. He rejected the award in protest at the Prize’s aims. You see, we may think of the Pulitzer as recognising quality, and that’s how it was thought of at the time as well – but literary quality, like all other virtues, was judged differently in the age of Main Street and Babbitt. In the terms of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, literary quality is defined very straightforwardly and, for the day, non-controversially: the Prize was “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.”

…I’m just letting that sit there for a moment. That is why novels like Cabell’s Jurgen and Lewis’ Babbitt were written. Because in the capitalist-flavour Soviet Realism of twenties America, good art is art that serves the public morality, and public morality is always best served by accurately depicting America, and America can only be accurately depicted by emphasising its manhood, its manners, and its wholesomeness. It is a view of art that George F. Babbitt and his brethren would heartily assent to, would see even as unquestionable. Of course great he-literature has to boost American wholesomeness and manhood. What kind of punk fellow would use literature to do anything other than boost his country, when it’s clearly the best country on earth? Only a bunch of fourflushing liberal punk long-hairs trying to undermine America, that’s who, and we don’t want anything to do with that bunch! U.S.A.!

Babbitt may seem to modern readers to err on the side of exaggeration… but actually it’s just an early example of Poe’s Law. The parody cannot rival reality.

Nor, for that matter, was this simply an ignored issue, though Lewis suggested it was an assumption that went generally unnoticed. This very question had also confused the 1920 Prize, when most of the Jury wished to recognise Java Head, the popular but controversial novel of miscegenation, drug addiction, suicide, illegitimacy, murder and migration, by Lewis’ role-model Hergesheimer, but were prevented from doing so by a single juror who insisted that the novel failed to present American life as adequately wholesome. No award was made that year, and presumably similar motivations explain the snub for Main Street.

P.P.S. As hypothetical long-time readers know, I mostly read/review SF&F novels – and readers looking for more of the same have probably wondered off long before this point in the review. But if any of you have made it this far, here’s a little reward: Babbitt may be one of the most important novels in the history of Fantasy.

Why? Because of a certain Sinclair Lewis fan named John Tolkien. I didn’t realise until now that he was a Lewis fan – it seems, on the face of it, implausible. Realism and fantasy were much closer back then, however, before the walls of the fantasy ghetto were erected, and it turns out that Tolkien claimed to have read every single one of Lewis’ novels. Given that, you might even imagine a certain similarity in style, particularly in the area of humour – Tolkien doesn’t joke that much, but he does sometimes indulge a deadpan wit that isn’t so far removed from Lewis’. Realistically, this is probably more the result of shared influences, like Cabell and indeed a whole tendency in English writing of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, although Lewis’ use of the style may have contributed to Tolkien’s own employment of it.

The important bit, however, is much more concrete than that. It lies in a pair of words: babbitt and hobbit. The similarity in sounds, it seems, is more than a coincidence. Although Tolkien denied a conscious decision in this regard, saying that the word ‘hobbit’, and the novel that followed from it, were plucked out of the top of his head on a whim, he in hindsight came to believe that his hobbits had subconsciously been formed by his fondness for Lewis, through the similarity of these two words. Specifically, the culture of the hobbits of the Shire, while dressed in the details of the English gentry, were in Tolkien’s mind a recreation of the petty-minded babbittry of the American middle classes… and, in particular, of the well-fed, conventional, adventure-avoiding Mr George F. Babbitt himself.

He does not, however, have hairy feet.

[Lewis also had something else in common with fantasy writers: obsessive worldbuilding. Lewis drew up detailed maps of Zenith (including all its suburbs, population nearly 400,000) and the entire state of Winnemac, not to mention biographies and genealogies even for minor characters. If Babbitt were a modern fantasy novel, it would be dismissed for its excessive reliance on worldbuilding and on travelogue.]

P.P.P.S. As you may have noticed, my reviews have been getting stupidly long. In particular, the review for Jurgen was simply ridiculous. That’s why I’ve decided to begin the year by changing how I write reviews, employing rigid discipline and an iron will to ensure that, starting with this review, every review I write will be brief, concise, and to the….
*looks at wordcount*

…oh bugger.

Standard
East Asia, Europe, India, Middle East, North America, South America, South Asia

Political Dynasties and their Discontents

G9510.20.indd

Political dynasties have always been a big part of human civilization, and today is no exception.

In the United States, the rise of Donald Trump was at least partially a reaction to the dynastic, Clinton-vs-Bush election that only last year most Americans were expecting to get.

It was, after all, Jeb Bush’s candidacy that split the Republican establishment in two, preventing it from coalescing around a politician like Marco Rubio early on and thus leaving an opening for Trump to force his way into. Hillary Clinton’s high disapproval rating, similarly, could even leave the door open for Trump to become president, however unlikely and unappealing that may be.

Canada

Jean-Chrétien-Justin-Trudeau-600x400

Former Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien and Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau wave at supporters at the University of Toronto, February 15, 2015 (William Pitcher)

North of the border, Canada has just elected Justin Trudeau as its Prime Minister, the son of Pierre Trudeau who was prime minister for fifteen years during the late 1960s, 1970s, and first half of the 1980s. One of Trudeau’s two opponents in the election had been NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, whose ancestors include the first and ninth Premiers of the province of Quebec.

Mexico

Enrique-Pena-Nieto-600x400.jpg

Enrique Peña Nieto, presidential candidate for Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, waves to supporters in the city of Torreón, June 18, 2012 (Flickr)

South of the border, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto,who came to power in 2013, “is the nephew of two former governors of the State of México (the state in which Mexico City is located): on his mother’s side, Arturo Montiel, on his father’s, Alfredo del Mazo González“, according to Wikipedia.

East Asia

168559_0.jpg

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) and General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping (right)

In China, the current General Secretary Xi Jinping, who is now thought to have amassed more personal power than any Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, is the first to come from the “princeling” class. He is the son of a prominent political figure, Xi Zhongxun, from the first generation of the Communist Party leadership. This distinguishes him from the other General Secretaries in the Communist era, including Mao Tse-Tung, whose parents were not prominent politicians and in some cases were actually quite poor.

Other top members of the current Chinese leadership are also “princelings”, most notably Yu Zhengsheng, who is the fourth-ranked politician on the 7-man Politburo Standing Committee (which is generally considered to be China’s top political body), and Wang Qishan, who is ranked sixth on the Politburo Standing Committee and may be one of the most powerful figures in China at the moment as he has been leading Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign . Wang is a princeling by marriage only: his wife is the daughter of Yao Yilin, who was a former Politburo Standing Committee member in the Communist Party.

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is arguably the most powerful politician the country has seen in at least a generation as well. He too comes from a political dynasty. According to Wikipedia, “his grandfather, Kan Abe, and father, Shintaro Abe, were both politicians… Abe’s mother, Yoko Kishi,[3] is the daughter of Nobusuke Kishi, prime minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960. Kishi had been a member of the Tōjō Cabinet during the Second World War”.

Meanwhile the President of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of South Korea’s third president, Park Chung-hee. (Update: Park has since been impeached). (And in North Korea, of course, the Kim family’s rule is now into its third generation). In Singapore, the prime minister since 2004 has been Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Singapore’s modern founding father Lee Kuan Yew who served from 1959 all the way to 1990.

India

Hillary-Clinton-Sonia-Rahul-Gandhi-600x400.jpg

Hillary Clinton, then America’s secretary of state, poses for a picture with Indian Congress Party leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi, July 19, 2009 (State Department)

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his often fanatically right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP party became in 2014 the first party in over three decades to win a majority government in a national election. Modi is not from a political dynasty himself, rather he is the reaction to the modern world’s most prominent political family of all: the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

The Guardian wrote in 2007 that “the Nehru-Gandhi brand has no peer in the world — a member of the family has been in charge of India for 40 of the 60 years since independence.” The dynasty (which by the way is not related to the Gandhi) began with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first post-British prime minister from 1947-1964. Nehru was himself the son and nephew of significant political figures in pre-independence India. Nehru’s dynasty then continued with his only daughter Indira Gandhi (née Nehru), who was India’s prime minister from 1966-1977 and from 1980-1984, but was assassinated in 1984 by two of her own Sikh bodyguards in the wake of Operation Blue Star.

The dynasty was then followed by Indira’s sons Rajiv Gandhi, who was prime minister from 1984-1989 before being assassinated by the Tamil Tigers in 1991, and Sanjay Gandhi, who was expected to become prime minister but was instead killed in a plane crash. Rajiv’s wife Sonia Gandhi, meanwhile, is the leader of India’s powerful Congress Party and the mother of Rahul Gandhi, who lost to Modi’s BJP in 2014 but still finished with more parliamentary seats and far more votes than any other candidate in the election. Sonia likely would have run for prime minister herself, but cannot because she was born in Italy.

(Sanjay’s wife Maneka Gandhi, on the other hand, has jumped ship from the historically Gandhi-dominated Congress Party and joined the BJP instead; she is currently a cabinet minister in the BJP-led government. Maneka’s son Varun has also gone over to the BJP, serving as the youngest National Secretary in the history of the party and a member of the country’s parliament. However, Maneka and Varun both remain less prominent than the Congress side of the family, which is led by Maneka’s sister-in-law Sonia and Varun’s first cousin Rahul).

Arguably, frustration with the Gandhis directly paved the way for Modi, a man who was not even allowed to enter the United States prior to becoming president because he was allegedly involved in “severe violations of religious freedom” while serving as governor of the important Indian state of Gujarat.

Philippines

Rodrigo-Duterte-Benigno-Aquino-600x400.jpg

President-elect Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines speaks with his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, in Davao City, March 6, 2013 (Malacañang Photo Bureau/Ryan Lim)

You may have also heard about the election of the Philippines ridiculous new president Rodrigo Duterte last week. Rodrigo’s father Vicente was a provincial governor of Davao province and a mayor of Cebu, one of the largest cities in the country. Rodrigo’s cousin was also a mayor of Cebu, in the 1980s.

The Duterte’s are hardly alone in their political dynasticism: according to Public Radio International, “in the Philippines, elections in 2016 will be dominated by dynasties. About two-thirds of the outgoing Congress are heirs of political families. The outgoing president is the son of Corazon Aquino, who led the uprising against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos after Marcos had her husband whacked for being a prominent political opponent. But the Marcos clan is back in the picture, with Ferdinand’s wife, son, daughter and nephew all running for different offices. Also running is the grandson of another president.”

Thailand

Yingluck-Shinawatra1-600x400

Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra addresses the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, September 9, 2013 (UN/Jean-Marc Ferré)

In Thailand too there has been a political reaction against a political family, that of Thaksin Shinawatra (who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006 before being exiled by a military coup) and his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra (who was prime minister from 2011 to 2014 before being removed by decree of the Constitutional Court during the Thai political crisis in 2013-2014). According to Wikipedia, the father of Thaksin and Yingluck “was a member of parliament for Chiang Mai. [The Shinawatras are] a descendant of a former monarch of Chiang Mai through her grandmother, Princess Chanthip na Chiangmai (Great-great-granddaughter of King Thammalangka of Chiang Mai).”

Europe

Matteo-Renzi-Mariano-Rajoy-600x400.jpg

Prime Ministers Matteo Renzi of Italy and Mariano Rajoy of Spain speak during a European Council meeting in Brussels, June 25, 2015 (La Moncloa)

Europe, at least in contrast to Asia, does not have many political dynasties at the moment. This is, perhaps, in part because European political history was reset to a certain degree following the fall of the Soviet Union. Europe’s leading politicians, including Merkel, Putin, and Erdogan, do not come from political dynasties. Neither does Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron (though his ancestors were extremely wealthy) or France’s President Francois Hollande. Italian Prime Minister Mattio Renzi’s was a municipal councillor, admittedly, but that does not really count. (Angela Merkel’s grandfather was, similarly, a local politician in Danzig). Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy’s family was fairly prominent, on the other hand.

That said, Europe is far from dynasty-free. According to the Economist, “in Europe family power is one reason why politics seems like a closed shop. Fifty-seven of the 650 members of the recently dissolved British Parliament are related to current or former MPs. François Hollande, France’s president, has four children with Ségolène Royal, who ran for the presidency in 2007. Three generations of Le Pens are squabbling over their insurgent party, the Front National (see article). Belgium’s prime minister is the son of a former foreign minister and European commissioner. The names Papandreou and Karamanlis still count for something in Greece.”

Syria and Egypt 

Assad-family-600x400.jpg

Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad and his family in the 1990s (Wikimedia Commons)

The Arab world remains full of political dynasties and reactions against dynasties, in contrast. In Syria both of these factors can be seen at the same time, as the civil war threatens to unseat Bashar al Assad, son of thirty-year ruler Hafez al Assad. (Bashar’s brother Bassel was initially supposed to take over from his father, but died in a car accident in 1994). In Egypt, meanwhile,the military government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is in some ways a response to the presumed attempt by an elderly Hosni Mubarak (diagnosed with stomach cancer in the same year he was deposed) to pass on power to his son Gamal, who had not served in the Egyptian military as Hosni Mubarak and previous rulers Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdul Nasser had done.

Saudi Arabia 

Salman-bin-Abdulaziz-Al-Saud-600x400

Prince Muhammad bin Nayef speaks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh while Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir looks on, January 27, 2015 (White House/Pete Souza)

In Saudi Arabia, which is by far the largest Arab economy, a half-shift from one Saudi political dynasty to another may just be getting under way. Thus far in the history of the modern Saudi state (beginning around 1930), the country has been ruled either by founder Abdulaziz ibn Saud or else by one of his 45 or so sons, six of whom have become king, most recently King Salman who took the throne in January of 2015.

Last year, however, Salman removed his half-brother Muqrin (another son of Abdulaziz) from the office of Crown Prince, replacing Muqrin with their nephew Mohammad bin Nayef,  who would become the first king in the next generation of Saudi royals if ever takes over. He might never take over, though: many people now believe that is Salman’s own son Mohammad bin Salman, who is the Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister, who is the likeliest to become the next king when Salman (who is 80 years old) steps down or passes away, even though Deputy Crown Prince is formally a lower-ranking position than Crown Prince – and even though Mohammad bin Salman is only 30 years old, which would be an extremely young age for a modern Saudi king.

If Mohammad bin Salman does become king over another prince like Mohammad bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia could in effect be moving from a dynasty of Abdulaziz to a dynasty of Salman. There are now fears that the political situation in the country could become quite messy if the other branches of the huge Saudi royal family try to avoid becoming sidelined from power as a result.

Iran

Ali-Larijani-Hassan-Rouhani-Sadeq-Larijani-Mohammad-Golpayegani-600x400

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani speaks as parliament speaker Ali Larijani, Chief Justice Sadeq Larijani and the chief of the supreme leader’s office, Mohammad Golpayegani, attend a ceremony in Tehran, October 3, 2015 (Reuters)

Across the Gulf, in Iran, dynasties are not too big a factor within the current religious government. Recently the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini even was blocked from participating in elections. One big exception to this, however, is the powerful Larijani family, made up of five brothers in key positions in the government. It includes Ali Larijani, who is the Speaker of the parliament and a former member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and Sadeq Larijania, Iran’s Chief Justice.

Israel

3316639131

Labor party leader Isaac Herzog (left) and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid (right)

A number of leaders in Israel hail from political families as well. Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who has now spent more time as prime minister (from 1996-1999 and now again since 2009) than any politician in Israel’s history apart from Israel’s founding  prime minister David Ben Gurion (who Netanyahu will soon overtake), is the son of Benzion Netanyahu. Benzion was a professor of history at Cornell University, an influential Zionist activist and magazine editor, and personal secretary to one of Israel’s most prominent founding fathers, Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Bibi is also the younger brother of Yonatan Netanyahu, who was the unit commander of and only person to be killed during the famous Operation Entebbe raid in 1976, when 100 or so Israeli commandos rescued 102 hostages of a Palestinian airplane hijacking (compared to 3 hostages killed) from where they were being held in Idi Amin-era Uganda more than 3000 km south of Israel, and returned them safely to their homes in Israel and France.

Israel’s Labour Party leader Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, meanwhile, who won more than twice as many votes as any other Jewish party apart from Netanyahu’s Likud Party in the most recent elections of 2015, is, according to Wikipedia, “the son of General Chaim Herzog, who was the Sixth President of Israel from 1983 to 1993, and the grandson of Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, was the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1922 to 1935 and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1936 to 1959″.

The next largest Jewish political party after Labour and Likud is the Yesh Atid Party, led by Yair Lapid. Lapid is a former news anchor who is the son of Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, a former government minister, parliamentary leader of the opposition as recently as 2005, and radio and television personality.

Brazil 

Aécio-Neves-600x400

Brazilian Social Democracy Party leader Aécio Neves answers questions from reporters, May 28, 2015 (Agência Senado/Pedro França)

Leaving the Middle East, Brazils’ Aecio Neves, who in late 2014 very narrowly lost a presidential election to Dilma Rousseff (who may now be on the verge of being impeached herself), is the grandson of Tancredo Neves, who would have been President of Brazil in 1985 if he had not passed away before taking office. Roussef and her influential predecessor Lula da Silva are not from prominent political families, however.

Peru

Keiko-Fujimori-600x400.jpg

Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori campaigns for the 2011 election, December 7, 2010 (Flickr/Keiko Fujimori)

In Peru, the country is in the midst of a presidential election, which is a two-round system that began in April and will end on June 5.  Its leading candidate is former First Lady Keiko Fujimori, a daughter of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori. Alberto exiled himself to Japan following corruption and human rights violation scandals at the end of his ten yeas in power in 2000, but was later arrested in Chile in 2005 and is now serving a prison sentence back in Peru.

Argentina

Cristina-Fernández-de-Kirchner-600x400

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina speaks in José Amalfitani Stadium, Buenos Aires, April 27, 2012 (Presidency of Argentina)

Argentina, finally, has just recently ended sixteen consecutive years of being presided over by a Kirchner, first by Nestor Kirchner from 2003 to 2007 and then by Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner from 2007 until the end of 2015. The Kirchners were Peronists, a political movement of sorts that has dominated modern Argentine politics, which is named for another power couple, Juan Peron (president from 1946 – 1955) and his second wife Eva Peron, who was a significant political figure in her own right and nearly became Vice President. (Juan’s third wife Isabel Martinez de Peron, meanwhile, was President of Argentina from 1974 to 1976). The incoming Argentine president Mauricio Macri, who is replacing the Kirchners, does not come from a political dynasty, however. His father was just a humble business tycoon.

Standard
Middle East

Seniors Discount? Oil Prices and Old Rulers

Today’s low oil prices are probably not the result, even in part, of elderly men ruling over the world’s major energy-exporting nations. Still, it may be worth noting that the sons of Saudi Arabia’s modern founder, Abdulaziz bin Saud, are finally nearing the end of their long royal lifespans, while the leaders of energy-endowed countries like Iran, Algeria, Angola, Oman, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan have now reached old age too, after multiple decades in office. Even Vladimir Putin is 63 years old, long past his judo prime. He was just 47 when he first came to power.

As Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi arguably showed in 2011, longtime aging rulers can sometimes give way to political upheaval that causes domestic oil and gas production to fall. Uncertainty over the vigour of some of the following leaders might indeed cause global energy exports to fall, and thus, perhaps, prices to rise:

Kuwait – Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah – 86 years old – In power since 2006  

Sabah’s presumed successor, Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, is 78 years old. As recently as 2012 Kuwait was the world’s largest oil exporter outside of Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia – Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Saud – 80  years old – In  power since 2015 

Salman will probably be the last king to be chosen from among the 45 or so sons of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz bin Saud. Salman’s youngest living sibling, his half-brother Muqrin, is turning 71 this year and, as of last year, is no longer the designated  Crown Prince. The Saudi Crown Prince has since become Muhammad bin Nayef, Salman’s nephew, while the Deputy Crown Prince has become Salman’s own son Mohammad bin Salman

Algeria – Abdulaziz Bouteflika – 79 years old – In power since 1999 

Bouteflika came to power during and after the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s. Today his health is in question. Algeria is estimated to be the world’s 16th largest energy producer and its fourth largest natural gas exporter.

Uzbekistan – Islam Karimov – 77 years old – In power since 1991  

Karimov first came to power at the end of 1980s, when he became President of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic

Iran – Ali Khameni – 76 years old – In power since 1989 

Kazakhstan – Nursultan Nazerbayev – 75 years old – In power since 1991 

Oman –  Qaboos bin Said al Said – 74 years old – In power since 1970

Qaboos first became ruler  after overthrowing his father in a palace coup in 1970. He has no children or clear successor

South Africa – Jacob Zuma – 74 years old – In power since 2009 

Zuma was Deputy President of South Africa from 1999-2005. South Africa is a major producer of energy, and a net exporter of energy, because of its coal reserves, though it is a net importer of oil

Nigeria – Mohammadu Buhari – 73 years old – In power since 2015 

Buhari was previously Nigeria’s head of state during the 1980s

Angola – Jose Eduardo dos Santos – 73 years old – In power since 1979 

Angola, one of the fastest-growing economies of the past decade, is now the world’s third or fourth largest oil exporter outside of the Middle East

Equatorial Guinea – Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasongo – 73 years old – In power since 1979 

Equatorial Guinea is the 30th-40th largest oil producing country, but may have the world’s third highest per capita oil production, the highest outside the Middle East.  Both the age of its leader and the number of years he has been in power are exactly the same as in Equatorial Guinea’s relatively nearby neighbour Angola

Sudan – Omar al Bashir – 72 years old – In power since 1993

Brunei – Hassanal Bolkiah Muiz’zaddin Wad’daulah — 69 years old – In power since 1967

Brunei is the world’s 40th-50th largest oil producing country, but may have the 6th highest per capita oil production

Brazil – Dilma Roussef – 68 years old – In power since 2010

Her predecessor, Louis Inacio Lula da Silva, who literally as of today was selected to  become Roussef’s new chief of staffwas 65 years old when he left office in 2011 at the end of an eight-year term. Roussef has been facing an impeachment attempt, while Lula has been under investigation in a corruption scandal. 

United Arab Emirates – Khalifa Al Nayhan — 68 years old  – In power since 2004

The Emir of Dubai is 66 years old, meanwhile

Colombia – Juan Manuel Santos – 64 years old – In power since 2010 

South Sudan – Salva Kiir Mayardit – 64 years old – In power since 2011

Iraq – Haider al Abadi – 63 years old – In power since 2014 

Masoud Barzani, meanwhile, who has been president of oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan since 2005 and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party since 1979, is 69 years old. Foud Massoum, a Kurdish politician who is Iraq’s president (a more ceremonial role than prime minister), is 78 years old and has been in office since 2014. Nouri al Maliki, who was Iraq’s prime minister from 2006-2014 and is now Iraq’s vice president, will turn 66 this June. Saddam Hussein was 42 years old during his purge of 1979 and 66 years old when the US invaded in 2003.

Russia – Vladimir Putin – 63 years old – In power since 1999

Malaysia – Najib Razak — 62 years old – In power since 2009

Mahatir Mohammad, meanwhile, is 90 years old. Malaysia is thought to be the world’s 25th largest oil producing country

Turkey – Recep Tayyip Erdogan – 62 years old – In power since 2003

While Turkey is a significant net importer rather than exporter of energy, it is nevertheless capable of impacting the rest of the Middle East, and it has hopes to become a major energy nexus at the centre of the Middle East, North Africa, and Caspian Sea region. (Similarly, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been prime minister since 2009 and was previously prime minister from 1996-1999, is 66 years old)

Australia – Malcolm Turnbull – 61 years old – In power since 2015

Egypt – Abdel Fathah al-Sisi — 60 years old –  In power since 2014 

Sisi was also highly influential for at least a few years before 2014, following Hosni Mubarak’s departure from office in 2011

The following graph shows how old these countries’ rulers were in any given year between 1970 and 2015, and how old they will be in 2020 if today’s rulers remain in power for the remainder of the decade:

Age oil leaders

In the graphs below, the y-axis indicates the age of today’s rulers, the x-axis indicates the number of years they have been in power, and the size of the circles indicates the relative amount of energy that is produced by their country.

oil3

oil5

oil4

oil leaders

Standard