Monday, January 16, 2017

The Lower 45: How The USA Could Have Lost 3 States To Mexico In WWI

The Zimmerman deal

100 years ago this month, Germany was losing World War I and was looking for help. Its Foreign Secretary sent a telegram to Mexico, promising the return of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico in return for military support if the USA should enter the War.

Thanks to a cable-cutting competition between the Allies and Germany, the only way for the latter to transmit the message was from London via the first submarine link laid to America, which ran into the sea near the tiny, remote village of Porthcurno, Cornwall.

The line was tapped, and the code was cracked by a Classical scholar genius called De Grey - the Alan Turing of his time, but unassisted by computers. When the telegram was made public and Zimmerman admitted its authenticity, that tipped the balance and America joined the Allies.

The three States promised to Mexico currently have a combined population of 34 million - more than 10% of the USA's total - and a combined GDP of c. $1.75 trillion dollars, which is around 9.6% of the US national turnover. Oil resources include the East Texas Oil Field (originally holding c. 7 billion barrels of oil) and (recently discovered) up to another 20 billion barrels in West Texas.

The proposed Wall between the two nations could have been longer - and who knows which way the people would be trying to cross?

And if you're planning to visit Cornwall: [the Telegraph Museum]

Sunday, January 15, 2017

From Chautauqua to chatroom: Trump in the world of modern communications

I think the dislike among many Americans for Mr Trump is as much visceral as political. It is his style - bluff, swaggering, arrogant, coarse, seemingly half-educated (actually he's an Ivy Leaguer) - that irritates them.

Peter Hitchens in the MoS today calls him "an oaf" [a term I have frequently applied to Trump] "and a yahoo" - but in fairness, also notes that Jimmy Carter was a "disaster" and JFK's personal life would have disgraced him in office had it been common knowledge at the time.

The people prefer skilful talkers, but they will settle for ambitious bullsh*tters. How else could one explain the success of the egregious Tony Blair (George Macdonald Fraser called him "Andy Pandy")? He may have saved the Monarchy with his stagy tribute to the late Princess Diana, but look at those lookatme hesitations, cocks of the head (in a fey, almost camp way merely a beta version of President Obama's stately turns of the countenance and elegant pauses). I half suspect that the check before uttering the phrase "people's princess" (Diana was the daughter of an Earl) was not so much rhetorical as a desperate attempt by Blair's throat not to let this shark-jumping, finger-at-the uvula description leave his mouth. And yet it worked, for enough of us. What a performer; sort of.

PT Barnum said "The people like to be humbugged." Perhaps it's that they like the alert-making challenge of having their intelligence tickled and misled ("This way to the Egress"); maybe it's that oratory can be a kind of word-music, effecting our temporary escape to another, more wonderful land. Or do we delight in witnessing the construction of a complex verbal edifice, on the way learning new words, unexpected twists of meaning, fresh associations of ideas? In admiring the superior man's ineffable cerebration, ratiocination? Might it be a sort of pack-animal relief at being shown one's proper place in the social order? One thinks of Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles"):

Hedley Lamarr: My mind is aglow with whirling, transient nodes of thought careening through a cosmic vapor of invention.
Taggart: Ditto.
Hedley Lamarr: "Ditto?" "Ditto," you provincial putz?

Max Beerbohm was another to note the colonials' love of talk (in his Oxford novel "Zuleika Dobson"):

"Americans, individually, are of all people the most anxious to please. That they talk overmuch is often taken as a sign of self-satisfaction. It is merely a mannerism. Rhetoric is a thing inbred in them. They are quite unconscious of it. It is as natural to them as breathing. And, while they talk on, they really do believe that they are a quick, businesslike people, by whom things are 'put through' with an almost brutal abruptness. This notion of theirs is rather confusing to the patient English auditor."

But of course that is a nationalist tease: in reality, everybody falls for oratory. William Hague's biography of Pitt the Younger tells of an all-night speech that Prime Minister made, which ended just as dawn broke with a Latin quotation that was as perfectly appropriate to the sunrise as it was fitting to the conclusion of his peroration. MPs walked through the morning dew to their lodgings in awe at his linguistic feat.

And then there's Trump.

No vilification is sufficiently vile, no fabrication base and lewd enough to satisfy his fevered opponents among the populace maddened by vicious Chinese whispers in the social media. One begins to understand how the excesses of the French Revolution were made possible by the hot words of professional speakers building the cyclones of passion among the common folk. (What more could Julius Streicher have done had he had Twitter and Facebook as his tools? Indeed, his demonic successors are promulgating Jew-hatred by electronic means even now.) How far we have declined from the attempts to educate the public a hundred years ago - the WEA in Britain, the Chautauqua in the USA. Now, it is about appeals to our worst, unthinking instincts, anything to get the cross in the right box, the right placard held up for the TV cameras; and what marvellous ways we now have, to spread toxic messages among groups of the like-minded! Facebook in particular is full of eager amateur propagandists. Lately, tragically, the Fourth Estate seems to have forgotten its role and is limping as fast as it can behind social media, willing to parrot the latest rumour so as to seem in the loop; whereas it should find and tell the truth not only to power, but to the people.

I have been told in all seriousness that he is worse even than George W Bush (whom I regard as a genuine psychopath). Yet to date, Mr Trump has ordered nobody's death, started no war.

Is his behaviour towards women reprehensible? What of President Harding, pleasuring his interns in a cupboard while a Secret Service man stood by ready to knock if Mrs Harding should approach? Or Juanita Broaddrick's bruised lip?

Venal sins, or mortal? Think of Macduff's interview with Malcolm in the Scottish play, where the latter, testing the former's real intentions, pretends to be not only lustful but ruthlessly avaricious: "We have willing dames enough...  Scotland hath foisons to fill up your will", answers Macduff; it takes far more to make the pretender "not fit to live".

The system will adjust to Trump. A friend noted yesterday that the President-elect's Twittering has changed recently, as though another hand has been interposed between Trump's stubby fingers and the keyboard. No doubt it has; and less doubt, that the Chinese and Russians are studying his style, so that they too can read beneath the surface and ascertain his true position. It is will and direction that count; the rest is detail and diplomacy. Let us see how well Mr Trump steers and delegates.

In a mass democracy, politics tends to be personalised, but it is not one man's personality only that matters. More worrying for Americans must be the capture of the State by one party in Congress and the Senate; the partisanship of such organs of government as the intelligence services; the destabilising greed and influence of big business and its servants in Washington, and the private banks that own and rent out America's currency. And then there are the complexities of world trade and lightning-fast international finance, which may resist Canute-like attempts at control.

Perhaps the question for Trump is not so much the damaging things he may choose to do, but the good things he will not be able to do for his country.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Friday Night Is Music Night: JD's New Year's Honours for Sir Ray Davies

I am somewhat ambivalent about the nation's Honours System but if the country feels it is necessary to award honours to popular music 'icons' then it should pick those who are worthy of it. Ray Davies was this year knighted in the Queen's New Year Honours list and it is well deserved, if a little overdue. For the past fifty years or so he has been a chronicler of our times and has produced some wonderful, thoughtful and whimsical songs, a sort of modern troubadour observing the oddities of modern life and translating them into song.

I think you will enjoy this selection from Sir Ray Davies, some of them well known and some of them less so.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Two Fat Ladies

My friend used to tell me that women didn't doll themselves up for men but for each other. I think this must be true as when I go out with my wife I sometimes think I should take a phone photograph so I would have a clue how to describe what she was wearing when I lost sight of her.

We recently re-watched (everyone should) a comedy series called Hebburn. In the last episode of Series 1 the family is going to a church blessing for their son and his wife, who previously had got married in a wild moment in Las Vegas without them. Mother asks father how she looks; he tells her she looks beautiful; she says he hasn't looked (true: he is feeling unwell and about to have a mild stroke); he (crafty beggar, even in crisis) says he doesn't need to; she accepts the compliment; and so she should. Is it just me, or does your true love become more a feeling, a numinous presence, rather than something to be critically, objectively observed? When will women understand? Maybe it's just the continuing need to be reassured that the dynamic relationship that is love is still crackling with energy.

For women, the self-dissatisfaction includes the clothing of the frame in flesh, too. January is another time for the effort to lose weight and become bikini-ready by summer. It seems married isn't good enough; one has to be forever nubile, permanently in that neotenic in-between stage, like axolotls. Yet reason breaks through sometimes: my wife's friend, in a new relationship this year, said she'd been putting on weight and didn't care; my wife told her it was contentment.

It looks as though men like contented women, and always have. Only three months ago, an 8,000-year-old female figurine was unearthed in Turkey:
... and a century ago, another (three times older) in Lower Austria:

Of course, in places and at times when food was chronically scarce, this shape would imply wealth, social standing and the body-stored ability to survive periods of privation. Now that we Westerners have no fear of famine, we can afford to leave our supplies of food in our cupboards and shops.

But still - consistent with health, what's a pound or two between lovers?

Maybe we men should do more reassuring. I knew it would be our fault, somehow.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Friday Night Is Music Night: JD's Januadry

... or, hangover cure?

Is everyone recovering from the excesses of the Christmas and Hogmanay festivities?

I forgot to take part in the traditional New Year's Day dip in the North Sea. Again! That is, I think, the 39th year in a row that I have forgotten. Ah well, never mind. Here is a better method for clearing away the cobwebs from your mind - open the windows, turn up the volume and play these loud!

- with thanks to Wiggia for helping to compile this selection.
Sackerson adds:

Here's a lovely New Yorker article on the demon drink:

- of which a nugget:

"... prehistorians have speculated that alcohol intoxication may have been one of the baffling phenomena, like storms, dreams, and death, that propelled early societies toward organized religion. The ancient Egyptians, who, we are told, made seventeen varieties of beer, believed that their god Osiris invented this agreeable beverage. They buried their dead with supplies of beer for use in the afterlife."

If you want to follow that up, here's a couple more links:

The tomb of an ancient Egyptian beer brewer (from The Atlantic monthly)
Beer in ancient Egypt

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Midnight's Grandchildren: the history and legacy of India's partition


Past history is never final, for perspectives change and new facts come to light. Yet sometimes, "new" facts are old ones that have been in the public domain a long time, like unexploded bombs.

Only a few years ago, The Independent reviewed the partition of India in the light of a fresh book by Jaswant Singh, who was a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party until 2014, and was nine years old when Partition occurred. Supposedly, the responsibility for the terrible bloodshed between Muslims and Hindus as the country tore itself in two had previously been laid at the door of the Muslim separatist Mohammad Ali Jinnah; now (2009) we were to remember the intransigence of Jawaharlal Nehru and his Congress Party.

Yet 38 years before the above-linked article, exactly the same points were made in John Masters' 1971 autobiography "Pilgrim Son". Masters, a fifth-generation Indian Army man, was working at General Headquarters in Delhi in 1946, and was passed a request from the Viceroy, Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, to draft a paper (overnight!) on "the strategic results of splitting India". Masters concluded [see pp. 33-35] that there would be serious flaws in defence capabilities:

"Would the new countries be militarily viable? It didn't look like it. Pakistan would be like the peel of an orange. It would have all the dangerous frontiers, and much of the military accommodation - but no flesh, no core of industry, manpower or finance. Everywhere the lines of defence or counterattack would be in Pakistan, the base depots to support them in India...

"Briefly, my paper declared that the partition of India was militarily possible, but unsound. For over a century military problems had been worked out on the basis of one country, its natural boundaries the Himalayas and the sea, and this unity was built into the military fabric... I concluded that partition would place a very severe strain on Pakistan, particularly. The official advice of the Defence Department therefore was: don't."

Masters immediately received many plaudits from colleagues and superiors, but politics trumped his caveats:

"As everyone knows, India was, in fact, divided, but it is not perhaps so widely appreciated that the responsibility for this tragedy lies with Mr Nehru. For when the Congress, the Muslim League, and other parties had at last been persuaded to agree to the Cabinet Committee Plan, he gave a press conference at which he stated that the Congress considered itself 'completely unfettered by agreements and free to meet all situations as they arise'. As he was the president of the Congress this could only mean that his party, once it attained the majority power promised to it under the Plan, would be free to break the terms under which the other parties had agreed. With a sigh of delight - for in accepting the plan they had been forced to give up the goal of Pakistan - Mr Jinnah and the Muslim League also reneged on their agreement and returned to the old and now unalterable demand for a separate country of their own."

Then came pressure from the British side to get it done:

"The London Government wanted to set a date for transfer of power - but to whom? The political parties in India had not agreed, so to set a date for transfer was merely to set a date for chaos. Lord Wavell stated that this would cost a great many lives, and that he would not be responsible for carrying out such a policy. As the Government in England intended to do just that, they set about finding someone to replace him, who would do what they wanted." [p. 38]

Referencing a 2007 book by Richard Mead ["Churchill's Lions"] the Wikipedia article on Wavell spins this as:

"At the end of the war, rising Indian expectations continued to be unfulfilled, and inter-communal violence increased. Eventually, in 1947, Attlee lost confidence in Wavell and replaced him with Lord Mountbatten of Burma."

Estimates of the consequent loss of life vary between 200,000 and 2 million, plus massive disruption to millions of others. Churchill foresaw something of the kind in 1931 (though he was wrong about unemployment in the UK - the devastation of WWII forced Britain to restock human labour capacity from its colonies.)

If only Nehru could have been a reasonable-compromiser; if only the new British Labour Government hadn't been so hell-bent on resolving the issue with maximum despatch; if only Gandhi had not been murdered in 1948 and so might have lived to be a moderating influence on Nehru.

But it's funny how these reinterpretations have to wait for some much later, perhaps random event to set off the explosive.

And since then, tensions between India and Pakistan, possible chess-playing by other nations looking to use one side or the other for their own purposes, and the problems of relations with neighbouring states such as Afghanistan; and the Sunni-Shia sectarianism that threatens to ravage Pakistan as much as elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Perhaps we should be writing multiple-viewpoint histories of today - e.g. on what I see as the Bush-Blair wrecking ball in the Middle East. Rather than individual historians arguing from differing standpoints, maybe modern history should be Cubist, offering many-faceted perspectives in the same composition.

Georges Braque: “Bottle and Fishes”, c. 1910–2