Saturday, July 26, 2008

From my Barber to Barack

So I went to the barber earlier this week. I hadn’t been since the turn of the year, in a sort of obscure mourning ceremony. As it was, my dreadlocks were beginning to sprout dreadlocks, and it was time for a shearing. But my barber, who does men’s hair but primarily is a female hair stylist, told me that I wasn’t alone, and many of his customers were delaying their visits. Regulars who came in every five weeks were now coming in every seven or eight weeks—the economy being what it is, it cost too much to be that stylish. Another friend of mine tells me that their main income, selling Christmas CDs of tasteful guitar arrangements of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and the like (they record and produce their own CDs) is way off. People aren’t going to Christmas shows this year. Too many grinches.

The economy is falling and flailing. Someone asked me today, is it 1929 again? I said, I don’t know, but if Obama is elected, it should be 1933. This will be the best chance in over seventy years to fundamentally rethink the relation between the government and the economy. Capitalism is getting a bad reputation again. The limitations of the Fed, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and other government institutions are becoming increasingly apparent. Bailout after bailout gives the lie to the notion of the free market. No one is asking me, but this is what I think Obama should do in his hundred days:

1) The quasi-governmental entities, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, should either become purely private or drop the “quasi.” Conservatives want the former; Obama should advocate the latter; the policy of socialization of losses and not profits needs to end; if taxpayers are paying for it, they need to be able to call the shots.
2) The SEC needs to be given greatly expanded powers to regulate all forms of financial transactions.
3) If not in its original form, some aspect of the Glass-Steagel Act needs to be restored. There needs to be some differentiation between investment banking and commercial banking; we need to start the de-securitization of the economy. The general trend in the economy in recent years has been to take down barriers, what is sometimes called disintermediation. We need to start rebuilding walls, between nations, between economic sectors, and between types of financial transactions. Forget globalization, that bulldozer of economic difference. We need to embrace the world, economically and politically, but good walls make good neighbors.
4) The modern equivalent of the CCC and the WPA should be the push for building mass transit and looking for new energy sources. Let Obama make building the 2nd avenue subway one of his top priorities.
5) We need to replace the ownership society with the cooperative society; and support the creation of housing cooperatives and every other type of cooperative. If the government will provide a general political and economic framework for cooperatives, cooperatives will all exist independently. Big government will only work if it tends to create and support the proliferation of numerous small independent cooperatives. We need to re-create intermediate structures, in between the individual household and the government that have vanished in recent decades.
6) There will be no or at best very limited progress towards racial and other forms of equality in this country if economic inequality continues to grow expotentially. Obama needs to make as a core tenet of his economic philosophy decreasing the gap between the rich and the poor, and between rich and poor neighborhoods. Without it, every attempt to address this problem by other means, such as no child left behind, is doomed to fail.

If you’re interested, Barack, there’s a lot more where this came from.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A View From the Heights

In all of New York City, there is no stroll more beautiful than the walk along the Heather Garden of Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights. There, one glance takes in the Hudson, the Palisades, the George Washington Bridge, and an Olmstead landscape. From now on, those lucky enough to walk this path will traverse "The Stan Michels Promenade." This is entirely appropriate: as hundreds of people were reminded yesterday, no councilman did more than Michels to help the city's parks.

Michels, a lifelong resident of the Heights, represented northern Manhattan, parts of Harlem, and Morningside Heights in the City Council from 1978 to 2001. Late Thursday afternoon, hundreds of people gathered in Fort Tryon Park to honor him. The setting could not have been better: the sun was out, a jazz band played duets with a summer breeze, and much of the crowd was shaded by a graceful elm tree.

Those who gathered were black and white, old and young, native and immigrant, Dominican and Jewish. Present were activists, politicians and neighborhood people who were touched by Michels' works. Steve Simon, Michels' chief of staff in his City Council days, organized the event. Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe presided.

Many offered reminiscence. Together, they painted an attractive portrait.

Benepe pointed out that, in his 24 years on the Council, Michels allocated $50 million to parks in Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood.

Henry Stern, who grew up in northern Manhattan with Michels and served Republican and Democratic mayors, joked: "I knew him as a regular, I knew him as a reformer." He also reminded listeners that Michels, a Democrat, was a staunch advocate of tenants: "I am only sorry that we did not achieve his goal of free rent for all."

Assemblyman Denny Farrell recalled that Michels went to court to make landlords properly maintain their buildings, sparing the Heights the arson and abandonment that ravaged the Bronx in the Seventies.

Guillermo Linares, Commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, who served in the Council with Michels, remembered that it was Michels who worked with him when crime was high in northern Manhattan to not only get more cops, but to improve police-community relations and bring down crime.

Michels, who is battling cancer, gave a short but moving response and said, "this is a neighborhood where we all worked together for the benefit of all."

As I have learned working on a book about Washington Heights and Inwood since the Fifties, in the fractious world of Northern Manhattan it can be difficult to sustain that ideal. Michels, however, lived and worked to make it come true.

It was Michels' day, but the last word on the man belongs to Linares: "millions of people's lives today are better for your leadership and dedication."

No one could ask for a better summary of a life's work.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now -- with somebody -- and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives.

It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerrilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy.

These words, written shortly after 9/11 by Hunter S. Thompson, open the documentary Gonzo--a film that reminds you how great a journalist Thompson could be when he wasn't succumbing to his own demons and self-promotion.

Gonzo, directed by Alex Gibney, manages to explore both Thompson's strengths as a reporter and his lunatic antics. For all the reenactments of scenes from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it is the interviews with Thompson's first wife, Anita Thompson, and his colleague, Tim Crouse, that form the foundation of the film. Anita and Crouse capture Thompson's dualities--his immersion reporting and fantastic fabrications, his idealism and his nastiness. Once you've heard Anita describe Thompson's mean side, and his loathing of Richard Nixon, scenes of Thompson cavorting in a Nixon mask take on a dark meaning.

Gonzo is a heavily produced documentary, with everything from interviews to archival footage to reenactments. The period sound track is good, although I thought the playing of "Out of My Head" during an interview with George McGovern's electro-shocked vice-presidential nominee Tom Eagleton was a bit much.

More questionable is the way the film echoes Thompson's adulation for Jimmy Carter. Thompson fell for Carter after he heard him deliver a populist Law Day speech that quoted Bob Dylan. But as MORE magazine showed at the time, Carter's knowledge of Dylan was thin. And the populism of Carter's speech was not a defining feature of his presidency. (All things considered, Carter was a much better ex-president than president.)

Still, one of the pleasures of the film was hearing some of my favorite work by Thompson read into the narration, from his lines about roaring down the California coast on a a motorcycle in pursuit of The Edge to his coverage of the 1972 McGovern campaign in Fear and Loathng on the Campaign Trail. And nothing tops the reading of Thompson's lines about Nixon as a werewolf, juxtaposed against images of a rough beast skulking through the dark streets of Washington, DC.

Thompson is too often remembered today for his booze, drugs and self-promotion. (At least that's what makes one student want to write on him every year in my journalism history class.) As Gonzo shows, though, Thompson at his best was a free-thinking craftsman who took his work seriously. We still have need of his kind today.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Births and Deaths

I guess I have fallen behind the pace of news in my postings; many apologies . Anyway, there’s been lots in the news, the continuing fallout of the mortgage crisis (if I were an investor, I'd put my money on socialism futures), and of course the New Yorker cover (oh, I don’t quite know what the fuss is about; I suppose you can’t satirize something basically beyond satire, like the bottomless capacity of the American people for self-deception and and gullibility. )

But let me comment on the article and editorial in the Times a few days ago on the date of the founding of New York City on the city seal, the one with the beaver and the Indian. It currently says 1625. Some woulld rather place the date in 1624, when the first Dutch settlement in what is New York City was founded on Nutten (now Governor’s ) Island. The next year the Nutten Islanders moved their cows to the greener pastures of Lower Manhattan. In 1626 came the famous deal between Peter Minuit and the local Indians, which really had very little bearing on the history of the Dutch settlement on Manhattan one way or the other. Some historians are crying for 1624, others for 1626; 1625 seems to have few backers. Others opt for 1653, the year the Dutch West India Company awarded the equivalent of a city charter to New Amsterdam, and If you ask me, this is probably the best date, the year the settlement on Manhattan Island first attained a recognizable political form which is essentially continuous to today, but the whole question depends on what you mean by “New York” and what you mean by “City.”

And if you ask me, the whole question is terrifically uninteresting. The determination of historical nativities is generally one of the more trivial aspects of the historian’s craft, and since places and things, unlike persons, have a nasty habit of complex and long drawn out births, almost answer is more or less arbitrary, as it is this case. Manhattan Island obviously was inhabited long before the Dutch ever arrived, by many millennia, but since we don’t when precisely this was, it is of no help in playing this game. And the Dutch had been stopping at Manhattan since 1609, and claimed it as part of New Netherland in 1614. And of course there wasn’t any place named “New York City” until 1664. The only element of interest in this is that, in 1974 when the City Council decided to throw off the shackles of 1664 date—City Council President Paul O’Dwyer’s lifelong animus against British imperialism was key here-- they did not choose, as choosers in this situation invariably do, the earliest plausible date, 1624, no doubt because they didn’t want to miss the opportunity to celebrate a 350th anniversary in 1975, which tuned out to be probably the worst year in the city’s history between Kieft’s War in the 1640s and September 11th 2001.

Historical deaths are a little easier than historical births—there often is more self-consciousness about endings, though many things get reincarnated in different forms after they die, especially corporate entities. In terms of historical reincarnation, and it has been fascinating, from a distance, to watch the long-term ritual disembowelment of Yankee Stadium currently going on in the Bronx, which reached a peak this week in the all-star game, which included a laying on of hands, from the hall of famers who had contributed to making Yankee Stadium what it is to the newest crop of all-stars. I am lifelong Yankee fan, but I refuse to get sentimental about the decision of the Yankees to destroy the most historic stadium in baseball. I’ve cried over enough senseless acts of self-destruction this year, and I haven’t a tear to spare for the impending doom of the House that Ruth built. There will be a new Yankee Stadium next year, and they will call it the new Yankee Stadium for a while until it becomes just the Yankee Stadium again. This is a bit of a stretch, but let me paraphrase the Book of Ruth—whither thou goest, I will go, and wherever the hell you decide to play baseball, you damn Yankees, I suppose I will turn on the YES network, grumble, and watch you play baseball.

Monday, July 14, 2008

An Adirondack Sunset?

The Adirondack Park is one of the glories of New York State. But if tourists like me can't get afford to get there, and the locals who live there can't afford to drive to work, a shadow is thrown over the complex blend of seasonal tourists and full-time residents that shapes the Park's economy. And that's exactly the problem posed by the recent rise in gasoline prices.

Let's start with the locals. The Glens Falls Post Star recently did a valuable service by running an article on commuters in the North Country and how they're coping with the high fuel costs. The growth in bicycle use and bus ridership are good things in and of themselves, but workers who have to drive long distances to work (a plumber summoned to a distant job, for example) inevitably feel a bite in their paycheck.

High fuel prices come on top of a problem described to me more than a year ago by my guide on a backcountry skiing trip: the need to make long commutes to find affordable housing in the Adirondacks. The growth in the purchase or construction of second homes in the Adirondacks over the past decade or so, my guide explained, has driven up housing costs. For him, that meant moving to a less expensive house on the fringe of the Adirondaccks and driving at least 45 minutes to work. I've heard similar stories from waitresses at The Hedges, a lodge we visit in the summer.

I can afford the cost of filling the gas tank on my rented car once every winter and summer for my trips to the Adirondacks, but the locals there are already feeling a pinch. And if high fuel costs reduce the number of tourists heading to the North Country, that means fewer jobs and more hardships for folks up there. Let's hope it doesn't come to that. We need rational energy policies that promote sustainable ways of life for city people and country folks alike.

Blue Mountain Lake Sunset. Photo by Max Snyder.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Open Up the Great Lawn

When I arrived at the East 79th Sreet entrance to Central Park this morning, mounted and ready for my customary bicycle ride, a friendly policeman blocked the entrance. He told me that I had to enter at 72nd Street or 90th street because the middle of the park was blocked off to set up for tonight's Bon Jovi concert on the Great Lawn. "You'll have the park back tonight," he said cheerfully. I wish it was that simple: the policies and precedents invoked for this concert are one more step in closing off the park to large public activities--like concerts and demonstrations.

In the Eighties, large concerts (Simon and Garfunkel in 1981) and large demonstrations (the roughly one million people who gathered to support a nuclear freeze in 1982) were a recognized presence on the Great Lawn. Since the restoration of the Great Lawn, similarly large gatherings have been banned there because they are deemed too damaging to the grass and ball fields on the lawn. In 2004, this logic was applied to reject a demonstration on the lawn during the Republican Convention.

I don't care much for Bon Jovi. (As New Jersey rockers go, they can't hold a candle to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.)

But even more disturbing is the way this event, which is being put on in conjunction with the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, is being promoted. Admission is free to people who showed up to get tickets at ball parks and other locations around the city. But only 60,000 tickets will be distributed in an attempt to safeguard the integrity of the lawn.

The Great Lawn holds only 60,000 people? Hogwash. And should the lawn be so protected, as the mayor says, because it safeguards the public's investment in restoring it? Bologna.

The restoration of the Great Lawn was a worthy achievement, but the goal of that enterprise was not simply to create a great lawn. It was to restore a place that is, among other things, the greatest public gathering place in the city.

It insults the public, and New York's traditions of democratic assembly, to say that the Great Lawn is fine for 60,000 people gathered to hear a Jersey rocker but off limits for larger crowds that want to make political statements.

We should categorically reject the idea that 60,000 people is the most that the Great Lawn can hold--for concerts or demonstrations. And the sooner we test this proposition with a healthy political demonstration for a good cause, the better.

Friday, July 11, 2008


“I love him like a brother, David Greenglass,” said Woody Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanors. It’s a good line. Another good line is E.M. Foster’s observation, “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I should hope I have the guts to betray my country.” Both quotes have been connected to Communism. For Greenglass, the connection is obvious. He was the brother of Ethel Rosenberg, and his testimony at her trial and that of his brother in law, Julius Rosenberg, was crucial in their conviction in their 1951 trial for espionage and treason. His testimony was almost certainly perjured, ignoring the involvement of his wife. Greenglass, a member of the same atomic spy ring with Julius, agreed to testify if his wife, Ruth Greenglass, was left unindicted. This was done. Ethel Rosenberg’s involvement in the spy ring was tangential at best, but after David finished testifying for the government, Ethel and Julius were convicted, and in 1953 executed.

Foster’s observation has often been taken (rather unfairly) as epitomizing the moral atmosphere in Cambridge in the 1930s, where Foster was a tutelary figure, and where it has been argued, this sort of thinking, led Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, and others to become communist spies, and betray secrets to the Soviet Union. But if Kim Philby and the other members of the Cambridge spy ring were traitors to their country, then David Greenglass was certainly a traitor to his family. When is it appropriate to turn on a family member? When you think them a menace to society, as when David Kaczyinski told the FBI of his suspicions that his brother, Theodore Kaczynski, might be the Unabomber. This was an act of moral courage of the highest order. When the government told David Greenglass to choose between his wife and his sister, he unhesitatingly chose his wife and left his sister to her fate, rather than protest that this was an impossible choice. One can acknowledge that David Greenglass was in something of a pickle, not entirely of his own making, but he showed himself to be a person of the highest possible immorality.

When I was growing up the Rosenberg’s were a large part of my childhood, so much so that that I really felt it was a part of my own memory, though they were executed in 1953 and I was not born until 1954. My mother, at the time a member of the Communist Party, often told me of standing in the somber vigil at Union Square the night of their execution, and of the groan that went through the crowd when it was announced the Julius and Ethel had met their end in Sing-Sing’s electric chair. Much has changed since 1953. The Communist Party and the Soviet Union are no more. And almost everyone acknowledges that Julius indeed was a Communist spy. No one has been executed in New York State since 1963. The politics were murky in 1953, and are murkier in 2008. No one was a hero in this tawdry tale. But in many ways the most chilling part of the entire Rosenberg saga is the coldness of David and Ruth Greenglass, condemning their own family at the cost of saving their own worthless skins.

All of this is prompted by the news, earlier this week, that Ruth Greenglass had died. She and her husband have been living in the metropolitan area under an assumed name since the early 1950s. There was no public announcement, just court proceedings, in the course of which it transpired that Ruth Greenglass had died several months ago. One wonders why the Greenglasses still felt obliged to live pseudonymously. They certainly were in no physical danger, but no doubt just the thought that they might be cursed or spat upon was enough to keep them in hiding for half a century. That was their punishment.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Blowing the Lid on Fox

Every now and then, we are blessed with a great work of journalism that blows the lid on lies and corruption. So it is with David Carr's "When Fox News is the Story" in today's Times--a devastating account of how Fox News attacks reporters who dare to question its operations.

The full piece is well worth reading, but a few paragraphs convey the point.

Fox News found a huge runway and enormous success by setting aside the conventions of bloodless objectivity, but along the way, it altered the rules of engagement between reporters and the media organizations they cover. Under its chief executive, Roger Ailes, Fox News and its public relations apparatus have waged a permanent campaign on behalf of the channel that borrows its methodology from his days as a senior political adviser to Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

At Fox News, media relations is a kind of rolling opposition research operation intended to keep reporters in line by feeding and sometimes maiming them. Shooting the occasional messenger is baked right into the process.

As crude as that sounds, it works. By blacklisting reporters it does not like, planting stories with friendlies at every turn, Fox News has been living a life beyond consequence for years. Honesty compels me to admit that I have choked a few times at the keyboard when Fox News has come up in a story and it was not absolutely critical to the matter at hand.

Carr goes on to relate the experience of Jacques Steinberg of the Times, who wrote a piece on cable ratings that mentioned Fox. It obviously wasn't sycophantic enough, so a Fox show responded with a broadcast segment that questioned the motives behind the story. It also aired an ugly, retouched image of Steinberg that resurrected many of the visual tropes of anti-Semitism. Check out the segment at Media Matters.

Fox's role as a conservative news organization is well known. What Carr's piece does so well is take us backstage to reveal the machinations that Fox uses to gain favorable coverage and intimidate reporters.

Just as Fox is not a conservative news organization that merely balances the alleged liberalism of CNN, its public relations department is not a scrappy version of every other pr shop. They're a bunch of bullies who go to unique lengths to silence questions and criticism. David Carr deserves our thanks and our admiration for delivering this valuable report.

A Shoot from the Stock of Jesse

If there was a more repugnant figure in American politics this past half century than Jesse Helms, he or she does not immediately come to mind. And if there was a more influential figure in American politics in this past half century than Jesse Helms, save the guys who were elected president, and a few vice presidents and high cabinet secretaries, he or she doesn’t come readily to mind either. In a recent book, Sean Willentz has described the last thirty or so years as The Age of Reagan. But the Age of Helms might do as an alternative title; the Solid South reborn as a Republican bloc, and an aggressive anti-Communist and anti-terrorist foreign policy, for which conservative white southerners played as important a role as did the neocons who get all the credit or blame. (Helms was a powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.) Helms played a key role in Reagan’s victory, and in securing the South for the GOP. As Strom Thurmond not so gently crossed over into senility, it was Jesse Helms in the 1970s and 1980s who was the symbol of the unchanging, revanchist white South.

The triumph of the civil rights movement in the 1960s is sometimes described as a revolution, but it was a revolution that left the losers fully in control of state power, though they now had to let blacks use their bathrooms and water fountains. In many ways no group in American society emerged as greater victors from the 1960s than white southern men, who would come to dominate the Republican party as they never could the Democrats, while the Democrats, aware of their losses in the South, nominated several southern men in order to get their mojo back. After a century in which there were no southerners elected president (with the exception of the transplanted Virginian, Woodrow Wilson) from 1960 to the present there have been five southerners in the White House, along with two California enablers (Nixon, Reagan) who perfected the southern strategy. (This will be the first predidential election since 1984, and only the second since 1972, without a southerner as a candidate.)

Helms was so unsavory, so unrepentant in his racism, that his importance in shaping the contours of our age has often been forgotten, especially as the Republican Party has sought out more acceptable front men (Bush I and II) for their message. But Helms was in many ways the purest representative of the modern Republican Party, of which he was one the most important founders, a son of Dixie, one who accepted the changes of the mid-1960s merely as brutal necessities forced on the prostrate South, and spent the rest of his life trying to efface and evade its implications. Let us hope that we never see his like again, and that we can bury the Age of Helms a few months after its unlamented eponymous founder this November.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Seeing the Hidden Harbor

The new apartment buildings on the old dockside streets of Lower Manhattan, and the opening of an Ikea on the site of a dry dock in Brooklyn, create the impression that New York is no longer a port city. In fact, the working waterfront hasn't vanished so much as moved--primarily to shipping facilities in Newark and Elizabeth, N.J. For a great look at the new face of the port, and what remains of the old one in Brooklyn and Staten Island, I highly recommend the Working Waterfront Committee's "Hidden Harbor" tours, which depart Tuesdays from the South Street Seaport.

I recently took one of the tours, led by Capt. John Doswell. We cruised south along the Brooklyn waterfront, across to Staten Island, into the Kill Van Kull and all the way to Port Newark. The trip was an up-close introduction to the working areas of the waterfront that most people only glimpse from a distance. We saw the barges and tugs of the old Erie Basin in Brooklyn (once the southern terminus for the Erie Canal) and the massive container facilities of Port Newark that have transformed New York shipping since the 1960s. I enjoyed peering at sights through my binoculars, and the photographers on board found great photo opportunities.

A "Hidden Harbor" tour introduces you to the 19th century waterfront and helps you understand what is at stake in the construction of the 21st century waterfront. It also reminds you that the waterfront is still a source of working-class jobs.

As Congressional representatives Nydia Velazquez and Jerry Nadler have both pointed out, waterfront development that emphasizes luxury housing destroys opportunities to create more blue collar maritime jobs. In a city that is increasingly transformed with the interests of the rich in mind, that's a big mistake.

"Hidden Harbor" tours, which run two hours aboard a large and comfortable luxury yacht, cost $29. Discounts are offered for senior citizens, children, and members of the Working Harbor Committee.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Good Wars

I just finished reading Nicholson Baker’s Good Smoke: The Beginning of World War II, the End of Civilization. Baker is a novelist (and as they say in the parochial parts around here, a native Rochesterian) whose novels were characterized by their attention to technical details. This is a work of non-fiction, but constructed in a series of vignettes taken from newspapers and other accounts, strung together in a garland of gritty, interesting details. If this makes a sustained argument difficult, the repeated iterations can be effective in making and insinuating the author’s point. (An effective example of this style, covering much of the same anti-militarist terrain, is Sven Lindqvist’s A History of Bombing.)

Baker’s argument, which has been savaged in every review that I have read, is that World War II was unnecessary; that Churchill was a warmonger, and the Allies were hypocrites, their opposition to the Nazi oppression of the Jews limited to rhetorical salvos, and certainly did not extend to letting many of the refugees into their own countries. Baker describes the horrors of the impending holocaust fully. His argument, to the extent I understand it, is that the Allies in 1940 should have come to a negotiated truce with Hitler, and sort of wait him out. This would, in the end, have saved tens of millions of lives, German and Jew, Axis and Allied. I do not agree with this argument, which relies on the benefit of hindsight not available to historical actors in 1939 and 1940, and because, from everything that I have read, a war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union—the Soviet Union plays a surprisingly small role in Baker’s account—would have happened regardless of events on the Western Front, and then most of the other events of the war would have transpired.

But even if Baker is wrong , it is definitely worth considering his argument seriously. What did the Allies get from winning World War II? In Asia, Britain lost its empire almost immediately after the war ended, and the United States, which in many ways entered the war in the Pacific for China, ended up losing China (though exchanging it as an ally with Japan.) And in Europe, we need to remember that no one went to war against Hitler to rescue the Jews. In his recent, near definitive account of the Holocaust Saul Friedlander divides the war years into three parts Terror (fall 1939 to Summer 1941), Mass Murder (Summer 1941 to Summer 1942) and Shoah (Summer 1942 to Spring 1945.) Leaving aside the huge question of the Soviet Union, it is permissible to think that if, as some were suggested, Churchill and Hitler reached a negotiated peace after the fall of France, the full weight of the holocaust would have been avoided? I do not know, probably not, but using hindsight, it is perhaps worth asking if a cold peace with Nazism, if coupled with a plan to transfer the Jews under Nazi control elsewhere, might not have saved many Jewish lives. Certainly whatever else the war against Nazism accomplished, it saved precious few Jews.

I don’t think I am pacifist (yet) but I am glad to see that war in Iraq is spurring a growth in pacifist thinking. The basic problem is not that this or that particular war is bad, but that all wars are bad, and that all “post-war” settlements, whatever the good intentions of some liberal minded humanists, ends up inevitably refighting the war just ended. For twenty years, after the end of World War I, the thinking people of the world were united in their opposition and detestation of war. This sentiment was rejected during and after World War II, and we have been trying to fight “good wars” ever since, for supposed humanitarian reasons (against the tyranny of Communism, or Saddam Hussein) shoehorning every conflict in a fight to the death against an evil foe who needs to be unconditionally defeated. I think most people agree that the world would have been a better place if Saddam Hussein, as evil and tyrannical as he was, was left in place. I really hesitate to say the same thing would have true of Hitler, but I do not think it a crazy argument to make. The greatest story in the incredibly violent history of the 20th century were the striking number of examples of basically peaceful social change; in India, in South Africa, in the American South in the 1960s, in the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc in the 1980s and 1990s. Tyranny can be overthrown without war. Good wars continue to provide the illusion that war can be an effective instrument of positive social change. Bad wars at least remind us why war is evil. In the end, good wars, that shield us from the truth, probably do more damage. Whether or not Baker is correct, it is time for all of us to learn to live in a complex ambiguous and dangerous world without refighting World War II, again and again and again.