I have accumulated a great number of tree rings. Through it all, I have been left to wonder where all the raucous commentary was. If I were to have a philosophy on life--apart from "Have a good time, all the time"--I would have to say something along the lines of experience is only the comedy that you make of living.
United States President Donald Trump has come in for a fair bit of criticism for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Those critics who rushed to judgment upon viewing Trump’s recent interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios may wish to reconsider their assessment of the president’s performance on the Coronavirus front. For there is more at play here. To frame the president’s comportment under Swan’s questions, we need to go back in time, all the way back to 1982.
I point you to veteran rockumantarian Marty DiBergi’s interview with hard rock band Spinal Tap lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel. This footage shows Spinal Tap’s Tufnel fielding, with consummate clarity of expression, difficult questions posed by DiBergi. Note how assured Tufnel appears as he shares the secrets of his craft. I enjoin you to pay particular attention to his flawless command of statistics at the end of the conversation, and DiBergi’s respectful silence. I, for one, took away from this interview an unstinting appreciation for Tufnel’s knowledge of, and commitment to, his art.
NIgel Tufnel: artist and professional,
I now refer you to the first 1:42 of the Trump/Swan interview below. Pay attention to the cogency and clarity of the president’s responses to Swan’s tough lines of questioning, his cool-headedness, his respect for the give-and-take of the media interview process, and his mastery of statistics. Note the parallels with Tufnel’s performance.
Close your eyes, listen to the two interviews a second time, think away Trump’s formal apparel and, er, non-mullet, and imagine how smoothly the Tufnel interview might have played out with a bit of coaching from the president.
There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” Harry S. Truman
United States President Donald Trump has announced his plan to withdraw significant US military forces from Germany, at a stroke weakening America’s commitment to NATO, a large part of whose mandate is to protect Europe from Russia.
Germany has long represented a bulwark, protecting Western interests from threats from Russia. Think back to Ronald Reagan in Berlin appealing to Mikhail Gorbachev, to John F. Kennedy’s (somewhat mangled) assertion of identification of spirit with West Berliners, to the Berlin Airlift. Germany has been the cornerstone of western European security since 1945. Generations of US military personnel have stood post there, gazing eastward.
Trump’s decision undermines all of this. Does he begin to comprehend the historical significance of Germany? Does a US president need to appreciate history? Do any of us?
I’ll answer this question with an anecdote of sorts. One evening in late 2003, I read Stephen Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. In the introduction, Kinzer recalls asking an Iranian author what she could tell him about the American-led coup against democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who was replaced in 1953 by the vicious American puppet, Mohammad Reza Shah. The author’s response is worth quoting:
“‘Why did you Americans do that terrible thing?” she cried out. “We always loved America. To us, America was the great country, the perfect country, the country that helped us while other countries were exploiting us. But after that moment, no one in Iran ever trusted the United States again. I can tell you for sure that if you had not done that thing, you would never have had the problem of hostages being taken in your embassy in Tehran. All your trouble started in 1953. Why did you do it?’ ”
I recall an interview with Kinzer, in which he mentioned how few Americans were aware of their government’s role in a coup d’etat against a democratically elected foreign leader. I counted myself among the ignorant on that day, for I did not learn of the coup until I heard the interview with Kinzer. I had followed the 1979 hostage crisis as closely as anyone, but I remember no mention in the US media of how the Shah had been foisted upon the Iranian people.
Perhaps trouble with Iran, in 1979 and now, could have been avoided had the US leadership known a bit of history. Allow me to extend this notion: perhaps the US might have avoided a number of unsightly political missteps had its recent leaders known a bit of history.
George H.W. Bush lost the 1992 election in large part because his re-election campaign focused on the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War instead of on the faltering US economy (“it’s the economy, stupid.”). He banked on political triumph by basking in the glory of victory in a distant war rather than concentrating on the matter that Americans have historically held most dear: the economy. Bush lost the presidency to Bill Clinton. Badly.
Had Bill Clinton throughout his presidency appreciated the ferocious anti-American Islamic sentiment of the US-backed mujahideen in Afghanistan, who felt betrayed and abandoned by America once the Soviet army had withdrawn from the country, and had he not become distracted by frivolous sexual excursions, he may have paid greater heed to indications that those very mujahideen were channeling their resentments into plans for the greatest surprise assault in recent memory.
If Bush Senior had misinterpreted traditional American values, at least he could locate Iraq on a world map and was wise enough not to authorize coalition forces to follow the Imperial Guard as it fled back within Iraqi borders in the winter of 1990-91. George H.W. Bush was misinformed. His son George W. Bush was outright ignorant, and was poorly advised on top of that. Had he possessed even a modicum of knowledge of the history of the Middle East region, he may have resisted the Neo-Cons who cajoled him into invasions of Afghanistan (mishandled) and Iraq (unwise in its conception and bungled on every level). History might have taught him simple lessons.
The first lesson Bush Junior may have taken away from opening a book or two along the way is that Afghanistan is known as “The Graveyard of Empires” for a reason. One needs only a cursory familiarity with the country’s history of rough treatment of invaders to realize that Britain had a hard time of it there in the 19th century, and withdrew. If George W. Bush was unaware of that stretch of history, he certainly must have known about the bleeding that Afghan mujahideen—in no small irony financed and armed by the United States—had meted out to the invading Red Army in the 1980s, using surprise hit-and-run tactics.
The second lesson George W. Bush should have gleaned from history is that Arabs view military tactics differently than do westerners. Western military leaders have tended to seek pitched battles in which technological and logistical superiority carry the day. Generals seek accolades. This mindset has traditionally found small purchase among Arab military leaders, who over the centuries have preferred surprise hit-and-run tactics. The Crusaders learned this lesson the hard way in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Time and again, Arab forces feigned retreat before crusading hosts, thereby enticing crusaders to break ranks in pursuit and into massacre. The Crusades, if my reading has served me correctly, failed, though they did leave behind lingering enmity and mistrust toward westerners. Similarly, one need to look no further than to Napoleon Bonaparte’s ill-fated expedition in Egypt to see the effectiveness of localized terrorism on western occupiers. His forces continually harried by hidden attackers, Napoleon fled ignominiously homeward, abandoning his men to their fate. Arab commanders seek no accolades. Yet, George W. Bush, seemingly ignorant of any of this, blundered into the region, at considerable cost in human life.
Why do I write all of this as a prelude to my assessment of Donald Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from Germany? Well, ignorance of history is a harsh master. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Russian history will recognize its designs on central Europe and its traditional need for a warm-water port (read: Istanbul). Russia’s military incursions into Ukraine over the past few years represent a preliminary thrust in that direction.
Let us examine the matter further through the lens of history. Russia under the tsars took part in three eighteenth-century partitions of Poland, wiping that country from the map. In the First World War, Tsar Nicholas II cut a deal with Britain and France, whereby command over the Ottoman-controlled Bosporus Straits–and access to the Mediterranean Sea–would have fallen to Russia in exchange for concessions to British and French interests elsewhere in Europe. In 1920, revolutionary Russia invaded a reconstituted Poland, only to be beaten back soundly, this in the midst of Russian-hatched initiatives to overthrow the German Weimar Republic. Nineteen years later, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin acquired half of Poland via the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Nazi Germany. In 1940, the Soviet Union absorbed Estonia and Latvia under the terms of the same deal, and would have taken Finland had the Red Army not met with unexpectedly stiff resistance there. A glance at a map of post-World-War-Two Europe supplies a fair idea of a European political arrangement to Russia’s liking.
President Trump ignores all of this by stripping central Europe of a cornerstone of its security on the pretext that Germany hasn’t met its financial obligations to NATO. Meanwhile, Russia’s historical imperative directs its interests toward central Europe and Turkey.
If I lived in Turkey, I would be worried right now. If I lived in Poland, I would be worried right now. If I lived in Germany, I would be worried right now. If I lived in the United States, I would be worried right now.
Kinzer, Stephen, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2008), v.
 For an account of the visceral fear that the presence of Russian troops on German soil arouses among Germans, I point you to the following book. Huber, Florian, “Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself”: The Mass Suicide of Ordinary Germans in 1945. Little, Brown, and Spark, 2020. This is a harrowing read. Germans viewed Russian soldiers with horror, and the Russians did not disappoint.
The Relevance of The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years by Haynes Johnson.
While commuting home from work one evening in 2002, I came upon an interview on NPR with the journalist Haynes Johnson, whose book had just come out. I listened to Johnson making a convincing argument that the 1990s, following the demise of the Soviet bloc and “The end of history” (I’m looking at you, Francis Fukuyama), the US media turned inward, diverting funds from international coverage toward more salacious fare, such as the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, the Bobbit case, the O.J. Simpson trial, and Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress.
What was the result of this media masturbation? Well, for one, the US citizenry lost all taste for events playing out beyond the country’s borders. No one held the US government’s finger to the fire to account for its mis-dealings abroad. The Pentagon had, after all, armed and funded the Islamic jihadists in the proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and had subsequently ignored them once the USSR had withdrawn its forces from that country. To be sure, Bill Clinton was not unaware of Osama bin Laden’s existence, and even authorized the bombing of a Somalian aspirin factory in a half-hearted effort to eliminate him (bin Laden was nowhere near the target).
From 1999-2000, I was performing research in Germany, and I followed closely articles in The Economist and the German media. I noticed that European reporters viewed the consolidation of the Taliban and the rise of al Qaeda with mounting alarm. Their American counterparts, meanwhile, devoted their energies where the money was, toward enlightening their public about the blue dress.
Today we see the US media outlets—virtually all of them—focusing their coverage almost exclusively on domestic matters in an election year. President Trump’s politicizing of everything elicits triumphant cheers among his base and sneers of derision among the Left. A Center no longer exists, as far as I can tell.
Meanwhile, what is China doing while the leader of the free world defends icons of the Confederacy and undermines straight thinking about the virus? Why, it is inciting border skirmishes with neighboring India and asserting itself militarily in the South China Sea, depredations that threaten stability in a region that has supplanted the Middle East as the next hotbed of global conflict. Once the virus clears and racial tensions in the US subside (highly debatable suppositions), the US may open its eyes to its new status: that of a pariah superpower in slippery decline. Perhaps an account of the Trump years might be called The Worst of Times: America in the Trump Years.
Time was when the typical university degree conferred upon its holder a status apart from that of sucker.
The formidable scholar Paul Fussell once veered off to the sideline to write a book called Class: A Guide through the American Status System, in which he made sport of the American fixation on money instead of taste as the measure of a person, and in his tow line, as I recall, he cast a cynical eye on the US system of education, which, in his view, conferred a fair amount of prestige upon a college graduate, but often at little cost in effort or thought; you could acquire a degree without learning much. I recall a reference to Ben Jonson’s “Speak, that I may see thee”, whereby Fussell claimed that he could determine from a speaker’s diction whether that person had not only attended university, but whether he or she had attended a worthwhile university. Fussell asserted further that one could tell based on the same evidence whether the speaker’s parents had attended college. Furthermore, the educational “attainments” of the less fortunate—fueled by the GI Bill (a laudable yet wrong-headed effort to “educate” the mostly ineducable) served simply to distinguish them in somewhat unfavorable light when these graduates of lesser colleges compared themselves with those who attended institutions worthy of the name “university.” Fussell wondered, to underscore his point, how many Harvard graduates married alums of, say, Avon University, located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida?
A bit over the top, perhaps, but I know what he meant. As should you, if you’ve read this far. If you have to ask what Fussell meant, well, then, you’ll never know. Much of the population of the United States doesn’t know. They shouldn’t or needn’t know, for whose professional or social ambit includes those who speak like Ben Jonson, or even a few levels below him? Yet, young people still accumulate mountains of educational debt chasing down degrees in subjects such as marketing science or graphic design (whatever that is), which a trade school might offer more cheaply and conveniently. Nonetheless, one would hope to receive an education at a place claiming the status of university. Nope. Just a lot of courses about subjects soon to be out of date, and a load of debt.
What about the institutions at the upper echelons of the US educational system, those that can boast of high scores on the absurd US News and World Report college ranking system? What sort of education do they provide? In such places, students encounter a lot of post-modernist or post-structuralist theory in the rare undergraduate course taught by a tenured professor, some real material in courses taught by adjuncts (who will likely traffic post-whatever theory if they ever get tenure, which they won’t), or indifference from overworked graduate students in discussion sections.
What student in his or her right mind would spend $200,000 over four years for a degree in history, philosophy, or literature today? That’s a lot of money to pay in order to learn how to think. Sadly, undergraduates who do major in these fields are often told what to think in line with the most recent politically correct platform, where critical judgment of the work of protected groups is suspended to avoid hurt feelings. Some of my fellow graduate students had accumulated six-figure debt pursuing degrees in the liberal arts. Why? Why on earth?
Meanwhile, rather than focusing on its mission, the typical university has erected at high cost fancy gyms and meal halls in an attempt to lure students–nay, “customers”–onto its grounds. This was a subterfuge to mask the inferior educational offerings largely manned by underpaid adjuncts. And how will such an institution, such as it is, pay for all those state-of-the-art recreational facilities and exquisite dining spaces that are on the accounting books but no longer being used by students, who have been chased away by the coronavirus, and whose tuition money was supposed to pay for them? And what of the future students who won’t set foot on campus to use those facilities? Will they be willing to fork over tuition dollars to subsidize premium facilities on campuses that they may never visit, should instruction move online? The university president certainly won’t derive much succor from shrinking endowment figures and will have to locate money somewhere or preside over the sinking of the institution into oblivion.
Universities have increasingly turned to the international market for students, as the demographic pool from which domestic students is drawn dries up. These students pay full tuition, mind you, which cushions endowment figures. International students typical enter STEM fields, which reduces the significance of the battered humanities (which should teach you how to think and not what to think). The last I checked something known as the pathway program was making significant inroads into the international education market. Such programs arrange for international students (read: Chinese) to attend credit-bearing university classes while providing them with assistance in the English language. Their tuition-paying parents are happy because their children have acquired a badge of status by formally registering at American universities. Such students, the bulk of whom lack English proficiency and familiarity with US academic culture (read: don’t plagiarize or attempt to share answers on an exam), often founder. Pathway providers, in theory, provide English language training. You can see where this is going. These students are thrust into classes, while simultaneously attempting to acquire the language skills that should be requisite for enrollment into such classes in the first place. I was once involved in such a charade. My organization was supposed to provide English language training to students enrolled in classes at a local university. Students with beginner-level English skills entered my office crying from frustration. The “English” classes soon became help sessions, where trained English teachers assisted students with their assignments in whatever subjects. There’s good money in plying that trade.
In my junior year at university, at the end of the semester, my Russian literature professors bid a tearful good-bye to our class, not because he though highly of us and would miss us (though I like to think that to have been the case), but rather because he felt that he had short-changed us by not devoting enough class time to Anna Karenina. Try to imagine such an impassioned display from your computer graphics professor.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus is set to weed out large numbers of institutions that appeared after the passing of the GI Bill. The shrinking endowments–rising tuition prices—dwindling enrollments spiral has long ago doomed many of these places to extinction in the near future, in any event. The virus is simply the death knell, and necessary. Think about all the poor saps with PhDs who will be thrown out of work when these marginal colleges topple. And what about the effects on the economies of college towns when the revered institutions go away?
I now ask you to ponder for a moment the value of a degree from Mount Ida College, an institution once located in Newton, Massachusetts and which went belly up in 2018. I contend that such a document possesses the same value as, say, a 1923 German Reichsmark. What was all that tuition money for? The holder of a degree from such a place is an object of pity.
Take the wheelbarrow, leave the degree on the sidewalk.
I suppose we do, or I wouldn’t have begun this project. I will write about my favorite topics: history (especially its relevance to today–yes, even the Crusades still resonate), fiction (my own and that of others), movies, and political developments (for reasons that should be clear).
I spent the first 35 years of my life as an itinerant academic (so unfocused was I that I received degrees in mathematics, marketing, and history (twice)), after which I buckled down and taught in the ESL industry, rising up through the corporate ranks with fair rapidity until I was caught along in the waves of layoffs that broadsided that doomed industry a few years ago. My wife and I flew screaming to Uruguay, where we now live. With this last point in mind, don’t be surprised if my experience as an expat asserts itself into my writing from time to time.
Welcome! Stay a while. Y’all come back now, ya hear?