President Harry S Truman with General Douglas MacArthur
Harry S Truman ascended to the presidency of the United States on April 12, 1945, a plain-spoken career politician and product of the political machine of Boss Tom Pendergast in Kansas City. It is clear that Douglas MacArthur, regarded arguably as the greatest American general of World War II, regarded him as little more than a cipher.
Over the next six years almost to the day when Truman fired the general — April 11, 1951 – MacArthur made Truman so furious that 60 years later, historian H.W. Brands, examining Truman’s papers, found handwritten documents in which the President gouged the paper with his pen out of anger.
Brands has written a boisterous history of the long series of confrontations that led up to the firing. It would be tempting to call the episode comical if MacArthur hadn’t been attempting to start World War III and Truman, whose authority as President the General ignored, overrode or deliberately snubbed, was hard-pressed to keep him from it as the supreme commander of United Nations forces in Korea following invasion by the north.
From the very start of their relationship on the death in office of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, MacArthur simply ignored the entire American diplomatic and political establishment. The General, already 65 when Truman became President, was a five-star officer regarded as a military genius for his prosecution of the so-called “island-hopping” campaign to rid Asia of the invading Japanese and their Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. The iconic picture of the tall, imposing general wading ashore at Tacloban on Leyte Island in the Philippines, followed by staff members and diminutive Filipinos, was one of the most-printed photos of the war and resulted in a diorama that stands to this day on the beach where they landed.
It was MacArthur and not Truman who dictated the terms of the Japanese surrender, leaving Emperor Hirohito in place, creating the Japanese pacifist constitution that governs the country and fostering the somewhat imperfect democracy that runs the country to this day. MacArthur would never return to the United States until his firing, forcing the country’s leaders to fly to Asia to consult with him.
The world for the general and the President sputtered along well enough until June 25, 1950 – although Truman was quoted later as having said “I should have fired the son of a bitch a long time ago” – when troops of Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current ruler of North Korea, spilled over Korea’s 38th parallel, driving the Republic of Korea troops and a skeleton US Army garrison south into a tiny perimeter around the city of Pusan.
Brand treats the initial reaction by MacArthur and his command considerably kindlier than other historians, including David Halberstam in his 2008 history of the Korean War,” The Coldest Winter.” Halberstam was scathing in his assessment of the early attempt to counter northern troops, calling MacArthur out of touch and arrogant at age 70, with his Tokyo staff sacrificing lives for policy.
Whatever the conduct of the war, it is inarguable that MacArthur’s decision – his alone, to stage an amphibious invasion at Inchon, far north of the Pusan perimeter – was one of the greatest military decisions of the century. MacArthur’s troops cut the country in half, decimated the north’s supply lines, and resulted in the surrender of hundreds of thousands of confused and demoralized North Korean troops. His forces drove north, culminating in a humiliating defeat for the fleeing North Koreans.
The diplomatic slights MacArthur delivered to Truman and other great World War II generals including George Marshall and Omar Bradley paled in comparison to his actions from then on and make it almost seem the general had taken leave of his senses.
He “sketched out a breathtaking vision of American hegemony over the world’s greatest ocean,” calling the Pacific a “vast moat to protect us as long as we hold it. Indeed, it acts as a shield of all the Americas and all of the free lands of the Pacific Ocean to the shores of Asia.” Eventually that vision would encompass recommendations of atomic war with both the Russians and the Chinese.
Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, growing concerned about the general’s grandiosity, proposed a meeting. MacArthur insisted the meeting be held on Wake Island rather than Hawaii, meaning Truman and the assembled leadership of the US would have to fly more than 7,000 miles to meet with him while he would only have to fly 2,300 miles. After he gave a picture of the situation on the ground in Korea over two days, he again broke protocol, abruptly saying he was departing, leaving a fuming Truman and his party on the island with more business to transact. Truman abandoned the meeting and flew home, exasperated. That began a long list of snubs meticulously catalogued by Brand.
As he had in Japan when he allowed the Emperor to remain in place, MacArthur reinstalled Syngman Rhee as South Korea’s leader, without waiting for consent from a reluctant Washington, DC.
Unfortunately, MacArthur badly miscalculated, ignoring the advice of the President’s advisers, driving toward the Yalu River and the border with China, ignoring repeated warnings from the Chinese to back off. In October 1950, the Chinese had had enough. They poured across the Yalu in hordes, sustaining devastating losses but enveloping United Nations forces and driving them into a humiliating retreat that cost thousands of lives.
MacArthur responded by demanding the resources to destroy the Chinese Army, including bringing in Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Army, which had been forced to retreat to what was then Formosa. All of that possibly would have brought the Russians into the war. He not only moved on his own course, he began making addresses including a memo to the Veterans of Foreign Wars basically saying Washington was filled with cowards, vacillating politicians and incompetents.
Eventually, Truman had enough. He removed MacArthur from his command, setting off a political firestorm in the US that would envelop the Democratic Party and result in deep losses in the 1952 election. It destroyed Truman’s popularity and he chose not to run again for the presidency.
Nonetheless, it would be Truman who emerged as history’s champion. As Brand concludes: “Six decades after the general and the president, standing at the brink of nuclear war, wrestled over Korea and China; six decades after their contest brought to the head the issue of whether a president or a general determines American policy…it was hard to find any knowledgeable person who didn’t feel relief that the president, and not the general, had been the one with the final say in their fateful struggle. Truman’s bold stroke in firing MacArthur ended his own career as surely as it terminated MacArthur’s, but it sustained hope that humanity might survive the nuclear age.”
From a young age, the average Singaporean is exposed to tales of the island’s catapulting itself from third world to first, and then fed a constant stream of pride-inducing narratives designed to demonstrate the nation’s success in overcoming abandonment by Malaysia, racial strife, economic struggles, and a constant siege by unfriendly neighbours. To be a citizen of Singapore was to delight in the tiny state’s ability to overtake others in the region in terms of development, economic progress, and “civilisation”. The larger and more unwieldy members of ASEAN were always depicted as those who were envious of Singapore’s progress, and constantly in need of assistance and advice from the island’s growing pool of local and resident international experts in countless fields.
Philip Holden (in Chapter 7) defines myths as “our way of telling a common sense story of the past”. The editors cite Roland Barthes as they point out that the distinguishing mark of myths are their “naturalness”—in other words, myths are stories that are taken as true and “historical”. But “history”, whether people realise it or not, is man-made. Singaporean stories taken as “history” seem to dangle off the edge of reality—and once unpacked, are revealed to be nothing more than myths created, embellished, and perpetuated for whichever use best suits national institutions, the state, and the media at the time.
I was born in Singapore but didn’t grow up there. Instead I travelled the world in a Singaporean bubble, perpetuating the national myths that engendered respect and awe. The occasional holiday in the homeland had the same impact on me as it did any foreigner. We were taken in by the sheen and shine; the spotlessness, safety and efficiency—and we all believed the myths. As an adult, spending my work hours in the “star” of Southeast Asia after decades abroad, the sparkle seems to dull a little. Murmurs on the ground help peel away the layers of flawless cling wrap to reveal the wrinkles and scars of those who lived all their lives in the Little Red Dot.
Surely this is the real thing–since separation from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore has made great strides in terms of governance, economic development, social progress and politics.
Living with Myths in Singapore cleared all the doubts that couldn’t be publicly proclaimed and confronted. The book unpacks the myths to reveal the reality hidden beyond the singular “history” that is perpetually propagated. It fills in the fissures of the fables that niggled because the “common sense” didn’t quite make sense—but couldn’t be questioned. The book’s use of researched, academic histories based on multiple sources, facts, and evidence counters the myths and provides previously obscured insight into the truth behind the tales.
Thum Ping Tjin (Chapter 2) and Gareth Curless (Chapter 12) break down governance in Singapore from World War II to the present, and show how the threat of communism was a bogeyman invented to maintain power and quell dissent. In the 1980s, the Law Society was also curtailed to prevent it from truly representing the people. According to Teo Soh Lung (Chapter 13), its efforts to provide independent legal aid was tarred with accusations of political interference, and laws were sped through to ensure that the society remained focused on approved and apolitical cases. Singapore’s popular political economy narrative attributes the island-state’s success to its leaders’ ability to consolidate power and pursue the “authoritarian Singapore model” of development through foreign investment. This is dissected by Seng Quo-quan (Chapter 9), who posits an alternative take on political freedom and social democracy through the eyes of James Puthucheary.
The Singapore Story, as scrutinised in the book, slides effortlessly from effective governance to economic success, and chronicles the island’s speedy ascent to First World status from the doldrums of a native fishing village and coolie slums. Philip Holden (Chapter 7) suggests an alternative narrative that is a tragedy; one that recounts unparalleled and unexpected initial success, but then struggles and falls in its pursuit of economic growth and wealth at considerable social expense. “Economics is about getting rid of poverty; it’s not about making people richer”, was a statement Holden attributed to Professor Thomas Silcock, whose students included Goh Keng Swee and Lim Kim San.
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew devoted his life to make Singapore what it is today. He wanted his country to remain a rugged and competitive society, not a static and complacent one.
As Singapore skyrocketed to unparalleled heights, the national narrative emphasised the need for self-reliance and family support before social welfare. Ho Chi Tim (Chapter 8) points out that on the contrary, other histories and scholarship detail myriad examples of social support positioned under the framework of justice and equal opportunities. At the time, these were not deemed to undermine a fair society. Yet, in spite of the reminder by Professor Silcock, as some Singaporeans become wealthier, poverty persists—albeit made invisible by popular myths. Teo You Yenn (Chapter 23) lays bare the realities of poverty in Singapore, where capitalist exploitation is compounded by assistance eligibility criteria that brands hard working low income citizens as failures, instead of victims of adverse social conditions. Temporary migrant workers are the unseen backbone of Singapore’s success. Charanpal S. Bal (Chapter 24) unpacks three popular myths surrounding these labourers, and explains how the myths have stood in the way of effective legislation and protection for the very people who literally built the island nation.
Part of the Singapore public relations package is its position as a global media hub and the centre of innovation and technology. Terence Lee (Chapter 6) traces the evolution of media in Singapore through its political history and brings to light a “media hub” that is politically well-managed yet deemed apolitical, and used as a tool for economic growth rather than for communication and discourse. Arthur Chia (Chapter 11) likens innovative projects in Singapore to a performance “in the global theatre of science and technology”, both to govern nationally and to ride international technological winds for economic benefit.
Beyond myth-making to boost its international reputation and generate economic gain, Singapore also has domestic myths which help to control and manage its citizens. The book assembles these myths in sections that portray a vulnerable and deficient people who need top-down intervention to protect them from themselves. Lee Kah-Wee (Chapter 10) explores the issue of the casino and exposes the economic truth behind both the claims of morality and the “new business model” of the Integrated Resorts.
Issues of race, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism and culture wars make up another mythological hotspot that requires scrutiny. Laavanya Kathiravelu (Chapter 15) deconstructs the perennial threat of racially-instigated violence and the myths of racial harmony and meritocracy that hinge on colonial categorisations of “Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others” (CMIO). Lai Ah Eng (Chapter 16) reflects on the difficulties of navigating Singaporean multiculturalism through shared spaces, employment and citizenship and highlights the need for cohesion, inclusion, exchange and appreciation in order to transition from myth to reality. Elaine Lynn-Ee Ho (Chapter 18) and Liew Kai Khiun (Chapter 19) discuss the crises of affinity and loyalty of new immigrants and at the same time, the dilemma of imported values and beliefs that are deemed contrary to Singapore’s “conservative family values”. In much the same vein are chapters on public apathy and the lack of activism and critical civil society. Loh Kan Seng (Chapter 20) and Edgar Liao (Chapter 21) show that contrary to popular beliefs, civil movements are alive and well in Singapore, and that the accusation of apathy had historically been used to prevent dissent and discontent from boiling over into decisive action against those in power.
All countries use myths to nurture a national storyline for identity formation. Mark Baildon and Suhaimi Afandi (Chapter 3) question the effectiveness of the singular history taught in schools, and Christine Han (Chapter 4) provides evidence of the ineffectiveness of the existing school-based citizen education. All the writers in this edited volume appeal for a revolution in Singapore’s national narrative—one that allows for open discussion of alternative histories and evidence-based scholarship on historical events, as well as true inclusivity in policies and economic plans.
Singaporeans of the future should be able to perceive as “common sense” the possibility that there are many views, and should be able to find it natural that there is more than one narrative given the complex evolution of this island nation of immigrants. That Living with Myths in Singapore was allowed to be written, printed, and distributed is a huge step in this direction. It is also, hopefully, a positive indication of more accurate “myth-making” to come.
Serina Rahman is a Visiting Fellow in the Malaysia Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, conducting research in the fields of sustainable development, environmental anthropology and the economics of the environment. Serina co-founded Kelab Alami, an organisation formed to empower a Johor fishing community through environmental education for habitat conservation and economic participation in coastal development. She received her PhD in Science from Universiti Teknologi Mara in 2014.
“When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my revolver.” This philistine wisecrack is often attributed to Air Marshal Hermann Goering, or some other Nazi notable. Benjamin Martin sets us straight on its source: the 1933 play Schlageter by the Nazi Party member Hanns Johst, in which a character says: “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I release the catch on my Browning.”
Martin’s illuminating book The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture shows how badly astray this famous quip leads us: cultural concerns were in fact vital to the imperial projects of Hitler and Mussolini. We do not normally associate their violent and aggressive regimes with “soft power.” But the two dictators were would-be intellectuals—Adolf Hitler a failed painter inebriated with the music of Wagner, and Mussolini a onetime schoolteacher and novelist. Unlike American philistines, they thought literature and the arts were important, and wanted to weaponize them as adjuncts to military conquest. Martin’s book adds a significant dimension to our understanding of how the Nazi and Fascist empires were constructed.
German power and success gave the Nazi case particular salience. The special meaning of Kultur in Germans’ evaluation of themselves is an important part of the story. According to a famous essay by Norbert Elias, the meaning of Kultur for Germans is hardly comprehensible without reference to a particular historical development.*Kultur, he explains (along with Bildung, or education), denoted in pre-unification Germany those qualities that the intellectuals and professionals of the small, isolated German middle class claimed for themselves in response to the disdain of the minor German nobles who employed them: intellectual achievement, of course, but also simple virtues like authenticity, honesty, and sincerity.
German courtiers, by contrast, according to the possessors of Kultur, had acquired “civilization” from their French tutors: manners, social polish, the cultivation of appearances. As the German middle class asserted itself in the nineteenth century, the particular virtues of Kultur became an important ingredient in national self-definition. The inferior values of “civilization” were no longer attributed to an erstwhile French-educated German nobility, but to the French themselves and to the West in general.
By 1914, the contrast between Kultur and Zivilisation had taken on a more aggressively nationalist tone. During World War I German patriotic propaganda vaunted the superiority of Germany’s supposedly rooted, organic, spiritual Kultur over the allegedly effete, shallow, cosmopolitan, materialist, Jewish-influenced “civilization” of Western Europe. Martin’s book shows how vigorously the Nazis applied this traditional construct. Hitler invested considerable money and time in the 1930s, and even after World War II began, in an effort to take over Europe’s cultural organizations and turn them into instruments of German power. These projects had some initial success. In the end, however, they collapsed along with the military power they were designed to reinforce.
In a parallel and even less enduring effort, Mussolini’s Fascist regime tried to establish the primacy of Italian culture under the umbrella of Hitler’s conquests. Mussolini’s cultural executives, such as his Minister for Press and Propaganda Dino Alfieri, asserted that the Mediterranean and classical tradition of Italy was the proper foundation of a European “cultural Axis.” Having thrown in their lot definitively with Hitler, the Italians could hope to be the contemporary Greece to Germany’s new Rome, but the Nazi leaders never entertained the slightest doubt that German Kultur was the foundation stone of the “new cultural order” for Europe.
An extensive network of international cultural organizations already existed before Hitler came to power. They had been greatly expanded after 1919 in the orbit of the League of Nations. Hitler saw them cynically as instruments of French cultural influence and as a reinforcement of Allied hegemony. Just as he planned to overthrow the political system set up by the victorious Allies after World War I, he was determined to overthrow the democratic cultural network. He intended to replace it with his own organizations headquartered in Berlin and dedicated to spreading throughout Europe the Nazi conception of the unique racial character of each national culture.
The word “international” acquired a special meaning in its usage by Nazi and Fascist cultural officials. The Allies’ international cultural associations had rested on a set of liberal democratic assumptions: that works of art and literature should be evaluated by universal standards of quality; that masterpieces were the product of individual creativity; and that no national culture deserved hegemony over another. The Nazi and Fascist dictators reversed all of these assumptions. They measured the merit of works of art and literature by their significance within unique national cultural traditions. Masterpieces, in their view, grew out of community roots. And national cultural traditions were ranked in a natural hierarchy, with the German and Italian ones at the top.
Hitler concerned himself with cultural matters as soon as he became chancellor of Germany in January 1933. He purged the German section of PEN International of “leftist” and Jewish writers. When PEN International protested, Hitler dissolved the German section altogether at the end of 1933. During this dispute the president of the Italian PEN club, the provocateur Futurist intellectual Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, supported the German position. Thus from the earliest days, Nazi cultural projects proved capable of enlisting foreign support.
Hitler made his ambitions for German culture clear from the beginning. At a Nazi Party Congress on Culture in September 1933 he promised that the Nazi state would intervene more actively in cultural matters than the Weimar Republic had done, in order to make art an expression of the “hereditary racial bloodstock” and to transform artists into defenders of the German Volk.
Hitler left the daily tasks of his bid to reorganize European culture under German dominance to his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels—another would-be intellectual and a failed novelist—threw his frenetic energy, his ideological passions, and a generous budget into spreading abroad the Nazis’ racialist and nationalist approach to the arts.
Disaster strikes when men do nothing about tyranny and abuses of power
Cinema was the Nazi leaders’ first cultural target. Goebbels and Hitler were as obsessed with movies as American adolescents are today with social media. Convinced that cinema was their era’s main engine of cultural influence, they tried to control filmmaking as far as their influence could reach. At the Venice Film Festival in 1935, at Goebbels’s instigation, delegates of twelve nations agreed to create an International Film Chamber (IFC) designed to establish a continent-wide system of film exchange and regulation. As the possessor of the continent’s largest and most powerful film industry, Germany became the dominant force in the IFC. Fascist Italy, however, assured for itself a strong second position by exploiting its considerable film-producing assets, such as the technologically advanced studios of Cinecittà and the Venice Film Festival, which continued to be the main venue of IFC activities.
The IFC was a genuinely European organization, and even had a French president in 1937. Its inspiration had been German, however, and its organizational form was less international than something Martin usefully calls “inter-national,” a federation of national arts organizations on the model of the Reich Film Chamber, which Goebbels had formed in July 1933 on corporatist principles. Corporatist doctrine required that capital, management, and labor abandon their separate advocacy groups and sit down together to find their common interests, alongside state representatives. Corporatism smothered internal conflict in film production and gave determining influence to the state rather than to the market.
Each IFC member nation was expected to have a national film organization similar to the Reich Film Chamber. Within Germany the Reich Film Chamber became the instrument through which the Nazi regime controlled an increasingly concentrated German film industry purged of Jews. In 1942, the largest production companies, such as UFA and Tobis, were merged into one state-controlled entity.
Benjamin Martin shows most interestingly that the Nazi and Fascist “inter-national” organizations had authentic appeal to some European intellectuals and arts executives who were not themselves Nazis or Fascists. These organizations promised material as well as intellectual advantages. The IFC provided access to a market of continental dimensions, a feature particularly attractive to European filmmakers who all suffered from the limited size of their national audiences. It also simplified thorny problems of cross-boundary payments and differing copyright laws.
The main role of the IFC was to combat the Hollywood menace. The dominance of American films had troubled European filmmakers and intellectuals from the beginning. By 1928 54 percent of all films shown in France, 72 percent in Britain, and 80 percent in Italy came from Hollywood. Already in the 1920s most European countries had imposed quotas on American films or limited them by reciprocity agreements. The respite given to European films by the arrival of “talkies” in 1929 had been brief, as expert dubbing soon allowed Hollywood films to predominate again. Many Europeans endorsed the IFC position that American films were trivial entertainment designed to make money, while European films were artistic creations that deserved protection. Although the British and Dutch refused to join, IFC membership extended by 1935 “from Belgium to Hungary [and] revealed a Europe,” according to Martin, “ready to accept German leadership.”
German military conquests early in World War II enabled the Nazis to tighten even further their control of European cinema. In August 1940 they banned American films altogether in the territories they occupied. A similar ban within Germany itself followed in 1941. The Fascist regime had already reduced the number of Hollywood films shown in Italy by the “Alfieri law” of 1938 that created a state monopoly with sole authority to buy and show foreign films (Hollywood’s four biggest studios withdrew from the Italian market in response). The unintended result of such protectionism was to give Hollywood films the allure of forbidden fruit and to prepare their triumphant return to Europe in 1945. In Jean-Pierre Melville’s Resistance film Army of Shadows, two underground leaders are smuggled out of France to consult personally with Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle. The first thing they want to do in London, after eating a filling meal, is to go see Gone with the Wind.
Beyond cinema, the Nazis meant to reorganize the whole range of German cultural activities along corporatist lines. The Reich Chamber of Culture contained subgroups for music, literature, theater, press, radio, and so on. The Nazis soon tried to extend the reach of these cultural corporations to the entire European continent, according to their geopolitical vision of a world divided into blocs, or “great spaces,” continent-scaled, self-sufficient economic systems aligned with the appropriate cultural associations protected by authoritarian states. Their European “New Order” was meant to be cultural as well as economic and political.
Music was a realm that Germans felt particularly qualified to dominate. But first the German national musical scene had to be properly organized. In November 1933 Goebbels offered Richard Strauss the leadership of a Reich Music Chamber. In June 1934 Strauss invited composers from thirteen countries to the annual meeting of the German Music Association in Wiesbaden. The delegates created a Permanent Council for International Cooperation among Composers.
The Permanent Council grew by exploiting an aesthetic rift in European musical culture. Since the early twentieth century a generation of gifted innovators had created new musical languages, such as Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. Organized in the influential International Society for Contemporary Music, the avant-garde had come to have a powerful influence on the European musical scene. Traditional composers resented the modernists’ celebrity, and the Nazis (Mussolini remained more open to modernism) attracted conservative support by attacking the avant-garde as internationalist, rootless, and Jewish. In a famous speech in December 1934 Goebbels derided “an atonal noise maker,” by whom he was generally assumed to mean the composer Paul Hindemith (who was not Jewish). Goebbels organized in Düsseldorf in 1938 a presentation of “degenerate music” following the better-known 1937 exhibition of “degenerate art.”
Most of the composers who were affiliated with the Permanent Council, advocates generally of a national, rural, or folklorist approach to musical composition, are forgotten today. The council did draw some prestigious composers who were not really Nazi or Fascist, like Jean Sibelius and Albert Roussel. The presence of Richard Strauss, a onetime moderate modernist who resented the decline of his fame, gave legitimacy to the IFC. He continued to preside over it even after he had been removed from the Reich Music Chamber in 1935 in a dispute over his continued association with Stefan Zweig, who had written the libretto for his opera Die schweigsame Frau.
The Permanent Council’s attention to composers’ material problems was an additional attraction. These included inconsistencies among different national copyright codes, problems of international royalties payments, and droit moral—the right claimed by authors and composers to assure that their work was not presented in a deformed way or with offensive associations. Thus the Permanent Council was able to fill a busy schedule of concerts in various European capitals through the late 1930s.
The Nazi organization of European literature came later, but by similar tactics: a federation of national corporative bodies. German authors already gathered annually in Weimar. In connection with the 1941 Weimar authors’ meeting, Goebbels invited fifty foreign writers to visit the city of Goethe and Schiller at the expense of his Propaganda Ministry (an indulgence that caused many of them trouble after the war). The following October authors from fifteen European countries met at Weimar to found a European Writers’ Union.
As with music, the Nazis were able to attract writers outside the immediate orbit of the Nazi and Fascist parties by endorsing conservative literary styles against modernism, by mitigating copyright and royalty problems, and by offering sybaritic visits to Germany and public attention. Some significant figures joined, such as the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize in literature, but most were minor writers who employed themes of nationalism, folk traditions, or the resonance of landscape. Martin unravels these multinational connections with clarity and precision, aided by research and reading in at least five European languages.
Painting and sculpture, curiously, do not figure in this account of the cultural fields that the Nazis and Fascists tried to reorganize “inter-nationally,” perhaps because they had not previously been organized on liberal democratic lines. Within Germany, of course, modernists could not show or sell their work, but this was not the case in occupied Paris, where Picasso and Kandinsky painted quietly in private and Jean Bazaine organized an exhibition with fellow modernists in 1941. Nazi cultural officials thought “degenerate” art appropriate for France.
Hitler made effective use of some German intellectuals’ resentment at being shut out of international cultural institutions after 1919. Martin seems to accept this sense of victimhood as legitimate, but it is difficult to square with the prestige of German cinema, music, and science in the 1920s.
Science would have made an interesting case study, a contrary one. Germany dominated the world of science before 1933. Germans won fifteen Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine between 1918 and 1933, more than any other nation. Far from capitalizing on this major soft power asset, Hitler destroyed it by imposing ideological conformity and expelling Jewish scientists such as the talented nuclear physicist Lise Meitner. The soft power of science is fragile, as Americans may yet find out.
Without specifically setting out to do so, Martin casts interesting light on soft power and the conditions for its success. Nazis and Fascists turned out to be poor at it. Inherent contradictions undermined their attempts at cultural dominance. Dictatorial methods clashed with literary and artistic independence. Nazis had burned books, and both Germany and Italy had excluded prominent writers and artists. Their evident desire to put their own cultures first undermined their lip service to “inter-national” cooperation.
Within the “cultural Axis,” the relationship between Germany and Italy was strained. Martin was right to include the Italian case, even if Mussolini’s parallel bid for cultural power, like his parallel war, accomplished little. Hitler always accepted that Mussolini was his forerunner—the Duce’s bust stood on his desk—and while always ready to try to upstage him never let him drop. And so his “inter-national” organizations often attributed a strong second role to the Italians. But the Italians worked from within to subvert German claims to primacy.
A major obstacle to the success of Axis “inter-national” cultural organizations—especially with the Nazis—was their ideological narrowness. While an alignment with militant antimodernism attracted conservative writers and artists, these generated little excitement compared to the modernists. Hitler’s efforts to stem the mass appeal of Hollywood films and jazz only made them (as Martin suggests) more seductive and, in a final irony, prepared for the triumph of American music, jeans, and film in the postwar world by trying to make them taboo.
Soft power seems to have thrived best without direct military occupation. The global influence of French language, manners, and ideas began in the seventeenth century, and depended little on the conquests of Louis XIV and Napoleon. The ascendancy of the English language began with the commercial and financial power of the City of London in the nineteenth century, and owed little to conquest or colonial occupation, though those helped. The soft power of the United States, the most successful yet, spread far beyond direct American military presence. It prospered by appealing to mass popular tastes in music, dress, and entertainment, while the “cultural axis” aimed at conventional forms of high culture. The United States government did not ignore high culture—consider the activities of the United States Information Agency and the Congress for Cultural Freedom after World War II. But American soft power thrived mostly through the profit motive and by offering popular entertainment to the young.
Far from reaching for a revolver to deal with “culture,” Hitler (with Mussolini struggling behind) tried with at least some initial success to use international cultural organizations to enhance his military power. This story has been approached mostly, if at all, in individual national terms, but Martin has brought the whole Axis cultural project admirably into focus.
Norbert Elias, “Sociogenesis of the Antithesis Between Kultur and Zivilisation in German Usage,” in The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, revised edition (Blackwell, 2000). ↩
In contemporary debates that involve history and historical symbols like the controversies over the removal of Confederate statues from public parks or the place of Andrew Jackson and Alexander Hamilton on United States currency, it may seem impossible to find middle ground. But a generation ago in the 1990s the search for common ground in the history wars was undertaken by the leading liberal historian of his era, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in “The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society,” published in 1991 and in a revised edition in 1998. From 1949, when he published “The Vital Center,” Schlesinger, one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action and a confidant of the Kennedys, sought to defend his conception of centrist liberalism against the radical left as well as the right.
The title of “The Disuniting of America” might mislead contemporary readers into assuming that the book is about social polarization in general, which is the subject of more recent publications like Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart.” Instead, Schlesinger’s polemic is an intervention in the “canon wars” of the 1980s and 1990s, when curriculums in history and literature courses became the source of passionate national debate. One defining event in that discussion was the publication in 1987 of “The Closing of the American Mind” by the philosopher Allan Bloom. Another occurred with the Jan. 18, 1995, vote by the United States Senate (99 to 1) condemning proposed “national history standards” promulgated by the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California, Los Angeles, for not showing “a decent respect for United States history’s roots in Western civilization,” in the words of the Senate resolution.
Amid what was becoming a debate among left-leaning academics and populist tribunes like Rush Limbaugh and Lynne Cheney, Schlesinger sought to define a liberal alternative to what he described as militant multiculturalism on the left and bigoted monoculturalism on the right: “The monoculturalists are hyperpatriots, fundamentalists, evangelicals, laissez-faire doctrinaires, homophobes, anti-abortionists, pro-assault-gun people.” Of the two groups, Schlesinger considered the monoculturalists a greater threat: “Left-wing political correctness is an irritation and a nuisance. It becomes a threat to the young only when it invades the public schools.” In contrast: “Right-wing political correctness catches kids before they are old enough to take care of themselves and in environments where they are rarely exposed to clashes of opinion. It is a weapon with which small-town bigots, conducting pogroms against Darwin, Marx, J.D. Salinger, Judy Blume and other villains, seize control of school committees and library boards.”
According to Schlesinger, “Monoculturalists abuse history as flagrantly as multiculturalists. They sanitize the past and install their own set of patriotic heroes and myths.” In a chapter titled “History the Weapon,” Schlesinger acknowledges what he sees as the valid complaints of multiculturalists: “American history was long written in the interests of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males. My father, growing up in the 1890s in Xenia, a small Ohio town containing large contingents of Germans, Irish and blacks, one day asked his father, who had come from Germany as a child and whose hero was Carl Schurz, the American general, politician and reformer, why the schoolbooks portrayed England as the one and only mother country. My grandfather’s wry comment was that apparently the only Germans worth mentioning were ‘the Hessians who had fought on the wrong side in the War for Independence.’ Irish and blacks fared even less well in schoolbooks, and the only good Indians were dead Indians. Non-WASPs were the invisible men (and women) in the American past.”
Historian and Author Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. with President John F. Kennedy
Schlesinger notes one predictable response by minorities to their exclusion from mainstream historical texts and commemorations: “The ethnic enclaves thus developed a compensatory literature.” To illustrate this, he quotes from the Irish-American scholar John V. Kelleher about articles claiming “that the Continental Army was 76 percent Irish, or that many of George Washington’s closest friends were nuns or priests.” However badly the “white ethnics” suffered from Anglo-Saxon Protestant condescension, Schlesinger notes, blacks, Latinos and Native Americans suffered far worse: “The situation is radically different for nonwhite minorities facing not snobbism but racism.”
But Schlesinger maintains that what he calls “compensatory history” is bad history, whether it takes the form of Afrocentrism, or the claim that other regions have falsely taken credit for inventions that originated in Africa, or what he, following Kelleher, calls “the there’s-always-an-Irishman-at-the-bottom-of-it-doing-the-real-work approach to American history.” These views ceased to be harmless folly when their holders enlisted the support of federal, state or local governments to impose them as official versions of history, Schlesinger argues: “ ‘Who controls the past controls the future,’ runs the Party slogan in George Orwell’s ‘1984’; ‘who controls the present controls the past.’ ”
At worst, Schlesinger writes, the sanctioning of state ethnonational ideologues could Balkanize American society further. He denounces the federal 1974 Ethnic Heritage Studies Program Act because it “ignored those millions of Americans — surely a majority — who refused identification with any particular ethnic group.” Schlesinger may have seen himself in the latter group. His paternal ancestors included Prussian Jews and Austrian Catholics, while his mother was a descendant of the Mayflower colonists and supposedly related to the 19th-century American historian George Bancroft.
“I don’t want to sound too apocalyptic about these developments,” Schlesinger writes. Indeed, unlike many of his contemporaries who criticized multiculturalism, he did not see Latino immigration as either a linguistic or a social challenge to American national unity. Schlesinger noted: “As for Hispanic-Americans, first-generation Hispanics born in the United States speak English fluently, according to a Rand Corporation study; more than half of second-generation Hispanics give up Spanish altogether.” Subsequent social science studies by Stephen Trejo, Richard Alba and others have confirmed that marriage outside of the group and erosion of ethnic identity tends to increase with each generation of Latinos, as it did in the case of European immigrant diasporas in the United States in the past.
Like other memorable tracts for the times, “The Disuniting of America” blends passages of enduring relevance with much that has become obsolete. Today, what is most striking about this book and other entries in the late-20th-century battle of the books is the assumption shared by all sides in the canon wars that the fate of the nation might depend on the content of the curriculum, as determined by academic experts.
Since Schlesinger wrote, there has been a collapse in the authority of establishments of all kinds, not just academics. In the age of Twitter and Facebook and 24-hour cable news, public intellectuals like Schlesinger, based in the academy or in journalism, have lost influence over public opinion to movie stars, cable commentators, pop musicians and late-night comedians.
Perhaps the greatest change has involved the declining status of liberal arts education and the historical studies at its core. In response to decades of slower-than-expected growth and heightened foreign competition, students deserted the humanities for more practical degrees like business. Meanwhile, in the 2000s and 2010s the bipartisan elite shared a new consensus that national success depended not on widespread liberal arts education but on student proficiency in science, technology, engineering and math. The debate over federal “no child left behind” standards that aimed to increase the number of Americans who go into engineering or science eclipsed the debates over the content of the American historical pantheon. The only academics who seem to find audiences among today’s elite are economists and social scientists who claim to know how to boost gross domestic product or manipulate human behavior.
Today the canon wars have given way to the icon wars. Although the focus of controversy has shifted from the contents of undergraduate education to the historical figures commemorated by statues and currency, debates over America’s past continue to mirror debates over America’s present and future. To the challenges of teaching history in a way that is at once accurate and inclusive, Schlesinger remains an insightful guide.
In May of 2016, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act allowing victims of bombings or other terrorist acts to sue the governments of countries where the terrorists had originated. It was subsequently passed unanimously by the Senate. Both houses then overwhelmingly overrode a veto by then-President Barack Obama.
The act was aimed at Saudi Arabia, the home of 15 of the 19 hijackers recruited by Osama bin Laden who on September 11, 2001 brought down the World Trade Towers in New York and ushered in an era of vulnerability to terrorism that has continued to this day. Using the act, known universally as JASTA, 1500 injured survivors and 850 family members of 9/11 victims filed a class action lawsuit against Saudi Arabia, alleging the government had prior knowledge of the attack and that some of its officials and employees were al Qaeda operatives or sympathizers.
Obama suffered the first and only veto override of his presidency out of a very real fear that allowing such lawsuits against not just Saudi Arabia but other countries could trigger escalating confrontations that would lead to a nuclear conflagration. Prior to passage of the act, such suits were possible only if the US Department of State designated such a state as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Now, virtually any citizen can initiate such a suit. And, as Obama feared, it could trigger retaliation in which the citizens of, say, Yemen or Afghanistan or Pakistan or any of several other countries could sue the United States government for the deaths of their relatives in the myriad drone strikes the US has delivered that have killed large numbers of citizens by accident.
The result could be a tit-for-tab worsening of relations with any number of countries as any of their citizens become plaintiffs to take on such demands for reparations. This whole situation is deeply troubling to Kamil Idris, the ex-director general of two United Nations agencies and now a member of several other organizations including the United Nations International Law Commission.
Idris is hardly alone. A long list of legal scholars have questioned the wisdom, even the sanity of the act. But Idris raises deeper concerns, saying that, given the fanatical motivation of terrorists who have anyway complete contempt for international law or boundaries, the act is unlikely to discourage any terrorism, or play a role in efforts by other countries to contain terrorism within their bothers.
“My chief concern, however,” he writes, “is that JASTA will seriously affect the carefully established and sometimes precarious goodwill and understanding between the US and other nations by attempting to undermine their legitimate sovereignty.”
President Obama was a chief executive whose caution in his dealings with other nations was praised by his supporters and decried by his opponents. The President of the United States is now Donald J Trump, a loose cannon who, although Idris never says it, shows no qualms whatsoever – or takes any advice – in firing off condemnations of other countries. JASTA in his hands is a potent and frightening weapon.
JASTA, Idris argues, is a violation of the sovereignty of foreign states, has no standing in international law, violates the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act passed in 1976, which holds that individuals do not have standing to sue in such cases and protects a foreign state from being liable for damages.
“JASTA is likely to lead to other countries adopting similar acts which would lead to the US itself facing lawsuits from all over the world,” Idris writes. “This is why President Obama himself was so critical of JASTA during the last few months of his administration.”
Obama’s fear of reciprocal claims, Idris says, is no joke. Indeed, According to several different sources, even as long ago as 2011, hundreds of civilians have died in drone strikes. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found at least 15 percent of the total killed by drone strikes were either known civilians or unknown. At least 160 children have been killed in Pakistan. The New American Foundation estimated that the non-militant fatality rate was 20 percent between 2004 and 2011. “Collateral damage,” the euphemism for such killings, has taken the lives of hundreds in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan, according to former President Jimmy Carter.
So far, Saudi Arabia is the only country to come under a lawsuit inspired by JASTA. But, Idris writes, if it is fully implemented, “I am arguing that there could be a consequent retreat into a hardening form of nationalism as a protective measure.” Certainly in the United States, the retreat into nationalism has been marked under President Trump, leading US Sen. John McCain, in a dramatic speech on Oct. 16, to refer obliquely to the administration as retreating into “some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems (which) is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”
Idris’s reasons for raising questions over rising nuclear tensions, he said “is because I believe we are now close to mirroring conditions that eventually led up to the First World War. It is imperative that we learn and apply the lessons of history and we ignore the facts at our peril.”
In sum, Idris has written a disturbing and important book. It is an irritating one – he has a habit of citing dozens of cases only by title with no explanation of what the cases are about. The index is little more than a list of single names, with no indication of what the cites deal with. But within the pages of this book he lists a long litany of specific cases in countries that could trigger JASTA.
‘It is a sobering thought that any of these areas of conflict could quickly ignite and set off a chain reaction in the wider world. Once again it is aggressive nationalism that is the main contributing factor to the tensions and if JASTA becomes a reality, then the problem will only intensify.” A deeply respected jurist, Idris has delivered a clear-headed warning that a tense world – and the President in Washington – needs to heed.
Three exciting books on Religion by a Philosopher, a Man of Science and a Theologian
Contemporary debate about religion seems to be going nowhere. Atheists persist with their arguments, many plausible and some unanswerable, but these make no impact on religious believers. Defenders of religion find atheists equally unwilling to cede ground. The Meaning of Belief offers a way out of this stalemate.
An atheist himself, Tim Crane writes that there is a fundamental flaw with most atheists’ basic approach: religion is not what they think it is. Atheists tend to treat religion as a kind of primitive cosmology, as the sort of explanation of the universe that science offers. They conclude that religious believers are irrational, superstitious, and bigoted. But this view of religion is almost entirely inaccurate. Crane offers an alternative account based on two ideas. The first is the idea of a religious impulse: the sense people have of something transcending the world of ordinary experience, even if it cannot be explicitly articulated. The second is the idea of identification: the fact that religion involves belonging to a specific social group and participating in practices that reinforce the bonds of belonging. Once these ideas are properly understood, the inadequacy of atheists’ conventional conception of religion emerges.
The Meaning of Belief does not assess the truth or falsehood of religion. Rather, it looks at the meaning of religious belief and offers a way of understanding it that both makes sense of current debate and also suggests what more intellectually responsible and practically effective attitudes atheists might take to the phenomenon of religion.
Religion: What It is, How It works, and Why It Matters (Princeton University)–Richard Dawkins
John F. Haught: The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe (Yale University)
John Haught is a distinguished theologian who has spent his long career thinking through connections between our outer world revealed by science and the inner experiential world of religion, and has a seasoned grasp of the literature in both realms. Not just a philosophical argument, beautifully precise prose guides the reader through the veil separating the physical-and-objective from the subjective-and-spiritual. He points out that only recently have we determined that the cosmos is not “fixed” but rather is a still evolving (awakening) narrative in which the evolutionary emergence of life and mind are major milestones. He draws attention to the unseen explosion in recent millennia of subjectively experienced, interior life, of which religion is the major expression (as well as literature, media, etc.)
Theologian John F. Haught
The main theme of the book is to redirect our seeking from the past into the future: we are submerged within an unfolding cosmic drama in which the unifying principles of meaning, goodness, beauty, and truth, what Haught summarizes as rightness, all lie in the “horizon” up ahead of us. Haught’s is a spiral argument in which the general project is plainly manifest from the very beginning, and then, as you proceed through each chapter, your understanding effortlessly deepens; old concepts come alive, as faith is welded to patience and prayer to anticipation.