Archive for the 'Asides' Category
This morning’s Observer column.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something,” wrote Upton Sinclair, the great American muckraking journalist, “when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” That was in 1935, so let us update it for our times: “It is impossible to get an executive of an internet company to understand anything if the value of his (or her) stock options depends on not understanding it.”
There are two things in particular that the various infant prodigies, charlatans, megalomaniacs, sociopaths and venture capitalists who run our great internet companies have a vested interest in not understanding…
In 1984, you could have bought a single share in Warren Buffett’s investment company, Berkshire Hathaway, for $1,300. Yesterday, you could have sold that share for $200,000. Sadly, in 1984 I didn’t have $1,300 to spare. And I’d never heard of Berkshire Hathaway.
This extraordinary snapshot showing German infantry advancing through crops in a Belgian field captures something of the shock of warfare that — for most people — came more or less out of the blue. I came on it (of course) while I was looking for something else. That’s the Web for you.
Nice cartoon in the New Yorker. Wife is mopping up pools of water created by her husband, who is (incompetently) washing up: “Do you really know what you’re doing” she asks, “or do you Google-search know?”
I’ve just finished Christopher Clark’s remarkable book about the origins of the First World War. It’s very well-written but it’s not an easy read because Clark’s mill grinds exceedingly fine and he has an astonishing capacity for archival research across a range of languages. So the reader winds up knowing far more than he bargained for about the detailed intricacies of foreign policy and what passed for strategic thinking in a whole range of European governments.
Given that, the sales of the book are nothing short of extraordinary. The Economist claims that it has sold over 300,000 copies, for example. What’s even more extraordinary is that it has sold 130,000 copies in Germany.
This has puzzled some commentators, but I think I know the reason for its popularity there. It is that, whereas the conventional wisdom about responsibility for the war has generally pointed the finger at Germany, Clark’s analysis is more nuanced. One way of interpreting his analysis is that the urge to war was the emergent property of a complex, interactive system, the actors in which were confused, riven by internal contradictions, and had poor information about the intentions and deliberations of all the other players in the game.
Here’s how he puts it in his conclusion:
“The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character. Viewed in this light, the outbreak of war was a tragedy, not a crime. Acknowledging this does not mean that we should minimise the belligerence and imperialist paranoia of the Austrian and German policy-makers that rightfully absorbed the attention of Fritz Fischer and his historiographical allies. But the Germans were not the only imperialists and not the only ones to succumb to paranoia. The crisis that brought war in 1914 was the fruit of a shared political culture. But it was also multipolar and genuinely interactive – that is what makes it the most complex event of modern times and that is why the debate over the origins of the First World War continues, one century after Gavrilo Princip fired those two fatal shots on Franz Joseph Street.”
Interesting video by a journalist with more courage than sense.
Terrific polemic by Simon Jenkins.
The most sensible commemoration of any war is not to repeat it. Hence, presumably, the constant references by this week’s celebrants to “drawing lessons” and “lest we forget”. But this is mere cliche if no lessons are then drawn, or if drawn are then forgotten.
The Great War centenary should indeed have been a festival of lessons. Historians have had a field day arguing over its enduring puzzle – not its conduct or its outcome, but its cause. I have come close to changing my mind with each book I have read, veering from Chris Clark’s cobweb of treaties and tripwires to the majority view that firmly blames the Kaiser and Germany. But I have read precious few lessons.
The truth is that Britain is as bad as America at learning from old wars. The American defence secretary during Vietnam, Robert McNamara, remarked that every lesson of Vietnam was ignored by the invasion of Iraq. In the past decade Britain has waged three unprovoked wars – on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – at a vast cost in lives and destruction, and no obvious benefit to anyone. The invasion of Afghanistan ignored the lesson of all previous conflicts in the region and is duly being lost. The truth is that “drawing lessons” has become code for celebrating victory.
I doubt if any lessons will be drawn next year from the anniversaries of Agincourt (1415) or Waterloo (1815) – and certainly none from the Battle of New Orleans (1815). We will just ring bells, bake cakes and put on costumes.
I particularly like the way he winds it up:
The chief lesson of 1914 must be not recklessly to rattle sabres across the frontiers of Europe until all else is lost. The Germans have learned that. In Ukraine they are still counselling restraint. Britain is doing the opposite, as its leaders gently dust themselves in glory. When Cameron last year allotted £50m to “remembering the lessons” of 1914, he was also planning to go to war on Syria. I wonder what lesson taught him that.