Weak Russia, Reckless Germany

Valentin Serov’s painting of Alexander Nevsky’s triumphal entry into Pskov after defeating the Livonian knights

From the rate at which great errors are repeated, it doesn’t seem that people have much capacity to learn from history.  Look at Germany and Russia.  You’d think that the defeat of the Livonian knights by Alexander Nevsky in 1242 would have taught the Germans that the wisest policy at moments when Russia is weak is not to throw all caution aside and push eastward as hard as possible.  Yet that is precisely what Germany, in all its political incarnations, has done in the centuries since, every time Russia looks vulnerable.  Always before this has resulted in disaster; I don’t see any reason to doubt that the current push to annex Ukraine to the European Union will result in yet another disaster.

I realize that, since Germany is for various geopolitical reasons bound to dominate Europe, it is to be celebrated that its dominion takes the form of the EU.  Certainly the EU is in every way a vast improvement over its predecessor, the SS.  I don’t fault Europeans for accepting EU membership as the best deal Germany is ever going to give them.  And as an American, I don’t fault the USA’s leaders for realizing that our country’s economic and other interests require close relations with Germany and its satellites and maintaining an alliance with them in the form of NATO.  But I do wish that the other EU states and the USA would use their influence to restrain the Germans before their recklessness in the east again plunges us into a planetary war.

The Nation, 29 December 2008

nation-29-decIn this issue, Patricia Williams rakes up one of the celebrities made by Campaign 2008, claiming that in the gap between the actual Sam Wurtzelbacher and the imaginary Joe the Plumber lies the deadliest part of the American Dream.  Joe the Plumber is a man who labors ceaselessly, gets his hands dirty, is looked down on by the people who rule the country, and earns over $250,000 annually.  Sam the non-Plumber is a man who labors ceaselessly, gets his hands dirty, is looked down on the people who rule the country, and can barely pay his bills from month to month.  Americans work the longest hours and enjoy the fewest social protections of any industrialized population.  The “Joe the Plumber” story is the myth that keeps us from supporting reforms that would help us get rid of this system. 

An editorial urges readers to support Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond for US Secretary of Education.  Currently head of President-elect Obama’s working group on education policy, Darling-Hammond is identified with a group of educational thinkers whom The New York Times calls “professionalization advocates, ” believers in the idea that “the policy emphasis should be on raising student achievement by helping teachers improve their instruction.”  The school of thought which opposes the professionalization advocates, and which has in fact claimed a virtual monopoly on the title of “education reformers” in recent years,  are called “efficiency hawks,” who want ever more emphasis on standardized tests and centralized bureaucratic control of schools.  The editorial starts with an irresistible quote from Darling-Hammond: “If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice them alone in a closet.”

A short piece details anti-Russian bias at the Washington Post.  There’s also a review of a couple of new slang dictionaries.

The Nation, 20 Oct 2008

This issue features three items I think I might someday want to look up. 

China scholar Orville Schell writes that the Confucian and Legalist traditions of classical Chinese thought may offer guidance to coming generations of Chinese leaders.  About 16 years ago I read a translation of selected works by Han Fei, the leading light of the Legalist tradition; all my knowledge of that tradition comes from that one book.  So I was astounded by Schell’s characterization of the Legalist thought as “an amoral conception of statecraft.”  That certainly wasn’t the impression Burton Watson wanted me to have.   It’s lucky for me I never had a chance at that time to show off my one scrap of knowledge about Chinese political thought by casually describing myself as an adherent of the school of Han Fei Tzu.  Anyway, Schell’s idea that classical Chinese thought might help China find its way forward in the century to come reminds me of Wu Mi and Liang Shiqiu, Chinese students of Irving Babbitt whose work is discussed here.  Having studied under Babbitt at Harvard, they returned to China in the 1930s and there defended Babbitt’s view that a healthy society must be informed by a dialogue between the dead and the living, between the wisdom of the past as preserved in revered texts and the critical spirit of the present as cultivated by literary education.  In the upheavals of those years, not too many people seemed interested in such an urbane and polite doctrine.  Maybe Schell is onto something, though, and Wu Mi, Liang Shiqiu, and other Chinese Babbitt-ites (like the famous Lin Yutang) will be respected figures in China’s future national memory. 

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