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January 17, 2010

Paul Johnson's Defense of Winston Churchill



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British historian Paul Johnson. Source of caricature: online version of the WSJ conversation quoted and cited below.




(p. D6) Now, at 81 and after years of producing enormous, compulsively readable history books, Mr. Johnson has just written what, at 192 pages, is probably the shortest biography of Winston Churchill ever published.


. . .


He gives credit to his success as a historian to his simultaneous and successful career in journalism. "You learn all sorts of tools as a journalist that come in extremely useful when you're writing history," he tells me as we sit in the drawing room of the West London house he shares with his wife, Marigold, "and one is the ability to condense quite complicated events into a few short sentences without being either inaccurate or boring. And of course a lot of the best historians were also journalists."


. . .


The book includes refutations of many of the negative myths that have grown up around Churchill. For instance, that he was drunk for much of World War II. "He appeared to drink much more than he did," Mr. Johnson insists. "He used to sip his drinks very, very slowly, and he always watered his whisky and brandy."

Mr. Johnson certainly does not agree with the often-echoed criticism made by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that Churchill had every gift except judgment: "He made occasional errors of judgment because he made so many judgments--some of them were bound to be wrong! . . . On the whole, his judgment was proved to be right. He was right before the First World War in backing a more decent civilized society when he and Lloyd George created the elements of old-age pensions and things like that. He was right about the need to face up to Hitler and he was right about the Cold War that the Russians had to be resisted and we had to rearm."

He is convinced that "Churchill was more than half American . . . all of his real qualities generally come from his mother's side." And despite Mr. Johnson's own Oxford education (he was there with Margaret Thatcher), he believes that Churchill benefited from never having gone to college: "He never learned any of the bad intellectual habits you can pick up at university, and it explains the extraordinary freshness with which he came to all sorts of things, especially English literature."




For the full conversation, see:

JONATHAN FOREMAN. "A Cultural Conversation with Paul Johnson; Winston Churchill, Distilled." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., DECEMBER 10, 2009): D6.

(Note: the online version of the interview is dated DECEMBER 11, 2009.)

(Note: ellipses within paragraphs were in the original; ellipses between paragraphs were added.)



The reference to Johnson's biography of Churchill, is:

Johnson, Paul M. Churchill. New York: Viking Adult, 2009.





September 4, 2009

"Churchillian Steadfastness" Versus "Sullen Paralysis and Futile Efforts"



(p. A15) . . . beyond amelioration and providing the judicial (or in the case of the FDIC, quasi-judicial) procedures for reorganization, there is little more that the government can do to accelerate the unwinding and renewal necessary to put the economy back on an even keel.

The process involves a sequence of negotiations and experiments that cannot be truncated by throwing in more resources. As Frederick Brooks wrote in his celebrated book on software development, "The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering": "When a task cannot be partitioned because of sequential constraints, the application of more effort has no effect on the schedule. The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned." "Brooks's Law" suggests that increasing the size of software teams may delay development.

The wide variety of problems and circumstances in an economic downturn precludes the effective use of a single solution. And the federal government doesn't have the capacity to determine adjustments on a case-by-case basis. The late Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek taught that the "man on the spot" with the appropriate local knowledge was much more capable of making good investment decisions than a central planner.


. . .


Suppose that, when the financial crisis broke two years ago, our leaders had shown a Churchillian steadfastness and allowed the normal realignment to play out under a predictable judicial and regulatory regime. The prices of stocks, bank debt and houses would still have crumbled and unemployment risen. Although recovery wouldn't have been immediate, we'd at least have progress, instead of a sullen paralysis and futile efforts to turn the clock back.

More loans would have been renegotiated and foreclosed properties auctioned off. The FDIC would already be engaged in finding a good home for the loans and deposits of a megabank or two. That agency, now operating with about one-third the staff it had in the 1980s, could also have used some of the bailout money that helped pay for bonuses at AIG and its counterparties to recruit, train and retain more employees.

Best of all, more entrepreneurs and innovators, who capitalize on the opportunities to be found in the midst of turmoil, could have been building the foundations of a prosperous future.



For the full commentary, see:

Amar Bhidé. "You Can't Rush a Recovery; While small business struggles, Goldman Sachs was protected from its AIG mistakes." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., APRIL 9, 2009): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





October 6, 2008

The Fragility of Freedom


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Source of book image on the left:                    
http://images.barnesandnoble.com/images/25780000/25788683.jpg

Source of book image on the right: http://www.churchillsociety.org/Churchill%20Book%20Discussion%20Group.htm

Several recent books support a common conclusion that freedom is fragile, and its preservation can sometimes depend on the courage of a few individuals. I recently heard discussions on C-SPAN of a couple of books (images above) on WW2 that emphasize this point. Hitler might very well have succeeded in the long-term conquest of continental Europe, and even Great Britain, if Churchill and a few others had not taken a stand.

Earlier, also on C-SPAN, I heard John Ferling make a similar point with regard to the American Revolution. (See the images of his two relevant books below.) Were it not for the actions of George Washington, and a few others, the revolution very well might have failed.

One can view this as a bad news, good news, story. In earlier entries on the blog, I have quoted articles suggesting that the French are especially bothered by how "precarious" life can be. Well, the bad news is, that on this, the French may be right.

But, on the other hand, the stories of Churchill, and Washington, also tell us that with some courage and determination and wisdom, individuals can sometimes make a big difference in how stories end. That is the good news.

(And yes, Nassim, luck matters too.)


Books referred to:

Ferling, John. Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2007.

Ferling, John. A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2003.

Lukacs, John R. Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Dire Warning: Churchill's First Speech as Prime Minister. New York: Basic Books, 2008.

Olson, Lynne. Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

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Source of book image on the left:                     http://images.barnesandnoble.com/images/7790000/7793679.jpg
Source of book image on the right: http://images.barnesandnoble.com/images/13420000/13429252.jpg





July 31, 2005

Enterprise and Government in Harry Potter

A long time ago (30 or 35 years) I attended some sessions on film and ideology at a week summer conference sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. At one session they screened Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and then the faculty panelists, with help from the audience, proceeded to thoroughly trash Capra for left-wing, anti-capitalist, populist bias. I sat and frowned and fumed, but the session ended without me having the courage to defend Capra. What I wish I had said was that Capra may have been a left-leaning populist; his economics may have been all wrong; but if that's all you say, you miss the main point. The main point of Capra is loyalty, and persistence, and courage and good-humor. One can reject Capra's implied economics and still love his movies.

Well on the night of Friday, July 15, 2005, with my wife and daughter, I hung out at the local Border's book store with a huge crowd of other fans, waiting until the stroke of midnight to be allowed to purchase Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Similar scenes played out all over the country, and in other countries as well. Apparently the book, like its predecessor, is setting all kinds of sales records.

And analyses have begun to appear about Harry Potter's economics and politics. (The July 15, 2005 Wall Street Journal ran a piece suggesting that Dumbledore is Winston Churchill and Voldemort is Adolph Hitler.) They too miss the main point.

The main point is that the leading heroes of the Potter books display loyalty, and persistence, and courage, and good-humor. And the characters are constructed as real people who we come to care about. And the books are well-written. And plot matters too--you need to find out what's going to happen next.

Still, if you want to play the socio-political-economic interpretation game with the Potter books, I suggest the following facts might be relevant. Two of the minor heroes of the books, Fred and George Weasley, are successful entrepreneurs. The heads of the governmental Ministry of Magic are at best ineffectual, dishonest, pompous buffoons. And the seed money for Fred and George's successful enterprise is provided by that most famous of venture capitalists: Harry Potter.


[Details on WSJ article: Jonathan V. Last. "History According to Harry: Appeasement Fails with Warlocks Too." Wall Street Journal (Friday, July 15, 2005)]




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