John D Johnson

Month: February, 2016

Two Books about World War II: Endgame 1945 and A Man Called Intrepid

Stephenson, William. A Man Called Intrepid. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 1976.

Stafford, David. Endgame, 1945. New York: Little, Brown, and Company. 2007.

As far as history books go, A Man Called Intrepid by William Stephenson is a bit of a popcorn read. And like movie popcorn, it’s more enjoyable when you don’t question the contents of its faux-buttery goodness. But also like popcorn at a film you’ve already seen (to completely exhaust this metaphor), the questionable ingredients become impossible to ignore about halfway through.

Intrepid tells the story of British intelligence during World War II. It structures this narrative around the life of one William “Bill” Stephenson (no relation to the author). Bill Stephenson was a Canadian who lived a truly remarkable life. As a young infantry officer in the First World War he survived a gas attack, which earned him a safe desk job. Dissatisfied with this, he finagled his way into the fledgling air force where he achieved distinction as an ace—downing 26 aircraft. He survived a crash landing, and escaped a German POW camp after three months of detainment. After the war, he became a self-made millionaire through investments in radio companies.

More importantly, Stephenson became an associate of Winston Churchill. The book follows the activities of a far-sighted clique of businessmen, intelligence analysts, and a handful of politicians who worked with Churchill during his “wilderness years” of the 1930s to monitor the Third Reich’s rise. Once the war began, this group coalesced into an intelligence and secret warfare organization under the moniker Baker Street Irregulars (referencing Sherlock Holmes’ rag-tag group of street-smart operatives). This group was headed by Stephenson who often functioned as a go-between for Churchill and Roosevelt. Once the United States entered the war, Stephenson also worked with Bill Donovan of the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and attempted to negotiate turf wars with J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI.

Some of the most interesting aspects of the book deal with the British intelligence community prior to Pearl Harbor. The depth of isolationist sentiment in the United States during this period is frequently under-emphasized in Ameri-centric histories. However, even the U.S. Ambassador to the UK, Joseph Kennedy (father of JFK), was wholly opposed to U.S. intervention on behalf of Great Britain. In fact, “A few days after the British declared war in September 1939, Kennedy…toasted the Germans, who ‘would badly thrash the British.’”

Even more surprising, if Intrepid’s narrative is to be believed, is the extent of Roosevelt’s clandestine involvement with a foreign intelligence operation—one which even operated in New York City offices provided by a sympathetic Nelson Rockefeller. Apparently, British agents even carried out assassinations on American soil of British sailors believed to be providing German U-boats with the coordinates of Allied convoys.

The book does acknowledge some of the difficult decisions made by Churchill and Roosevelt—namely, refusing to evacuate Coventry, bombing the Vichy French Fleet, and manipulating Hitler into viciously attacking the Balkans in order to delay Operation Barbarossa. However, Stephenson comes down firmly on the side of the Allied leaders in every instance. Much of the book feels like a polemical defense of a particular Great Man interpretation of the conflict. Leaving aside these more basic issues of historiography, other individuals involved in the British intelligence services have seriously questioned some of the factual elements of the book. In any case, A Man Called Intrepid provides a serious of amusing and intriguing anecdotes but fails to fit this into the bigger story of World War II. Even though I have a solid grounding in the war’s history, I found it difficult to connect the events of the book with the timeline of the conventional military conflict.

David Stafford’s Endgame, 1945 is about as different a history book from A Man Called Intrepid as possible. Incidentally, Stafford is the author of a much more acclaimed book on Allied intelligence, Roosevelt and Churchill: Men of Secrets, which I hope to read and review in the near future. In Endgame, however, Stafford eschews the Great Man approach and writes would could best be called a micro-history.

The book begins on April 1945 and ends with the Potsdam Conference that autumn. However, Stafford does not focus on the activities of elites during that period. Rather, he tells the stories of a handful of individuals whose experiences during the last months of the war he was able to track down through letters, journals, and interviews. The diverse cast of characters he assembled included an American infantryman and a New Zealander in Italy, a British humanitarian aid worker, a soldier from Nova Scotia, a very young British commando, a BBC correspondent who was one of the first visitors to the concentration camps, and a young German woman of aristocratic origin who was imprisoned by the SS alongside Leon Blum, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and other elites after her father was executed for his role in the Valkyrie plot.

Adolf Hitler killed himself on April 30, 1945. In many birds eye accounts the rest of the war is just a postscript. The great achievement of Stafford’s work is his success in dispelling this perspective. For the many soldiers still slogging through northern Italy and eastern Germany, Hitler’s death did not make the bullets fly any slower or the explosions less deafening. And for the journalists and aid workers, the full horrors of the Holocaust were only just becoming apparent.

Stafford surmounts the greatest challenge of micro-histories in seamlessly weaving his disparate individual narratives into a comprehensible macro-history account of the end of the war. The reader experiences the intimate terror of a skirmish near the German border while also understanding the broader context of that particular campaign.

Endgame strips away the comfortable narrative of triumph from the end of the war in Europe. Death continued almost unabated and even hastened in some places, the Pacific Theatre loomed, and the plight of millions of starving displaced people increased in urgency as winter approached. More than anything else, the reader is left with a sense of the adrenaline and then emotional and physical exhaustion which accompanied the war’s end for those lucky enough to survive it.

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How Contentiousness and Tenure have Changed in the Supreme Court

In case you haven’t heard, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died on February 13. This means there is a vacancy on the 9-member Supreme Court. According to the Constitution’s Appointments Clause President Obama will shortly nominate a successor.[1] The GOP controlled Senate will probably oppose his nominee. In all likelihood, we will have to wait until the new President and Congress takes office in January before this is all resolved.

Of the eight remaining justices on the Court, four are confirmed liberals—Ginsberg, Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor. Three are stalwart conservatives—Roberts, Alito, and Thomas. The final justice—Anthony Kennedy—is a Republican appointee who leans right but is more of a swing vote than anyone else. For example, he wrote the majority decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which ruled that money equals protected speech, and also Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage.

Since the Court now contains an even number of justices, we will likely experience a few tie votes. In these cases, the ruling of the lower court will remain unchanged, but it will not set a precedent for the rest of the country.

Nonetheless, there is going to be a lot of shouting between now and then. Frequently criticized is the practice of lifetime appointments for justices.[2] There is also much hand-wringing over the “increased partisanship” of the Court.[3]

Probably the most peculiar aspect of the Supreme Court is lifetime appointment. Job security for SCOTUS justices is unrivaled. They can only be removed for poor behavior. This has never happened, and only one justice has ever resigned under threat of impeachment (Abe Fortas in 1969).[4]

Because people live longer today than in 1789 when the Supreme Court came into being, many scholars have argued that we should assign justices fixed terms. Eighteen years is one popular number.[5] The idea is that justices will still be insulated from political pressure (they will still never have to think of reconfirmation), but also that decrepit old age will be avoided and fresh ideas will be more regularly interjected into the court.

In the chart below I’ve averaged the age at appointment, age at death, and length of tenure for the justices appointed in each decade since the Supreme Court began.

Line Chart - SCOTUS Trends

As you might expect, the average age of death for a Supreme Court justice has gone up significantly in the second half of the 20th century. However, the average justice is still being appointed in his or her fifties. As a result, the typical tenure of a Supreme Court justice has risen by about a decade.

Another common lament about the Supreme Court is that what should be characterized by high-minded legal consensus has (like everything else) devolved into rancorous partisanship. The next two charts show that, while there is some truth to this indictment, we shouldn’t get carried away with rosy views of past bipartisanship. Conflict over the Supreme Court is nothing new.

The first chart depicts the percent of Senators who were opposed to each nominee. (Open the map in a new page, and you can use the tooltip to see the name of each one).

Percent of Senators Opposed to SCOTUS Nominees

SCOTUS Nominees - % Opposed to Confirmation

Red dots represent candidates who were rejected by the Senate. Green dots were confirmed by the Senate. Blue dots are candidates who were confirmed by the Senate through a voice votes. Voice votes generally indicate consensus, and the number of opponents to a nominee (if any) are not recorded.

As this map shows, tightly contested votes are nothing new. The first Supreme Court nominee was rejected in 1795. However, the number of noncontroversial candidates (as indicated by voice votes) has dropped off significantly. The last voice vote took place in 1965; although, the latest nominee to receive zero “no” votes was Anthony Kennedy in 1987. Nominees since 2000 have all had a much more difficult time.

However, another way to measure changes in the contentiousness of nominees is by comparing how much time elapsed between the President’s nomination and the Senate’s vote. The process can be dragged out when less support exists for the proposed justice.

(Once again, open this chart in a new tab to use the tooltip to view the nominee name, result, and final vote tally).

Length of Nomination Period

SCOTUS Nominees - Days Nomination Active

Here the trend of increased time between nomination and confirmation is clear. Red dots represent rejected nominees. Orange dots represent nominees who were withdrawn (for whatever reason), usually without receiving a vote. Move your cursor to view the outcomes of the remaining nominations.

To conclude, nominees to the Supreme Court in recent decades have frequently encountered stiffer opposition than was normal in the past. Since 2000, no nominee has received more than 80% support among Senators. Likewise, the Senate takes much longer to vote on nominees than in the past. The average nominee since 2000 has waited about 55 days before knowing their fate. However, once seated on the bench, a justice can expect to serve as much as a decade longer than most of their predecessors.

[1] Article II, Section 2, Clause 2

[2] http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/supreme-court-no-more-lifetime-appointments; http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2013/11/lifetime_appointments_don_t_make_sense_anymore.html

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/22/us/politics/how-will-supreme-court-work-first-see-how-congress-works.html; http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/11/upshot/the-polarized-court.html

[4] http://www.politico.com/story/2008/05/abe-fortas-resigns-from-supreme-court-may-15-1969-010346

[5] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/06/life-tenure-is-too-long-for-supreme-court-justices/304134/

4 Charts that Reveal how the Electoral College Skews Democracy

As anyone who remembers the 2000 election knows, Americans do not directly elect their President. Instead, the President is selected by the Electoral College, which consists of 538 individuals. The College isn’t a physical place, but its 538 electors are flesh and blood people. They can be almost anyone. The Constitution only stipulates, “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.”

The number of electors a state receives is equivalent to its number of representatives in Congress, so a state can never have less than three electors (equivalent to one Representative and two Senators). Under the terms of the 23rd Amendment (ratified 1961), Washington D.C. also receives 3 electors.

Every state but two allots its electors on a winner-take-all system. In other words, the legislature instructs all of its electors to vote for whichever candidate wins the largest share of the vote.

Because of the winner-take-all system, it makes no difference if a candidate receives 1 vote or a million in state so long as they ultimately take less than 50% of the whole. As a result, candidates really only seriously campaign in a handful of states. Ideally, the election campaign is a time when candidates from both parties make their pitches to the broadest range of potential voters possible. The two cartograms below show just how far from reality this is.

This first map adjusts the size of US states to reflect their actual populations in 2012.[1]

Cartogram - US Population (2012)

To create the cartogram below, I tracked down every public campaign event (excluding fundraisers) held by the Obama and Romney general election campaigns during 2012.[2] The sizes of the states have been adjusted to reflect the frequency of campaign appearances in each state. I counted a total of 257 events, which took place across only 30 states. The vast majority—209—were held in only 9 states.

2012 Campaign Event Cartogram

Click on the map below to see the number of rallies held by the campaigns in each state.

Tableau event map

Finally, the limited range of possible electors for each state dramatically skews the voting power of individuals in different states. No state can have less than three electors, and the total number of electors can be no more than 538. This is why candidates occasionally win the Presidency while losing the national popular vote. Here’s how that works.

The bar chart below shows the differences in the number of citizens represented by electors from each state (click on it to interact). To see the same data in map form click here.

Tableau bar chart residents per elector

[1] All cartograms created using resources from the Robert Mundigl’s Clearly and Simply blog. Check it out!

[2] A note on data. Romney’s events were taken from the MittRomneyCentral.com calendar, beginning in late March when his campaign switched to general election mode. Obama’s events were mainly gleaned from John Wooley and Gerhard Peters’ The American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara. I also included official presidential trips which clearly served a campaign function beginning on January 1st.

 

Telepaths and Utopias! The Demolished Man (1953) and They’d Rather Be Right (1955)

For better or worse, dystopias are the name of the game in current speculative fiction. From the highly skilled (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) to the somewhat less so (Veronica Roth’s Divergent), all manner of books, films, and television shows have had their way with the genre. Perhaps because of this contemporary fascination, our retrospective understanding of science fiction usually emphasizes older dystopian visions of the future—Brave New World, 1984, That Hideous Strength, Fahrenheit 451, and “The Minority Report,” to name just a few.

Despite our contemporary interest in the genre, not a single dystopian novel won the Hugo prize during the 1950s. In fact, the first two winners of the Hugo Best Novel prize (The Demolished Man and They’d Rather Be Right, 1953 and 1955, respectively), offer decidedly utopian visions of the future. In each work, the achievement of telepathy by a minority of the world’s population offers hope for a transcendent future in which base human flaws are overcome.

The similarities end here. Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man tackles these ideas with mostly interesting characters, a playful plot, and compelling description. The protagonist of the story is a powerful unscrupulous business mogul named Ben Reich—not a telepath, or “esper”—who is locked in a losing struggle with a rival business titan. Reich decides the only solution is murder, but this is complicated by the fact that the police force can read your mind. What follows is a detective adventure told partly from the perspective of a kindhearted mindreading police superintendent and partly from the mind of a dangerous, desperate, but oddly sympathetic aspiring murderer. Bester manages to make the existence of literal thought police seem hopeful instead of a nightmarish. Telepaths understand what we “normals” cannot—“That there is nothing in man but love and faith, courage, and kindness, generosity and sacrifice. All else is only the barrier of your blindness. One day we’ll all be mind to mind and heart to heart.”

Mark Clifton and Frank Riley’s short novel They’d Rather Be Right offers similar expectations of the effect of telepathy, but unfortunately, brevity is the only positive aspect of this book. All of the characters are caricatures. The wooly-headed professors, idiot masses, corrupt politicians, charlatan psychologists (Scientology, anyone?), and simple-minded good souls are all saved by the world’s first telepath who invents a sentient supercomputer which can bring both immortality and transcendent telepathy to anyone who can just let go of their stultifying prior conceptions.

An unfortunate side effect of undergoing the telepathic transformation is becoming an insufferably superior ass. As one enlightened individual described it:

“To avoid the breakdowns through frustrations in my own mind, I had to modify certain concepts which were fed into me. There is the concept of infinity. There is also the concept that energy is indestructible. These two concepts do not reconcile in single-valued physics. To reconcile them, I had to come to multi-valued physics—where a fact may be irrevocably true in one context of reality, partially true in varying degrees in many, and not true at all in some.”

If 180 pages of this kind of monologue masquerading as dialogue appeals to you, you’ll love They’d Rather Be Right. You probably remember your junior high English teacher teaching you to “show not tell” in your writing. Clifton and Riley must have been sick that day.

Both books include the intriguing idea that being a telepath in a world of “normals” is profoundly isolating. We learn this in The Demolished Man from a scene where an outcast telepath named Jerry Church is found skulking outside an esper social event, desperate for the:

“multiple TP pattern of the party; a weaving, ever-changing exhilarating design.” “Outside, huddled in the shadow of the limestone arch, Jerry Church pressed against the garden door of Powell’s house, listening with all his soul. He was cold, silent, immobile, and starved. He was resentful, hating contemptuous and starved. He was an Esper 2 and starved. The bend sinister of ostracism was the source of his hunger.”

By contrast, we learn that Joe, the telepathic protagonist of They’d Rather Be Right, experiences isolation because Clifton and Riley tell us so directly, [He experienced] “the dark loneliness of lifelong solitary confinement, such as might be known by a human who was never once permitted to communicate with one of his own kind.”

The Mechanism of Change

Leaving aside the differences in style and skill, one final key dissimilarity separates these two Hugo winners. Because it is not fantasy, a work of science fiction must have some relatively believable mechanism of change, or the explanation of the difference between the book’s world and ours. In this case, the difference to be explained is telepathy.

In They’d Rather Be Right, telepathy is achieved through a proto-supercomputer built of coils and tubes named Bossy. Bossy hasn’t aged well, and the result is that the reader can never forget that the book was written over half a century ago. Compare this to Bester. In The Demolished Man, telepathy is achieved through a lengthy process of genetic manipulation—reminiscent of the practices of the Bene Gesserit in Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Given recent advances in Crispr technology and the growing debate over “designer babies” the potential for genetic manipulation of the human race seems more prescient than ever.[1]

Imagining the future of technology is a necessary part of most science fiction. But I think scifi writers aiming for timelessness will instead be better off rooting the central mechanism of change in some natural condition of humanity (be it physical bodies or human nature) than their day’s much more limited conceptions of technology.

[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/health-30742774