Ulysses S. Grant: What makes a consequential president?

Fifty years of school histories have lied about Ulysses S. Grant, who was a gifted man and consequential president. Not being a career politician helped.

Ulysses S. GrantI’m reading Ron Chernow’s Grant. As I only started the book this morning, and have been reading in tiny bits and bytes, I’m only 3% into the book. Grant is just out of West Point and the U.S. is hoping to acquire Texas — with the slave states looking to tip the Congressional balance of power in their favor.

Three percent of a book about a man who was a towering figure in the mid-19th century America isn’t much, but it’s been enough to tell me that everything I’ve ever learned in American history classes about Ulysses S. Grant is wrong. According to those classes, he was an intellectually weak, drunken, ineffectual, plodding man, who rose as a general by being a blood-thirsty butcher on the field of war, and he was an ignoramus once in politics.

Chernow has already informed me that Grant did have a binge-drinking problem, but he fought valiantly; that he was brilliant at math and military strategy; that he was an intelligent man; that he was highly principled and utterly reliable; that he was a middling (not failing) student at West Point; that he had a horror of blood and violence that led him to fighting war rigorously to end it swiftly; and that he was a consequential and effective president. Some of this Chernow has already proven in writing about Grant’s youth and young adulthood; other parts Chernow promises in his introduction that he will prove in the book and I believe him.

The mismatch between my education about Grant and the reality has led me to two thoughts. Continue reading

Jon Stewart: genuinely ignorant or just hiding the ball when it comes to socialism

I caught a few minutes of last night’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart, during which Stewart amused himself by taking potshots at a very big target:  CPAC.  I haven’t paid much attention to CPAC, so I can’t and therefore won’t comment on whether his shots were righteous or dishonest.  If you’d like to know more about CPAC from a couple of people who were there, I can recommend this and this.  My suspicion is that, unlike a tightly scripted Democratic function, CPAC was a genuine grass roots conservative gathering, representing a wide range of viewpoints, some more pleasing than others.  But, as I said, I don’t know, I’m just guessing.

What I do know is that Stewart had fun with that portion of Beck’s speech in which Beck spoke about two forms of socialism:  revolutionary and evolutionary.  From his grunts, sighs and moans, all of which passes for Stewart’s version of intelligent political commentary, I gather that Stewart found it (a) amusing that a right winger would even mention the word “evolution” and (b) impossible to imagine that, if something happens slowly, it could be akin to a socialist revolution.  By taking that latter position, Stewart either betrayed his historical ignorance or is intentionally trying to fool a credulous audience.

In fact, back at the turn of the last century, there was a very active evolutionary socialist movement called the “Fabian Society,” and the movement remains as a functional backdrop to today’s Labour and Democratic parties.  As is often the case for historic information that isn’t at the center of a political maelstrom, Wikipedia has a solid entry on the subject (emphasis mine):

The Fabian Society is a British intellectual socialist movement, whose purpose is to advance the principles of social democracy via gradualist and reformist, rather than revolutionary, means. It is best known for its initial ground-breaking work beginning late in the 19th century and continuing up to World War I. The society laid many of the foundations of the Labour Party and subsequently affected the policies of states emerging from the decolonisation of the British Empire, especially India. Today, the society is a vanguard “think tank” of the New Labour movement.

[snip]

The group, which favoured gradual incremental change rather than revolutionary change, was named – at the suggestion of Frank Podmore – in honour of the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus (nicknamed “Cunctator”, meaning “the Delayer”). His Fabian strategy advocated tactics of harassment and attrition rather than head-on battles against the Carthaginian army under the renowned general Hannibal Barca.

That it was slow-moving didn’t make the Society’s ideas any less hateful:

The Fabian Society in the early 1900s advocated the ideal of a scientifically planned society and supported eugenics by way of sterilisation.

If you’d like to see the charming side of Fabian Socialism, you should read Jean Webster’s two delightful books:  Daddy Long Legs and Dear Enemy.  Both are epistolary novels written in the 1910s.  One is set at a women’s college (Vassar-ish) and the other is set in an orphanage.  The former presents a pretty picture of Fabian Socialism and the latter sweetly and ardently advocates eugenics.  They are the perfect distillation of a Woodrow Wilson style Progressivism, which wanted to purge America of any impure people and then, once America was properly populated with nice, WASP-y people, to impose a wondrous socialist vision upon them.  Jonah Goldberg captures perfectly the time and the vision in Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change.  In America, this “delicate,” incremental slide to the Left had a friendly, middle-class intellectual gloss.  In other countries, that same driving need to take away individual freedom and invest all power in government was less lovely (Germany, Russia, North Korea, China, etc.).

Whether Socialism is fast or slow moving, it’s still socialism.  And much as Jon Stewart wants to laugh at the labels (having great fun with CPAC pronouncements that variations of Leftism, such as Bolshevism, Communism, Trotskeyism, etc. are the enemy), the fact remains that any movement that seeks to divest individuals of their freedom and place maximum power in the government is the enemy.  Shakespeare understood that labels are useful, but that it is the substance that matters (“That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”)  When it comes to political ideology, what matters is finding a happy medium between anarchy and totalitarianism — and the sad fact is that, whenever a political movement in a fairly well-functioning society forcefully or politely advocates the transfer of every greater power to the government, no matter that movement’s name, you are looking at a graceful slide into totalitariansim.