John Lewis Gaddis on the failure of the Spanish Armada

Stephen Davies, seeking to explain Europe’s technological and economic breakthrough into modernity, and John Lewis Gaddis reflecting on the emergence of the USA as the world’s current superpower, both identify the defeat of the Spanish Armada as a key moment. Davies says that the failure of Catholic Spain to subdue Protestant England meant that Europe, unlike all the other great civilisations of the world, remained disunited and hence internally competitive.

And Gaddis argues, in his book On Grand Strategy, argues, at the beginning of his chapter entitled “New Worlds” (pp. 151-152) that the defeat of the Armada “made possible the creation of the United States” as we now know it:

It’s not counterfactual to claim that the real events of 1588 in the English Channel echoed loudly and long enough “to shake a hemisphere.” The previous century had seen the Portuguese and the Spanish, neither hitherto seismically significant, exploiting a new understanding of ships, sails, winds, and currents to explore and conquer immensities of strange new things.’ “NON SUFFICIT ORBIS,” Philip II’s motto for his Iberian kingdoms and the empire they’d acquired, was eloquently apt: Eurasia, the old world into which all earlier empires had fit, had indeed not been enough. As the Armada left Lisbon that summer, few from whom it faded from sight would have anticipated anything other than enduring Catholic monarchies throughout what had become known as America.

For how could God not be on the side of the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon that had, in the single year 1492, expelled their Muslim neighbors, ejected their Jews, and almost as an aside expanded the size of the earth? Or, in the year that followed, gained title to the new territories, together with Portugal, by papal edict? Or, as Spain, required only three years to conquer Mexico and not many more to control Peru, thereby ensuring apparently endless supplies of gold and silver? Or, using these riches, imposed administrative and even architectural uniformity on two unfamiliar continents? Or mapped out, for their diverse inhabitants, a single path to salvation? Accomplishments on this scale require more than self-confidence: they presume knowledge of, and correspondence with, God’s will.

Two hundred and thirty-five years after the Armada sailed, however, a staunchly Protestant statesman, in the swampy new capital of a secular state, was drafting an equally presumptuous proclamation for his republican sovereign: “that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” When Secretary of State John Quincy Adams made the Monroe Doctrine a motto for the “United States of America” in 1823, that country lacked the means of securing the “new world” against its “old” masters. It had the self-confidence, though, of Spain in its prime, and that, Adams saw, would suffice.

“The failure of the Spanish Armada,” Geoffrey Parker has argued, “laid the American continent open to invasion and colonization by northern Europeans, and thus made possible the creation of the United States.” If that’s right, then the future pivoted on a single evening – August 7, 1588 – owing to a favorable wind, a clever lord admiral, and a few fiery ships. Had he succeeded, Philip would have required Elizabeth to end all English voyages to America.’ But from the moment his captains cut their anchor cables, Spain began a slow decline, and a new world order its gradual ascendancy.

This book (which I have just ordered from Amazon) presumably being one of the places where Geoffrey Parker (a new name to me) makes this argument.

James Stewart impresses Robbie Robinson

And when I say James Stewart I mean this James Stewart, that American fellow who used to act in movies like It’s A Wonderful Life, and Mr Smith Goes To Washington, and The Philadelphia Story. Many screen heroes are nothing much to bother with off screen, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s called acting. But Stewart was a hero both on screen and off. He didn’t just star in movies, concerning such things as WW2. He fought in WW2, as a bomber commander in the US Air Force.

I’ve been reading Big Week, James Holland’s book about “the biggest air battle of World War Two”. I haven’t yet got to the actual big week in question, which happened in February 1944. But I can’t help thinking that Captain James Stewart is going to be up to his neck in it, bombing Germany and fighting off German fighters, because he has already had several mentions. Here is one of them, concerning an encounter that happened late in 1943, described on pages 226-227.

Captain James Stewart had been ordered to London to face the press on Thursday, 2 December. He had been promised this would happen only once. The questions were ridiculous and he found the exercise painful and embarrassing, but then he returned to Tibenham to get on with being a squadron commander.

On Sunday, 5 December, a sergeant came to Robbie Robinson’s hut and told him and his crew-mates to prepare – briefing at 9 a.m. and ready to fly. It was to be a ‘shakedown’ flight – a training flight to see whether they were ready for combat operations. Out by Bullet Serenade, they were just getting ready to move off when a Jeep pulled up and Captain Jimmy Stewart stepped out. ‘Fellas,’ he told them, ‘I’ll be riding with you.’

“Bullet Serenade”being the airplane they’d all be flying in.

On board, Stewart went to the flight deck, but once the were airborne he came back down, speaking to each of the crew, then went back to the cockpit. Over the intercom, Robinson listened to him asking questions of every man. ‘What are you doing now, Sergeant Robinson?’ he asked. ‘What do you see out of the waist window?’ Robinson told him. More questions followed. ‘Can you see the super-charger gate position? Are the exhausts smoking? What colour is the engine exhaust? How much fuel do we have on board? Are you checking it? Are the fuel gauges off and drained?’ He then called them up in turn to the cockpit. Robinson, like the rest of the crew, had gone through incredibly thorough training. Although a waist gunner, he was a fully qualified flight engineer and even had sixty hours’ piloting in his logbook. The idea was to ensure there was always back-up if anything happened to the main operating crew members. ‘Robinson,’ Stewart asked once he had reached the flight deck, ‘can you fly as first engineer?’ He also wanted to know whether he could man all gun turrets and arm the bombs. It was quite a grilling, but Robinson was impressed. ‘Stewart really knew this airplane,’ he noted. ‘He wanted us to know it too.’

By all accounts I’ve encountered, Robinson wasn’t the only one who was impressed by this star of stage and screen. And war.

Steven Pinker: “Don’t confuse pessimism with profundity …”

See the world through Pinker-tinted spectacles than you may be inclined to:

Keep some perspective. Not every problem is a Crisis, Plague, Epidemic, or Existential Threat, and not every change is the End of This, the Death of That, or the Dawn of a Post-Something Era. Don’t confuse pessimism with profundity: problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and diagnosing every setback as a symptom of a sick society is a cheap grab for gravitas.

My sentiments exactly.

That’s to be read on page 452 of my paperback edition of Enlightenment Now, Pinker’s most recent book.

Meanwhile:

Those were a couple of the day before yesterday’s headlines. Let’s hope it soon becomes yesterday’s news. Problems are, as Pinker says, solvable, and let’s hope this one too is soon sorted.

Pinker is particularly aware of the way that the news is in the habit of putting a pessimistic spin on everything. If it bleeds it leads, and so on. Good news, meanwhile, creeps up on the world more gradually.

The miscalculations of the Tiggers

Way back in the Spring of last year, when the Brexit battle was still raging away in Parliament and when Theresa May was still the Prime Minister, Patrick Crozier and I did a podcast o this subject. A point that Patrick made very strongly was how the Remainers, presented with the opportunity of BRINO (Brexit in name only), instead were busily engaged in snatching defeat from the jaws of only somewhat modified victory. Since then, the Remainers carried right on doing this.

As Guido Fawkes explained gleefully in a posting a few days ago about the most visible and organised of the Remainers. These “Tiggers”, as Guido calls them, continued to trash any possibility of BRINO. And then they all got ejected from Parliament, leaving the field clear for actual Brexit, or something a lot like it, to proceed.

This posting of Guido’s is worth a read and a ponder, unless you were yourself a Remainer and can’t bear to think about it all. Thus is history made by the winners. And also bungled by the losers.

I found the picture there, on the right, by scrolling down here. A lot.

How big creatures assemble themselves

Speaking of animals, as I like to do of a Friday, how does Life get from little tiny single cell thingies to, you know, animals. Well, somewhat like this:

The little tiny cells don’t themselves get that much bigger. No. Instead they combine into cooperating flocks, like the fishes above.

To be clear, the above is not an actual creature evolving. What you see there is merely analogous to how bigger creatures assemble themselves from tiny little cells.

I continue to read this SS-W book. My problem is: I’m already persuaded of the truth of everything he says. But I am learning plenty, so will continue.

On how we love animals (except when we love how they taste)

While in France, I read the whole of The Square and the Tower, and then embarked upon The Ape that Understood the Universe.

In the latter book, the matter of how humans get all sentimental about animals is mentioned (pp. 59-60):

… Why do so many people take such delight in staring at infant members of other species? It’s not as if, say, porcupines enjoy staring at baby chickens. As with porn, our love of these nonhuman animals is probably not an adaptation. More than likely, it’s spillover from psychological mechanisms designed for more human-centered purposes. There’s a certain cluster of traits that people everywhere find irresistibly cute. This includes big round eyes in the center of the face, a small nose, and plump, stubby limbs. Our affection for creatures with these features presumably evolved to motivate us to care for our own infants and toddlers. But the same features are found in many other infant mammals, and even in the adult members of some nonhuman species. As a result, we often feel affectionate and protective toward these individuals as well – not because it’s adaptive, but just because adaptations aren’t perfect. By the way, as you might already have noticed, the spill over hypothesis doesn’t just explain our fondness for cute animal videos. It also hints at an explanation for a much older and more pervasive phenomenon: our habit of keeping pets.

Motivated I am sure by exactly this sort of fondness for animals myself, I have become more and more intrigued by this general human propensity. Which is why so many of my photos involve non-human creatures of one sort or another.

Here are some of the non-human creatures photos I photoed while in France recently:

Even the photos involving signs urging dog owners to clear up canine crap (photos 12, 14 and 17) are about our positive feelings towards animals, because the offending dogs are pets. And even the two plastic barrier things (photo 16) are “other creatures”, in the sense that we insist on seeing the faces of creatures where there are none, even though these particular non-creatures each have only one eye. Yes, we do love these creatures.

And yet, by way of a corrective, we also do these kinds of things to particularly tasty creatures, in this case to various mammals and to fishes:

Yum.

Niall Ferguson on networks versus hierarchies

I have been reading Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower, and so far am enjoying it. It’s about how historians have tended to emphasise the impact of orderly hierarchies because these leave big paper trails, and to neglect less orderly networks, because these leave less of a paper trail. Yet, networks clearly matter a lot, even if, as Ferguson points out, networks are not necessarily benign in their impact.

The chapters are short, which I like because I am reading this book in short snatches, in among doing other things. Even a short burst of reading means me probably getting through an entire chapter and maybe even two or more chapters.

Right now, however, I am in the middle of a chapter, about how Guttenberg met Luther, and about how Guttenberg turned Luther’s merely written thoughts into best-selling printed volumes, thereby unleashing the Reformation and much else besides. (Like modern science. Printing enabled science to accumulate.) This is a process that has long fascinated me, and it happened because two people merely met, rather than because one person met another person and gave that other person an order. (Modern science is likewise a network rather than a hierarchy. When modern science becomes hierarchical, it tends to degenerate into propaganda for the hierarchy it is serving.)

Modern science has mostly been benign: But the only slightly delayed impact of the Reformation was, as Ferguson notes, that (p. 84):

Religious conflict continued to simmer and erupted again in the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict that turned Central Europe into a charnal house.

I will now finish reading this chapter.

Sir Keith Park closer up

In an earlier posting here, I mentioned and included a photo of the statue of Sir Keith Park outside the Athenaeum. I like this statue, and I admire its subject. Here is another photo of that same statue, from closer up, that I photoed last October:

I am busy getting ready to give a talk about Modern Architecture this evening, so that’s probably it for today. Ancient Architecture, like that behind the above statue, will also be getting a mention. I am taking a book about Quinlan Terry with me, to wave at the audience, although I may forget to do this.

Private Kissinger

Here is one of many fascinating little details from Snow & Steel by Peter Caddick-Adams (pp. 662-663), which is about the Battle of the Bulge:

[T]he town of Krefeld, a port lying on the west bank of the Rhine and north-west of Dusseldorf, had fallen to the US 84th (Railsplitters) Division, part of Simpson’s Ninth Army. Order needed to be restored to the town’s 200,000 inhabitants quickly, so the only GI in Divisional Intelligence who spoke German (the rest knew French) was promoted to become Administrator of Krefeld, in charge of everything from gas, water, power and transportation to garbage and hunting war criminals. The fact that he was a mere private mattered not; within eight days he had rebuilt Krefeld’s civilian government: the name of this multi-talented individual was Henry A. Kissinger.

That this book contains so many small pleasures like this one is all part of why it contains so many pages.