The big news item yesterday was the storm of astonishment and reaction, when Barack Obama, a professional politician, dared to appear in public in a non-blue, tan suit.
I thought myself that the suit was perfectly appropriate for before Labor Day (though one could easily see that it was off-the-rack from its less-than-perfect fit). But, I wondered myself, what was with that sub-fusc grey tie?
Nine days before his death Immanuel Kant was visited by his physician. Old, ill, and nearly blind, he rose from his chair and stood trembling and muttering unintelligible words. Finally his faithful companion realized that he would not sit down until the visitor had taken a seat. This he did, and Kant then permitted himself to be helped to his chair, and after he had regained some of his strength, said ‘Das Gefühl für Humanität hat mich noch nicht verlassen’ — ‘The sense of Humanity has not yet left me.’ The two men were moved almost to tears. For though the word Humanität had come, in the eighteenth century, to mean little more than politeness and civility, it had, for Kant, a much deeper significance, which the circumstances of the moment served to emphasize: man’s proud and tragic consciousness of self-imposed principles, contrasting with his utter subjugation to illness, decay, and all that is implied in the word ‘mortality.’
Newly detrained at Auschwitz in February 1944, and newly stripped, showered, sheared, tattooed, and reclothed in random rags (and nursing a four-day thirst), Primo Levi and his fellow Italian prisoners were packed into a vacant shed and told to wait. This famous passage continues:
. . . I eyed a fine icicle outside the window, within hand’s reach. I opened the window and broke off the icicle but at once a large, heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it away from me. ‘Warum?’ I asked him in my poor German. ‘Hier ist kein warum’ (there is no why here), he replied, pushing me inside with a shove.
Victor Davis Hanson is a real historian, so he is understandably indignant about the characteristic ways in which Barack Obama misstates and mangles history.
In Obama’s hazy sense of the end of history, things always must get better in the manner that updated models of iPhones and iPads are glitzier than the last. In fact, history is morally cyclical. Even technological progress is ethically neutral. It is a way either to bring more good things to more people or to facilitate evil all that much more quickly and effectively.
In the viciously modern 20th century — when more lives may have been lost to war than in all prior centuries combined — some 6 million Jews were put to death through high technology in a way well beyond the savagery of Attila the Hun or Tamerlane. Beheading in the Islamic world is as common in the 21st century as it was in the eighth century — and as it will probably be in the 22nd. The carnage of the Somme and Dresden trumped anything that the Greeks, Romans, Franks, Turks, or Venetians could have imagined.
What explains Obama’s confusion?
A lack of knowledge of basic history explains a lot. Obama or his speechwriters have often seemed confused about the liberation of Auschwitz, “Polish death camps,” the political history of Texas, or the linguistic relationship between Austria and Germany. Obama reassured us during the Bowe Bergdahl affair that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt all similarly got American prisoners back when their wars ended — except that none of them were in office when the Revolutionary War, Civil War, or World War II officially ended.
Contrary to Obama’s assertion, President Rutherford B. Hayes never dismissed the potential of the telephone. Obama once praised the city of Cordoba as part of a proud Islamic tradition of tolerance during the brutal Spanish Inquisition — forgetting that by the beginning of the Inquisition an almost exclusively Christian Cordoba had few Muslims left.
A Pollyannaish belief in historical predetermination seems to substitute for action. If Obama believes that evil should be absent in the 21st century, or that the arc of the moral universe must always bend toward justice, or that being on the wrong side of history has consequences, then he may think inanimate forces can take care of things as we need merely watch.
In truth, history is messier. Unfortunately, only force will stop seventh-century monsters like the Islamic State from killing thousands more innocents. Obama may think that reminding Putin that he is now in the 21st century will so embarrass the dictator that he will back off from Ukraine. But the brutish Putin may think that not being labeled a 21st-century civilized sophisticate is a compliment.
In 1935, French foreign minister Pierre Laval warned Joseph Stalin that the Pope would admonish him to go easy on Catholics — as if such moral lectures worked in the supposedly civilized 20th century. Stalin quickly disabused Laval of that naiveté. “The Pope?” Stalin asked, “How many divisions has he got?”
There is little evidence that human nature has changed over the centuries, despite massive government efforts to make us think and act nicer. What drives Putin, Boko Haram, or ISIS are the same age-old passions, fears, and sense of honor that over the centuries also moved Genghis Khan, the Sudanese Mahdists, and the Barbary pirates.
The Telegraph memorialized recently a colorful priest remarkable for the soundness of both his political and ecclesiastical views.
Father Jean-Marie Charles-Roux, who has died [August 7th] aged 99, brought the mystical aura of French royalism to London as a Roman Catholic priest of the Rosminian order; he was devoted to the divine nature of monarchy and the Tridentine liturgy.
Tall, elegant, and with a theatrically silky voice, Charles-Roux wore buckled shoes and medallions commemorating martyred sovereigns, and used an eyeglass to read a newspaper during more than 40 years at the medieval church of St Etheldreda at Ely Place, off Holborn. There he celebrated the Latin Mass every morning with his back to the congregation. Sought after as a confessor, he preached lively and eloquent sermons, flattering and shocking his listeners in equal measure.
He would emphasise the Christian duty to the poor while maintaining that the parable of the talents proved that capitalism was not only acceptable but also a moral imperative. He made clear his abhorrence of the Allied bombing of Dresden by celebrating Mass for its victims. And once, comparing the transformation of the soul to cooking, he described how it was more likely to be successful in black saucepans (meaning priests) than in grander copper ones (casting a glance at Cardinal Hume sitting nearby).
In conversation with even the humblest, Charles-Roux assumed a shared familiarity with the families of the Anjou claimant to the French throne, the King of Spain and members of other European royal families; and he championed the canonisation of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Mary Queen of Scots and even Charles I of England who, he maintained, should be acknowledged as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.
As communism tottered in Eastern Europe in 1989, the ambassadors of Poland and Hungary (possibly hedging their bets) were to be seen on their knees at a memorial service for the Empress Zita of Austria while Charles-Roux led them in prayers for the restoration of the Holy Roman Empire.
Jean-Marie Charles-Roux was born in Marseille into a French diplomatic family on December 12 1914. His first memories were of Rome, where his father was a member of the French embassy to the King of Italy.
For many years he was based at the Rosminian church of St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, where he celebrated only the Tridentine Rite.
‘When the New Mass came in I tried it in English, French, Italian, even in Latin – but it was like a children’s game,’ he told me. ‘So I wrote to Pope Paul, whom I had known when he was Cardinal Montini, and said, Holy Father, either you let me celebrate the Old Mass or I leave the priesthood and marry the first pretty girl I meet.’