November 17, 2016
1. Travel Writing
One of the major figures in the travel genre is the Englishman Robert Byron (no relation to Lord Byron). Byron is best known for The Road to Oxiana, which deals with his trip through the Middle East to Afghanistan. According to Wikipedia, “It is considered by many modern travel writers to be the first example of great travel writing.” Byron had a special interest in architecture, and wrote a book called The Appreciation of Architecture. He was also interested in Greek and Byzantine civilization; two of his books (Europe in the Looking-Glass, and The Station) deal with his travels in Greece. Byron inspired younger writers like Patrick Leigh Fermor, who walked from Holland to Constantinople while still a teenager, and wrote about his travels. Byron died at 35, a casualty of World War II.
Other travel writers:
- Alexander Kinglake wrote Eothen, which deals with his travels in the Middle East around 1835 (Kinglake is also known for an 8-volume history of the Crimean War).
- Peter Fleming, brother of novelist Ian Fleming, wrote about his travels in Brazil, China, etc. His book Brazilian Adventure describes an expedition into Brazil’s wild interior, searching for the lost explorer Percy Fawcett. Fleming also wrote some historical works, including an account of the British invasion of Tibet in 1904.
- Eric Newby fought in World War II, was captured, and escaped. Love and War in the Apennines is Newby’s account of his World War II adventures. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is Newby’s account of a climbing expedition in Afghanistan.
- Paul Theroux was born in 1941. While the other travel writers I’m discussing are British, Theroux is American; he grew up in the Boston area. Theroux joined the Peace Corps in 1963, and lived in Africa. He wrote about a train journey through Africa in Dark Star Safari (2002). Theroux’s best-known travel book is The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), which describes his train journey from Britain to Japan. A prolific writer of fiction, Theroux won the James Tait Black Prize for his novel The Mosquito Coast.
- Bruce Chatwin, born in 1949, published a well-regarded travel book, In Patagonia, in 1977. His book about Australian aborigines, The Songlines, is also well-regarded. Chatwin wrote fiction as well as non-fiction (some people accused him of embellishing his travel books with fictions).
- Benedict Allen, born in 1960, is known for his long journeys through wild places, such as the Amazon jungle and the Asian steppe. Allen has written numerous travel books, and made numerous documentaries. One of Allen’s books, Last of the Medicine Men, is about spiritual healers.
- William Dalrymple, born in 1965, wrote about his journey across Asia in a book called In Xanadu. He wrote about Delhi in City of Djinns. In addition to travel books, Dalrymple has written historical works about India. He’s also made several documentaries, including the six-part documentary Stones of the Raj.
- Some of the best travel writing is by people who weren’t primarily travel writers — novelists like D. H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, etc.
One of the few scholarly works on travel literature is Paul Fussell’s Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars.1
2. Donald Trump: A Dialogue
On a recent subway ride in Boston, I overheard the following conversation between a Liberal and a Conservative (the Liberal spoke first, but the Conservative got the last word):
|L||Can we agree that Trump’s conduct toward women, and his recorded comments about his conduct toward women, should disqualify him from being President, or even running for President?
|C||Yes, I agree with that. When he denies his misconduct, his own recorded words refute his denial, his own words convict him. His recorded words convict him of misconduct, and his later denials convict him of dishonesty.
|L||And both his misconduct and his dishonesty make him unworthy of the White House.
|C||I agree. By the way, who did you vote for in 1992?
|L||I voted for Bill Clinton, and he was a very good President.
|C||Wasn’t Clinton’s conduct toward women much the same as Trump’s?2 Why is such conduct disqualifying in a Republican, but not in a Democrat? Clinton was neither more honest, nor better-behaved toward women, than Trump, but you voted for him anyway, and you think he turned out to be a “very good President.” So how can you criticize people for voting for Trump? And don’t you have to admit that Trump could turn out to be a very good President, despite his moral failings?
|L||I can criticize Trump voters because they chose an inexperienced candidate over an experienced candidate.
|C||But in 1992, you made the same choice as Trump voters, you chose an inexperienced candidate (Clinton) over an experienced candidate (George H. W. Bush). The “experience gap” in 1992 was as great as the “experience gap” in 2016.
|L||But at least Bill Clinton had some political experience. Trump has none, unless you think that spreading false rumors about the sitting President’s birthplace constitutes political experience.
|C||Did Eisenhower have any political experience? Did Grant? We’ve had several soldier-Presidents without political experience. Perhaps Trump’s business experience is as relevant to the modern Presidency as Grant’s military experience.
|L||But the crass tone of Trump’s campaign — isn’t that a “new low” in American politics?
|C||Yes, but it reflects the current state of American culture. Furthermore, Trump’s tone changed as soon as he won the election. No one seems worthy of the White House when they first go out on the hustings, but everyone grows six inches when they become President — they acquire a gravitas they didn’t have before.
|L||But how can you condone Trump’s business practices? “Trump University” was obviously a scam. And Trump routinely didn’t pay contractors in full, then pretended that their work wasn’t satisfactory.
|C||I can’t condone his business practices. But are these practices any worse than the Clintons’? Hillary leveraged her political clout, and her position as Secretary of State, for financial gain. Bill was paid $17 million by a for-profit college; he was selling his celebrity just as Trump was.
|L||But what about Trump’s attitude toward the environment — his skepticism about climate change, his hostility toward the EPA, etc.? We only have one planet, and Trump seems willing to risk its health for a fraction of GDP. Posterity won’t forgive him.
|C||I completely agree, but every political party has some crazy positions. Democrats ignore the national debt, refuse to discuss entitlement-reform, and even talk about increasing SocialSecurity payments!
|L||Now Trump has appointed Steve Bannon as Counselor. Bannon is a sworn enemy of moderation and compromise, and he’s associated with wild conspiracy-theories and subtle racism. Trump’s 2-minute ad, with its subtle anti-Semitism, is probably a Bannon creation.
|C||I share your view of Bannon. You must admit, though, that other Presidents have consorted with unsavory characters. Consider, for example, Obama’s association with Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, and Al Sharpton. In a two-party system, each party will ally itself with some crazy positions, and some unsavory individuals, in order to build a large coalition, a winning coalition.
|L||Trump is clearly unfit to be President, and his victory has caused widespread grief. Many Americans feel they no longer have a country, some even want to emigrate.
|C||True, but the grief would have been just as widespread if Clinton had won.
|L||I voted for Clinton, and I don’t regret it.
|C||I chose to vote for neither candidate. But I wouldn’t criticize anyone who made a different choice.
3. Election Predictions
A. Allan Lichtman
Trump’s victory came as a shock. Did anyone predict it? Some Trump supporters predicted it, but such predictions might be dismissed as cheerleading. Were there any non-partisan predictions of Trump’s victory?
Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University, predicted a Trump victory based on his “Keys to the White House.” Lichtman developed 13 “keys,” and said that 6 or more false keys indicates a defeat for the incumbent party. Here are Lichtman’s 13 keys:
- Party mandate: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than after the previous midterm elections.
- Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination.
- Incumbency: The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president.
- Third party: There is no significant third party or independent campaign.
- Short-term economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.
- Long-term economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.
- Policy change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.
- Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term.
- Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.
- Foreign/military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.
- Foreign/military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.
- Incumbent charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.
- Challenger charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.
Lichtman developed his keys after studying all the Presidential elections between 1860 and 1980. His keys have accurately predicted the outcomes of the elections after 1980. His system implies that a Presidential election is a referendum on the incumbent party. It implies that any Republican candidate would have won in 2016. It implies that campaigns don’t matter, and debates don’t matter. His system seems to be at least as good at predicting election-outcomes as polls are. Lichtman was influenced by a system of earthquake-prediction developed by Vladimir Keilis-Borok.
Lichtman predicted a Trump victory in September. Until then, his keys were inconclusive; until then, only 5 keys were false:
Perhaps Lichtman should have considered Key 2 to be False, since there was a “serious contest” for the incumbent party nomination. At any rate, he didn’t decide that 6 keys were false until Key 4, Third Party, turned false; this key is false if there’s a third-party candidate with at least 5% support.
Impressive as Lichtman’s system is, some objections could be made:
- Several of the keys, such as the charisma keys, seem subjective.
- His prediction of a Gore victory in 2000 could be considered false since Gore lost the electoral vote. And his prediction of a Trump victory could be considered false since Trump lost the popular vote.
- In the 2016 election, Key 4 could be considered true insofar as the ThirdParty candidates fell just short of 5%.
B. Nate Silver
Nate Silver’s forecasts are as accurate as Lichtman’s, but Silver uses a completely different approach, Silver looks at polls instead of history. After the 2012 election, I said that Silver’s predictions had been “strikingly accurate,” and that in the future, no one would want to bet against Silver. But in 2016, billions were bet against Silver: Silver gave Trump a 29% chance of winning, but betting markets gave him only an 18% chance. Silver says that his model “gave Trump much better odds than other polling-based models.”
We shouldn’t have been shocked by Trump’s victory, we should have listened to Silver. If we were watching a baseball game, and a .290 hitter came to the plate against an average pitcher, would we be shocked if he got a hit? Not at all. So why were we shocked when a candidate with a 29% chance won the election? We didn’t take Silver’s numbers seriously, we thought Trump had a slim chance, we thought Hillary was sure to win. In other words, we dismissed Trump’s chances. Trump was a .290 hitter, but we viewed him like a .050 hitter.
Impressive as Silver’s forecast was, it could still be argued that Silver was wrong, Silver should have given Trump an even better chance, he should have given Trump a chance greater than 50%. Why didn’t he? Because Silver looks at polls, and the polls were wrong, the polls said Hillary would win by 3%. In fact, Hillary won the popular vote by about 2.1% (2.8 million votes). Historically, polls are usually off by 2%, so the 2016 margin-of-error isn’t that surprising. The polls were off by 2.7% in 2012, even more than in 2016.
Polls have difficulty predicting who will actually come out to vote, and difficulty predicting how undecided voters will break in the final days of the campaign. In the 2016 election, there were more undecided voters than usual, and they favored Trump. White voters without college degrees turned out for Trump in higher-than-expected numbers, while Hispanic voters turned out for Clinton in higher-than-expected numbers. So the polls were wrong in “Trump states” like Ohio, and also in “Clinton states” like California.3
If we had listened to both Lichtman and Silver, we wouldn’t have been shocked by Trump’s victory. In 2020, we should listen to Lichtman and Silver, we certainly shouldn’t bet against them.
4. Elizabethan Goals
I came across an interesting essay about Elizabethan society. The author, Thomas Donnelly, asked if the Elizabethan renaissance offered us any lessons for today. I sent him the following e-mail:
|I enjoyed your recent piece in the Weekly Standard about Elizabethan England. I was reminded of the Spanish philosopher Ortega, who said that a nation isn’t held together by force, “The substantive, motivating power always consists in a national dogma, an inspiring plan for a life in common.” Similarly, you said that, in Elizabethan society, utopian ideas “gave a purpose to the exercise of power.... National decline is, first and foremost, a symptom of lost purpose rather than lost power.”
Perhaps one of the strengths of radical Islam is that it gives its devotees a sense of purpose, an inspiring plan, something worth fighting for and dying for. In our society, there’s no agreement about religious matters, we don’t share what you call “a faith in a transcendent and divine reality.” As for secular goals, one of the boldest of recent years was the goal of spreading democracy in the Middle East, but it’s ending in disillusion.
As one who subscribes to the Oxford Theory, I believe that Elizabeth gave Shakespeare £1,000/year because she wanted to harness the power of the theater to develop national consciousness. Shakespeare speaks of the “propaganda power” of theater in Hamlet:
Good my lord, will you see the players well
bestowed? Do you hear, let them be well used; for
they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the
time: after your death you were better have a bad
epitaph than their ill report while you live.
© L. James Hammond 2016
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