Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The sales force for war is out

...and experience suggests we can expect another round of trashing for Neville Chamberlain. That guy. Every hawk with a war to sell, or a conflict to stoke, or a peace initiative to shut down, drags out the same carpet beater and flogs the very dead horse of Neville Chamberlain's unavailing concessions at Munich. Even ones who can't say exactly what Chamberlain did at Munich.

Neville Chamberlain died in November of 1940: Winston Churchill gave the eulogy at his funeral, and even with bombs raining on London, could say of Chamberlain's policy:
But it is also a help to our country and to our whole Empire... [that] we were guiltless of the bloodshed, terror and misery which have engulfed so many lands and peoples, and yet seek new victims still. Herr Hitler protests with frantic words and gestures that he has only desired peace. What do these ravings and outpourings count before the silence of Neville Chamberlain's tomb? Long, hard, and hazardous years lie before us, but at least we entered upon them united and with clean hearts.
Many people in the present day who know far less than Churchill take a far less charitable view. Why does this matter? Do I really intend to waste time defending an old, white man whose maintenance of the imperial system undoubtedly fed the great conflicts of the 20th century?

Well, no. I have no brief for Neville Chamberlain or his policies, and I suspect history will judge both Mr. Chamberlain's and Sir Winston's policies and choices more harshly than either man expected. Both men strove to maintain a profoundly undemocratic and destructive world order, which left behind a disastrous mess we still have not fully reckoned with to this day.

I do intend to defend a basic tenet of logic, one Chris Matthews illustrates rather neatly. Applying logic without getting the basis, the givens, or in Latin the data correct renders logic useless. Before you speak you must know of what you speak. You can't condemn Neville Chamberlain's policy without knowing what policies Chamberlain actually pursued. Consider a corollary to this: just as you should not try to reason from information you do not have, it is useless to reason from information you cannot have.

We can never know what would have happened. Many historians who know very well what the Munich conference involved, and about Hitler's Godesburg Memorandum and exactly what settlement Chamberlain made at Munich, fall into the trap of assuming they know what would have followed if Neville Chamberlain had refused to compromise the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia. If criticisms of Chamberlain, or indeed any historical figure, depend on the consequences of his choices, they are invalid because we do not know, and we cannot know, what would have happened if he had chosen differently.

This doesn't mean we cannot judge any historical figure: moral obligations apply regardless of consequences.   In the apt phrase from Roman law: Fiat justitia ruat cælum, let justice be done though the heavens fall. On the other hand, condemnations of ordinarily praiseworthy acts, such as making peace, are invalid, even if those acts led to bad results.

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