When doing homework for our trip to Chicago I came across reference to Pullman railway cars, a fascinating business model in itself. Those references also mentioned George Pullman’s artificial community, the eponymous Pullman. It was time to find out more.

Buder cover.jpg

Pullman made a fortune from the railway cars that bore his name from 1867-1968.

Pullman mug.jpg George Pullman.

As railroads were rebuilt after the Civil War and extended coast-to-coast, Pullman built ever more of them and had to expand the manufacturing capacity. Because in his business model the staff of the cars was also supplied with the car (of which he always retained ownership), he also had to recruit and trains staff to maintain the Pullman standard. To do so, he bought a more tan 4,000 acres south of Chicago and set up a new factory.

To recruit first class mechanics (the term that applied to all skilled workers in his factory), to ease the commute of workers who lived in Chicago, and to satisfy his philanthropic obligations he built a community for his workers called Pullman, after the factory, not after him personally in the first instance. It would offer all the necessities and conveniences of village life from clean water, sanitation, schools, libraries, theatres, and so on, all laid down in a plan and built before the first inhabitant moved in. There were would be no demon rum, no gambling, no prostitution and related vices.

PullmanSleepingCars.jpg

The dwellings were varied in size and the occupants rented them from the Pullman Company at a rate calculated to return 6% on the investment of building and maintaining the community, that being the return the Pullman Company realised on its other investments. This is important because Pullman wished to prove to other robber barons that such social investment was profitable. The author found that it never quite made 6%, more like 4.5%, something the Pullman Company kept secret.

Pullman employees had first priority for the housing, but some others also rent there but not many because there was nothing there but the Pullman factory in the early days. The homes were subject to occasional inspections to identify maintenance needs and to insure that the occupants were taking care of them. At first the rent was extracted form salaries before they were paid, but a court struck that down in a class action. Nonetheless when paid, Pullman employees could not leave the pay desk without paying the rent.

What’s so good about utopia? The town of Pullman offered peace and quiet, recreation for families (parks, theatres), libraries and schools, sanitation, clean water, fuel, and the like, all laid on. It was run by a business manager because it was unincorporated. Ergo the residents had no say whatever in what happened. Moreover, their residential tenure depended o the Pullman Company.. Furthermore, they could never buy a home there. But the way, the community included a covered market but pullman did did have company store, but rented space in the market to providers. It is a kind utopian thought experiment. One can have all these good things of life in return for giving up democracy.

George Pullman was no friend of democracy, having observed at first hand its practice Chicago where one corrupt political party replaced the other by turns with mayors and councillors each more venal than the other. The corruption at city hall, ensconced by the democratic process, was matched buy the drunkenness, robbery, assaults, prostitutions, drug-taking on the streets. One neighbourhood would have for two thousand residents, twenty bars and fifteen brothers, and more. Ruthless landlords build tenements and extracted maximum rents for rat-infested hovels. Despite the taxes collected, the streets were mud baths with plentiful horse droppings. Schools and libraries were usually private with stiff fees. But here was vigorous democracy as the parties battled each other in the race to spoils. The corruption included rigging votes wholesale. Some things have never changed in Chicago. There has always been a high turnout of voters there, especially among the dead who do not care for whom their vote is cast.

To most of residents of Pullman and to the journalists and philanthropists who visited the town, it was superior. “To most’ but not all, because some railway workers wanted to extend the union to Pullman workers to secure higher wages and to increase the security of tenure in the homes they rented. There were occasions when workers who did not meet the Pullman Company standard of punctuality, sobriety, and good work were evicted from their homes overnight. In least one case the activities of a worker’s wife caused eviction. (Use you imagination to figure it out, Sherlock.)

George Pullman reacted to these stirrings as a personal affront to his benign paternalism. There would be no negotiation; not an inch would be given. Cometh the fall.

The railroads were the site of much of the early struggle for unions, often led by the redoubtable Eugene V. Debs.

At the same time the ever-expanding city of Chicago, doubling in population every ten years, was encroaching on once-distant Pullman. In time it incorporated Pullman into Cook County though leaving the domination of the Company largely intact for a decade.

The collision course was laid in. The Pullman Company paid high(er) wages to attract and keep good workers as well providing all of the amenities of Pullman town for them and their families. But it was a business and when competition undercut the Pullman Company it unilaterally reduced wages while leaving the rents at the established level. When demand was high it expected unpaid overtime out of corporate loyalty. When the bottom fell out of the demand, the Company laid off workers and if they could no longer pay the rent, then they were evicted. The union movement found increasing interest from Pullman workers.

The very kind of workers that the Pullman Company wanted were those most likely to chaff at the control of their lives and faces in Pullman Village. They were safe, sane, sober family men who would aspire them ownership, who would want an education for their children and taken an interest in it, who would want a social life for the housewives, who would want family entertainment, who would want and expect job security. But George Pullman would never relinquish control of anything he owned, not one inch.

The result was the Pullman Strike that went from bad to worse. While the workers offered negotiation, the Pullman Company quickly resorted to force, and was shocked to find resistance. It spiralled out of control amid much posturing. Debs called every calamity a victory. George Pullman affected wounded pride. President Grover Cleveland sent in 12,000 Federal troops, three for every striker. (President Cleveland currently ranks in my book as the worst incumbent.) Much blood was shed.

The overkill of the corporate and political oppression galvanised public opinion against the Pullman Company. Religious leaders, newspaper editorialists, and even some Chicago businessmen blamed the Company, not the strikers for the mess. George Pullman found his himself ostracised among the business elite and that made him more stubborn. It became a test of wills, and he lost.

In the long aftermath, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the Pullman Company must divest itself of the town. The annual Labor Day holiday in the first week of September was one of the concessions to the union movement from this strike.

Prof_Buder-copy.jpg Stanley Buder.

After a hiatus, the Pullman Company survived but was never the same again.

Nothing is said about race, but many of the over-the rail staff of Pullman were black. There is much else in the book about the business practices of Pullman which I found of interest.

A memoir of sorts from the two years in 1969 and 1970 when Daniel P. Moynihan, with Hess as his deputy, served as President Richard Nixon’s chief advisor on domestic policy.

Hess cover.jpg

It was the odd couple: the president was a social conservative who courted to the right wing of his party to get the nomination and then moved further right to win the election joined with a high profile exponent of liberalism in American politics. Nixon ran to the right in 1968 first to secure the nomination from much more liberal Republicans like Charles Percy and that Hamlet of the Hudson Nelson Rockefeller. Then Nixon ran even further toward the right to undercut segregationist George Wallace’s independent campaign among those red of neck. Each time the message was simple and clear: law and order, cut welfare to zero, wind back the clock on affirmative action, stop integration by ending funding for its support, stack the Supreme Court with non-entities who would not support government intervention to support minorities…. That was rhetoric.

In office the reality was this. Nixon wanted peace and quiet in the United States and he personally wanted peace and quiet in the White House. He was willing to buy domestic peace and quiet. Moreover, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and seemed secure in continuing that. Nixon saw no reason to rile up Congress on domestic matters that he, Nixon, did not care about, nor to stir up the population by eliminating programs that had popular support. None of this could be done overtly for fear of alienating his electoral constituency which he would need again in four years. It was time for some legerdemain.

Enter Pat Moynihan. His credentials as a liberal in American politics were unassailable. He had worked for President Kennedy. He had advocated the cause of minorities. He supported all manner of social programs. His intellect was bright and he was a wordsmith, and he had other credentials, too, as a Professor at Harvard University. Robert F. Kennedy was dead, but Moynihan was his living spirit still flesh. Moynihan embodied from the bow tie on the Eastern Liberal Establishment that Nixon hated privately almost to distraction.

But it would placate Congress and confuse and perhaps divide his critics if he keep Moynihan close, and so Nixon appointed him as the chief domestic political advisor with cabinet rank. It was a masterstroke that won much breathing space for the new Nixon administration.

At the outset it seemed that Nixon’s administration would be dominated by two professors, since his chief foreign policy advisor, appointed earlier, was Henry Kissinger, another Harvard professor, head of the National Security Council with cabinet rank. Remember that Kissinger had entered public affairs with Nelson Rockefeller, the most liberal of the Ripon Republicans (a phrase no longer used by the Grand Old Party).

One of the interesting observation in the book under review is the comparison of the communities in the White House for domestic and for foreign policy. While foreign policy is pretty much the preserve of the President, per the Constitution, and only two agencies figure in it, though they are the great and good Departments of State and Defense. In fact, with the appointment of Kissinger and the elevation of the position of Director of the National Security Council to cabinet rank, Nixon had slightly enlarged the foreign policy circle. It was still, however, a small circle. All the principals could sit around one small table, and a single strong personality could dominate the group, in this case Kissinger, even though he did not have the powerful Department of State and Defense at his back, he had the intellectual and cunning to our manoeuvre them to influence Nixon. But that is another story.

Moynihan saw an opportunity to dominate the domestic policy community with his own intellect. It would be a contest on two levels. The first was to get Nixon’s attention to domestic policy and the second was to displace his domestic policy rival, the economist Arthur Burns. The first step was simple and easy and had continuing implications. It comes down to real estate.

Thousands of people work in the White House and it has long since burst at the seams. Nineteenth Century broom closets have been converted to offices, hallways reduced in size to enlarge office to shoe horn in more people, doubling and tripling up is the norm. The alternative was the Executive Office Building nearby. Moynihan opted to squeeze into a White House broom closet a few steps from the Oval Office, while Burns chose an opulent suite of rooms in the Executive Office Building.

In a way that says it all. The imperceptive Burns probably never quite realised it was a competition, and conveniently excluded himself. He further reduced his own influence by his ponderous class room manner. He could not participate in discussions ad lib. He could not debate submits and never got a point, if ever he got to a point, in less than forty-five minutes. He always had to prepare and then deliver….lectures. It was no contest. Nixon, in fact, began to interrupt Burns to ask for the conclusion, and then simply stopped inviting him to meetings. Moynihan excelled at debate and was always ready with an idea.

Getting Nixon’s attention was harder. The Cold War was very cold; the Vietnam War was veery hot. The Middle East was on fire. Other troubleshoots vied for attention by more outrageous events.

But domestic policy could not be neglected. There were racial tensions and riots. Moreover, many Johnson programs were coming due for renewal or funding and Moynihan was a genius at using these calendared deadlines to create some domestic policy for Nixon. He conceded some of the Great Society program to the dustbins, re-badged others, and merged many to serve up a diverse and responsive domestic policy. More importantly, he couched it all in terms Nixon could recognise and respond to. That is, Moynihan played to the President, whose own background was one of hard times during the Depression. For two years the magic tape held.

Nixon rather liked Moynihan who appealed to him as an intelligent and well-meaning man, and did not act either the sycophant or supplicant. Sometimes Moynihan addressed complicated arguments to Nixon, in a rain of memoranda, on the assumption that Nixon would read and understand. He did. Nixon liked being treated as an intellectual equal by this star from the Harvard firmament, just as the star liked being asked to advise on all manner of things, many beyond his remit.

moynihan1-articleLarge.jpg The odd couple.

It did not last because when all is said and done, well, Nixon was Nixon. He was unable and unwilling to court Congress on domestic policy. By that I mean, Nixon was not someone who could court the support of anyone, still less in a policy arena in which he had no interest. Part of his dedication to foreign policy was because it was essentially the President’s chess game. He played the long hand.

To promote any domestic policy requires a president to woo, court, explain, entertain, persuade, the chairs sub-committees, the chairs of committees, the party elders, the lobbyists, the press, individual Senators, state governors, certain Representatives, and so on and on and on. This kind of endless dance was what Lyndon Johnson loved and did better than anyone before or since, seldom idle and never alone when he could press his case on someone.

Nixon thought this kind of politicking without end led to compromises and bad policy, or so he said, but the truth is deeper. He just could not do this person-to-person persuading even if it was scripted and controlled. We can all speculate on why. Here is my take. Because of his background of penury he was too proud to ask others for help. To do so would be admission of weakness, and the weak are reluctant to admit it. There is also in Nixon a personal shyness that is another result of his upbringing that kept him in the family. That is my pop psychologising.

After the first few months of his presidency Nixon sharply reduced the time he spent in cabinet meetings, and made himself less and less available for appointments. Bob Haldeman who kept Nixon’s appointment dairy noted that the President said and said often ‘I want to be alone.’

He had to be alone with those yellow legal pads to think. When Nixon was thus isolated, Moynihan was a few steps away and would be summed to be a one-man sounding board, who would speak freely in the privacy of the tete-a-tete.

Like Senator William Fulbright, Moynihan made a Faustian bargain. He joined Nixon’s band on the pledge of loyalty and that he would not speak of the Vietnam War which was the biggest and hottest ticket for the incoming president. Moynihan kept his part of the bargain.

It lasted for two years and then Moynihan returned to Harvard. He paid a price for his association with Nixon and gradually went on to a political career in the Senate, taking the seat once held by Robert Kennedy.

Stephen Hess has many other books, and I will certainly read more.

Hess mug.jpg Stephen Hess.

He is even handed, and let's the facts do most of the talking. He does, however, present most of this book in the present tense and I found that distracting, and I always find it annoying after I have been distracted.


This time the aliens try South London instead of East London, and find the locals even tougher!

What’s to like?

The gradually revealed social order amid the outward chaos of the streets, alleys, trash, and detritus of squalid urban life. The additional revelation that for most of the boys in the gang, there is a home to go but the streets are more exciting.

Attack_The_Block_2.jpg

The mix of races and ages. Mugging passers-by is acceptable to the code but not dealing drugs to brothers.

The foul mouthed swearing is for the streets, not when safe indoors among friends. The swearing and cursing is part of the role of the street-tough.

The implicit social criticism. First the bullies and thugs, then the police, then the drugs, then the guns, all sent to destroy the black migrants of south London.

Then come the aliens. No point in calling the police because they will blame everything on the street toughs and lock them up, leaving the aliens to destroy everyone else. When confronted with the pistol-totting drug lord, the police prefer to arrest the street boys. So much easier. No, the boys from the Block have to look after their own, so they arm up and take on the aliens.

The dope growing nerd, Nick Frost, and his nephew prove to be surprising helpful in the denouement. Some basic sciences goes a long way in this script.

attack_the_block still.jpg

When the newly-moved in nurse tries to explain to the police, who arrive in the end after the street toughs have destroyed the aliens, that the boys saved her and everyone else, the police conclude she has been traumatised by assault, threats, and perhaps rape, Stockholm Syndrome, one officer mutters, while arresting the boys.

The leader of the gang is, by the way, Moses (who led his people to the promised land).

From SBS-2 a foul-mouthed slaughter-fest featuring the geriatrics at a nursing home who take on THE ZOMBIES.

I gave it a two and a half snorts rating (four is tops) as I guffawed my way through it.

The nursing home is threatened by a new residential development for the Yuppies who have discovered how handy and cheap East London is. The two grandsons of one of the geriatrics swing into action to come with the loot to help out. Their solution is to rob a bank. They assemble a team. This is no A-Team, including a klutz, a psycho, an absent minded type, and a cousin who does have some nous. While the lads are busy robbing the bank, the zombies rise and demolish most of the East End.

When the team emerges from the bank, all is devastation. ‘Wha ‘append?, they ask? They are all pretty clueless. But the zombies soon make themselves known. Yes, the have a lot of money now, but who cares! Off they go to save granddad, sure that he will have survived the onslaught, taking along a couple of superfluous hostages who now do not want to be let loose.

What to do? Stay on mission and rescue Granddad.

It is a wild ride and perhaps not best viewed around meal time.

The nursing home includes many familiar faces from Brit cop shows hamming it up along with Richard Briers who tapes an Uzi to his Zimmer frame, Honor Blackman who knows how to handle a gun, Alan Ford who for years played characters on ‘The Bill’ and similar programs listed in the credits as First Thug, Second Villain, Dutton ‘Tinker’ Sutton whose wheel chair becomes a tank of sorts, and Tony Selby who uses his wooden leg to beat one zombie into pulp. These seniors have survived Dunkirk, the Blitz, Hitler and World War II, cancer, fifteen years of rationing, the Beatles, divorce, porridge (that is jail time), colonial wars, Thatcher, and other catastrophes, a few zombies will not lay them low.

cockneys-vs-zombies-bluray-artwork.jpg

The discerning viewer detects a certain satire here. The Zombies taking over East London surely represent those Yuppies who are driving out the respectable and toiling masses. But then the working class is not spared either, shown to be idle and criminal in the McGuire family.

That it rates a measly 5.9/10 from 14,386 votes on the Internet Movies DataBase confirms a lot about the people to do those ratings, none of it good. There are sixty-eight reviews and I do not recommend reading any of them but I do recommend watching it, though I fear some knowledge of Brit cops shows, personnel and conventions, will add some seasoning denied those without this background knowledge.

One of the sacred text is Australian history is Geoffrey Blainey’s ‘The Tyranny of Distance’ (1966), which made his name and ever after he pontificated on anything and everything until no one (starting with me) listened to him any more. I read it 1974 and not since. The thesis of the book, as I remember, was simple. The great distance of Australia’s English settlements from England made the Europeans in Australia both self-reliant and hostile to the distant authority because it was unreliable.

Tryanny cover.jpg

The term ‘tyranny of distance’ pops up now and again in the popular media as it did today in a piece on the business pages of Rupert Murdoch’s organ, ‘The Australian.’ There Bernard Salt ('The Dallas Line,' 4 February) told readers that Sydney (which is Australia) is more than a plane ride (with current technology) from much of the world. OK, that is certainly true. No airline flies direct, non-stop from Sydney to London or from Sydney to New York City. This, he contends is detrimental to Australia because that is where the money of the world is. OK, that is also true, but what is the detrimental part? That was not articulated, instead the mantra distance is tyranny was cited. One pictures travellers lugging bags of dosh around inside that London-New York nexus unable to change planes, such is the size of dosh bags, in Los Angeles or Dubai.

The news is, and perhaps this is news to some, that money moves around the world in click of the keyboard as the cascade of financial crises around the world has repeatedly shown. Distance does not insulate any country from such financial calamity. That fact is ritually reiterated on the business page of the organ of Murdoch several times a week. Salt describes himself as a futurist on his web site. Think about that.

By the way, the other side of the tyranny of distance that Blainey mentioned was that in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries distance did insulate Australia from some of the more dopey and ephemeral fads that came and went elsewhere before they made the trip to Australia. Not from all such fads but some. It also insulated Australian from some infectious disease epidemics. No more. Bad ideas are replicated here within twenty-four hours.

The distance was measured in travel time as much as miles. Blainey wrote about Australia as remote but of course it was not remote to its aborigine in habitants, nor was it far from the South East Asians who regularly visited the northern shores.

The colonial master in the formative period of Australia’s European history was a long way away in both space and time. It might take, at best, six months to travel from Sydney to London. Moreover, ti was unsure. Ships turned back; some were even less fortunate. Others jettisoned cargo, like correspondence, in heavy seas and so the letter went unanswered. When word did come through from London it was so late as to be laughable, and fertilising the attitude that authority was remote, anonymous, and stupid.

The result was the Australian political culture of the 1970s, one that entwined a dependence on government for nearly everything from the marketing of eggs to trimming of hedges, while disparaging government and all who worked for it as cretins. Australians wore this anti-authoritarianism with pride, automatically against the government even while waiting for the next handout from it. Rather like a teenage boy rebelling against his parents while pocketing the weekly allowance and storming off to a room provided by the detested parents.

For Australia the first breach in the tyranny of distance was the Boeing long distance jets that supplanted ships for the travel of mere mortals in the 1970s. There followed a generation later the digital world which has shaken many of the most solid institutions like newspapers themselves.

Why read Murdoch’s organ when I can click up BBC News, Le Monde, or Deustche Welle? (My personal answer, since I have been asked this, is the local news that will never make it to these outlets, and the reviews, cultural, and entertainment information. And the nonsense that ever fewer, ever more desperate journalist write, which provides unintended - always the best kind - entertainment. And reading them on paper is still more convenient that on screen.)

When the fad for small government was born on the winds of Proposition 13 (that was referendum for the taxpayers’ revolt in California) in 1978, the spores circled the globe and arrived in Australia rather like the cloud of radiation in Neville Shute’s ‘On the Beach,’ Australians happily shrank government. The one example I witnessed firsthand was the higher education division in the Federal Department of Education which shrank from 400 to 40 to 14, probably 4 now. Each successive government wins office on a pledge to cut government spending, and cut they do. This is now a forty year race to eviscerate government.

Of course a lot of things go wrong as the cuts were made, but as one prime minister said, ‘Not our fault.’ End of that story. Strangely enough though government has vacated many realms from airlines to docks, the tax bill has not decreased but the automatic anti-authority posturing has decreased so some good has come from it. Though poseurs quickly find other posture to affect, it is true to say.

We do not hear much about the French Social Model (FSM) these days, now do we? For those who tuned in late or tuned out early, in the first decade of the 2000s the French Social Model was often invoked in hushed and respectful tones, even here in the far antipodes.

Students proposed to do theses on the French Social Model, that was the first I had heard of it. They were getting the message elsewhere. Then at conferences there were sessions that included the FSM. When I returned from a conference in Paris at the OECD, the Master of the Universe to whom I then reported asked about the manifestations of the FSM, in the expectation that they were there to see, I guess, in the streets.

Of course the same people who humbled themselves before this mirage of Gallic sagacity were unsparing critics of the Anglo societies in which they lived. Liberalism was a hoax and democracy a sham in the Anglo-Saxon world.

IMG_2597.JPG Of course, few pay into the system.

I had to report to my boss that there were no signs of utopia in Paris between the hotel room and La Défense where the OECD talkfest occurred. (The area is called La Défense because the Prussian Army stopped at that point in 1870, preferring to let the French in Paris kill each other in the Commune. In French mythology the Prussians were fought to standstill. There are people who think they stopped the Germans in 1940, too.)

Then in 2006 there were riots in the streets in the Arab and African quarters of Paris and other French cities. Gulp! It went on and on. There is plenty of video on You Tube for those who need a refresher. The complaints and demands were many.

What French Social Model? A repressive police apparatus, the routine deportation of anyone who complained too conspicuously, withdrawal of the license to publish in some cases. Fifty per cent unemployment because no European French would hire a dark skinned person. Automatic failure in school for anyone name Ahmed. Denial of family reunion immigration. Closure of hospitals in the third world parts of Paris. The list goes on.

It had been going on for decades and was as effective in deluding intellectuals seeking an illusion to go with the fumé blanc and brie as the Soviet Union had been in the 1930s. Neither the levels nor means of repression in the two cases are comparable. What is comparable is the readiness of some intellectuals to be deluded by a convenient illusion.

The worship of the FSM has gone quiet of late. Not even the election of the Socialist President François Hollande quite revived it. This accountant from the country has seemed to be in over his head as did his predecessor (who is now lining up to be his successor). The cleanskin Socialist Party has stumbled from one crisis to another, several if its own making.

Hollande.jpg President Hollande

My personal favourite was the Socialist finance minister who pushed for draconian penalties for tax avoidance for all sorts of patriotic and humanitarian reasons. He was undone when his own personal tax avoidance became public knowledge. First he denied the monies existed. Then that the monies were significant. Then that the monies were really his (reaching for his wife as a shield). That it was an oversight. Then…. Then he resigned. Oh, and there was that other financial wizard caught with pants down in New York. Ah, the moral leadership of Socialism. That event thrust Hollande into the leadership.

The point is, for those about to jump to a conclusion, not that the Socialists are any worse than others but that they are no different.

Then in response to terrorists attacks, the Socialist President has declared an open-ended state of emergency. Wow! Imagine if President George Bush had done that in 2001! He would have been verbally crucified by the talking-head industry around the world and certainly here in Australia where throwing stones at far-away others is a career. The French attacks were bad, to be sure, but not on the scale of 9/11, but the reaction has been far greater and quicker. Not much of it makes the Australian news in preference to car accidents on the Pacific Highway.

Viewers of TF2 news on SBS see daily reports of other police raids, and shoot outs. One suspects that the police services have had a long list of villains and now they have the justification to strike at them.

The French Social Model has some adjuncts. The French budget has not be balanced since Valery Giscard d’Estang was president (1974-1981). The debts just keeps on rolling.

One of the biggest drains on the budget is the military establishment which accounts for about 40% of it which is then used for frequent armed interventions in African, including the Arab countries in North Africa.

France africa.jpg French African Model

At any one time France has military units deployed in twenty or more places in Africa. Colonialism or the Gallic Enlightenment?

Dyson is sometimes said to be the greatest physicist never to win a Nobel Prize, settling instead with having a space craft named for him in ‘Star Trek.’ The book is autobiographical but not an autobiography. Huh? The essays set forth something of his life and career as a scientist from his first absorption in and simple absorption of mathematics, to technical work during World War II in Bomber Command, to theoretical work in the Cold War… That is autobiographical part. However it does not offer much of the private man, though we do find out some of his personal life there is no interior, and it is shorn of any reflections on the might-have-beens in his life. The ruminations, and there are a few, are about science and scientists and those they effect or effect them.

disturbing universe cover.jpg

He, by the way, was perhaps among the one million Allied soldiers estimated to be killed in the conquest of Japan, who was saved by the atomic bombs. He had been ordered to Okinawa with a contingent of RAF Bomber Command to join the aerial campaign against Japan in anticipation of a sea landing in November 1946. The Allied planners had assumed one million (1,000,000) Allied causalities to subdue the islands of Japan, based largely not the resistance on Iwo Jima and then Okinawa. He read the news of the first atomic bomb en route to the boat train for the Orient. His orders were altered, and he was demobilised. (The planners also assumed ten times that many Japanese deaths in the conflict and untold numbers later in the devastation of the entire country that would be necessary to subdue it.) The planners also assumed nearly all of these Allied casualties would be Americans, since the other Allies were depleted by the war in Europe and that the Soviet Union would play the waiting game, if for no other reason than in retaliation for the tardy opening of the second front in Europe in 1944. Among the many contingency plans for this operation was, after Japan had been bombed flat, to convert air force personnel to infantry and send them into the charnel house. One such flyboy being converted to infantry in 1945 was my father.

‘The Children’s Crusade’ is the chapter about his RAF experiences. It is absolutely outstanding account of bureaucratic pathology. I used it a number of times in teaching. The more lies told, the more innocents murdered, the more lives thrown away, the greater the prestige of Bomber Command, the more knighthoods distributed, the larger the budget to continue the mayhem, the less rational analysis occurred. Nothing unique about it, but he lays it all out in a way that is all too familiar.

He started a PhD and sent a year at Cornell University with Hans Bethe, who sent him on to the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton New Jersey to work with J. Robert Oppenheimer. Many of the Los Alamos scientists, apart from Oppenheimer, had been hired by Cornell. (Chicago got the rest.) Entering their company was exhilarating and frightening to the young Dyson. They had won the Pacific War with their brains, it seemed to him, and now he was one of them, well, not really, but he was among them.

He found Cornell and later the Institute very different from Cambridge where he started the PhD research earlier. First, there was plenty of everything from butter to test tubes and clean, crisp white paper. To a theorist like Dyson, who quickly proved himself so inept at experiments as to be a danger to anyone else working nearby, the clean, crisp, empty white paper was a thrill. (Reminded me of paper elsewhere.) Second, he found the informality of first names, all lining up together for lunch, and sitting at one table different from both the RAF Bomber Command, of course, but also from the class, status, and hierarchy consciousness of Cambridge.

There was another distinguishing feature that stayed with him. The anguish of the atomic scientists at having unleashed the atom. Most days at lunch or coffee someone would talk about it as a moral question, as moral guilt, as a genie that would not go back into the lamp, as the last consuming sin of hubris.

It is in this context that Dyson interprets Fredrick Teller’s fatal testimony against Oppenheimer, and it makes sense in this telling. Oppenheimer was so distraught, feeling ashamed and guilty, stunned, confused by the enormity of nuclear weapons that he had become unstable, volatile, sleepless, haunted, and so was not fit for duty. Teller was trying to make a specific and limited criticism of Oppenheimer’s fitness for the job as director of the Atomic Energy Commission, but in the hysteria of the time and place it got blown out of proportion and he never lived down this betrayal of his mentor, doing himself as much damage as he did Oppenheimer. Of course, Teller might well have realised that once he took a public side, it would spin out of his control. Too bad the principals of Wikileaks did not learn from such an example. Once it is out, it is out of control. This is one of many examples in the book of the disservice the media does to reason and rationality with its remorseless, cheap sensationalism.

Toward the middle of the book is the story of Matthew Meselson, a biologist, who won a single-handed victory in the Nixon Administration. Armed with reason and evidence he convinced the National Security Council, which in turn convinced President Nixon, to end military research into chemical and biological weapons: One man with an idea, per John Stuart Mill. Moreover, having renounced CBW (chemical and biological warfare) the Nixon administration convinced the Soviet government to do the same, completely in contradiction to the conventional wisdom. This is a marvellous story which was swamped too soon by the tale of Watergate. In order to slip it past domestic opposition, Nixon played it all so low key many involved did not realise it was done, least of all the sensation-seeking media. No great rhetoric but an achievement for the ages. Dyson was one of the scribes doing the technical work on the reports and proposals that went into this effort.

Nixon also deserves credit for listening to the arguments of Daniel P. Moynihan about cities as per Stephen Hess, ‘The President and the Professor’ (2014) but again, to out manoeuvre opponents on the right, Nixon did so with no fanfare to attract the the attention of the jaded hacks.

Dyson like many of his scientific colleagues drew strength from poetry and music. Indeed he often tried to understand what he was doing by finding poems that expressed it. The same with music. He emerges from this book as a modest and direct individual with a great deal of intellect and capacity for meeting challenges, solving problems, indeed, but not only technical ones.

Dyson head.jpg Freeman Dyson.

Lee Hansen first enticed me to read this book, and I used the chapter about Dyson’s experiences in bomber Command many times in teaching to demonstrate the pathologies of large organisations. I lent it to a friend and when he returned it, I opened it and started to read it again. I had thought of it last year when we saw ‘Particle Theory’ about the God-particle, and I noticed the enormous spectacles on the nose of an owlish man in the audience; it was Dyson.

While in the States Dyson did what so many exchange students have done there, including Jacques Chirac, and criss-crossed the country by bus. Dyson chose his destinations according to his finances and the physicists he might meet at the destinations, either by attending lectures or knocking on the office door, thing he would never have done in England.

The Authors

About the Blog

Thoughts on the canon of poltical theory and life.
More

You are visitor:
hit counter script