Sunday, March 31, 2013

Facile sloganeering begins all wars...

"Weapons of Mass Destruction" ; "Light at the End of the Tunnel".

Who can forget the facile slogans that seem to start every war ?

"The Bomber Always gets Through" started WWII, quickly followed by "The Battleship Always gets Through" and "The Tank Always gets Through".

To the smart money of the Age of Modernity, these modern mechanical Goliaths seemed surely destined to kick the shit out of any puny David that chanced to stand in their way.

It would seem to be awfully hard to stop an armoured, multi-turretted 'fortress of the air' like the 65 ton B-29 bomber : but in 1945, 2 ton Zero fighters were still dropping them out of the skies like flies.

And in 1945, mammoth 65 ton Tiger II tanks were being stopped cold by 130 lb youths armed only with shoulder fired bazookas.

And in 1945, 75,000 ton super battleships still could be sunk by 750 ton submarines.

If this were a boxing match, its all rather like the heavy weight champion of the world being knocked out stone cold by some four year old wearing her first pair of training gloves.

So, with all due apologies to that famous chicken in that long ago Canadian Parliament chamber:

 "Some Goliath !" "Some David !"

Friday, March 29, 2013

Modernists unite over fear of "the mob"

The authors and artists we think of as "The Modernists" did have their divisions.

Some exalted Modernity's materialism and rationalism while others opposed rationalism (so they said) and sought to go back to an golden age of myths and rituals, a sort of anti-Modernity.

But virtually all of them happily re-united around an abiding fear of democracy and of being ruled by a "mob" of the lower middle class, working class and the defectives.

And an astonishing number wrote of "exterminating" these "lesser" classes.

We can say this for certain of many of the best known Modernists because they left plenty of private papers and have had enough interest from scholars to see that all of their private and public writing has had a through going over with a fine tooth comb.

But I suspect the lack of evidence that the lesser studied Modernists also held these quasi fascist beliefs indicates only a lack of evidence or a lack of scholarly interest, not a lack of such beliefs among them.

Ordinary middle to upper middle class people from the period 1910 to 1945 are even less likely to get studied in the detail that prominent people of that period have been.

But I suspect that a through sampling of what personal writings and newspaper reports from that period that do remain would reveal an amazing amount of quasi-fascist talk from ordinary well-to-do individuals all over the world.

Emphasizing once again that what separated hard core Nazi from soft core Yeats or Elliot was more an matter of degree,  not kind ...

Thursday, March 28, 2013

WWII's sins of uncaring omission as War Crimes

Even animals would be discomforted at the audible and visual pain as millions of Indians starved to death during the Bengali Famine of 1943.

It is a pity that so many of us,supposedly more sophisticated, humans have been less discomforted about the event ever since.

Most of us - at least in the Allied West - would strongly reject the  idea that this totally unnecessary mass famine was a war crime and and a sin of uncaring omission.

To ease our own consciences, we much prefer to limit our definition of war crimes to sins of commission, done by obvious evil-doers : the direct shooting, gassing or bayoneting of civilians as at Nanking, the Katyn Forest or at Auschwitz.

But it is not enough to save "oops -sorry !" when bombs we intend for rail yards or oil refineries happen to fall upon 250,000 soon-to-be dead civilians in occupied countries - not if we also clearly know that most of our bombs always fall widely off target.

Claiming that anything and everything is justified if our intent (to defeat Hitler) is good is not a moral claim with legs.

It puts one to mind of the claims of George W Bush that he just had to suspend civil liberties in America ----- in order to bring them instead to the oppressed of the Middle East !

We must always demonstrate extremely due care when we kill some in an effort to save others : clearly seeking to see if there are not other ways to defeat evil without killing so many of the innocent.

Famine , fortunately, was not general throughout the Allied and Neutral world, between 1939-1945.

But many (powerless) people needlessly went more hungry than they had to , in many of the Allied-controlled colonies.

But if Allied famine had been widespread and prolonged - caused perhaps by normally reoccurring weather disasters adding to uncaring imperial government mis-management - would it have been moral to continue to treat DDT as a war secret and deny its use to civilians, to reduce additional loss of food to insect pests ?

The militarizing of wartime DDT thus escaped - just - being another war crime of uncaring omission.

But there are more uncaring crimes of omission in the Allied closet.

In 1940-1941, several years into WWII, the new class of sulfa drugs which had emerged only 5 years earlier, seemed a gift that just kept on giving.

Today when the doctor comes in with the test results and says "I'm very afraid it appears that the cancer has metastasized" , the room gets very still as patient, family and nursing personnel absorb the grim news.

In the years before sulfa and antibiotics, people rarely lived to an age where they could learn that their original primary (localized) cancer tumour had spread throughout their body and that their chances of survival were now slim.

Instead what they feared was something not un-similiar happening with an infection that had originally been localized to one lesion , something most bodies, and good nursing care, could eventually fight off on its own.

Now in came the doctor with the blood tests (indicating colonies of bacteria were thick throughout the entire blood supply) and the room would go similarly silent.

Septicemia (Sepsis) was what the doctor would call it, but laypeople  would whisper to friends "blood-poisoning" , just we tend today to whisper "the doctor says the cancer is all through the body".

While we are correct to say that cancer spreading throughout the body (ie a systemic cancer rather than a localized tumour) is deadly and will directly kill us, our concept of what blood poisoning actually means is only half accurate at best.

It is correct that a bacteria infection flourishing in the blood will spread through out the body (is now a systemic disease) but the bacteria will not directly kill us - not by their "poisons" or their physical actions.

Rather it is that our body overreacts to any massive (systemic) assault upon it - not just to systemic bacterial infections - and it is the body's immune defenses' overreaction that kills us in sepsis.

The 1930s - modernist - mindset thought everything humans did - including our immune system - was marvellous beyond words and simply much preferred to blame those nasty little devils, the bacteria.

Until Sulfa drugs came along, nothing but God's will and dumb luck could prevent sepsis from ending in death.

The arrival of the sulfa drugs had meant all sides in WWII went to war a bit more confident that infection deaths would be much reduced on and off the battlefield.

So, despite the war between them, both the Allies and the Axis went on investigating tens of thousands of sulfa drugs, publicly* patented thousands of them and seriously trying hundreds of them on animals and humans.

*Yes, even in wartime - on both sides ! A notable contrast with the Allied secrecy on DDT and penicillin.

The new sulfa drugs of 1940-1941 tended to be less toxic and more effective than the slightly older ones - some even treated diseases originally thought beyond the reach of sulfa.

How could life ever get much better than this ?

But a year is a very long time in infectious disease treatment when practised massively and on a global basis.

By late1942, the sulfas were in a dire crisis.

Two American chemists, Roblin and Bell- who had helped invent the latest in the sulfa wonder drugs - had just published a convincing chemical explanation for their claim that the sulfa molecule (whatever its other medical uses) would no longer produce any new antibacterial drugs.

Seventy five years on, their claim has stood the test of time.

Typically the popular media (Newsweek, September 21st 1942, for example) played Roblin and Bell's research as a good news story - saying that now chemists could tell if a drug would work, before actually assembling it in the test tube.

But frontline chemists in the sulfa-synthesizing business could not help but hear it as a death knell.

The sulfas had other problems.

A few strains of bacteria had always and instantly shown a resistance to their bacterial action. But now the numbers of strains so displaying resistance had exploded in numbers and their resistance was more potent.

The first human response was to up the dosages to overcome the resistance.

The sulfa drugs had always been moderately toxic even at low dosages and required attention to detail in monitoring their use.

But now heavy dosages and careless doctor and nursing care was leading to needless deaths from the drug itself.

More thoughtful doctors faced a horrible choice : too big and too long a sulfa treatment might kill or permanently damage the patient, but without it , the patient was almost certain to die from sepsis.

They jungled frantically, trying different sulfas as well as backing them off for a while and then returning to them.

This disaster in the sulfa treatment of systemic infections was effecting military hospitals as least as hard as civilian hospitals.

The dirty little secret of war wound medicine is that soldiers rarely die from localized infections, anymore than they do in civilian life.

Soldiers die all the time from massive wounds - as do civilians - but rarely is the fact that the wound is also locally infected the critical factor in their death.

But if any sized wound permits the infection to spread to the blood - then soldiers do die from the indirect result of a wound that was originally just locally infected.

Just as well then that the local curing of local wounds was largely irrelevant to life survival.

Because the sulfas were proving to be totally useless in curing local wound infections. In 1940, two British researchers, Fildes and Woods, had offered up an explanation for how sulfa works (that it is mistaken for a vital food bacteria needs) that has also stood the test of time for 75 years.

Their research also explained why sulfa sometimes didn't work even if the bacterial strain wasn't resistant to it.

If bacterial lesion had lots of the real food around, enough bacteria ate it, instead of the useless sulfa lookalike, to keep the infection going.

Wounds - badly tended war wounds in particular - had lots of that food provided by dead and dying flesh.

So no new sulfas on the way - ever , the ones now in use were proving to be either useless, toxic or increasingly resisted by more and more bacteria.

Today,at any one time, we prefer to use about a dozen different drugs to fight serious infections.

But also we have about one hundred we could use - including the sulfas - if the current dozen all suddenly proved useless.

More importantly, these one hundred represent many different classes of drugs - never is any one bacteria infection resistant to all of them.

These discarded drugs are both more toxic or less effective than those in preferred use, but if death by sepsis is the alternative, even a highly toxic drug is the better - more moral - choice.

But the sulfas were the one and only class of drugs in use in 1942 against systemic life threatening infection ; they all shared the same good and bad features, all shared the same fate.

So it appeared that inevitable death by blood poisoning , for both military personnel and civilians, was on its way back.

Unless .......penicillin was put into serious mass production.

But in 1942, both the British and American medical elites had already decided that penicillin was to be kept as secret as possible and used only as a weapon of war - used only to cure our side's wounded on the QT,  so no one else would pick up on it.

Letting civilians have it and above all letting civilian newspapers chatter on about miracle cures would only alter the enemy into making their own penicillin and the Allied military advantage would be gone.

Powerful figures in Britain and America decided that wasn't about to happen.

But in the Fall of 1942, one man realized that if penicillin was now the only thing between blood poisoning death and a nice long life, he would have to up his own ante in this relentless game of chicken.

So that Fall, Dr Henry Dawson stole his first supply of government-issued penicillin and put it to work saving lives from systemic SBE disease , again against strict government orders to let the SBE patients die.

By his reckoning, if the Allies could militarize penicillin, there seemed no reason why one - dying - doctor couldn't un-militarize it back again......

Monday, March 25, 2013

1940 Penicillin : localized Gas Gangrene or systemic SBE ?

Within days of reading war-dodger Howard Florey's published conclusion that the as-yet-unproven penicillin was particularly suited to the military's most feared infection, gas gangrene, war-hero Henry Dawson defiantly decided - by pointed contrast - that penicillin was particularly well suited to defeat the ultimate in non-military infections, deadly subacute bacterial endocarditis, SBE.

The timing of Dawson's decision - during the most critical days of the expected Invasion of Britain - only heighten this highly unusual contrast between how we expect war-heroes and war-dodgers to behave and how these two examples actually did behave.

Florey had declined to serve his country when he was young but now was very eager to aid it (as a draft-proof middle ager) by steering the new penicillin towards use as as a local antiseptic for gas gangrene infections in frontline casualty tents.

For centuries, gas gangrene infections were the most dreaded and also the most uniquely wartime forms of death (rarely causing death in peacetime).

Any talk of the possibility of finally ending gas gangrene's terrors was acutely pitched to catch the ears of war's political, military and medical leadership.

By contrast, when on the day of America's first peacetime Draft Registration, a day dedicated to locating all of America's 1A youth,  Dawson choose to instead try and save the lives of two SBE sufferers, one Black and one Jewish, he was focused on the most 4F imaginable of the unwanted 4Fs.

The most 4F of all the 4Fs : the SBEs

For no nation's military , no matter how hard pressed for manpower, was likely to regard SBEs as more than just a particularly costly burden for a wartime economy to bear.

It usually hit young adults , the prime category for draft boards and munition factories, but no matter what modern medicine threw at it, it always ended after months of expensive effort with the inevitable death of the patient.

In that Fall of 1940, the Medical School at Columbia University, which employed Dawson, had moved to reduce its offerings in Social medicine and up its offerings in War medicine, in response to the battle for civilization not taking place over the skies of Britain.

It certainly had no cause to expect any complaints from professor Dawson, he of all its employees.

He was, after all, from a Canadian family of five brothers, all who volunteered to fight in WWI, all who were wounded in the front lines - one who had paid the ultimate price and others who got medals for bravery and leadership under fire.

Dawson likely had more front line experience - in the medical corp, the infantry and in artillery - than any one else in the Medical School.

When he wasn't serving in hospitals dealing with wounded soldiers, he was in military hospitals himself as a patient - fighting off life-threatening infected war wounds he himself received.

Surely such a patriot and such a veteran of battlefront infections  saw the sense on Howard Florey's proposal to focus penicillin research on battlefront wound infections  and to agree with his university's decision to focus on war related medical research ?

But clearly he did not - and the mystery is to account for why he did not - but instead, precisely and perversely, did exactly the opposite.

Penicillin did not, in the end, reduce deaths due to gas gangrene - in fact penicillin pioneer ( and WWI veteran) RJV Pulvertaft found that the evidence suggested that the percentage of gas gangrene sufferers who died actually went up in WWII , compared to the results obtained in the last years of the previous war !

By contrast, in the end, penicillin proved to be the best medicine ever seen to stop deadly systemic (body-wide) infections like SBE and blood-poisoning.

Explaining the mystery and the paradox

Based on just the evidence, part of the mystery might therefore seemed to solve itself: the modest Dawson was simply a far better scientist than the very pushy and ambitious, but ultimately plodding, Florey.

But Dawson was also extremely patriotic in ways that Florey couldn't begin to imagine and we still must explain why he felt  that his best way to personally aid the war effort was to come to the aid of Life's weakest members.

Saint Peter had only denied Christ's pleas three times, but between 1931 and 1941, America had denied pleas for help from smaller, weaker countries under attack over two dozen times, only deciding
to put the Greatest Generation Ever to work fighting the only Good War, after it itself was attacked.

Helping Life's weakest members is all very nice in theory said America - but what in the hell does it have to do with fighting WWII - which was all about one's own naked self interest ?

Perhaps Dawson was merely confused -  was still fighting WWI - was still fighting for poor bleeding little Belgium.


the last VICTORIAN war : 1939-1945

Looking over today's crop of leaders in politics, business and culture and comparing them with the world leaders of the 1940s, one is struck by today's leaders' comparative youth.

By contrast, the world of WWII was run by the white-haired teenagers of the Victorian Age.

Normally war is said to be an event for young men and young men's energy, but between1939-1945 the young men silently and glumly marched off to fight, while back home - in charge - the old men postponed their retirements and found a second wind.

They would replay WWI all over and this time, run it their way - not the way of their fathers.

Today's teenagers view the reforming (thermosetting) promises of  Scientism through the cynical and disappointed eyes of 125 years of broken promises, but the eternal teenagers who ran WWII were born in the first flush of the Age of Scientism and never stopped believing.

They still remained as hopeful that Scientism's reforming promises would finally deliver when the last of them died in the early 1970s as when they were still the naively optimistic teenagers of the years of good Queen Victoria's reign.

WWII was not uniquely a war between scientists and technologists - one could make the case that the Napoleonic wars and last year's war were also wars between scientists and technologists.

the last war of unalloyed SCIENTISM : 1939-1945

But it was uniquely the only big war fought between true believers in reform Scientism on all sides : Allies, Axis and Neutrals.

But reform Scientism delivered its first big disappointments in that war , signally failed to do what it had long pledged it could do, if only it was given its head and released from the shackles of old outdated sentiments.

As a permanent reminder of that failure, reform Scientism's seventy years on Earth by 1945 were marked by that war's seventy million dead : a million for each year of Scientism's existence....

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The astonishing Nova Scotia connection to the end of TWO world wars

It is fairly well known that the death of Nova Scotian George Price is traditionally regarded as that of the last British Commonwealth soldier to die in WWI.

Much less well known is the fact that a ship built in Pictou Nova Scotia , the Avondale Park , was the last British Commonwealth ship to be sunk by a U-boat in WWII.

Both events happened literally in the last minutes and hours of their prospective wars and both shouldn't of happened : Price was warned about the sniper who killed him and the U-boat that sunk the Avondale Park had failed to get the radio signal to cease all hostile actions sent days earlier.

Though the back of the wolf pack war was broken in the Spring of 1943, for the next two years individual U-boats continued to quite successfully sink merchant ships and naval vessels from the northernmost end of the Atlantic to the southernmost tip.

In particular, no Atlantic bay or estuary was truly safe right up to the last days of the war - many ships were sunk in broad daylight and in clear view of onshore civilians.

By March and April 1945, the Germany army was becoming as useless as the German air force had long been, but the navy's U-boats at sea remained as successful as ever.

At a relatively small cost in material and in number of military deaths (though in both cases, in percentage terms, these were far the most dangerous branch of their respective militaries to be in), the German U-boats and the American Pacific submarine fleet had done a disproportional amount of damage to their foes.

The U-boats probably lengthened the European war by two or three years - the American subs probably shortened the Pacific war by the same amount of time.

A deadly triumph of the weak and the small....

Neither got the resources and attention that the mostly useless battleship and heavy bomber got - because this was a time when bigness in everything was exalted by any nation that claimed to be truly modern.

But throughout the long war, these small boats often took a repeated and deadly postmodern revenge on this modernistic fantasy....

Monday, March 18, 2013

1939-1945 : Big MO goes Postal instead of going Monumental

Big MO is an appropriate nickname for The Age of Modernity because there was always something inhumanly massive about almost everything and anything that that age and the people within it turned their hands to.

Very hard indeed to imagine the people of the early 1940s not going Postal, and not going to deadly war with each other.

But if they hadn't been building bunkers and had been building monuments and buildings instead, this ponderous essence in their inner character might still be visible.

Hitler and Stalin, not wanting to be outdone by the Hoover Dam and the Maginot Line, were planning to leave their own marks in concrete and rebar steel, massive and tedious beyond all belief.

Modernity was all about regarding Reality as being thermo-settable : plastic until cured and then rigid forever more.

Concrete is the thermoset plastic par excellent : broken up, it is useless to re-melt into new concrete.

Rebar steel, while appearing to be plastic only when red hot and rigid at normal temperatures ( ie thermoset plastic in character) , is actually also somewhat thermosoft plastic in character as well.

Because used steel can be remelted and molded into a new shape as scrap, as part of the normal steel-making process.

Armour steel is thermoset plastic in its character, and became the wartime symbol of Modernity's massive and rigid nature.

Armour plate is plastic when red hot but at normal temperatures, it resists all change : even when change is coming at it in the form of a dense tungsten core of an anti-tank round moving in at 2500 miles an hour !

Bombers, bombs, bomber fleets - perhaps the most typical expression of Modernity at war, got steadily bigger and more armoured as the war progressed.

As did tanks, tank guns and tank fleets.

Ditto naval Taskforces : bigger battleships, bigger guns, bigger aircraft carriers, more armour, more speed, more aircraft and escort vessels.

More, more, more : every war machine just got steadily bigger, heavier, faster, higher, lower : extremes of any and all sorts.

Notably as the world got more war machines and the machines got bigger and fatter, the world's population growth shrank and people got thinner and thinner.

In WWII, (Modernity gone Postal), Modernity showed its true colors : placing machines before people even in the face of near universal malnutrition.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Darwin's VERTICAL commensality vs Dawson's HORIZONTAL commensality

Darwin and his intellectual kinfolk reluctantly accepted a world in constant "liquid" evolutionary change but then reduced that change to a practical nil by making the liquid to be glass.

Glass is a liquid, technically, and over centuries will flow downward ( a very little) if left as vertical glass window panes.

Darwin saw evolutionary change happening so slowly that effectively the genome passed vertically from grandparent to parent to grandchild would be 99.99% the exact same.

But verticality was also the key to Darwin's entire structuring of reality.

In the lower level hand corner of his intellectual grid, primitive and tiny life had emerged, a long time ago, from the chemical slime.

In the upper right corner - much bigger and much more complex - was Man with an arrow of progress pointing upwards to the right ; ever upward, ever more bigger and more complex.

The lower orders, races and nations were older, smaller ,weaker and simple-minded.

The highest representatives of progress were in the upper classes of the bigger, newer nations and races.

Each stratification in this 45 degree angled vertical representation of progress over time dined with its own kind : commensality that was close, separate and unequal.

The classic representation of Modernity - as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out long ago - was that mural painted on the all of about every museum of Natural History worldwide.

Small creepy crawlies occupy the left part of the mural as civilizied Man strides confidently out of the frame at the extreme right.

In between small horses to the left become bigger horses to the right.

But Gould points out that in fact the smaller and older beings - four billion year old bacteria being the ultimate example - don't go extinct when bigger and bigger beings come along - they continue to occupy biological niches quite successfully along with their bigger pals.

And every time the Earth decides to do so global house-cleaning and kills of most of the species - it is the bigger not the smaller species that disproportionally go extinct !

Henry Dawson was not the first to observe Horizontal Evolution
 (HGT : Horizontal Gene Transfer or "Transformation") but he was the first to take it seriously and to study it intensely.

It turns out that bacteria, those poor dumb simple things, have a huge number of ways of adjusting to changing environments (a huge number of genes) - but in no way are all these gene tricks found in all bacteria, because that would be far too much of a nutritional burden for each to maintain.

Instead, when times get tough, some bacteria instantly shed useful genes for dealing with the crisis and other bacteria instantly take them up and put them instantly to work.

Let civilized Man invent an antibiotic and five years later bacteria from around the world can show a newfound resistance to it.

Dawson easily intellectually also absorbed HGT.

It just became yet another color in his already growing palette of the ways the very smallest and weakest, oldest forms of life - the bacteria - manage to co-exist, survive, endure and even thrive against the toughest attacks that Life's biggest and most complex being , civilized Man , could throw at them.

It became apparent that Man and his bacteria had to learn, not to like and admire each other, but at least to agree to accept that both were bound together for all eternity : sharing, albeit reluctantly , in an open and global horizontal commensality.

Weak stupid bacteria in the lower left and big strong bright Man at the upper right framed the entire continuum of vertical stratification of life.

Such as the smaller (in vertical distance apart) but all important stratification between upper class white European protestant males and women, children, negro natives, and the European working class "beneath" them.

For Darwin claimed this apparently unfair hierarchy was a actually a perfectly aligned meritocracy and the European male was on top because he was smarter than anyone or anything else.

But to admit that the humble bacteria could slice and dice genes while the lab scientist could only watch helplessly , threatened the whole elaborate stratification justification.

Maybe genius was as likely to be found in urban testament as in leafy green suburb !

Unthinkable : so Dawson's efforts with HGT were met with icy silence.

But his earlier HGT work does help explain Dawson's seemingly quixotic effort to let SBE 4Fs thrive against the establishment eugenicists using the war as an excuse to hasten their deaths.

In a horizontal world where worth was found everywhere and anywhere, what biological, let alone moral, justification be found to let the 4F die and the 1A thrive ?

Its a very post-modern question to which Modernity had no good answer....

Friday, March 15, 2013

the "THEATRE" of war : 1939-1945

WWII started out on a note of uplift in 1939, with its three actors (Scientific Racism, Scientific Capitalism and Scientific Socialism) all united in eating the scenery but ended in farce in 1945, as the scenery proceeded to eat the three actors.

These actors can't be said to lack ambition.

Japan and Germany agreed to divide the world between them, planning over the course of a few years to double their size every three months until they had grown from roughly 100,000 square miles in size into giants 100 million square miles in size.


These were to be formal empires, ruled directly from Berlin and Tokyo.

Washington and Moscow planned, instead, just informal empires , ruling indirectly, but also saw no reason to stop at sharing the globe with anyone : an entirely capitalist or communist world would do nicely.

But in all these variegated planned empires , their shared gods would at least be a constant : all praise Newton, Dalton and Darwin !

In Physics, Newtonian ballatics still held total sway : for Nordenized bombs , neither snow,rain,heat nor the gloom of night would stay these couriers of death from their anointed round : enemy barrels would soon be in right some pickle.

In Chemistry, Dalton's simple adding together of elemental atoms  had been shown, mostly by German chemists, as able to create anything and everything.

 Hitler, among others,  was reassured that  no more would hunger be a restraint on war, with all the resulting disease and government-toppling food riots. "No bread ? Why don't they just eat food pills ?"

In Biology, all three actors believed in negative and positive eugenics, with characteristic national differences in its actual application.

In Germany, quoting from the Old Testament of Darwin, the matter was strictly genetic, nature not nuture.

Certain races, bound by blood, were irredeemable and to be terminated negatively.

Other races were more plastic and could be molded positively into becoming the new Aryan superman.

Stalin much preferred the New Testament of Darwin , the Lamarck side of the old man , with certain classes , bound by their wealth and education, as irredeemable and to be terminated.

But the workers were more plastic and could made into the new socialist supermen.

America and most of the rest of the modern nations took a bit from both of these extreme positions and saw it was individuals within their nations that were irredeemable , mostly of one class admitably but in that class because of their genetic nature.

Flash forward to the summer of 1945, six long year later.

The actual course of the war hadn't gone exactly to any of the three actors' plans but instead had rather meandered , with Norden-like precision, widely and wildly all over the map.

The Norden bombsight, that apogee of Newtonian ballistic  precision, had been proven so inaccurate thanks to recalcitrant Nature, that the war only truly ended in August when a massive fire bomb was dropped, out of a bomber named after someone's mother,  and burned thousands of babies to death.

Now as long as your bombsight was accurate enough to be sure of hitting the right country, (something that bomber pilots from all combatant nations failed to get right at times), it was good enough : the A-bomb became Physics' reluctant Plan B.

And that summer all over the world, from Vietnam to the Netherlands, people were still looking up to the skies still hoping to see the long promised food pills drop out of the butterfly bombers like modern day manna.

Most dead people in this war, like most wars, still ended up dying of hunger and its diseases : Nature never bites back more violently that in the human stomach.

But no food pills. In fact, a few thousand chemists with PhDs and endless pots of money had even failed to assemble a few of Dalton's atoms into tiny molecules only 300 daltons in size.

So, in the end,  penicillin and quinine still had to be made by dumb nature : and Oxford University's most refined, dying, were saved by Pfizer's Brooklyn Crude, Chemistry's reluctant Plan B.

In fact, Oxford's most refined and least refined were both saved indifferently by Pfizer's and Glaxo's medicine, a sort of chemical Beveridge Report in action.

In July, the voters of Britain, having had a chance to look over what Buchenwald and Beveridge had offered as a solution to the problem of the weak and the poor , had voted overwhelmingly for Beveridge, Biology's reluctant Plan B.

Because even in race-above-all Germany, irredeemable races were soon found to be redeemable after all,  as farming and mining slaves , to keep Germans from starving and freezing to death.

Tens of millions of non-Germans filled every corner of nation that had started a war in an effort to purify itself all foreigners and all useless mouths.

Have I proven that irony and war are made for each other....

Thursday, March 14, 2013

MO goes po : K goes r : thermo-setable Reality becomes eternally thermo-softenable

Modernity optimistically and fervently believed that all of Reality , the entire chemical, biological and physical world, was plastic of a definite sort : thermo-set-able.

Everything - even human beings - was malleable but once set  perfectly and 'cured'  would remain thus - perfect - forever.

It was, in a sense, a view of reality as all K-selectable ; round rods for every round hole : every niche perfectly matched to an activity or being - forever.

Modernity feared, a fear never far away from this optimistic view of Reality, that Reality could also be plastic of the thermo-softening sort, if left in the wrong human hands : infinitely re-meltable in new shapes, most of them horrible mutations far far from beauty and utility.

Only a firm - tough - brutal - hand could keep the human forces of r-select from ruining Paradise.

Today we tend to more see Reality as r-selecting and thermo-softening : infinitely and eternally unpredictable.

But as post-Modernists, we tend to lay the credit or blame for this less at the feet of humans and more at the feet of Nature itself.

Humans can still create any chemical we can imagine, for example, but we no longer claim that we know, in advance , how it will interact with the world outside the lab.

This is because all of the hyperreal claims made by WWII authorities on both sides all fell flat on their face-----making us survivors eternally suspicious of extravagant claims about the human ability to precisely control Reality's plasticity.

Man manipulate the plasticity of Nature : yes.

But precisely manipulate that plasticity : no, no a thousand times no....

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The "Not So Good" War : September 1931- December 1941

The Good War began December 11th 1941 when Adolf Hitler persuaded a reluctant American Congress to declare war against the evil of Nazism.

It lasted three years and eight months, from when America  declared war on the evilness of Nazi Germany until August 1945, when America defeated the evilness of Tojo's Japan.

It is the war between the armed forces of morality and the armed forces of evil that American TV chooses to celebrate endlessly.

Infrequently discussed - in America - though perhaps not in the rest of the world, was the ten years and three months of The Not So Good War.

It began with the manufactured Manchuria incident in September 1931 that allowed Japan to brutally invade China without any reaction from the armed forces of morality.

Eventually it involved  two dozen countries being invaded by aggressive neighbours without any action taken to defend them by the armed forces of morality.

That all changed when Hitler's declaration of military war against America on December 11th 1941, forced Congress and America to defend itself against this new military threat.

But this realpolitik approach to dealing with the worst evilness the world has ever known didn't make for good propaganda, both during the war and ever since, and so the War of Good against Evil was created - mostly, it must be said, on a Hollywood backlot set at the time

And ever since then, mostly it has been created in popular American history books, films and TV documentaries.

The big problem is that in any branch of any  public library, there will also be literally hundreds  of books, films and TV documentaries about the Holocaust and their basic line - to their authors' credit - is that America knew all about the Holocaust and did nothing while it was happening.

Hard to reconcile these two very popular "popular history" subjects , the Good War and the Holocaust , isn't it ?

It is almost as if the victims of all those years of the Not So Good War have become honorary Holocaust victims, with the six million dead European Jews also standing  in for millions more dead all around the world who America also knew about at the time but did nothing to help.

Because in many ways, the Not So Good War carried right on through December 11th 1941, on and on well past the official end of WWII.

Then 1939-1945 could best be seen as a six year effort to violently subjugate the Polish people, begun by Hitler, but when he proved to be not up for the job, was finished by Stalin, with the complicity of Churchill and FDR.

The Good War, by this reckoning , was just an cosmetic overlay over a series of episodes between a group of superpowers, with smaller nations mere pawns in the conflict .....

Monday, March 11, 2013

Anschluss began 75 years this minute ...the countdown to WWII had begun

At 5am on the morning of March 12th 1938, the infamous Anschluss began.

At that minute -exactly 75 years ago- leading elements of the German advance team crossed the Austrian-German border, the signal start to the countdown to World War Two , which itself began less than 18 months later.

We can no longer ask the German adults who made the decision to invade Austria why they did it, nor can we ask the adults of the rest of the world why they meekly let Hitler break the Versailles Treaty by doing so.

They are all dead - only the children and young adults of that era are still around and even they are among our most senior citizens.

The origins of WWII have now passed beyond "oral history" into
the history of paper documents.

In addition, simple math reminds us that all of us alive today have spent far more time in the Post Modern Era ( post 1945) than we have in the Modern Era (pre 1945).

As a result we no longer instinctively have a feel for Modernist thought.

The intellectual gulf - far wider than just 75 years - between us postmodernists and the modernists of Anschluss

So a huge intellectual gap looms between us and the senior planners of Anschluss (and the senior politicians, bureaucrats and generals who planned the muted reaction to it) .

It is more than just the 75 years of time between us and the event itself.

In reality, it is the ideological chasm between our postmodernist sentiment and the sentiment of  long dead men whose mental universe was hardened when they were teenagers, more than 125 years ago.

Any 21st century history of WWII can not - I believe - be content any longer merely reciting a long of events : a sort of journalistic W4 .

It must provide the 5th W (why?) and explain it in terms we in the post-modern world can understand......

Saturday, March 9, 2013

MODERNITY as just one vast marketing ploy

At its very base base, Modernity consists of convincing other people (call 'em customers or colonies, tis the same) that you are smart (progressive/a professional scientist) and they are stupid (backward/laypeople).

Modernity and Imperialism after all grew up together and declined together: post-modernity and de-colonization being pretty much one and the same thing.

The 1920s trend to replace mom's homemade bread with  industrialized white bread and Britain's attempt to create imperialized/militarized penicillin  during WWII are two shades of the same big lie.

In most rural Nova Scotia farmhouses until recently, the biggest and cosiest room in the house was the kitchen where the big wood stove was the entire house's only form of heat.

There the kids would gather after school - by necessity in winter - to keep warm and watch mom prepare and then cook biscuits ,made from flour and water, that the kids immediately consumed. Artificial chemical preservatives need hardly enter such an immediate process.

But starting in the 1920s, bread manufacturers and their clever Goebbels of Madison Avenue successfully convince a new generation of Moms - and kids - that  mom's homemade bread was unsafe and unhygenic.

Scientists in white gowns in white factories could  put the right sort of chemicals in bread to kill all germs - and not so incidentially  - allow factory bread to be shipped a thousand miles across a nation, sit about for weeks and still not grow mold before being consumed.

Germs were destroyed - as were local bakeries.

Re-casting Mom as a lesser breed

All the moms in the Nova Scotia rural hinterland became an internal colony, as she no longer baked bread to compete with Ben's , the huge breadmaker in the imperial metropolitan centre of Halifax.

Instead she focused on cutting fish at the local fishplant and with her earnings now bought Ben's fluffy white stuff.

When I was a kid, the local children were embarrassed to have to bring delicious homemade bread and baked-beans sandwiches to school and would trade it for sandwiches of Ben's bread and Kraft sandwich spread.

Howard Florey was the son of an industrialist and knew all there was to know about how modernity cum industrialization cum imperialism worked.

 He was always most reluctant to ever give anyone some of his penicillium spores (usually sending rubbishy mutant spores unlikely to produce penicillin, if he was pushed to respond conventionally as one scientist to another scientist's request for some of the material mentioned in his published article.)

By contrast, he was almost willing to be seen forcing some of his Oxford Standard dried penicillin powder upon you , so as to prove he had made dry penicillin first and had set down the standard for others to follow.

He was actually doing nothing that Britain's political and industrial elite hadn't already worked out for themselves long before.

Give a colonist a vial of British-made penicillin and he could save a life for a day but then he'd need to trade cheap Indian cotton for expensive British  penicillin, forever, if he hoped to go on saving Indian lives.

"Give a man a fish" et al, in a new guise.

Enter Pulvertaft, Atkinson and Duhig 

By contrast, Robert Pulvertaft and Nancy Atkinson had different plans.

Howard Florey visited both and publicly - reluctantly - praised both, but was really was privately furious at both.

Pulvertaft in Cairo, Egypt had used Florey-made and British industry-made dry penicillin powder but they often arrived in pretty bad shape - unlike a fungi spore they didn't really survive travel well.

 But Pulvertaft had also secretly got a sample of Fleming's penicillium spores mailed to him from a pal at Wellcome Labs in London - and as spores do  - they traveled perfectly well indeed and started into making penicillin right away.

He was, like a rural Nova Scotian mom, making homemade penicillin in front of the patients to be consumed on the spot - and so like mom, didn't really need a whole lot of fancy high tech chemistry to render his penicillin safe.

His patients were wounded soldiers in his large base hospital and the liquid penicillin was barely produced by the penicillium spores in the hospital lab than it was coursing through the veins of the grateful soldiers : drying and chemical preservatives hardly entered into this cosy setup.

And he freely began to teach the local natives and other military units how to make their own penicillin with spores of his.

His efforts made Florey and Whitehall very angry indeed --- Britain hoped, once it had synthesized penicillin , to see a huge trade in penicillin in exchange for Egyptian cotton etc.

Nancy Atkinson because she was located in Adelaide Australia, Florey's home town, had his number and knew of his peculiar - grasping - personality.

 She avoided approaching Florey, got her penicillin from Fleming himself and soon got a local Adelaide firm to make local penicillin and gave some spores to Duhig in Brisbane so he too could goose up the tardy government approach to providing enough penicillin for civilian as well as soldier.

Florey was very angry that he - as the long time away "local boy" -  hadn't been invited in to help in Australia. Maybe his selfish and secretive attitude had something to do with it ?

I have said that the biggest reason for the long delay in providing wartime penicillin to those dying for lack of it was Florey, Flemings and AN Richards' obsession with weaponizing it.

By this I meant they rejected Pulvertaft and Duhig's implicit argument that penicillin was best used systemically (injected into the entire body) for life-threatening blood poisoning because - technically, as a drug - that is where it worked best.

 And that this being the case, life-threatening blood poisoning cases were almost always sent to the big hospitals with a big enough lab and staff  to make the penicillin,on the spot, for the steady stream of blood poisoning cases coming in.

There was no need to waste time making penicillin a stable enough material to send from a central factory to store in regional warehouses until traveling detail salesmen had sold it in small amounts to individual GPs.

Disagreeing strenuously,  Florey, Fleming, Richards et al felt the greatest war need was for a local antiseptic to be poured or sprinkled inside wounds on the battlefield , soon as a soldier was wounded.

Let me say that more careful research,after the war,( including some by Pulvertaft himself) concluded this was an artificial problem - and that into this square artificial hole both the round sulfa and round wartime penicillin were reluctantly pushed - both failing , but for different reasons.

But sulfa and penicillin did save many lives, but not on the battlefield, but rather back in the base hospital, doing what they did best - reach into every part of the body and killing bacteria out in the open.

Killing bacteria in hard to get to places remained (and remains) hard to do - but if these bacteria did not get into the blood stream, they were almost never fatal in and of themselves.

Weaponized penicillin was imperialized penicillin

But let us now combine weaponized penicillin with imperialized penicillin : because a dry , stable, complicatedly mass produced penicillin also suited the post war aims of Britain : to profitably sell high tech medicine to nations less advanced than European ones.

Convincing the lesser breeds that homemade (really made by skilled microbiologists in big hospital labs) penicillin, like homemade bread, was so un-civilizied , was at least half the battle.....

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Needed: a political - not Technological/Whig - history of wartime penicillin

Almost all histories of penicillin have but one plot : the dramatic, last minute come-from-behind victory of the little guy, HIGH TECH MAN, over the vast evil forces of Nature and fungi spores.

In pointed fact, the technical problems of producing life-saving penicillin was solved very quickly, basically done by one or two  individuals with remarkably low level technology, by the Fall of 1941.

But even the most affluent members of the world could not reliably access life-saving penicillin for another five years and it still remains important to discover why.

And most of the world's poor couldn't access it for many more years after that ---- and in fact millions still die worldwide every year because properly prescribed antibiotics are beyond their economic reach.

The delays in delivering life-saving medicine were not technological in nature (the technological difficulties dog ate my penicillin homework) but rather political --- and ultimately moral.

Conservatives, Republicans & Nazis - and penicillin

It is not a coincidence that the only one of the four English speaking countries ( the four that produced 99% of  WWII's penicillin) that was dominated by a Conservative Party also did by far the worst wartime job in getting penicillin to their dying civilians --- for whom penicillin was their only hope of survival.

I refer to Winston Churchill's UK government.

Penicillin rationing from 1942 onward, in all the Allied nations,  was a deliberate choice made by government bureaucrats and politicians and company CEOs - not something imposed upon them from without by sheer technological necessity.

Academic 'Bad Faith'

To still deny that - 75 years after the events and in light of all our archival knowledge - is to exhibit academic bad faith.

In 1943 that cosy consensus, about rationing penicillin and news about penicillin cures, broke up as some bureaucrats, politicians and CEOs in some countries decided to go all out to produce enough penicillin for everyone - in their own nation and beyond.

Others still much preferred that any spare national cash go to extra weapons and not into building extra penicillin plants.

They did not want to admit the absolute need for a medicine to save the lives of their own civilians , now needlessly dying of infections that the sulfa drugs had once cured.

Today, we have dozens and dozens of alternative antibiotics to suit almost any imaginable life-threatening infection.

Unheard amid the din of war , the Sulfas started failing bad

But each of the half dozen successful sulfa drugs were best over a different narrow array of diseases - so if a patient had a strain resistant to the sulfa drug best suited to their disease, they generally had nothing left between them and death.

Except penicillin - effective against most all gram positive bacteria and much slower to gain strains resistance to it.

Simply put, diverting money that could have gone to building more penicillin bottle plants into building yet more military weapons instead, meant that Allied civilians died needlessly so more Axis civilians could die from Allied bombs.

Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, but thanks to a deliberate decision made by Winston Churchill, British soldiers were not fighting German soldiers on German soil till 1945 - and if he had had his way, British troops would never have set foot on German soil till after the German surrender.

The lives of Axis and Allied soldiers were spared, the lives of Axis and Allied citizens condemned, by this Churchillian decision.

However, his bomber-led vision for winning the war was probably not the main reason his government rejected building enough bottle penicillin plants in 1943 to supply soldier and citizen alike.

The Beveridge Report and Penicillin

After the release of Beveridge Report in the Fall of 1942 - a report he didn't want his government to publicly release -  the idea of his government facilitating the means to give life-saving penicillin to all that needed it seemed to smack of approving of the Beveridge Report.

Penicillin for all civilians needing it seemed the thin edge of a socialist edge.

America's equivalent of the Beveridge Report happened in the mid 1930s under the rubric of calls for more Social Medicine.

That report's main thrust was calling upon governments to actively commit to freeing citizens from freedom of want , particular freedom from want of life-saving medical care.

To Churchill's Conservatives, a government seeing to it that all dying citizens got penicillin would have been as repugnant in peacetime as it was in wartime.

It couldn't politically survive publicly advocating the denial of needed medicine to poorer dying civilians in peacetime, but under the spurious blanket claim of 'military necessity', a government could get away with it in wartime - as the American Republicans and Hitler both found out.

(Hitler only nerved himself to start killing Germany's 'useless mouths' after the war was underway and even appeared to back off as news got out and citizens protested.)

(During WWII, the dominant Republic core of the American medical establishment long denied life-saving penicillin to the mostly poor (aka Democrats) citizens dying of subacute bacterial endocarditis.)

I happen to think that telling the story of the ultimate abundance of wartime penicillin not as a victory over technological challenges but as a battle between different political ideologies is not only truer, but it is almost much more dramatic : a page-turner and good history.....

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

"The Blitz dog ate my homework" and other tired penicillin-related excuses from UK historians

David Edgerton excepted of course -- he hasn't really written on Britain's deliberately pathetic production of penicillin during the war years but he is unlikely to blame it on the Warfare State's "abject poverty" and "The Blitz".

Let's look at "The Blitz" first.

The German bombing of Britain went on for six years, went on all over Britain,  killed 60,000, wounded hundreds of thousands, damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings but in all this, actually varied greatly in its specific intensity in time, geography and effort.

The actual Blitz, from September 1940 to May 1941, was in all three senses, intense : it went on steadily for nine months and involved the bulk of the German Air Force, and ranged widely over all of Great Britain.

But until the V-1 and V-2 attacks over south east England from June 1944 till the end of the war in May 1945, subsequent raids (ie from May 1941 till  June 1944, also the critical period for developing wartime penicillin) were very much smaller in intensity by number of bombers and tons of bombs.

Most consisted of  'tip and run' raids made by single fighter bombers coming in under the radar and bombing ports on the south coast of England.

A commenter on a blog said it perhaps best when he frankly admitted,that while yes he was a kid in Glasgow during the war,  he actually didn't really remember the Glasgow Blitz , because it only happened once and it happened many miles away in a working class/industrial part of that large city.

A child in Belfast might have had the same reaction - it had one big heavy raid on one part of the city, albeit with an extraordinary number of casualties because no one really expected the Germans to bother Northern Ireland.

And Oxford was never bombed.

Though it was basically an outer suburb of metropolitan London (and so very close to German airbases in France), with a large car industry and so surely should have been a suitable target on two counts.

Bombing Britain into defeat was really going to be virtually impossible - like Germany and America it simply had too many alternative metropolitan industrial centres, many with large port facilities, and all well connected to each other by an extensive road and rail network.

Thus the very determined effort to squash the huge port of  Liverpool into dust was a wasted German effort : Greenock, Cardiff and Belfast , to name but a few west coast ports in Britain , would have quickly taken up the slack in the receiving of vital convoys from North America.

A pre-war decision to build a number of duplicate shadow assembly plants a maximum distance of about a half hour rail, canal or truck trip from the original centre of a critical war industry helped a lot to reduce the impact of even a direct hit on that vital British 'choke point'.

The Germans knew precisely where all the pre-1939 vital factories were and often hit and badly damaged them - but the shadow plants near by were unknown to them and took up the slack.

In addition , ensuring that sub contractors were neither right next to the original plant nor 500 kilometres away but within that convenient half hour circle of travel led to a virtually bomb-proof but economical dispersal of vital war industries.

The chances of anything, anything but a twenty megaton thermo-nuclear bomb, destroying such a sprawling industrial metropolitan area a hundred kilometres by a hundred kilometres square rendered such British efforts Blitz-proof.

The Germans duplicated these dispersement efforts equally successfully, if much too late in the game --- by pointed contrast the Russians and Americans kept with single huge production 'n' assembly plants : but at inland sites they felt safe from WWII's longest ranging bombers.

ICBMs and nuclear bombs rendered all that moot : goodbye Kansas City as a safe place to build bombers in WWIII.

True, the massive size and complexity of shipyards capable of building battleships and aircraft carriers are not so easily moved about and in addition were so expensive that they could only be a few in number --- even for super-rich nations like America.

But when the non-shipbuilding nation of Canada decided to quickly build a whole lot of ships and yet be safe from any bombing raid, it did so by going down-market in technological complexity.

It beat the Germans (and any possible bombing raids) by focusing instead on building very large numbers of a few very simple merchant ship and escort vessel types.

Thus they could be built at any of about five dozen new shipyards all over Canada --- even in Thunder Bay, a few thousand kilometres from the open sea: redundancy safety plus !

The Russians would understand that sort of thinking --- lots of simple weapons win wars just as well as a few ,very sophisticated, weapons do.

My point is that the Blitz, even if it had gotten much worse, could only be an moderate not fundamental restraint on British war efforts.

Britain during WII was a heavily industrialized nation with the vastest empire even seen to supply the raw resources and manpower to back up that industrial power.

If civilian paper was in short supply during the war (and it definitely was), it wasn't because Britain was poor -- it was because all of its pre-war paper supply was still coming in, but was now diverted to supplying all the bumpf an officious war nation's government could churn out !

Britain was a rich enough nation during WWII to divert the cost of building and maintaining of just one extra squadron of Lancaster bombers to the building instead of several more bottle penicillin plants in early 1943 --- but deliberately chose not to.

If one of the Four Freedoms that Churchill's Conservative party was forced to pretend to publicly accept included the freedom from want of life-saving drugs , a point hit home in the Fall of 1942 by the Beveridge Report, his party chose to deny it in practise.

With existing sulfa drugs failing by the minute (due to bacterial resistance) and with a scientific consensus building by the Fall of 1942 that new anti-bacteria sulfas were unlikely to come along, penicillin was becoming the only , the only , hope for civilians or servicemen dying of blood poisoning.

Surely the most vital of all possible freedoms is the freedom from premature death, but the Churchill government cocked its nose at Beveridge and said 'only enough resources will be diverted from bombers to save just our servicemen with bottle penicillin'.

A-Ha, says the UK historian, says he : a-ha !

Bottle penicillin - we had that and the Yanks had deep tank penicillin - that is why we couldn't match the rich, Blitz-less Americans in penicillin production.

Awkward facts intrude - the British did build a pilot deep tank design very early on  - with the Americans also willing to license their deep tank technology at firesale prices - but it was Churchill's Conservative minister in charge of the all-powerful MoS, the Ministry of Supply (to the army), that said no.

And deep tank efforts hardly explain the very much better penicillin records of both Canada and Australia - because these two nations, definitely not scientific or industrial powers in the early 1940s, also used only bottle plants and yet did far better in penicillin production than Britain, per capita.

(In population Britain was about 1/3 the GDP and population of America and about about 7x the GDP and population of Australia and 5x the population and GDP of Canada.)

True, that on one hand these Dominions weren't Blitzed like the British.

But on the other hand they had hardly gained their current wealth from homegrown science or industry, unlike Britain.

I count their wartime technical and financial difficulties in producing bottle penicillin as about equal to that of the UK.

What was really lacking in the whole penicillin shortfall crisis, was the moral will to correct it among the one nation in the four led by a Conservative party during WWII.

So, in mid 1945, the UK was producing 30 billion units of penicillin a month, Australia 10 billion, Canada 20 billion and America 600 billion.

To match the Australians per capita, the UK should of been producing 70 billion units a month, to match Canada a 100 billion units and America 200 billion units.

In addition, Britain had not permitted its many colonies to start their own penicillin plants, so the actual shortfall in its ability to save the lives of its civilians and soldiers from the UK and all its colonies was much much bigger than even this stark contrast in effort among the Allies.

By 1946, the penicillin shortfall crisis in Britain was over and it was producing more than enough penicillin for everyone at home and in the colonies and was eager to start exporting to foreign lands.

But that was way too late for Churchill's Conservative party who had been fragged-in-the-back by voter concern over unequal access to necessary medical care and voted for Labour in the July 1945 General Election.

Hitler couldn't defeat Churchill but penicillin (the unequal lack of access to it)  had ...

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Henry Dawson : The biography of dull dishwater or of the first modernist to leave the reservation and go PoMo ?

I don't doubt that Henry Dawson's colleagues felt he made a 'perfectly competent associate professor' ( in the most damming sense of that ominous phrase) ---- but that as an individual he was a man extremely unremarkable and totally non memorable.

Even those who knew him very well, and who choose to write their personal and scientific memoirs, still found virtually nothing to say about Dawson.

I have been attempting to write his non-authorized biography for almost nine years now and I still know very little about the inner Dr Dawson.

What keeps me happily to my post is my fascination with what Dr Dawson did , not what he said or felt - that, and the lure involved in searching for a reasonable explanation why this most ordinary of men did the things he did , and under the most trying conditions imaginable.

We have accounts of the Modern Age and of our own Post Modern Age, just as we have biographies of Modernists and of Post Modernists.

But in Henry Dawson we have the rarest of rare species : a Modernist caught is the process of becoming a Post Modernist and in the process, shaking the world around us completely.

So a dull as dishwater backwater modernist ? Or a world-class disturber of Modern decorum, a ravager of Modernity ? Or a bit of both, a sort of latter-day Henry Alline ?

I chose Answer three......

1939-1945 : the War of Scientism's modernist "Four Freedoms"

In the Spring of 1939, at the the New York World's Fair, Modernity or Scientism (the words are totally inter-changable) promised the deserving parts of the world a future of Four Freedoms: eventual freedom from material limitations, from catastrophes like the weather, from dependence upon lesser breeds and beings and, above all , from uncertainty.

In Fall of 1945, another set of Four Freedoms - originating from a speech given by  FDR in January 1941 - seemed to offer all the world's human beings a more credible and attractive life --- if equally set at some distant date in the future.

But also in the Fall of 1945, a few people, on the way to becoming post-modernist, were beginning to ask whether even those Four Freedoms were an adequate or accurate rebuttal to Modernism's Four Freedoms.

Today, to be fully post-Modernist  and to be fully post-Scientism , to be fully in the Twenty First Century , is to totally accept the permanent existence of material limitations, catastrophes, uncertainty and the right of existence for lesser breeds and lesser beings.

So there we have it : the rise and the fall of Scientism, from apogee to nadir ....

Friday, March 1, 2013

"Triumph of the SCIENTIFIC Will" : WWII scientists as 'swimmers into technical sweetness leaping'..

Sure, sure: Hitler, Mussolini ,Tojo and Stalin and all that lot started the war, but it took the collective will of the world's best scientists and engineers to build their visions up into History's bloodiest, most heart-less war.

It was the scientists' war, the only truly Modernist war, the war of their big shiny machines . Scientism's big moment under the Klieg Lights.

It was Science's incautious pre-war claims that moved the politicians and the generals and the industrialists and - above all - the ordinary public of all nations to fund the killing machines --- in preference to returning  to the foot soldier led wars of earlier times.

Of course in the end, we never saw the scientists in the box in Nuremberg in 1945 : because many many more of us, back then, saw 1945 as the apogee of Modernist science rather than its death knell and the birth of post-modernity.....

A swimmer into technical sweetness leaping...

....Robert Oppenheimer was the Rupert Brooke of his War Generation : the War of Big Machines and the War of Modernist Science : World War Two.

Paul Fussell is probably the most limpid writer since George Orwell and all his books on the war experience are treasured by me - but I do think he was only half correct in acutely detecting no revival of the Great War's moral intensity among the foot soldier in the Second World War.

Frankly, foot soldiers seemed almost an embarrassment in this new war : un-armoured, un-mechanized, watery bags of delicate and expensive jelly who still persisted in walking to work on shank's mare.

Politicians, Generals, Industrialists and Editorialists: they all believed this would be different war, a new sort of crusading warfare decided instead by the sheer will power of their side's brainy scientists.

Chivalry and morality , the old crusades of the Great War at its Front and among its foot soldiers, were dead and buried in a mass unmarked grave, but at today's Top and in today's Rear, a new Crusade of  Scientism had replaced it with gusto.

Now middle class scientists would devise the means and middle class officers would deliver the goods.

Above all, daytime precision bombing, with the middle class Norden bombsight and the middle class pilot and bombardier , would turn modernist war into a Nine to Five, Monday to Friday sort of job.

Almost an office sort of job and yet also a reassuringly modernist version of the traditional officer's calvary role, manly man riding off as in yore, only now riding highly expensive, highly technical mechanical horses, on land (tank),  sea (battleship) and air (bomber).

Roll out of bed in the morning, nice hearty breakfast, toddle off to the Ruhr to drop a stick of bombs and then back into time for a spot of Tea and then off to the pub before climbing into blanket harbour : and no need to lose your the famous British Weekend to beastly war.

Delivering death from a distance, there'd be no more "waving of the bloody shirt" in this war to indicate personal bravery , at least not among those at the delivering end of death.

Among the deliverees however, few would die by the traditional and so picture-perfect 'bullet in the chest' : now science would see to it that they boiled and burned to death or got blown into little bits of blood and flesh and bone.

Painting that sort of noble death would be beyond almost any artist's ken .....except perhaps Francis Bacon, he of the famous half-boiled flesh portraits.

Hard to know why kindly-seeming scientists could be able to plan that sort of death for others : but a lack of moral imagination (in fact a lack of moral empathy of any sort at all) certainly helped .

That, along with an almost normal scientific curiosity to explore the sheer 'technical sweetness' of all these new death machines, encouraged them to leap into this new crusade : its just too bad Rupert couldn't be here to literaturize the whole ghastly affair....