Lord, what fools these mortals be

A book which informed my entire world view, and still does. Tuchman posits the existance of folly, or the pursuit of public policy contrary to self-interest–-in other words, why nations keep shooting themselves in the foot. Certain criteria must be met for folly to exist, as follows:

1. It must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not just in hindsight.

2. A feasible alternative course of action must have been available,

3. The policy must have been that of a group, not an individual ruler, and must have persisted beyond any one political lifetime.

You don’t even have to look that far to identify examples in the present day, and certainly not beyond our own borders.

Tuchman uses the Trojans taking the Greek horse inside the walls of Troy as her template

…the feasible alternative–that of destroying the Horse–is always open. Capys the Elder advised it before Laocoon’s warning, and Cassandra afterward. Notwithstanding the frequent references in the epic to the fall of Troy being ordained, it was not fate but free choice that took the Horse within the walls. “Fate” as a character in legend represents the fulfillment of man’s expectations of himself.

and then goes on to talk about how the Renaissance popes caused the Reformation, with some uncomfortable similarities to today

Their three outstanding attitudes–obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, illusion of invulnerable status–are persistent aspects of folly. While in the case of the Renaissance popes, these were bred in and exaggerated by the surrounding culture, all are independent of time and recurrent in governorship.

how the British lost America

One cannot escape the impression that the level of British intelligence and competence in both civil and military positions in the period 1763-1783 was, on the whole, though not in every case, low. Whether that was bad luck or was owing to the almost exclusive hold of the ultraprivileged on decision-making positions is not clear beyond question. The underprivileged and the middle class often do no better. What is clear is that when incapacity is joined by complacency, the result is the worst possible combination.

obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, illusion of invulnerable status…It’s only too easy to see members of the US Congress, all millionaires, as the new British ruling class. On the evidence they are as utterly oblivious and uncaring as the British ruling class and the Renaissance popes both were to what is going on anywhere outside the Beltway.

Lastly, Tuchman writes how the US lost in Vietnam.

The longest war had come to an end…A contemporary summing up was voiced by a Congressman from Michigan, Donald Riegle. In talking to a couple from his constituency who had lost a son in Vietnam, he faced the stark recognition that he could find no words to justify the boy’s death. “There was no way I could say that what had happened was in their interest or in the national interest or in anyone’s interest.

One can only imagine the new bodily orifice Tuchman would have ripped US leaders over Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ only begins to cover it.

A lively, engaging prose style with more than a hint of “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” Published in 1984 and I don’t think it’s ever been out of print. It might be time to reread this book, but then I think it always is.

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Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

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