Historiography

The British Empire is Dead–But the Debate over Its Morality is Not

A recent essay by Kenan Malik in the New York Review of Books details the latest public spats among historians over the merits of the British Empire.

http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/01/26/the-great-british-empire-debate/

As Malik states, “like all such debates, this latest controversy comprises many threads.” Was colonialism good or bad? How should one debate these questions in academia and politics? And what has inspired the most recent flare-up in a long-running dispute?

Malik recapitulates the main outlines of this dispute between detractors and defenders of the British Empire. He concludes that “the arguments for the moral good of colonialism are . . . threadbare.” So far as most scholars of the empire are concerned, Malik is correct. The British Empire killed, enslaved, starved, and impoverished too many people on too many occasions over too long a span of time to qualify as a Good Thing. (However, that is, and should be, a different matter from claiming that it was the equivalent of, say, the Nazi Empire. The emergence of liberalism in Britain led to the rise of an influential and persistent party of home-grown critics who castigated the British Empire throughout much of its lifespan—surely an unusual if not unique situation for an empire. Moreover, this liberal strain made the British Empire, among other things, susceptible to the moral suasion of swaraj in India, a weakness from which other empires did not suffer. But that is an argument for another time.)

Malik goes on to assert that the contemporary defense of empire is inspired partly by a Brexit-induced nostalgia for the colonial past, and partly by a desire to learn lessons that will make contemporary Western intervention abroad more effective. In other words, those like Niall Ferguson, who hold the British Empire up as a force for good are not merely engaging in an act of wistful schmaltz; they are thinking about contemporary policy prescriptions that revolve around “foreign intervention and technocratic governance.” Malik concludes:

These are very contemporary issues, and ones with which liberals wrestle as much as reactionaries. Liberals may despise empire nostalgia, but many promote arguments about intervention and governance that have their roots in an imperial worldview. We should not imagine that apologists for empire are simply living in the past. They seek, rather, to rewrite the past as a way of shaping current debates. That makes it even more important that their ideas and arguments are challenged openly and robustly.

One Thing after Another takes a special interest in this question because this blog teaches a course on the British Empire and, as part of the final examination, asks students to perform a “moral audit” (to use Piers Brendon’s words) of that empire. Piers’ argument that “Imperium et Libertas” was a sort of oxymoron in which an imperium necessarily ruled by force (and undermined libertas) to compensate for its lack of legitimacy carries much weight with this blog. In other words, there was a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Britain’s version of colonialism. Yet, this blog feels that in an otherwise good essay, Malik elides two important issues.

First, the argument about the British Empire’s merits has been subsumed by a more general dispute about colonialism. The problem with discussing colonialism is that it is not terribly easy to define in a precise manner, and the more one speaks of colonialism (and theories of colonialism), the more one speaks of an abstraction rather than the actual operation of real, flesh-and-blood empires. Discussions about colonialism, then, do not always sufficiently distinguish between different types of empires and often lack nuance. They surely do not capture the historical British Empire which was a mutating and complex entity; merely referring to the source of evil as “colonialism” suggests a static, simple, and monolithic entity. Due to its size, variety of interests, diversity of peoples, and assortments of governing structures (e.g. responsible self-government, crown colonies, protectorates, mandates, princely states, etc.), the empire did not frequently act in unison or speak with one voice. Not only that, but the empire was constantly transforming itself, a fact that is captured by the periodization of scholars who refer to the “first,” “second,” and even “third” and “fourth” British empires—as well as to the different characteristics in each of these phases (e.g. mercantilism, free trade, the “swing to the east,” and so on). Recognizing the bewildering, changing, and kaleidoscopic nature of the empire raises an important question: at any given moment, who or what was the empire? In other words, who was responsible for “colonialism”? Lenin, of course, argued that the culprit was finance capital. He was wrong, but at least he had something specific in mind. As conducted today in public, the debate is not as incisive. The word  “colonialism” conjures up images of the British government in London, imperial administrators, and military leaders. In most minds, it also probably includes British financiers, merchants, and industrialists. But just where does the list end? To what extent was the rest of the country complicit in the crimes of empire? What of the empire’s many British critics who used Libertas to attack Imperium (surely, as a number of observers have pointed out, a unique circumstance for an imperial power)? Our questions cannot stop with the United Kingdom’s borders. What about, say, Indians who worked for the Raj or performed vital functions in the imperial economy—princes, zemindars, soldiers, policemen, low-level administrators, railroad employees, merchants, bankers, and so on?

Second, like many observers, Malik analyzes the motives of the empire’s present-day defenders, but what of its detractors? If “today’s apologists for colonialism are driven as much by present needs as by past glories,” to quote Malik, what are the “present needs” of those who attack the empire? Why does no one scrutinize their motives? Do they get a pass because they are on “the right side of history”? It would seem naïve to claim that they are simply engaged in a disinterested effort to correct interpretations of the past. One example here will suffice: Shashi Tharoor (whom Malik mentions), a former UN administrator (who lost the contest for UN General Secretary in 2006 to Ban Ki-moon) and Indian minister as well as a current member of the Indian Parliament. Tharoor became an anti-colonial stalwart in 2015 when he famously argued at the Oxford Union that Britain ought to pay India a nominal sum in reparations as symbolic compensation for losses the latter suffered under imperial rule. He followed up this performance with Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (2017), a polemic which dwells on the Raj’s cruelty and callousness while explaining how Britain grew wealthy at India’s expense. What is Tharoor after? Certainly, he is not attacking the promotion of “foreign intervention and technocratic governance” that ostensibly lie behind present-day justifications of the empire; it would seem odd for a former UN administrator like Tharoor to assault the empire in an attempt to undermine the case for liberal internationalism. It is possible that Tharoor seeks to burnish his credentials with a young, leftish, educated, Anglo-American crowd as someone who has stayed “woke” by engaging in Britain’s venerable anti-establishment tradition of excoriating the empire. Yet this explanation does not seem fully convincing. Although he has longstanding ties to the transatlantic world (he has lived and worked in Britain and the United States for long periods of time), it appears that Tharoor has committed himself to Indian politics for the time being. And it is perhaps the demands of domestic Indian politics that explain Tharoor’s stance. Tharoor is a member of the Indian National Congress (Congress) which has vainly sought to restore its declining popularity among voters by shedding its traditional mantle of secularism and moving closer to the Hindu nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which currently rules India. For sure, Tharoor continues to speak the language of inclusion (witness this excerpt from his recent work Why I Am a Hindu), but he, like the rest of Congress, must feel the political pressure of Hindutva (or “Hinduness”). Under these circumstances, attacks on an empire that has long gone and demands for reparations that will never be paid must seem like harmless ways of currying favor in a more stridently nationalist political environment. Certainly, these attacks and demands have gone down well in India. Perhaps Tharoor’s motives can be explained in some other way, and perhaps his situation is unique, but it would not be surprising if the empire’s critics were inspired just as much as its defenders by contemporary politics.

Surely, many probably worry that those who defend colonialism and the good the British Empire did are inspired by a kind of neo-imperialism that will lead to more foreign adventures that culminate in disasters like Iraq and Afghanistan (although Nigel Biggar and Bruce Gilley seem to imply that the whole point of understanding the true nature of colonialism is to avoid making such mistakes when intervening in other countries’ affairs). But as we have seen in Tharoor’s case, we probably also have reason to express concern about the motives of those who denigrate the British Empire. As Bernedetto Croce claimed (and this is not the first time One Thing after Another has referred to Croce’s statement), “All history is contemporary history.” In other words, the concerns and ideas of a historian are, by necessity, dictated by his or her times. History is always political, and no more so than when scholars and politicians use it to make a political point. It is almost futile to inveigh against the forces that prevent the historian from assuming an objective standpoint. Yet in this case, as in others, it seems that all would be better served if historians took the leading role in promoting nuanced and incisive discussions of the past—instead of those who feel most directly the great weight of politics.

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Masur Reviews Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War

Note: Professor Masur wrote a review of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS series The Vietnam War for the North Dakota Quarterly. The essay is reprinted here with permission. Professor Masur’s preliminary thoughts on the first episode of the series appeared on the blog in September.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War

America’s war in Vietnam, which ended almost fifty years ago, has never really faded from the country’s memory. Every American military intervention since the mid-1970s has elicited inevitable comparisons to Vietnam. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial remains one of the most popular destinations in Washington, D.C. The Vietnam War and Vietnam vets continue to crop up in American movies and television programs. Colleges and universities around the country offer courses on the Vietnam War, and Millennials have shown no signs of losing interest in the topic.

This year in particular the Vietnam War seems to be on the minds of Americans. The Post, Steven Spielberg’s most recent film, recreates a pivotal event related to the war: the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, the secret Defense Department study of American involvement in Vietnam. Coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of some of the War’s most fateful years, the New York Times has been publishing a series of articles looking back on the events of 1967 and 1968. Last fall, PBS began broadcasting Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 10-part series The Vietnam War.

The Burns and Novick series is of particular interest because viewers tend to judge documentaries as more credible and “truthful” than Hollywood adaptations like The Post. And The Vietnam War it is likely to reach a wider audience than the New York Times series, and will certainly reach more Americans than most scholarly articles and books on the war. If earlier Burns and Novick productions are any indication, The Vietnam War will be watched and re-watched in living rooms and classrooms around the country. High school teachers and college teachers may lean heavily on the series, not only because it is a convenient way to present the war but also because it is powerful and informative. In other words, The Vietnam War may, for the time being, become the single most influential source in shaping Americans’ understanding of the history of the Vietnam War.

As would be expected for an 18-hour series, The Vietnam War offers ample material for analysis. Early reviews have applauded the series for its powerful use of first-hand recollections of the War. Some critics have lambasted Burns and Novick for favoring “balance” over accuracy. These critics feel that the series presents a false equivalence between the United States and its Vietnamese enemies, thus failing to hold the U.S. fully accountable for the war. Many have focused on one line of narration that comes early in the series: the assertion that American officials acted in “good faith” when they oversaw U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

Whatever the documentary’s virtues or shortcomings, Burns and Novick have made an effort to “Vietnamize” their account of the Vietnam War. (“Vietnamize” is a loaded term, of course, as it refers the strategy of shifting military responsibility from the United States to South Vietnam. President Nixon, most closely associated with “Vietnamization,” found the term preferable to its synonym: “de-Americanization.”) The series is available with Vietnamese subtitles, a nod to the fact that the Vietnamese themselves are not only sources for the series, but also a potential audience. Viewers will also notice right away that Burns and Novick include numerous Vietnamese interviewees throughout the series. Less obviously, the historical narrative in the series relies on important recent scholarship on North and South Vietnam during the war. Although The Vietnam War still gives primacy to the war as an American experience (not surprising for a film produced and broadcast in the United States), it gives Vietnam and the Vietnamese a more prominent place in the story.

The most riveting segments of The Vietnam War come from the first-hand accounts of the war. A few stand out. Marine Corps veteran John Musgrave vividly describes his combat experience in Vietnam, his post-war struggles, and his decision to protest against the war. A soldier from Roxbury, Mass. recalls a conversation with his mother, who assures him that he’ll make it back alive because she “talk[s] to God every day and your special.” “I’m putting pieces of special people in bags,” he replies.

Viewers hear the story of enlisted man Denton “Mogie” Crocker from his sister Carol and his mother Jean-Marie. The fact that Mogie himself is present only in pictures and letters tips off viewers to his ultimate fate. The foreshadowing makes it no less heart-wrenching when Carol and Jean-Marie describe the day that they learned of his death.

In an effort to present a more complete account of the Vietnam War, the series also includes interviews with numerous Vietnamese participants. Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese veteran and novelist, appears in multiple episodes and provides some important insights about the War. In episode nine, he describes the conflict as a “civil war”—a characterization that is generally at odds with the Party-sanctioned narrative that the Vietnamese were fighting primarily against a neo-imperialist foreign enemy. Bao Ninh also offers a touching anecdote near the end of the series. Describing his return home after the war, he says that his mom was overwhelmed with emotion:

For six years my mother had no idea if I was alive or dead. . . . My mother cried [when I returned]. But we didn’t make a scene. . . . In our apartment building, six young men were drafted, and I was the only one to return. We didn’t dare celebrate, didn’t dare express our joy, because our neighbors lost their children.

The series reflects the prominent role that Vietnamese women played in the conflict. Duong Van Mai Elliott describes her experience as a young woman interviewing NLF captives for the RAND Corporation. A North Vietnamese woman talks about her time as a truck driver ferrying materials down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, constantly threatened by American bombing. Americans may not be surprised to hear American soldiers talk about killing the enemy, but it is still a bit stunning when soft-spoken NLF veteran Nguyen Thi Hoa cooly describes her actions during the Tet Offensive: “When I found them, I shot them. An American, not that far away, about three meters. He opened fire. I raised my AK. I aimed. I had to shoot him. [Pause.] And I dropped him.”

While the interviews with Vietnamese participants do provide much-needed balance to the series, they do not quite carry the emotional heft of many of the American accounts. The series includes some story arcs that span several episodes: the Crockers worrying about Mogie’s fate; Hal Kushner undergoing a harrowing ordeal as a POW and not seeing his family—including a son born after he left for Vietnam—for over five years; Matt Harrison volunteering for a second tour to prevent his brother from being deployed. For the most part, the interviews with Vietnamese participants do not have the same depth, limiting their dramatic power.

The series includes Vietnamese perspectives in other ways as well. The historical narrative that is woven throughout The Vietnam War incorporates some of the most recent scholarship on the war, much of it exploring the political, economic, social, and environmental conditions in North and South Vietnam during the conflict. Several episodes depict the political and social unrest that plagued South Vietnam during the war, but the series also acknowledges that the South Vietnamese generally enjoyed more political freedom than their counterparts in the North. In a stunning revelation, a North Vietnamese Army veteran admits that up to 3,000 South Vietnamese civilians from Hue were massacred in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. “We rarely speak of it,” he says. “So please be careful making your film because I could get in trouble.”

The Vietnam War also incorporates recent scholarship revealing that Le Duan, rather than Ho Chi Minh, was the most powerful North Vietnamese official for most of the war. A hardliner, Le Duan generally pushed for a more aggressive military strategy in the South and seemed willing to accept high numbers of casualties as the cost of victory. Until recently, Le Duan has usually appeared as a secondary figure in scholarship on the war—if he is included at all. His name appears only eight times in Stanley Karnow’s 700-page tome Vietnam: A History, the companion book to PBS’ 1983 multi-part Vietnam documentary. The second edition of George Herring’s America’s Longest War (1986), for years the most popular textbook on the war, did not include him at all. (Even during the war the United States was slow to realize Le Duan’s significance. Episode 5 features a recording of a conversation from early 1966 that appears to be the first time Lyndon Johnson had ever heard his name—Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara has to spell it aloud for the President.) But Le Duan crops up again and again in the Burns and Novick series, usually pushing for another bloody military offensive that he hopes will finally bring victory.

In spite of its efforts to show the war from many perspectives, The Vietnam War does have some unfortunate omissions. The series briefly describes the devastating effects of the war on Laos and Cambodia, but does not include any Lao or Khmer interviewees to tell their stories. Several American interviewees express their sadness at what they consider America’s betrayal of its South Vietnamese allies at the end of the war. The Hmong who participated in America’s covert activities in Lao were similarly left to fend for themselves, often experiencing similar oppression and suffering. And yet they are not even mentioned in the series. By the same token, the final episode briefly mentions that ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam were singled out for oppression in the years after the war ended. Their stories would provide even more evidence of the tragic nature of the war.

Any account of the Vietnam War will necessarily include some gaps and oversights. But viewers who watch the entire series—no small commitment—will encounter the central historical themes of the war. They will also be rewarded with a very human depiction of the Vietnam War, one which places the experiences of the participants at the forefront.

Rush to Judgment: Preliminary Thoughts on Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War

Rush to Judgment: Preliminary Thoughts on PBS’ “The Vietnam War”

Like many Americans with an interest in history, One Thing after Another sat down to watch the premiere of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s much-anticipated documentary The Vietnam War. While only a fool would judge an eighteen-hour series on the first episode, we at One Thing after Another have never shied away from a challenge. So what follows are some very preliminary observations about a program that is bound to shape the way Americans—and others—understand the Vietnam War.

First it is worth noting the many strengths that jump out in the first episode. The filmmakers have employed a diverse set of contributors to share their thoughts on the Vietnam War. Careful viewers might notice some familiar names: Bao Ninh (NVA veteran and author of The Sorrow of War), Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried), Leslie Gelb (former official in the State Department), Rufus Phillips (CIA officer), Bui Diem (South Vietnamese ambassador to the U.S), and Duong Van Mai Elliott (scholar and author of the memoir Sacred Willow). But many of the interviewees are not necessarily prominent figures who played an exceptional role in Vietnam. Rather, the filmmakers rely on people whose experiences were “ordinary,” in the sense that they experienced Vietnam in ways that were familiar to many participants.

The filmmakers have also done a nice job in capturing some of the key historical developments in the years leading up to the “Americanization” of the war. Many viewers will be surprised to learn of the brutality of French colonialism and Ho Chi Minh’s efforts to appeal to the United States as early as World War I. The episode effectively (and accurately) depicts the French War to be both a colonial struggle but also a civil conflict between Vietnamese, with Duong Van Mai noting that the fighting split many Vietnamese families. The section on Dien Bien Phu is illuminating, as it captures the against-all-odds victory of General Vo Nguyen Giap over a garrison of French troops. And viewers will likely watch with a sense of foreboding as the French war unravels, knowing that the United States is about to jump in and suffer a similar fate.

But the nagging feeling that the events of the 1940s and 1950s serve as a prelude or backdrop to the “real” war of the 1960s is also one of the limitations of the documentary—or at least of the first episode. One of the first things that viewers may notice about the series is the war does not unfold chronologically. The first episode covers the period from French colonization in the 1860s up to the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. At various points throughout the episode, though, it jumps forward to recollections of later moments in the war—soldiers talking about going on patrol in 1966 or the domestic upheaval that erupted in Chicago in 1968. The purpose of these interruptions seems to be to shrink the distance between the events that preceded American involvement and the American war itself. The message, it seems, is that events and experiences in the 1940s or 1950s bear a certain resemblance to–or even connection to–events in the mid- to late-1960s.

The importance of understanding the historical roots of America’s conflict in Vietnam is reinforced by the opening segment. The first episode begins with footage of the fighting in Vietnam that appears to be taken from the 1960s. Eventually, though, the images begin moving backwards, as the viewer is transported from the late 1960s back to the beginning of the decade, and then further still to the 1950s and eventually to World War II. Meanwhile, viewers hear the words of American presidents, but moving from later presidents like Johnson and Kennedy backwards to Eisenhower and then Truman. With these techniques, the first episode lays out a sort of “roadmap” to America’s involvement in Vietnam—first the French came, but they found that they could not defeat the forces of Vietnamese nationalism. The United States, blinded by its Cold War assumptions, was inexorably drawn into the conflict when the French left.

There is obviously some truth to this narrative. Frankly, if The Vietnam War is able to teach Americans this simple account of the Vietnam War it will probably be a real accomplishment. But this narrative also has some flaws or holes, and it is only one way that historians might approach the topic. For example, by characterizing America’s intervention as a long, slow slide into Vietnam the documentary may reinforce the idea that the U.S. had limited opportunities to avoid involvement in the conflict. More and more, historians are emphasizing that American officials had numerous opportunities to choose de-escalation rather than escalation. This theme will likely become more apparent in later episodes, as Fredrik Logevall, one of the leading proponents of the theory that the U.S. “chose” war, is one of the historical advisors for the documentary.

If the first episode shades toward a bit of determinism in describing America’s role in Vietnam, it may do the same in its account of the rise of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. Viewers of the first part of the documentary may be left thinking that Ho Chi Minh and his followers represented the sole—or at least the primary—movement challenging French colonialism (and, by extension, Japanese control). But such a portrayal ignores the fact that many different groups jockeyed for position in Vietnam, often offering wildly divergent visions for Vietnamese independence and development. In the 1940s, for example, non-communist nationalists allied with the Guomindang attracted a small following. After 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem tried to establish an independent government below the 17th parallel. And throughout this period various religious groups, including different Buddhist sects and the indigenous Hoa Hao, offered their own visions for an independent Vietnam.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick had to make hard choices when deciding what to include in their documentary. While the length of the series may seem excessive to some viewers, it is impossible to provide a comprehensive account of the Vietnam conflict(s) in eighteen hours. You can be certain that historians would quibble with omissions in a series that was twice as long. It’s also fair to expect a documentary written, produced, and broadcast in the United States to emphasize the stories that interest an American audience. At the same time, a documentary that is bound to shape Americans’ understanding of Vietnam will face a fair amount of scrutiny and second-guessing. Fortunately, the dialogue spurred by the series will provide ample opportunity to think about how best to understand the Vietnam War.

David Brooks is Wrong about the “Crisis of Western Civ”

David Brooks, one of the regular op-ed columnists at The New York Times, is very upset with university professors, especially those who teach history. According to Brooks, they are responsible for the “crisis of Western Civ.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/21/opinion/the-crisis-of-western-civ.html?_r=0

According to Brooks, there once was a time when people in Europe and North America believed in a “Western civilization narrative” that was “confidently progressive” and helped “explain their place in the world and in time.” This narrative promoted certain values, including the “importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, and the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated.” According to Brooks, this view of history provided “diverse people” with a “sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary” which in turn promoted “a framework within which political argument could happen” and “common goals” could be attained. This narrative was best articulated by Will and Ariel Durant’s eleven-volume series, The Story of Civilization (1935-1975) which focused on a number of key figures and described Western history as an “an accumulation of great ideas and innovations.”

At some point, for reasons that Brooks never really explains, “many people,” but especially those teaching in universities, “lost faith in the Western civilization narrative.” It stopped being taught. If it was mentioned at all, it was described as a “history of oppression.” Brooks claims that terrible consequences have flowed from this change in the intellectual wind: the rise of illiberal and authoritarian figures “who don’t even pretend to believe” in the narrative; the collapse of the political center that once had faith in the democratic capitalism that was upheld by the narrative; and the undermining of liberal values in America. Brooks closes by arguing that:

These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it.

One Thing after Another has enjoyed much time to reflect on the utility of Western Civ; while in graduate school, this blog served as a teaching assistant in Western Civ courses for three years (nine quarters in a row!) before spending another three years teaching Western Civ as a visiting assistant professor at two different institutions. These experiences lead One Thing after Another to think (although it pains this blog to be so blunt) that Brooks has ventured into territory he does not understand.

For one thing, who believed in the kind of Western Civ narrative that Brooks summarizes, and when did they believe it? Brooks’ assertions are rather vague. At one point “people” believed this narrative. Then “many people . . . lost faith” in it. These claims resemble those C essays One Thing after Another used to read in Western Civ classes where that indistinct and monolithic entity, “the people,” did this and that for no discernible reason (e.g. “the French Revolution began because the people rose up to fight for their rights”). In an attempt to prove the power of the Durants’ narrative, Brooks does mention that The Story of Civilization sold two million copies (many through the Book of the Month Club), but One Thing after Another has seen enough mint copies of this eleven-volume work in used bookstores to wonder how many readers actually stumbled through its 10,000 pages. What this blog does know is that historians at the time did not think much of the Durants’ efforts. Will Durant was not a historian (he had earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy which is not exactly the same thing as History), and he did not always engage with the complexity of the past. As Crane Brinton pointed out in his review of The Age of Voltaire (Volume 9 of The Story of Civilization):

It is difficult for a professor of history to say good things about their work without seeming to unbend, if not to patronize. Clearly they are readable. They can produce the telling anecdote, the picturesque detail, [and] the sense of movement in events and ideas. . . . Above all, though, they are often mildly epigramatic. Though they can be comfortably realistic about human nature, the Durants are never uncomfortably realistic, never daring, never surprising. Theirs is the enlightenment that still enlightens, basically kindly, hopeful, progressive, reasonable, democratic.

In other words, it was history that was neither taxing nor challenging to mainstream liberal opinion in mid-1960s America. This verdict is especially telling, appearing as it does in the obituary of Will Durant produced by Brooks’ own newspaper, The New York Times.

One Thing after Another will try to leave to one side the conceptual problems associated with the whole Western Civ project (e.g. where and when was the “West,” and on what basis are certain people and places included in this “West”?). Instead, this blog is interested in Brooks’ description of the Western Civ narrative as a collection of great ideas, people, and values whose sole purpose seems to consist of upholding a liberal consensus that seeks to bind our fragile body politic.

It is not clear if Brooks believes that this narrative is an accurate representation of the past of if it is a convenient and useful myth. If the former, he is wrong; if the latter, he must realize that, like most myths, it is bound to be exposed. Whatever the case, Brooks’ essay does not seem to recognize that “history” as a discipline does not “tell” us this thing or that about the past (in much the same way that “science” does not “say” this thing or that about the natural world). Rather, historians marshal documentary evidence on behalf of arguments that seek to represent the past. Some of these arguments are more persuasive than others, and they may become dominant in their subfield for some time. But in their bridging of the gap between the present and the past, none could be said to be “the truth.” At best, they are credible inasmuch as they seem to jibe with extant documents of the past.

The point to remember is that history is constantly contested. The discipline does not set forth a series of immutable truths about Western Civ or anything else. Instead, historians present rival interpretations of past events. These rival interpretations stem, in part, from the fact that documentary evidence is often unclear and contradictory. But these conflicting readings of the past are also a product of historians’ own concerns and world views. As Benedetto Croce argued, “All history is contemporary history.” These are the reasons why, for instance, various scholars argue over whether class, culture, or politics was the main driving force behind the French Revolution.

History, then, is often messy and paradoxical. Brooks’ vision of Western Civilization (and the Durants’, from which he takes inspiration) does not seem to recognize this messiness and paradox, and that goes a long way toward explaining why historians no longer find that vision compelling. Western Civilization is no greater and no worse than the common run of humanity. It has done great good, great evil, and very much in between. Its unfolding has been unpredictable and full of surprises. It does not point in any particular direction. Take Rousseau (to name one of the “great figures” of Western Civilization to whom Brooks refers). His legacy is conflicted. This ambivalence is reflected by the fact that the two greatest near-contemporaries who felt Rousseau’s intellectual influence most forcefully were Kant and Robespierre. Not surprisingly, then, there are those who see Rousseau as absolutely indispensable to the development of modern liberalism and democracy, while others consider him the intellectual forebear of modern authoritarianism. Freedom and tyranny—these are the twin faces of the Western tradition, and any narrative that purports to describe this tradition must come to grips with both.

The main problem with Brooks’ argument is that it identifies or conflates a particular narrative of Western Civilization with liberal democratic ideals. It is his anguish about the decline of the latter that provides the driving force for his essay. But there is no need to make historians the focus of his ire. One can love liberal democracy without clinging to a fairy-tale version of Western history. The much-perceived decline of liberal democracy in the West probably has many origins; it seems disproportionate to point to so inconsequential a force as history professors as the main culprits. Defenders of liberal democracy should fight for what they think is right, but they should not criticize historians for refusing to embrace a narrative that does not do justice to the complexity of the Western tradition.

Brooks’ conclusion puts One Thing after Another in mind of a line from George Orwell’s classic, semi-autobiographical short story, “Shooting an Elephant” (1936). In the introduction, the narrator describes himself in terms that would have fit Orwell himself:

I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it.

The problem was, of course, that even if one believed the British Empire was a “good deal better” than its successors, there was no point in wishing for its survival; its position was untenable. The same goes for the Durants’ narrative of Western Civ. Even if one believes it was a good deal better, its position, too, is untenable.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

History in the Age of Trump: Immigration (Part I)

Part I

Note: The Donald Trump presidency has already caused historians and other observers to look to the past for parallels and guidance. Some commentators have emphasized that Trump’s policies bear striking similarity to earlier periods in American and European history. Others have emphasized that Trump’s administration has broken with longstanding traditions in American political life. This series will attempt to place Trump’s presidency in a historical perspective in a way that contributes both to our understanding of past events and current affairs.

**Links in this essay will open PDF copies of New York Times articles from the 1920s. Links should open in a new window.

The images are striking: immigrants stuck in limbo, having arrived in the New York but detained and denied entry due to new, stricter immigration regulations. Those affected include men who risked their lives fighting for the United States who now find that they are unwelcome in the country they defended. In one case, a woman from the Middle East arrives in the U.S. to be reunited with her husband, a religious cleric who had come to the country legally more than a year earlier. The woman and their young daughter are taken into custody and then ordered to return home, prompting a frantic legal battle over their future.

ellis-registry

Holding area at Ellis Island.

These stories do not describe events that took place in the past week—they describe conditions in 1924, just after Congress passed legislation that dramatically reduced the number of immigrants eligible for entry into the United States. The new law created bottlenecks at American ports, including Ellis Island. Critics of the law were dismayed to note that soldiers who had fought in World War I but later left the country found themselves stranded, uncertain of when they could return. Other opponents complained that the law unfairly targeted certain ethnic groups. Italians, who had made up a large percentage of immigrants to the United States since the early 1900s, saw their numbers slow to a trickle. Religious minorities also suffered under the new law; the family mentioned in the opening paragraph were Jews from Palestine.

immigration-cartoon

On this blog, we try not to overstate the link between past and present. Immigration restrictions in 2017 are not the same as in 1924; America now is very different from America then. Nevertheless, President Trump’s executive order has drawn attention to America’s historic position as a beacon for immigrants, along with its equally long history of trying to exclude “undesirables.” Trump’s critics are right: his executive order is un-American, a betrayal of our core principles. At the same time, it is also quintessentially American, a modern manifestation of the nativist tendencies that have always existed in this country.

Part II of this post explores the fears that immigrants in the 1920s were violent radicals who threatened the American way of life. It will also consider how that history relates to current attitudes, and provide another illustration of how past events can be misconstrued in a modern context.

Martin Luther King, Jr., the Comics, and Biography

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This past Martin Luther King Day, in the comic strip Curtis, the title character asks at the dinner table—“Makes me wonder how history would have played out if Dr. King was never born, or never assassinated?” His family’s response is dumbstruck silence. Many historians might have been hard pressed to respond cogently to the fictional eleven-year-old’s question as well.

We have long debated whether great people shape history through their actions or if broader impersonal forces shape historical events and the participants. Martin Luther King, for example, was not the only civil rights leader, and undoubtedly other leaders would have pushed the civil rights agenda forward in the 1950s and 1960s without him. Yet, through his soaring rhetoric, King put his indelible mark on the movement. The story of King’s life has consequently become for many Americans the story of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-twentieth century.

Though many academic historians have shied away from biography recently, the lives of great men and women are still the primary way that most people learn about the past. People like biography because it enables readers to form mental pictures of the events or actions described and thereby allows readers in a sense to walk in another’s shoes. Biography essentially makes history more accessible and real for readers than jargon-laden academic texts do. In the process, biography provides a good introduction to the politics, economics, social hierarchies, and morality of various times and places that facilitates more mature historical analysis. Biography effectively opens the door to greater historical awareness.

Biography does not need to be just a parade of great men and women either. Many projects are underway today to write biographies or biographical sketches of regular people. Such projects open the door to innovative pedagogical collaboration between teachers, students, and public history organizations. For instance, Saint Anselm students in Professor Salerno’s American Women’s History (HI 359) recently prepared biographical sketches for a national database on militant suffragists arrested in demonstrations during World War I.

Renewed interest in biography might not quell historians’ ambivalence with the genre or put to rest long-standing debates regarding causation (that is, the relative weight of individual action vs. impersonal forces). Still, more appreciation of biography by professional historians will allow us to participate more fully in public debates—even with fictional characters in the funnies.

Curtis’s creator, Ray Billingsley, of course, was not really interested in historians’ debates when he penned his strip. Rather, he rightly wanted to highlight how different American history would have been without Martin Luther King—or how the world would have changed had he lived longer.

Gladwell’s Revisionist History is Neither Revisionist Nor History

gladwell-revisionist-history

It is difficult to describe to people who have never heard of Malcolm Gladwell what he does for a living. He is a journalist, author, and public speaker who writes about the kinds of things calculated to appeal to the movers and shakers of the new tech world: tipping points, intuitive thinking, innovation, the secrets to success, and so on. A staff writer at The New Yorker, he has produced a number of influential books, including, most recently, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013). Gladwell has recently launched a podcast entitled “Revisionist History” which studies the same types of questions in the same Gladwellian way.

http://revisionisthistory.com/

An essay by Allison Miller, “History and You: Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Revisionist History’ Podcast Cleanses History of the Past,” which recently appeared in The Baffler, has taken Gladwell to task for masquerading as a historian:

http://thebaffler.com/blog/gladwell-podcast-miller

Miller points out that crafting history is an act of empathy. As she puts it, “Analyzing the past requires you to see a particular set of circumstances from someone else’s point of view—knowing full well that the gulf between then and now will prevent you from truly understanding them and what they faced.” To analyze people from the past, though, Gladwell relentlessly employs the latest concepts garnered from the social sciences. These concepts generally do not recognize that people from the past were fundamentally different. Miller chooses the example of Episode 1, “The Lady Vanishes” to explain the faults of Gladwell’s modus operandi. A concept that he borrows from the social sciences (in this case, “moral licensing,” which comes from social psychology), she argues, is an inappropriate tool for explaining why Victorian artist Elizabeth Thompson did not obtain admittance to the Royal Academy for her widely acclaimed painting, The Roll Call (1874).

thompson-roll-call

Having listened to a number of episodes on “Revisionist History,” One Thing after Another couldn’t agree more with Miller. Gladwell’s podcast disregards one of the most fundamental truths established by the discipline of history: everything—including people’s behaviors and world views—changes over time. Miller does neglect, however, to mention another important way in which “Revisionist History” fails to live up to its title. The way in which Gladwell applies his various concepts from the social sciences indicates that he does not understand what the word “revisionist” signifies when associated with history. Over time, for a wide variety of reasons, historians constantly revise their understandings of the past—they employ different methods to interrogate it, they use different sources, they bring different world views to the task, or they use their imagination in different ways. History is an ongoing conversation in which many interpretations are provisional; no matter how well they explain the past, they are usually superseded by subsequent understandings. This process of revision is what revisionist history is all about. For Gladwell, though, revisionist history appears to consist simply  of revisiting certain past incidents and solving their mysteries definitively. There is no sense that his findings are part of a larger exchange or that they are in any way tentative. Gladwell provides clarity and closure. One obtains the impression that for Gladwell, the past is merely a scene where he can demonstrate the utility of his latest interesting theory in cracking various paradoxes.

This attitude on Gladwell’s part may be the product of sloppy thinking (surprising in someone who was a history major as an undergraduate). One cannot help noting, however, that Gladwell himself benefits from peddling this point of view. Using the social sciences to solve many puzzles from the past, Gladwell dramatically expands their jurisdiction and gives the impression that they produce immutable, universal laws that transcend time and space. Who should benefit from this impression but the popular purveyor of social scientific explanations, Gladwell himself?

One Thing after Another is not merely attempting to defend history’s turf for turf’s sake. The questions Miller raises about how to do history have important implications. As Miller points out, those who wrestle with the past can develop the judgment to provide a variety of feasible alternatives for the future. Gladwell’s vision is very attractive; he provides easily grasped certainties. History is less attractive; it asks us to wrestle with an alien past for the sake of sharpening our judgment. At the end of the day, as we confront the future, Gladwell supplies answers. History, on the other hand, compels us to struggle, but in so doing, it gives us the opportunity to develop wisdom.