History and Politics

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.

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Lyin’ Ted, Democrats, and the Ku Klux Klan

cruz-vs-warren

With so much excitement surrounding President Trump’s first few weeks in office, one would be forgiven for not following closely former Republican presidential candidate and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. But “Lyin’ Ted,” as President Trump labeled him during the primary campaign, has been back in the news, defending Trump’s nominees for cabinet posts. Cruz’s recent headline-grabbing interview on Fox News caught the attention of One Thing after Another. Cruz may not have been lying, and he may not have been offering up “alternative facts,” as Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway claimed White House spokesman Sean Spicer did shortly after the inauguration.  But he is in need of some historical perspective.

In case you missed it, here’s the story according to the Washington Post:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/02/08/ted-cruz-the-democrats-are-the-party-of-the-ku-klux-klan/?utm_term=.425ddd9be663

Cruz appeared on Fox News last week after Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren had been cut off on the Senate floor as she spoke against her fellow senator Jeff Sessions’s confirmation to be attorney general. To rebut charges of racism against Sessions, Cruz tried to turn the tables. “Democrats,” Cruz claimed, “are the party of the Ku Klux Klan.” He added, “You look at the most racist – you look at the Dixiecrats, they were Democrats who imposed segregation, imposed Jim Crow laws, who founded the Klan.  The Klan was founded by a great many Democrats.” Cruz is not the first to make such claims. Indeed, One Thing after Another has heard Republicans say similar things in the past, most often in an attempt to deflect charges of racism and insist that it is Democrats who bear the burden of opposition to civil rights for African Americans. If your response is, “Say what?”, then give One Thing after Another the chance to fill in the gaps.

Although Cruz presents his claim as if it is relevant to current debates about race, it most certainly is not. One Thing after Another does not want to impugn the senator’s motives, but this is a distraction at best. Nevertheless, there is some truth in what he says, so let’s get that out of the way first. For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the American South was solidly Democratic—the Solid South. Before the Civil War, the Democrats were the party most closely associated with protecting slaveowners’ property rights. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, Democrats returned to power in all of the states of the former Confederacy and eventually disenfranchised the African-American voters most likely to support Republicans. Those white southerners were responsible for imposing segregation and resisting any federal efforts to protect civil rights for African Americans. The violence that the KKK represented helped to reinforce segregation.

The problem with Cruz’s claim, of course, is that in his attempt to cast racist aspersions on current Democrats, he ignores the historical development of the American political party system. The current Democratic party is not the same party that formed around Andrew Jackson in the early 19th century or helped to elect men like Grover Cleveland to the presidency in the late 19th century. In fact, for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Democrats—like the Republicans—were more a loose national coalition of regional and ethnic factions than an ideologically united party. The various factions did not always see eye to eye on issues like tariffs or workplace regulation, but the goal was to win office and hold power through patronage appointments. So they avoided potentially divisive issues and for the most part did not work to advance any particular ideological agenda. Even when an agenda emerged in the 1930s, the party was not united. Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, tried in vain to purge the Democrats of anti-New Deal southerners.

World War II patriotism emphasized the need for party unity, but the post-war period brought the return of southern outliers within the party. In 1948, a group of southern Democrats were angered about President Harry Truman’s embrace of a civil rights agenda. Known informally as the Dixiecrats, those southerners nominated their own candidate for president—South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond—under the banner of the States Rights Democratic Party. Thurmond won four states in the Deep South that year, but that was not enough to prevent Truman from being elected. After Thurmond’s loss, those Dixiecrats licked their wounds and returned to the Democratic fold. They stayed there, often a thorn in the side of the national party, and because of seniority in Congress often, held significant power and influence within the party.

Although it’s probably not company Cruz would normally keep, his attempt to lump all Democrats in with the Dixiecrats got a shout out fifty or so years ago by none other than Malcolm X. No fan of political solutions to address racial justice issues, Malcolm complained in 1964, “A Dixiecrat is nothing but a Democrat in disguise. The titular head of the Democrats is also the head of the Dixiecrats, because the Dixiecrats are a part of the Democratic Party. The Democrats have never kicked the Dixiecrats out of the party.”

That same year, however, the times they began changing. Former Dixiecrat presidential candidate turned South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond switched party affiliation and endorsed Republican Barry Goldwater for president. Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Goldwater carried five Deep South states. Although the Civil Rights Act passed Congress with plenty of Republican support, legend has it when Johnson signed the bill, he reportedly remarked to aide Bill Moyers that he had just handed over the South to the Republican party for a long time to come. At first glance, then, it might appear that white southerners moved to the Republican party in reaction to the national Democrats’ embrace of civil rights for African Americans. And some, no doubt, did.

But, again, that’s not the whole story. Because of demographic change, post-World War II migration into the region, and the popularity of Dwight Eisenhower, Republicans made in-roads in the South throughout the 1950s. In many ways, the Republicans’ white, native-born Protestant homogeneity was a better fit for the South anyway. What is more, the changeover from a Democratic to a Republican Solid South happened gradually. As Democratic elected officials retired, voters replaced them with Republicans. Rather than draw a straight line between opposition to civil rights for African Americans and political realignment, therefore, it is more accurate to see the Civil Rights Movement as part of the post-war reshuffling of the political deck. After the success of the Civil Rights Movement in ending legal segregation, the political issues surrounding race became more complex, and neither party made racial justice matters a top priority.

Our current political party system came together after the dust of the 1960s had settled, in that post-Civil Rights Movement era. By the 1980s, the political parties were more or less ideologically united. It was then that Democrats became “liberals” and Republicans “conservatives,” a trend that held into the 21st century. During his campaign, Trump surrounded himself by people associated with the so-called “alt-right,” but his campaign and some of the promises he made—like a massive federal infrastructure program—make labeling him “liberal” or “conservative” problematic. His election, then, at least threatened to lay waste to that liberal / conservative dichotomy that had characterized the two parties since the age of Reagan. For now, Republicans appear to be grudgingly falling in line behind the president, while Democrats seek a new leader and new issues that can attract a broad base of support. We at One Thing After Another are historians, so we are loath to predict what is going to happen in the future. Nevertheless, this could prove to be a watershed moment for the current party system, and a realignment could be in the works.

Whatever happens, One Thing after Another would prefer that political arguments be based on accurate information understood in its proper historical context. Ahistorical claims like Cruz’s make truth a casualty of partisanship. When truth becomes optional and historical context is ignored, then democracy itself is threatened. We historians should not be solely responsible for saving the republic. But until politicians take their responsibility more seriously, anyone concerned about truth and democracy must continue to push back against lies, alternative facts, and the anachronistic use of historical information.