Thursday, January 20, 2005

Re: Joseph Ellis And Bringing Knowledge Of The Past To Bear Upon The Present

January 20, 2005


Re: Joseph Ellis And Bringing Knowledge Of The Past To Bear Upon The Present
From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

Dear Colleagues:

I should start out by saying, in the interest of full disclosure, that I am prejudiced in favor of Joe Ellis. This is true notwithstanding the incomprehensible actions which led to a scandal a few years ago, and for which he has paid a price. Wholly aside from the quality of his books, there are several personal reasons for my favoritism. About four years ago Ellis was willing to be the first author to appear on our school’s one hour long, book review television program called Books of Our Times. (Now there are 55 authors who have appeared.) More recently he made gratifying comments about a book this blogger wrote. This year he will appear again on Books of Our Times to discuss his newest book, a biography of George Washington called His Excellency. And he has always been a real gentleman to deal with. So, with the reader keeping the writer’s favorable prejudice in mind, this blogger wishes to discuss (favorably, of course) an op-ed column that Ellis recently wrote for the Los Angeles Times and that appeared in The Boston Globe as well.

Frankly speaking, I assume -- I don’t know this, but am assuming it -- that the column got into the papers in the same way that the book and newspaper industries normally work together. That is to say, to flog sales publicists at big name publishers ask big name newspapers to carry a column by a big name author relating to the subject of a new book the author wrote. Because the publisher and the author are big names, the big name newspaper agrees. This typical arrangement is symptomatic of the symbiotic elephantiasis which exists everywhere in this nation and is ruining the country: It is typical of the fact that, in every walk of life, only the huge in size, huge in money, huge in reputation, and/or huge in connections can really get anywhere.
This fact, incidentally, is one of the reasons for the rise of the poor man’s printing press called The Internet, which gives a small opening to people who are otherwise shut out regardless of competence -- just as, conversely, others are insiders regardless of competence.

Be all this as it may, Ellis’ recent column (which is attached) exemplifies something that historians ought to do but are generally unwilling to do. In his column Ellis draws on his historical knowledge to discuss the current political situation. He brings the lens of history to bear on the present. This writer does not necessarily agree with everything Ellis says in bringing history to bear -- for example, unlike Ellis, this blogger thinks that thoroughgoing reform of the Internal Revenue Code could be "the stuff of a great legacy." The point, however, is that Ellis focuses historical learning on the present in order to make better sense of the present and in order to put it in a longer term perspective.

History, of course, is not necessarily prologue. It is equally true that people argue about what history shows (so that history has been called "argument without end"). Yet history does reveal patterns of thought, action and results, and shows that certain courses of action are likely to be fraught with difficulties and disasters because they usually or always have produced them in the past. As has lately begun to be recognized by a few, people run their daily lives on the basis of expectations that are informed by their own personal histories -- people avoid modes of conduct which have historically led them to personal failures in the past, and continue modes that have been successful. This is called intelligence, while people who continue modes of action that have regularly led to bad personal outcomes are regarded as lacking self awareness. It is not mere anthropomorphism to say that what is true at the personal level can be true at the societal level too, i.e., historically some courses of action generally seem to work better than others. If this were not so, why do we as a nation generally consider capitalism to be economically superior to communism? Why do we consider freedom to be more conducive to human happiness and progress than dictatorship?

When you think about it, the point being made here is pretty simple, even simple minded. Yet people try to resist it, or almost consciously remain ignorant of it, because it can be in opposition to courses of action they desire society to take. Examples of resistance and/or ignorance abound. To take but one sharp-stick-in-the-eye example, during the Viet Nam War, there was little if any discussion-- if memory serves there was no discussion until 1970 -- of one of the most pertinent parallels in American history, the Philippine Insurrection. That event was pretty much lost to our history because of the jingoistic writing of our history that had prevailed since inception. And certainly the government and the right wing, had they known about the Philippine mess, would have wanted no focus on it because such focus would have pointed to the possibility of the horrors which in fact occurred in Viet Nam. Better, therefore, to ignore the Philippine Insurrection.

One might make an analogous point regarding Iraq. To believe in the possibility of true success there -- true success as opposed to failure papered over by bovine-defecation-rhetoric from the administration -- one pretty much has to ignore the lessons of the Philippines, of Viet Nam, and even of our own American Revolution, where a ragtag army checked what was far and away the world’s most powerful military force, and for several years did so without foreign intervention. (Foreign intervention came only belatedly in the form of the French, who are now reviled by the conservatives and the war mongers of America. One might say, in contradiction to Pershing, "Lafayette, we are leaving you.")

But, of course, those who desired to invade Iraq, and to do so with an army vastly insufficient to post-invasion purposes, did not want to know about, and did not care about, history. They were and are in the grip of the same ignorant disease which seizes each new generation in the stock market when there is a big bubble, and which was the stuff of boyish fantasy in Faulkners’ Intruder In The Dust: This time it will be different. This time there supposedly are new and different factors of technology, power, or economy. This time basic human factors which deeply affected the past will not exist or will be inconsequential. This time actions that led to disasters in previous generations will lead instead to success.

The idea that this time we shall succeed where history says we are likely to fail is assisted by another factor -- one which history again tells us is always present. I speak of overselling people. People are not eager to accept changes or to believe a new course of action will produce a much better situation. Therefore, to gain the needed acceptance or belief, politicians always oversell the expected beneficial results of a new course of action which they favor, and oversell as well the dire consequences of not following their proposed action. As Paul Fussell says, the pols talk like advertising men. If we entered World War I, it would be the war to make the world safe for democracy and the war to end all wars. Munich would create "peace in our time." We had to fight in Viet Nam to stop rampant communism. Otherwise we would have to fight the Commies in San Francisco. Putting an end to discrimination, or implementing affirmative action, will result in equal education for all. Fighting Gulf War II will turn the Middle East into one big democracy. Not fighting it will give free rein to terrorists. Social security is in a major crisis and must be replaced by private accounts. By making these exaggerated kinds of advertising-like statements, and by repeating them often enough, politicians gain the support they need for their proposed actions even though a more dispassionate and objective analysis of historical analogies (and other factors) would warn people against believing the exaggerated.

To help avoid the preposterous "this time it will be different" syndrome, and to puncture the false, advertising-like overselling which helps lead to it, historians ought to set forth the historical analogies for the public and ought to explain what the analogies tell us is more or less likely. Naturally, historians will disagree among themselves. But such disagreement is no reason not to raise the quality of our decisionmaking by giving us pertinent historical information. It is a little hard to believe, for example, that people would have been quite so eager to embrace the Bushian bull about Iraq -- would have been quite so willing to embrace the claimed presence of WMDs, or the claim that democratic change would occur all over the Middle East, or the claim of only a short war -- if historians had reminded us of pertinent analogies. Would people have been so quick to accept the correctness of claims of WMDs in Iraq if historians had reminded us that America had almost certainly, or sometimes had definitely, been mistaken about other casus bellis such as the Spanish supposedly blowing up the Maine and attacks on U.S. destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf? Would people have been so quick to accept the possibility of a short, quick overwhelmingly successful war if historians had reminded us of what happened in the Philippines after the quick and complete victory over Spain, had reminded us that both sides had expected only a short war in our own Civil War, had reminded us of how long the Viet Namese had been prepared to hold out through guerrilla warfare and did hold out even though we won all or nearly all the set-piece battles, had reminded us of what happened to Napoleon in Spain, had reminded us of the fear near the end of the Civil War of endless years of guerrilla warfare even though the Confederate armies were smashed, had reminded us of the French experience in Algeria (not to mention in Nam)?

But historians don’t like to bring their knowledge of history to bear on the present. There seem to be two reasons. One is that historians are historians because they love history -- not the present, but history. So they are reluctant to talk about, and sometimes feel they don’t even know all that much about, the present. The other reason is that they fear that they will trim their historical views to suit their inclinations about the present if they discuss the latter in terms of the former. This is not an insensible fear. One saw it exemplified when lots of liberal historians signed onto ads that used alleged law and history to attempt to impeach the impeachment of Bill Clinton, when in reality lots, perhaps most, of the signers knew little or nothing about the law or history of impeachment and the ads were in significant respects wrong.
Yet, while it may be true that there will be historians whose comments will merely reflect partisan desires, there will be others who will make efforts at more dispassionate analysis. And there will, as well, be historians on both sides of an issue. Victor Davis Hanson lives, after all. So does John Keegan. When all things are considered (pace NPR), if historians were to bring their knowledge of the past to bear on the present, it is far more likely that we would get a larger base of high class information to use in making decisions than that we would get only a prejudiced, one-sided view of matters.

So far, however, historians, as said, have generally not done this. So Joe Ellis’ column lies far more in the realm of trail blazing than in the realm of the conventional. He should be applauded for blazing the trail, however, regardless of whether or not one agrees with his substantive views, or partially agrees with them, and regardless of whether or not the column is the result of the prevalent societal elephantiasis and the relationships this engenders. Applauding him, one hopes that other historians would follow his example. One suspects we would have fewer debacles if they did.*
This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

Wisdom from the other George W.
By Joseph J. Ellis January 8, 2005
WHEN F. SCOTT Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American life, he was not thinking of the American presidency. But the dominant historical pattern reinforces Fitzgerald's point. Second terms are seldom as successful as first, often disappointing, sometimes disastrous. Most recently they have been defined by scandal (i.e. Watergate, Irangate, Monica Lewinsky).
The core reason for this problematic pattern might be called the duck-and-chickens syndrome. A second-term president is a lame duck with only a limited time to exercise executive power and with reduced authority to maintain discipline within the party. And the chickens come home to roost during a second term when unresolved problems from the first term evolve into major crises. For President Bush the two large chickens are Iraq and the deficit. The potential for sensational scandals also looms in the case of the Halliburton contract, the disarray in the CIA, and Tom DeLay's shenanigans. All this bodes ill for Bush.
Pundits inside the Beltway have been offering their up-close wisdom to Bush since the election. I don't live inside the Beltway; I have been living for the last four years in the 18th century, writing a biography of George Washington. So mine is a more far-away version of advice. Here is the conceit: What would the first George W. urge upon the current George W. in order to avoid the second-term syndrome?
First, the Iraq insurgency. Washington led a successful insurgency against the dominant military and economic power in the world. He shaped his winning strategy around the recognition that the British occupation faced insurmountable obstacles if the bulk of the population resented its presence. In part because of our own anti-imperial origins as a nation, the United States is ill equipped to replace the British Empire as the presiding imperial presence in the Middle East for the next 50 years. Iraq is likely to become an open wound that bleeds all over Bush's second term as long as our troops remain the face of the occupation.
Sometime after the Iraq elections this month, and before the US congressional elections in 2006, we need to declare victory in Iraq and withdraw, perhaps leaving a residual force in northern Iraq to protect the Kurds. Our removal of Saddam Hussein has given Iraqis the opportunity to reinvent their quasi-country, but that will take decades, and the struggle must be theirs to win or lose.
Second, the terrorist threat. As commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, then as president, Washington faced primal threats to American survival as a nation. The threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism is a secondary rather than a primal threat, meaning that it places lives and lifestyles at risk, but not the survival of the nation itself. Washington would regard our current reaction to 9/11 as excessive. We faced more mortal threats to our national security in his own time and afterward (the American Revolution, the Civil War and the Cold War qualify).
Against terrorism, confidence rather than fear is the proper posture, in great part because of the institutions Washington and his generation bequeathed to us. The Islamic fundamentalists believe that Allah is on their side. But history is on ours.
Third, the legacy issue. First terms are about reelection, second terms are about legacy. Washington's legacy was established in his farewell address in 1796. It made two points: First, that America's future as an independent nation lay to the west rather than across the Atlantic in Europe; second, that American foreign policy should be governed by interest rather than ideals.
Bush's proposed domestic agenda -- the reform of the tax code and privatization of Social Security -- is not the stuff of a great legacy. It is also likely to run afoul of congressional factions ingenious at administering death by a thousand cuts.
There are really only two prospective executive initiatives capable of taking Bush to legacy land. The first is a bold scientific program -- on the scale of the Manhattan Project or the space initiative of the Kennedy administration -- designed to make the United States energy independent within the next decade. The second is a concerted effort to resolve the Palestinian issue by brokering a deal with the Israelis and the post-Arafat Palestinian Authority. Both efforts have greater potential to change the toxic chemistry of the current Middle East than any enduring US military presence in the region.
These are my own translations of Washington's wisdom. We cannot fly the great man himself in from the 18th century. And even if we could, he would not know about weapons of mass destruction, Medicare, or even Iraq. But if I have him right, he can still speak to us across the ages, and President Bush (or should it be Karl Rove?) might benefit from listening.
Joseph J. Ellis, author of "His Excellency," a biography of George Washington, wrote this column for the Los Angeles Times.

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