Less History, Please: Part Two

Picking up on my last post — it was about ill-considered efforts, on the part of high-powered members of the certified intelligentsia, to invoke American history in resisting Trump and Trumpism — I’d like to note a few more examples of the trend, giving each example a briefer and more superficial treatment (you’ll be happy to know) than I gave the lone Philip Gourevitch tweet in the last post.

Item.  New Yorker staff writer John Cassidy, Twitter, February 28:

JFK: “I am a Berliner.” DT: ‘My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.” That’s about it.

Cassidy’s “That’s about it” exemplifies a common mode in tweet-zinging, the unearned mic-drop that, while intended to drive a point home, exposes weakness in the main gambit. Cassidy is a smart, informed guy, so what’s, exactly, “about it,” in the stark comparison he draws between the JFK quote and the DT quote? JFK’s Cold War foreign policy, so brilliantly personalized in the West Berlin speech, did indeed position the United States as representing the world, or at least the supposedly civilized part of it, and maybe Cassidy sees that approach as having led to a string of successes for world civilization, so glorious that we can only yearn to go back to leadership like JFK’s. If so, he’s entitled to his opinion, obviously, but surely he knows that a complicated public discourse is ongoing, among informed people like him, about the validity and relative success of the US’s efforts to represent the moral conscience of humanity during those years, efforts that in any event were all too often attended by disregard for law and democratic process. Reaction has led in many directions — one of them “America First” Trumpism. Grownup responses to Trump’s heedless reveling in unbaked ideas about national interest just can’t lie in daydreams of questing Kennedy anticommunism. And I suspect somebody like John Cassidy knows that. So what gives with sentimental invocation of the past?

Item. In case I seem to be picking on Twitter, here’s Jelani Cobb, the journalism and history professor and New Yorker staff writer, in the lede graf of an article published in that magazine, on possible GOP plans to amend the U.S. Constitution:

We’re familiar with the contours of the story: fifty-five delegates gathered in Philadelphia, in the sweltering summer of 1787, to do something about the inert Articles of Confederation. Having recognized that the old agreement was fatally flawed—it had no provisions for unitary foreign or tax policies, or for a national defense—the delegates set about creating a four-and-a-half-thousand-word lattice of compromises and counterbalances that has, with the notable exception of the years 1861 through 1865, cemented the union of the United States.  [. . . ] Not so long ago, the late political scientist Robert A. Dahl and the legal scholar Sanford Levinson asked whether the constitution they produced was even properly democratic. But seldom have critics so thoroughly disdained the events in Philadelphia as to call for a do-over. Until recently.

Now we’re down in the powderkeg of founding history, but you wouldn’t know from the paragraph how explosive this space is: Cobb takes the confidently authoritative tone so common when New Yorker and New York Times and other upscale writers want to use history to set up the main point of a piece. “We’re familiar with the contours of the story: fifty-five delegates gathered in Philadelphia,” etc.: it’s a tone that obscures the degree of partiality and controversy behind Cobb’s string of ensuing assertions, as well as their crashing into each other near the end. That the Articles were somehow at once inert and fatally flawed is by no means a matter of neutral fact but a rhetorical position of some of the convention delegates. What was flawed about the Articles, in those delegates’ real opinion, wasn’t inertia but its very opposite (ertia?). You’d think from Cobb’s description that the Articles were some incompetent version of a national constitution — that in writing them, their nodding authors had neglected to create ordinary necessities of nationhood, like top-down taxing and military powers. The Articles were in fact written, and enforced in the interest of state sovereignty, to prevent anything resembling American nationhood from ever occurring. The rules were actively restraining the nationalists from imposing federal taxation of the interstate public and from forming a uniform, federally-run interstate army. The delegates at what became the constitutional convention therefore came together in order, as the kickoff speaker Edmund Randolph put it, to redress the excess of democracy that had resulted, in his and others’ view, from the laxness of the state legislatures in policing their people and the political power of those legislatures vis a vis the federal Congress. Cobb’s statement that Sanford Levinson has criticized the resulting Constitution for not being “even properly democratic” thus makes no sense at all: the Constitution was openly intended by its leading framers to obstruct democracy (Levinson has sometimes elided this too). The framers themselves disliked the Constitution’s many compromises, now hymned today as grand and wise; most of them fully expected what Cobb calls a do-over; in 1814, New England came close to seceding. That the four-year span of outright civil war represents, for Cobb, the sole exception to an otherwise well-cemented constitutional American unity seems so outlandish to me that I’d have to address it in detail elsewhere. (People are always saying “After all, it’s held up pretty well for more than two centuries.” No, it hasn’t. It would be unrecognizable, thank goodness, to its first framers, and not only thanks to the amendment process. More on that later.) In the end, my big question here is much like that in the first item: Why, in order to criticize the GOP’s threat to constitutional rights, put forth such untenably sentimental statements about the Constitution’s framing and history?

Item. In case I seem to be picking on The New Yorker, here’s the historian and Atlantic senior editor Yoni Appelbaum, in an article published in that magazine on March 23, on Trump’s denial of fact.

His predecessors felt differently.

In 1770, John Adams stood before a jury, and argued that—despite what he, and they, might want to believe—the British soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre had been exercising their right of self-defense in the face of mob violence. “Facts are stubborn things,” he said, “and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Ronald Reagan took that line—“facts are stubborn things”—and made it the refrain of his valedictory address to his party at the Republican National Convention in 1988.

Sooner or later, this president, too, will learn of the stubbornness of facts.

It’s not just Appelbaum: lots of people quote John Adams on the supposedly stubborn nature of facts. Facts aren’t stubborn things, especially in law, and especially in history (John Adams bamboozled his own diary). Where Adams succeeded in the Boston Massacre cases, he succeeded not because he revealed incontrovertible facts about a chaotic and violent moment: nobody present at the event, and nobody hearing about it later, could ever possibly be sure of the facts. Informed arguments exist about how Adams really operated in that case, and those arguments will go on; Appelbaum, a historian, must know that, but no such historical realism finds its way into the rhetoric and purport of his piece. Rolling on the barrel of the “facts” quote, he gets all the way from that one line in a youngish lawyer’s courtroom pitch of 1770 to the second president’s 1797-1801 role as a predecessor of Trump, somehow thus framing Adams, in contrast to Trump, as an inveterate presidential reckoner with hard truths — and then takes a long, flying leap: Ronald Reagan becomes another fact-y president, solely on the basis of Reagan’s copping Adams’s 1770 line. Appelbaum’s piece rightly describes the inability of anyone to tell the current president hard truths, or really tell him anything. But there’s no resistance to Trump in lionizing former presidents on the basis of random quotations irrelevant to their performance in office.

What’s going on here? These writers  — some of them certified historians — are supposed to be bringing a working relationship with the American past to bear on the crisis in American political leadership. I think we’ve been getting this whole thing wrong for a long time, and that now, in the midst of a major national struggle, the chickens are coming home to roost.

Now more than ever: less of it.

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Now More Than Ever, We Need Less History

Many who are freaked, like me, about the current national crisis are exhibiting a tendency, like mine, to intensify what they were doing before the crisis reached this point and to argue fervently for doing more of it. Whatever we were already doing, that is, has suddenly become what restoration of the body politic seems most desperately to require.

The “now more than ever” thing is everywhere. Since election day, dancers have been saying that now more than ever we need dance, poets poetry, and so on, and the impulse must be natural. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, watching Charlie Rose’s show on TV, I heard David Gergen — then ubiquitous as a moderate-conservative political wiseman — saying something to the effect of “at least in this abruptly changed world, everything we found so revolting about the decline of American culture will no longer have any valence.” Gergen was referring to gangster rap, kneejerk sarcasm — a grab-bag of the rude negativity of the day — and I noticed with a shock that I’d been thinking just the same thing, in that I’d been thinking just the opposite.

At least in this abruptly changed world, I’d been telling myself, there won’t be any place for the likes of David Gergen running his mouth on TV.

We were way off, Gergen and I. Since the autumn of 2001, everything he and I disliked has kept chugging merrily along. We were only assuaging anxiety in a rough time, telling ourselves that the stakes had now become too high to permit one jot more of anything we objected to, reassuring ourselves that the American culture we so loved and found so perpetually wanting might be redeemed, at last, by tragedy: at least then 9/11 wouldn’t be for nothing. David Gergen and I were sharing a strategy for self-comfort.

The phenomenon I’m talking about now is related to Gergen’s and my mood of 2001, yet inverted, flipped from negative to positive. With the election of an unhinged reality-TV huckster to the U.S. presidency, instead of the delusional Well, at least now there can’t be any more of that stuff I hate, many of us have taken up the equally delusional What I love most is the very thing that can save us.

Now more than ever.

* * * *

American historians and others involved in American history are among those saying “now more than ever,” and not surprisingly what historians think we need, now more than ever, is history. Analyzing my own delusion doesn’t save me from participating in it, as I think this post will make overwhelmingly clear. Still, I feel I have a sliver of space in which to question what many people I respect have been doing, lately, regarding American history, and to question my own responses to those efforts.

The historians and the fans of history do have a point. Almost everybody who thinks about it agrees that understanding current politics — understanding human life — requires history. In a national crisis involving certain bizarre qualities heretofore rarely seen in public life, the qualities on which the history profession rests — critical thinking, regard for fact, evaluation of sources, cogent argument — naturally seem the very things that might help us resist and get through and right the ship. Those values are liberal, in the old-fashioned sense that sometimes embraces certain conservatisms. Now more than ever, it might seem obvious, history is one of the key sources on which the survival of liberal values must depend.

But I don’t think we need more of the same approach to history. Quite the contrary: I think the recent election shows that we should stop doing everything we’ve been doing, regarding our history, and re-assess the value, purpose, nature, and common modes of historical work itself. That’s what I thought before. I just think it more than ever, now. I think the current crisis proves that what I thought before is right: that certain ways in which the study of history has been conducted in the US for the past sixty years or so are contributing to a major problem.

So now more than ever, I feel strongly that both the US history profession itself and the well-educated, liberal consumer and discusser of that history must be challenged and, as the scholars used to say, interrogated. The larger interrogation, in this crisis for liberalism, would be of the liberal imagination itself, with particular regard for how liberal ways of thought and culture, in which all thinking people must participate to some degree, relate to the past.

* * * *

As a small salvo, I look first at certain recent invocations of US history — invocations made not by history professionals but by the elite, high-powered intelligentsia supposedly well-informed of our national history, invocations made as salve for the wounds and ammunition in the fight against Trumpism.

In late February, Trump’s brain trust Steve Bannon deftly trolled us by stating that his boss is “probably the greatest public speaker in those large arenas since William Jennings Bryan.” As was to be expected, anti-Trump forces gobbled the bait: pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other great American orators were slammed down all over social media in the familiar “so there” and “’nuff said” manner, as if to prove Bannon wrong, as if proof, or being right or wrong, or right and wrong themselves, have anything to do with anything Bannon says.

Going perhaps historically deepest and hardest in futile riposte was Philip Gourevitch, the justly esteemed journalist, author, and New Yorker staff writer. On Twitter, he responded to Bannon’s remark this way:

WJ Bryan who got stomped at Monkey Trial by far greater public speaker Clarence Darrow. Bryan was fighting Darwinian evolution, i.e. science.

The purport of Gourevitch’s tweet is that Bannon’s reference to William Jennings Bryan offers no high standard for public speaking anyway: an enemy of science — just like the Trumpists — Bryan wasn’t nearly as good a public speaker as Clarence Darrow, who, on behalf of science, destroyed Bryan at the climax of the 1925 Scopes trial. The claims of both science and history are thus asserted against Bannon’s evident ignorance of and hostility to both.

Without here reviewing the Scopes trial in full, suffice it to say that it’s true: in aiding prosecution by the state of Alabama [YIKES: Tennessee!] of John Scopes for teaching the book Civic Biology, the famous politician and orator William Jennings Bryan argued passionately against the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and indeed against evolution itself; true too that Clarence Darrow, the famous lawyer who took up Scopes’s defense at the behest of the ACLU, barred by the court from introducing any science into evidence, took the brilliant resort of putting Bryan himself on the stand, questioning the witness into corners that Bryan was unable to escape by recourse to the scriptures he professed as the sole reliable guide to universal truth.

Bryan was indeed humiliated. Saying Bryan got “stomped” is odd — the state prevailed in the trial — but in another tweet, Gourevitch called the state’s victory “pyrrhic,” focusing instead, as liberals have long done, on the benchmark moment of Bryan’s failure to make a logical case against the theory of evolution and for the authority of scripture. Bryan was old, visibly ailing during the trial — he died only five days after his battering at the hands of Darrow — and their courtroom [UPDATE: adding to  the carny atmosphere of the trial, they actually took Darrow’s examination of the witness outside] battle has long been framed by liberal public history as a step away from the long necrosis of fear and ignorance into the rising modern sun of reason and science.

That’s the historical context in which Gourevitch makes the assertion that William Jennings Bryan wasn’t a great arena orator. Or nowhere near as great, anyway, according to Gourevitch, as Clarence Darrow.

Really, nobody — I think even Gourevitch, if he gave it a moment’s consideration — thinks that Darrow was a greater public speaker than Bryan. Darrow was a great trial lawyer, albeit a flamboyant and stunt-y one, but if crowd-dazzling political speaking on major, pressing national issues can be great — there may be a legitimate question about that, buried in Gourevtich’s tweet — William Jennings Bryan clearly hit the mark on a level, need it be said, categorically other than anything a Donald Trump could imagine, let alone have any chance of attaining. Bryan’s career, personality, and politics are plenty worthy of criticism, but their importance to American history has nothing to do with the mano a mano deathmatch-in-a-steel-cage with Darrow during the Scopes trial, pathetic coda to a long, remarkable, and troubling career. Clarence Darrow just isn’t known as a great public speaker in the sense that Bannon meant it, and William Jennings Bryan is. Somehow, in this climate, a Steve Bannon can get a Philip Gourevitch to shoot wildly from the hip.

And miss repeatedly.  Gourevitch calls “science” what Bryan was fighting to defeat in the Scopes trial. It’s fairly widely known that, as its title suggests, Civic Biology wasn’t just a book with a chapter on Darwinian evolution but a pseudoscientific screed in favor of eugenics. A representative sample:

At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest race type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America . . . The great Englishman Charles Darwin was one of the first scientists to realize how this great force of heredity applied to the development or evolution of plants and animals . . .

William Jennings Bryan did hate the teaching of evolution. He did support state censorship of evolution in textbooks. He found Darwin’s portrait of ruthless competition horrifying as a description of the descent of humanity. That was in keeping with Bryan’s longstanding hatred of the dominance of better-advantaged Americans over the poor. It was in religious terms that Bryan condemned Gilded Age plutocracy and rallied huge crowds in favor of using government power to support laborers and small farmers and restrain the power of corporate wealth. He was, one might say, no rocket scientist: misreading social Darwninism into actual Darwinism, and on that basis asserting a more or less blind faith in his reading of Biblical scripture for documenting love, not competition, as the universal principle, Bryan rejected not only science but also the right to teach science.

But the book at issue in the Scopes trial also equated real Darwinism with social Darwinism. It thus gave credence — scientifically false — to Bryan’s dimly informed suppositions about the purposes of teaching evolution. Most liberals today would be quick to condemn, and would even support legally prohibiting public schools from teaching, what that book said, yet Gourevitch, so readily trolled by Bannon, equates the book with science, and from that wrongheaded equation makes Clarence Darrow, in defending the right to teach the book, a greater public speaker than Bryan. All of that with the triumphal “oh yeah,” “uh huh,” “done and done” tone that accompanies so many tweets.

* * * *

Where is Gourevitch getting this stuff? A eugenics book as science text, Bryan a lesser public speaker than Darrow?

I think I have a sense. A reader and re-reader, in my pubescence, of the play “Inherit the Wind,” which dramatizes the Monkey Trial by lionizing Darrow, caricaturing Bryan (he always helped with that), and framing the prosecution’s victory as pyrrhic, I fancied myself one day becoming a lawyer like Darrow, famous for carrying the torch for reason and liberty (emphasis on famous). That play introduced me to the towering American journalist H.L. Mencken, whose influence was so vast in the first part of the last century. The play’s narrator is based on Mencken: he’d scabrously covered the Scopes trial and given it its famous name, pillorying Bryan and all other such yahoos and thereby making his own name. As a youngster, inspired by the romance of the play, I did some reading on Darrow and began my reading of Mencken.

So I blame Mencken. Other Gourevitch tweets suggest that the Sage of Baltimore plays a role in Gourevitch’s overall thinking, and fair enough: Gourevitch is hardly alone, in this crisis or at other times, in looking to Mencken.

Here’s a famous Mencken quote now flying around social media:

On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

I get it. That resonates. In Mencken’s thinking, American democracy must lead inevitably to a moron’s arriving in the White House, and if it’s turned out, in 2017, that Mencken was right, let all Menckenites celebrate.  For liberal-intelligensia types who follow such writers and thinkers, however, it’s worth noting that Mencken’s disdain for democracy had sources and ramifications precisely contrary to what most liberals construe as fundamental liberal values. Mencken can be a lot of fun to read — oh, he could write, and if you have a negative cast of mind you’ll find a fellow traveler — but he was a straight-up racist, and not in the “please, those were just the times” way, so often invoked in hopes of dismissing the racism of earlier periods, but in ways ineluctably connected to the purport of the quotation above, cited approvingly these days against Trump and Trump voters, and related directly to his coverage of the Monkey Trial, inspiring Gourevitch and many others.

H.L. Mencken wasn’t just some garden-variety ignorant bigot. He had theories, complicated, fully worked-up theories, on the nature of race and class, and how race and class relate to biology and heredity. Disregard for what he defined as “low-caste” races — he included blacks and Jews — dovetailed with his disdain for unprivileged white Americans — “Boobus americanus,” as he put it, and “the booboisie” — as well as with disdain for democracy as a whole, for the New Deal, and for much else that liberals now glomming onto his bitter predictions have reason to fear for, thanks to a moron’s actual accession. Like the authors of the book under attack in the Monkey Trial, Mencken was a sometime eugencist. His racial, social, and cultural elitism, drawn in part from Neitzsche, represents a cogent if disastrously bent point of view. Steve Bannon partakes in some of it. So does Richard Spencer.

So I don’t think that those who seek, in the tweeting of Philip Gourevitch and others like him, red meat for fighting Trumpism would endorse many of the ramifications of Gourevitch’s tweet on Bryan, with its background in Mencken’s bleak view not only of Bryan but of the American people as a whole, of races other than Mencken’s own, and of the inevitable failure of democracy. What comfort could anyone possibly draw, in our current crisis, from Mencken’s bitterly racist, elitist, eugenicist view of Darwin and Bryan, or from Gourevitch’s disdain for the most important 19th-century voice — well, the loudest, anyway — against the unrestrained power of wealth and privilege? Bryan was all too frequently a fool, but sorting out his foolishness takes consideration. As with so many great reformers of the era, his progressivism  was inspired by religious conviction, a fact that naturally revolts, or at least embarrasses, a certain brand of secularist today. At least as embarrassing to me is modern, liberal, secular thought when caught in the act of inventing historical absurdities like Bryan’s supposed inferiority to Darrow as a public speaker or the Scopes textbook’s supposed scientific legitimacy.

How does a thinker and writer like Philip Gourevitch get drawn into a mess like this? Panic? The intuitive reach for self-comfort (paging my old fellow-sufferer David Gergen!)? Is it just Twitter? I suspect the mess has something to do with the way so many well-informed, liberal, literate people look at American history, so I’ll stop picking on Gourevitch (and Mencken) now. It’s not Gourevitch, in a single tweet. It’s something big, a worldview he represents more articulately than most, and a peculiar relationship to US history in which many of the rest of us also participate.

And so I’ll have more to say on the bigger issues.