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.

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6 thoughts on “Now More Than Ever, We Need Less History

  1. Good stuff, as usual, Bill. Your comments on Mencken are a microcosm of your historical work vis-a-vis the standard canon of the discipline. I’m giving a presentation next month on why your work is important and why historians should pay attention. I’ll probably say something along the lines of “don’t be Mencken.” Too late, I fear. 🙂 Oh yes, and the Scopes trial — Dayton, Tennessee, I believe — violation of the Butler Law, if memory serves. All best —

  2. This is a lovely endorsement not only of Bryan, but of the optimism of the American populist dream and the possibility of a better country, as opposed to the racial-scientistic cynicism of Mencken.

  3. I featured Bryan’s championship of the first progressive income tax (1893) for years in my classes. The New York corporate lawyers who got it declared unconstitutional in Pollock vs Farmers Loan in 1895 seem to have carried the day against Bryan’s reputation, but it’s the American Nietzscheans, from Mencken to Ayn Rand, who are the real caterpillars of the commonwealth–not because they are racists and eugenicists, or atheists, but because they do not believe in even the possibility of love, self-sacrifice, public service, or even empathy. To hell with them.

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