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 opening paragraph 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. The gambit intends first of all to flatter readers by endowing them with more knowledge than they’re actually likely to really be familiar with — telling them what happened by pretending they already know it. But the more important effect is to obscure 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 they put in place. 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 have been quoting 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 put forth 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 comes a long, flying leap to nowhere: Ronald Reagan becomes another fact-y president, simply for having copped 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 both Adams and Reagan lied plenty. There’s no resistance to Trump in lionizing former presidents on the basis of random quotations irrelevant to their performance in office.

What the hell is 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.

3 thoughts on “Less History, Please: Part Two

  1. Interesting. One thing, however, left out–one of the contentious issues was, of course, the issue of slavery. As a black writer, i would imagine Cobb is not so much being arch but rather knows that the events he describes were designed in part to make sure that people who looked like him remained property, not humans, and that the (in)famous 3/5 of a person decision was designed to ensure that slave states retained their power within this new government.

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