• History •
July 13, 2005
Historian David Halberstam, one of the most popular and influential historians of modern America, reflected on his generation as his Harvard class of 1955 celebrated its fiftieth reunion. In “A Modest Generation,” published in the May-June 2005 issue of The Harvard Magazine, Halberstam characterized his generation and the vast changes that have reshaped America over the last half-century.
Consider these selected insights: We are children therefore of the Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the atomic age. That, it strikes me, ought to make us a serious, somber, and reasonably skeptical generation and I suspect we are. We were somewhat more modest about our career possibilities than those who came after us, and with good reason; no one we knew when we were young had ever been that successful on a large scale in Wall Street. No one, when we were young, talked about disposable income, and even those members of our class who went off to Wall Street did not think in terms of making millions and millions of dollars–if they thought they might be millionaires, and I suspect few of them did, it was over the course of a long career, not in just one year or two.
We are part of an era where Americans tended to live in one place and have one job with one firm for most of their lives. I think that’s important because in some ways our values evolved from that, and are involuntarily more traditional. We have, for a variety of reasons, what I would call slower values, less given to fad and to change. We are stodgier, more cautious; in our dress codes I suspect we still prefer the tweed jackets, blazers, and grey flannel pants that we wore when we were young; we are more likely than generations that have succeeded us to be–in dress, and in thought process, and in cultural attitude–what we were when we were younger. That does not make us better or nobler than those who followed us, but perhaps we are more careful and more wary of change, possibly more aware of the consequences of events. We did, after all, grow up with the dire consequences of other people’s miscalculations.
The change in our country in those 50 years, so much of it driven by technology, is startling. We have gone from a semi-Calvinist society, or at least a society that still paid homage to Calvinist values, to a modern, new-entertainment-age culture where we all have television sets which are close to being de facto movie screens in our homes, often with hundreds of channels. It is a society where, because we are supposed to be entertained at all times, the great new sin is not to sin, but to be boring. As such we have reversed our values–something quite obvious now to anyone watching sports on television. The more provocative your behavior, the more you violate the existing norms of the sports society, the more everything is about you, the more handsomely you are likely to be rewarded. If we are a society with a higher level of energy than that of our youth we are also, for a variety of reasons, one with a much lower level of basic civility.
July 8, 2005
The bombings in London force us to look evil in the face once again. While some observers and commentators wonder aloud how human beings could do this to each other, Christians must affirm what we already know — that great evil lurks in the heart of humanity. When that evil is set loose, unconstrained by conscience, law, or social sanction, the monstrous reality of human evil bares its teeth once again. The mounting casualty and death toll in London is but the latest face of the evil we have now come to know in the form of mass terror.
We must pray for the people of Britain, for the injured and the mourning, and for a world growing both old and weary with each attack.
The major media have been covering this story all day and will continue coverage in days to come. Comments ranging from the insightful to the insipid have filled the airwaves. For one interesting and informed response, consider Thomas L. Friedman’s column published in today’s edition of The New York Times. Friedman gets right to what he sees as the great challenge ahead:
So this is a critical moment. We must do all we can to limit the civilizational fallout from this bombing. But this is not going to be easy. Why? Because unlike after 9/11, there is no obvious, easy target to retaliate against for bombings like those in London. There are no obvious terrorist headquarters and training camps in Afghanistan that we can hit with cruise missiles. The Al Qaeda threat has metastasized and become franchised. It is no longer vertical, something that we can punch in the face. It is now horizontal, flat and widely distributed, operating through the Internet and tiny cells.
Because there is no obvious target to retaliate against, and because there are not enough police to police every opening in an open society, either the Muslim world begins to really restrain, inhibit and denounce its own extremists – if it turns out that they are behind the London bombings – or the West is going to do it for them. And the West will do it in a rough, crude way – by simply shutting them out, denying them visas and making every Muslim in its midst guilty until proven innocent.
And because I think that would be a disaster, it is essential that the Muslim world wake up to the fact that it has a jihadist death cult in its midst. If it does not fight that death cult, that cancer, within its own body politic, it is going to infect Muslim-Western relations everywhere. Only the Muslim world can root out that death cult. It takes a village.
July 4, 2005
Historian David McCullough spoke at Michigan’s Hillsdale College earlier this year on “Knowing History and Knowing Ourselves.” The address is a delight for several reasons, but within his speech McCullough made some interesting and timely observations about the American Revolution. Enjoy these excerpts:
Keep in mind that when we were founded by those people in the late 18th century, none of them had had any prior experience in either revolutions or nation-making. They were, as we would say, winging it. And they were idealistic and they were young. We see their faces in the old paintings done later in their lives or looking at us from the money in our wallets, and we see the awkward teeth and the powdered hair, and we think of them as elder statesmen. But George Washington, when he took command of the continental army at Cambridge in 1775, was 43 years old, and he was the oldest of them. Jefferson was 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. John Adams was 40. Benjamin Rush – one of the most interesting of them all and one of the founders of the antislavery movement in Philadelphia – was 30 years old when he signed the Declaration. They were young people. They were feeling their way, improvising, trying to do what would work. They had no money, no navy, no real army. There wasn’t a bank in the entire country. There wasn’t but one bridge between New York and Boston. It was a little country of 2,500,000 people, 500,000 of whom were held in slavery, a little fringe of settlement along the east coast. What a story. What a noble beginning. And think of this: almost no nations in the world know when they were born. We know exactly when we began and why we began and who did it.
In the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington hangs John Trumbull’s great painting, “The Declaration of Independence, Fourth of July, 1776.” It’s been seen by more people than any other American painting. It’s our best known scene from our past. And almost nothing about it is accurate. The Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed on July 4th. They didn’t start to sign the Declaration until August 2nd, and only a part of the Congress was then present. They kept coming back in the months that followed from their distant states to take their turn signing the document. The chairs are wrong, the doors are in the wrong place, there were no heavy draperies at the windows, and the display of military flags and banners on the back wall is strictly a figment of Trumbull’s imagination. But what is accurate about it are the faces. Every single one of the 47 men in that painting is an identifiable, and thus accountable, individual. We know what they look like. We know who they were. And that’s what Trumbull wanted. He wanted us to know them and, by God, not to forget them. Because this momentous step wasn’t a paper being handed down by a potentate or a king or a czar, it was the decision of a Congress acting freely.
The Revolutionary War was as dark a time as we’ve ever been through. 1776, the year we so consistently and rightly celebrate every year, was one of the darkest times, if not the darkest time in the history of the country. Many of us here remember the first months of 1942 after Pearl Harbor when German submarines were sinking our oil tankers right off the coasts of Florida and New Jersey, in sight of the beaches, and there wasn’t a thing we could do about it. Our recruits were drilling with wooden rifles, we had no air force, half of our navy had been destroyed at Pearl Harbor, and there was nothing to say or guarantee that the Nazi machine could be defeated – nothing. Who was to know? I like to think of what Churchill said when he crossed the Atlantic after Pearl Harbor and gave a magnificent speech. He said we haven’t journeyed this far because we’re made of sugar candy. It’s as true today as it ever was.
Happy Independence Day to all. McCullough’s latest book, 1776, is a chronicle of the Revolutionary War and its leaders — especially George Washington. The text of his Hillsdale address is available through the college’s Web site and its publication, Imprimis.
July 3, 2005
Shelby Foote, who died last Monday at age 88, left quite a mark on the American mind. Made popular by the Ken Burns PBS series, The Civil War, Foote was one of those few historians who can communicate both in print and in person. His Mississippi drawl, bearded face, and irreverent manner gave him a persona made for television — at least for the folks who watch PBS.
Foote believed that history was best understood as the instructive story of how great individuals and great events had shaped reality. He was a master in the form of narrative history, but he held to the rather quaint and eccentric notion that the basic facts of history should not bend to accommodate modern ideologies.
In a 1999 interview published in The Paris Review, Foote explained his approach to history. Here are a few choice paragraphs:
On history and facts: I am what is called a narrative historian. Narrative history is getting more popular all the time, but it’s not a question of twisting the facts into a narrative. I maintain that anything you can learn by writing novels–by putting words together in a narrative form–is especially valuable to you when writing history. There is no great difference between writing novels and writing histories other than this: if you have a character named Lincoln in a novel who’s not Abraham Lincoln, you can give him any color eyes you want. But if you want to describe the color of Abraham Lincoln’s, President Lincoln’s, eyes, you have to know what color they were. They were gray. So you’re working with facts that came out of documents, just as in a novel you are working with facts that come out of your head or most likely out of your memory. Once you have control of those facts, once you possess them, you can handle them exactly as a novelist handles his facts. No good novelist would be false to his facts, and certainly no historian is allowed to be false to his facts under any circumstances. I’ve never known, in at least a modern historical instance, where the truth wasn’t superior to distortion in every way. . . .
Advice to young writers: To read, and above all to reread. When you read, you get the great pleasure of discovering what happened. When you reread, you get the great pleasure of knowing where the author’s going and seeing how he goes about getting there: and that’s learning creative writing. I would tell a young writer that. Of course I would tell him: work, work, work, sit at that desk and sweat. You don’t have to have a plot, you don’t have to have anything. Describe someone crossing a room, and try to do it in a way that won’t perish. Put it down on paper. Keep at it. Then when you finally figure out how to handle words pretty well, try to tell a story. . . . You may never be able to do it. That’s the gamble. You not only may not be able to make a living, you may not be able to do it at all. But that’s what you put on the line. Every artist has that. He doesn’t deserve a whole lot of credit for it. He didn’t choose it. It was visited upon him. Somebody asks, “When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?” I never decided I wanted to be a writer. I simply woke up a writer one morning.
On the meaning of history: I think that’s one of history’s main jobs–to let men know what happened, before, so they won’t make the same mistake afterward. Also, the Romans believed history was intended to publicize, if you will, the lives of great men so that we would have something to emulate. That’ll do as one of the definitions.
In one of history’s remarkable twists, Shelby Foote was introduced to Walker Percy when both were young boys. Percy, who was recently orphaned, was introduced to Foote by his famous uncle, famed author Will Percy. The elder Percy noticed young Shelby Foote at the local country club swimming pool and decided that he would make a good friend for his nephew. The result — in more ways than one — was historical. Foote and Percy forged a life-long friendship that sustained each other through decades of trial, fame, and literature.
Foote never understood Percy’s commitment to the Christian faith. Russell Moore points back to their published correspondence and reflects, Sadly, Foote couldn’t seem to understand Percy’s attraction to Christianity, afraid that Percy’s conversion would weaken him as a novelist. Foote was concerned, for instance, about Percy’s insistence that characters in a novel should be “redeemable” or else they are uninteresting. “I think the real difference is, I’m talking about novels and you’re talking about Protestant Sunday-school tracts; old John Calvin is breathing down your neck.” The Catholic Percy was no doubt amused to be called a crypto-Calvinist.
When the Foote-Percy correspondence was first published, I picked it up and read it nearly cover-to-cover before putting it down. Seldom have two minds met with a more productive result. Shelby Foote serves to remind us that God has often used unbelievers to write some incredible literature.
July 1, 2005
The retirement of U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor sets the stage for what is almost certain to be the most closely watched — and may be the most contested — judicial confirmation process in the nation’s history. The reason is really quite simple. Both sides in the nation’s current culture war know that this is the moment of maximum opportunity. The forces who support and demand judges who will use the bench to legislate a liberal agenda on moral issues know that the nation at large would never support their worldview and ideological positions. Therefore, they have depended on a corps of dedicated judicial activists to push their agenda through the courts.
Conservatives, on the other hand, know that stopping this trend of judicial activism will require a different judicial philosophy than that represented by Justice O’Connor. Often referred to as the single most powerful office holder in the nation, Justice O’Connor frequently served as the crucial fifth vote in some of the court’s most controversial decisions.
This is hardly what was expected when President Ronald W. Reagan nominated her to the high court in 1981, replacing Justice Potter Stewart. Though Justice O’Connor never functioned as a predictably liberal member of the court, in the end she often served as the swing vote that gave the liberal wing just what it needed — one more vote.
This is how The New York Times described her role: “Since joining the court in 1981, replacing Justice Potter Stewart, Justice O’Connor has been at the very center of the court in almost every sense, and has held or helped define the balance of power on many of the issues of broadest concern to the nation, including affirmative action, the death penalty and religion. But it was her stance on abortion, and in particular her role in reaffirming Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that put the court on the side of abortion rights, that put her most squarely in the middle of culture wars that have increasingly dominated not just the courts but political discourse in general. Replacing her with an opponent of abortion rights would not by itself be enough to overturn Roe v. Wade; it would take a shift of two votes in the court’s current composition to do so. But it would change the balance of power on the court when it comes to lesser restrictions on abortion, such as bans on the procedure its opponents call partial-birth abortion, and it would move the court that much closer to overturning Roe, the long held goal of many social conservatives.”
Both sides are getting ready for a battle. The major media have been reporting on this event and its meaning all day, with news articles, analysis, and reports readily available. For documentation, see Justice O’Connor’s resignation letter to President Bush, President Bush’s comments in response to the letter.
June 28, 2005
The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski offered a profound refutation of Marxism/Communism. Essayist and cultural critic Roger Kimball considers Kolakowski’s legeacy in Leszek Kolakowski and the Anatomy of Totalitarianism, published in the June 2005 edition of The New Criterion. A sample:
Marx further predicted the inevitable revolution of the proletariat. This is the very motor of Marxism. Take away the proletarian revolution and you neuter the theory. But there have been no proletarian revolutions. The Bolshevik revolution, as Kolakowski points out, “had nothing to do with Marxian prophesies. Its driving force was not a conflict between the industrial working class and capital, but rather was carried out under slogans that had no socialist, let alone Marxist, content: Peace and Land for Peasants.” Marx said that in a capitalist economy, untrammeled competition would inevitably squeeze profit margins: eventually–and soon!–the economy would grind to a halt and capitalism would collapse. Take a look at capitalist economies in the hundred and fifty years since Marx wrote: have profit margins evaporated? Marx thought that capitalist economies would hamper technical progress: the opposite is true.
No, Marxism has been as wrong as it is possible for a theory to be wrong. Addicted to “the self-deification of mankind,” it continually bears witness to what Kolakowski calls “the farcical aspect of human bondage.” Why then was Marxism like moral catnip–not so much among its proposed beneficiaries, the working classes, but among the educated elite? Well, beguiling simplicity was part of it. “One of the causes of the popularity of Marxism among educated people,” Kolakowski notes, “was the fact that in its simple form it was very easy.” Marxism–like Freudianism, like Darwinism, like Hegelianism–is a “one key fits all locks” philosophy. All aspects of human experience can be referred to the operation of a single all-governing process which thereby offers the illusion of universal explanation.
June 2, 2005
Just days after the French people stunned the world by rejecting the proposed European Union Constitution and humiliating the Chirac government, Dutch voters turned the constitution down in a landslide vote. At least 61 percent of Dutch voters rejected the constitution, probably spelling the doom of hopes for a centralized European government.
As in France, the government had pushed for an affirmation of the constitution. But Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende did not make the issue a matter of personal ambition and pride, in contrast to French President Jacques Chirac. “The government will respect the vote,” Mr. Balkenende told reporters.
Now, the big question is how European leaders will respond to the French and Dutch rejections. The already-suspicious British are likely to be emboldened by the votes, and the ambitious plan for a Unites States of Europe makes no sense without France and the Netherlands. The momentum has turned against the vision of the political elites.
As Robert H. Reid of The Associated Press explained, “The common thread appears to be public rejection of the notion, at least for now, of a European superstate. That is a goal never explicitly articulated by national leaders who support the charter and even denied by some, yet it is implicit in the structures the constitution would establish.”
Czech President Vaclav Klaus simply declared, “The constitution, in this version, is history.” He added: “My fears that the European constitution, with the ambitions it had, would not contribute to the unification of Europe, but will damage the process of European integration, were fulfilled.”
Americans had no direct stake in these elections, but the dream of a secular utopia in a centralized Europe was dangerous and untenable from the start. Furthermore, the loss of national sovereignty for the sake of building a new European superpower was just too high a price to pay. The elites have been humbled by the people, whose hopes and dreams were never pinned on a European superstate.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? Check out The New York Times, The Houston Chronicle [Associated Press], The Financial Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian [London], Forbes, and The Times [London]. See also the text of the treaty for the proposed constitution, from Europa/European Union.
June 2, 2005
Some teachers appear to be larger than life, influencing successive generations of students with displays of erudition, inspiration, and a dash of drama. Professor Donald Kagan of Yale University is one of those teachers, and he delivered a lecture to the entire nation on May 12 as he presented the 2005 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.
May 31, 2005
French voters handed French President Jacques Chirac a devastating political defeat on Saturday, and their rejection of the proposed European constitution could spell the end of the vision for a European superstate. Chirac and his government have been leading advocates for a united Europe, pushing the idea of a European conterweight to the influence of the United States. As polls closed, French voters rejected the proposed constitution with a 55 percent “no” vote in the national referendum.
Ironically, Chirac did not have to call for a referendum in the first place. In a terse comment issued after the vote, Chirac said, “France has spoken democratically. A majority of you have rejected the constitution. This is your sovereign decision.” He also stated the obvious: “France’s decision inevitably creates a difficult context for defending our interests in Europe.”
The cumbersome constitution (with 448 articles) was unpopular from the start. Drafters debated for months before deciding to make no substantial reference to Europe’s Christian foundations. The constitution would have centralized authority in the European Union, diluting national sovereignty and blending Europe into an awkward confederation of states.
Writing in The Weekly Standard before the vote, Gerald Baker, U.S. editor of the Times of London, set the stage clearly: “Though a rather bold step, the constitution was not expected to run into trouble when the process of ratification by 25 member states began. For years, European political elites have happily worked at creating a European superstate without worrying much about what European publics wanted. They knew that under some national constitutions–Denmark’s, Ireland’s, etc.–the treaty would be put to a vote, and they knew that these countries might get difficult and throw the treaty out, as had happened in the past. But it was generally assumed such minor setbacks from such insignificant states could happily be ignored, as had also happened in the past.”
No longer. As Baker anticipated, “After reluctantly agreeing to consult the people, the European Union’s leaders now have absolutely no idea what to do if the people vote No. In the last few days, European leaders have looked like Keystone Kops as they’ve tried to give a coherent answer to the question, What next?” What next, indeed? Chirac urged other nations to go ahead and adopt the constitution. British voters may face a referendum next year, but hostility is so great that, after the French rejection, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government may withdraw the proposal. Several countries–including Spain and Germany–have already adopted the constitution. But, without France, the dream of a European superstate has a big hole in its center.
THE REVENGE OF THE FRENCH LINKS: The Washington Post, Business Week, The New York Times, The Guardian [London], The International Herald Tribune, and Agence Francaise de Presse. The text of the Draft Treaty Eastablishing a Constitution for Europe, European Union/Europa.
May 30, 2005
Yesterday, historian James McPherson was interviewed on NPR’s “Weekend Edition, Sunday” program about why soldiers fight. His book, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, is a classic model of using primary sources to revisit historical questions. In the interview, McPherson, a history professor at Princeton University, made the interesting point that his work, along with that of other historians, is largely based in the reading and analysis of letters. Viewers of Ken Burns’ classic series on the Civil War will instantly recall the power of those letters to and from soldiers read as part of the narrative. McPherson wondered aloud if future historians will be able to document our own times, now that personal letters have largely been replaced by e-mails and telephone calls.
James M. McPherson served as president of the American Historical Assocation in 2003. The association provides a helpful bibliography of McPherson’s voluminous writings.
May 30, 2005
My Memorial Day commentary for Beyond the News:
“Cover them with beautiful flowers, deck them with garlands these brothers of ours, lying so silent by night and by day.” Those were the words of poet Will Carleton speaking of the Civil War dead.Memorial Day is more than a national holiday, it is a sacred observance. As a nation we must be reminded again and again that our freedom was bought with a price. Throughout the history of this republic, soldiers, sailors and airmen have given their lives for the sacred cause of liberty. The honored dead lay in cemeteries all over the nation and scattered around the world.Even now freedom is defended at great cost. The story of American freedom is the story of noble and sacrificial service. On Memorial Day we honor all those who have given their lives for this nation and its ideals–and we pray for those who serve even now.”
See Memorial Day coverage from USA Today, ABC News, The Washington Post, National Public Radio [NPR]. On ABC News‘ “Nightline” program tonight, anchor Ted Koppel will read the names of more than 900 U.S. service members who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last year. The program has provided a site with the list of names to be read.
May 11, 2005
President George W. Bush’s European schedule presented the White House with several difficult and complicated diplomatic questions. After all, the celebration of “V-E Day,” marking the end of World War II in Europe, was complicated by increased tensions with Russia and its neighbors. The president’s May 7 address in Riga, Latvia takes on an entirely new significance when we understand that the American president chose to speak in the capital city of one of the nations that had been enslaved by the Soviet Union for almost half a century.