Friday, May 13, 2005

What did Donald Kagan do to Philip Kennicott?

Yale historian Donald Kagan gave the 34th Annual Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities, titled "In Defense of History," last night. According to Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post, the speech was mostly "boiler plate" (the title certainly was!). No transcript is available, so it's tough to independently analyze the speech. However, Kennicott believes that much can be read into what Kagan didn't say, but was included in the prepared text of the speech that was presumably handed out to the media. (I don't doubt Kennicott, I'm just trying to lay it all out).

According to Kennicott, Kagan said, "The real importance of historians is in leading the charge against the 'mindlessness promoted by contemporary political partisanship.'" To which Kennicott commented
This is rich, coming from a beloved father figure of the ascendant neoconservative movement, and the co-author of "While America Sleeps," a 2000 book comparing the complacency of Britain after the First World War with the supposed complacency of the United States after the Cold War. Written with his son, Frederick W. Kagan, this book begins with the disturbingly alarmist line, "America is in danger." Prescient words, it might seem, given the events of September 2001. But Kagan's book had almost nothing to say about terrorism. He was stumping for a strong military and for not squandering the peace dividend. The book was very much a traditionalist argument about traditional military power.

No matter. No one with an overarching Gloomy Gus view of the world has ever been completely wrong. Granted, Kagan's book, and his life's work, have contributed to an environment in which fear of vague potential threats often overwhelms sane evaluation of real threats (Kagan went on and on about potential WMDs in Iraq in his book, though they were never found). The neoconservative worldview espoused by Kagan -- despite his protestations about the importance of history standing aside from political partisanship -- is airtight. Pessimists can always count on the accumulating tragedies of history to efface memory of one little mistake.

Moral certainty is today's big intellectual and political fetish. Politicians tell us of certainties big and small, the certain presence of certain dangers that threaten our society, which is certainly the best of all possible societies. Kagan has made a career of this business. Which makes one line left out of the speech (but included in the printed remarks distributed at his talk) fascinating. In his conclusion, he noted that as the power of religion to provide moral truth declined, people needed something else, and so they turned to history for moral object lessons. "History, it seems to me, is the most useful key we have to open the mysteries of the human predicament," read the omitted text. Has the ascendancy of religious fundamentalism among Kagan's allies in the conservative movement made the humanistic certainty of that line unsayable? Has history come full circle, and is the old dinosaur now an accidental outsider?
I'm not familiar with Kagan's work or politics. But it seems that Kennicott is reaching just a bit. I'll be interested to see what others think.

(via Ramesh Ponnuru at NRO).

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