Monday, January 31, 2005

President Bush DOES Read History

Brian Lamb interviewed the President who revealed a degree of historical knowledge that many probably thought he lacked.
LAMB: What role have books played in your presidency?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, there's a -- I ended my convention speech in 2000, and one of the debates, with a phrase by a great Texan named Tom Lea, who wrote the definitive book on the King Ranch, but is a painter -- was a painter, and one of the paintings now hangs in the Oval Office. He said, "Sarah and I live on the east side of the mountain; the sunrise side, not the sunset side; the side to see the day that is coming, not to see the day that has gone." That's a very optimistic view. See, I see a better day coming.

It turns out that the President better have seen the day that has gone in order to be able to help lead to the day that is coming. In other words, history really matters for the President. And so I read a lot of history books. I'm reading the Washington book by Ellis right now. I read the Hamilton book by [Chernow], which I thought was a fascinating book. I can't remember all the books I read, but I do read a lot of books. And from that, I'm able to gain a better appreciation of where we're going.

For example, the Hamilton book I thought was a very interesting history of how hard it was to get democracy started, in some ways. And yet here we are in Iraq, trying to help them get democracy started, and yet it's expected to be done nearly overnight. And so it helps me keep a perspective of what's real and what's possible, and some of the struggles we went through.

Admittedly, we're dealing with different technologies than, obviously, in the old days. But, nevertheless, it's hard for democracy to take hold. And I think that history gives me a kind of -- it helps me better explain and understand exactly what we're seeing. And that's important for a policymaker to be able to grasp the realities of the situation based upon some historical lessons.

You know, I spent a lot of time talking about the Japanese after World War II, about how they were the sworn enemy, my dad fought them; I'm sure you've had relatives that know people that fought the Japanese. And yet today, because we insisted that Japan become a democracy, they're now our best friend, or one of our best friends. And that's an interesting history lesson, that 60 years after being a sworn enemy, we're now tight allies in leading the cause of freedom and peace, working together to deal with North Korea. Japan is helping a lot in Iraq.It just shows the power of freedom to change an enemy to a friend. That's something you learn from history books.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Hobsbawm: "In defence of History"

Eric Hobsbawm states "it is fashionble to say 'my truth is as valid as yours. But it's not true."
The major immediate political danger to historiography today is "anti-universalism" or "my truth is as valid as yours, whatever the evidence". This appeals to various forms of identity group history, for which the central issue of history is not what happened, but how it concerns the members of a particular group. What is important to this kind of history is not rational explanation but "meaning", not what happened but what members of a collective group defining itself against outsiders - religious, ethnic, national, by gender, or lifestyle - feel about it. . .

This produces endless claptrap on the fringes of nationalist, feminist, gay, black and other in-group histories, but it has also stimulated interesting new historical developments in cultural studies, such as what has been called the "memory boom" in history.

It is time to re-establish the coalition of those who believe in history as a rational inquiry into the course of human transformations, against those who distort history for political purposes - and more generally, against relativists and postmodernists who deny this possibility. Since some of the latter see themselves as being on the left, this may split historians in politically unexpected ways.

The Marxist approach is a necessary component of this reconstruction of the front of reason. While postmodernists have denied the possibility of historical understanding, developments in the natural sciences have put an evolutionary history of humanity firmly back on the agenda. . .

However, the new perspectives on history should also return us to that essential, if never quite realisable, objective of those who study the past: "total history". Not a "history of everything", but history as an indivisible web in which all human activities are interconnected. Marxists are not the only ones to have had this aim, but they have been its most persistent pursuers.

Not the least of the problems for which the perspective of history as interaction is essential, is one that is crucial for the understanding of the historic evolution of homo sapiens. It is the conflict between the forces making for the transformation of homo sapiens from neolithic to nuclear humanity and the forces whose aim is the maintenance of unchanging reproduction and stability in human social environments. For most of history, the forces inhibiting change have usually effectively counteracted open-ended change.

Today this balance has been decisively tilted in one direction. And the disequilibrium is almost certainly beyond the ability of human social and political institutions to control. Perhaps Marxist historians, who have had occasion to reflect on the unintended and unwanted consequences of human collective projects in the 20th century, can at least help us understand how this came about.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

I'm Back

I've been gone doing other bloggy things. But now I'm back. Posting will resume shortly.