One blogger’s personal bridge to nowhere

God chooses America

In an altogether execrable column in the LA Times, the New Republic‘s neocon front man, Jamie Kirchick, enlists God in the U.S.A. column:

At a stop on his grand global apology tour this spring, President Obama was asked by a reporter in France if he believed in “American exceptionalism.” This is the notion that our history as the world’s oldest democracy, our immigrant founding and our devotion to liberty endow the United States with a unique, providential role in world affairs. [emphasis mine]

An exceptional illustration of the concept

An exceptional illustration of the concept

The notion that the United States’ role is “providential” is not American exceptionalism, Jamie; it is called manifest destiny. And just as this worldview led the irredentists in 19th century American governments to stake their righteous claim on lands ever further west, the hubris espoused by Kirchick is simply self-serving justification to exert American muscle around the world without qualm. “American exceptionalism” is a theory of history, of American studies, the critique — and it is that, a critique — that scholars of Americana either do not consider or willfully ignore America’s place in the world and in world history.

The mythology that Kirchick relies upon — that something about America’s history, identity, and values “endow[s]” it with a God-given position of influence — is exactly what Obama had to affirm when he said that he believed in the concept just as “the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” It would be political folly to utter something that could be construed as suggesting that America is not exceptional; since this is not the point at all of American exceptionalism, Obama wisely played up the misconception, appeasing to the chorus of America-lovers while demonstrating that he knew that the question posed about “American exceptionalism” was a ruse. But even “exceptional” is not enough for Jamie Kirchick; only divine Providence will satisfy his patriotic lust.

(image from flickr user Ye Olde Wig Shoppe under a Creative Commons license)


April 29, 2009 Posted by | Conservatives, History | , , , | 1 Comment

Soviet Socialist Republic of Thailand

No Thailand?

No Red Thailand?

Yglesias, writing about unrest in Moldova, seems to veer a little far afield here:

Still, the larger issue is that political instability in former Soviet Republics embeds a lot of potentially problematic international conflicts. And the recession is fostering a lot of political instability. Not only in Moldova but also (via Ezra Klein) in Ukraine where, again, domestic political conflicts are tied in with geopolitical struggles between Russia and the West. And there’s also, it seems, trouble in Thailand. [emphasis mine]

Um…and there’s also instability in…Haiti.

April 9, 2009 Posted by | Asia, History | , , , | 1 Comment

Afghanistan’s graveyard of history

torabora1In Saturday’s New York Times, Peter Bergen rightly debunks the myth that Afghanistan is a “graveyard of empires.”

Since Alexander the Great, plenty of conquerors have subdued Afghanistan. In the early 13th century, Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes ravaged the country’s two major cities. And in 1504, Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire in India, easily took the throne in Kabul. Even the humiliation of 1842 did not last. Three and a half decades later, the British initiated a punitive invasion and ultimately won the second Anglo-Afghan war, which gave them the right to determine Afghanistan’s foreign policy.

But I think it’s a stretch to suggest that, because Babur ruled from Kabul in 1504, Afghanistan “might become the model of a somewhat stable Central Asian state” after U.S. intervention. Bergen is not a cheerleader, and his argument is not nearly so flimsy. But a better indicator of the phoniness of the “graveyard myth” than the history of past successful conquests of Afghanistan is the disturbing suggestion that there’s something about Afghanistan the place that causes empires to wither. Yes, there are mountains and rugged terrain and all sorts of geographic factors, but that’s not generally the sense I get when I hear the rumblings about Afghanistan exceptionalsim. It’s more like a Congo “heart of darkness” vibe, and this, I would argue, doesn’t often come with a side of racism. Debates about what in Afghan history and politics make it “better” or “worse” for invasion and occupation are one thing; a general intimation that qualities endemic to this foreboding place will doom your imperial ambitions is truly an excercise in myth-making.

(image from flickr user Michael Foley under a Creative Commons license)

March 30, 2009 Posted by | Afghanistan, History | , | Leave a comment

The worst presidents are those not named Lincoln

C-SPAN’s “historians survey” ranking all 43 U.S. presidents should be self-evidently silly. But actually reading through the list provides some choice examples of the system’s arbitrariness. To wit:

  • Rutherford B. Hayes -- he'll be the worst soon enough.

    Rutherford B. Hayes -- he'll be the worst soon enough.

    The tenures of the three worst presidents on the list — Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and James Buchanan — all just happened to directly precede (Pierce and Buchanan) or succeed (Johnson) the man who just happens to rank as the survey’s best president (Lincoln). Notwithstanding the contributions of these feckless three to the unraveling of the Union and its flimsy reconstitution, respectively, it seems pretty clear what is going on here. When you put any candidates next to one whose “greatness” has acquired the status of legend, then of course they are going to come out looking shabby. The point is not to rehabilitate Andrew Johnson, or to denigrate Lincoln, just to stress that historical contingency plays a large part in shaping how we judge past presidents

  • Rutherford B. Hayes dropped seven spots since the survey’s last undertaking, in 2000. With the presidents who have moved up or down in the rankings, one must assume that some new historical evidence, improved perspective, or renewed calculations are responsible. And again, even granting Hayes’ particular faults — presiding over the official death of Reconstruction — what new evidence about Rutherford B. freaking Hayes could possibly have been unearthed in the past nine years to make him worse than seven more presidents?
  • And of course, I can only assume that George W. Bush will pull a Hayes, and a few 129 years down the road, historians will realize that the most unpopular president since they’ve been keeping track was in fact worse than the six presidents that he somehow ranks above.

UPDATE: All hope is not lost, Rutherford!  He’s apparently the most popular president in Paraguay (hat tip: Dom).

(image from flickr user Cliff1066 under a Creative Commons license)

February 17, 2009 Posted by | History | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A scientific counterfactual

goreA professor at a Canadian research university has published a new “report” that concludes, supposedly “overwhelmingly,” that, had Al Gore been elected President in 2000 the Supreme Court not selected George W. Bush as the winner of the 2000 presidential campaign, then he too would have invaded Iraq.  Besides the (very salient) silliness of purporting to conduct a “study” on a clearly fictitious counterfactual, this conclusion is — like any “solution” of a counterfactual — based on a reading of the context that skews toward what the speculator is seeking to “prove.”  This graf, for example:

Given the prevailing mood in the aftermath of 9/11, the institutional structures that surround the president, the political and social pressures of the time, the accepted wisdom regarding Saddam Hussein and the international factors at work, says Harvey, Gore “[would have been] compelled … to make many of the same interim (generally praised) decisions for many of the same reasons. Momentum would have done the rest.”

Sure, this was the context in which Bush et al. misled the country into war; but what Professor Frank Harvey is neglecting to account for is the extent to which the Bush administration’s own manipulations shaped this context.  The contrived notion that Saddam Hussein was in in any way connected to the 9/11 hijackers only flourished as “accepted wisdom” because the administration unceasingly beat these drums of fabrication.  Would a President Gore have manufactured evidence of uranium from Niger?  Unlikely, but I’m not pretending to be scientific here.

(image from flickr user World Economic Forum under a Creative Commons license)

December 24, 2008 Posted by | History, Iraq | 1 Comment

Atomic sex

Writing an article about the obsessively intricate details of the exact measurements and functionalities of an atomic bomb from over 60 years ago is, it seems, a prime facie example of something that is not really very interesting to anyone outside of the singularly dedicated group of atomic enthusiasts that apparently exists.  But that’s why you add sex to the mix:

Now that's a sexy bomb.

Now that's a sexy bomb.

In the standard historical accounts, the way that the bomb’s gun mechanism worked was by shooting a cylindrical “male” uranium projectile into a concave, stationary uranium target. This act of atomic coitus created a mass sufficient to produce a critical reaction…

The source of the error, Coster-Mullen recognized, was an assumption that every (male) researcher who studied the subject had made about the relation between projectile and target. These scholars had apparently been unable to conceive of an arrangement other than a “missionary position” bomb, in which a solid male projectile penetrated a vessel-like female target. But Coster-Mullen realized that a female-superior arrangement—in which a hollow projectile slammed down on top of a stationary cylinder of highly enriched uranium—yielded the correct size and mass.

I think it’s safe to say that once you use the phrase “atomic coitus,” readers might pay a little more attention.

(image of the — evidently female — atomic bomb “Little Boy” that was dropped over Hiroshima, from flickr user cormac 70 under a Creative Commonse license)

December 19, 2008 Posted by | History, Humor | , | Leave a comment

A “what if?” from 1916

Another reason why Woodrow Wilson is one of the most fascinating American presidents ever: in the midst of an exceedingly tense election, in 1916, he devised a plan to abdicate the Oval Office earlier than necessary.

woodrowwilsonThe precarious state of relations with the nations at war in Europe, particularly Germany, made Wilson fear for national security in the event of an interregnum — which then, before the ratification of the 20th Amendment in 1933, lasted more than a month longer than it does today. A former professor of political science who had studied and admired parliamentary systems, Wilson decided upon a drastic plan to shorten this uneasy period.

Two days before the election he had a sealed letter, which he had typed himself, hand-delivered to the secretary of state, who was then third in line of succession to the presidency. Wilson wrote that if he lost he would immediately appoint his Republican opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, secretary of state, and then he and his vice president would resign, making Hughes president at once. Wilson said he was proposing this plan because those were not “ordinary times” and “no such critical circumstances in regard to our foreign policy have ever existed before.”

More historical op-eds, please.

(image from flickr user stefanie says under a Creative Commons license)

December 11, 2008 Posted by | History, U.S. politics | | Leave a comment

Degenerate talk radio hosts

See?  I told you there were even more gag-inducing invocations of the next Hitler.  Eli at firedoglake showcases the incomprehensible bluster of conservative radio schizoid Michael Savage:

Well, socially, we’re far worse — more degenerate than Weimar Germany. At least in Weimar Germany, men couldn’t marry men and women couldn’t marry women. So we’re probably 10 leagues below the degeneracy that brought about Hitler. We’re probably 50 leagues below the degeneracy that brought about Hitler. We are the sickest, most disgusting country on the earth, and we are… psychotic as a nation.

Got that? The fact that there was opposition to Prop 8, that there are actually people who – gasp – believe that gay people should have the same right as everyone else, means that we are the most degenerate country in the world, and that the moral backlash from righteous people like Michael Savage will almost certainly lead to the second coming of Adolf Hitler. Awesome.

Never mind the rank fallacy of the thesis that it was Weimar Germany’s “degeneracy” that led to the ascension of the National Socialists.  “Degenerate” (entartete) was, of course, the word favored by…you guessed it…Hitler, to express his own rabid intolerance.  So who really most resembles Hitler here, Michael Savage?

November 26, 2008 Posted by | Conservatives, History | , , | Leave a comment

Russia: big, strong, and Hitleresque?

Georgia expert David Smith opens a piece on the resurgent militant nationalism of Russian president Dmitri Medvedev by juxtaposing the following quotations:

Germany will be either a world power or it will not be at all. – Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, 1925

Russia can either be big and strong or it will cease to exist. – Dmitry Medvedev, speech to senior military officers, The Kremlin, September 30, 2008

This is not Hitler-tainting (Hitler was a vegetarian, therefore vegetarians are evil) at its worst, but nor does it entirely escape the misleading insinuations typical of most Hitler comparisons.  The quotations are indeed eerily similar, but one must go beyond the initial parallelism to ask what each statement actually means.  Sure, both are expressing a rather brutish, chest-thumping insistence on national greatness, but really, where is the insight in this?  Hitler wanted Germany to be great; Medvedev wants Russia to be great.  Ergo, Medvedev = Hitler?


Dmitri Medvedev...Hitler without the 'stache?

It is unsurprising that Medvedev wants Russia to be “big and strong” (you kind of have to automatically grant Russia the former, notwithstanding the failure to explicitly annex the proportionally enormous amount of territory in Abkhazia and South Ossetia), just as it is a given that German dominance formed the core of Hitler’s foreign policy agenda.  But assertive nationalism does not a megalomaniacal dictator make.

The juxtaposed quotations, of course, seek — at least subtly — to compel a more significant inference.  The purpose of comparing to Hitler is, if not merely to impugn, to suggest that a similar path toward evil is being traveled.  In this case, the implication is that Medvedev, as demonstrated by his willingness to invade Georgia, is set to go to the most aggressive lengths to establish its hegemony.

Smith finds fodder for this argument in the common second half of the two juxtaposed quotations: the all-or-nothing counterbalance that if Nazi Germany and Putinist Medvedevist Russia failed to assert themselves as major world powers, then they would, respectively, “not be at all” or “cease to exist.”  As a fairly common example of rhetorical excess — Medvedev is willing to see his vast country nuked to oblivion over the retention of Dagestan? — this parallel formulation by no means indicates that Russia, in its insatiable quest to become “big and strong,” will emulate the rather foolish global domination plans of the Thousand Twelve Year Third Reich.

Germany survived Hitler, and by any rational standard, Russia will survive the considerably more juvenile ambitions of Medvedev and his sidekick.

(image from flickr user World Economic Forum under a Creative Commons license)

November 25, 2008 Posted by | History, Russia | , , | 2 Comments

A historic Christmas


Benjamin Harrison...upstaging that Obama guy yet again.

An ad for the “2008 White House Christmas Ornament” exhorts readers to “Decorate Your Tree with History.”  This year, clearly, is of particular historic significance at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Since 1981, a collectable ornament has been designed to celebrate White House events.  This year’s ornament commemorates the presidency of Benjamin Harrison and the first documented Christmas tree to decorate the White House.

So in a year in which Americans have elected the first black president in our country’s history, “decorating with history” entails celebrating the 120th anniversary of the apparently Christmas tree-adorned presidency of Benjamin Harrison?

(image from flickr user Seeker65 under a Creative Commons license)

November 24, 2008 Posted by | History, U.S. politics | , | Leave a comment

Team of rival theories

teamofrivals1Good to see that not everyone is not smitten with the oft-repeated idea that Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” epitomized his political genius — and should be a model for President-elect Obama to similarly bring Hillary Clinton his former rivals into his Cabinet.  Team of Rivals may indeed be a good book (I too have not actually read it, though I recall seeing it sitting around the house a while back), but this doesn’t change the fact that the analogy also just may not fit.  And the very pervasiveness of the comparison, the ease with which lazy journalists invoke the term, seems itself a reason to distrust its aptness.  Particularly when historians take it apart and find that the lofty phrase didn’t even really apply to Lincoln.  Here’s Dickinson’s Matthew Pinsker in the LAT:

Over the years, it has become easy to forget that hard edge and the once bad times that nearly destroyed a president. Lincoln’s Cabinet was no team. His rivals proved to be uneven as subordinates. Some were capable despite their personal disloyalty, yet others were simply disastrous.

And CUNY’s James Oakes concludes, in the NYT:

There is little doubt that Abraham Lincoln was a great president. But not much of what made him great can be discerned in his appointment of a contentious, envious and often dysfunctional collection of prima donnas to his cabinet.

A note to Barack, though: if you do decide to take advantage of Professor Oakes’ historical insight, I’d at least avoid calling Hillary a “prima donna.”

(image from flickr user urbaneapartments under a Creative Commons license)

November 20, 2008 Posted by | History, U.S. politics | , , | Leave a comment

Post-Founding Fathers

This week’s fantastic issue of The New Yorker (check out the cover if you have not seen it yet) features an equally fantastic essay by David Remnick on the role of race in this historic campaign.  Inevitably, he eventually turns to Colin Powell, who was once the odds-on favorite for becoming the first black president president who is black (the point is his) and who makes a number of insightful comments on the history and nature of racial politics in America.  Remnick gets right to the point:

I asked Powell if Obama’s election would signal the rise of a “post-racial” period in American history. “No!” he said. “It just means that we have moved farther along the continuum that the Founding Fathers laid out for us two hundred and thirty-odd years ago.

I’m encouraged, though not surprised, by Powell’s exclamatory rejection of the absurd thesis that America has somehow transcended its entire history of racism in just one election.  However, I don’t think the “Founding Fathers” would have any idea what “continuum” Powell is referring to.  These are the (white) men who explicitly enshrined in the country’s founding document the unfathomably odious notion that a man (no women, of course) with different pigmentation (as long as it wasn’t “red”) constituted only 3/5 of a person.  While some “Fathers” may have viewed this Faustian bargain as a compromise toward eventual abolition, certainly none envisioned a “continuum” stretching toward a black chief executive.

Rather than trumpet the dawn of “post-racial” politics in America, perhaps we can use Obama’s election to finally put to rest the myth of our Founding Fathers’ omniscience and ahistorical commitment to liberty.  It is not race that Obama’s election transcends, but the limitations that the very founders of this country set for millions and millions of Americans.

November 14, 2008 Posted by | History, U.S. politics | , | 2 Comments

What’s in a name?

My eighth grade “Social Studies” classroom was lined with pictures (actually more like caricatures, I think) of the 42 American presidents, ordered chronologically.  I remember looking around the room, with a knot of disappointment as I read each of their names.  Yes, it was their whiteness, oldness, and maleness (that trio for the history books), but above all, it was their names.  A litany of Williams, Johns, and Jameses.  Of Adamses, Harrisons, and Wilsons.  Even the Grovers and the Lyndons, the Van Burens and the Eisenhowers, failed to convince me that this country was ruled by anyone but the few.

Electing Barack Obama means so much.  The superficial and the substantive have a neat way of coming together this election, and one of those melded significances is his name.  Putting a poster of a Barack Hussein Obama next to a William Jefferson Clinton and a George Walker Bush will influence this generation of eighth graders in ways more subtle and stunning than concrete policies ever will be able.

November 4, 2008 Posted by | History, U.S. politics | | Leave a comment

Dewey defeats Truman…no, I change my mind

In introductory Statistics class — one of the few I actually attended, apparently — I, along with my classmates, was taught the quintessential example of polling inaccuracy: the “Dewey defeats Truman” debacle in 1948.  The reason that that pre-election poll failed so abominably, we learned, was that pollsters had conducted their research by telephone — a still relatively expensive device at the time, one that was owned more by wealthier Republicans than by less well-off Democrats.  As a result, the figures for the Republican nominee, Dewey, were overstated, and significant areas of support for Harry Truman were undercounted.  Poll done badly, election turns out right.

This seemed quite simple, at the time.  It still seems quite simple.  And if I learned it in introductory Statistics class, I imagined that professional pollsters had learned it as well.  My mistake.

Of course, the balance of opinion could change, as it has several times in this campaign, and as it has in the past. Harry Truman was trailing Thomas E. Dewey by 5% in the last Gallup poll in 1948, conducted between Oct. 15 and 25 — the same margin by which Mr. Obama seems to be leading now. But on Nov. 2, 18 days after Gallup’s first interviews and eight days after its last, Truman ended up winning 50% to 45%. Gallup may well have gotten it right when in the field; opinion could just have changed.

This was Michael Barone, an AEI hack and former vice president of a polling form, in an entirely unnecessary Wall Street Journal op-ed.  After asking a provocatively leading question — “Can we trust the poll when one of the presidential candidates is black?” — Barone answers meekly, “yes — with qualifications,” and proceeds to cite those who have already published better takedowns of the “Bradley Effect.”  To fluff his piece, apparently, though, he feels the need to recite some irrelevant polling history.  Hence the Dewey-Truman anecdote.

Why get this example so bafflingly wrong, though?  I can only speculate.  Barone may just be a phenomenally bad pollster, but it seems more likely that this history simply reads better with the agenda he is trying to push.  If “opinion could just have changed” in that monumental polling disaster, then perhaps, in 13 days, “the balance of opinion could change,” and the millions of Americans who have rejected George Bush will change their minds on change, and realize that John McCain is the answer.

October 22, 2008 Posted by | History, U.S. politics | 1 Comment