Monday, February 28, 2011

Why Didn't The POTUS 44 (Unlike ALL Of The Dumbos) Know That All Hell Was Fixin' To Break Loose In The Middle East?

Oops! A milestone came and went without note, but this post marks the 3,004th rant or rave in this blog since mid-2003.

Dumbos, who salivate at pointing to the racially-based incompetence of the POTUS 44, have been howling at the Middle Eastern moon because a competent POTUS (like The Dubster — POTUS 43) would have foreseen the looming threat from the Arab world. The Dubster depended upon the CIA and, it would appear that the POTUS 44 has made the same error. Leave it to a pointy-headed professor to suggest a better source of prognostication for the nation's leaders. If this is (fair & balanced) chutzpah, so be it.

[x The Cronk Review]
The Scholar As Futurologist
By Carlin Romano

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In Tunisia and Egypt, the Arab street achieved its immediate goal. In Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya, the dictators responded with bullets and worse. And in the media, a subtale of presidential frustration surfaced quickly.

President Obama, a variety of stories reported, felt stymied by the quality of political intelligence he'd received. Why didn't he know these regimes were threatened or imminently going under? According to The New York Times—apparently based on leaks meant to counter earlier intimations of a benighted administration—Obama had ordered up a classified report last August from his advisers, a so-called secret Presidential Study Directive, about unrest in the Arab world.

It informed him, the Times story reported, that the Arab world was indeed ripe for popular revolt—at some point, in one country or another—in the absence of sweeping political reform.

The report was, the Times explained, citing unnamed administration sources, a whole 18 pages. And, um, it hadn't been formally submitted yet. And, uh, to be perfectly honest, it was "still a work in progress."

Excuse me, but this sounds a lot like an overdue term paper, not to mention a group project. Did the president give his advisers an extension? Was the Professor-in-Chief planning to grade it? And what do we think about running U.S. foreign policy off an 18-page draft? Was it at least single-spaced? A top Mideast scholar could barely clear his throat and get through acknowledgments in that narrow ambit.

The president might have asked one of those unnamed sources to shoot over to Barnes & Noble to see what the store offered. The advance man—or woman—might have noticed the presciently titled Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak, by Tarek Osman (2011). It reports that Egypt's political system "has descended to frightening levels of coercion, oppression, and cruelty," that younger Egyptians teem with a sense of "confusion, resentment, and rejection," and that "the active opposition" to the Mubarak regime, which had seen a "significant dilution" of its legitimacy, posed "perilous ramifications" for it.

Not bad for 2010.

Or, more recently, the scholarship scout would have spotted Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (2011). In it, the 26-year-old native of Belarus, a visiting scholar at Stanford, and Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, argues that state security services use the Internet and cybertools such as Twitter as effectively as, or more so than, young dissenters and would-be democratic revolutionaries.

True, Mubarak's brief attempt to unplug the Net didn't save him. But in Iran, where the Revolutionary Guard controls the nation's main Internet provider, the regime used social-media sites and Facebook pages during the aborted Green Revolution of 2009 to identify opponents, post their photos, solicit denunciations, and trace connections to Western supporters, thus enabling the government to blame foreigners for stirring up all the trouble. As a result, the Revolution turned out not to be a revolution. The idea that the Internet inevitably spreads democracy is, Morozov contends, just a new species of cyberutopianism.

We don't usually stop every few months to ask whether scholars are getting the world right. But when they are, as seems to be the case with Osman and Morozov, it raises questions.

Should the CIA director, Leon Panetta, be replaced by the director of a university press? Panetta admitted in recent Congressional testimony that the CIA needs to do a better job of identifying "triggers" for uprisings in places like Egypt. Osman writes that "there are real triggers for chaos in Egyptian society today, as I have demonstrated throughout this book." So why not the scholar as futurologist? Maybe specialists published by serious presses prove the best predictors of what will be in our complicated international world.

Egypt on the Brink and The Net Delusion both suggest that.

Osman, an Egyptian educated at the American University in Cairo and Bocconi University, in Milan, delivers textured historical context for breaking events in Egypt, the kind of backward-looking overview we expect from scholars. It's comforting to know that "King Ahmose, effectively the founder of ancient Egypt's New Kingdom, described his pharaonic mandate as 'maintaining order (maat) and averting chaos (isfet).'" The more things change....

At the same time, Osman impresses with his prediction that, in a post-Mubarak Egypt, the likeliest presidential candidates from outside the regime and military would be Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, and Mohamed ElBaradei, the ex-director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Moussa quickly announced his resignation from the league in anticipation of running. ElBaradei was chosen by a number of opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to represent them in negotiations with the regime, and is also expected to run. Granted, some of Osman's statements, such as that "any planning at the top of the Egyptian hierarchy for the period post-President Mubarak is shrouded in mystery," hardly deserve a prognostication prize. But following discussion of how the Egyptian business community co-opted power from the military in recent years, he focuses analysis more accurately than most current pundits by asking, "Is the military establishment willing to hand over the grasp on authority it has enjoyed for the past six decades to the liberal capitalist elite?," and then trying to answer the question.

One after another, his observations about "staggering inequality," "rising anger on the Egyptian street," the "deafening calls for change," the "excruciating" conditions of "the country's poor," point to what happened in Egypt in February. "The pressures and resistance of society," Osman writes, "suggest that the regime's tactics—whether of containment, coercion, or confrontation—are reaching a limit." The regime, he notes, "seems to be isolating itself, relying more heavily on the security apparatuses." In his view, "the regime is potentially close to a tipping point after which it could lose control of the increasingly unstable situation."

And, unlike an 18-page paper, Egypt on the Brink explains why.

Morozov, in turn, exhibits savviness on his subject that equals Osman's on Egypt while adding snappy prose. The Internet, he charges, "excites so many seasoned and sophisticated decision makers who should really know better" that "they endow [it] with nearly magical qualities." They make it "the ultimate cheat sheet that could help the West finally defeat its authoritarian adversaries.... It's like Radio Free Europe on steroids."

On the contrary, explains Morozov. Authoritarian states increasingly use keyword filtering, URL monitoring, and other surveillance techniques to tip the scales against opponents. Rejecting the "excessive optimism and empty McKinsey-speak" of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's January 2010 speech in which she exalted the power of "Internet freedom," he broadly criticizes both cyber­utopianism and what he calls "Internet-centrism," the idea that everything important about modern life revolves around the Internet. Put those two attitudes together and you have his title phenomenon: The Net Delusion.

In that macroproject, Morozov follows in a robust modern tradition of American cybercynicism that receives scant attention from mainstream media such as the Times, eager to celebrate the latest gadgets and run endless ads from smartphone and other tech manufacturers (one of the only growth areas in media advertising over the past two decades).

Listen to the titles, stretching back to the 1980s: Theodore Roszak's The Cult of Information. Mark Slouka's War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality. Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil. Gene Rochlin's Trapped in the Net: The Unanticipated Consequences of Computerization. More recently we've seen Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation. Mark Helprin's Digital Barbarism. Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget. Morozov joins an important, evolving American intellectual tradition that, in fact, dates back even further, at the very least to Thoreau's famous observation in Walden that "our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.... We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."

Morozov's chief contribution? To sound the cybercynic alert in the realm of democracy activism and international politics, where media and government officials pay attention. Or, at least, so we hope.

Futurology, to be sure, has its own macro­level problems. We're still waiting to join George Jetson in commuting to a three-hour-a-day job in our aerocar. Most of the certainties imagined by novelists Edward Bellamy, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells are on hold. When we hear the names of old futurists, such as Herman Kahn and Alvin Toffler, the mood evoked is nostalgia, as if we'd been transported to the "Futurama" exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. That alone should caution us about long-range prediction. As Arthur C. Clarke liked to say, "The future isn't what it used to be." Former Sun Microsystems cyberthinker John Gage offered a helpful corollary—"The future is always in the future"—suggesting that we need to adjust our expectations accordingly.

With breaking international politics, nonetheless, we understandably moderate this philosophical wisdom, recognizing that it would be nice for government officials to stay ahead of the curve. Recommendation to B. Obama: Forget the impromptu paper assignments and read some scholarship. In retrospect, Lou Cannon's biography of Ronald Reagan wasn't the ideal vacation book to lug home to Hawaii. Ω

[Carlin Romano is a Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Ursinus College. Romano joined the Ursinus faculty in 2010 following 25 years as Literary Critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he also served at various times as Book Editor, cultural reporter, general assignment city staffer and correspondent based in St. Petersburg, Russia. He received a B.A. at Princeton University, a M.Phil. at Yale University, and a J.D. at the Columbia University Law School. Romano remains a Critic-at-Large of The Chronicle of Higher Education.]

Copyright © 2011 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Real SOBs: Sons Of Birchers

An H/T to the NY Fishwrap's Butcher (on Broadway) — former drama critic Frank Rich — for touting a recent investigation of the Koch brothers in the LA Fishwrap. The Brothers Koch were featured in this blog on August 27, 2010. It is one of the great ironies of these troubled days that the John Birch Society has been reborn in Glenn Dreck of Faux News and the Brothers Koch. Dreck is the self-proclaimed acolyte of a founding Bircher, Cleon Skousen and the Brothers Koch are the sons of another founding Bircher, Fred Koch. These loons truly are SOBs — Sons Of Birchers. If this is (fair & balanced) loonology, so be it.

[x LA Fishwrap]
Koch Brothers Now At Heart Of GOP Power
By Tom Hamburger, Kathleen Hennessey and Neela Banerjee

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The billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch no longer sit outside Washington's political establishment, isolated by their uncompromising conservatism. Instead, they are now at the center of Republican power, a change most evident in the new makeup of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Wichita-based Koch Industries and its employees formed the largest single oil and gas donor to members of the panel, ahead of giants like Exxon Mobil, contributing $279,500 to 22 of the committee's 31 Republicans, and $32,000 to five Democrats.

Nine of the 12 new Republicans on the panel signed a pledge distributed by a Koch-founded advocacy group — Americans for Prosperity — to oppose the Obama administration's proposal to regulate greenhouse gases. Of the six GOP freshman lawmakers on the panel, five benefited from the group's separate advertising and grass-roots activity during the 2010 campaign.

Claiming an electoral mandate, Republicans on the committee have launched an agenda of the sort long backed by the Koch brothers. A top early goal: restricting the reach of the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the Kochs' core energy businesses.

The new committee members include a congressman who has hired a former Koch Industries lawyer as his chief of staff. Another, Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia, won a long-shot bid to unseat a 14-term moderate Democrat with help from Americans for Prosperity, which marshaled conservative activists in his district. By some estimates, the advocacy group spent more than a quarter-million dollars on negative ads in the campaign. "I'm just thankful that you all helped in so many ways," Griffith told an Americans for Prosperity rally not long after his election.

Perhaps the Kochs' most surprising and important ally on the committee is its new chairman, Rep. Fred Upton. The Republican from Michigan, who was once criticized by conservatives for his middle-of-the-road approach to environmental issues, is now leading the effort to rein in the EPA.

Upton received $20,000 in donations from Koch employees in 2010, making them among his top 10 donors in that cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In recent months the congressman has made a point of publicly aligning himself with the Koch-backed advocacy group, calling for an end to the "EPA chokehold." Last week the chairman released a draft of a bill that would strip the EPA of its ability to curb carbon emissions. The legislation is in line with the Kochs' long-advocated stance that the federal government should have a minimal role in regulating business. The Kochs' oil refineries and chemical plants stand to pay millions to reduce air pollution under currently proposed EPA regulations.

Koch Industries is the country's second-largest privately run company, a conglomerate of refining, pipeline, chemical and paper businesses. Their products include Lycra and Coolmax fibers, Brawny paper towels and Stainmaster carpets. Last year, Forbes magazine listed the brothers as the nation's fifth-richest people, each worth $21.5 billion.

A spokesman for the famously press-shy family declined to comment. Koch allies say the brothers act out of ideological conviction.

A Washington energy consultant familiar with the Kochs, Javier Ortiz, said the committee agenda reflects the "needs of the American people" and a broad shift in political sentiment.

A symbolic arrival

When the 85 freshman GOP lawmakers marched into the Capitol on Jan. 5 as part of the new Republican House majority, David Koch was there too.

The 70-year-old had an appointment with a staff member of the new speaker, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). At the same time, the head of Americans for Prosperity, Tim Phillips, had an appointment with Upton. They used the opportunity to introduce themselves to some of the new legislators and invited them to a welcome party at the Capitol Hill Club, a favorite wine-and-cheese venue for Republican power players in Washington.

The reception was a symbolic arrival for the Kochs, who have not always been close to the Republican hub. The brothers were known as hard-liners unafraid to take on conservative icons — even President Reagan and the American Petroleum Institute — whom they occasionally perceived to be too accommodating to liberal interests. David Koch ran as the Libertarian Party's vice presidential candidate in 1980, when Reagan was the GOP presidential candidate.

The Kochs provided initial funding for the libertarian Cato Institute and are key donors to the Federalist Society, among other conservative organizations.

In recent years, they began drawing conservative media, business and political leaders to semiannual meetings in the West to discuss protection of the free-market ethos and to raise funds for their causes. The most recent was in Rancho Mirage a week ago.

Frustrated with the state of conservatism in Washington during the George W. Bush era, the Kochs began to shift the discussions at recent meetings from fundraising for think tanks to more specific electoral strategy.

Longtime ties

At the center of the new ground-level strategy is a beefed-up role for Americans for Prosperity. Along with other well-funded conservative groups, the group was very active in the congressional midterm election — in many cases taking on roles often performed by national and state parties.

Americans for Prosperity is the political arm of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which David Koch co-founded in the 1980s under the name Citizens for a Sound Economy. He is chairman of the board of the foundation, which says it aims to educate citizens on "a return of the federal government to its constitutional limits."

Americans for Prosperity says it spent $40 million in the 2010 election cycle, organized rallies and phone banks, and canvassed door to door in nearly 100 races across the country. The organization found scores of energetic activists in the "tea party" movement to carry its message.

Throughout this effort, Americans for Prosperity kept a strong emphasis on promoting its views on climate change and energy regulation. In 2008, it began circulating a pledge asking politicians to denounce a Democratic-led effort to compel oil refineries and utilities to clean up emissions of greenhouse gases through a so-called cap-and-trade system. The organization said it amounted to a hidden tax increase.

The cap-and-trade legislation passed the House but died in the Senate. Americans for Prosperity began working to defeat House Democrats who voted for the bill, showing the power of its new activist base.

The advocacy group does not disclose spending in individual races. But it said it facilitated tens of thousands of phone calls and organized dozens of events in recent congressional campaigns. Among the beneficiaries, besides Griffith, were newly elected Reps. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). All three now sit on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Gardner and Kinzinger declined to comment on their relationship with Americans for Prosperity and the Koch brothers, although a spokeswoman for Gardner emphasized that the group's work was "totally independent" of his campaign, in line with federal election rules.

Other committee members have deeper ties to the Kochs.

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), who represents Koch Industries' home district, launched an aerospace company with investment help from a Koch subsidiary. He sold the company last year. His chief of staff is Mark Chenoweth, a former Koch Industries lawyer.

Phil Kerpen, vice president for policy at Americans for Prosperity, said the organization was pleased with the committee's new members.

"From a policy standpoint, I think those are pretty good choices," he said, mentioning Griffith in particular.

Griffith has questioned the EPA and the science behind its proposed regulation of global warming. "We have to be sure the EPA is reined in," he said recently.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA had the power to regulate greenhouse gases as air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Pompeo, Griffith and others want to strip the EPA of that authority.

Until recently, Upton would have been an unlikely champion of that view.

In 2009, he told a Michigan newspaper: "Climate change is a serious problem that necessitates serious solutions." Rush Limbaugh ridiculed Upton for his sponsorship of an energy-saving bill. Tea party groups opposed his bid for the committee chairmanship.

But as chairman, Upton said that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson would have to attend so many hearings before his committee that she would need her own parking space on Capitol Hill. In daily e-mail blasts, he hammered at the EPA's "job-killing" regulations.

His bluntest rhetoric against the EPA came in late December, in a Wall Street Journal commentary he wrote with Phillips of Americans for Prosperity.

The EPA's regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, they wrote, "represents an unconstitutional power grab that will kill millions of jobs — unless Congress steps in."

In an e-mail statement, Upton denied that his position on climate change had shifted, and he explained his work with conservative activists. "Meeting with and listening to individuals and organizations that will be affected by the laws and regulations this committee oversees is one of our fundamental responsibilities," he said.

The change on the committee is "like night and day," said Jeremy Symons, senior vice president of the National Wildlife Federation, a nonpartisan organization that lobbied the committee to stem greenhouse gas emissions.

"In the past the committee majority viewed the Clean Air Act as an effective way to protect the public," Symons said. "Now the committee treats the Clean Air Act and the EPA as if they are the enemy. Voters didn't ask for this pro-polluter agenda, but the Koch brothers spent their money well and their presence can be felt."

Republicans wave off such comments, saying the focus on the Koch brothers is just the left's latest conspiracy theory.

"[Former Chairman] Henry Waxman stacked the committee with liberal environmentalists," said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who now chairs the economy and environment subcommittee. "Now we are moving things back to the center." Ω

[Tom Hamburger is an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, specializing in the White House and the executive branch. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1996, he is a graduate of Oberlin College, and worked previously for the Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the Arkansas Gazette.

Kathleen Hennessey is a Los Angeles Times Staff Writer.

Neela Banerjee is an Energy and Environment Reporter at the Los Angeles Times. Banerjee is a graduate of Yale University.]

Copyright © 2011 Los Angeles Times

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Passwords Aren't Enough?

This blogger has a Model T cellphone (a Motorola Razr) that lags far behind the devices from Apple, Blackberry, LG, and most of their ilk. So, today's geeky post is aimed at the owners of the flashy snartphones, not geezers with Model T-equivalents. If this is a (fair & balanced) technology lag, so be it.

[x Slate[
Why Passwords Aren't Enough
By Farhad Manjoo

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Nearly two years ago, I wrote about an easy way to create invincible passwords for your most-sensitive online accounts. The short version: Come up with a memorable phrase, then turn it into a password by using the first letter of each word. Thus, I'm 44 and I still love Justin Bieber becomes I44aIslJB—a password that's hard to guess but easy for a Bieber obsessive to remember. Slate has re-published my article several times, because seemingly every few months there's an incident that serves as a good reminder for people to create new passwords. Last year, for example, Gawker's database was hacked, spreading thousands of commenters' passwords all over the Internet. And just in the last few weeks, two huge dating sites—eHarmony and Plenty of Fish—were compromised, and passwords found in those databases are now being offered for sale in online black markets.

This sort of thing is going to keep happening over and over again. There will always be sites that don't protect users' credentials as well as they could, and when one of these sites gets hacked, you'll have to change your password everywhere. Sure, there are ways to reduce these risks: You shouldn't use the same password for different sites—that way if a hacker gets the keys to Gawker, he won't be able to get into your bank, too. One way to keep track of many different strong passwords is to use a password helper like 1Password, a program that creates and remembers bulletproof passwords for every site you visit.

Still, these measures don't address the fundamental flaw in the way we use passwords on the Web today. A password is the only thing separating your e-mail, banking information, and social networks from a bad guy. It takes only one database hack or phishing attack for a thief to get your password, and from there, he could wreak all kinds of havoc. That shouldn't be. As we store more of our personal information online, we're asking passwords to shoulder an ever-larger burden. That's too much for the humble password to do.

We need something else—some other bit of information that a thief would need to get inside your account. This second form of security wouldn't be something that you memorize. Instead, it would be something you keep in your possession—your fingerprint or retina scan, a key fob, or a little widget inside your phone. When you wanted to access your account, you'd present this item in addition to your username and password. And if your password got stolen, the thief still wouldn't be able to get into your account.

Click on image to enlarge.

Security experts call this "two-factor authentication," because it requires two different kinds of information—something you know as well as something you possess. Two-factor authentication isn't new. Many corporations and the government require it. Often, the system involves little radio cards or other electronic doohickeys that you connect to your computer when logging in. But because these systems are expensive and require a fair bit of work for the IT department—someone's got to keep track of all those key fobs—two-factor authentication has never been available for consumer sites like Web e-mail or bank accounts.

But that might be changing. Last week, Google launched two-factor authentication for Google Accounts—the credentials you use to log in to all Google services, including Gmail. I've been using the system since then, and I think it's a good step toward a future in which we move beyond passwords to protect our most intimate secrets. Google's system is optional; you can set it up on your Google Account page. After you opt in, you'll log in to Gmail with a username and password, as usual. Then, you'll see another screen asking you for a six-digit "verification code." This code is the second factor to get into your account. It's generated by the Google Authenticator app that you download on your Android phone, iPhone, or BlackBerry. (If you don't have one of those phones, you can get verification codes through text messaging on a standard mobile phone.) The app generates a new verification code every 30 seconds. This means that you need to have your phone with you and powered on when you log in to your e-mail. On the plus side, though, if someone steals just one of these factors—just your phone or just your password—he can't log in.

Google's system is far from perfect. For one thing, it's a bit of a hassle to set it up on third-party systems that use your Google account. If you sync Gmail with Outlook or your iPhone, for instance, you'll need to enter a new, computer-generated password into each of those devices to keep them connected to your account. (You only have to do this once, but it's still frustrating if you've got many different devices that connect to your Google account.) There's also the worry of losing your phone. When you set up the two-step system, Google asks you to enter a backup phone number, and it also gives you a set of backup verification codes, which you're supposed to keep in a safe place (away from your phone). According to a Google spokesman, when you lose your primary phone, Google will send a new verification code (either via text message or an automated voicemail) to your backup phone. If you don't have access to either your primary or backup phone, you can use one of the backup codes you kept in a safe place. But what if you lose your phone while traveling in Europe, and both your backup phone and your backup codes are back home?*

For most people, the biggest problem here is that two-factor authentication simply requires one step too many. Typing in a verification code when you log in to your account isn't difficult—it takes 10 seconds, at most. There is also an option to have Google ask for the verification once every 30 days for a specific machine; this means that when someone steals your password, it will only work for a limited time on that machine before it's rendered unusable, which is better than nothing. [Update, Feb. 18: The previous sentence has been updated to reflect that the 30-day verification option applies to a specific machine. If you want to log in from a different computer during those 30 days, you still need to use a verification code.] Still, as I reported in my first piece on passwords, most people use the same password for all the sites they visit, and they never change their passwords. I'm betting that those people aren't going to be excited about an extra security step. Indeed, the people most likely to take advantage of two-step verification are those who already think about password security—in other words, people who are likely to need it the least.

That's why I'm hoping that Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, and the world's major banks work together to create an advanced two-step security system that's also drop-dead easy to use. Instead of a verification code, my ideal system would use either a credit card or biometric information, like your fingerprint. To log in to your bank on your home computer, then, you'd type in your username and password, and then you'd place your finger on your phone's screen. The phone would authenticate you and send a wireless verification signal to your computer, and you'd get into your account. Alternatively, you could slide your credit card through your phone's card reader—or simply wave your credit card so that it can be recognized by the "near-field communication" chip in your phone.

Are these things too far out? Nope. Electronic fingerprint readers are cheap these days, and they would be easy for phone makers to deploy (the new Motorola Atrix smartphone includes a fingerprint reader); they could also use the phone's camera to identify your eyeball or your face, or perhaps the microphone to identify your voice. There are already third-party credit card readers for the iPhone, and there are persistent rumors that Apple plans to build near-field communication into the iPhone in order to let you pay for stuff with your phone. (Google's Nexus S already has an NFC chip.)

The limitations on the widespread use of two-factor authentication, then, aren't technical. They're social and commercial; many people are going to kick and scream if they're forced to do something extra to get into their accounts, and companies will need to work together to create a standard system that can be deployed across a wide range of services. But I suspect that we'll overcome these challenges, and that two-step verification will eventually become the norm. Every day, we get fresh evidence that passwords aren't enough to protect us from the bad guys online. It's time we stopped pretending they were. Ω

[Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society (2008). Manjoo graduated from Cornell University in 2000. While there, he wrote for and then served as editor-in-chief of the Cornell Daily Sun campus newspaper.]

Copyright © 2011 Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive Company

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Friday, February 25, 2011

The NY Fishwrap's Ethicist Is Hoist By His Own Petard?

A public scold often lacks honor in his own land. Randy Cohen was unceremoniously (and unethically?) sacked by the powers that be at the NY Fishwrap. What is the ethical response to a firing? Ethicist Cohen has taken his act to NPR — “A Question of Ethics." Some of those who have been sacked turn to blogging. If this is a (fair & balanced) sapper's petard, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap Magazine]
By Randy Cohen

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I loved this job, especially the interaction with the readers. I admired the moral seriousness of their questions and the astuteness of their criticism — often fierce, occasionally discourteous, never sufficiently threatening to report to the police. But close. And that’s fine. Ethics is a subject about which honorable people may differ. I was less sanguine about readers who disparaged not my argument but my character or my shoes or my nose, attacks that generally concluded, “You should be ashamed.” I blame the anonymity of e-mail. And underprescribed medication.

From time to time, readers persuaded me that I was — what’s that ugly word? — wrong. Then I would revisit a column and recant my folly. I first did so when readers powerfully asserted that yes, you could honorably take your own food to the movies, despite a theater’s prohibition. Another mea culpa ran close to Yom Kippur, Judaism’s day of atonement, leading some readers to infer that I was fulfilling a religious obligation. Not so. Sheer coincidence. I’ve taken a resolutely secular approach to ethics in the column and in my life.

Neither on nor off duty did I seek moral guidance from a spiritual leader of any faith. I did consult members of the clergy for their technical expertise when a question impinged on religious doctrine. For instance, must you warn an observant Jewish in-law that, contrary to what he supposes, the soup he’s about to eat is not kosher? I am grateful for their erudition and generosity and that of others who advised me — nurses and doctors, lawyers and librarians, scholars in dozens of disciplines and the odd interior decorator, whose profession is indeed governed by a formal code of conduct. Apparently it is possible to do wicked things with fabric swatches­. We should not.

At first I was disconcerted to be asked about religious law or medical ethics, being trained in neither. But I came to see that what readers often sought was not a ruling on what to do — they seemed to know — but an argument for why to do it. They sensed that they shouldn’t shoot the dog — but it is a horrible dog: it barks incessantly; it befouls the couch. My task was to provide a reasoned case for treating it with kindness. We should.

I received many questions about animals and even more duty-to-report questions: must you blow the whistle on a friend’s adulterous spouse, a tax-dodging repairman, an undocumented employee? The column did not focus on lofty public policy but everyday ethics: may you move to high-priced unoccupied seats at a ball game? May you pocket lots of motel soap and donate it to the homeless? Modest problems, perhaps, but when dissected they revealed much about power, money, race, class, gender, the mutual obligations and unspoken assumptions that connect us — the very things that public policy so often must deal with.

These 12 years brought no radical shift in the sort of queries I received, unsurprisingly; real social change and its attendant moral uncertainty occur slowly. There have been sudden flurries of questions responding to newsworthy events. Immediately after 9/11, many people sent disheartening variations on a query that began, “My neighbor might be Pakistani...,” and ended, “Should I call the FBI?” Happily, such paranoia (with its maladroit crime-fighting tips) was ephemeral, in the column if not entirely in the larger world.

A more gradual and persistent change has been the emergence of queries sparked by the Internet. Some involved intellectual property: illegal music downloads, students’ failure to cite online sources. Others concerned evolving ideas of privacy, derived from experiences with Facebook and Google.

I say with some shame, there has been no such gradual change in my own behavior. Writing the column has not made me even slightly more virtuous. And I didn’t have to be: it was in my contract. O.K., it wasn’t. But it should have been. I wasn’t hired to personify virtue, to be a role model for the kids, but to write about virtue in a way readers might find engaging. Consider sports writers: not 2 in 20 can hit the curveball, and why should they? They’re meant to report on athletes, not be athletes. And that’s the self-serving rationalization I’d have clung to had the cops hauled me off in handcuffs.

What spending my workday thinking about ethics did do was make me acutely conscious of my own transgressions, of the times I fell short. It is deeply demoralizing. I presume it qualifies me for some sort of workers’ comp. This was a particular hazard of my job, but it is also something every adult endures — every self-aware adult — as was noted by my great hero, Samuel Johnson, the person I most quoted in the column: “He that in the latter part of his life too strictly inquires what he has done, can very seldom receive from his own heart such an account as will give him satisfaction.” To grow old is to grow remorseful, both on and off duty.

I am sorry to leave The Ethicist but eager to work on “A Question of Ethics,” a program in development for public radio. If you’d like to find out about my next endeavors, please “like” me on Facebook. That sounds so desperately Sally Field, and I don’t mean it that way. Or do I? Ω

[Randy Cohen is an Emmy Award-winning writer and humorist known since 1999 as the author of "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine. Cohen graduated from the University at Albany-SUNY with a Bachelor of Arts in music. Cohen was a writer on "Late Night with David Letterman" for 7 years, beginning in 1984. In a surprise move, the NY Fishwrap ended Cohn's stint as "The Ethicist," making his final column Sunday, February 27, 2011. The column remains, in a new voice.]

Copyright © 2011 The New York Times Company

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lights Out In The Pacific Northwest

An alternative to David Mills' painful account of his father's death in hospice is to be found in a recent documentary film, "How To Die In Oregon" (2010). At the first diagnosis of a terminal condition, this blogger is going to light out for the The Beaver State and establish residency. If this is (fair & balanced) thanatology, so be it.

[x First Things]
Real Death, Real Dignity
By David Mills

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He was a dignified man suffering all the embarrassing ways a hospice deals with the body’s failure as cancer begins shutting down the organs. Dying in a hospice, you lose all rights to modesty as you lose control of your body. Few men could have found the indignities of those last few weeks of life more excruciating than did my father.

The man who was always in control depended entirely on the help of others, most of them strangers, most of them nurses’ aides, cheerful young women the age of his granddaughter. The man who was always doing something constructive could not move from his bed. The man who had always made his words count could not speak. The man who was always reserved could hide nothing, keep nothing to himself.

I did not want to see him there. This was what dying of cancer is like, and my father, being the man he was, took it like a man. It was the hand he’d been dealt, and he was going to play it, as bad as it was.

Though he died five years ago, in bookstores I still find myself starting to buy a book I know he’ll like, and thinking as I start to pull it off the shelf, “No, wait,” or deciding to ask his advice on a matter great or small, and thinking as I reach for my phone, “No, wait.” Every time I feel that sharp burning pain behind the sternum you get when your body panics and floods itself with adrenalin. The world has a hole in it and one that will never be filled in this life.

It is a great blessing to be with your father as he dies, though mercifully a blessing you will enjoy only once. I was sitting in his room at the hospice, my wife and children having run round the corner to get lunch, my mother having lunch with an old friend round another corner, my sister up the road at her job running a thrift store. He had, as far as we knew, as far as the doctors knew, weeks to live.

I had been there for a couple of hours, editing something on my laptop, focused on the work, when suddenly I knew, I don’t know how, other than Grace, that he was breathing his last. He drew in a short, hard breath. I knelt by his head and said, “Goodbye, dad.” He drew in a shorter, shallower breath, almost a half-breath, and then stopped.

I went to get the nurse, waving my hand toward the room because I could not speak. She came in, listened for a heartbeat, and I stood hoping I was wrong, that I’d missed something, that I was going to be embarrassed, till she shook her head at another nurse who had come into the room behind me.

Being there was, as I say, a great blessing. At least, it is a great blessing to be with your father when he dies if he died the way mine did. He did not die with dignity, as those who promote “death with dignity” define it, which means, in essence, to die as if you weren’t dying.

It is not dignified to be undressed and dressed by cheerful young women the age of your granddaughter. It is not dignified to waste away, to lose the ability to speak, to eat, to drink. It is not dignified for your children and grandchildren to see you that way. It is not dignified to die when death takes you and not when you choose.

I can see the appeal of “death with dignity” and programs like those offered in Oregon and the Netherlands, where doctors will help you leave this world at the moment of your choosing, without fuss or bother or pain. I do not want to die and I really, really do not want to die the way my father did. I would find the indignities as excruciating as he did, and I have no confidence I would deal with the pain as bravely as he. I would not want my children to see me so pathetic.

“Death with dignity” seems to offer not only an escape from pain and humiliation but a rational and apparently noble way to leave this life. You look death in the eye and show him that you, not he, are in control. All “dying with dignity” requires is that you declare yourself God. Make yourself the lord of life and death, and you can do what you want. All you have to do, as a last, definitive act, is to do what you’ve been doing all your life: Declare yourself, on the matter at hand, the final authority, the last judge, the one vote that counts.

But you are not God, and, the Christian believes, the decision of when to leave this life is not one He has delegated to you. It is not your call. The Father expects you to suffer if you are given suffering and to put up with indignities if you are given indignities. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord. And that, as far as dying goes, is that.

This is not, from a worldly point of view, a comforting or comfortable teaching. It is one much easier for Christians to observe in theory than in practice, and to apply to other people than to themselves. In practice, we will want to die “with dignity.”

My father was an engineer, not a philosopher. I’m not sure if he read a theological book in his life. The questions that interested me bemused him. But he knew who he was and what he was called to do, a condition others would put in a theological language I suspect he thought was unnecessary. He was dying. That was his job, and he would do it as well as he could.

Lying in a hospice bed, in the very last situation he would have chosen for himself, my father taught me that to die with dignity means to accept what God has given you and deal with it till the end. It means to play the hand God has dealt you, no matter how bad a hand it is, without folding. It means actually to live as if the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, and in either case blessed be the name of the Lord.

It’s dignity of a different sort than the corruptingly euphemistic slogan “death with dignity” suggests. There is a great—an eternal—dignity in accepting whatever indignities you have to suffer to remain faithful to God and to do what He has given you to do. A man can be humiliated and yet noble, and the humiliations make the nobility all the more obvious. My father died with dignity, though the advocates of euthanasia and the clean, quick, controlled exit might not think so.

Here my father held a line he probably did not recognize, a line that protects the vulnerable. He would never have said this, and would have thought the idea pretentious. But by living as if his life was not his to give up he also declared in the most practical way possible that the lives of the vulnerable are not for others to take. There are only a few steps from declaring that a man may choose to be killed to choosing death for those who cannot choose for themselves. The vulnerable are protected by those who refuse the choice.

The man who chooses the timing and meaning of his own death has looked death in the eye and shown him that he is in control—but only by giving death what he demands even sooner than he demands it. That, presumably, is a deal death will take. My father, lying in the bed by the window in a hospice he would never leave, offered death no deal at all. Ω

[David Mills is known for his work within Christian media. He is the current Deputy Editor of the journal First Things and was the editor of Touchstone Magazine from 2003 to 2008. He is the author of several books, including Knowing the Real Jesus (2001), Discoverng Mary (2009), and Discovering the Church (2009). He also edited The Pilgrim's Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness (1998).]

Copyright © 2011 The Institute on Religion and Public Life

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

This Just In: Clio Is Both A Harlot & A Hireling! (And This Blogger Is A Klutz!)

When this blogger was a drudge, pursuing graduate degrees in history, he read two books that penetrated his thick skull: Marc Bloch's The Historian's Craft (1953, posthumously) and Herbert Butterfield's The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). Despite reading Bloch and Butterfield, this blogger was neither crafty nor a model of Progress. If this is (fair & balanced) historiography, so be it.

[x First Things]
Whig History At Eighty
By Wilfred M. McClay

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It is odd that in the many recent discussions about what it might mean to pursue a more self-consciously “Christian” approach to scholarship, debates that were given fresh urgency over a decade ago by George Marsden’s book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, the name of Herbert Butterfield (1900–1979) almost never seems to surface. One might have assumed that this famous Cambridge don, a man of vibrant faith with a career-long interest in the intersection of faith and knowledge, and the author of Christianity and History (1950), one of the handful of essential works on that subject, would play an important role in the discussion. If nothing else, one might have thought his personal example would be more highly valued than it has been. Few academic historians in the Anglophone world have more successfully combined a high level of visible and relatively orthodox Christian commitment with a record of high scholarly achievement and status. It seems a pity that he should be so thoroughly forgotten, a victim, perhaps, of history’s growing tendency to be a discipline with a short and trendy memory.

More’s the pity, too, when one takes into account the impressive and inspiring trajectory of Butterfield’s life, the details of which have been set forth in a valuable and meticulous biography by C. T. McIntire (Herbert Butterfield: Historian as Dissenter, 2004). Far from being to the high-table born, the young Butterfield was a working-class rube from the provincial West Yorkshire village of Oxenhope, a town created and sustained by the textile mills nearby. Like so many of the mill workers and their families, his parents were devout Methodists, as he would be all his life, a sturdy background that helps account for his strong commitment to hard work and personal piety—and, as would emerge, much else about him as well. His father, whom Butterfield always counted the most influential person in his life, had been forced to leave school at the age of ten to take a job as a wool sorter, eventually working his way up to a clerical position. The young Butterfield was an extremely diligent student, and managed to win a scholarship to Peterhouse at Cambridge. But when he arrived there in the fall of 1919, it was as a near-complete misfit: a socially awkward, teetotaling, working-class Methodist with an unmistakable Yorkshire accent and a rather scanty background in history, taking up residence in a palace of high-Anglican refinement and public-school snobbery.

An unpromising beginning indeed; and yet Butterfield’s superior qualities of mind and character quickly came to the fore, and would prevail in the end. After some initial misgivings, his teachers soon came to appreciate his boundless energy and enormous potential, and he advanced rapidly, quickly acquiring honors and other forms of recognition, followed after graduation by research fellowships and finally a faculty appointment. In the fullness of time this erstwhile rube would flower into one of the leading figures of British academic life in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century. He served on the Cambridge faculty until 1968, having been Master of Peterhouse, Vice-Chancellor of the University (1959–1961), and Regius Professor of Modern History (1963–1968), the last being the same position held by his distinguished predecessors Lord Acton, George Trevelyan, and J. B. Bury. Perhaps most importantly of all, he churned out a remarkable series of influential books treating subjects as widely dispersed as the history of science, the historical novel, British political history, European diplomacy, international politics, the theory and practice of historical writing—and the intersection of Christianity and history. And he rose in the academic world spectacularly without ever budging an inch from the Methodism in which he was raised, continuing to attend worship services faithfully and even delivering ecclesiastical lectures and the occasional lay sermon to student and church groups on the side of his professional duties. It was a life of exemplary integrity.

Of all Butterfield’s many works, the most famous and enduringly influential is arguably his 1931 critique entitled The Whig Interpretation of History, a crisp, essay-like book that became, and has remained, one of the truly indispensable works in the field of Anglo-American historiography. In it Butterfield defined “Whig” history as an approach to the past that makes its meaning and its lessons subservient to the demands of the present and to the present’s reigning idea of what constitutes “progress.” Whig history was history written by and for the winners in historical conflict and change, and as such, it always upheld the present’s sense of itself as an unmistakable and inevitable advance on all that preceded it. Such historical writing was likely to be simplistic and one-sided, reducible to white hats and black hats, and thereby offending Butterfield’s sense of historical complexity and his insistence on broad sympathies. The term “Whig history” expressed the tendency of so many historians, in his words, “to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.” Such history sought to make the crooked straight and the rough places plain, and paved over the lost causes, failed arguments, noble sacrifices, unopened doors, untried passages, ambiguous outcomes, and inconclusive experiments that are the soul and substance of life as lived and remembered.

Still, it may seem surprising that Butterfield took such a firm stand against these Whiggish tendencies, which seemed to him not only gross oversimplifications but betrayals of the rightful task of the historian. One might have thought that his Christian commitments would lead him in the opposite direction, toward a way of writing and thinking about the past that insisted on finding clear moral meaning rather than ambiguity or randomness, and that passionately sought signs of the larger providential telos implicit in the direction of worldly events. He might have disagreed with the particular calculus that individual Whig scholars applied to the interpretation of modern history, or disagreed with their conclusions, without rejecting the enterprise altogether.

But reject it he did. Not that Butterfield disbelieved in Providence. But he insisted that the historian had no special access to providential designs and should refrain from making such arguments, choosing for himself a more modest role, answerable to a different and more limited set of canons, technical or even “scientific” in character, with a deliberate agnosticism about their larger meaning. No mere mortal historian had a right, or had sufficient knowledge, to be making the kind of final moral judgments about the ultimate meaning of historical actions and actors. In this respect, Butterfield found particular fault in the writings of Lord Acton, a historian whom he otherwise greatly admired, but against whom much of the argumentative force of Whig Interpretation was directed. That Acton was himself a notable member of that shrinking band of believing Christian historians, and a Catholic to boot, and that Butterfield himself was a Whig by default, only adds further ironies to the mix.

The tendencies Butterfield resisted were illustrated in Acton’s 1895 inaugural address on assuming the Regius chair. In that address, Acton issued a rebuke to one of the chief characteristics of historicism: its insistence on confining the historian’s moral judgment to the specific historical contexts in which the actions under review took place. Acton embraced historicism as a method but drew a line against its tendency toward relativism. Instead, he offered a ringing defense of the historian as moral arbiter, urging his audience “never to debase the moral currency or lower the standard of rectitude, but try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong.”

In other words, as we might say today, the historian should not hesitate to impose his values on the past. And Acton was in no doubt about the general direction of history’s movement: “I hope. . . this will aid you to see that the action of Christ who is risen on mankind whom he redeemed fails not, but increases; that the wisdom of divine rule appears not in the perfection but in the improvement of the world; and that achieved liberty is the one ethical result that rests on the converging and combined conditions of advancing civilization. Then you will understand what a famous philosopher said, that History is the true demonstration of Religion.”

In making such broad and expansive claims, which clearly were meant to underwrite the liberalism of his own day, Acton was hardly representative of the historians of his time, most of whom were clearly moving in the opposite direction. In that sense, Butterfield chose an easy target. But Butterfield’s complaint against Acton seemed clearly to come from a deeper source than mere professional concerns. Although it might not be apparent to his readers, his was a religiously grounded dissent. He sought a historiography that would, like the Yorkshire Methodism in which he had been raised, take losers just as seriously as winners and, instead of tracing a line of obvious truths culminating in the triumphant conventional wisdom of the present, would seek deliberately to distance itself from Acton’s smug view that “history is the arbiter of controversy, the monarch of all she surveys.” Instead, Butterfield argued, history is better understood as “the very servant of the servants of God, the drudge of all the drudges.” It was the discipline of the historian to reject firmly the self-satisfied idea that the way things have turned out is, in some sense, the way they ought to have turned out. Instead, one should be willing to entertain the opposite possibility and seek to study the past without insisting on its reference to the present and without playing the arbiter, the “avenging judge” who is engaged in dispensing “verdicts.”

Such verdicts were not only morally presumptuous but epistemologically suspect, given the complex way in which historical change actually occurs. “If we see in each generation the conflict of the future against the past, the fight of what might be called progressive versus reactionary,” Butterfield wrote, we end up with our gaze “fixed upon certain people who appear as the special agencies of that progress.” But this is not how historical change actually works, he argued. Even the “ways of progress” are “crooked and perverse,” reflecting the pervasiveness of original sin in human existence and the fatal limitations of every historical actor or movement. However, he continues,

if we see in each generation a clash of wills out of which there emerges something that probably no man ever willed, our minds become concentrated upon the process that produced such an unpredictable issue, and we are more open for an intensive study of the motions and interactions that underlie historical change. . . . The process of the historical transition will then be recognized to be unlike what the whig historian seems to assume—much less like the procedure of a logical argument.... It is a process which moves by mediations and those mediations may be provided by anything in the world—by men’s sins or misapprehensions or by what we can only call fortunate conjunctures. Very strange bridges are used to make the passage from one state of things to another; we may lose sight of them in our surveys of general history, but their discovery is the glory of historical research. History is not the study of origins; rather it is the analysis of all the mediations by which the past was turned into our present.

One of Butterfield’s favorite examples of oversimplified history was the tendency to either glorify or vilify the man Martin Luther, rather than examine the unintended consequences by which Luther’s actions contributed to the emergence of the secular state of modern times, a transformation that had been actively sought by very few actors but one that would be affected by the confluence of countless streams, large and small, of historical change. A similar example would be the emergence of religious liberty in America, a product less of the actions of Roger Williams or William Penn than of particular circumstances that made religious freedom a necessary and fruitful practice before it became an enshrined principle.

So if history is not a game of picking winners and losers, heroes and villains, what is the point of it? Butterfield envisioned a broadly civilizing and humanizing function for the study of the past. He wanted it to promote the intellectual and moral ability to “enter into minds that are unlike our own,” to make sympathetic contact with the full range of human experience and cognition, to “see all lives as part of the one web of life,” and to take “men and their quarrels into a world where everything is understood and all sins are forgiven.” The historian should, in short, aspire to a God’s-eye view, one in which a deliberate attempt is made to set aside the dominant moral claims and sympathies of one’s own era—not out of a misplaced relativism but out of a carefully thought-out set of judgments about the limits of what historians can accomplish, and the peculiar set of virtues to which they should aspire.

Such a view was, in some ways, a precursor to the great flowering of social history and history “from the bottom up” that has transformed American historical writing over the past four decades. But it also clearly reflects the influence of Butterfield’s active faith, with its insistence on respecting equally the historical experience of all persons, not merely the prominent ones who are granted fortunate outcomes. All were equally creations of God; all fell equally within His providential reach; all had an intrinsic importance and value; all would be judged by God alone. We should not presume that the events and outcomes that we currently find to be of note are, in fact, the ones that are noteworthy sub specie aeternitatis. Nor should we “cheer for” any side, very much including our own. To cultivate such nonteleological inclusiveness of vision amounts to a kind of grand spiritual discipline, more like a self-emptying, or kenosis, than an anxious and sterile liberal nonjudgmentalism. To achieve it, even in only small and intermittent measure, is to achieve a kind of godliness, an imitatio Christi. But at the same time it is also to grasp the biblical proclamation that God’s ways are not our ways, that we can never rely too much on our own understanding.

It is not surprising, then, that Butterfield would openly disdain the idea that historians had it in their power to acquaint themselves with the operations of Providence. That was stepping over a terrible line, from being god-ly to being god-like. Such was precisely the error committed by the Whig historians, who were too confident that they knew where “History” was “going,” that they knew what constituted “Progress,” and that their judgments about questions of importance and nonimportance corresponded with those of the Deity. Butterfield thought it a massive arrogation for the historian to imagine that he had even the remotest capacity for such judgments. That was simply beyond his ken, or that of any mere mortal.

Paradoxically, then, it was not out of programmatic skepticism, but precisely out of robust religious belief, including his eschatological confidence in God’s unknowable providence, that Butterfield was able so easily to insist that the historian has to forswear any attempt to make final moral claims about the deeds and the consequences of human history. Comprehensive providential understanding, like vengeance, should be yielded up unto to the Lord, and for exactly the same reasons. The best that the mortal historian can hope for, or aspire to, is an impartial record of what happened, with all its complexities and ambivalences. History is no oracle.

Instead, Butterfield thought, history should be regarded with suspicion, an ambitious upstart all too willing to serve unsavory worldly alliances. As he said on his penultimate page: “History is all things to all men. She is at the service of good causes and bad. In other words, she is a harlot and a hireling, and for this reason she best serves those who suspect her most.” Hence her judgments are never to be trusted as final or ultimate. “In other words,” he said in his deceptively simple concluding words, “the truth of history is no simple matter... and the understanding of the past is not so easy as it is sometimes made to appear.” The idea of progress, particularly as the Whig historians employed it, was perhaps the most dangerous simplifier of all, elevating some men into prophets while damning others to oblivion.

There is much that is attractive about the generosity and epistemological modesty of Butterfield’s position. It corresponds very well with the official ethos of the historical profession as it exists today (the profession’s actual practice frequently being another matter, but that is a subject for another occasion). It is an indispensable book for all earnest students of history, good for their mental and moral hygiene, productive of the kind of healthy self-examination that every decently educated person should be equipped to engage in.

Yet today, eighty years after its publication, we face new difficulties for which Butterfield’s book gives us little help. True, it addresses itself to a problem against which historians always need to be on guard. We always need a corrective to excessive presentmindedness and chronological pride, the narcissistic belief that we are the ones toward whom all of human history has been laboring. But Butterfield did not live long enough to see the full flowering of postmodernism in the academy and to see the elevation of the word metanarrative to iconic status as an all-purpose disparagement. Had he done so, given his attentiveness to the particularity of changing contexts, he would be the first to recognize that the intellectual world has changed dramatically since 1931, and that his own ideas might take on a different flavor in our different age, and themselves stand in need of a fresh reading, in light of a counter-corrective.

Such a counter-corrective may actually be more fully in the spirit of Butterfield than might seem the case at first glance. At the time Whig Interpretation appeared, his Cambridge colleague Charles Smyth, who was an Anglican clergyman and a Tory, shrewdly observed to Butterfield that his book offered no consolation for those who would have preferred a Tory interpretation of history. The clear implication was that Butterfield’s critique of Whiggery took place entirely inside the Whig tradition and was an attempt to reform and enlarge and perfect it rather than overturn it. Indeed, according to C. T. McIntire’s account, Smyth went on to suggest that a proper title for the book should have been An Appeal from the Old Whigs to the New, an allusion to Edmund Burke’s famous essay, "An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs," but reversing the order of old and new. Burke had been writing against the New Whigs of his day, such as Charles James Fox, whom he associated with the radical French revolutionaries, and in favor of Old Whig reformers with a more patient and gradualist sensibility.

Butterfield readily agreed with Smyth. He acknowledged that he was writing in and for a New Whig tradition in historiography, seeking to extend the sympathies of the Whig tradition beyond their original base so that the tradition would include within its ambit even Tories and other outcasts. Such a view was nothing if not universalistic in its scope and ambition—a universalism that was ultimately grounded not in the unreliable swamplands of postmodern skepticism but the sturdy and confidently inclusive Methodism Butterfield learned in Oxenhope.

With his foundation firmly planted in a vigorously evangelical understanding of the Christian message, Butterfield took it for granted that man does not live by critical distance alone. One is inclined to suspect that he would conclude that we now need to rescue the idea of progress itself from dissolution, from a too easy and too pervasive slackness of mind and despondency of heart, for which programmatic skepticism has become the lazy and impotent official philosophy.

But that was not the task of his own time, which entailed tamping down the idea of progress rather than reviving it. Like his American contemporary Reinhold Niebuhr, whose forceful study Moral Man and Immoral Society was published the following year, and whom he resembled in some ways, Butterfield in his day enjoyed the luxury of counterpunching against an overweening but fully empowered and entrenched progressive tradition. His work did not need to consider seriously the possibility that, with the growing enfeeblement of such an ordering tradition, including the loss of the very Christian faith that underwrote his programmatic modesty, Western history might have no good way left to organize itself and that programmatic modesty would shrivel into a kind of inconsolable self-loathing and lingering postcolonial guilt.

Taken to its fullest, nonetheless, Butterfield’s New Whig approach cuts away at the branch on which it stands, casting doubt on one of the chief culture-forming distinctives of Judeo-Christianity: its understanding of divine history and human history as intersecting stories and not merely parallel or disparate ones. The Judaism and Christianity of the Bible are faiths whose God takes a very strong and active interest in the doings of nations and the outcomes of historical events and occasionally intervenes in them, sometimes quite dramatically. True, this Deity also delights in reversals and overturnings, in ways that often entirely subvert the world’s paradigms. He makes the last first, and the first last. His ways are not ours. But He does not always or invariably do these things. Sometimes He does the opposite. Hence, although Christians can have no expectation that there will be a sure correspondence between worldly success and metaphysical “success,” neither can they expect that the two will invariably be at odds. Faced with such a quirky, unpredictable, uncategorizable Providence, it seems that Butterfield did something rather similar to what the analytic philosophers of his day—with whom he had almost nothing else in common—were doing: asserting that, because nothing can be said with clarity and precision about God’s activity in history, nothing should be said at all.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that Butterfield was well aware that for Christians there is some kind of necessary intersection of divine and human history, and he even laid that proposition out twenty years later in Christianity and History. Yet it also has to be said that Christianity and History did little to move beyond generality and thereby show its readers how the Christian scholar might understand and explain specific aspects of that intersection. Instead, the most powerful statements in the book tended to reinforce the ironclad separation of the two realms, rather than encourage their mingling, and to make the Christian view of history something highly individual, even subjective, in character. Approvingly citing Ranke’s statement that “every generation is equidistant from eternity,” Butterfield expanded on the point:

So the purpose of life is not in the far future, nor, as we so often imagine, around the next corner, but the whole of it is here and now, as fully as ever it will be on this planet. It is always a “Now” that is in direct relation to eternity—not a far future; always immediate experience of life that matters in the last resort—not historical constructions based on abridged textbooks or imagined visions of some posterity that is going to be the heir of all the ages. . . . If there is a meaning in history, therefore, it lies not in the systems and organizations that are built over long periods, but in something more essentially human, something in each personality considered for mundane purposes as an end in himself.

Even more powerful, but also perhaps more unsettling, are his concluding words:

I have nothing to say at the finish except that if one wants a permanent rock in life and goes deep enough for it, it is difficult for historical events to shake it. There are times when we can never meet the future with sufficient elasticity of mind, especially if we are locked in the contemporary systems of thought. We can do worse than remember a principle which both gives us a firm Rock and leaves us the maximum elasticity for our minds: the principle: Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted.

In other words, in place of Progress with a capital P, one should embrace the Rock with a capital R—Christ alone, and alone with Christ. Which is perhaps another way of saying that ultimate truth is, finally, outside the reach of historical inquiry.

As I have already intimated, there is a great deal to be said for this formulation as an expression of both the Christian faith and the historian’s vocation. And in today’s environment, many mainstream academics with religious commitments, perhaps even most of them, find that a choice to prescind from premise-mixing inquiries still makes a great deal of professional and personal sense.

But such a stance also has its limitations. It seems to dispense altogether with the incarnational dimension that distinguishes the Christian faith from all others. Presuming to know precisely how God’s will has been active in human history surely does entail a sin of pride; but that is not the only sin of pride to which human flesh is liable. Is it not also, and not less, a sin of pride to believe that one can or should aspire to be completely detached from all reckoning of good and evil, heroism and villainy, love and hate, and the whole range of human passions and attachments, in our consideration of the human past? Is not Butterfield’s beau ideal as presumptuous as Acton’s? Indeed, could one not argue that it is more presumptuous to strive to assume a God’s-eye view of events—to aspire to have the mind of God rather than merely discern God’s intentions? Might that not entail our making a claim to be able to transcend the human, creaturely status for which we were made?

Nor does such detachment give us any help in the larger task with which we seem now to be faced: a civilization that seems in imminent danger of losing its story and that needs the fresh nourishment of foundational self-confidence far more than it needs yet another dose of critical distance. Correctives are necessary but they also are always secondary and derivative; they cannot endure for long without the presence of the thing they are correcting. Butterfield’s insistence that we learn to study the past for the past’s sake remains a commendable and profoundly humane one. I intend to continue assigning the book to my students whenever possible. But I will do so recognizing that it is incomplete and unsustainable on its own, precisely because it asks us to suspend our need for larger sustaining meanings in history, a need that can be held at bay only for so long.

When Butterfield went beyond merely problematizing the relation between progress and history and seemed to rule the question of their connection permanently out of bounds, a knowledge too noumenal for phenomenal beings, he went too far. Such a move risks robbing history of a usefulness for life that is part—if only part—of its reason for being. We need history not merely to refine our critical apparatus but also to orient us and uphold us in our finitude and particularity. For we are creatures and not gods, for whom seeing through a glass darkly is one of life’s unavoidable hazards.

Still, Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation remains essential reading, particularly if we are to recover what progress meant before it became Progress—that is, before it became a false religion with a secular and immanent eschatology. We still need his help in undertaking that task of recovery. But in using him, we also need to read his words with an understanding of the things that they presumed but did not openly state. Because they can no longer be presumed today. Ω

[Wilfred M. McClay is the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities and Professor of History at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He received a B.A. from St. John’s College (MD) and a Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University. McClay was a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2004 - 2010). His book The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (1994) won the 1995 Merle Curti Award of the Organization of American Historians for the best book in American intellectual history published in the years 1993 and 1994.]

Copyright © 2011 The Institute on Religion and Public Life

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

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