Sunday, October 29, 2017

Out Of 44 Other Choices, How Low Can The Comparisons Go?

Zachary Jacobson has taken a lot of the fun out of analogizing the Moron-in-Chief as this villain or that blackguard in our history. No one in his right mind would refer to the Moron as today's Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ultimately, the best that Jacobson can recommend is careful and judicious use of analogies in today's political dialogue. However, in the Moron-in-Chief's case, he sets the bar so low that it is impossible to identify a sufficiently negative analog to link to our national disgrace. If this is (fair & balanced) futility, so be it.

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Trump Is the New ___(Fill the blank)___
By Zachary Jonathan Jacobson

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The coming age is shadowed on the past,
As on a glass.

— Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1821

Every historian worries over presentism — the tendency for contemporary sentiment to distort the study of the past. Some call it projection. In graduate school, it’s teleology, or what the French historian Marc Bloch dubbed "the most unpardonable of sins: anachronism." And so, lightly we tread, tippy-toed, when formulating a historical analogy: the likening of something then to something now.

The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. censured such allusive fare. Analogy rips historical example free of root, context, idiosyncrasy, and counterexample. Such evidence plucked from the past suffers from "confirmation bias," speciously corroborating contemporary-minded hypotheses for the already predisposed. "History by rationalization," Schlesinger damned.

Nonetheless, the historical analogy persists. And for it, Moshik Temkin, an associate professor of history and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, took a great many of his fellow historians to the woodshed. "Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits," Temkin proclaimed in an op-ed in The New York Times. The peddling of historical analogy to understand current events might earn TV spots, but such spotty practice belied the historian’s process. It was "useless," even falsely "reassur[ing]," not just bad scholarship but possibly "dangerous."

As the kind of historian criticized by Temkin and the anti-allusionists, I was taken aback by his harsh column. So charged were Temkin’s charges that mere hours later, in The Atlantic, Julian Zelizer and Morton Keller, historians at Princeton and Brandeis respectively, hit back with "Why (Some) Historians Should Be Pundits," coyly puzzling over the contradiction of Temkin’s "argument about avoiding punditry" appearing on the Times op-ed page.

By some historical coincidence, that same day, The Washington Post unveiled a new section, Made by History. The Post editors promised, "in an era seemingly defined by the word unprecedented," to deliver a steady diet of exactly the kind of historical analysis — "grappling with parallels between the past and present" — that Temkin had just rejected so vociferously. The game, it seemed, was afoot.

In the Age of Trump, historians have let historical analogies loose. Many have been the comparisons: Trump to Andrew Jackson, Trump to James Buchanan, Huey Long, George Wallace, Trump to Richard Nixon (I was one of those historians), to Hugo Ch√°vez, even to Biff Tannen from Back to the Future, and King Aerys II of the House Targaryen — the "Mad King." The more grotesque Trump’s presidency appears, "the more historians are called on to make sense of it, often in 30-second blasts on cable news or in quick-take quotes in a news article," Temkin grimaced.

For centuries, from Thucydides to Livy, Polybius to Edward Gibbon, historians have wielded the analogy as an instrument for inquiry and instruction. As the renowned Yale professor [and long-time English Department chair] A. Dwight Culler described, "virtually every historian of antiquity and the Renaissance" forwarded to some degree the claim that history, at its core, is "philosophy teaching by example." That is, our discipline aims to illuminate issues at hand by scouring for lessons from analogous predicaments in the past. Machiavelli stipulated simply, without condition: "Whoever with diligence examines past events, it is an easy thing to foresee the future in any Republic, and to apply those remedies which had been used by the ancients, or … to think of new ones from the similarity of events."

There was, of course, a countertradition of skeptics and contrarians. Centuries after Machiavelli, Nietzsche warned, "Monumental history deceives through its analogies." In the late 18th and early 19th century, not in little part fueled by the fractious age of the French Revolution, the likes of Goethe and Herder emphasized change, not parallels, over time. Hegel and later Karl Marx stressed the crash of dialectics, creative destruction. And upheaval born from Charles Darwin’s determinations pushed historians further and further toward rupture and transformation over historical continuity and the backward-looking analogy.

But analogies persist — and they can prove potent. Drawn from a shared past, they can serve as rhetorical weapons: Don’t favor a war? It’s the next Vietnam! Abhor your compatriots’ military forbearance? Brand their hesitation a Munich moment! Don’t like the president? He’s a Tricky Dick. This matchy-matchy juvenilia may score quick points and spawn memes, but flimsy historical analogy can blind the historian from the grail he truly seeks. As the Viscount James Bryce, the one-time British ambassador to the United States, tut-tutted in his classic 1888 tract The American Commonwealth,"the chief practical use of history is to deliver us from plausible historical analogies."

What Temkin and other critics really target is not so much historical analogy as an epidemic of bad ones. Temkin winces at the "rapid-fire, superficial" takes in the mass media. Once in front of the camera, leaning back pensively in their studio chairs, historian-heavyweights trade in their sweeping, exhaustive, and often beautiful scholarship for trivia-minded TV punditry. They hawk banality. Quizzed by anchors, boxed into panels, these academics have become cable contestants in a game of History-wood Squares.

"Sure, there are similarities," Temkin wrote of Trump and Long. Like Trump, the Kingfish "ran in the name of the ‘people,’ attacked the establishment." Both their opponents branded them "demagogues" and "fascists." But Temkin ably rehashes their fundamental dissimilarities: "Long was self-made, a genuine populist who took on powerful interests, and as governor was responsible for building roads, bridges, and hospitals and helping the poor." Trump may dream out loud of massive infrastructure projects, but he has yet to exhibit any of the skill and ingenuity to follow through with them.

And yet just because a historical analogy is flawed or even misleading does not make the exercise in historical comparison, in Temkin’s word, "meaningless." For we compare to discover similarities, and we compare to dredge up differences. By studying the political minutiae, social and economic structures, and cultural milieu that made Long’s projects work, we may be able to tease out the differences for what today makes Trump falter. From another angle, one possibly fruitful question from the Trump-Long analogy: However different, why did these two anti-elitist populists both become ensnared in allegations of profligate corruption?

When surrounded by a cavalcade of Trump-Nixon comparisons, the answer is not, as Temkin demands, to stand athwart historians, yelling "Stop," but to ask why, how so, and are we there yet? And as one Trump simile slips to another, as comparison after comparison lines up and then misfits, clanks, it is there we find the very peculiarity demanding study. The slipperiness of our subject is the historical question at hand. Why does our president appear so singular and yet so familiar? Like him and like him and like him … but not … no, not exactly …

In assailing today’s purported presentists, Temkin holds up the work of the historian C. Vann Woodward, the √©minence grise of postbellum Southern history. Temkin contends that Woodward "did not seek analogies from the past," that he wrote a purer history, untainted by presentist fetor. Woodward’s was model scholarship that, if emulated, could help rescue today’s faltering field of ersatz equivalence.

It’s an odd selection. For in his day, Woodward was accused often of being a "presentist." In a 1981 piece in The New York Times Book Review, the Johns Hopkins historian Kenneth Lynn characterized Woodward’s work on Southern history as "distinguished but rather too anxiously liberal." Too often, Lynn found, Woodward depicted anachronistically "forward-looking citizens," "militant feminist[s]" and aberrants with "prophetic qualities." Far from removing himself from the exigencies of his time, Woodward took aim at his contemporaries, unflinchingly, calling for "Southern historians [to] purge … their minds of rancor and awaken … out of [their] narrow parochialism."

Indeed, few historians’ oeuvres have had such impact on contemporary debate in the last half-century. In his much-celebrated The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), Woodward located "Jim Crow" laws — the systemic codification of racial segregation in the South — as dating back only to the 1890s, three decades after the Civil War. It was a rejoinder to those Southern white supremacists calling for a separation of the races as a matter of "immutable ‘folkways’ of the South," a God-given order lasting time immemorial. "The effort to justify [racial segregation and disenfranchisement] as a consequence of Reconstruction and a necessity of the times," Woodward argued, "is embarrassed by the fact that they did not originate in those times. And the belief that they are immutable and unchangeable is not supported by history."

Woodward had helped prepare a 1953 brief for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People challenging segregation. A year later, the Supreme Court ruled against racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. But the court’s mandate for enforcement of desegregation — "with all deliberate speed" — proved vague and unhelpful. Implementation sputtered. The battles over desegregation’s execution raged. Woodward’s research served as validation for the still-controversial decision that ruled segregation not as divinely sanctioned or "natural" but, instead, as a social particularity that was contingent on and limited by historical force, decision, and accident.

In Strange Career, Woodward advocated the employment of history, in all its discontinuity, for the comprehension of the present. And lest his already explicit historical analogy be overlooked, Woodward chose to refer to the years after the Civil War as the "Old Reconstruction" while designating the current years of difficult desegregation post-Brown as the "New Reconstruction." In a 1956 essay in Commentary, he urged readers "to assess the Court decision of 1954 in the perspective of history," to compare the failures of Old Reconstruction to the hesitant possibilities of a New Reconstruction.

Martin Luther King Jr. dubbed Strange Career "the historical bible of the civil rights movement," that is, a living text of not just stories but parables, lessons from the past for present consumption. In 1958 Woodward was recalled to Washington to give expert testimony on the erupting crises over school desegregation. It was then that Woodward’s then-graduate student and now-professor emeritus at Princeton University, James M. McPherson, for the first time "thought about looking at an event in the American past that had that kind of direct relationship to the present." So impressed was he, McPherson added, that he wound up doing his doctoral dissertation on "the act of abolishing slavery" — or, as he called it, "the first civil rights act."

"We teach our students to be wary of analogies," Temkin observes. And yet we do so not because analogies are inherently useless but because we teach our students to be wary in general: of analogies, of stereotypes, of exceptionalism, of the forest, of the trees, of overidentification with one’s subject, of callous disregard.

We use the past to understand the present (and vice versa). The analogy is not only of importance but inescapable in the analytic process. As [Marc] Bloch charged, "No period and no topic can be understood except in relation to other periods or topics." John Lewis Gaddis, the dean of Cold War history, concurred: "We’re bound to learn from the past whether or not we make the effort, since it’s the only data base we have." The much-esteemed scholarly pair of Richard Neustadt and Ernest May upheld that historical analogizing was unavoidable, especially for decision makers. So, the scholars concluded, their aims were "akin to those of junior high school sex education. Since [decision makers] are bound to do what we talk about, later if not sooner, they ought to profit from a bit of forethought about ways and means."

The historical method is a dialectic of continuity and change, analogy and disruption. A one-dimensional rejection of historical analogy would be — to borrow a contemporary simile — like urging computer programmers to pepper their source code with 0s but steer clear of 1s. Analogy is necessary, even inevitable. And so we remain vigilant and evaluate our presentist biases best we can, bending back the warp of our lenses. For as Richard Fontaine and Vance Serchuk of the Center for a New American Security, mused, "It seems that those who remember history are condemned to invoke it." # # #

[Zachary Jonathan Jacobson is a freelance writer in Cambridge, MA. His articles have appeared in numerous publications including USA Today, The New Republic and The Chronicle of Higher Education as well as scholarly journals. Jacobson received a BA with distinction (English language and literature) from Yale University (CT) and a PhD (history) from Northwestern University (IL).]

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