Showing posts with label Communism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Communism. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Am I an Islamic Extremist?

Ben Shapiro uses a collection of polled responses to questions by Muslims to offer hard numbers on the percentage of Muslims, who are extremists. While I do see radical Islam as a major threat and, for example, am willing to support the Dresden style bombing of Gaza and the invasion of Saudi Arabia to remove the house of Saud, Shapiro harms his case by using a standard for extremism that is ridiculously elastic.

Consider some of the questions posed: Can terrorism, honor killings or attacks on civilians ever be justified? Do you wish Sharia be the law of your country? If you answer yes to any of these questions, you are an extremist. By this standard, I am an extremist. Ben Shapiro and most of you are also likely extremists. Notice the key word "ever." Any person with minimal training in philosophy should easily be able to construct a hypothetical scenario in which just about anything would be justified. For example, as a matter of general policy I would consider myself an opponent of slavery. That being said, I can easily imagine scenarios involving rescuing people from concentration camps in which slavery could be justified. For that matter, I am willing to defend the right of consenting adults to enter into slave contracts. Obviously, these cases do not apply to the vast majority of real slaves, who have lived throughout history. Thus, I certainly do not support any actual slave systems. Actual slaves were victims of injustice. That being said, I have been accused of being an advocate of slavery when I have tried to point out these important nuances. Do I support honor killings? Praised be the husband and father, who hacks his wife and daughter to pieces upon finding out that they are traitors to liberty, plotting to bring Communist or Nazi governments to power. Do I support terrorist attacks on civilians? Communism and Nazism are ideologies that reject the social contract distinction between military and civilian. Thus, an intellectually honest opponent must be willing to subject even civilian supporters of these ideologies to total Hobbesian warfare. Do I support Sharia? I perfectly understand how decent Muslims would wish to live under their religion and dream about a day when all of their countrymen freely agree to the same. Note that the question said nothing about the use of violence to impose that law upon others. I wish to live under halakha and hope that one day the United States will allow me to secede and form my own "Jewish State."

There are much better questions that could have been asked to see if someone is an Islamic extremist. In this day and age, do you support carrying out attacks against civilians on American soil? Would you agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish State and make peace with it, if it allowed Palestinians to form their own state and offered compensation to refugees? Do you support the death penalty, as practical and not just symbolic law, to be used against converts from Islam? I assume that the number of Muslims, who would answer yes to these questions will be frightening. Furthermore, I recognize that there are specific Islamic groups that should be placed in the same category as Communism and Nazism with the same bloody implications. That being said, this is a threat that is simply to important to exaggerate.   

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Religious Narrative: Medieval Catholicism, Communism and Islam

One of the surprises of the modern world has been the continued persistence of organized religion. Despite several centuries of Enlightenment criticism, religion remains a powerful force within society. Certainly within the United States the vast majority of the population subscribes at least formally to some religion. I would argue that much of this is the result of the inability of secularism to present overarching narratives. Make whatever criticism you want about religions, they tend to be quite good at formulating narratives that allow people to make sense of their lives and all the various parts of their universe. This is important not just for regular people living their social lives, but for intellectuals and in a sense especially for them; it is the people who live in the realm of ideas who need things to click together in a larger whole.

I will start by giving an example from what may be the most intellectually successful religious narrative in history, medieval Catholicism. Take the view of a Catholic living in say 1491; he benefited from living in a world that made sense in ways that we can hardly relate to. In this medieval world we have Aristotle to explain the natural world. This Aristotelian universe, with its prime mover and essences and accidents, fits neatly with Church teaching, solving the conflict between faith and reason. This system also has political implications. We are in a hierarchical universe were everything from plants, animals and people up to the planets, angels and God have their place in a natural order. Therefore it is only reasonable that human affairs should mirror this reality with a king, nobles, the Church, peasants, men and women each having their place. How does one explain and give meaning to suffering, whether the threat of Islam, schisms in the Church, war, political chaos or simply having to bury a wife and child? Mankind fell to Original Sin, giving Satan power over the Earth. That being said there is reason to hope; Christ died for our sins so we can go to heaven. If the world looks like it is falling apart we can still look forward to the imminent coming of the apocalypse and the final judgement.

Say what you want about this medieval Catholicism; call it unscientific, anti-democracy, sexist and anti-Semitic. Yes, over the next few centuries, this worldview was rocked by numerous intellectual, and political shifts so that, even if there are still Catholics today, that particular creature the medieval Catholic is now extinct. All this may be true, but medieval Catholicism was an internally consistent system and fit well into the known facts of the world at that time. I would add that this system also proved quite attractive to Jews, particularly those in Spain. (Here is a dirty little secret about pre-modern Judaism. The majority of people who left did so freely out of a desire to assimilate and not due to force or persecution.)    

In the history of modern secularism there has been only one movement to produce a narrative that could compete with organized religion and that was Communism. Try to look at the world, this time from the perspective of a Russian Jew in 1891. Traditional Judaism does not have much to offer, but to be poor, get killed in a pogrom and wait for the Messiah. Now here is Communism. It may not offer a personal God and an afterlife, but instead it offers the forces of history to guide us and promise us a better world. Faith versus reason? Science has refuted religion, but Communism is the logical extension of evolution applied to human affairs. How should we order our political and social systems? Communism replaces superstition and religious dogma with scientific rationalism, allowing us to create a just system where everyone is equal. How do you explain and offer meaning to human suffering? The problems of this world are the products by the class oppression by the aristocracy and bourgeois. This, though, simply serves to highlight the iniquities of the present systems and hasten imminent coming of the people's revolution which will create a paradise on Earth in which everyone will work together for the common good and there will be no prejudice nor anti-Semitism.

Again one can make all sorts of intellectual arguments against this Communist worldview. Ultimately it was undone by the Soviet Union itself, whose blood soaked history is a better refutation of Communism than anything else. This should not obscure the power of the Communist narrative in its time. Say what you want about Karl Marx, but he has to be viewed as one of the greatest thinkers of all time simply in terms of his ability to craft a system of thought that allows you to discuss not just politics, but history, art and science as one coherent whole. We in the United States fail to appreciate the Communist appeal largely because it failed to ever gain much traction here, but the Communists nearly did win. Forget about the Cold War, after World War I and in the wake the Russian Revolution Communists, without question, had both the intellectual and moral high ground. With that they nearly took the entire European continent without a single shot being fired. As for Jews, they walked away from traditional Judaism in mass to follow this Communist dream. (See Clarissa for a further discussion about the religious dimensions of Communism.)

Where does this leave our modern world? Try seeing things from the view of an Arab in 1991. Communism, which was a tremendous secularizing force in the Arab, has come crashing down with the fall of the Soviet Union so now what? Well there is Islam, not the watered down variety, but a "purified" form from its original source in Saudi Arabia. What is wrong with the world and how do we fix it? The West has dominated us politically, first through direct imperialism and later through the dictators they support and corrupted us culturally through secularism. Only Islam can unite the Arab peoples so they can take back what is rightfully theirs. As for science, we Arabs invented science before it was stolen from us by the West.

This narrative may lack the comprehensive elegance of either medieval Catholicism or nineteenth century Communism, but for those with no better narrative options this will likely do. I cannot say that fundamentalist Islam will likely prove a spiritual threat to Judaism, but as a physical threat it certainly is a match to either of the other narratives.         

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Ayn Rand as Inverse Marxism

Over on Newsweek, Jonathan Chait attacks Rep. Paul Ryan for "waging war on the weak" with his budget plan and for his allegiance to the philosophy of Ayn Rand. As Chait summerizes Rand:

[She] was a kind of politicized L. Ron Hubbard—a novelist-philosopher who inspired a cult of acolytes who deem her the greatest human being who ever lived. The enduring heart of Rand’s totalistic philosophy was Marxism flipped upside down. Rand viewed the capitalists, not the workers, as the producers of all wealth, and the workers, not the capitalists, as useless parasites.

John Galt, the protagonist of her iconic novel Atlas Shrugged, expressed Rand’s inverted Marxism: “The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.”

The misinterpretation of Rand here is astonishing. I bring it up less out of desire to defend Rand, but as an example of the unfair treatment liberals usually hand libertarians, throwing out nonsensical arguments designed to ignore the very real objections that libertarians have in reverse.

Workers are not the villains in Rand's novels. Those tend to be politicians, union bosses, public intellectuals and "capitalists," who desire government handouts. In fact, for Rand, there is no worker vs. capitalist conflict in the first place. The conflict is between people who produce, whether the janitor sweeping the floor for dollars an hour or the visionary businessman with his millions, and those who do not produce and feel their lack of actual production gives them some sort of moral right to take from the producers in the name of some "public good." Finally this entire comparison with Marx ignores the very simple fact that Rand's entire philosophy was built around the rejection of violence and coercion as opposed to Marx who was an apostle of violent revolution and coercive State action. This is not hair splitting when you consider the fact that the Marxist support for violence directly led to Communist governments killing millions of their own people. Until someone can come up with a plausible scenario in which an Objectivist government could plot the deaths of millions of people, any comparison of Rand and Marx must be rendered libel.

Chait's attacks on Rand demonstrate a number of liberal blind spots, allowing him to stand in judgement on the morals of libertarians while at the same not being able to even understand how a libertarian might see him as morally objectionable. Chait is clearly unable to think outside of the framework of class conflict. If someone is pro capitalism then they must be anti-worker. The very possibility that someone might think that Chait is the villian for not even producing useful ideas and attempting to take other people's money is never raised. This leads us to the biggest liberal moral blind spot. Chait is incapable of conceiving that someone could morally object to government taking money and see it as a form of coercion.

I may have my objections to Ayn Rand's moral philosophy, particularly as she applied it to her own life, but she did not support violence or attempt to coerce money from others. This alone made her far more moral than any liberal on the planet (or conservative for that matter), who allows the government to coercively take money from people.        

Friday, December 31, 2010

In Support of Public Schools Teaching Intelligent Design and Other Nonsense III

Baruch Pelta, in his second post, gets nasty, accusing me of putting up a "destabilizing lie meant to pull emotional strings." Yes I have the nerve to compare his mode of dealing with opponents to that of Haredim in that, while intellectually he may understand that people disagree with him, at a psychological level he fails to internalize this. This gets him stuck on the fact that he is "objectively" correct. (Note that I did not accuse him of being a Nazi, which is what I would have done if I were trying to simply score polemical points.) One should not think ill of Baruch; this is a problem that afflicts most people. Being a true liberal, one who respects all beliefs and refuses to use any physically coercive measures, even against those he disagrees with, to force people to go against those beliefs, requires years of disciplined critical thinking. It is something I still strive to work on in myself.

A useful exercise is to think in terms of x and y instead of actual ideas. X and y are both ideas held by people living in society. In order to get x and y supporters to not force their beliefs on the other they need to be promised that the other side, in turn, will not try to force their beliefs on them. Now x might be evolution and y creationism, but that is irrelevant in face of the more abstract x and y social contract model we agree to serve. Thinking in abstract terms allows you to get around the psychological hang ups we all have about the beliefs that seem to us to be obviously true.

Working as an intellectual historian also helps. For example I have been spending much of my time these few months trying to understand Sabbatianism. It is not my place to judge those who believed that Sabbatai Sevi was the Messiah. If it seems absurd to me then I have to work all the harder as seeing Sabbatai as they might have and put myself in a frame of mind in which accepting Sabbatai as the Messiah can become reasonable. This is done by immersing oneself in the words of Sabbatians themselves and their worldview.

In terms of actual arguments, Baruch challenges my larger definition of religion, pointing out that the Constitution specifically refers to religion and not to ideas in general. Fair enough, but I would point out that in the eighteenth century the only examples of large scale organized ideological groups, the kind that might have the power to overthrow the government in hopes of being able to force their beliefs on others were religions. Keep in mind that the main "religious" concern of the Founding Fathers was to not have Catholics and Protestants repeating Europe's religion wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on American soil. I assume that they would have adjusted their terms if they were writing only several decades later and saw the communist party. At the end of the day it does not make sense to have one set of rules for the Catholic Church and another for the communist party. Baruch, are you suggesting that the beliefs of communists are outside of the first amendment? Richard Dawkins, of all people, has essentially made my argument that religion should not be treated any differently from any other belief. I agree with Dawkins that being a Quaker should not offer you special conscientious objector status not available to people who are pacifists on simple intellectual grounds.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori

In my conversation with Dr. David Friedman, the main point I have been stressing is that part of what allows government to function is that it is perceived as having inherent authority. I can choose on a casual whim to be a consumer of Nike or Reebok sneakers. I do not sit around thinking whether or not I feel like submitting to the authority of the United States government. In this spirit I thought it worthwhile to share with you a quote from Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.

Dying for one's country, which usually one does not choose, assumes a moral grandeur which dying for the Labour Party, the American Medical Association, or perhaps even Amnesty International cannot rival, for these are all bodies one can join or leave at easy will. Dying for the revolution also draws its grandeur from the degree to which it is felt to be something pure. (If people imagined the proletariat merely as a group in hot pursuit of refrigerators, holidays, or power, how far would they, including members of the proletariat, be willing to die for it?) Ironically enough, it may be that to the extent that Marxist interpretations of history are felt (rather than intellected) as representations of ineluctable necessity, they also acquire an aura of purity and disinterestedness. (Pg. 144.)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Rev. James Lawson and the True Meaning of Pacifism

During the Korean War, Rev. James Lawson, a future Civil Rights leader, went to prison as a "conscientious objector" rather than serve. As someone involved in the clergy, he could have protected himself, but instead chose not to, in of itself an act of protest. He argued, and in this I agree with him, that it was wrong to exempt clergymen or those studying for the job from the draft and that it was simply a means to buy off established religions by protecting their people. I certainly admire much of what Rev. Lawson would later do for the Civil Rights movement and, in practice, support non-violent tactics when dealing with private individuals protesting social and government ills. That being said we need to consider the true meaning of pacifism as a consistent ideology when practiced by the likes of Rev. Lawson.

First off, let us consider the very act of being a "conscientious objector" to the Korean War. Rev. Lawson took it upon himself to stand in the way of the United States government's efforts to protect South Korea from being overrun by the forces of Communist North Korea and China. If Rev. Lawson would have had his way with the United States government, South Korea would not be one of the leading technological innovators in the world today as well as a source for millions of new converts to various denominations of Christianity; he would have sentenced millions of people in South Korea to, like those in North Korea, starve to death in the world's largest maximum security prison. Who knows to what extent people like Rev. Lawson bear a share of the blame for the millions of people still sentenced today to a living death in North Korea. (I do not know how someone sleeps with that on their conscious.) More importantly, by opposing a relatively justifiable war, out of an innate opposition to all war, Rev. Lawson had backed out of his covenantal obligations as a citizen. He grew up accepting the benefits of the United States government, a war making institution, but refused to follow through on his obligations when this war making institution followed through with its foundational purpose and went to war. (Obviously, as a black man living in segregationist America, Rev. Lawson did not enjoy the full rights he deserved. As such it would have been justifiable for him to not serve until the United States lived up to its obligations to him and all blacks.) Rev. Lawson was not just expressing his opinion or even practicing civil disobedience against a law he found unjust. He was not just objecting to our involvement in Korea. He was challenging the very legitimacy of the United States government. What are governments if not an institution authorized to use violence? As such, Rev. Lawson was guilty of a passive, relatively harmless, but still quite real form of treason. I would not go so far as to have him executed, but it was certainly reasonable for him to do hard time in prison.

While in prison, Rev. Lawson found himself threatened by the inmates and faced with the prospect of being raped. Realizing that he was not even safe in his own cell, he prepared to defend himself with a chair. This put him in a dilemma; how could he, someone who went to prison in order to avoid engaging in violence, justify using violence even to save himself from being raped.

It was at that point Lawson had one of his numinous experiences. It was as if he heard a voice explaining everything to him. Everything which had been so difficult suddenly became clear. The voice told him that he was not there of his own volition or because he had done something wrong. He had not sinned; if anything he was he was there because he had been sinned against. The voice explained his dilemma to him. "If something terrible happens to you, it's not you causing it, and what happens is not your fault. What happens would be outside your control. You are responsible for only one thing – above all you must not violate your own conscience. If something terrible happens it is because of them, not because of you. It is not about personal choice. That makes it one more thing you have to endure in order to be true to Him. It is part of the test He set out for you." When Jim Lawson heard that voice, his fear fell from him. He would not resort to physical violence to protect himself. He would endure. He prepared himself for the worst. (David Halberstam, The Children pg. 46-47.)

In the end nothing happened to Rev. Lawson. It is believed that one the prisoners he befriended put the word out that Lawson was not to be touched.

One wonders what advise Rev. Lawson would have given if it had been his daughter threatened with rape. "Daughter, do not fight these men, not even with a can of mace. When these men corner you and you have nowhere to run, just submit to them and let them do what they will." Maybe Rev. Lawson could stand by his daughter's side while this is going on and read her the passages in Augustine's City of God where he argues that it is not an evil for a woman to be raped; as long as she is unwilling her soul remains undefiled and, as such it is irrelevant what happens to the body.

Loving your neighbor as you love yourself means that in order to love other people you have to start by loving yourself. As a child of God and a creature of reason, you have value. As such you are obligated to protect yourself even if it means turning to violence. Once you are obligated to value yourself, you are also obligated to value and protect every innocent person even if it means turning to violence.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Their OTDs Were Better Than Our OTDs: Rabbi Dovid Schwartz Responds

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz offers a response to Michael Makovi:

As I indicated, what most troubled me about your letter was that while it was quick to defend the secular Zionists and such (which is remarkable - I do sincerely thank you), nevertheless, it was quick to condemn the contemporary OTDs and such.

I beg your pardon.  I did not "condemn" anyone.  But as politically incorrect as this may be neither do I shy away from being judgmental.  The Torah enjoins us to judge favorably, not to suspend judgment entirely.  What I wrote, and what I believe, is that not only was the religiosity of the observant Jews of the interbellum period superior to the religiosity of contemporary Jews but that the IRRELIGIOSITY of the NON-observant Jews of the interbellum period was "superior" to the irreligiosity of their contemporary counterparts.  On a absolute dispassionate, non-empathic level any Jew with Torah -fidelity ought to "condemn" Torah infidels as we presume that a just and compassionate G-d does not visit insurmountable nisyonos on anyone.  A tough test is a compliment from G-d.  But I am neither dispassionate, without empathy nor "holier-than-thou".  I stand in awe of the BTs I work with and who have done a remarkably better job of the hand that HaShem dealt them than I have with done with the one that He dealt me. 

Nor do I presume that I would have stayed "on the derech" if confronted with the tests of interbellum irreligious (Please re-read the letter.  This is its denouement) or even with molestation or some of the severer tests that confronts contemporary OTDs.  I was merely voicing a Tom Brokaw-like opinion about what I consider to be the "Greatest [Jewish] Generation". In comparing, on a pan-societal level, yesteryears irreligious with today's OTDs I voted in favor of the former.  Does this equate to a "condemnation" of the latter?  Not IMO.  I'd ask you to be slower to judgment in your condemning me for imagined condemnations.

You admit the "broken school system", and you admit that the school systems are unable to impart true religiosity unless they include 8+ years of kollel. Shouldn't this set off alarms in your head? Perhaps the OTDs are responding to these failures of the school system?

No doubt many are. Others are responding to lousy parenting, sibling rivalries or a myriad of other "failures". Those alarms were set off in my head long ago or I could never have written what I wrote... least of all to the editor if the Yated. I am all for Yeshiva and Bais Yaakov school reform but people of good conscience can agree to disagree on what reforms are needed and how best to implement them.  I am not for throwing out the baby with the bathwater and a total revamping of the system from the ground up.  For our time and place there is much that IS good and holy in the current educational system.

Again, on a case by case personal level I was not blaming any particular OTD for their jettisoning of Torah-study and observance.  Nor am I ready to make any case by case condemnations of particular schools, teachers and/or parents. A myriad of factors result in pushing youngsters OTD some from the realm of yedeeyah and others from the realm of bekheera.  That said,  on a generational,  pan-societal level I opine that the (failed) tests that conspired to push the 1920-30s Bundist OTD were more daunting than those that pushed and continue to push the 1990s- 2010 Yeshiva or Bais Yaakov dropout OTD.  Especially in instances when abuse and molestation are absent. I am neither statistician nor (professional) sociologist.  And while it may be true that 75% or more of abused/ molested students go OTD I'm not convinced that 75% of those OTD did so because they were abused and/or molested.  A system that demands too much of some, too little of others has too few extra-curriculars and invariably tries jamming square pegs into round holes is a helluva rough row to hoe.  But again IMO it hardly compares with dealing with grinding poverty, genocidal anti-Semitism, educational and professional state-sanctioned apartheid and discrimination and come-hither sweeping intellectual ferment movements and parties which were the testes of the interbellum OTDs.

I know more about the Modern Orthodox community than the Haredi one, so it is difficult for me to speak of the Haredi one except as an outsider looking in, but what I see, from where I stand, is that the Haredi community forces an outdated and obsolete worldview on its students.

Talk about sweeping self-congratulatory condemnations!  For now I have lost my ta'am in further responses.  As a product of that community and its School Systems I fear that anything else that I write will be greeted with the dismissive contempt reserved for those who are out-of-touch and mired in a medieval mentality.  Explain to me why further responses will NOT be utter exercises in futility?


Friday, January 1, 2010

Articles of Interest (AJS, Georgia, Conversos, Brooks, Catholic Anglicans, Female Male Novelists)

I was not able to attend the recent AJS conference in Los Angeles. Thankfully Menachem Mendel and Drew Kaplan both posted on it. A pity we could not get something more extensive. This just goes to show that someone needs to fly me out to the next conference so I can blog on it properly.

My uncle, Rabbi Dovid Landesman, has Georgia on his mind over at Cross Currents as he talks about his recent trip to the Former Soviet Union and meeting Jews who have returned to Judaism after seventy years of Communism.

The Jews of the Former Soviet Union may be the modern day conversos, but Sandee Brawarsky gets to meet up with some modern old time conversos from Mallorca Spain, returning to Judaism after five hundred years.

For plain old converts to Judaism, Jennifer Medina writes in the New York Times about converts to Judaism and Christmas. The article features Aliza Hausman of Jewminicana, who criticizes the article for its mistakes.

David Brooks once again offers a principled conservative defense of the Obama administration, this time on their failure to foresee the recent attempted terrorist attack. To expect the government to be able to stop all terrorist attacks means that we have to invest more and more in expanding government programs. Conservatives who believe that government is imperfect, and should be limited, need to be careful what they say about this administration.

George Will discusses the recent offer by the Catholic Church to allow Anglicans to join while maintaining their particular traditions. Back in Elizabethan England you could still be Catholic as long as you did not attend a Catholic mass and recognized Queen Elizabeth I as the head of the Church of England. So now can you be an Anglican Catholic who holds on to the old traditions of believing that the Pope is the anti-Christ, trying to destroy the true English Church, the right to burn papist "spies" (Jesuits) and celebrate the Oxford martyrs?

Julianna Baggott advises women who wish to succeed as novelists to be men or at least write like them. Good thing I am a man writing about an eleven year old man with guns, blood, medieval surgery and Talmudic dialectics to boot.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Unpolemical Narratives

RVA responded to my previous post with a long comment that I believe deserves a posting in its own right:

I find both of your following contentions persuasive, that – a) History should be taught from an unpolemical stance and that we should try to understand historical events from the perspectives, rationales, and narratives which individuals in that era would view the world; and b) that we inevitably transform history into a narrative with identifiable heroes and villains.

I find attractive your theory that history should be taught from an unpolemical perspective (inasmuch as possible) because we need to equip children with analytical and critical thinking skills, rather than imposing values upon them (i.e. capitalism is good and inevitable, democracy is without flaws, etc.). Values are which are 'learned' and 'understood' are much more powerful, durable, and influential than those which are imposed upon us. It is essential that we teach our youth the ability to understand both sides of an argument, rather than pushing them to become ideologues who lack the ability and skills to analyze the effects and implications of their beliefs. It is better to teach children why communism/Nazism/fascism is attractive, and then have them internalize that perspective, which will allow them to understand why Germany voted in the Nazis, or why Lenin became a Marxist; because it will then allow students to learn the lesson that ideologies which may be attractive in theory may turn out to be dangerous in practice, or that good ideas which gain popular traction can become corrupted and perverted by leaders who succumb to the temptations of power. We often try to "otherize" the Nazis and Communists; but instead we should seek to understand that they were human and that their decisions were driven by human instincts; rather than dehumanize them, we should try to understand what aspects of human nature led to their misguided decisions and results, which can only be done by internalizing their perspectives, so that we can learn and comprehend the lessons to be learned from the history of the 20th century. Students who lack the skills to internalize the perspectives from past historical eras will be more prone to be misguided by demagogues and ideologues because they will lack the tools and skills to withstand the imposition of social and political narratives which they encounter.

I am also very intrigued by your theory that history is often turned into a narrative with identifiable with heroes and villains. I would go further and speculate that humans have an intrinsic need, desire, and addiction for narratives; that our species inevitably tries to make sense of all external stimuli, and that our common vehicle of understanding an incomprehensible universe is to turn empirical reality into narratives, into stories which cater to our desire for a) intrigue, b) triumph of good, c) finality & resolution, and d) meaning to our existence.

In this sense, the two doctrines are in conflict: First, that we should unpolemicize history; Second, that humans inevitability tend to "narrativize" history to fit our cultural and societal values. You write, "We wish to find that hero who took on the forces of darkness and forever changed the world for the better. We want it so badly that we will write him into history, running over any inconvenient facts in the process." This seems persuasive. But given that premise, I must ask you whether it is really possible for historians to write histories which are unpolemical? Even if historians are capable of writing unpolemical histories, will they have enough traction to become persuasive to other historians, or even to the general public? Does the structure and composition of History departments at American universities allow the writing of unpolemical histories? Is it possible to teach a course which doesn't implicitly assign valuations to historical events or historical figures? Is it inevitable that historians "narrativize" history? Are there societal benefits to the polemical teaching of history which outweigh an unpolemical approach? Are there benefits to making history into a narrative?

I could not have said this better myself. As historians, when we try to explain why Nazism and Communism may have been attractive to reasonable, rational and moral people we are not defending Nazism and Communism. Quite the contrary, we are trying to stop these ideologies from ever reentering the world stage. If all I understand about Nazism was that it was intolerant than I will not be able to recognize it when it comes to tempt me in real life with its offer of national unity, pride, order and the advancement of civilization. I would also point out that this applies to religion. Religious groups often make the mistake of thinking that they can shut their children away from the outside world and create straw-man images. This works up until the moment that the child comes in contact with the real outside world and realizes that his parents and teachers have misled him. In my experience there is not a more powerful way to convince a person to abandon his previous beliefs than to allow him to realize that the authority structure which he has followed has been less than honest with him even about some small issue. If my parents and teachers will lie to me about one thing what else might they have lied to me about?

As to the issue of the importance of writing non-polemical history and our need to write narrative, yes there is a conflict. We are fighting against a deeply rooted part of our nature. To make matter all the worse, we are up against the desires of a society that does not have historical interests at heart. Textbooks are passed through committees made up of non-historians who wish to use history to lobby for their own group interest. It is for this reason that I refuse to teach out of a formal textbook. Writing non-polemical history is not going to be easily accomplished if at all. This is one of the reasons why we need professional historians, who have spent years immersing themselves not just in historical documents, but in historical reasoning as well. Some gentlemen scholar writing history in his spare time as a hobby is just not going to cut it; it will get us Gibbon.

 I do believe that it is at least theoretically possible to transcend our human biases and write non-polemical history. The first thing is that history is about a method and not a narrative. As long as we are simply using the historical method to analyze texts we get around the issue of narrative and do not have to worry about bias and polemics. The second thing is that when we do eventually come to write narrative, which we must in the end, we can avoid the standard narratives. Instead of talking about conflicts with heroes and villains we can talk about evolving processes that have arisen between contesting sides. In this, Hegel was onto something, though I would not accept his attempt to enforce meta-narratives over all of history. Even if the two sides may never have been able to reconcile in life, the historian understands both sides and therefore makes a sort of peace between them.

If you are interested in the topic of historical narratives I would recommend you read Hayden White's Metahistory.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

My Problem with Terry Eagleton

One of the newest entries into the debate over the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins is Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Eagleton is on the “God” side of this debate and his book is an attack on Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, dubbed by Eagleton as Ditchkins, in particular. Considering the highly polemical nature of this debate Eagleton has certainly received many supportive and hostile reviews. Two very useful examples of this are Stanley Fish in support and PZ Myers in opposition. Fish's glowing review of Eagleton is particularly interesting as Eagleton takes a swipe at him twice in this very book. I find the book to be well written and at times, when defending the beauty of faith, Eagleton comes almost to the level of C. S. Lewis. I must, in the end though, side with Myers in opposing this book, even if it is for very different reasons.

While most of the attention regarding Eagleton has been about the reason and faith parts of the book, Eagleton’s real focus is on revolution. For Eagleton, as unapologetic Marxist, revolution here means the defeat of global Capitalism. Dawkins and the New Atheist movement like the religious fundamentalists, they love to mock, are products of late Capitalism and its failure of values. The solution for Eagleton lies in abandoning the simple economic calculus of Capitalism and embracing Marxism. It is Marxism that offers the necessary grounding in values to stand against economic inequality and imperialism.

Despite my opposition to Communism, I actually enjoyed this part of the book as well. I see no problem in reconciling religion in general and Christianity in particular with Marxism. Any person of faith who can reconcile his faith with evolution should have little difficulty making his peace with Marxism. I can even admire Eagleton for his subversiveness in wrapping a Marxist polemic between the cover of a theist book. Ordinary passive believers looking for confirmation in their faith are going to be in for a rude surprise. I find his case for Marxism remarkably eloquent and persuasive after a fashion. One of the beauties of being a free-marketer is that I am able absorb the strong points of every other economic ideology. For example, yes I have a problem with CEOs making millions while ordinary workers struggle to get by. I think companies would, in general, be far better off being run by their workers and for their workers. The free-market offers the opportunity for such a proletarian takeover without a drop of blood being shed. (The fact that our government has stepped in to bail out corporate America from a financial mess of their own creation offends me as much as the most ardent Marxist.)

My problem with Eagleton is that his hostility toward Capitalism leads him into an anti-West rant where he blames the United States in particular for pretty much all of the problems in the Third World. Eagleton dances around the issue but in the end, for all intents and purposes, he blames September 11 on the United States since, from his perspective, the United States created the problem of Islamic terrorism. Eagleton may be a bit more subtle than Ward Churchill but that just makes him all the more dangerous. Eagleton is smart enough to know that his case cannot stand critical scrutiny yet continues to try implying it on the sly.

As with many on the radical left, Eagleton’s anti-West sentiments quickly lead him to attacking Israel as the fist of the West’s oppression. Eagleton waxes nostalgically about President Nasser of Egypt. According to Eagleton:

Nasserism, once the dominant secular-nationalist, authoritarian-socialist current in the Arab world, was effectively destroyed by the Western-backed 1967 Israeli victory over Egypt. The Islamism that arouse in the wake of that defeat arraigned Nasser for his failure to lead the Arab forces to victory over Israel. The political balance within the Arab would shifted accordingly, away from a discredited Nasserism to the monarchical, pro-Western Wahhabi fundamentalists of Saudi Arabia. What a secular politics could apparently not accomplish, a fanatically religious one could achieve instead (pg. 106).

So great tragic turning point in history was when the Mein Kampf loving dictator of Egypt failed to destroy its democratic neighbor and massacre its Jewish population.

Considering that Eagleton has no problem with apologizing for Nasser’s atrocities, one might hope he would show Israel the same courtesy. Israel is blamed for perpetuating a massacre on the Jordanians in 1971. Eagleton point blank argues that “without the vast concentration camp known as the Gaza Strip, it is not at all out of the question that the Twin Towers would still be standing" (pg. 107). While the first concentration camps were created by the British during the Boar War, in modern parlance a concentration camp means something very specific. So by using this word, Eagleton can mean only one of three things. He could be a Holocaust denier, who believes that the camps were about as bad as the Palestinian situation. He could be an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist, who believes, without evidence, that Israel has murdered millions of Palestinians. Or he could just be a plain liar, seeking to malign Israel and Jews for his own ideological gain.

Eagleton is a textbook example of Dennis Prager’s observation that hatred of the United States and anti-Semitism seem to follow similar lines of reasoning and have common origins. In the end one must view Faith, Reason and Revolution as an attempt to pass off anti-Israel propaganda and plain anti-Semitism under the guise of a bestselling book on religion. The fact that this is only a passing issue in the book makes it all the more dangerous. If Eagleton had been forthright about his agenda this book would never have sold. He is not really interesting in defending Christianity or any form of theism. His real interest is to push for Marxism, an ideology grounded in hatred of the West and of Israel.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

History 112: World War II

1. The Soviet Union seems to be largely ignored and get away with all that they did during WWII in the end being one of the allies defeating Germany and keeping largely what they had won. Despite the fact that this led to the Cold War between the US and USSR, overall it seems as if the USSR got away with a lot because Germany was once again set as the major instigator of the conflicts. So, I guess the question is why that is?

Once the Soviet Union was attacked it became our good ally. Watch the Frank Capra films “Why We Fight World War II.” These were American propaganda films made for the army during the war. Soviet atrocities are completely ignored. Capra even ignores the existence of Ribbentrop-Molotov. You will hear nothing about how the Soviets were co-conspirators in this.

2. In the text it mentions a friendship pact between Hitler and Stalin. I was slightly confused by this section having never learned this throughout my schooling. So did USSR have concentration camps that they sent Polish people too? Did USSR invade countries also before the war started?

Yes the Soviet Union had concentration camps. They were called Gulags. Yes the Soviet Union engaged in genocidal activities to destroy the cultures of subjugated peoples like the Poles and the Ukrainians. The Soviet Union engaged in acts of aggression, just like the Nazis, against nations such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Romania. Unlike the Nazis, Soviet oppression did not end with 1945. It continued all the way up to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. The fact that your teacher did not see fit to pass this information on to you means that either you were not paying attention or that your teacher was some liberal with an ideological interest in ignoring Communist crimes. This is different from Nazi crimes which have the implicit lesson on the inherent evils of Fascism. Some people have a problem with unapologetically saying that Communism is an inherent evil.

3. American children learn about the atrocities of the Holocaust at an early age. Yet some may never learn about the genocide in the Ukraine we discussed last week. I was wondering if in other places, this is reversed. Do we learn more about the Holocaust because it was more terrible or because we have a large and powerful Jewish population? I find it bothersome that so many other instances of genocide, both past and current, remain largely unknown among the general American population. I'd like to know how you feel about this subject, especially since you are Jewish and you are more closely tied to these events than me.

“The Jewish lobby” plays a major role in putting the Holocaust front and center in American culture. I do not see anything sinister in this. There are many Jews in positions of cultural influence and they use it to their advantage. It helps if you can have Steven Spielberg to make movies for you. I am sure the Armenians and the Ukrainians would love to have him. That being said there is something special about the Holocaust. This was not a case of millions of people dying due to extreme government negligence nor is this a case of a breakdown in government order with armed soldiers or mobs going out of control and massacring people. The Holocaust happened because some very smart people in suits, ties and with college degrees sat down and planned it. They wished to annihilate a specific group of people and, armed with the full resources of a modern state, they pursued that goal with remarkable efficiency.

4. Davies said "The Poles thought that their task was to hold off the German advance for fifteen days until the French crossed the German frontier in the West; in fact, they faced the impossible task of holding off both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army on their own. The French launched no offensive; the British limited their assistance to dropping leaflets over Berlin," (1000-1001). Davies doesn't really go into any further detail about this, but has any other historian explored this? Was it another instance of miscommunication--as was seen in WWI with the telegraph system? Or can the British and French be partially blamed for the devastation that engulfed Poland? It seems like perhaps England and France's disregard for their Polish ally has been buried underneath their eventual victory. Why didn't they help Poland as the Polish were expecting?

Neither the British nor the French were prepared for any serious military action. This was one of the reasons why Hitler decided to make his move against Poland in September of 1939 instead of waiting. There was a French “invasion” which I am familiar with from reading William Shirer. He was an American correspondent, who worked in Germany into the war. He reports how the French made a big deal about their actions. He then went and talked to some of his contacts in the German army and find out in great detail how little the French were doing. Shirer would later go on to write the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

5. Wouldn't it have been obvious to the German's that turning against the Soviet Union was a bad idea? I mean, it caused them to be land locked between enemies on the East and West, plus the Soviet Union, from what we read, seemed to be a world power. Why didn't Germany try to formulate a peaceful position with the Soviet Union?

You have to keep in mind that Germany was at war with England and it was a reasonable assumption that the United States would eventually come into the war on the side of England. You have to admit that there is a certain logic to trying to take out the Soviet Union while the situation in the West was still relatively quiet. This plan almost succeeded; the Soviet army was almost completely annihilated in a matter of months. You would be hard pressed to find a country that ever suffered a military disaster like what the Soviet Union did. You are not going to find a country that ever managed to come back from such a disaster.

6. This questions isn't really about the reading but over the weekend I watched the movie "Valkyrie." I was just curious to know how historically accurate the movie is? Also I am curious to know if you think the plan to overthrow Hitler ever had a good chance of success?

I have not seen the movie so I will refrain from commenting on it. The case of Valkyrie is a good litmus test as to ones views on the power of individuals. Let us imagine that everything had gone according to plan and the bomb had eliminated Hitler. Now what? The German staff officers, who planned this, put a lot of thought into how to get Hitler and they planned that part well. It failed for reasons outside of their control. They made an utter mess out of trying to seize power in the hours after the bomb went off. That was the important part, not their ability to assassinate one man. I imagine that if Hitler had died in the blast then Goebbels, Himmler and Goering would have stepped in and the Third Reich would have continued.

7. Do you believe Germany planted spies within the French/British governments?

It is not a question if they did or did not. We know for a fact that the Nazis did. The British counter-intelligence services were quite effective, though, in capturing German spies and forcing them to pass on false intelligence.

8. How did Switzerland manage to maintain its neutrality during WW2?

The official reason, at the times, was that Switzerland possessed a well trained army and an advantageous defensive position. What we now know is that the Swiss government was actively cooperating with Hitler. They helped launder gold plundered by the Nazis, some of it even from the teeth of dead concentration camp inmates.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

History 112: The Rise of Nazi Germany (Q&A and Quiz)

1. In the reading it briefly mentions how the Nazis did not identify with mainstream religions. I watched a documentary on the Discovery Channel a while ago about the Nazi's "occult conspiracy," which talked about Hitler's dependence on astrological predictions, even leading him to have a person astrologer. How much truth is there in this? What's your opinion?

The interest by Hitler and many of the leading Nazis in the occult is quite real. For example it is believed that Hitler held back from counterattacking after the Normandy invasion on the advice of his astrologer who told him that the real allied attack would come at Calais. In what is probably the most bizarre incident of the war, Rudolph Hess grabbed a plane and crashed-landed in Scotland because his astrologer told him that he was destined to bring about a peace treaty between Germany and England. Himmler set up his own neo-pagan religion for the SS. This issue of Nazi beliefs has gained public interest, at least within the realms of internet polemics, in recent years because of the rise of the new atheism of Richard Dawkins, which argues that organized religion leads to mass murder. Opponents of Dawkins have been very quick to point to Hitler and Stalin and argue that the two most blood soaked regimes in history were militantly secular.

2. In the Davies text it mentions that Mussolini prided himself on being separate from Hitler until 1939, did the two men get along, or did they have plans to conquer each other?

The fact that Mussolini eventually joined with Hitler was never inevitable and in fact the two were quite hostile to each other into the late 1930s. It is important to keep in mind that Fascism is not a movement. It is simply a convenient label that we use in order to group certain movements together.

3. From what I gathered from the Davies reading, it seems that Hitler had the SS blackshirts and brownshirts as his "stormtroopers" or militia. What exactly were these entities and how were they different?

A major part of the early Nazi rise to power, from when they began until shortly after they took power, was their ability to use street gangs in order to beat up opponents, particularly Communists and Jews. Keep in mind that up until that later part of the 1930s there is still a meaningful distinction between Germany and the Nazi party. The Nazi party at this early stage did not have direct access to the police and military arms of the state so they needed some form of military power of their own to enforce their totalitarian agenda. One can see this with the use of the SA and SS. The SA was the armed force of the early Nazi period. These were common street thugs, not that different from our modern Crypts and Bloods. The SA are eliminated in 1934 in the “Night of the Long Knives.” The group that comes to replace the SA is the SS led by Himmler. The SS operates with the full power of the state. They are a lot more sophisticated and a whole lot more ruthless.

4. If Hitler would have died in WWI do you think there still would have been a second world war? Secondly, since I haven't asked questions for all the classes, why is it do you think that the Nazis were able to scare everyone into their party. What i have gathered about the situation was that most people were forced to be a part of the Nazi German Army.

This question is a classic example of the great man issue in history; to what extent do “great” individuals affect the course of history? Popular history tends to focus heavily on individuals because it makes a better narrative. Professional historians tend to be more weary of such a claim. Hitler was certainly a talented speaker and a forceful personality, but he was not the only person capable of doing the sorts of things that he did. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that Nazi history could have proceeded without Hitler, but with someone else at the helm. Earlier this year I had a discussion with Dr. Stephen Kern about this issue. He actually came out quite strongly on the side of no Hitler no Holocaust.

Personally I think this whole notion of saying that the German people were scared lets ordinary Germans off the hook. Hitler could not have waged World War II and the Holocaust without active willing cooperation of the vast majority of Germans. You want to know who to blame for World War II and the Holocaust? Forget about Hitler, he was just a man standing in front of a microphone. The real culprits were the millions of German citizens who went along with it. I would recommend Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. It has often been criticized for humanizing Adolph Eichmann, one of the central figures behind the Holocaust, who was kidnapped by the State of Israel, put on trial and executed. For me humanizing Eichmann turns him into every ordinary German who went along with the flow and by extension turns every ordinary German into Eichmann. On share moral grounds I would have had no moral objection to, in 1945, lining up every German man and woman over the age of eighteen who could not prove that they actively worked against the Nazi regime and shooting them. On practical grounds this could never be carried through, but there is no doubt in my mind that every one of them deserved to die.

5. How does Hitler get enough political coverage to get 96% of the German vote? Did class differences play into the voter turnout, as I am sure that it would be common people who supported him, as he was, in some limited sense, a collectivist?

When a leader is a getting 90% of the vote you know that this is not a fair election. Think how difficult it is to get 60% of Americans to agree on something. In real societies people have dissenting opinions. If you are not seeing large amounts of dissent than what you are seeing is a mirage.

6. Was Hitler only racist against Jews? Or did he just dislike everyone else other than his own people?

Nazi ideology held numerous groups to be subhuman, Slavs, gypsies, blacks, homosexuals and Jehovah Witnesses are some of the groups that come to mind. In addition to the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, the Nazis killed another four to six million people from other undesirable groups. Anti Semitism, though, clearly had a special place in Nazi ideology. For the Nazis, Jews were not just a group of undesirables; they were the undesirable group par excellence. Jews were the great enemy behind both Capitalism and Communism, which Germany would have to defeat.

For the quiz I asked the following questions:

1. What were the “Three Estates” in Old Regime France and how did their existence contribute to the breakout of the French Revolution? (2 pts)

2. What did “Liberalism” and “Conservatism” mean in the nineteenth century? How are these terms different from how we use them today? (3 pts)

3. According Karl Marx: “All hitherto history is the history of … (1 pt)

4. How did the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand lead to the start of World War I? (2 pts)

5. What were the two Russian revolutions of 1917? (2pts.)

Bonus: What peace treaty did Hitler blame Germany’s woes on? (1 pts)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

RVA’s Response to “Does History Have any Utilitarian Value?”

Here is RVA’s response to my recent post on the purpose of history specifically and the humanities in general. This is part of a running conversation going over a number of posts and I encourage readers to go back to the beginning. One of the perks of writing a blog is that one gets to come in contact with many interesting people. It has certainly been a pleasure talking to RVA, though he has chosen to maintain his anonymity, which I respect.

I'm very much intrigued by your assertion that the "humanities have no utilitarian value." I often struggle with this question and have not come to a conclusion, although I sympathize with your position. I would argue that whether the humanities have any utilitarian value ultimately depends on your conception of what a "legitimate" society should look like. To play the devil’s advocate, I’ll venture a counter-argument, noting at the outset that I don’t necessarily agree with the following theory. The discipline of history has intrinsic utilitarian value because it insulates “history” from political and social propaganda by government and organized factions. If we assume that historians strive to be honest and earnest, objective inasmuch as possible, then they serve two important roles (which I delineated from your Part III post): 1) preservation of primary sources, 2) creation of objective secondary sources. (Assuming that the creation of an “objective” body of discourse is itself possible.) These two functions have practical value, not for the scholarly or academic issues they study and analyze, but because the work of historians collectively creates a body of discourse that strives for an authentic recitation of historical events. Each individual historian is himself superfluous, but the collective construction of history becomes the fruit of their labor. This body of discourse will then be protected by historians from outsiders (e.g. governments) and other historians who seek to “falsify” or “distort” history to suit their own political or social ends. The mere fact that than an objective body of discourse exists lets an individual in society make a comparison between “history” and “interpretations of history” by outsiders. If one's conception of a "legitimate" society requires it to sincerely acknowledge its own history, then preservation of its history becomes vital, and therefore History has a utilitarian function. The utilitarian value DOES NOT emerge from learning lessons from the past, but from preventing the manipulation of a society's history to suit political/social ends (e.g. Eastern European autocrats selectively constructing Nationalist ideologies to suit their political ends in post-Communist Europe).

On a related note, I sometimes wonder what it would be like living in a world without formal historians. Informal and ad hoc history would be similar to how American Law treats "out-of-court statements presented for the truth of the mattered asserted": hearsay. It would be distressing to encounter a society where history would have no more depth than a Wikipedia entry. Is formal History inevitable in any advanced human society? Not sure, but probably not. I think stable societies are a fragile phenomenon and there is no guarantee of their continuance. Thus even if History becomes formalized in a society, its continued operation is always premised on the continued stability of the State, which is never a guarantee. I can also imagine police states in the distant future which are repressive far beyond anything the 20th century encountered. When societies begin to disintegrate, there's a strong possibility of losing substantial portions of the accumulated knowledge of a civilization (which was why Seldon thought an Encyclopedia Galactica was necessary in light of the coming collapse of the Empire, even though this was only the Foundation's purported purpose).

Is formal history necessary for a legitimate society? Murky. I would say probably because it would otherwise be difficult to combat the construction of self-serving narratives by social, political and religious factions. In some respects, attempts at formalizing History would be inevitable because there would always be skeptics and dissidents (at least I hope there will be!) who would challenge self-serving historical narratives, and some skeptics would in turn attempt to formalize the History to prevent its usurpation by others. Or it could be that skeptics would merely create their own counter-self-serving narratives to advance their own interests?

Friday, April 17, 2009

History 112: Some Thoughts on the English Civil War Readings

The ETEP module “The English Revolution” has been put together by Ohio State’s own David Cressy, who along with Geoffrey Parker forms the foundation of one of the strongest early modern history departments in the country. You would be very hard pressed to find a non Ivy league school with a stronger history department than the one at Ohio State so I encourage all students to take advantage of it. Cressy offers the provocative title of “English Revolution” instead of the traditional term “English Civil War.” I suspect that this is an attempt to plant the English Civil as an event of historical importance on par with the French Revolution. That the English Civil War, despite the fact that ultimately the monarchy would return, brought about certain fundamental shifts in European thought.

In the secondary source reading, Keith Lindley offers a comparison of the Whig, Marxist, Revisionist and Post Revisionist views. The Whig narrative emphasizes the progress toward liberal democracy. It features Parliament as the good guys fighting for freedom and Democracy against the autocratic Charles I, who wanted to return England to Catholic “superstition.” The Marxist narrative emphasizes class struggle. Parliament represents the rise of the bourgeoisie class and their victory represents the victory of the bourgeoisie over the aristocracy of Charles I. This victory has the unintended side effect of helping to create a new conscious working class which then comes to challenge the bourgeoisie Parliament. The Revisionist narrative rejects any claims of meta-narrative and sees the English Civil as simply a series of happen chance events. The Post Revisionists are Revisionists who are attempting to bring back long term causes into the narrative.

We have already discussed the Whig narrative in class (as well as on this blog) at length. This can no longer be considered a legitimate school of historical narrative. The only legitimate reasons for discussing it are that it exerted a tremendous influence during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and it continues to exert a powerful hold on the public conception of history. The English Civil War was a lot more complex than simply Parliament good Charles I bad. Hopefully from reading some of the things that Charles I wrote you have seen that Charles I was a thoughtful and sophisticated individual who did not run around claiming that he ruled by divine right and could therefore act as he pleased.

When dealing with the Marxist narrative it is important to distinguish Marxist historiography from Marxist politics. You should not Marxist history and think Communism or even Liberalism. One can subscribe to the Marxist historical narrative and emphasize the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy without believing that the working class is going to rise and overthrow the bourgeoisie and establish Socialism. One can be a Marxist historian and decide that Capitalism is the greatest promoter of freedom and the public welfare ever created and be a dyed in the wool Republican. I recently took a Facebook quiz to find out what kind of historian I am and the answer I got was Marxist. I do not think of myself as a Marxist historian though that is the one aspect of Marxism that I admire. It was Marxists who played a leading role in moving history away from war and politics in helped bring in the lower classes to the historical narrative. Cressy lists Christopher Hill as an example of a Marxist historian. I have already recommended to you Hill’s Antichrist in Seventeenth Century England. So, if being a Marxist means being like Hill, than I will take the label. Hill unlike traditional Marxist historiography is willing to discuss religion in a serious and non polemical fashion.

Most historians have a contrary streak to them. The natural inclination for a historian is to attempt to take a text take it in the opposite direction of the author’s intent. Revisionist historians are the extreme end of this. The Revisionist historian strives to take the popular understanding of history and show that not only is it wrong but that it is really just the opposite. This is usually put into practice by challenging the existence of any sort of narrative. Norman Davies is an example of this sort of revisionism. I specifically chose him for a textbook because he makes the effort to give the “other side of the story” from what most history textbooks give and he offers a very readable non narrative form of history. I believe that it is particularly important to expose students to this form of history precisely because it is the sort of history that they are not likely to encounter otherwise.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dennis Prager on Communism

As a continuation of my previous post on the evils of Communism and my hope that one day Communism will be viewed, by people across the political spectrum, as something on par with Nazism I recommend a pair of articles by Dennis Prager on Communism, “California College Student: Terror is the New Communism” and “Why Doesn’t Communism Have as Bad a Name as Nazism?” The issue at hand for these two articles is not Communism itself per se but the moral failure of the modern left to come to terms with the evils of Communism.

For those wishing for a more in depth scholarly discussion of Communism as a series of mass murdering regimes I would suggest the Black Book of Communism by Stephane Courtois.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

History 112: Putting in a Good Word for Comrade Stalin

As readers of this blog and those who know me in person are aware, I am politically fairly conservative, at least by college campus standards. I view Communism, at least the variety that believes in the use of force to achieve its aims, in only slightly more favorable terms than Nazism. Even that is largely due to the fact that, as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, Nazism is something personal. In truth, expropriating the wealth of all those with something worthwhile to steal before sending them off to their deaths is hardly an improvement over expropriating the wealth of your least favorite racial group before shipping them off to their deaths. The later makes you a mass murdering racist. The former makes you a mass murdering hostis humani generis (enemy of the human race).

With this in mind, I found myself bending over backwards, in class, to defend Joseph Stalin’s five year program to industrialize the Soviet Union during the 1930s. To be clear, this move by Stalin was a humanitarian catastrophe to rival anything down by Nazi Germany. While there was a full scale famine engulfing the Soviet Union, caused by lousy economic theory and even worse science, the Soviet Union was shipping wheat to the West. In essence the Soviet government allowed upwards of seven million people to starve to death in the Ukraine in order to buy machinery. In addition to this tens of millions of people were shipped off to Siberian gulags as class enemies. As a historian, though, it is my job to get past the polemics and even, in some sense, to redeem those being studied. I want my students to learn something more from me than just “Stalin and Communism were evil and that western intellectuals such as George Bernard Shaw, who traveled to the Soviet Union during the 1930s, were dupes for praising it.” To say that Stalin and Communism were evil, while true, is of little interest. The historical method, though, forces us to make things interesting by asking questions such as why, if Stalinist Russia was as bad as it was, did people support it. Why would a sane rational person support Stalin?

During a period in which the entire western world was gripped by the Great Depression, the Soviet Union was experiencing a rise in production. While mass unemployment was the norm across the western world, the Soviet Union had full employment. The Soviet government was bringing roads, machines and electricity to people who never had them. Thanks to Communism, millions of people who never had the opportunity to learn to read or get an education were now being given the chance to go to school. This is not to deny the very real dark side to Stalinist Russia, but this side is also real.

The assigned reading for this class, selections from John Scott’s Behind the Urals, proved to be remarkably useful for this person. Scott was an American steel worker who traveled to the Soviet Union in 1931 and worked at Magnitogorsk, one of the major Soviet industrial centers built during this period. While Scott came to the Soviet Union as an idealistic believer, his first hand experience soon soured him. As such Scott is perfectly willing to criticize the Soviet government and is quite frank about the human cost of Stalin’s actions. That being said Scott’s main purpose is not to attack Stalin or the Soviet Union, but to recount his experience and to give a sense of the people he worked with, most of whom he treats quite positively.

I will take it as a mark of honor if one of my students were to complain that I am a Communist, using my position to ensnare innocent young minds into my political ideology.