Historians

A Warning From History

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We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.

CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man

 

 

Too late for Bastille Day, but this reflection by Steven Hayward at Powerline on a book written by French historian Marc Bloch draws my attention.  Bloch was not only a historian but in World War I he had been an infantry combat officer, rising to the rank of Captain and earning a Legion of Honor.  In the wake of the defeat of France in 1940 he asked a simple question:  Why?

Bloch was one of the pre-war founders of the Annales school of historical analysis, which was neither exactly Marxist nor purely “social” history as we know it today, but was an early version of bottom-up meta-history.  (Think of it an the anti-Carlyle/great man school, or history without any dominant figures.  Fernand Braudel is the best-known figure of this school of thought.)

And yet when France succumbed easily to the Nazi invasion in 1940 despite superior forces on paper, a dumbfounded Bloch found he could only explain it by returning to the old fashioned style of thinking about and writing history.  The result was his classic, Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940.  His main conclusion is one that no academic historian today would dare to put to paper: France suffered an ignominious moral collapse.  The entire book—it is only 176 pages—is a thrilling read, but I’ll confine myself to just a few selections from the final chapter, “A Frenchman Examines His Conscience,” which, with due adjustments, can serve as a warning for our own intellectual flabbiness in the Age of Terror, as well as a reproach to the dessicated academic history of today:

This timidity of the nation at large was, no doubt, in many cases but the sum of the timidity of individuals. . .  Whatever the reasons, there can be no doubt that our governors, both individually and as a class, did lack something of that ruthless heroism which becomes so necessary when the country is in danger. . .

Bloch is especially hard on the pacifists (and the news media) of the interwar period:

Since the gospel they preached was one of seeming convenience, their sermons found an easy echo in those lazy, selfish instincts which exist in all men’s hearts side by side with nobler potentialities.  These enthusiasts, many of whom were not, as individuals, lacking in courage, worked unconsciously to produce a race of cowards.

And in words that ought perhaps to be emblazoned above the door to every history department in every American university (especially the third sentence), Bloch says:

I do not say that the past entirely governs the present, but I do maintain that we shall never satisfactorily understand the present unless we take the past into account.  But there is still worse to come.  Because our system of historical teaching deliberately cuts itself off from a wide field of vision and comparison, it can no longer impart to those whose minds it claims to form anything like a true sense of difference and change.

Finally (for now), Bloch warns that the consequences of an essentially nihilist culture and education will be the destruction of democracy:

A democracy becomes hopelessly weak, and the general good suffers accordingly, if its higher officials, bred up to despise it, and drawn from those very classes the dominance of which it is pledged to destroy, serve it only half-heartedly.

This is historical reflection when it really counted.  Can it be made to count again?  Not as currently “constructed” (to use the trendy terms against them) in academia today.

Bloch joined the French Resistance in 1942.  The Germans executed him in 1944. Continue reading

Of Social Darwinists, Robber Barons and Libraries

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Jonah Goldberg has a great column in which he takes apart the myth of the Social Darwinists.

This raises the real problem with the AP’s analysis. It has the history exactly backwards. The topic was not popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it is now. And it’s not suddenly “making its way” into modern politics. Liberals have been irresponsibly flinging the term Social Darwinism rightward for decades. Mario Cuomo, in his famous 1984 Democratic Convention keynote speech—which “electrified,” “galvanized,” and “inspired” Democrats, who went on to lose 49 states in the general election—declared that “President Reagan told us from the very beginning that he believed in a kind of Social Darwinism.” Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee that year, insisted that Reagan preferred “Social Darwinism” over “social decency.” Even Barack Obama’s April 3 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors was so much recycling. In 2005, then-senator Obama denounced the conservative idea of an “ownership society,” charging that “in our past there has been another term for it—Social Darwinism—every man or woman for him or herself.”

Meanwhile, the myth that Social Darwinism was a popular term in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was largely created by the liberal historian Richard Hofstadter, whose 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought didn’t merely transform our understanding of the Gilded Age, it largely fabricated an alternative history of it.

Go here to read the brilliant rest.  Richard Hofstadter was a professor of American history at Columbia University.  In his youth he was a Communist, breaking with the party in 1939 over the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.  However, his hatred of capitalism remained, and his  Social Darwinism in American Thought was a mere polemic with an academic wrapper.  Hofstadter did almost no primary research in the documents of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and relied on the research of other historians as support for the conclusions he wished to reach.  Almost throughout his entire academic career Hofstadter was a fairly reliable man of the Left, always ready to slam conservatives as provincial and paranoid.  His 1964 The Paranoid Style in American Politics and other Essays is fairly typical.  Ironically, by the time of his death in 1970 Hofstadter was no longer popular on the Left, due to his criticisms of the New Left, and especially the antics of student radicals on campus. Continue reading

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