24 April 2008

Education for Virtue

My evening history class ends at 10:00pm. After the short drive home, I need to read for a few minutes before I can fall asleep. Last night, I read from Plato's Laws. In this ancient text (perhaps 350 B.C.), Plato discusses the nature of virtue and the purpose of education.

Virtue is this general concord of reason and emotion. But there is one element you could isolate in any account you give, and this is the correct formation of our feelings of pleasure and pain, which makes us hate what we ought to hate from first to last, and love what we ought to love. Call this "education," and I, at any rate, think you would be giving it its proper name.
Plato, Laws, 653b-c

This passage immediately reminded me of a text that I had planned to review in preparation for my upcoming lecture next week regarding the development of Indian boarding schools in the late-nineteenth century. The language in Plato appears to be reflected in a speech given by Thomas Jefferson Morgan when he was Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1889-1893). Morgan's speech is called "Plea for the Papoose"; he attempts to imagine the needs and interests of Native American Indian babies, and to speak for them.

Early in "Plea for the Papoose," Morgan speaks out against the racial ideology of his day with a statement that all children have the same possibilities for personal growth, limited only by culture, not some inherent racial defect (as some argued).

All human babies inherit human natures, and the development of these inherent powers is a matter of culture, subject to the conditions of environment. The pretty, innocent papoose has in itself the potency of a painted savage, prowling like a beast of prey, or the possibilities of a sweet and gentle womanhood or a noble and useful manhood.
Morgan, "Plea for the Papoose," in Americanizing the American Indians, edited by Francis Paul Prucha, 242.

Planning "Rescue"

Later in the speech, Morgan presents a plan for rescuing Indian children from what he portrays as the debilitating effects of Indian culture. Some critics have used the term legally sanctioned kidnapping to describe the policies that he advocated—the development of federal Indian boarding schools was a central component. In this section, his language echoes Plato's Laws.

If they grow up on Indian reservations removed from civilization, without advantages of any kind, surrounded by barbarians, trained from childhood to love the unlovely and to rejoice in the unclean; associating all their highest ideals of manhood and womanhood with fathers who are degraded and mothers who are debased, their ideas of human life will, of necessity, be deformed, their characters be warped, and their lives distorted. They can no more avoid this than the leopard can change his spots or the Ethiopian his skin. The only possible way in which they can be saved from the awful doom that hangs over them is for the strong arm of the Nation to reach out, take them in their infancy and place them in its fostering schools; surrounding them with an atmosphere of civilization, maturing them in all that is good, and developing them into men and women instead of allowing them to grow up as barbarians and savages.
Morgan, in Prucha, 243.

From our vantage point more than a century later, it is easy to judge Morgan's language as racist. Such judgment, however, anticipates questions regarding how commonsense notions in our day will be judged by our descendants a century from now. Some of those that did not share Morgan's views believed that Indian children were incapable of education. He stood against these contemporaries as an advocate for Indian equality. He was part of a group of Christian reformers who sought to render United States laws and policies more humanizing than they had been.

Full citations
Plato. The Laws. Translated by Trevor J. Saunders. London: Penguin Books, 1970.
Prucha, Francis Paul, editor. Americanizing the American Indian: Writings by the "Friends of the Indian" 1880-1900. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978 [1973].

18 April 2008

Thomas Jefferson: Abolitionist?

In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), written during the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson identified slavery as a "blot" and "moral evil" upon the nation's existence.
Under the mild treatment our slaves experience, and their wholesome, though coarse, food, this blot in our country increases as fast, or faster, than the whites. During the regal government, we had at one time obtained a law, which imposed such a duty on the importation of slaves, as amounted nearly to a prohibition, when one inconsiderate assembly, placed under a peculiarity of circumstance, repealed the law. This repeal met a joyful sanction from the then sovereign, and no devices, no expedients, which could ever after be attempted by subsequent assemblies, and they seldom met without attempting them, could succeed in getting the royal assent to a renewal of the duty. In the very first session held under the republican government, the assembly passed a law for the perpetual prohibition of the importation of slaves. This will in some measure stop the increase of this great political and moral evil, while the minds of our citizens may be ripening for a complete emancipation of human nature.
Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 87.
His belief that slaves were treated mildly in America would form part of the foundation of the defense of the Peculiar Institution. This passage does not sum all of Jefferson's views, but is one piece that cannot be ignored. His statement that ending slavery is part of "emancipation of human nature" lends credence to the view that he may have considered the assertion that "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence to include African Americans.

An exchange between Conor Cruise O'Brien and Douglas L. Wilson in the Atlantic Monthly in 1996 offers one entry into the complexities of Jefferson's legacy. O'Brien draws from statements of Jefferson's a few chapters later in Notes on the State of Virginia, as well as other texts. Wilson challenges O'Brien's reading of some of these texts.

My copy of the text is William Peden, ed., Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982 [1954]). The extract above also is available as hypertext at the University of Virginia's American Studies Crossroads Project.

17 April 2008

Zinn, Historiography, Weapons of History

At History is a Weapon a brief audit of the role of bias in history begins, "History isn't what happened, but a story of what happened." That much should be obvious, but is worth hearing from time to time. The audit offers quick entry into some of the central questions of historiography, and stands as the welcome page to a website that presents scanned versions of several texts, including A People's History of the United States. History is a Weapon describes itself as "an online Left reader focusing largely on American resistance history." I think that's an accurate assessment for a site that is a terrific resource.

I've added a link under "American History Links."

History Is A Weapon

16 April 2008

A People’s History: the Industry

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980) has spawned an industry of creation. His website recently announced a new comic book, A People’s History of American Empire (April 2008). This collaboration among Zinn, Paul Buhle, and Mike Konopacki tells a story of the author “from his childhood in the Brooklyn slums to his role as one of America’s leading historians” (Macmillan).

Earlier spin-offs from Zinn’s bestselling A People’s History have included George Kirschner’s collaboration with Zinn, A People's History of the United States: The Wall Charts (1995); a range of partial reproductions, such as The Twentieth Century: From the Author’s A People’s History of the United States (1998); and a children’s version, A Young People's History of the United States (2007), 2 vols., adapted by Rebecca Stefoff.

Voices of a People’s History of the United States (2004), edited by Zinn and Anthony Arnove, is designed as a companion to the main text. I discussed the second document in this text at “Fragments from Bartolomé de Las Casas.” Gayle Olson-Raymer edited a teaching guide, Teaching with Voices of a People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove (2006).

A People’s History of the United States is available as an abridged audiobook, A People's History of the United States CD: Highlights from the 20th Century (2003), read by Matt Damon. Part of a lecture Zinn gave at Reed College is available on CD as A People's History Of The United States: A Lecture at Reed College (1998). James Earl Jones lends his voice to The People Speak CD: American Voices, Some Famous, Some Little Known, from Columbus to the Present (2004). The audiobook Readings from Voices of a People's History of the United States (2006) includes twenty-one selections from the print edition of Voices.

Other People’s Histories

Chris Harmon wrote A People’s History of the World (1999), which has a new edition just out last week. Harmon is editor of the journal International Socialism. A blurb for this book from Howard Zinn has such prominence on the cover that a casual browser might mistake him for coauthor.

Zinn wrote the forward to A People's History of the Supreme Court (1999) by Peter Irons. A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence (2001) by Ray Raphael is part of a New Press series edited by Zinn. This series also includes A People's History of the Vietnam War (2003) by Jonathan Neale, A People's History of the Civil War (2006) by David Williams, A People’s History of Sports in the United States (2008) by Dave Zirin, The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World (2008) by Vijay Prashad, and the forthcoming A People’s Art History of the United States (2009) by Nicolas Lampert and John Couture.

Zinn’s Influence?

Quite a number of histories offer the phrase “a people’s history” as part of the title, but that phrase neither guarantees Zinn’s influence, nor his imprimatur. Nor have I found reasons to believe that he has objections to any of these texts.

The title of Michael Parenti’s The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome (2003) may reflect the popularity of Zinn’s book, but the author’s Democracy for the Few (1974), now in its eighth edition, was already popular when A People’s History of the United States first appeared.

Denis R. Janz, General Editor of A People’s History of Christianity, 7 vols, does not mention Zinn in “What is People’s History.” Nor do I know Howard Zinn’s relationship to:

The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila: A People's History (2002) by Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja.
A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and “Low Mechaniks” (2005) by Clifford D. Conner.
The Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire (2006) by John Newsinger.


A People's History of England (1938) by A. L. Morton was out before Howard Zinn came of age. Page Smith’s eight volume People’s History also precedes Zinn’s entry into this stream of titles. It began with Smith’s A New Age Now Begins: A People's History of the American Revolution in 1976 and concluded with Redeeming the Time: A People’s History of the 1920s and the New Deal (1987).

15 April 2008

Tribal Names

Do all the people named the Sioux call themselves Lakota? Does an accent mark belong on Nez Perce? Are the Chippewa related to the Ojibwa (or Ojibwe)? Is Blackfeet plural for Blackfoot?

Each name has a history. Historians should favor the names in the primary sources from which they work, and those preferred by the tribe today. They also should learn and relate the histories of these names.

A few years ago, the Wikipedia entry for Nez Perce claimed that Nez Percé was favored by most scholars. “Ignorant scholars!” I said this phrase to myself, as I changed the article only to see it change back the next day. Back and forth the name went, until it finally stabilized after some discussion. (Also see more on historians and Wikipedia.)

For most of the twentieth century, the Yakama Nation employed the spelling Yakima—also the name of a city in Washington state—but officially changed the spelling to Yakama, which conforms to the spelling employed by Isaac I. Stevens in the treaty that some of them signed in 1855. This treaty was a principle cause of the war mentioned in passing, “stronger tribes such as the Yakimas and their allies put up a stiffer fight” (emphasis added), in James Donovan, A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn—the Last Great Battle of the American West (2008), 17. This spelling error, as I’m calling it, is not fatal to Donovan’s book, but it offers a subtle clue to a weakness in his research. If he skews toward error minor points regarding tribes far from Little Bighorn, he might do something similar for those that killed Custer. Donovan’s work on Custer’s last battle might prove more authoritative in narrating the side of those that lost the battle than of the motives and actions of the victors, and of the terrible consequences they suffered.

Two pages later, Donovan is back on the Plains among the Lakota Sioux, where he tells us, “Sioux being a bastardized French word that they despised” (19). He does not explain that Sioux is shortened from Nadouessioux, which comes from an Ojibwa word for adders (snakes) and connotes enemy. Lakota, on the other hand, means ally or friend, as does Dakota and Nakota. The Seven Council Fires that comprise the Sioux Nation (as they appear in many U.S. government documents) speak three dialects of a common language. Slight differences in pronunciation account for the variable first consonant in Lakota/Dakota/Nakota. There is no need to add the word Sioux after Lakota, as Donovan does consistently, nor is such usage inherently wrong. Combined with other nuances, such usage merely heightens my attentiveness to other possible errors of fact or interpretation.

A Terrible Glory was thoroughly researched and is well written. My quibbles with a few points of Donovan’s book have not yet led me to disagreement with Robert M. Utley’s assessment that the work is “exemplary” (from a blurb on the back of the dust jacket).

Patriot’s History

On the other hand, A Patriot’s History of the United States (2004) by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen employ the term Lakota Sioux in a manner that shatters confidence in their authority.

Farther north the mighty Lakota Sioux also resisted white incursions. Their struggle began in 1862-63 in Minnesota, a theater of the war that ended when U.S. Army General John Pope achieved victory and hanged 38 Sioux warriors as punishment.
Schweikart and Allen, 408.

Colonel Henry Sibley led the troops and usually gets credit for this victory. Yet, the authors of A Patriot’s History are not completely wrong in mentioning Pope, who was Sibley’s superior officer and had charge of the Military Department of the Northwest. Their account of the Indian side of this conflict is another matter.

The Mdewakanton and Wahpekute bands of the Santee are Dakota not Lakota. There was no Lakota uprising in Minnesota in 1862. Moreover, their struggles between accommodation and resistance did not begin with Little Crow’s uprising in 1862, but before the Treaties of 1837 and 1858. The resistance that led to war, and that led to the largest mass hanging in U.S. history, resulted from many factors. Some of the leading elements in the failures of the policy of accommodation stemmed from U.S. failures to deliver on promises made in these treaties, capriciousness by Indian agent Thomas J. Galbraith, and massive influx of non-Indian settlers.

Gary Clayton Anderson’s Little Crow: Spokesman for the Sioux (1986) offers detailed analysis.

… one might wonder why Little Crow agreed to join the war effort. He had always been an accommodationist, and had consistently used his persuasive abilities to prevent violence. … Little Crow undoubtedly concluded that by joining the soldiers, he would be reinstated in his position as speaker for the Mdewakanton tribe. … His decision to join a doomed war effort certainly contradicted his past behavior, but it did not run counter to the traditional obligation of a Sioux warrior to his community and people—that of giving his life when such a sacrifice became necessary for the benefit of the whole.
Anderson, Little Crow, 133-34.

Mdewakanton leader Little Crow was a patriot.

12 April 2008

Founders, Slavery, Public Schools

In a coffee shop this week, I overheard criticism of public school teachers that nearly pulled me into a conversation that was mostly none of my business. Having once before jumped into other peoples’ conversations in that bistro, and remembering the mixed results, I desisted. The comments, however, came back to my consciousness this morning while browsing the archive of American Revolution & Founding Era.

Allegations of Racism in the Republic

Almost two years ago, Brian Tubbs characterized the lessons our public schools teach regarding George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and company as depicting them as racists whom we “should be ashamed to pay … any respect or honor.”

According to Lincoln, the Founders never saw slavery as consistent with the principles they enshrined in our heritage.

Rather, the Founding Fathers overwhelmingly deplored slavery and considered black Americans to be included in the Declaration's creed. Said Lincoln: “The fathers of this government expected and intended the institution of slavery to come to an end. They expected and intended that it would be in the course of ultimate extinction.”

His view is ignored or rejected in today's classrooms and in the media, but it was this very viewpoint that sustained his ultimately successful campaign to rid the nation of the evil institution he so ardently despised. But while Lincoln's argument was compelling, was it accurate?
Tubbs, “Should We Revere ‘Racists’?

Tubbs offers several points of evidence that the Founders sought the eventual abolition of slavery and considered African Americans “men”. Indeed, his arguments remind me of those offered by my professor for a graduate course in US history from Jefferson to Jackson, in which my son’s current high school history teacher was a classmate. The professor explained that Washington intended that his slaves be freed upon his death, and he would have freed them sooner if it had been economically possible (or something to that effect—it was a few years ago).

I could draw on many sources from which to confirm, modify, and refute the points in Tubbs’ argument, but will confine myself to explicit evidence concerning classroom practice. My son’s teacher demands that the students read carefully and take notes upon their textbook, David M. Kennedy, Lizabeth Cohen, and Thomas A. Bailey, The American Pageant, twelfth edition (2002).

Does this textbook support or refute Tubbs’ allegation regarding the Founders, slavery, and historical memory?

Tubbs tells us that Congress outlawed slavery in 1808. The American Pageant, describing the debates at the Constitutional Convention, offers more detail.

Most of the states wanted to shut off the African slave trade. But South Carolina and Georgia, requiring slave labor in their rice paddies and malarial swamps, raised vehement protests. By way of compromise the convention stipulated that the slave trade might continue until the end of 1807, at which time Congress could turn off the spigot (see Art. I, Sec. IX, para. 1). It did so as soon as the prescribed interval had elapsed. Meanwhile all the new state constitutions except Georgia’s forbade overseas slave trade.
Kennedy, et al, American Pageant, 181.

More than a dozen pages earlier, in a section that begins with the Declaration’s “All men are created equal,” the textbook addresses why the Founders did not eliminate slavery in the new nation: “the fledgling idealism of the Founding Fathers was sacrificed to political expediency” (167). They quote Madison.

“Great as the evil [of slavery] is,” the young Virginian James Madison wrote in 1787, “a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” Nearly a century later, the slavery issue did wreck the Union—temporarily.
Kennedy, et al, American Pageant, 167.

(I will refrain from commenting here on the power and meaning of the phrase, “one nation indivisible,” that was routinely spoken as part of the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954 when the phrase was broken up in the war of rhetoric against godless communism.)

The American Pageant neither presents the Founders as demigods, nor as demons. It does, however, employ the term “demigods”—always in quote marks—which the authors attribute to Thomas Jefferson’s observation regarding the “extraordinarily high” (178) quality of the fifty-five participants in the 1787 Constitutional Convention. The text notes that they were “a conservative, well-to-do body” and nineteen owned slaves (178). The revolution “did not suddenly and violently overturn the entire political and social framework” (166). The “conservative-minded delegates” in Philadelphia, recalling Shay’s Rebellion, “deliberately erected safeguards against the excesses of the ‘mob’” (181).

The general theme of the text—hence of the curriculum now employed in my alma mater—highlights the possibilities and limits of the revolutionary era that created and established the United States. The years of the Confederation and Constitution resulted in “accelerated evolution rather than outright revolution” (166). The text highlights such anti-slavery achievements as Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman’s successful lawsuit to win freedom from slavery in Massachusetts in 1781, and the founding of “the world’s first antislavery society” in 1775 (167). It demonstrates that slavery was a controversial aspect of eighteenth century American society, continued to be a source of much conflict well into the nineteenth century, and emancipation did not eliminate all racism and sectional conflict.

From Jefferson to Lincoln

Tubbs makes much of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, validating Lincoln’s view of the Founders. The American Pageant presents a sidebar quoting Lincoln in his first debate with Douglas.

… there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to those rights as the white man.
Kennedy, et al, American Pageant, 421.

However, the text also prompts allegations that Lincoln, too, might have been a racist in the first words of the extract: “I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position” (421). Much earlier in the text, on the other hand, an 1865 quote of Lincoln’s is presented in the caption to a picture illustrating a slave auction: “Whenever I see anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally” (358). The text undermines simplistic caricatures of Lincoln.

It appears to me that The American Pageant does not tell students that they should be ashamed of the Founders and of Lincoln, nor does it urge that they venerate these men without a sense of their human flaws.

Brian Tubbs offers several examples—some quite specific, some vague—documenting his assertion that there is a “chorus of contempt and condemnation sung by scholars, students, politicians, judges, talk show hosts, authors, and everyday Americans concerning the sins of our nation's past” (“Should We Revere ‘Racists’?”). Such a generalization goes further than the evidence he presents: a caller’s statement to C-SPAN and a History Channel poll, both recalled years after the fact; a quote from a “biography” of Jefferson by Conor Cruise O'Brien (perhaps The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800); and a quote from “civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy” (source not cited). I prefer to see better support for such assertions.

Tubbs’ discussion leaves many gaps, but is far more nuanced than the assertion I heard in a coffeehouse. There, parents disgruntled with their children’s school alleged that many teachers could not pass the much scorned WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) for which they must prepare students. Relating the comment to some teachers, I suggested that they ought to take up the challenge because there is a huge difference between high school and college education—they would easily pass. The WASL tests what the state would like high school students to know before they graduate; teachers must know quite a bit more.

I too have observed problems with schools over the years, and have been vocal about these. Nevertheless, I get a little incensed when I hear assertions that teachers cannot pass the tests given to students or that schools teach that the Founders were little more than a bunch of racists. Those criticisms are inaccurate.

08 April 2008

Triumph of the English

Following Columbus, many Europeans explored and began colonizing the Americas. Three nations grew more significant than all the others in the struggle for North America: Spain, France, and England. Jamestown, Québec, and Santa Fe were each established within months of the others several decades after the Spanish founded St. Augustine, Florida. By some means of reckoning, the English were the last to arrive, the most tardy to initiate serious efforts to colonize, and they came from the smallest country. Yet, they triumphed!

Why did the English prevail?

Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen offer a hypothesis in A Patriot’s History of the United States (2004).

… the appearance of new business practices, a culture of technological inquisitiveness, and a climate receptive to political and economic risk taking.
Schweikart and Allen, 15.

My first observation regarding this hypothesis notes the absence of the Indians that fed the colonists—Spanish, French, English, Dutch, …. Were the American indigenes irrelevant to the struggle, or unable to affect the eventual success of the English? Perhaps their absence has merit, for the English had the least auspicious record of converting the Natives to their way of life (see James Axtell, The Invasion Within [1986]—a book ignored by Schweikart and Allen, although they cite inaccurately the article length version of this book as I’ve noted previously). Be that as it may, let us, as the phenomenologists say, bracket that question while I proceed to identify the key points Schweikart and Allen offer in support of their hypothesis.

New Business Practices

The Company of the Staple, founded in 1356, was among the first joint-stock companies that led England’s development of international trade. Schweikart and Allen also cite the Muscovy Company, the Levant Company, and the East India Company; they could have added the Hudson’s Bay Company, which proved more significant in North America. The principle advantages of the joint-stock companies were that they survived the death of their primary owners and they limited liability because stockholders could lose no more than their investments. These companies facilitated middle-class merchants taking the lead in England’s overseas ventures.

Contrast these business practices associated with the development of capitalism to Spain’s “rigid adherence to mercantilism” (Schweikart and Allen, 11). If they failed to find gold and silver, Spanish ventures were an economic failure. Hernando de Soto, for example, was born into poverty and died a king—an imaginative one in the wilds of America,—but his men failed to bring back a return on the investments that sent them marauding through the future states of Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, and points in between. Their astounding success in efforts “to disturb and devastate the land,” as Rodrigo Rangel put it, did not benefit Spanish colonization. How de Soto’s ecological assault may have facilitated later English colonization takes us back into analysis of questions bracketed, so I defer this part of the narrative for later. Suffice it to note for the moment that the single sentence regarding de Soto in A Patriot’s History fails to offer any clues to his possible significance (10).

The authors of A Patriot’s History note that France abandoned mercantilism later than England, but omit all mention of the joint-stock Company of One Hundred Associates that played a central role in colonization of La Nouvelle-France.

Receptive Climate

Schweikart and Allen bury their exposition of the English “culture of technological inquisitiveness” within their discussion of Europe’s generally receptive climate for “risk taking and innovation” that “reached its most advanced state in England” (15). The stirrup was invented in the Middle East, but used to effect hundreds of years later by Charles Martel’s knights at Poitiers, they tell us (citing a text that lists neither stirrups nor Martel in the index). But Poitiers is in France. They present no English examples to buttress their hypothesis. Rather they quote from the second paragraph of Jack Gladstone’s 1987 Sociological Theory article, “Cultural Orthodoxy, Risk, and Innovation: The Divergence of East and West in the Early Modern World.”

Gladstone’s article supports their contentions, but his clearest statement focused on their central point is a quote from the work of another scholar.

Britain's leadership over this century [1750-1850] was, it must be emphasized, “not in its possession of a . . . best technique [individual inventions were readily licensed and exported (Gladstone’s emendation)], but in its early forging of a culture which, through innumerable minor innovations . . . induced the best techniques” to become widespread.
Gladstone, 120.

Gladstone identifies as his source: Ian Inkster, "Technology as the Cause of the Industrial Revolution, Some Comments." Journal of European Economic History 12 (1983), 651-57.

Rather than offering a narrative that supports their hypothesis, Schweikart and Allen shift ground to a discussion of the development of property rights in England. Much of the next part of the chapter highlights property rights, and threats to such rights, as they go colony by colony through the British settlements that would ultimately form the United States. Instead of developing their intriguing hypothesis, they offer a narrative that does more to serve early twentieth century conservative politics than to perform the work of history.

06 April 2008

Carnage and Culture: Overview

Victor Davis Hanson offers an ambitious thesis in Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (2001). He writes with force, conviction, and style. His central concern is for the “core elements of Western civilization” (11). These elements have made Europeans the world’s most lethal killers, and has made “the history of warfare … often the brutal history of Western victory” (24). His conclusion highlights the cultural superiority of the West, and its danger.

Western civilization has given mankind the only economic system that works, a rationalist tradition that alone allows us material and technological progress, the sole political structure that ensures the freedom of the individual, a system of ethics and a religion that brings out the best in humankind—and the most lethal practice of arms conceivable.
Hanson, Carnage and Culture, 455.

We need not fear wars between Western civilization and Others, he suggests, for the West will prevail. But, when Western states fight, the carnage is astounding. “Gettysburg in a single day took more Americans than did all the Indian wars of the nineteenth century” (453).

Superiority of Western Civilization

Hanson’s implicit argument appears to be the main point: Western military victories reveal the superiority of Western culture. Although he claims disinterest in “contemporary cultural debates” (xv), he takes several shots in these battles. He lauds the work of colleagues he considers “custodians of our cultural heritage in often scary and depressing times” (xvi). He casts aspersion upon Kirkpatrick Sale, Michel Foucault, Tzvetan Todorov, Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, and others on the Left, labeling their work “anti-Western criticism” in opposition to “the traditionalists’ defense of Western Civilization” (470). Hanson takes issue with the “biological determinism” of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), to which his book offers a general counterpoint. He directly addresses Diamond’s book in only a few pages (15-19); Some reviewers have noted the inadequacy of this brief critique (Fred M. Blum), while others find it compelling (Association for Renaissance Martial Arts). Both Hanson and Diamond eschew racial explanations for the preeminence in global affairs of Western Europe and its former colonies, especially the United States.

Hanson was a professor of classics at California State University, Fresno when he wrote Carnage and Culture, and is now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. This book on war and culture must be understood in terms of arguments made more explicit in Who Killed Homer?: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (1998), which Hanson coauthored with John Heath. Their perspective is stated succinctly an essay adapted from the book for Stanford Magazine in 1998.

The demise of classics means more than the implosion of an inbred academic discipline, more than the disappearance of one more bookosaurus here and there. For chained to this sinking academic bureaucracy called classics are the ideas, the values, the vision of classical Greece and Rome. These are the ideas and values that have shaped and defined Western civilization, a vision of life that has ironically come under increasing attack here in the elite universities of the West just as its mutated form is metastasizing throughout the globe. Very few in America now know much about the origins of the West in ancient Greece—and our citizens are moving further from the central philosophical and ethical tenets that are so necessary if we are to understand and manage the leisure, affluence and freedom of the West.

This ignorance of Greek wisdom should be of crucial interest to every American—not because the West is being supplanted by some global multiculturalism (as so many academics proclaim), but quite the opposite: because its institutions and material culture are now overwhelming the world. The Greeks—and the Greeks alone—bequeathed us constitutional government, individual rights, freedom of expression, an open economy, civilian control of the military, separation of religious and political authority, private property, free scientific inquiry and open dissent. And for better or worse, these are the things most on this earth now desire.
Who Killed Homer?Stanford Magazine

These arguments are carried forward in the rhetoric of the final sentence where Hanson declares that our civilization tracing its core elements to the ancient Greeks carries “a weighty and sometimes ominous heritage that we must neither deny nor feel ashamed about” (455). They are argued more persuasively through abundant references—including the epigraph to every chapter—to a wide range of Greek and Roman texts—including histories, philosophy, and drama. The ancients and their writings—even their disagreements—are his point of reference whether discussing Charles Martel’s halt of the advance of Islam into Europe, the end of Japanese expansion through the Pacific in their defeat at Midway, or even Jane Fonda’s 1972 trip to Hanoi.

His argument by reference is effective. Hanson’s book has been driving me into the texts of Thucydides (and he wrote the introduction to Robert Strassler’s The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War) and those of Plato; I appreciate the provocation. I regard it as tragic that my formal education included no study of Roman classics and few Greek texts: Sophocles’ Oedipus the King in high school English, Plato’s Republic and Phaedrus in conjunction with Jacques Derrida in graduate school. On the other hand, I learned to chase footnotes and other such references early on, and courses as wide ranging as introduction to psychology, philosophy of religion, history of the Renaissance, and seminar in seventeenth and eighteenth century American literature were full of references to the ancients. In consequence, I did a lot of self-directed reading. Still yet, although all true education is self-education, there are many benefits from reading the Western canon in company with others: benefits that are largely absent from my schooling. Although my students and colleagues know me as a multiculturalist and some see me as a postmodernist, I deplore these gaps in my knowledge.

On the other hand, I would not urge cancellation of my course in American Indian History in favor of more study of Aristotle, while it seems that Hanson would. On his blog, Works and Days, he reduces the academic reform that led to such courses as declarations that “America was singularly racist.” I disagree vehemently with his caricature of courses, books, and other phenomena traveling under the label of multiculturalism. His reasoning in such editorials relies upon straw man arguments and bad history. He states for example, “[f]or forty years critics have attacked Western culture … the charge was that our culture was inordinately dominated by white, heterosexual Christian men, … the solution was to enact affirmative action, …”. President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925, which coined the term “affirmative action” goes back a bit more than forty years, and was not rooted in attacks upon Western culture. Moreover, Native American Indian preference hiring in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which serves Native peoples, dates to its implementation by Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier in 1934. Of course this preferential employment policy is not really part of Affirmative Action, although it bears similarity. Hanson’s blanket statement is the sort of rhetoric that appeals to neoconservatives, but it falls short as accurate history. Education in the classics without deeper study of the history of one’s own nation will not serve “constitutional government, individual rights, … free scientific inquiry and open dissent.”

Initial Assessments and Reviews

I started reading Carnage and Culture while pursuing the footnotes to a novel interpretation of Spanish colonization of the Americas (see the note on method in "Victor Davis Hanson on Iraq"). I tried to keep my foray into his text brief, but failed. I found his writing engaging and his arguments provocative. I could not stop with the few select chapters that initially seemed adequate to my purpose. Hanson’s text also drove me to read Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico (1993)—one of his key sources for the chapter “Technology and the Wages of Reason.” Thomas offers explanations for the success of Cortés from which Hanson departs (see my “Carnage and Culture: Tenochtitlán”—forthcoming here).

Hanson’s book deserves critical attention and critique, as John Lynn notes in Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (2003).

In his provocative volumes, The Western Way of War and Carnage and Culture, the noted classical scholar Victor Davis Hanson maintains that the Greek manner of fighting established a pattern that has endured for 2,500 years in the West. The implications of his thesis are profound. If it is correct, then a form of combat that appeared no later than the seventh century B.C. can explain the European conquest of the globe and the continued military preeminence of the West to the dawn of the twenty-first century. Hanson’s thesis challenges us to examine what is essential and distinctive about Western warfare, and we gain by the effort even should we ultimately find its bold conclusion wanting.
Lynn, Battle, 3.

Bob Bateman brought Battle to my notice through his declaration, “Carnage and Culture is one of the few works of history to ever prompt an entire book written in rebuttal almost immediately” (“But the dawn is breakin’”). Bateman’s multi-part review of Carnage and Culture finds little of merit.

Some other reviewers find Hanson’s arguments convincing. Hal Elliot Wert, Journal of Military History (2003), celebrates “gems of information that repeatedly challenge the short-sighted contemporary view of history” (546). Other favorable reviews are more balanced, such as John Hillen’s Joint Force Quarterly (Autumn 2005) assessment, “Hanson’s provocative thesis is more right than wrong … [his] enduring contribution is to reintroduce the power of culture to the debate about military effectiveness” (118). Publishers Weekly predicted “Hanson’s direct, literate style and his evenhandedness should appeal to the liberalist middle of the left and right alike” (16 July 2001, 176).

At least one celebration of his book trots out the clichéd binary that constructs a world of “anti-Western radicals” and “pro-Western conservatives” (David Rodman, Journal of Strategic Studies [September 2002], 213). However, Rodman’s praise does disservice to Hanson’s book. Many of those that comprise the bloc of “pro-Western conservatives,” particularly significant numbers that are influential in American politics, do not favor “politics apart from religion” (Hanson, 4). Not all conservatives in America agree that core elements of the Western values they embrace include “free inquiry, the scientific method, unfettered research, and capitalist production” (Hanson, 361).

Even Hanson’s treatment of Jane Fonda’s 1972 visit to Hanoi differs from that of some conservatives. Henry Mark Holzer and Erika Holzer, for example, in their “Aid and Comfort”: Jane Fonda in North Vietnam (2002) build a case that Jane Fonda could have been tried and found guilty for treason. They summarize key points of their book on their website in an article written in response to Fonda’s My Life So Far (2005).

Fonda’s transparently crude attempts to provide the Communists with a famous American voice to mouth their propaganda and undermine our war efforts in Vietnam could have had only one purpose: to provide aid and comfort to our enemy.
An American Traitor: Guilty as Charged

Hanson agrees that Fonda’s actions “may have been treasonous” (434), but locates these actions in context of similar acts of protest back to 480 B.C. “Plato’s thoughts on the battle [Salamis] were near treasonous” (59).

The strange propensity for self-critique, civilian audit, and popular criticism of military operations—itself part of the larger Western tradition of personal freedom, consensual government, and individualism—thus poses a paradox. The encouragement of open assessment and the acknowledgement of error within the military eventually bring forth superior planning and a more flexible response to adversity.
Hanson, Carnage and Culture, 438.

I am still struggling to understand how Plato's criticism of the unleashing of democracy was treasonous, but this struggle has me reading The Laws. Such provocation speaks to the importance of Hanson's book, if not the merits of his arguments. The highest praise I can offer Carnage and Culture is that it sends me in new directions of inquiry. I expect to write more in the coming weeks (or months) about antiwar protests during the Sixties (a term that embraces the years 1958-1974), the relationship between Hanson’s military history and cultural history, and the contrast his book offers to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.

01 April 2008

Reading Challenge Update

In early January, I mentioned the reading challenge my partner and I set for ourselves this year. With one quarter of 2008 behind us, it is time to take stock. In the past three months we have read twenty-eight books totaling 8323 pages. If it were a contest, I would be way behind as my wife has read two books and 965 pages more than me.

Not shown in the photo: Dean Koontz, The Darkest Evening of the Year.

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