Category Archives: History

History Does Not Exist

Check out this post from the World Policy blog, “Democracy in China: The Popularity of Alexis de Toqueville in the Middle Kingdom” (emphasis added):

First there was Confucius. Then there was Mao Zedong. And now Alexis de Tocqueville tops the must-read list for avid Chinese intellectuals and bloggers.

The French aristocrat who limned the definitive political sociology of the United States almost two centuries ago might seem an unlikely crux of controversy in 21st-century China. But it is Tocqueville’s other classic, L’ancien régime et la Révolution—with its thesis that revolutions come not when masses are downtrodden, but when their lot is improving—that has sparked today’s hot debate.

After all, China arguably offers the ideal test of Tocqueville’s thesis. As one Chinese blogger puts it, “Don’t you feel that China now is nearly a copy of France in those [prerevolutionary] days?”

Or, as Cheng Li, director of Chinese research at the Brookings Institution, putsit, Chinese developments today seriously challenge the Western academic consensus that the Chinese Communist Party has somehow found the magic wand of “resilient” (or “adaptive”) authoritarianism to maintain its power indefinitely.


What the two [main] camps [within the CCP] are feuding about is, in essence, the verity of de Tocqueville’s apercu that revolutions erupt not when people suffer the most, but rather when their lives start improving, as the lives of today’s young generation have done spectacularly. Both camps tacitly see today’s China as anancien regime that is in crisis. Hardliners contend that the only way the Chinese Communists can hang on to power is by suppressing dissent. Reformers argue instead that the only way the party can stave off being swept away by the gathering storm is to loosen its tight bureaucratic control voluntarily and invite outsiders into the political game gradually.

For his part, Cheng Li thinks that time is short, but reform now could still forestall revolution by soliciting support from the 200,000 lawyers and other newcomers in China’s increasingly pluralist society. “If the CCP wants to regain the public’s confidence and avoid a bottom-up revolution, it must embrace genuine systematic democratic change in the country,” he contends. “[Like Taiwan in the 1980s] the CCP must now either make changes to be on the right side of history or be left behind.” Even if there is no “real consensus for the rule of law” in the party now, “sometimes the development of the rule of law happens through necessity, not due to the noble ideas of political leaders.”

This was an interesting post, but I want to take issue with the highlighted part, this idea of “History” with a capital “H” as something like a train moving inexorably forward.  On this view, history is more or less a force of nature, and a progressive one at that, steadily and unstoppably moving forward and making human societies more just as it does so.  To reject democracy in China–or the advances of the US Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, or the ongoing wave of legalization of gay marriage in many US states, and so on–is to be on the “wrong side of history,” to be in opposition to advances that were going to arrive sooner or later.  Because they are right.

The problem with this is that there is no History, not in the sense described above.  History is just the ensemble of stories we tell about people’s individual and collective actions in their societies and the ways these have changes over time.  If ethical progress is the yardstick we use to measure these actions, we should recognize that people are capable of taking 10 steps forward, 1000 steps back, and any variation or combination thereof.  History does not march forward; it’s not even linear!  We as individuals and as groups always have highly complex sets of choices to make that can take us in a number of directions, many of which with ethically ambiguous results.  That’s not to say that progress isn’t possible–I firmly believe it is–but we have to recognize that it isn’t automatic, and it can be rolled back.

I think the “history as History” view is problematic for a number of reasons.  It’s not very good history, methodologically speaking: it obscures the actions and dynamics that led to a certain situation or result.  It makes understanding progressive outcomes’ implications for the future much more difficult.  And it leads to a certain ethical complacency.  In my research in France I recently came across a work by an American historian named Todd Shepard called The Invention of Decolonization, in which he argues that metropolitan French authorities made use of the term “decolonization” to explain Algeria’s political independence from France, which came about in 1962.  It was easier and more politically expedient, Shepard argues, to see Algeria’s independence as just one instance of a larger historical process known as “decolonization,” which sooner or later brought about the end of direct colonial relationships, than to attend to the reasons for and dynamics of French colonialism and racism and to the effects the events of Algeria’s independence would have on Algerian and French society and the relationship between the two.

This seems to me a really powerful argument and one that applies to many, many other topics.

The War on Terror/Drugs

While doing research for my senior thesis last year (more on that, perhaps, another time), I read an excellent book by Greg Grandin called Empire’s Workshop, in which he argued that the Reagan administration’s training, funding, and other support for far-right Central American regimes in the 1980s could be seen as practice by US in imperial foreign policy, to be later reenacted by many of the same neoconservatives in the [George W.] Bush Administration’s War in Iraq.  (Man, sorry for that doozy of a hideous sentence.)  It’s a compelling argument, and Grandin concludes by describing the way these policies and tactics were re-imported to Central (and South) America in the US’s antinarcotics operations.

That last bit seems to be part of a broader critique of the “War on Terror” and the “War on Drugs” in which critics see each “war” as an inappropriate use of US global police power.  They argue that these “wars” do little to solve and may even exacerbate the problems they address and that they tend to blend together.  I’ve always seen this sort of argument as a radical position that didn’t crop up in the mainstream, but then I read this New York Times article today, “U.S. Expands Drug Fight to Africa, a Newer Hub for Cartels”:

In a significant expansion of the war on drugs, the United States has begun training an elite unit of counternarcotics police in Ghana and planning similar units in Nigeria and Kenya as part of an effort to combat the Latin American cartels that are increasingly using Africa to smuggle cocaine into Europe.


The aggressive response by the United States is also a sign of how greater attention and resources have turned to efforts to fight drugs as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down.

“We see Africa as the new frontier in terms of counterterrorism and counternarcotics issues,” said Jeffrey P. Breeden, the chief of the D.E.A.’s Europe, Asia and Africa section. “It’s a place that we need to get ahead of — we’re already behind the curve in some ways, and we need to catch up.”

If even US officials are openly admitting some sort of continuity between the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, then either the above-mentioned critique isn’t as radical as I thought or the fuzzy boundaries between these operations isn’t considered problematic or embarrassing anymore.

Literacy Militancy

Two Sandinistas

An interesting little story about the Sandinistas (FSLN) I came across in this piece on anti-intellectualism and leftist activism, which the author situates in the context of a former teacher of hers reporting on the FSLN in the 1980s:

She had arrived shortly after the FSLN began implementing Carlos Fonseca Amador’s vision of a strong relationship between literacy and militancy. Fonseca Amador was a librarian, teacher, and founder of the FSLN. Years after his death, his ideas lived on, and took the shape of literacy brigades. This visionary project sent 100,000 volunteers into peasant communities to end illiteracy. Drawing from the example set by the Cuban Literacy Campaign, which literally eliminated illiteracy in that country, they adapted the concept to their own unique conditions. Jesuit priest Fernando Cardenal coordinated the effort, and described it this way: “not only would we teach people letters and what those letters mean, we would also make it possible for peasant farmers and urban workers to learn about their own situation and the economic, social, and political context in which they lived. We were going to teach them to answer questions like, why am I poor? We wanted them to learn to distinguish between a tragedy like a drought or an earthquake and a tragedy like poverty. We wanted them to learn that nature provokes hurricanes while human beings create poverty. Making this distinction is what conscientización is all about.”

As usual, check out the whole thing. (It’s not long!)

Image by Robert Croma

Whether you like it or not

So what does it mean to be Socialist these days? Steven Erlanger, Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, answers:

Not very much. Certainly nothing radical. In a sense, socialism was an ideology of the industrialized 19th century, a democratic Marxism, and it succeeded, even in (shh!) the United States. Socialism meant the emancipation of the working class and its transformation into the middle class; it championed social justice and a progressive tax system, and in that sense has largely done its job. As the industrialized working class gets smaller and smaller, socialism seems to have less and less to say.

Center-right parties have embraced or absorbed many of the ideas of socialism: trade unions, generous welfare benefits, some form of nationalized health care, even restrictions on carbon emissions. The right argues that it can manage all these programs more efficiently than the left, and some want to shrink them, but only on the fringes is there talk of actually dismantling the welfare state.


So why the prospect of “European socialism” is so frightening to some Americans puzzles Europeans, a mystery as deep as the American obsession with abortion or affection for the death penalty.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the student revolt of May 1968, known then as “Dany the Red,” is now “Dany the Green,” co-leader of the ecologist group in the European Parliament. “The fight between private property and state property is over,” he says, and traditional class distinctions are blurred. “There was never a purely socialist working class,” he suggested. “Socialism and social democracy today are about a society with more solidarity, more protection of people, more egalitarianism.” In a way, he said, socialism is defined today mostly by its contrast to neo-liberalism — by more reliance on the state and higher taxes on the wealthy.


“Socialism here is very statist,” says Marc-Olivier Padis, editor of the quarterly journal Esprit. The leading figures in the Socialist government are more creatures of the French establishment — elite schools and careers — than those under Mr. Sarkozy, he explained, “a combination reproducing the profile of Hollande himself.” Mr. Sarkozy was more of an outlier than Mr. Hollande, and much closer to business.

Belief in the centrality of the state to run, regulate and innovate remains a core belief of French socialism, and the size of the state is hardly going to be reduced under Mr. Hollande, whose few concrete promises include hiring 60,000 more teachers over five years, raising the minimum wage (the highest in the European Union) and creating a state bank for innovation.

The important takeaway from Erlanger’s essay is that in Europe and even the U.S. there are many programs and aspects of society that are, in fact, Socialist, contrary to what your average  Commie-hating voter might think. And as more of these programs are improved or established, the disconnect between the perception of Socialism being a bad thing and the actual benefits of these programs and how they are exactly what early Socialists envisioned, will persist or even increase.

Race and Democracy

Ta-Nehisi today.  Hard to excerpt, but outstanding, so let this entice you:

I don’t know how it all connects. Maybe it doesn’t. But I keep seeing this recurrence–most spectacularly in the Civil War–wherein great fights over our democracy, are so often close to fights over whiteness and blackness.

Obsessed with Intelligence

I just read an article by Chris Hayes called “Why Elites Fail,” which is adapted from his new book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy and presumably a condensed form of some of his central points.  His main argument is this: the unequal incomes produced by meritocratic systems always become self-perpetuating, maintaining elite status, diminishing social mobility, and undermining the meritocratic mechanisms that produced these results in the first place.  Hayes believes that just such a collapse of meritocracy has contributed heavily to the current elite stratification and social woes that characterize the United States in the 21st century.

The arguments are compelling, at least, and I’ve heard generally good things about the book, but what I found most interesting about this essay was Hayes’ discussion of the cultural valence of intelligence.  “Of all the status obsessions that preoccupy our elites,” says Hayes, “none is quite so prominent as the obsession with smartness.”  He goes on: “Intelligence is the core value of the meritocracy, one that stretches back to the early years of standardized testing, when the modern-day SAT descended from early IQ tests. To call a member of the elite “brilliant” is to pay that person the highest compliment.”

But, he says, this obsession with intelligence actually presents a huge danger:

While smartness is necessary for competent elites, it is far from sufficient: wisdom, judgment, empathy and ethical rigor are all as important, even if those traits are far less valued. Indeed, extreme intelligence without these qualities can be extremely destructive. But empathy does not impress the same way smartness does. Smartness dazzles and mesmerizes. More important, it intimidates. When a group of powerful people get together to make a group decision, conflict and argumentation ensue, and more often than not the decision that emerges is that which is articulated most forcefully by those parties perceived to be the “smartest.”

He discusses an example in Dick Cheney’s counsel and chief of staff (during his VP years) David Addington and concludes:

This is a potent articulation of the dark emotional roots of the Cult of Smartness: the desire to differentiate and dominate that the meritocracy encourages. Ironically, in seeking to stand apart, the Cult of Smartness can kill independent thought by subtly training people to defer to others whom one should “take seriously.”

This part of his essay is a fascinating illustration of the way that power, authority, and status become self-justifying.  Analytically, it’s the perfect cultural complement to an argument that focuses on social-economic (or “material”) factors, i.e., the way meritocratic institutions produce elites and the way these elites pull the newly accessible levers of social power to pull, as Hayes puts it, the ladder up behind them.

Image by Campus Progress

The core of liberalism

Reading through a book review by Eric Rauchway from the latest issue of Democracy (highlighted yesterday on this blog), I found a claim about political liberalism that made me a little uncomfortable.  The review itself seems good (I’ve read neither book discussed), but it’s Rauchway’s description of a speech in which Robert F. Kennedy discussed the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., that got me.  Here’s the relevant passage:

Kennedy’s extemporaneous speech summarized the basic elements of American liberalism at its postwar peak, and on the brink of a precipitous decline. It was less a philosophy than a political tendency, and it urged its proponents in the gentle direction of using politics to do better by their fellow citizens, especially those less fortunate. But Kennedy’s speech also evoked the essentially emotional component of liberalism: compassion and—the words were wisely chosen—“a feeling of justice” for those who suffer.

A couple things.  First, the description of liberalism as “less a philosophy than a political tendency.”  I’ve seen both conservatives and liberals describe their ideologies as a “tendency” or a “disposition,” but this seems wrong to me.  Liberalism and conservatism are certainly broad, umbrella terms that have encompassed many groups and have changed through history, but this does not mean that they represent something as vague as a disposition.  Liberals and conservatives tend to have somewhat consistent policy preferences that often reflect class interests, and failure to recognize this tends to obscure the actual content of these political philosophies and how they work in the world.

The same goes for the claim that compassion and a “feeling of justice” are the core of liberalism.  Conservatives might make the same claim–certainly law-and-order conservatives has a strong feeling of justice that guides them politically–as might leftists, or even, perhaps, partisans of the far right.

Democracy is a liberal publication, of course, so it’s not entirely surprising that a contributor would use vague but favorable terms to characterize liberalism.  But the point is that these terms are vague and not particularly useful from an analytical perspective.  To describe the “basic elements of American liberalism,” Rauchway would do better to talk about the political history of liberalism in the same way as the books he reviews: with attention to the historical contours of the ideology and to the political views and accomplishments of its proponents.

Pompous journals that you should read

Like a good action movie or one of my sports teams winning the World Series/Stanley Cup/Rosebowl I’m giddy about the new issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. Here’s an item by David Frum* on the future of the GOP. Yeah, that’s right, David Frum:

Already, polls show that Republican voters (as opposed to activists) prefer tax increases on upper-income earners to Medicare cuts. So long as the choice between taxes and Medicare cuts remains latent, the preferences of rank-and-file Republicans may not matter much. But as budget gaps widen, that tension will surely come to the fore.

The trend, as they say, is the trend only till it bends. Yet it’s also true that 12 years is not so very far away. Let’s hazard two plausible scenarios.

1) Reactionary Democrats. Democrats depend hugely on public-sector unions for votes and money. Suppose the party decides to make a priority of protecting their interests and those of their retirees. Democrats may call for higher taxes on the rich to pay for these benefits, but that math does not suffice. The non-rich young will also have to pay.

But the young of the 2020s will not only be poorer than the elderly. They will be ethnically different. Whereas public-sector retirees will be whiter and blacker than the total population, the young of the 2020s will be more Hispanic and Asian. Age competition will also be ethnic competition. Continue reading

The first doctor to reach Abraham Lincoln

The Papers of Abraham Lincoln project released the account of the first doctor to reach Abraham Lincoln after he was shot [Chicago Tribune]:

On Tuesday, the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project announced that it had discovered a copy of Leale’s report of events from that night.

“I immediately ran to the Presidents box and as soon as the door was opened was admitted and introduced to Mrs. Lincoln when she exclaimed several times, ‘O Doctor, do what you can for him, do what you can,'” the report says. “I told her we would do all that we possibly could.’’

The 21-page handwritten copy of Leale’s report was discovered about two weeks ago by researcher Helena Iles Papaioannou while she was poring through records at the National Archives in Washington. The Papers of Abraham Lincoln has been searching for documents written by or to Lincoln.

Leale’s original report has never been found. The newly discovered report is a copy written by a clerk.

Though Leale had sent a version of his report in 1867 to a congressional committee that investigated the assassination, Daniel W. Stowell, director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, said the new find was significant.

“What’s exciting about it is its immediacy and its lack of a sentimentality,’’ Stowell said in an interview. “It’s a very clinical report.’’

“Yet you get the sense of the helplessness of the doctors,’’ he added.


Leale, who was 23 in April 1865, described sitting about 40 feet from the president’s box, hearing a gunshot, seeing John Wilkes Booth leap to the stage and hearing cries that the “president had been murdered,” followed by shouts of “Kill the murderer.’’

He described examining Lincoln, moving the president to a boarding house across the street and remaining there with other doctors until Lincoln died the following morning.

“We  placed the President in bed in a diagonal position; as the bed was too short,” the report says.