Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
Historians in cahoots
Wednesday February 16, 2005
In his messianic inauguration address, President Bush spoke of America's global duty being defined by "the history we have seen together". Inevitably, this was a reference to the events of 9/11. But given how much a sense of US revolutionary heritage is now informing current policy, the broader history that Americans are experiencing together should be an equal cause for concern.
The latter half of the 20th century saw US scholars lead the way in popular social history. The world of the workplace, family life, native America and civil rights was chronicled with verve and style. The delicate oral histories of social chronicler Studs Terkel opened up the local and working-class past to mass audiences. He showed how the second world war was as much the people's as the statesmen's war. On National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service, history was dissected professionally and polemically.
Today, you would be hard-pressed to find such broad-ranging investigations of the American past. Instead, the bookshelves of Borders and Barnes & Noble are dominated by a very specific reading of the 18th century. This does not, in God-fearing America, represent a new found interest in the secular ideals of enlightenment and reason. Rather, an obsessive telling and retelling of that great struggle for liberty: the American Revolution.
Heroic biography has become the bestselling history brand of Bush's America. Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Abraham Lincoln are all speaking from the grave with new-found loquaciousness. Barely a week passes without another definitive life of a Founding Father, Brother or Sister, each one more adulatory than the last.
Not least the vice-president's wife, Dr Lynne Cheney, whose recent contribution, When Washington Crossed the Delaware: A Wintertime Story for Young Patriots, is the kind of "history" that any ministry of information would have been proud of. Museums and TV schedulers have not been slow to catch the mood. The New York Historical Society currently hosts a vast exhibition celebrating the life of Alexander Hamilton ("The Man who Made Modern America"); the History Channel has even cut into its second world war telethon to offer a series of bio-pics of great American revolutionaries.
Sadly, none of this has resulted in any substantive reinterpretation of the revolution or its principal actors. As Simon Schama rightly puts it, this is history as inspiration, not instruction. Instead of critical analysis, the public is being fed self-serving affirmation: war-time schlock designed to underpin the unique calling, manifest destiny and selfless heroism of the US nation and, above all, its superhuman presidents.
Needless to say, this goes down very well at the White House. We are told that the president's current reading matter includes biographies of Washington as well as Alexander Hamilton. For the biographical emphasis on the Great Man who has the character and vision to transcend as well as define his times fits well with a presidency that values personal instinct and prayer above reason and empiricism.
In fact, the historical community seems to be providing the ideal conditions for the Nietzschean approach of the Bush administration. As one senior presidential adviser scarily informed journalist Ron Suskind: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality ... we'll act again, creating other new realities ... We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Rather than tempering such terrifying ambition, US scholars are happy to play up to it. Historian Eliot Cohen penned an administration-friendly account of how former US presidents have instinctively been right in matters military, compared with their hapless, diffident generals, while prolific biographer Joseph Ellis has sought to offer posthumous suggestions from George Washington to George W.
At a time when the US imperium is rampaging across the globe, you might have thought there would be a historical concern to enlighten the domestic citizenry about foreign cultures and peoples. Instead, public scholars are feeding the nation's increasingly insulated mentality with a retreat into the cosy fables of their forebears. Amid the biography and hagiography, stories of Islamic civilisation or Middle East nation-building are among the many histories the American people are not seeing.
· Tristram Hunt is the author of Building Jerusalem: the Rise and Fall of the Victorian City
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
Paul A. Bové
Editor, boundary 2
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
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Wednesday, February 09, 2005
From: email@example.com [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Wednesday, February 09, 2005 1:44 AM
Subject: Guardian Unlimited: This Pollyanna army
email@example.com spotted this on the Guardian Unlimited site and
thought you should see it.
Note from firstname.lastname@example.org:
read it and weep
To see this story with its related links on the Guardian Unlimited site, go
This Pollyanna army
Bush will not admit that his troops are too exhausted to sustain his
vengeful global missions
Thursday January 27 2005
The most penetrating critique of the realism informing President Bush's
second inaugural address, a trumpet call of imperial ambition, was made one
month before it was delivered, by Lt Gen James Helmly, chief of the US Army
In an internal memorandum, he described "the Army Reserve's inability under
current policies, procedures and practices ... to meet mission requirements
associated with Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. The Army
Reserve is additionally in grave danger of being unable to meet other
operational requirements and is rapidly degenerating into a broken force".
These "dysfunctional" policies are producing a crisis "more acute and
hurtful", as the Reserve's ability to mobilise troops is "eroding daily".
The US force in Iraq of about 150,000 troops is composed of a "volunteer"
army that came into being with the end of military conscription during the
Vietnam war. More than 40% are National Guard and Reserves, most having
completed second tours of duty and being sent out again.
The force level has been maintained by the Pentagon only by "stop-loss"
orders that coerce soldiers to remain in service after their contractual
enlistment expires - a back-door draft.
Re-enlistment is collapsing, by 30% last year. The Pentagon justified this
de facto conscription by telling Congress that it is merely a short-term
solution that would not be necessary as Iraq quickly stabilises and an Iraqi
security force fills the vacuum. But this week the Pentagon announced that
the US force level would remain unchanged through 2006.
"I don't know where these troops are coming from. It's mystifying,"
Representative Ellen Tauscher, a ranking Democrat on the House armed
services committee, told me. "There's no policy to deal with the fact we
have a military in extremis."
Bush's speech calling for "ending tyranny in all the world" was of
consistent abstraction uninflected by anything as specific as the actual
condition of the military that would presumably be sent scurrying on various
But the speech was aflame with images of destruction and vengeance. The
neoconservatives were ecstatic, perhaps as much by their influence in
inserting their gnostic codewords into the speech as the dogmatism of the
For them, Bush's rhetoric about "eternal hope that is meant to be fulfiled"
was a sign of their triumph. The speech, crowed neocon William Kristol, who
consulted on it, was indeed "informed by Strauss" - a reference to Leo
Strauss, philosopher of obscurantist strands of absolutist thought, mentor
and inspiration to some neocons who believe they fulfil his teaching by
acting as tutors to politicians in need of their superior guidance.
'Informed" is hardly the precise word to account for the manipulation of
Bush's impulses by cultish advisers with ulterior motives.
Even as the neocons revelled in their influence, Bush's glittering
generalities, lofted on wings of hypocrisy, crashed to earth. Would we
launch campaigns against tyrannical governments in Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi
Arabia, or China?
Of course, the White House briefed reporters, Bush didn't mean his rhetoric
to suggest any change in strategy.
Unfortunately for Condoleezza Rice, such levels of empty abstraction could
not glide her through her Senate confirmation as secretary of state without
With implacable rigidity, she stood by every administration decision. There
was no disinformation on Saddam Hussein's development of nuclear weapons of
mass destruction; any suggestion that she had been misleading in the rush to
war was an attack on her personal integrity. The light military force for
the invasion was just right. And it was just right now.
Contrary to Senator Joseph Biden of the foreign relations committee, who
stated that there are only 14,000 trained Iraqi security forces, she
insisted there are 120,000. Why, secretary of defence Rumsfeld had told her
Then, implicitly acknowledging the failure to create a credible Iraqi army,
the Pentagon announced that the US forces would remain at the same level for
the next two years. Rice's Pollyanna testimony was suddenly inoperative.
The administration has no strategy for Iraq or for the coerced American army
plodding endlessly across the desert.
Representative Tauscher wonders when the House armed services committee,
along with the rest of the Congress, will learn anything from the Bush
administration that might be considered factual: "They are never persuaded
by the facts. Nobody can tell you what their plan is and they don't feel the
need to have one."
On the eve of the Iraqi election, neither the president's soaring rhetoric
nor the new secretary of state's fantasy numbers touch the brutal facts on
Sidney Blumethal is former senior adviser to President Clinton and author of
The Clinton Wars
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited
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Monday, February 07, 2005
The New York Times > Health > Mental Health & Behavior > For the Worst of Us, the Diagnosis May Be 'Evil'
I like this, a secularized use of evil. I could do without the diagnostic rhetoric, but the project is admirable. I say this given how I began in Montreal more than a decade ago to try to bring the concept back into criticism, as I tried with 'boredom' several times in the last few years.