Honesty, History, And A College Of History And Law
Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
Dear Professor Gardner:
On Sunday Michael Kinsley wrote a long essay in The Times Book Review called Election Day. Roughly three and one-half pages in length, it was given pride of place; it began on the first page. This apparently signifies that the editor of the Book Review thought it important. The essay, as you would guess from its title, is about American politics -- primarily, it seems, about what is wrong with American politics. (Plenty is wrong with them.) In the three and one-half pages Kinsley discusses, or at least mentions, ten books on politics, including ones by a Senator, professors, and various pundits. But, when all the sturm und drang is done, what does Kinsley say is the biggest problem in American politics today? Let me quote him:
In my view, the worst form of cheating in American democracy today is intellectual dishonesty. The conversation in our democracy is dominated by disingenuousness. Candidates and partisan commentators strike poses of outrage that they don’t really feel, take positions that they would not take if the shoe was on the other foot (e.g., criticizing Bush when you gave Clinton a pass, or vice versa), feel no obligation toward logical consistency.
* * * *
The great flaw in American democracy is not electoral irregularities, purposeful or accidental. It’s not money (which, even under current law, cannot in the end actually buy votes). It’s not even the inexplicable failure of all other Americans to vote my way or of politicians to enact my own agenda. It’s not the broken promises and the outright lying, although we’re getting close. The biggest flaw in our democracy is, as I say, the enormous tolerance for intellectual dishonesty. Politicians are held to account for outright lies, but there seems to be no sanction against saying things you obviously don’t believe. There is no reward for logical consistency, and no punishment for changing your story depending on the circumstances. Yet one minor exercise in disingenuousness can easily have a greater impact on an election than any number of crooked voting machines. And it seems to me, though I can’t prove it, that this problem is getting worse and worse.
Kinsley goes on to discuss what he calls “the most corrupt” thing Bush did during the 2000 election crisis. It involved “Intellectual dishonesty” and I have to admit to not having heard of it before and to being thunderstruck by it:
A few days before the 2000 election, the Bush team started assembling people to deal with a possible problem: what if Bush won the popular vote but Gore carried the Electoral College. They decided on, and were prepared to begin, a big campaign to convince the citizenry that it would be wrong for Gore to take office under those circumstances. And they intended to create a tidal wave of pressure on Gore’s electors to vote for Bush, which arguably the electors as free agents have the authority to do. In the event, of course, the result was precisely the opposite, and immediately the Bushies launched into precisely the opposite argument: the Electoral College is a vital part of our Constitution, electors are not free agents, threatening the Electoral College result would be thumbing your nose at the founding fathers, and so on. Gore, by the way, never did challenge the Electoral College, although some advisers urged him to do so.
Of all the things Bush did and said during the 2000 election crisis, this having-it-both- ways is the most corrupt. It was reported before the election and is uncontested, but no one seems to care, because so much of our politics is like that. And no electoral reform can fix this problem. Intellectual dishonesty can’t be banned or regulated or “capped” like money. The only way it can be brought under control is if people start voting against it. If they did, the problem would go away. That’s democracy.
Kinsley’s view is most congenial to this author since, for several years, I have been saying in blogs and books that dishonesty in all its forms -- outright lies, spin, hypocrisy, failures of disclosure, etc. -- is the single most important problem facing this country. It is an even greater problem than the widespread lack of competence -- which is itself a major problem -- because it is very hard to act competently when one is acting on the basis of false information. So it is nice to see, for the first time, a leading member of the establishment media say that intellectual dishonesty -- with its associated lack of concern for the truthfulness or accuracy of one’s statements -- is the major problem we face. One hopes the rest of the mainstream media picks up the theme, and, since it is Michael Kinsley who has now said it, perhaps this will happen. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.
One of the reasons for not holding one’s breath, for skepticism, is that the mainstream media, like politicians themselves, seems to place relatively little value on truth. It is more concerned to report the latest White House banalities, or to report imbecilic statements in order to supposedly insure that both sides are presented, than it is in the truth.
One of the worst correlative aspects of the media’s failure to really care about the truth, while pretending the opposite and using that pretense as an excuse for reporting horrendous political claptrap under the guise of presenting both sides, is the media’s lack of concern with or knowledge about history and for what history shows. (If an event is more than a few days old, the media has little interest in it.) To know no history, of course, and not to care about what it shows, is a method of enabling the perpetration on the public of dishonest views that would be exploded by (even slight) knowledge of historical facts. It is a method, that is, of enabling pols to fool the public. There was a wonderful example of this in a column by David Brooks of the Times last Thursday. Three and a half years after we invaded Iraq, three and a half years too late, Brooks said the following:
Policy makers are again considering fundamental changes in our Iraq policy, but as they do I hope they read Elie Kedourie’s essay. “The Kingdom of Iraq: A Retrospect.”
Kedourie, a Baghdad-born Jew, published the essay in 1970. It’s a history of the regime the British helped establish over 80 years ago, but it captures an idea that is truer now than ever: Disorder is endemic to Iraq. Today’s crisis is not three years old. It’s worse now, but the crisis is perpetual. This is a bomb of a nation.
“Brief as it is, the record of the kingdom of Iraq is full of bloodshed, treason and rapine,” Kedourie wrote.
And his is a Gibbonesque tale of horror. There is the endless Shiite-Sunni fighting. There is a massacre of the Assyrians, which is celebrated rapturously in downtown Baghdad. Children are gunned down from airplanes. Tribal wars flare and families are destroyed. A Sunni writer insults the Shiites and the subsequent rioters murder students and policemen. A former prime minister is found on the street by a mob, killed, and his body is reduced to pulp as cars run him over in joyous retribution.
Kedourie described “a country riven by obscure and malevolent factions, unsettled by the war and its aftermath.” He observed, “The collapse of the old order had awakened vast cupidities and revived venomous hatreds.”
* * * * *
The British tried to encourage responsible Iraqi self-government, to no avail. “The political ambitions of the Shia religious headquarters have always lain in the direction of theocratic domination,” a British official reported in 1923. They “have no motive for re- fraining from sacrificing the interests of Iraq to those which they conceive to be their own.”
* * * * *
The Iraq of his youth, Kedourie concluded, “was a make-believe kingdom built on false pretenses.” He quoted a British report from 1936, which noted that the Iraqi government would never be a machine based on law that treated citizens impartially, but would always be based on tribal favoritism and personal relationships. Iraq, Kedourie said, faced two alternatives: “Either the country would be plunged into chaos or its population should become universally the clients and dependents of an omnipotent but capricious and un- stable government.” There is, he wrote, no third option.
Now, I ask you, why did the press not concern itself with Kedourie’s essay back when it would have counted, in 2003 during the run-up to war? The answer, I’m afraid, is what is often said here. The press doesn’t care about history. If it didn’t happen yesterday, it might as well not have happened. (Politicians in Congress, I note, have access to extensive intellectual resources and research capabilities, even if they themselves are not very knowledgeable or smart. But, like the press, they have no interest in history either.) By not caring about history, by ignoring Kedourie when knowing what he had said might have done the rest of us some good, the press enabled the liars in the White House to get us into a war partially on the claim that we would create a model democracy in Iraq. There were other reasons too why the Pretexter-In-Chief was able to fool us, but the media’s lack of concern with history, it’s ignoring of writers like Kedourie, was one of the relevant reasons.
As someone with a deep interest in history, I read all the history and biography I can get to, and believe deeply in Harry Truman’s aphorism that there is nothing new under the sun except the history that you don’t know. It seems pretty plain that history presents recurrent patterns -- which is the basis of Steven Kinzner’s marvelous book entitled Overthrow: America’s Century Of Regime Change From Hawaii To Iraq, a few chapters of which have been discussed here previously (chapters on the Philippines Insurrection and the overthrow of Mossadegh of Iran). Sometimes, I note, one finds historical analogs where one did not previously know they exist. For example, by the time one is even a quarter done with the recent biography of Julius Caesar entitled Caesar: Life Of A Colossus, by Adrian Goldsworthy, one is well aware of similarities between the Roman politics of Caesar’s day and the politics of our own. Roman leaders were pretty much a hereditary group (the equivalent of Bushes, Kennedys, Gores, etc.) They spent a bundle on political campaigns (just like today) and often went into debt to finance them (like today). They made fortunes off of politics and empire (as current pols and contractors do). Bribery and extortion were big. (Today we call them campaign contributions.) While the Roman pols and the other aristos were rich, the poor were very numerous and were crammed into very crowded slums (as in our big cites). When the Roman pols felt like it, they violated the law or changed it to suit their purposes (like George Bush). The only thing I can think of offhand that was different is that many of the most important Roman leaders were military men who had risked their lives in battle (Lyndon Johnson was not, Richard Nixon was not, George Bush and Dick Cheney are not), and it was fairly common to simply kill your enemies and even to have their heads paraded around on a pole. We’re not there yet, although leaders’ enemies are simply killed in lots of other countries.
Another work of history that presents some interesting parallels right from the get go is The Barbary Wars, by Frank Lambert. It turns out that to buy favor -- in this case to enable their oceanic commerce to ply the seas without being hijacked by Barbary pirates -- the great powers of Europe, and for awhile the US too, simply bribed the Barbary states. England, France, Spain, many others too -- they would all pay large sums to the Barbary States (to the Barbarians), would give lavish presents to the Barbary leaders, and would give the Barbarians warships and cannons, i.e., would give them implements of war which sometimes were turned back on the givers. At first the US did the same. To me, all this doesn’t sound so different from what the US has now been doing for many decades in the 20th and 21st centuries. To buy allies we give huge sums of money to middle eastern and far eastern nations that to a large extent despise us (we call it foreign aid sometimes), and we give them or sell them vast amounts of military equipment which sometimes gets turned back against us or our allies. I wonder whether -- I don’t know, but wonder whether -- there is a lesson in the fact that we eventually had to fight the Barbarians.
Well, even if it doesn’t precisely repeat itself, history does occur in patterns. It is thus a disaster that politicians and the press care nothing about it and that our kids are taught less and less of it. This writer learned decades ago that, when there is something so systemically wrong as the wide-ranging lack of concern for history, there is little or nothing that an individual can do about it on a wide-ranging basis. Rather, the most one can do is to tend one’s own backyard, one’s own garden, in a way that makes a tiny, even an infinitesimal, dent in the problem. To that end the Massachusetts School of Law has requested the state’s permission to begin an undergraduate program in history and law, a program in which students would concentrate in and could get a degree in only a single major, history and law. As part of the program, students would learn American history from A to Z, would learn about the relationship between American and world history, would learn the history of scientific ideas, mathematical ideas, economic ideas, etc. There would also be courses in the crucial subject of the lessons of history. This topic is often neglected today because historians, it would appear, unlike Kinzner, seem to be experts in and to think in terms of given historical periods rather than in terms of recurrent patterns that continually make themselves felt and are making themselves felt today. (Although there can, of course, be argument over what the patterns are, I think extensive agreement -- consensus -- might well develop if the matter were extensively studied and that consensus may even, in fact, exist already.) And, to address a major problem of modern higher education, students would have to write and write and write, on the twin theories that one learns how to write by writing and that clear writing makes for clear thinking. As well, making use of MSL’s extensive experience and consequent know-how in making rigorous education available inexpensively (the law school’s tuition is only 40 to 45 percent of the average in New England), the tuition for what will be a very rigorous undergraduate program would be only about $6,000 per year.
We hope the state will permit this program to be undertaken. It is a beginning to a much needed effort to cure the historical ignorance that afflicts, and adversely affects, this country. It may be a beginning only in our own little backyard, our own garden, but it would be a beginning that lots of people could replicate elsewhere.
This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at email@example.com. Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.
(Please include your name so that we may publish your remarks.)
Articles may be quoted or republished in full with attribution
to the author and harvardsquarecommentary.org.