The Need for Historical Thinking

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Here is Eric Alterman at The New Yorker:

Donald Trump is the king not only of lies but also of ahistorical assertions. It’s hard to pick a favorite among the thousands of falsehoods that Trump has told as President, but one recent shocker was when he insisted, ignoring everything we know about the Soviet Union’s lawless behavior, that “the reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there.” (The usually Trump-friendly Wall Street Journal editorial page claimed, “We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President.”) Republicans, for the past few decades, have depended on Americans’ inability to make sense of history in judging their policies. How else to explain the fact that, under Trump, they have succeeded in turning legal immigration into the excuse for all the country’s ills, when any clear historical analysis would demonstrate that it has been the fount of the lion’s share of America’s innovation, creativity, and economic production?

“Yes, we have a responsibility to train for the world of employment, but are we educating for life, and without historical knowledge you are not ready for life,” Blight told me. As our political discourse is increasingly dominated by sources who care nothing for truth or credibility, we come closer and closer to the situation that Walter Lippmann warned about a century ago, in his seminal “Liberty and the News.” “Men who have lost their grip upon the relevant facts of their environment are the inevitable victims of agitation and propaganda. The quack, the charlatan, the jingo . . . can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information,” he wrote. A nation whose citizens have no knowledge of history is asking to be led by quacks, charlatans, and jingos. As he has proved ever since he rode to political prominence on the lie of Barack Obama’s birthplace, Trump is all three. And, without more history majors, we are doomed to repeat him.

Read the entire piece here.

10 thoughts on “The Need for Historical Thinking

  1. Mr. Alterman seems to start with the false assumption that a room filled with credentialed historians and academics will necessarily guide U.S. foreign policy to success. If that is indeed his assumption, I would invite him to go back and re-read David Halberstam’s noted work, THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST. Some of the country’s keenest academic and diplomatic minds facilitated America’s descent into the Vietnam debacle.

    Please don’t get me wrong; I am all in favor of reasoned historical analysis. (Even now, I am reading THE GREAT GAME by Peter Hopkirk to gain an understanding of our challenges in Afghanistan.) There are two poles in play in any policy debate———the no-nothings on one hand vs. the ivory tower academics on the other. The truth is usually somewhere in the middle.

    True to current New Yorker Magazine prejudice, Mr. Alterman places President Trump in the no-nothing camp. No surprise here. The New Yorker along with the rest of the liberal establishment media has been in emotional meltdown mode since the 2016 election. By the way, I can recall reading The New Yorker as early as the late 1960s when it was actually sane in its approach to current events.

    As far as Trump’s idea that some of the terrorism within Russia has certain roots in Afghanistan…..we’ll, that’s true. While I am not certain that his stated chronology of events matches history exactly, the President was at least correct in drawing the general connection. It only makes sense that we could work more closely with the Russians to combat Islamic terrorism. Putin is no Sunday school teacher, but we share with him a vulnerability to the same scourge.

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    • “True to current New Yorker Magazine prejudice, Mr. Alterman places President Trump in the no-nothing camp.”

      It’s not so much an unreasoned bias, or prejudice, as it is adherence to informed observation. Just out of curiosity, do you ever acknowledge the vast numbers of non-liberal, non-leftist, some would even say conservative to very conservative, voices that share the same observation that Trump is a know nothing that is just gliding on gibberish guided only by what his gut feels like at any given moment (often parroting Fox News yammering know nothings)? Do you really in your heart of hearts think that this is the kind of unserious, inexperienced, non-intelect that should be “leading” the nation in such complex and dangerous times? I’m asking for the ghost of George Washington. And perhaps for the entire national security and military command.

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      • Jim in STL,

        I am not sure I understood your comments about George Washington, but let me address your other points.
        1. Yes, there are conservative commentators and politicians who do not like Trump. I don’t, however, think their animus is built as much on their assessment of Trump’s intellect as it is built upon his brash style and bad boy Queens personna. Most of the people who have dealings with him personally don’t come away saying he is a dunce or a rube.
        I also think there are Washington conservatives who are a part of the Swamp. The Swamp makes people of all ideologies rich and powerful. Trump does not play by the unwritten rules which have governed the behavior of those who gain much personally from their positions in D.C. In other words, he is not a part of the club.
        Some conservatives also have genuine policy difference with Trump on trade issues especially.

        2. I don’t think the Fox News people are know-nothings. The classic definition of that term does not match the personalities you see daily. Are they highbrow salon types? No, not for the most part, but they are not no-nothings, Jim. And, by the way, I don’t watch a lot of T.V. news on any channel. That includes Fox.
        James

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    • I don’t get the sense that much of the media is not acting sanely. It is very possible there is great frustration when a huge, (a Trumpian HUGE), portion of the President’s political power and popularity. where he is popular, depends on a suspension of truth, reality, and historical knowledge by both the president and that segment of that are his supporters.
      I used to read a bit about post modern thinking, especially the tendency to think facts and truth are very subjective. I am 65 and thought I observed it in people younger than myself primarily. But I think the President might be one of the pioneers of that way of approaching the issues of the day.

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  2. It’s endlessly amusing to listen to a committed Leftist like Alterman bemoan a lack of proper historical thinking — on the part of benighted Republicans, of course — while the thought leaders and emerging rock stars of the political party which he supports go all in for socialism, that historical success story everywhere it has been tried.

    Folks who whitewash and romanticize Communism (see the NYT’s Onion-worthy pieces — I wish I was making this up — “Lenin’s Eco-Warriors” and “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism” as classic exemplars of this fertile genre), wear Che t-shirts, laud Cuban health care, bromanced Chavez, can’t figure out what might have gone wrong in Venezuela, draw moral equivalencies between Israel and Iran, should be taken very seriously when lamenting abject historical ignorance.

    Motes and beams.

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    • Tony, that’s apples and oranges. Those people wearing Che shirts don’t represent us. President Trump does. He represents you. He represents me. He represents all of us. His eyes are our eyes. His beam IS our beam.

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      • Alex: I disagree. Mr. Alterman’s argument is that Republicans largely support Trump out of historical ignorance. “Republicans, for the past few decades, have depended on Americans’ inability to make sense of history in judging their policies.” This is the standard ‘MAGA-hat-people-are-easily-manipulated know-nothings’ theme cherished by many progressive media types.

        Thus, Alterman says they need to be taught — re-educated, if you will — by those who are not susceptible to “quacks, charlatans and jingos.” Of course, he counts himself and his ideological fellow travelers (dare I say, on the Right Side of History) as chief among those inured to such flimflammery. And, further, he casts himself and other who think like him as credentialed, neutral arbiters and instructors on the key lessons of history as they should be applied to present day policies.

        My point is that given the current hard to port trajectory of the D party and its panoply of eager, Springtime for Socialism presidential aspirants, I find his one-sided thesis about historical amnesia and misedumecation to be monumentally lacking in self-awareness.

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        • Tony,
          You are correct. Many liberals in the 1930s and 1940s were apologists for Joseph Stalin. Today, they conveniently forget that historic fact.
          James

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      • Well, as a Christian I can say he doesn’t represent me. His beam is not mine. My role is to pray for those in political power. It’s not my role as a Christian to hitch my wagon to any politician.
        Pragmatically, sure I can pay attention to the politics of the day and it’s good to vote. A Christian can run for office. But I don’t want to put much significant hope in a politician.

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        • Jeff,
          And you are not alone in your view that Christians and political figures must necessarily travel in separate worlds.

          It is my impression that the really recent earnest involvement of U.S. Christians in the political process began in the 1970s as figures on the left, aided by the courts, started to challenge long-held, societal moral verities. Prior to that time Christians were not nearly as galvanized.

          James

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