New Criterion Looks at History

Mark Arkin, in the current (June) New Criterion, reviews David Hackett Fischer’s Liberty & Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas. (The review, “On the March”, is not available—at least yet—at the journal’s website.) This, the second in Fischer’s proposed series that began with Albion’s Seed (1989), is monumental–the review praises its power and breadth. He argues “one of the most successful parts” analyzes the various icons chosen by different areas of the country to represent “liberty”. Arkin has clearly found Fischer’s eye for the representative anecdote enjoyable and enlightening; these analyses shows us the patterns Fischer finds, ones in which the past & present intertwine. The work is intimidating; he argues “this is a work best dipped into at leisure, not read cover to cover” and concludes with a firm conclusion the work “is a monumental achievement and an extraordinary work of history.”

This book will give many pleasure – I’m looking forward to reading it and hope Lex (or someone else) reviews it. Before summer school started, I read Albion’s Seed after hearing its praises sung by Lex (and half my colleagues coming out of history & cultural geography). It was good; it gave rich insights into people, literature & history. (Huck Finn will never seem the same). I quote it to my daughter, as she analyzes country/western lyrics for her linguistics dissertation, and my other daughter, studying Moravian church history for her honors thesis. It was a relatively fast read because of his lucid prose and the narrative fun. Its range is sometimes breathtaking.

The review, however, led me to my copy of his new work ($1 hardback on Amazon) and his conclusion, with its description of 9/11:

This is the way that American traditions work. They are a long chain with short links that span sixteen generations of historical experience. On the morning of September 11, 2001, that tradition made a difference. Americans responded in exactly the same way as their forebears had done many times before. They also reacted in a way that is unique to people in free societies everywhere, with extraordinary initiative, energy, and autonomy. Free people are accustomed to acting on their own initiative. It is the way they live their lives. And in a community of freedom, they are experienced in the ways of acting together and improvising voluntary efforts that are both individual and collective. (711)

This is a moving context. It echoes the way historians speak of another time & place, as Edith Hamilton describes The Greek Way. But using that era to help us understand ours is familiar territory to the subject of another New Criterion essay. Keith Windschuttle’s “The Journalism of Warfare” (which is available), discusses how 9/11 & the WOT were reported. Critical of Fisk & Pilger, he pays tribute to Victor Davis Hanson and the context into which he put An Autumn of War.

A surprising advantage of an Ag school is that we knew Hanson from another perspective; long before 9/11 he spoken on his Field of Dreams; our daughter heard him again, discussing Greek military strategies when she toured St. John’s. Those works had the vigor and toughness of his lean & hardened body. Then, after 9/11, we found those years spent tending his grapes or restlessly moving about the classics classroom prepared him–though perhaps frustrating him at the same time. They didn’t seem to release that energy, that, now with focus, he applies. He writes powerfully as if he were a force of nature. With 9/11 (& the internet) he seemed to focus all that anger and passion and history – telling us not just of the Greeks but war and tragedy and heroism. We sensed a kind of strange joy in his ability, finally, to express what he felt so strongly. His writing takes no prisoners.

This evening, my family at the beach and papers to grade, I ate my supper watching Tim Russert. But it took me back to the noon mail & the New Criterion. He was interviewing David McCullough, who was gently hawking his new book, 1776, but hawking much more – his passion for history, his immense respect for Nathaniel Green and George Washington, his affection for the people that defined what we now have in that perilous year. And McCullough described the joy of research, the power of touching the papers that connected him with the lives of those long gone. McCullough’s love for them, his sense of the powerful narrative (one almost providential) of that year, his intensity–all came through. Russert remarked, toward the end, that 1776 helped him understand 9/11. McCullough smiled & said that was why he’d written it. We’d gotten through worse – we needed proportion – but it was knowing that that would help us, knowing we’d lived through other times & other heroes had appeared, from that we could gain strength. Fischer, Hanson & McCullough love history; they know it helps us understand our time and ourselves, sometimes indirectly & sometimes directly.

Arkin’s review is quite positive, though he complains that imprecise definitions of liberty and freedom blur in their breadth. He also points to something we have discussed lately on this blog–the casual dismissal of our current policies and our current president. Fischer observes “Readers of this magazine, in particular, may be put off by the author’s sharply critical discussion of the presidency of George Bush and by his open distaste for former Attorney General John Aschroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.”

Well, of course, the New Criterion readers are conservative. Years ago, my husband picked one up in his mail box at school and one of his colleagues pretended it had cooties. He laughed and asked him if he ever read it. No, his colleague said, he tried to never read anything like that if he could help it. We laughed at him, but that was before we thought our budget was stretched and our sensibilities irritated by our subscriptions to The New York Review of Books and New Yorker. It is true, we still touch them, but we only subscribe when we get awfully good deals. 9/11 made a difference; it was hard to take them seriously, to respect their sense of proportion. Maybe that is because we lost ours – but, of course, we tend to think it is because they lost theirs.

Curious, for I admired Fischer and generally agreed with Bush, I thought I didn’t want to be someone appalled at the touch of the Other. I needed to see Fischer’s “take” on this period. He sees as descriptive Bush’s jest from the pre-election Al Smith Dinner – “This is an impressive crowd, the haves and the have mores. . . Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.” (I saw the dinner on C-span, thought it was funny; but isn’t this a kind of old fashioned way to look at the parties? On the other hand, Bush gave him the material.) Fischer is critical of Bush’s stance on the environment, arms control, his shift in foreign policy. Maybe he is right. Certainly, his description of Bush’s “lone star diplomacy and longhorn military strategy” is evocative. I do not doubt that Bush values a “conservative vision of American liberty as autonomy and separation from others” (704). Fischer labels his section “George W. Bush’s Vision of Liberty as Individual Liberty.” That, too, seems about right; individual responsibility is another Bush value he sees. And if he is more critical of that vision than of what he sees as “Clinton’s Community of Free People,” this is not a bad way of seeing the continuum between them and many may sit closer to Clinton. Clinton’s August decision to set his office in Harlem contrasts with Bush’s hunkered down time in Crawford–a contrast he weights differently than we might, but is no less true for that. But surely, even today, we don’t weight Jeffords’ defection all that highly. Here we wonder if our perceptions or his will usefully help someone understand our time in theirs.

This brings me to two observations. The first is that it is hell to try to put today’s events in proportion. He may be right in his criticism of Bush, but even if he is right about Bush in general, this is not a strong section. When I was an undergraduate, the requirements for English majors were prescriptive. Our courses were designed to cover general, chronological sequences. We needed some Brit lit, some American; we were encouraged to take from a variety of centuries. But at that time, no class in works after 1900 would fulfill our major. Some were offered; we were encouraged to take them. Of course, the canon was still shifting; they argued we would read these on our own. The texts we use today have far more pages per year from 1950-2000, but I tend to skimp. I know Hawthorne is good; I’m not sure about the guy I read last week. Sure, this indicates I rely too much on my old classes; perhaps it is insecurity. But it is also a sense that my understanding of a work arises in part from how much it affected me last year and ten years ago and thirty years ago; some works are important because, now, we can see they signaled a change or reinforced an old vision. We can see better what the writer had to say when we no longer have the noise of the time and the words can stand out clear & true. I can’t see a modern writer whole, because part of what that writer is can’t be seen for a generation or two. So, perhaps wrongly, I have my doubts that any body writing history can yet see Bush whole. (Journalism reports, but by its nature it isn’t in to proportionality.) I’m not saying he’s going to belong on Rushmore and I’m not saying he’s going to be a second Buchanan. I’m just saying, I don’t think, now, we can see him whole. Sure, Fischer sees him more whole than I can. I’m not that prideful. But, well, there’s a lot of noise around Bush right now.

And my second observation is that this relates to an earlier post about Bush hating. Observations about Bush are made casually, with the clear assumption that the audience will accept such remarks, we don’t need “proof.” Fischer is far too thoughtful and takes too broad a lens to be a Bush hater. And sure, he may, indeed, have Bush’s “number” in history. But I find it hard to take conclusions seriously that are repeatedly supported by Molly Ivins. She is sometimes witty, often perceptive, but always a partisan. She would be a great dinner guest and a quote from her as a colorful political commentator might be appropriate. But she is the essence of that contemporary noise, her job is down-home, Texas spin. She does it well. It seems to me to indicate a less serious “vetting” of Bush critics to use her, especially more than once. His emphasis upon Bush’s “unserious” approach to civil rights and noting the small number of African-Americans that voted for him may prove to be important. On the other hand, the increase in black home ownership, the increase in blacks in positions not defined by black issues would seem to mean Bush’s approach to civil rights was less of opposition than an attempt to define such rights differently.

Perhaps I find Fischer’s take flawed because I have my suspicions Bush was more involved in the “pursuit for peace” than he thinks and that the president’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Treaty reflects a frankness I like in my leaders, rather than a reactionary temperament that takes America back 70 years. Most of all, of course, I’ve been less struck by the “secrecy and repression of the Bush administration” than by its openness, a good example being its war reporting (discussed in the Windschuttle essay). Maybe that is just my experience; perhaps much of the country is repressed and I am naively unaware.

Certainly, our local news takes another view. Today, in a town built around a military college, the entire editorial page consisted of two essays on the problems with recruiting. One asks: “How has it happened that recruiters—who used to come only on career days—are now present in our schools much of the time?” (Diane Paul). The other, by Don Edwards a retired general, makes a serious argument against some of the recruiting policies (15-month enlistments and lower educational requirements) to increase enlistments and argues that some good leaders are lost because of the death toll in Iraq. He suggests shifting more resources to the Army & Marines from the relatively unstressed Navy & Air Force. These two editorials are dominated by the political cartoon for today – of a Public asking for “Failure Fries” from Cheney & Bush, holding a bill for Iraq. Perhaps that page will represent this period in twenty or forty or perhaps a hundred years.

In the end, we are lucky, extremely lucky, to have these varied opinions and varied perspectives. From my point of view, it is Hanson who has the proportions right, who takes the long view. But Bush may be repressive and Iraq a failure. My point of view, too, is defined by a lot of noise. Perhaps, indeed, some day it will not even be Fischer’s sense of a repressed America but the more romantic (as Windschuttle notes) Orientalism of Fisk & Pilger that will give our descendents the true “picture.” But, for the present, I am retaining my doubts. And my hopes.

(And, yes, someone can write a couple thousand words about a book they haven’t read. The question is, of course, should they? But give me this, unlike my students, I admit it. Those students, however, have the right to ask – why aren’t my papers graded?)

5 thoughts on “<i>New Criterion</i> Looks at History”

  1. Ginny,

    I suspect that Hackett Fisher hasn’t fully grasped the consequences of his own success, and wouldn’t ask that his personal views on modern politics be afforded the status of his scholarship. I also suspect that Hackett Fisher is an unapologic McCain supporter and as such hasn’t forgiven Bush and Co. for the 2000 primary hate-fest. What does Bush have to do with a Treaty (Kyoto) that bombed on the the Senate floor in 1997? Fisher knows US politics well enough to make that a petty criticism of the President. But what do I know?

    Personally, I thought that “Liberty and Freedom…” was sub-par for Hackett Fisher. The research was haphazard, the categorization of images and definitions didn’t follow his own evaluative measures very faithfully, and the whole package seemed as though he’d allowed his editors to determine the presentation and then rushed the material. “Washington’s Crossing” was so good it was difficult not to notice “Liberty and Freedom…” didn’t measure up.

    Still, he remains the historian of our era, and should be forgiven for acting like a cranky old whig.

  2. It is the great fault of historians to train their eye not on those subjects they can analyze with distance and dispassion, i.e., the past, but vainly attempt to examine the present. Their critical faculties are unable to adequately sift amongst the white noise of current events to arrive at any useful conclusions. While their opinons concerning recent events do matter, they should still be offered and recognized as opinion (e.g. as with Victor Davis Hanson’s work).

    For example, in his readable and well-researched book on prices and the rise of wealth over the past few centuries (The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History). At the end he makes a curious and cursory analysis of price controls as had occurred during WW2, and for their brief use, and despite offering no corroborative data, suggested that there was no reason price controls should fail over a longer interval.

    By using too-recent news and attempting to draw conclusions, Fishcher commits an error he highlighted in his earlier work, Historians’ fallacies: Toward a logic of historical thought, namely, “The Fallacy of Factual Siginicance.”

  3. Ginny, I have not finished L&F yet. I had my initial take on it here. Having picked at it some more, I think that Fischer, like all of us, does better when he sticks to his areas of expertise. When he gets near to contemporary issues, he sounds less and less like the historian I admire so much and more and more like a typical academic, with the associated knee-jerk bigotries, centrist for his own milieu, maybe, but solidly Left in the larger scene.

    Another thing that I think is going on with Fischer is that he is seeing that Albion’s Seed is an unmistakably small-c conservative picture of America, which has enjoyed success amongst conservatives. That Fischer is getting this kind of favorable attention from persons on the Right cannot be good for his career or his standing at Brandeis. This may be a cause of alarm. With L&F Fischer seems almost an attempt to push back the other way, to go out of his way to find the maximum amount of discontinuity and diversity, to say that damn near anything can be shoe-horned into the categories of “liberty” and “freedom”. Plus, he seems to be trying to do too much, and ends up doing it in cursory fashion.

    I will eventually read the whole book with some care, and report back on the Boyz.

  4. Lex: Fischer is about 70 years old, I can’t imagine that he has much concern about his standing.

    As far as the “profession” goes, he tore it with them when started publishing books that could be read by non-specialists. “Historians” hate it when other members of their guild have popular success. You should have heard the trash that the younger faculty used to talk about Prof McNeill (3rd from the right above) back when I was an undergrad.

    Furthermore, writing things about DWEMs, like George Washington and Paul Revere, except for the sole purpose on revealing their inate and willful depravity, is so infra-dig that I am surprised that Fischer has not been picketed.

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