Friday, April 10, 2020

Can a leftist write great history?

Dear Hannah,

Richard White says he wrote The Republic for Which it Stands for the money, and because he said it he deserves our praise.  He could have written anything else in the preface and saved face*; anything like he did it for minorities (which is likely), or for his children (which is unlikely), or for the plain fact that what he wrote about was interesting.  For his own sake he could have even just kept his mouth shut and avoided a preface.  But Richard White didn't; and what we got is a history book, concerning Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, that not only fails to appear politically impartial, but which in its partiality is also extremely interesting.


The job of a professor, of course, means to be in the business (and I repeat: the business) of professing things.  Which leads us to ask, what does Professor White profess, and for whom is he professing?  A slew of omissions and commissions leads us to believe that if anyone benefits from this book it's American minorities; and if anyone doesn't it's our white majority in general.  Richard White departs in no way whatsoever from the now-traditional opinion of our established academia -- that America is a trainwreck; and in doing so tells a history that may be technically true, but is so spineless, so pandering, and so one-sided, that we can safely consider it false. His (we might almost say Catholic) reverence for the impoverished, for the oppressed, for the orphan and the widow and the stranger, ignores that great crimes are most often committed by great men; and that the reason we pity the underdog is more often for his inability to do great wrongs than for his talent or interest in doing right.  Power, not poverty, is the true test of a man.  But White finds his saints and martyrs in the coal mines and wigwams; and his inability to judge great men by history's great men proves he knows little about greatness.  In short White is a professional tattle-tale -- not so much a great historian.

We know where his heart is because we notice what he doesn't write.  When Gibbon wrote his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire we still got a thoughtful paean on Trajan.  We worshipped the talents and virtues of Aurelius.  We saw in great detail the genius and fighting spirit of Constantine; and alongside Theodosius' atrocities we also got his heroics.  When Figes gave us A People's Tragedy, we watched in horror as Russia devoured itself; when the streets ran red with blood and starvation gave rise to cannibals; and the best parts of the Russian nobility were strangled in the frenzy for equality.  During all of this we still got a portrait of Brusilov, the god-man who saved the Russian army from incompetence.  We still got a bio of Prince Lvov, whose public spirit and administrative genius saved much of Russia from total starvation.  We still got a picture of Sergei Semenov the populist and his pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps peasant activism; and even during all this, during all the madness and murder, we got a picture of Maxim Gorky, the man whose writing made him popular with Lenin, and who used that popularity with Lenin to shelter countrymen from the Cheka.  There is nothing more obvious than Figes' hatred for the Revoluton.  There is nothing more obvious than Figes' love of great Russians.

But White has no such love for whites and Christians, and so long into the book Richard White gives us no such heroics.  300 pages into it we see no valiant soldiers in action, few snapshots of the real virtues and heroics of the homesteaders; no paeans to the brilliance and industry of tycoons, little praise for the best laws of the Christian religion, and few upsides to the home-making of our white women.  His snapshots of writing showcase less talents than prejudices of our great writers; and the anecdotes he tells, thoroughly lacking in a Tuchmanesque portrait of what it was like to live, are more often interested in telling us what it was like to suffer and die.  Throughout this period of American history, a period not only associated with no general tragedy, but a period of indisputable advancement of the nation, the virtues of the hardy, innovative white and Christian majority are not only ignored, but the worst of their vices are highlighted.  You'll see many great Americans, but you won't fall in love with them.

This brings us to an important question.  How could Richard White, a man educating in one of the most prestigious universities in the world, in what is arguably the greatest and most powerful nation in human history; a nation responsible alongside England with not only improving life beyond what any country had ever dreamed, but with establishing the ideals White uses to deride it -- how could White miss the elephant in the room?  That Americans, despite our many flaws and indisputable injustices, are great?

The answer, I believe, is simple.  Like perverted men see perversion in everything and liars are least likely to trust others, White sees the world through the lens of his own pillow-soft soul.  The virtues he loves, his compassion for the underdog, an almost slave-like hatred of hierarchy, a calm, reflective spirit given more to book-reading than warring or breeding or building, imply, like Blaise Pascal put it, that the world would be a better place if we'd all just stay in our rooms**.  As such he shows no pride in a robust, expansive, inventive, industrious, literary, warlike, family-oriented, empire-building ancestry.  Great men recognize greatness even in their enemies.  They can see it in Solomon the screw-up and in Rommel the Desert Fox.  White misses it because the primary virtues he recognizes are the vices of the 21st century leftist.

Richard White may not be a good judge of character, but like many hollow-chested men, he's an excellent factmonger.  Thus this book isn't without its merits; and, aside from an excellent section on Reconstruction, we learn that the prison system was used as a replacement for the plantation; that Chinese women were largely associated with prostitution; that a fourth of all men in the late 1890's relied on fraternities for a social safety net; that six out of every ten homesteaders "failed or bailed;" that our ancestors considered wage-pay as something bordering on slavery; that many women got into politics because they were legally barred, when their husbands were useless drunks, from taking charge of their property; that America's most vicious proponents of terrorism were whites and especially Southerners; that contraception was widely advertised in the late 1890's; that one out of every five or six babies were aborted; that because of this, between 1860 and 1890 forty states and territories outlawed abortion; that after 1790, the life expectancy of white men actually declined here for a whole century; that New York, in the 1860's, had the highest death rate of any western city; and that the gold standard, so cherished by many libertarians and right-wingers, wasn't a feature of the Revolutionary Era, but established in 1819 by England, and virtually nobody else until the 1860's.  This is just the tip of the iceberg.  Aside from a few unreadable sections, the book is written in plain and sturdy English, and full of interesting observations.

So is it worth reading?  Yes -- but unfortunately by the people least likely to read it.  College students, who have no idea what it's missing, and oftentimes no idea what a god-like historian writes like (try Plutarch or Gibbon or Macaulay), will be swindled by this SJW hit piece; and the men who can really judge it correctly, say, the men who know that history, a product of the mind, says just as much about the subjective historian as it does about the subject, will probably be turned off by it.  I believe there's lots to learn here, but unfortunately White lacks the robustness to really judge robust men.  His criticisms of injustice are many times valid.  But a man who implies, as he does, that
The modern judge
Home was [emphasis of past tense all mine] a concept so pervasive that it is easy to dismiss it as a cliché 
 and
Home, in the fullest meaning, links to other concepts—manhood and womanhood—which took shape around it
and
a man had to achieve a competence to support and protect a wife and mother who would reproduce and nurture future citizens.
and
Adultery, or the lesser alienation of affections, also threatened the home because one man in penetrating another man’s wife alienated her affections, violated his domestic space, took his property, and attacked his home.
-- a man, I insist, who implies that living freely, under no master, reliant upon mainly yourself, with your own guns, and having a womanly wife and making children under your own roof -- a man who takes this picture of an independent, healthy little fief and says this was something idealized by Americans of the late 1800's, and counts this hardy idea of liberty and fidelity passe, is too small-chested to judge anybody great****.

Your father,
-J

*White's hilarious preface was totally outclassed by a black man's.  Walter Rodney, the world-famous Pan-African socialist of the 1960's, wrote in his smash hit How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,
Contrary to the fashion in most prefaces, I will not add that "all mistakes and shortcomings are entirely my responsibility." That is sheer bourgeois subjectivism.  Responsibility in matters of these sorts is always collective, especially with regard to the remedying of shortcomings.  The purpose has been to try to reach Africans who wish to explore further the nature of their exploitation, rather than to satisfy the "standards" set by our oppressors and their spokesmen in the academic world.
The intellectual equivalent of abandoning your baby -- and announcing that your baby mama will pay for it.

**Leftists are people so ground down by their own inferiority that things like beauty, health, wisdom, talent and physical strength are all negligible.  They believe we can do well enough without them, and the thing that matters is how well you treat the people who don't have them.  A hatred of superiors that translates into a hatred of life.

***The great irony of this book is that during much of White's life, a time of almost unprecedented peace and prosperity in the United States, we turned a good portion of the Middle East into a hell-hole; and that while millions of Iraqis were starving to death and being blown into bits there were suburbs here full of beautiful and innocent people, falling in love and having their children, inventing and building and singing and dancing.  Two hundred years before us our ancestors were here, who (I admit) were a little more gruff and prejudiced and had wars of their own.  But they looked like us and thought in many ways like us, and we've judged them because their struggles weren't ours. They went west because they had a civilization to bring there. The difference between us is we decided to war eastward.   And two hundred years from now an egg-headed man with little empathy for us and less imagination is going to sit down to write our history; and instead of writing about the beautiful people we know and love, or our geniuses, or our heroes, or our saints, or even about a lover of "social justice" like White, he’s going to write about Trayvon Martin and Abu Ghraib -- and label us a bunch of scoundrels, blow-hards, war-mongers, and victims.

****Daniel Webster, in his speech On the First Settlement of New England, takes almost the polar opposite of White's limp-wristed snobbery -- what we now refer to as the grand view:
It is a noble faculty of our nature which enables us to connect our thoughts, our sympathies, and our happiness with what is distant in place or time; and, looking before and after, to hold communion at once with our ancestors and our posterity. Human and mortal although we are, we are nevertheless not mere insulated beings, without relation to the past or the future. Neither the point of time, nor the spot of earth, in which we physically live, bounds our rational and intellectual enjoyments. We live in the past by a knowledge of its history; and in the future, by hope and anticipation. By ascending to an association with our ancestors; by contemplating their example and studying their character; by partaking their sentiments, and imbibing their spirit; by accompanying them in their toils, by sympathizing in their sufferings, and rejoicing in their successes and their triumphs; we seem to belong to their age, and to mingle our own existence with theirs. We become their contemporaries, live the lives which they lived, endure what they endured, and partake in the rewards which they enjoyed. And in like manner, by running along the line of future time, by contemplating the probable fortunes of those who are coming after us, by attempting something which may promote their happiness, and leave some not dishonorable memorial of ourselves for their regard, when we shall sleep with the fathers, we protract our own earthly being, and seem to crowd whatever is future, as well as all that is past, into the narrow compass of our earthly existence.
[...]
 There may be, and there often is, indeed, a regard for ancestry, which nourishes only a weak pride; as there is also a care for posterity, which only disguises an habitual avarice, or hides the workings of a low and grovelling vanity. But there is also a moral and philosophical respect for our ancestors, which elevates the character and improves the heart. Next to the sense of religious duty and moral feeling, I hardly know what should bear with stronger obligation on a liberal and enlightened mind, than a consciousness of alliance with excellence which is departed; and a consciousness, too, that in its acts and conduct, and even in its sentiments and thoughts, it may be actively operating on the happiness of those who come after it.

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