Saturday, February 16, 2008

History's A Punk

Something else I wanted to say about the Times article on Susan Jacoby. She told the reporter that she first decided to write The Age of American Unreason on September 11, 2001, in a New York City bar:
As she sipped her bloody mary, she quietly listened to two men, neatly dressed in suits. For a second she thought they were going to compare that day’s horrifying attack to the Japanese bombing in 1941 that blew America into World War II:

“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.

The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?”

“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied.

If true, this story is depressing, all right; but then I have to balance these men’s historical ignorance with Jacoby’s, since she believes that people are more ignorant now than they were – I don’t know, fifty years ago? a hundred? Even if American schools aren’t teaching World War II in history classes, which is possible for reasons I’ll go into in a moment, that war is ubiquitous in commercial media. The Hollywood blockbuster Pearl Harbor was released with plenty of fanfare in the summer of 2001, and it enraged a number of American critics and audiences who thought it was too historically accurate, that is, not hostile enough to the Japanese. And then we have Tom Brokaw’s best-selling book on the Greatest Generation, the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers about American fighter pilots, Schindler’s List, the History Channel, and much much more. Despite all this, I suppose it’s possible that basic information about World War II has not sunk in to most younger Americans’ psyches, compared to really important knowledge like the records of professional and Division I college athletes.

It’s hard for me to believe that the men Jacoby overheard hadn’t picked up on Pearl Harbor by osmosis, as I did, long before it could have been covered by my American history class; but I’m 57, just five years younger than Jacoby, and I was born ten years after Pearl Harbor. My father and uncles served in the military during the war, though none of them ever talked to me about their experiences, and the war was common coin in all sorts of media, from TV to comic books to the newspapers. On the other hand, though I was born during the Korean War, I never heard anything about it as I was growing up; it wasn’t a Great War, and its American veterans weren’t lionized as a Great Generation.

When I had American history in my junior year of high school (1967-1968), I don’t recall that we got very far into the twentieth century. The history textbooks were massive even then; and they’ve become enormous since. My teacher made a valiant effort, but it was impossible to slog through the entire text in a school year. I know we got as far as Woodrow Wilson’s administration, because I remember the book’s mentioning US warships shelling some Mexican city in 1912 or so, because the local officials had disrespected the American flag. I was appalled, but then I was already coming under the baleful influence of the Dirty Fucking Hippies and the Blame America First Crowd. I don’t remember that anyone else was bothered by the incident, and when I mentioned it to my mother, she also thought it was fair and just.

So I think it’s quite possible that American history classes today don’t get as far as World War II either. If they do, it could only be at a dead run, with facts to be memorized no longer than the weekly quiz and the final exam. That has always been the standard approach to teaching history in American schools, and it has never worked very well. (See the indignant quotation from the New York Times in 1943, in my previous post, for an example of what I mean.) I doubt that high school students in past generations were any better informed or educated about wars that occurred 30 to 40 years before they were born, and that wasn’t because of post-modernist relativism that held all truths are created equal. This is not a new problem, nor can it be simply explained with sloganeering about “junk thought.” Indeed, Jacoby’s book appears to be one more example of junk thought.

Something else occurred to me when I read about Jacoby’s business-suited ignoramuses. Consider the Vietnam War. When I was growing up during that conflict, the standard line all over the media was that the Communists had attacked our ally in South Vietnam, and we were only there because our ally had asked for our help in defending itself against Communist aggression. This account was a complete fiction, as I learned from better sources around the time I graduated from high school. Now that the war is officially history, I wonder how the textbooks explain it. I run into few people of any age, even now, who know anything like the historical truth. That’s a subject for further research, I guess. (I’m thinking of asking students in the dormitory where I work what they know about Pearl Harbor and Vietnam. They’re not a representative sample – it’s an academic dorm – but it will be interesting to ask them anyway. I’ll report back in a week or two.) The origins of the American Civil War (or as I prefer to call it, the Confederate Rebellion) are still controversial, with revisionists trying to whitewash the South to this day; I doubt that the accounts taught to high school students today are any more adequate than the one I was taught.

Imagine, too, how our present adventure in Iraq will be described in the history textbooks thirty or forty years from now. Half-a-dozen different, and often conflicting, justifications for the US/UK invasion of Iraq were floated in the months just before we attacked. Now, even elite media can’t quite make up their minds how we got there, or why we have to stay, and it’s well-established by now that they were eager to be misled by the Bush gang. American history texts prefer to avoid controversy in favor of neat, preferably glorious soundbytes, partly because they must please adopting committees that prefer propaganda to sound history, so I wouldn’t expect much from their coverage of Iraq in years to come. I won’t blame the students if they don’t learn much from it, either.

But again: none of this is in any way new. All the copies of The Age of American Unreason at the local Border’s had been sold today, so I couldn’t browse through it any more. But now I see, from reviews on, that Jacoby was consciously extending Richard Hofstadter’s thesis in Anti-Americanism in American Life, which was originally published in 1963. Why, then, did she tell the Times that she was dealing with a new problem? Because newness is more marketable? If so, she’s lying; if not, she’s ignorant. I agree we have a problem, which has always been with us; I don’t see that dishonesty or sloppiness are going to help any.

P.S. Now there's this review at Salon, which doesn't make Jacoby or her book look any better. But I will read it, when the library gets it. And then there's an interview with this guy, who brings to mind Molly Ivins's remark anent some Texas pol that, if his IQ gets any lower, we'll have to water him. I don't deny that we have a lot of stupid people in this country, but it seems they're all writing books about how dumb everybody else is. But that just reminded me of this exchange from The Importance of Being Earnest:
Jack. I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.
. We have.
. I should extremely like to meet them. What do they talk about?
. The fools? Oh! about the clever people, of course.
. What fools!