Friday, February 06, 2004

The Living Tissues of the Sequoia

Because my parents were life masters, I could never generate much enthusiasm for learning how to play bridge. For similar reasons, I’ve also shied away from botany, content to leave the plants in the hands of my relatives. Nevertheless, I find myself borrowing a botanical concept to understand how the knowledge increases in the sciences and humanities. While the growth of animals typically takes place by cell division throughout the whole volume of the developing organism or swelling tissue, plant growth occurs only on sheets or tips in zones called meristems. It occurs to me that human knowledge also grows in this botanical fashion, though the bushiness of these particular weeds multiplies the number of apical meristems and creates an illusion of volume. What appears to be a continuous mass is really a spidery patch of briars, or, if I may, for metaphorical purposes, be allowed to branch out into mycology, an intricate mesh of mycelium.

As a relentless tourist in the world of learning, I’ve noticed that at any given time the live wood of the various arts and sciences is really a tiny fraction of its mostly inert mass. What I try to do here is to advertise to my friends some of the live places I encounter.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

U.S. and Them

Nations like Japan, Norway, or Sweden that are mostly monocultural tend to provide their citizens with a markedly higher level of social services than countries like the U.S. in which nationality does not coincide with ethnicity. I don’t believe ideological debates about free market mechanisms versus social justice have much to do with it. If you look at the window and see us instead of them, you’re going to want to take care of your own, though you might have a variety of ideas about the best way to do that. I don’t think it was an accident that the New Deal took place a decade after drastic limitations were placed on immigration or that the rise of the hard right has correlated with increasing immigration from non-European countries. In-group loyalty and spite to the others are two sides of the same clan morality.
Fraudulent Outlines

As one can read in any book on historiography, the practice of history is all about selection. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to specify the universe from which the sample is drawn—Everything that happened? Everything that happened plus everything somebody ever imagined? Everything for which there is evidence? Everything for which there is documentation? Everything interesting to college professors? Middle class Americans? Human beings? Mammals? Vertebrates? Eukaryotes? Under the circumstances, a meaningful estimate of the proportion between sample and population is out of the question. The best we can do is to compare a one degree of ignorance with another, for example, scholarly consensus and popular understanding. In effect, Eviatar Zerubavel’s recent book, Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past, does just that.

Zerubavel offers a formal analysis of popular concepts of history as reflected in holidays, public commemorations, political rhetoric, and the like. Brief and very clear, the book is much simpler than the earlier efforts of Hayden White, whose analyses, focusing on serious historians, are based on the figures of classical rhetoric. You just don’t need to invoke metonomy and chiasmus to discuss the way Serbians think about Kosovo or Americans about Columbus. Indeed, what Zerubavel conveys most forcibly is the incredible poverty of popular notions of history. That’s not news, of course, but it is the calling of a sociologist to underline the obvious, especially when the obvious is so important. There are all sorts of consequences to the fact that people inhabit a cartoon.

Incidentally, I think that Zerubavel’s take on historical consciousness goes a bit too far. Nominalism behooves a sociologist, but historical periodizations are not quite as arbitrary as he suggests—there may not be such a thing as the Essence of the Medieval that was supplanted in 1453 by the Essence of the Renaissance but the fuzziness or irregularity of conceptual borders is not a very good argument against making distinctions. Just as there are better and worse measures of central tendency in statistics, there are better and worse ways of cutting up the continuum of time. Speaking of the short 20th Century (1914-1991), for example, makes a lot more sense than talking about the years 1900-2000 as a unit. And one can use historical categories without reifying them or relying on a single scheme. There is something to be said for the old scholastic notion of formal distinctions made according to the thing.

I’m also a bit skeptical about going too far with the notion, made famous by Hobsbawm and promoted by Zerubavel, that national identity is largely a figment of publicity. It seems to me that the matter is actually quite complex because some ethnicities, however they originally came into being, have in some cases become formidably rooted in custom and mental reflex. The French aren’t French just because somebody says they are, and the proof of that is the considerable degree to which Italians really are Italians because somebody says they are. On the other hand, I quite agree with Zerubavel that the whole notion of national origins, indeed of all sorts of historical origins, is fundamentally arbitrary because what makes an event a beginning is not its special power but the fact that we don’t know or have chosen to forget what came before it. Even in the Bible version, people were living in Palestine before Abraham’s arrival. No title search is ever going to clear the deed to that property.

Zerabavel writes about very general historical concepts such as rise, decline, continuity, discontinuity, identity, origin, and dynasty and their tyranny over historical thinking. These days I’m rather more interested in more substantive, moral, dramaturgical, and ethological concepts that determine what will be included in the selection that defines history as such. I note, for example, the difficulty historians have to this day in integrating natural events like epidemics or climate change into historical narratives. History is not the same genre as tragedy, but unmerited or random misfortune apparently doesn’t belong in either. To make a history requires more than fraudulent outlines. I gather the German historian Reinhart Koselleck has developed a historiography along these lines, but I haven’t read any of his work yet.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

A Useful Little Lie

The great historical villains have an advantage over their less colorful opponents. If you are a Hitler, a Stalin, or a Mao, your every act will be carefully rehearsed in print and on the History Channel, apparently from now until the ending of the world. That’s not exactly the same as a good press; but at least, metaphorically speaking, they will spell your name right. The same is true for the extreme and violent movements these monsters led. Meanwhile, the great moderate figures and forces of history—and there have been some of those—are routinely traduced and misrepresented when they aren’t just ignored. For example, after World War II, the Democratic Party and its leaders made the collective choice to support civil rights even though the decision cost them the South and set the stage for the Republican ascendancy of the last thirty years. That splendid act is scarcely remembered at all and certainly not by the conservatives, most of whom, we are also encouraged to forget, bitterly opposed the civil rights movement when it mattered. The more important instance of premeditated historical amnesia, however, is the libel perpetually perpetrated against European social democracy and its heirs.

One hundred years ago, the great socialist parties of Europe were no more revolutionary or authoritarian than they are today. Politically, they had opted for parliamentary democracy, a principled and often passionate support for individual liberties, and an irenic, internationalist foreign policy. Economically, they had largely given up the original Marxist notion of the public ownership of the means of production in favor of a revisionism difficult to distinguish from the American progressivism of the same era. Instead of wholesale nationalization, they stood for universal public education, religious tolerance, a progressive income tax, and regulation of industry. In lieu of the dogmatism one rightly associates with the Marxist-Leninism of the Soviet period, a great variety of ideas circulated on the Left before World War I. Marx was respected, but his writings were not treated like holy writ. It was widely believed, for example, that his economic theories had been wrong in important ways. In any case, many socialists didn’t think of themselves as Marxists at all.

My point is not to portray the socialists as saints. They had plenty of shortcomings, the most important of which were their very moderation and willingness to compromise. The failure of the socialist parties of Europe to effectively oppose the catastrophe of 1914 is well known and frequently bemoaned; and the Neocons, with some justice, blame them for not fighting Hitler by all means necessary, fair and foul—it may be plausibly argued that the real reason we invaded Iraq was because the SPD didn’t crush the brownshirts. That said, I wonder how many Americans are aware that the SPD were virtually the only party who fought for democracy in the 20s and 30s while the Nazis, communists, and nationalists competed to see who could destroy the republic first? It is also unfair to ignore the huge debt the mass of people in Western Europe owe to social democracy for their health and general welfare.

It is highly useful for the propagandists of authoritarian capitalism to promote historical untruths about a remarkably benign political movement like social democracy. Criticisms that address its real ideas and ideals are certainly possible and sometimes warranted, but you better results by creating an absurd strawman so that settles that. The downside is that you not only have to be willing to lie—hey, anything for the cause—but you have to be willing to be fatuous, too.