These blog posts offer humanities-eye takes on the modern world. They try to answer those questions most of us have heard: why bother studying history or literature? does reading a long Victorian novel or stumbling through a Beethoven piano sonata really help you handle what’s going on today? The answer here is mostly yes. Humanities-style knowledge doesn’t give us road-maps or drop-down menus, but lack of that knowledge helps explain some of the fuck-ups and general weirdness we see so often these days.
For those of us who write history, there’s a lot to think about in the classic misunderstood-artist story, of the Cézanne/van Gogh/Modigliani variety. You’ve got someone seeing the world in a new way, and their contemporaries are totally baffled; the artists can’t sell their art, and they wind up trading it away to cover their bar tabs. Then decades later, the same pictures are worth millions, because the vision they embody has become basic to a whole era– probably there are ten prints of “Starry Night” in every college dorm in America (not to mention Don McClean on the oldies stations, warbling about how misunderstood van Gogh was in his own times). It’s a classic example of a basic historian idea, that different eras see the world in different ways. The artists just get there first.
Of course it’s not just the vision thing that gives the artist story such oomph, there’s also the lifestyle aspects– all those wild bohemian hi-jinks, showing these people just didn’t fit into the same boxes as their contemporaries, plus the disconnect between their brilliant artistic achievements and their impoverished outsider-dom. The underlying idea is, if you see the world differently from the people around you, there’s going to be some serious friction in your real life too. You’re going to do unconventional things and perhaps suffer for it; you’ll have trouble earning a living, and feel constantly out of touch with the people around you. As so many eighth-graders know, it’s tough not fitting in.
My favorite example of that story-line is the novel The Truth about Lorin Jones, by the wonderful American writer Alison Lurie. It’s from back in the late 1980s, so some elements may seem dated (the Manhattan it depicts is still the grunge Manhattan of that era, not the millionaires’ playground of today), but a lot of it holds up amazingly well, partly because Lurie has such smart things to say about the multiple milieux her heroine wanders into. Adding to the appeal for a historian, the story centers on a form of historical research: the heroine is writing a biography of a bohemian painter who died twenty years earlier, unknown at the time of her death but famous in the novel’s present.
I first read the novel years ago, but it was only this spring that I realized the painter in question strongly resembles the American abstract expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler (1926-2011). Like the real Helen Frankenthaler, the fictional Lorin Jones grew up rich in NYC, went to Bennington College, hooked up with an older, big shot art critic who taught at Bennington and helped her career, and after him had a long relationship with another artist (in the novel, he’s a poet). Even the Lorin Jones pictures that Lurie describes sound a lot like Frankenthaler’s.
But there’s one dramatic difference between the real-life and the novelistic versions of the story: the fictional Jones dies poor and obscure, a bohemian right to the end, whereas Frankenthaler stayed rich– according to Wikipedia, her last husband was “an investment banker who served (sic– not “served in”…) the Ford administration,” which is about as far from Bohemia as you could possibly get. Her studio was in Darien, Connecticut, one of America’s most respectable suburbs.
So which is the more typical pattern among the real-life cultural revolutionary artists, and what does that tell us about the cultural revolutions they pull off? My guess is, there are more Helen Frankenthalers than Lorin Joneses– at least, an awful lot of the big-ticket artists have stayed very close to the money and power sources around them.
Of course that was standard back in the Renaissance and through most of the seventeenth century, when artists depended on patrons to give them work, but it’s surprisingly common among the moderns too. Consider the American painter Cy Twombly (1928-2011), who’s been on my mind since I saw the blockbuster exhibition of his work in Paris, back in February. Twombly was a genuine aesthetic revolutionary, whose pictues still have a troubling, off-putting impact. There are occasional words and lots of word-like squiggles, so you know messages are being transmitted but usually you don’t quite know what’s being said; and unlike much 1950s abstract art, you wouldn’t think of these as attractive decor for your living room. Plus Twombly made at least some impressively bohemian lifestyle choices, like a serious affair with the artist Robert Rauschenberg, at a time when homosexuality entailed real dangers. (France being what it is– namely, fanatically squeamish about outside-the-lines personal details– you only learn about the relationship from Wikipedia; it wasn’t mentioned in the exhibit itself or the 300-page catalogue that accompanied with it.) But Twombly also married an Italian baroness, and together they purchased a Roman villa; the Paris exhibit included a 1966 Vogue photo spread of the couple, looking just as elegant as their home, with Twombly himself in a fabulous white suit. Again, we’re awfully far away from bohemian anguish.
How are supposed to think about this disconnect between cultural revolution on the one side, comfy living on the other? Does it raise questions about the radicalism of culture products like art? For us historians, what does it say about the nature of historical change? Then there are the ethical overtones– for instance, are you really a radical if you’re not suffering and/or impoverished?
These are old questions, and there are some long-established, smart answers to them. You could say, the world changes at multiple levels, and there’s no reason ideas in one domain have to flow over into others, or that novel thinking requires unconventional ways of living. Or maybe it’s just that social systems like capitalism have such massive absorptive powers. Artists may think they’re moving against the system, but it pulls them in just like it does everything else, and their pictures become just one more set of commodities. Or more simply, maybe art is just its own world, not a commentary about the contemporary condition. Frankenthaler, Twombly, and the others were contesting artistic traditions, not trying to remake society; why shouldn’t they hook up with bankers or buy fancy real estate?
A lot of the best historical research over the last generation has tended in these directions, showing the complexities and autonomies that run through historical processes.
So there’s a big element of myth-making in the bohemian artist stories– apparently real life doesn’t usually follow that script. Yet the Bohemia myth survives, I think because (like other myths) it also captures an important reality: disruption can’t always be contained to one domain of life, and radicalism in one zone spreads out into others. Frankenthaler and Twombly– and the fictional Lorin Jones– actually created more upset than most of us ever will. That they managed to live well while doing so is cause for praise, not criticism.
You may have noticed, it’s been a month of radio silence here at “My Correct Views,” and I’ve got no real excuses. Sure, there’s been a certain amount of practical business to fuss about, plus a couple of conferences and some teaching issues. But having been away from North America for two months (I got back April 4), I was expecting the return to poke me back into blogging action. Isn’t that what travel’s supposed to do, get you to see your old haunts with new eyes, ask new questions, de-familiarize your surroundings? You’d expect an extra dose of that now that we’re in the Age of Trump, with everyone telling us what uncharted waters we’ve sailed into.
But the poking effect didn’t happen, just as it didn’t happen when I got to France back in February.
Instead of which, both my travel moments have mainly conveyed a baffling feeling of things being over-familiar, in the Ground Hog Day/Déjà-Vu-All-Over-Again mode. That’s not the whole story, of course, there are plenty of completely unexpected things going on as well, many of them very cool. But lately it’s the weird repetitions that have been most on my mind, just because they seem so extreme. It doesn’t put you in the mood for blogging when you start imagining the world as a giant hamster’s exercise wheel– there’s lots of action, but it’s all happening inside an iron cage.
Right now my fave examples come from politics– or at least, that’s where the cage thing seems most visible. I’m starting to see it as a more general phenomenon, visible in many parts of modern life, and maybe next week I’ll try to explore how that works. But for now, just two political examples.
Example 1 is our own Donald Trump’s screeching-180 on foreign policy. The guy got elected partly because he said sensible, non-warlike, outside-the-box things about Russia, Iraq, Syria, and humanitarian war– basically, that we should spend our money rebuilding the US rather than intervening in other countries. He mocked George Bush for invading Iraq, horrifying all the other Republicans; he said it was stupid to pick fights with Russia and to overthrow anti-ISIS governments like Syria’s. Yet here we are three months into the Trump presidency, and we’re back at the same old idiocy we’ve had the last fifteen years, denouncing Russia, bombing Syria, sending troops to Iraq; there’s even some of the old Axis of Evil talk, with denunciations of Iran and North Korea.
That’s what I mean about the iron cage thing. We’ve got an ultra-powerful loud-mouth, who prides himself on non-conformity and made it to the top by sneering at American conventional foreign policy wisdom– and basically his first act is to knuckle under to the same conventional wisdom he spent a year mocking. Of course it’s also relevant that the conventional wisdom has been a real-life disaster, but the point here is Trump knew it was a disaster, and yet he’s still replaying it.
You’ve probably heard explanations for Trump’s knuckling-under– like, that he’s ignorant, insecure, and easily influenced by whoever wanders into his office; or, the Deep State really runs things, so it’s almost impossible for elected politicians to change policy directions; or, like other incoming presidents, Trump has now learned various top secret info about world affairs, and it’s made him suddenly more “realistic” about policy changes.
Even if all that’s true, though, it doesn’t change the basic caged-hamster impression. If a possibly-unhinged, seventy-something billionaire can’t shake lose from Deep State inertia, who can?
Example 2 comes from the opposite side of the political spectrum– it’s the moderate French politician Emmanuel Macron, who’s one of the two candidates facing off in next weekend’s French presidential election. In lots of ways, the run-off itself sounds like a replay of our own Trump-Clinton showdown, just with the gender roles reversed. In the Trump role, there’s Marine Le Pen, pushing a nationalist, police-friendly, populist line; like Trump, she’s accused of being soft on Russia and borderline antisemitic, but also like Trump, she’s shown some real campaign-trail genius. Meanwhile Macron plays Hillary Clinton. He’s liberal-minded on ethnic and lifestyle issues, and he’s very big on education, entrepreneurship, and globalization, all the new economy buzzwords. Just like Clinton, he’s accused of being too cozy with Big Finance (he’s a former high-level banker); also like Clinton he’s entering the campaign’s final lap with a big lead, partly because so many French voters find Le Pen truly frightening.
Given how different France is from the US, it’s already a little weird that the French scenario sounds so familiar. But it’s really the little things about the Macron campaign that bring on the déjà vu feeling. Just like Clinton, Macron needs to attract left-leaning voters whose candidates lost in the first round– and also like Clinton, he keeps doing small things designed to irritate them. His first act after winning the first round was to hold a celebration dinner at a fancy restaurant in central Paris– not only making a statement about his money and fancy tastes, but also doing it where the paparazzi could peer through the windows, photograph the scene, and make sure everyone knew about it. Then three days later, he managed to blow a slam-dunk photo op, on a visit to a factory threatened by globalization– in his home town, no less. He hadn’t even planned on talking to the angry workers there, just to some of the power players. But then Le Pen made a surprise visit, the workers applauded and took selfies with her, so he came by as well– offering nothing beyond globalization talking points and promises about unemployment benefits.
I’m assuming this guy hasn’t been off-planet the last six months, and that he knows what happened to Clinton. With less confidence, I also assume he’s intelligent; certainly he’s been through some top schools. If you buy those assumptions, the iron cage hypothesis starts to look pretty good. Faced with what everyone says is a crucial election, in which the far right could actually sweep to power, Macron seems unable to stop doing the self-destructive things, in fact doing the same self-destructive things that busted Clinton. He may squeak through regardless, but all the polls have his lead shrinking.
We’ve had a lot of talk lately about working class victims of the big economic forces, but the real news seems to be how high up the food chain the helplessness extends.
Today’s the last day of a two-month research trip to Paris. It’s been a great success in most ways, but a blogging disaster– it’s almost four weeks since my last post. That’s not at all what I was expecting. The plan was, with teaching on hold for a few months, I could refocus on blogging-type writing, especially since it’s a great moment for thinking about the contemporary scene. I don’t know if France is ready to compete with our own home-grown US craziness, but it’s really been stepping up, with one of its all-time wildest presidential elections. I described the candidate line-up a few weeks ago– it includes one crook (until the crookedness came out, he was the traditional values guy), one hard-line back-to-the-fifties (or maybe the forties…) type, two socialists (one a nice guy, the other a fire-breather), and a dynamic, appealing, youthful, content-free ex-banker. Since it’s 2017, the odds-makers have their money on Mr No-Content. (In my last post, I had the hard-line leftist as a no-hope candidate, but he’s been moving up fast, and has a good chance to finish at least third. That’s pretty typical of the crazy surprises the election has provided.)
But except for that one post, I couldn’t get myself focused on writing about the France scene. It’s partly because I got really into my research project, so I didn’t have a lot of energy for other writing, and partly the high-intensity Paris doings, the seminars, concerts, seeing old friends, and such like. Even walking down the street is a high intensity activity here.
But it’s also partly because I’ve just had trouble figuring out what’s going on here, or at least I don’t feel the confidence I’ve sometimes felt that I understand what I’m seeing.
The look is pretty much what it’s always been, for better and for worse. On the bad news side, there’s Paris’s heavy-duty ethnic segregation. The Château Rouge neighborhood where I usually stay seems even more heavily-immigrant (mainly from Africa) than last year, and it has the same rowdy, mystery-filled street scenes it’s had since I first came here, in 2011. Then you cross the city, and you find yourself in an almost completely white neighborhood; even in those, by North American standards the streets are packed, but neither the numbers nor the noise compares to Château Rouge. There are also mainly South Asian and mainly East Asian neighborhoods, and they don’t get the model minority benefits they get in North America. Last week the cops killed a fifty-something Chinese immigrant in his own apartment, after busting down his door; he was holding a pair of scissors, which they mistook for a knife….
On the other hand, the delightful sides of Paris life are also going strong as ever. No matter what the ethnicity or even the immigration status, everyone takes delight in speaking well, and all the minor-league daily interactions take on a fun quality. The café waiters still bring high level theatricality to serving you (see here for the J.-P. Sartre take on this), the intellectuals still have the Paris intellectual look; the cafés and restaurants all seem full– clearly a lot of good times are being had. In the shops, interaction rituals still surround every act of buying. Nobody’s hyper-friendly, in fact the shopping scene can look pretty severe, but then nobody’s pushing you out the door with a purchase, either– endless, dithering consumer questions don’t frazzle anyone. It’s hard to describe, because there’s a also lot of insane rushing around here. But the basic mood is still that everyone has more time to spare than we Americans are used to. Despite all the strains Paris life imposes, the basic feeling is of people who want to be where they are, and even take pleasure in having all those other people packed in around them. Like the theatrical waiter, all sorts of people here enjoy the “I’m a Parisian” role.
So in all those ways, the basic story is that not much seems to be changing– it’s the same old Paris.
But I also got a sense from this visit that the anger levels are higher than I’ve seen before, and it made me wonder how well the “we’re all-Parisians” thing can hold up. For one thing the presidential voting is looking wilder than in previous years. I already mentioned how the hard-left guy is moving up, and so also is the hard-right candidate, Marine LePen– it’s even conceivable they’ll face each other in the final election round. It’s extremely unlikely that there’ll be a finalist candidate from either of the two standard-issue political parties, the Socialists (who ran the government the last five years and are wildly detested) and the center-right Les Républcains, a new brand name for the political group that was in power the five years before that (and actually for most years since 1958).
Just like with Brexit and Trump, this year basically nobody wants the standard political flavors– they’re pissed off enough to try just about anything else.
Also like in the US, the lesser evil argument seems to be losing some of its grip on people. In the circles I frequent, of course, it’s the hard right that’s the big evil, and having them come to power really will be big trouble– the French constitution gives the president tons of power. But I had several people tell me, there are some of the other candidates they still wouldn’t vote for, no matter what disasters abstention might bring. The statistics go the same way. Whatever else this election brings, it’s apparently going to set records for the number of people who just say no to all the above and stay home.
If I were in the prediction biz, I’d encourage worry that the polls don’t take the abstention mood sufficiently seriously, and that the hard right candidate has a more serious shot than the statistics say.
In the background to all this is another reality that I never really picked up on until this visit: despite all the visible comforts and pleasures of Paris life, incomes here are really low. Of course the estimates vary depending on who’s talking, but one respectable outfit puts the average salary after taxes at about $2,000 a month– and these aren’t minimum wage jobs, it’s what teachers and civil servants are making. Remember, that’s for a city where you can easily pay $300,000 for a one-bedroom apartment in a sketchy neighborhood, and where nice, non-flashy places are heading toward the million-dollar level.
It means there’s another level to the Paris theater feeling, which connects it to some of the other nice places I occasionally visit: people aren’t just enacting being Parisians, they’re also enacting leading ordinary lives, at a time when ordinary itself is actually a privilege. Paris does better than most places at making that work, but I don’t see how that keeps working over the long haul.
I’m on sabbatical leave this semester, and for the last few weeks I’ve been back in Paris– back to the same rowdy, down-at-the-heels Château Rouge neighborhood I usually stay in, and back to my usual routine of libraries, seminars, and general hanging out. Mostly I’m getting a new research project up to speed, but it’s also a chance to reconnect with the country and its moods. If you’ve read some of these posts, you’ll know I’m a big believer in the being-there theory of knowledge. My line is, it takes an awful lot of reading to match what you learn about a place just by walking around and talking to people. (It’s one reason the Clinton presidential campaign was such an epic disaster– poring over the data at mission control doesn’t give you the same kind of knowledge, and maybe doesn’t give you real knowledge at all.) That effect is multiplied here, because life is so crazily intense. I got here a month ago, and I’ve already attended more academic papers than I do in a typical year back home, plus a lot of conversations with friends and non-stop people-in-the-street interactions.
And then, there’s the extra excitement of France’s upcoming presidential election, featuring French versions of the type-casting we’ve already seen in the Obama, Brexit, and Trump elections. You’ve got the Dangerous Nationalist with authoritarian tendencies– anti-immigrant, possibly racist, and like Trump she’s accused of being soft on Russia; there’s the Rich-Guy Christian Conservative– he represents the traditional French right wing, and this being France he even lives in a château; there’s the Official Socialist, whose own party establishment is attacking him for being too much of a lefty (basically, it’s what would have happened if Bernie Sanders had won the primaries, which basically did happen here); and rounding out the new millenium cliché field, there’s the youthful, dynamic, media-friendly Technocratic Newcomer, who talks about how we need to get beyond the old talk of left wing and right wing, and whose speeches nobody can quite understand– he’s also a former banking star.
There’s a half-dozen others, but these four are the only ones with a remote chance of winning. The half-dozen no-hope candidates are in it because France has a two-round voting system, where more or less everyone gets to play in round 1, then the two top vote-getters face off two weeks later. As the numbers work out, it’s pretty much guaranteed that Dangerous Nationalist will make it to round 2, so the real action in round 1 is who’s going to come in second– right now the favorite is the glamorous Technocratic Newcomer. One other background detail, it all happens very fast. The big parties only wrapped up their nominations in late January; the first election round happens April 23, and round 2 comes two weeks later.
So it’s a really different electoral system from what we’re used to, and lots of other things about France are even more different. That makes it fairly amazing that the candidates here seem to come from our US central casting line-up. All along in these posts, I’ve argued that historians over-estimate the force of culture and under-value social and political forces, and this seems like a case in point– big social forces seem to explain more about this election than culture and values.
Of course the obvious big social force here is racism. I’ve written before about my impression of Paris as a segregated city, at least comparable to US cities, in some ways maybe worse, and it’s clear that racism moves lots of Dangerous Nationalist’s voters.
But I think it’s wrong to fixate on the racism issue, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s (almost) universal but (usually) latent. The current examples on everyone’s mind are the US counties that voted Obama in 2012, then went Trump in 2016, about one-tenth of all the counties Trump won. It’s a complicated issue, but examples like that show racism isn’t a sufficient explanation, just as it doesn’t explain how so many former Communist Party voters here have now started voting for the Dangerous Nationalist. Something had to change to make racism the deciding factor.
It’s two other big social forces that I think are really at work in France, powerfully enough to overshadow the cultural differences and give French politics a look so similar to our own. First, there’s the impact of global capitalism, and the sense lots of people have here that it’s screwing them over. On that one, the campaign language here could come straight from the Brexit and Trump/Clinton campaigns. The Dangerous Nationalist talks about limiting capitalism, dismantling international free-trade agreements, going back to a national currency, all those ideas we’ve become familiar with in the last couple of years; just as in Ohio and the English Midlands, that’s the talk that’s won over so many former Left Wing voters. Her likely round 2 opponent–Newcomer Technocrat– basically personifies the other side. He’s loudly pro-economic freedom, pro-European integration, and all the rest, plus he’s had the high-flying banking career; he even looks the part.
The other big social force is the strange transformation that’s taken place among the people who run things, what the French call the “political class.” The issue’s had a lot of high-wattage coverage lately, because the Rich-Guy Christian Conservative has been caught in a series of cheesey scandals: getting his wife and kids high-paying, no-show jobs, running a consulting company that’s designed to profit from his political career, accepting some dubious loans. (Google penelopegate for the details– and by the way, how great is that as the name for a scandal?) Since his whole campaign was about bringing decency and morality back to public life, the revelations have been a blow, and he’s dropped to third in the standings. But he’s still in the running, and his supporters are actually more fired up than ever. They’ve been asking variants of the old, old questions: what’s really the big deal here? isn’t this just part of normal political life? isn’t some level of shady financing standard operating procedure? isn’t this a witch-hunt?
They have a point, at least in the claim there’s nothing new about this sort of thing, and it’s even possible (possible) that this guy’s not a lot worse corruption-wise than some of his competitors. But I think there’s also something distinctive and twenty-first-century going on here, which ought to resonate with anyone who followed the Clinton fiasco: penelopegate is a mild version of the phenomenon we keep seeing all over the west, that anyone who wants to be a mover and shaker now has to be really, really rich, able to speak on terms of some equality with the billionaires at the top. Otherwise you risk being viewed as just a low-rent menial. At least that’s the best I can come up with to explain the relentless money-making we’ve seen from the Clintons, Tony Blair, and others. It’s not that the political class is more corrupt than it used to be, but that the ambition is so much bigger, and so far beyond the scale of ordinary life.
In France that’s still happening at a pretty low level– the dollar totals for penelopegate are a tiny fraction of the totals that the Clintons and Blair have racked up, and the distance from ordinary life is less insane. The polling all says that either Newcomer Technocrat or Rich-Guy Christian Conservative would trounce Dangerous Nationalist in a second round matchup. There’s less anger here about global capitalism and the new global rich it’s helping create. But the anger’s real, and nobody should get too confident about what the outcomes it might generate.
Last week I talked about the well-known Yale historian Timothy Snyder and the lessons he’s drawn from recent history. By the modest standards of our profession, Snyder’s famous, with 12.7 thousand Twitter followers and huge book sales– so his opinions matter. Plus the subjects he researches have special significance for the lessons-of-history question as we confront it today. After all, we’re trying to understand the possibilities for dictatorship and genocide in the twenty-first century, and Snyder’s books deal with the 1920s-1930s versions of those phenomena. Who better to ask for history lessons?
Actually quite a few people, it turns out– at least that’s the answer I came to after reading Snyder’s mass circulation account of what the 1920s and 1930s can teach us about today. Some of the supposed lessons don’t have much to do with history, some seem plain wrong– and all of them express the ultra-individualist social assumptions you’d expect to hear from the world of Ivy League success stories.
There’s really only one of Snyder’s lessons that seems worth holding onto — his starting point, that “it can happen here,” and that the US can slip into fascist dictatorship just as Germany did in 1933. Politics made that happen in Germany, he says, not some divine decree, and it can do the same to us. I strongly agree.
But even here my agreement with Snyder doesn’t go very far, because I don’t buy his understanding of what the “it” is that can happen here. He sees the worry in terms of an individual collecting too much power– Hitler and Stalin were bad men, they did bad things, and we need to worry about a bad leader doing bad things here. The history lessons I propose point to something a lot bigger and more complicated– and also more disturbing.
For guidance, I propose we look back at George Orwell’s novel 1984, published soon after the death of Hitler and while Stalin was still going strong. Maybe Orwell doesn’t count as offering lessons from history– after all, it’s a novel. But for generations 1984 has provided the standard checklist for totalitarianism identification, and Orwell himself had up-close views of both Hitler and Stalin.
And sure enough, Orwell’s vision includes a highly-visible dictator, at first glance fitting the evil dictator theory. Big Brother’s face is plastered on every building and shown in every movie theater, accompanied by slogans telling people to trust, admire, and even love him. It seems straightforward: a dictatorship is run by a dictator, and we’ll know we’re there when the elections stop. From that angle, Donald Trump sure looks like serious trouble. After all, Trump had already plastered his name on dozens of buildings before reaching office; he’s probably not going to learn greater modesty in the years ahead.
But whatever dangers Trump poses, that’s actually not the point 1984 is making, in fact it’s almost the opposite of the point. In fact the novel never shows us the real-life Big Brother, and he may not even exist. What we see instead is a high-ranking but totally unpublicized member of “the Party,” and then the systems and mechanisms he and his Party-insider colleagues have put in place. For Orwell, it’s those systems and mechanisms that constitute the real totalitarianism. And if that’s the case,it becomes a lot harder to determine an exact dictatorship tipping point. You can’t just point to a Big Brother-like figure, because nearly everything in 1984‘s world is part of the story.
Of course some things are more obviously dictator-adjacent than others, starting with The Party itself. Its insider members run everything, and they alone hold the secrets about what’s really going on– the vast majority of the population doesn’t have a clue, let alone any influence, nor do most party members themselves. The Party’s power rests partly on violence, and partly on 24/7, multi-platform surveillance. Every home has an entertainment screen that can’t be turned off, and it transmits what you’re doing back to the authorities; plus everyone’s encouraged to report on those around them, family members included. So the party knows all about you, and it can use its knowledge however it wants– when they torture the hero, the authorities already know his deepest fears, and he cracks at just the threat. Other people just disappear.
Other features of 1984-land don’t have that obviously totalitarian look, though, yet they count for just as much in making the system work. There’s the society’s grungy poverty, for instance. Nothing’s in good repair, nobody’s got quite enough to live well, everyone’s living in cramped, dingy spaces. That’s a feature not a bug, because it ensures no one can survive if they get out of line — the state provides the housing and ration cards everyone needs to keep body and soul together.
Culture plays its role too. The Party’s got whole buildings full of culture workers, busy rewriting history, diluting literature from the past, and reworking the lanuage into mushy new forms. These projects matter because the watered-down, fact-free new culture prevents people from thinking clearly; they lack both the knowledge and the conceptual categories. (For smart reflections on that culture program, see here.) And then, in 1984 England/America is permanently at war, with one or another of the world’s other great powers. It’s a real war, with bombs ocasionally hitting London, but the fighting is remote and the issues are opaque, in fact beyond opaque, because the war isn’t actually about anything, not even the interests of an identifiable group of war profiteers. It’s really another mechanism by which The Party preserves its power over its subjects. It uses up resources, thus helping create the society’s ambient poverty, and it generates fear of enemies and longing for protectors.
You can see why this adds up to a more disturbing picture than the Hitler/Stalin/Leader X model. For one thing, the 1984 model includes many thousands of people as active participants, not just a leader and a few hench-persons, and way more practices than just disbanding parliament and putting troops in the streets. It’s actually a form of social organization, so if there’s totalitarianism, large swathes of society as a whole are implicated– and the tipping-point moment isn’t all that clear.
The other disturbing point, of course, is that we’ve been living for the last fifteen years amidst elements of that social organization. As we learned from Edward Snowden and others, someone actually is watching us 24/7, and we’ve been continuously at war since 2003, and really earlier. We’ve got designated enemies like Osama bin Laden and Vladimir Putin, and we’ve got torture; we’ve had massive efforts to make livelihoods as precarious as possible–as Orwell thought, it’s a great formula for discouraging people from mouthing off. Do we have “the Party” as well? Probably not, but maybe. We certainly have secret-keepers, the million or so national defense and intelligence types who know the real stories and keep then from the other 299 million of us, and some of whom have the green light for extra-judicial assassinations. (For the basics, see here.)
Sometimes the lessons of history start with some soul-searching.
Long ago, there was the idea that you studied history for its Lessons about Life. “History is philosophy teaching by example,” is what people said, meaning it shows you the big principles playing out in real circumstances. The Greeks said it first, though apparently nobody knows which particular Greek thought it up.
That remained the accepted wisdom into the nineteenth century, when history began morphing into the enterprise we know today. Before then, it was a branch of literature, something you learned in school and occasionally read for fun; there was no such thing as a professional historian, just writers trying to sell books like everyone else. But after about 1830 history became a research subject, with university departments, advanced degrees and seminars, scholarly journals, career paths up the professorial ranks, and all the rest. That didn’t happen overnight, but by 1900 all the elements were in place, all over the Euro-American world.
You can see why that change put pressure on the “teaching by example” idea. When you write history for high school kids or Oprah’s Book Club, you’re free to accentuate the positive and package the material in appealing ways. You can claim there’s a moral to the story, and that it’s not just meaningless chaos. But once you put on the historian’s metaphorical lab coat, you’re supposed to follow the story wherever it goes, just like a cancer researcher or a character on “Bones,” and that can lead into some pretty dark corners. You’re likely to stumble on evidence that a beloved national hero was a creep, or that your own country has committed war crimes, or that greed and violence tend to win out over decency and reasonableness. Maybe you’re still teaching philosophy by example, but the philosophy you’re instilling is cynical nihilism. What then?
I don’t know any historian who has fully-satisfactory answers to that problem. I’ve tried to lay out my own in these posts, but I’m still mulling them over after forty-five years in the business.
But lately there’s been a turn back to more muscular, less doubt-ridden ideas about what history can teach, no doubt in response to our contemporary crises and troubles– like many others, historians feel a need to improve our own world, not just study by-gone ones. Consider the Yale historian Timothy Snyder, a prominent specialist on Eastern Europe during the Holocaust era. He’s got a new book coming out called On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, and he’s been offering samples in various journalistic and online formats; his last book carried the subtitle “The Holocaust as History and Warning.” The lessons of history are clearly much on his mind.
It’s worth looking closely at his views on the matter because he’s such a prominent figure, who’s worked hard to make his voice heard outside the unversity as well as within. He writes for middle-brow publications, speaks often to non-specialist audiences, and keeps his online presence up-to-date; he’s even dabbled in real-life contemporary Ukrainian politics. And then there’s the Yale factor, which matters because America now expects its leaders to come with Ivy League degrees. Even the famously under-educated Donald Trump has one, as do both Clintons, Obama, and both Bushes– our last non-Ivy president was Ronald Reagan, and he left the White House in 1988. That’s something new in American history. Over the forty-five years before Bush I, there were only six when we had an Ivy-Leaguer in the White House. Snyder’s one of those helping shape our future deciders.
(Here I’m working off Snyder’s journalistic statements [especially here, here, and here], not the new book itself, which I haven’t read yet; I’m assuming these give an accurate depiction of his thinking, and anyway, they’re the versions that will reach the broadest public.)
What strikes you first about Snyder’s lessons is the urgency with which he delivers them. Donald Trump is seriously dangerous, he tells us, and the historical model we need to learn from is Nazi Germany. “We have at most a year to defend the republic, perhaps less,” is how he put it to one interviewer; in fact even “the next few weeks” are critical. Hitler moved fast to change the political rules, and he left his opponents no room for backtalk– a seizure of power is a seizure of power, and for Snyder that’s what we’re facing.
But after those three-alarm warnings, it’s a shock to reach the tepid history-based advice itself, because a lot of it sounds like the basic advice you’d give anyone, at any time: don’t surf the internet before bed, read thoughtful books instead (Lesson #6); connect with other people at real-life levels, both on the street (Lesson #11) and in your private life (#15); have a passport and stay in touch with your friends in other countries (#16). You imagine other items coming up in a high school class on To Kill a Mockingbird: don’t be swept away by the language politicians use (#4, but also #6, which says pretty much the same thing); don’t join the scape-goating lynch mobs if there’s a frightening terrorism-style event (#5); cling to the ethics of your profession (#3). That’s about it, except for a certain amount of add-on blather– be courageous (#19), be patriotic (#20), give to good causes (#14).
I suspect Snyder intends this to add up to more than just “be a good person, the way you were taught in school.” Probably he has in mind George Orwell and Hannah Arendt, who both thought totalitarian regimes were especially determined to snuff out private life, which they view as competing for individuals’ loyalty. But really– do we need a crack research historian to tell us stuff like this?
It’s not just just the low-temp quality of the advice that’s interesting, it’s also the underlying assumptions, and especially their relentless individualism. Snyder doesn’t mention labor unions, churches, civil rights groups, feminist collectives, hippie communes, political parties, or any of the other communities that have structured resistance movements in other times and places. Nor does he mention actual refusal/ resistance movements, even of the non-violent form preached by Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Black Lives Matter. You could say, he’s offering advice for an already fully-atomized society, made up (as per classical liberal theory) of unconnected social free-agents. Sure, we’ve all got a few friends and our own families, we encounter fellow shoppers in the street, we go to our jobs, but none of us has any deeper attachments to larger communities.
Exaggerating somewhat, you could say Snyder takes for granted the social atomization that worried Orwell and Arendt. What they saw as a product of totalitarianism, he sees as a baseline modern condition– except that it’s a pretty comfy condition. It’s assumed you’ll have a profession with a code of ethics, not just a McJob you desperately need to keep in order to feed your family. Even the idea that you’ll have foreign friends to stay in touch with is odd, applicable to high-profile professors, less so to the vast majority of Americans. (To say nothing of recent immigrants, who may want to be extra-careful about foreign contacts in the new regime.)
And then there’s one last assumption, which I’ll only sketch here and try to explain in more detail next week– namely, that the relevant time scale is very, very short. In fact in Snyder’s account, the clock only started ticking January 20, 2017, with no fundamental connections to what happened over the previous decade or two. I’m guessing that’s his thought-out view; the idea would be, the roll of the electoral dice gave us a mega-dangerous president (just as it more or less did in 1932-33 Germany), and now anything can happen. But aren’t there other lessons of history, about how accumulating conditions produce the mega-dangers, over decades rather than weeks? Shouldn’t some attention go to the expanded governmental powers Trump has inherited from recent presidents (24/7 surveillance, torture, drone assassinations, and on and on), or to the multiple angers percolating out in the heartlands?
I’ve suggested that Snyder’s history lessons take us back to a pre-professional version of the discipline; they also seem to take us to a Bad Guys Do Bad Things version, and I’m not sure that’s where help lies.
When I think about our 2017 world, I’m mostly impressed by its “nobody could have seen that coming” aspects, both good and bad. I didn’t envision the Internet, LGBQT rights, or today’s go-go China, on the one hand, or charter schools, climate disaster, and creepo 1 percenters, on the other. So like most historians these days, I’m not keen on theories of history that downplay the complexity of change over time– as in, the idea that nothing fundamental ever really changes, or that situations repeat themselves in cycles, or that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I’ve always thought historical processes were way too complicated for simplified schemas like these.
But as I mentioned last week, I’ve been thinking lately about my years as a twenty-something in 1960s Berkeley, and that’s forcing me to rethink my views of historical change. Because the background political scene from those years supplies some great evidence for the other side.
To see what I mean, here’s a quick list of political basics from those years– cherry-picked to make my point, of course, but still impressive:
- As governor of California, we had Ronald Reagan, still the top dog in our ongoing series of show-biz-fabulist-buffoon politicians; and like his successors, Reagan managed (apparently with minimal effort) to steamroll every opponent, many of them highly qualified. California also had an ex-show-biz senator (just for one term, thankfully), and Shirley Temple herself as a congresswoman. Neither of them had Reagan’s seductive effectiveness, but just their existence tells you something about where politics stood in those days.
- In Richard Nixon, we also had a president who deliberately cultivated an image of psychological instability, probably building on a foundation of real nuttiness. That’s easy to forget nowadays, because the presidents who’ve followed make Nixon look like such a towering figure. But look up “Madman theory” on Wikipedia, and you’ll learn that it was “a feature of Richard Nixon‘s foreign policy. He and his administration tried to make the leaders of hostile Communist Bloc nations think Nixon was irrational and volatile. According to the theory, those leaders would then avoid provoking the United States, fearing an unpredictable American response.” Remember, this was in the context of hair-trigger nuclear weaponry.
- Plus Nixon had made his career as a McCarthyite commie-hunter, and he pioneered our contemporary forms of coded racism. His “southern strategy” and judicial nominations explicitly appealed to all those angered by the Civil Rights movement; slightly less explicitly, his appeals to the “Silent Majority” pushed the idea that liberal elites and intellectuals were responsible for minorities’ new presence in American life, as for so many other ills. (He was also antisemitic, but at least he kept that private.)
- Of course there were also the wars, mostly in Indochina but occasionally erupting elsewhere as well, and just like today’s wars they seemed endless. Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American already depicted America’s Vietnam escapades, then semi-clandestine, and (as we all know) things got much much worse over the next two decades, through five presidential administrations; even after we left Vietnam, we continued supporting the auto-genocidal Pol Pot in nearby Cambodia. Again, nuclear weapons lurked in the background. Russia and China were supposed to be on Vietnam’s side, and there was always the possibility that events would spiral out of control.
- And then there was the violence at home, at levels that today would trigger code-red terrorism alerts. We remember the Kennedy and King assassinations, but there was a long string of other political violence, involving all kinds of groups, some of them talking terrorizing lingo: the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, the KKK, and various other groups. In response, we also had regular calls to give police more leeway in dealing with all the chaos. Clint Eastwood’s 1971 movie “Dirty Harry” (in which a cop disposes of various evil-doers, despite weakling authorities trying to slow him down) was as characteristic of the era as anti-war demonstrations.
Sound familiar? Here we are fifty years later, and the items on my list are all back, as if they’d never been away.
Which suggests the disturbing possibility: maybe they actually never have been away, maybe they’ve been lurking in the background all along, as part of the American political systems we’ve inherited and seem unable to get rid of. After all, no one’s ever doubted that hucksterism, anger, paranoia, and violence have been a long-time presence in American life– we need to incorporate them into our memories of “The Sixties,” and remember that they brought us Reagan/Nixon/Eastwood along with all those liberation movements. Doing so has at least one consolation: maybe our 2017 troubles aren’t quite the unprecedented calamity they may seem.