No future for us until we can see our past

Summary: Both Left and Right in America have cut themselves loose from the past, constructing faux histories that flatter their theories. Here James Bowman looks at the Left’s fake history. We cannot build a good future if we can’t clearly see our past.

"The Persistence of memory" by Salvador Dali (1931)
“The Persistence of memory” by Salvador Dali (1931).

Trying times

By James Bowman.
From The New Criterion.  30 April 2018.

“It’s time to give socialism a try” wrote Elizabeth Bruenig, an opinion columnist, in The Washington Post in March. As you may have heard, The Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos who, on the same day that Ms Bruenig’s article appeared, was identified as the richest person in the world, with a fortune of $112 billion. Within days, Forbes, which makes it its business to know such things, had amended that figure on the basis of a surge in the Amazon stock price to $130 billion.

There is no record of any reproof by “the world’s first centi-billionaire” of his employee for denigrating the economic system which had enabled him to amass such fabulous riches, but since The Washington Post under his ownership has been moving inexorably in the ideological direction of The Daily Worker, you wouldn’t really expect there to be. Mr Bezos has become just the latest rich man in the tradition established by Friedrich Engels and continued by George Soros to try to ingratiate himself with potential anti-“capitalist” revolutionaries by subsidizing them.

Not that Ms Bruenig would appear to know anything about that. The word “time” in her headline implies some sense of historical perspective, but there turns out to be none.

Second only to “capitalism” among the things that she dislikes is what she calls “everyday Fukuyama-ism,” and yet she herself may be the only living exponent, not excepting Francis Fukuyama himself, of the pure “The End of History” thesis. For her indeed, history is so far ended that it is as if it never existed.

If she is aware that the historical moment for giving socialism a “try” has ever occurred before in human history, there is no sign of it in the article. After the Twitter-storm that blew up when it was published, she wrote another in reply suggesting that she hadn’t mentioned the Soviet Union or other “totalitarian” socialist examples because that would have implied she was herself a totalitarian socialist — and, by the way, she wasn’t. So her opponents’ bringing them up was to her a sign of their “bad faith,” a concept she thinks was invented by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Her eagerness to accuse anyone who disagrees with her of lying is just one more sign of the times on the Washington Post op-ed pages.

When someone else in the Twitter-thread mentioned Venezuela (Ms Bruenig is not in favor of that either, it seems), one of her stoutest defenders denied that Venezuela was socialist at all. Nicolás Maduro thinks it is. Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro both thought it was. International fans of the Bolivarian Revolution like Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party, think it is. But what do these people know?

“Socialism,” for Ms Bruenig and the many who think like her, has only a sort of ideal existence — the sort which admits of one day, in the op-ed writer’s airily imagined future, being “tried” — because the past has been effectively abolished as an irrelevance in today’s political culture, as in today’s educational system. Socialism no longer means what it has meant or even what it does mean to most of the world, but only what she wants it to mean.

Revising history.

“’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’”
— From Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

Such claims to proprietorship over language are also a claim against history. One reason why Elizabeth Bruenig could think of no real-world examples of the economic régime she was advocating — she eventually settled on Norway — was that real-life socialists themselves traditionally seek such mastery over their own past. “He who controls the past controls the future,” Orwell wrote in 1984. “He who controls the present controls the past.” That’s why, down at the Ministry of Truth they’re working overtime to alter the records of the past, in order to ensure the state’s control over memory, and thus the past, themselves.

Of course that’s all highly totalitarian, as Ms Bruenig would no doubt remind us, but it’s not as if she did not aspire to her own, though necessarily less-unlimited, Big Brother-like control of the past. If your project is to tear down what is in favor of what (you hope and believe) only might be, you were well-advised to keep people’s focus on that imaginary future instead of the actually existing past, which might start to look pretty good when change begins to get difficult, as socialist change has rather a habit of doing.

For the same reason, conservatives are now routinely charged with, among their many other sins, nostalgia — as if any appeal to the past must be treated as false and distorted by definition. Applied to marriage and the family, that is a favorite trope of Stephanie Coontz in books like The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (2016) which sees traditional views of marriage and family-formation as being hopelessly compromised by their own imperfections in practice.

The point of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014) is that America’s economy as well as its governing institutions were founded on slave labor and therefore, to that extent, must be treated as illegitimate. Any potential controversy about this claim has perhaps been limited because The Economist was forced to withdraw and apologize for a negative review of the book. (See “The Uses of Outrage” in The New Criterion of November, 2014). Like Ms Bruenig’s critics, the reviewer must have been guilty of bad faith.

History as a weapon in today’s ideological battles.

And the Baptist thesis has now become axiomatic for the school of black scholarship represented by Ta-Nahisi Coates. Tasha Williams goes even further by writing that “slavery was a critical factor in the economic growth of the U.S. and the rise of global capitalism.” (Emphasis added). Much of the labor of today’s historical profession, such as it is, now goes into this kind of demythologizing (and thus delegitimizing) of the past — ultimately in the service of the progressive project.

That, as Ms Bruenig’s article suggests, is not just the transformation of economic reality (which is a more accurate name for the socialist construct of “capitalism”) but the short-circuiting of all debate and all possibility of debate by the demand for putative victims’ rights over their own history. That’s why it has become not only bad taste but bad faith to bring up historical counter-examples, since that history can be ruled irrelevant, or false, at will. More importantly, the fantasy (“socialism”) can be put on a level with the reality (“capitalism”) as if it were simply a matter of moral and political will to choose one over another. Yet if it were so, who would not choose such a pleasant-sounding and apparently eminently achievable fantasy?

This is classic utopian reasoning — or perhaps we should call it billionaires’ reasoning, since there is no utopian like a billionaire with a social project in his sights and an absolute conviction of his own righteousness.

Hindsight glasses

War: so different in hindsight than in the now.

Nor is it limited to economics. A couple of weeks before the Bezos-Post’s socialist apologia appeared, there was a small controversy in the British press sparked off by Colonel Tim Collins, Commander of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, who acquired a measure of fame in Britain and beyond for his stirring speech to his troops on the eve of battle. Col Collins, who has since retired from the army, complained that the BBC’s coverage of the centenary of World War I, which will reach its culmination this year, had been limited to the war’s most sanguinary and tragic aspects.

With the centenary of the end of the First World War looming (he wrote), one might not realise from the TV series recalling those momentous times that Britain and her Allies won the war. Last year’s coverage of the Passchendaele anniversary by the BBC was a prime example. While paying appropriate tribute to the sacrifice of the many soldiers who lost their lives, it was saturated in grief, in the horror and pity of war. . . When the time comes to mark 100 years since the Armistice later this year, I am calling on the BBC to also note that we are marking a victory.

This statement of simple historical fact was treated by some as a species of obscenity. It inspired an op ed in The Daily Telegraph  by the Australian author Paul Ham, who has written two books about the war, headed: “The ‘victory’ of 1918 destroyed our civilisation. Nothing can make that worthwhile.” By applying Catholic “Just War” theory to the war, Mr Ham finds it very easy to show that the horrible sacrifices on both sides were not “worth it” and therefore unjust, but it could be argued that this only shows what an academic exercise Catholic “Just War” theory is, and how limited its usefulness in real world situations like that of August, 1914, which did not admit, at least not for the Western Allies, of a third option between fighting the German invasion of Belgium and France and submitting to it.

We ought always to be suspicious about retrospective moralizing about the past, which didn’t have the luxury that we enjoy of being able to balance costs that had yet to be incurred against benefits that remained hypothetical in order to decide if a prospective course of action was “worthwhile” or not.

Moreover, the men who took the world to war in 1914 were more clear-sighted than we are in at least one respect, since they well understood the binary choice that confronted them in a war fought for honor — as we, having deliberately wrecked the Western honor culture in response to that war’s sacrifices, no longer do. Mr Ham believes that anything so terrible as the First World War should not have happened, and his wish that it should not, thereby becomes in his own mind a claim against the reality that it did. If he can wish against it a century later, therefore, the people who took the world to war could have done the same and the war would not have happened.

It is childish thinking and yet surprisingly common. So common as to be uncontroversial. Margaret MacMillan, author of The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (2013), one of the most highly respected histories of the war’s origins, also thinks that it could have been wished away.

“If we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century, we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.”

Maybe so, but they are not always the choices we think they are. In the case of the men of 1914 the choice was not between the peaceful status quo ante and the slaughter to come — which, by the way, most of them did foresee, if only dimly — but, as all decisions to go to war end up being, between fighting and surrendering. Surrender may look to us like the preferred option in retrospect (as it always does to one side eventually), but at least we ought to be able to understand why it didn’t to our ancestors of a century ago. And it is merely silly to pretend that surrender is not the only alternative to fighting against an enemy invasion.

Besides, if the choice were a simple one between peace and war, what kind of monster and sociopath would you have to be to choose war?

The Left loves utopian reasoning.

Utopian reasoning always allows you to set a more or less unsatisfactory present against a merely imaginary future and treat them as being on all fours with one another. Hm. Do I choose millions of dead and more millions of bereaved or a radiant golden future where wars don’t happen? Not difficult is it, when you put it like that? Which is the point of putting it like that, as our infantilized media now routinely do.

There was another example on this side of the Atlantic at about the time that Col Collins and his critics were having it out in Britain. After a teenage fantasist of a type now all too familiar to us (whom, as usual, we forbear to name) went on a shooting rampage at his former high school in Florida, killing 17 and wounding as many more, the media did what the media now always do when such things happen, which is to recycle their perennial fantasy of a world without guns set against a world bristling with guns and malevolent types itching to use them.

Once again, the choice was plain, simple, obvious and wrong: dead kids or a gun-free country. All you had to do to show you had made the socially acceptable choice was to denounce the malicious and mysterious power of the NRA over the nation’s politicians.

Only this time, somebody at CNN had the bright idea of offering this utopian choice to the teenage survivors of the massacre on national television and betting that no one would dare to criticize them when, as expected, the youngsters — or those who appeared on camera — and the grieving parents passionately argued for utopia.

It’s hard to blame them, really. A bit of virtue signaling and you get to be an instant celebrity — if only for an instant — as part of the great chorus of media self-righteousness which never seems to take a break anymore but only shifts its focus occasionally from the iniquities of Donald Trump to those of some other bête noire such as the NRA. When you think about it, it was only a matter of time before some 16-year-old on CNN was accusing Senator Marco Rubio of complicity in murder to the cheers of his coevals.

Elizabeth Bruenig is also quite a young person, I believe {see her background}. And, like the Florida teens, she appears to have enjoyed an education light on historical facts but very heavy indeed on historical certainties, the understanding of which provide one with a warm glow of confidence in one’s moral superiority to those without it that may be expected to last all one’s life long.

It’s hard to see how such people can ever develop a capacity for reasoning that is not utopian and moralistic or any view of the past which is anything other than a struggle between the forces of light and darkness. But without the hope that they can, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for our country, or its self-understanding.


Concluding note

Those on the Right have displayed similar behaviors. No surprise since both are Americans, cousins under the skin. See posts about them in the For More Information section.

James Bowman

About James Bowman

Bowman is a Resident Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

He has worked as a freelance journalist, serving as American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London from 1991 to 2002, as movie critic of The American Spectator since 1990 and as media critic of The New Criterion since 1993. He has also been a weekly movie reviewer for The New York Sun since the newspaper’s re-foundation in 2002. He has also contributed to a wide range of other major papers.

Mr. Bowman is perhaps best known for his book, Honor: A History, and his essay “The Lost Sense of Honor” in The Public Interest.

See his collected articles at his website, including his film reviews going back to 1994.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts by James Bowman, about libertarianism, about the Right’s faux history and faux economics, and especially these …

  1. Losing touch with our past weakens us.
  2. A look at Faux Economics, increasingly popular but bizarrely wrong.
  3. American faux history: why did the South leave the Union?
  4. Trump’s comments about the Civil War are mocked when they should be discussed.
  5. Debunking a right-wing myth about Thanksgiving.
Honor: A History
Avilable at Amazon.

About Bowman’s great book.

About his book, Honor: A History, from the publisher…

“The importance of honor is present in the earliest records of civilization. Today, while it may still be an essential concept in Islamic cultures, in the West, honor has been disparaged and dismissed as obsolete.

“In this lively and authoritative book, James Bowman traces the curious and fascinating history of this ideal, from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment and to the killing fields of World War I and the despair of Vietnam. Bowman reminds us that the fate of honor and the fate of morality and even manners are deeply interrelated.”

10 thoughts on “No future for us until we can see our past”

  1. These peeps are ruled by emotion and feelings. Not facts and reality. Hey Larry, what ya wearing today?

  2. The lessons of WWI are quite different. Its not that the Allies won. Its not simply the horror of it. Its not that there was a binary choice between surrender and war (there was not, at least for the British).

    The important lessons have to do with military incompetence and betrayal by the leadership. These were marked on the British side, but even more marked in the French leadership. The cult of the offensive, the repeated advances across open or ploughed up ground in the face of machine guns and artillery.

    The lesson to be drawn from the Accrington Pals is neither that their side won, nor that war is dreadful (though both are true). It is that a senior command, drawn from the upper classes, largely ignorant of the conditions on the ground, and unwilling or unable to learn, persisted in a failing strategy which was enormously wasteful of life. And would have continued to throw men into the mincing machine until there were none left to throw, had it not been for Lloyd George who limited the numbers available. The French, without a Lloyd George, continued until their troops mutinied, and their losses were even more catastrophic. France has never been the same since then.

    It is also that countries need to scale their investment in proportion to their real resources, and to a realistic appraisal of their national interests. Britain in its total commitment to France did neither.

    Peacetime generals, like Haigh, are generally promoted because of abilities which are the opposite of those needed in wartime. The lesson of WWI on the Allied side is that if you leave them in control, their incompetence can kill millions and destroy your country. The lesson is also that social connections make them almost impossible to remove – Haigh’s intrigues for command are well documented. But when he got what he wanted, he had no idea what to do with it.

    Haigh’s stupidity and incompetence became generally admitted in the UK in the twenties and thirties. There are statues to Cromwell and Churchill in Westminster. There are one or two Haigh clubs in small towns in England, but no statues, and there were no honours for him or place in public life. He, typically, never understood why.

    I thoroughly agree with the piece’s remarks on the Washington Post op-ed.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “Its not that there was a binary choice between surrender and war (there was not, at least for the British).”

      Absurd. As Bowman says, in war there are usually simple stark choices. It’s not like discussions generations later in the classroom.

      “The important lessons have to do with military incompetence and betrayal by the leadership.”

      Even more absurd. The decision of “war” or “no war” dwarfs in importance how the war is conducted. War, by its very nature, is often a comedy (or tragedy) of errors. A leader is nuts who believes his generals will conduct the war like experienced kids playing “Risk”.

      Modern wars are fought once a generation, or once every few generations, so generals must learn on the job. Worse, each modern war since the French revolution has been fought with new tactics and technology – so whatever the generals learned had to be thrown away. This generates risks that political leaders must consider before pushing the “war” button.

    2. You’re doing exactly what Bowman criticizes – generalizing about the meaning of past events without knowing or taking account of the specifics of what actually happened and the choices that were available.

      There were choices, there was complacent incompetence, and pretending there were not will lead to a failure to learn the real lessons of that terrible history.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        “there was complacent incompetence, and pretending there were not”

        That’s unrelated to anything — anything at all — that I said.

    3. Sometimes there really are simple, stark choices. WWI for the British was not one of these times.

      To claim it was is to commit the same error as was made at the time, the kind of errors which Halberstam has so vividly documented in the US drift into the Vietnam disaster. Its a kind of retrospective endorsement of the stupidity of the decision makers of the time.

      On some occasions, but not all, the decision to go to war does indeed dwarf in importance how it was conducted. But in other cases, and the Western Front was one, there have been a combination of wrong judging. One wrong judgment was to think there was no alternative but to fight, and to set particular objectives to fight for. There were many alternatives, at many points along the way.

      The second was blindly to keep repeating the same tactics despite their evident failure and their cost. The French did this far worse than the British. But the British did it too over and over again until they finally figured out combined airms tactics, air, infantry, armour and artillery, in the last couple of years.

      The real lesson of WWI, and one the British themselves drew, so its very odd to hear others repeatedly defending an approving attitude to the indefensible, is that you when going to war you have to set objectives which are vital to the national interest, and to be very wary of generals who just want to throw more lives in repetition of failing tactics but on a bigger scale.

      The British were wrong to commit themselves so wholeheartedly to the French mania for recovering the ‘lost provinces’. The way they conducted the Somme and Paschendale was inexcusable. The French mania for the offensive was military stupidity personified. Ludendorf’s offensive at Verdun was the same obstinate stupidity – and the tactic of attrition was really a total confession of lack of any military intelligence.

      We cannot learn the real lessons of WWI if we persist in thinking about it in simple minded terms such as, the choice was surrender or fight. Any more than we can learn the lessons of Vietnam by thinking only in the categories used by those in command at the time.

      One of the lives wasted on the Western Front belonged to a member of my family. Go to the war memorial in Accrington, and look at the list of names. Sacrificed by idiot generals who still believed in cavalry charges with cold steel right into the twenties, and sacrificed in the effort to prop up the mutinying French troops who in turn had been sacrificed to the God of the Offensive, in vain pursuit of recovery of the ‘lost provinces’ and in memory of Napoleonic grandeur.

      If you want to learn from our past, you have to start by seeing it for what it was.

      When the Oxford Union voted that ‘this house would not fight for King and Country’, that is the history they had in mind, and when they did enlist in WWII it was in an army and under leadership which had learned the lessons which some, 100 years later, are still trying to deny.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        You write these long essays. Since you give no direct quotes, it’s unclear what you are attempting to communicate. Or what’s their relevance to this post or this thread. This isn’t a place for old SAT essays.

        I’ve pointed this out to you many times.

  3. Speaking of Bezos, thanks for reminding me to cancel my Amazon Prime subscription today. They’re raising prices another $20/year and clearly Bezos doesn’t need any more of my money

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Every business “needs” your money. Prime is a great deal, for those who use it a lot.

      The problem is our antitrust and taxation systems. There’s little inherently wrong with Amazon, imo.

  4. I reduce my spending at every company that threatens my rights or gets involved in politics. Our company takes no political stands on anything. The reasons for this should be obvious but let me state them: whenever you take a political stand, you piss-off half your customers and the other half don’t double their spending.

    Amazon is completely flooded with knock-off Chinese junk that gets promoted on their search above decent brand names. Consequently, it’s getting hard to find stuff that doesn’t need to be thrown out after one use. We had a technical conference and Amazon was invited to speak about Amazon web services, which we already use. Instead of sending a developer or an architect, they sent a clueless H1B Indian marketing ditz who tried to sell us services we already pay for but were trying to learn how to use better. Their shipping is admittedly awesome, but I get most of my books through Kindle and can wait longer to receive the rest through non-Prime shipping. The shows they offer on their streaming app are offered elsewhere (Hulu). Often, I have to pay $2 per show for current airings.

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