zenpundit.com » 2005 » May

Archive for May, 2005

Sunday, May 29th, 2005


This week HNN ran an exceptional essay by Dr. David Greenberg that delved deeply into the divide between professional, academic historians and ” popular” historians like the late Stephen Ambrose and David McCullough. Academic historians usually regard the latter with bitter disdain. Greenberg attempted to look at the two sides with some evenhandedness and objectivity – at least more than professional historians usually evince:

This month marks the publication of 1776, David McCullough’s rousing, feel-good tale of how George Washington led a ragtag crew of continental soldiers into their fateful battle for independence. It’s safe to predict that 1776—the latest in a series of heavily hyped history blockbusters—will vault to the top of the best-seller lists, beguiling readers with its reverent portrait of Washington’s heroism and the dulcet cadences of McCullough’s finely wrought prose.

It will also drive many academic historians up the wall.

Our exasperation will stem partly, to be sure, from envy of McCullough’s undeniable gift for storytelling and of his smashing popularity. But my academic colleagues will (or should) raise legitimate objections to the approach of a book like this—the surfeit of scene-setting and personality, the meager analysis and argument, the lack of a compelling rationale for writing about a topic already amply covered. McCullough’s fans won’t care. They typically have little use for what they regard—not always wrongly—as the narrowly focused, politically correct, jargon-clotted academic monographs that dwell on arcane issues instead of big, meaty topics like politics, diplomacy, and war.

Instead of grumbling over the public’s middlebrow book buying tastes, the best thing academic historians can do is to try to offer them something better. A number of our own practices lead us away from engaging the public as we should. I’ve seen students entering graduate school aspiring to write like Arthur Schlesinger, only to be shunted into producing pinched, monographic studies. I’ve seen conferences full of brilliant minds unable to find an interesting presentation to attend that isn’t literally read off the page in a soporific drone. We write too much for each other—and, as we do, a public hungry for good history walks into Barnes & Noble and gets handed vapid mythmaking that uninformed critics ratify as “magisterial” or “definitive.”

Aside from the natural division between horizontal-thinking generalists and often arcane specialists operating at very high level of vertical expertise, the problem academics have with popular or amateur historians is really one that is self-referential.

First, academic historians, even those used to teaching freshmen year survey courses have a misleadingly skewed view of the level of basic historical knowledge among the general public. University profs tend to deal most often with other experts or aspiring experts ( grad students) in their own field. Recall that college students are usually in the top two deciles of the Bell Curve in terms of intelligence and their knowledge and analytical prowess in terms of history is often exceptionally spotty. These freshmen then represent a mental baseline for most historians but unfortunately its the wrong one to use when writing for the general public.

Trying to then go out and write a history book that can be enjoyed and understood by the remaining 80 % of the population after spending extended time in that narrow, rarified, campus environment is hard. Academic historians often wildly underestimate the degree to which the fundamentals must be coherently explained before the public can grasp the point the historian would really like to make. Good storytelling is important because it is the ” hook” for the reader to follow the subsequent analysis. We’re mentally ” wired” for narrative structures, not expository writing, which is why no one likes to read their computer software instruction manuals.

The second point of self-referentiality is, I’m sorry to say, whether anyone likes to hear it or not, political. Holding even a ” mainstream” or ” centrist” position in the historical profession puts you very far to the Left of the general public, in terms of the mean on critical issues of public policy. And no, it isn’t always greater amounts of knowledge that lead historians to the ” correct” conclusions -that is simply an arrogant conceit -it’s a difference of values.

Eric Foner’s political desire to substitute Social-Democracy for the currently influential libertarian definition of ” Freedom” in American culture is a result of personal philosophy and preference for socialist politics – not an inarguable conclusion drawn from his research on intellectual and political history. I can agree with Dr. Foner the presentation of his evidence without accepting his normative judgement in his conclusion.

The combination of poorly prefaced writing, esoteric Left positions, use of weird jargon and the media’s preference for sound bites makes academic historians look more than a little nuts to the public when something radical pops into their USA Today front page article. The media’s editing style is not the fault of the historian but it is a reality to be considered when making an argument in the popular press.

Historians, for all the good work they do and the analytical skills they cultivate, do not ” own ” history. No group does. History is the intellectual commons of humanity for everyone to take from or add to with the only appropriate standard of judgment being truth.

Saturday, May 28th, 2005


The ubiquitous praktike is posting on intra-Democratic Party politics today and the difficulty that the factional division between liberal hawks and left-liberals is causing the Democrats in terms of articulating a coherent and attractive foreign policy to the voters:

“What Democrats need to do is convince a majority of Americans that they will protect them from danger just as well if not better than the Republicans. I don’t think Kosovo furthered that agenda one way or the other, because it wasn’t about a threat to us except in an indirect “save NATO from irrelevance” sense. That didn’t excite too many folks outside the beltway, and I think most Americans don’t go for humanitarian wars either. Terrorism, on the other hand, is very scary, and the GOP is masterful at playing upon and amplifying genuine and understandable fears and offering a simplistic narrative as to how those fears are best combatted. Likewise, the spectre of “weapons of mass destruction” looms large in the American imagination.”

I have said before that I wish praktike and his cohorts at Liberals Against Terrorism well. While the conservative in me likes to see the GOP trounce the Democrats at the polls the American in me realizes that to have one of the two political parties of the preeminent world power paralyzed on issues of defense, counterterrorism, foreign policy and covert operations is a very bad thing. While Democratic and Republican foreign policies should vary in emphasis and detail, this variance needs to revolve in an orbit around a core of commonly held assumptions about American national security. A core that in some important areas doesn’t exist any more.

I think praktike and those like him will be stymied for the medium term. The left-liberal boomers and Gen-X anti-globos who control the mass of the Democratic base of activists are Oliver Stone Democrats who have internalized the New Left revisionist critique of American power. It’s a visceral schema now for this crowd and it isn’t going to change. Rational arguments on points of policy by centrists and liberal hawks along with appeals to electoral self-interest by Democratic Party political pros do not merely fall on deaf ears but they evoke enraged howls of ” Republican lite” and worse by the fifty-something, MoveOn.org, ex- Deaniacs.

The left-liberals are not interested in policies that protect American security – they think our security is a problem for the rest of the planet. The perception of the American voter that the Democrats can’t be trusted on security issues is a valid one at this point in time; the left-liberals simply have too much influence in the Democratic Party to be discounted when a voter casts a ballot. It’s like discounting the power of the Christian Right on social issues when voting for a moderate Republican – party factions are political baggage.

On the other hand, these characters are aging fast and liberal hawks might do well to give up on these fools and instead cultivate a generation of recruits from college campuses today who can be the state and national party leaders of tomorrow. Something that means forming new organizations to challenge the dominance of established liberal NGO’s jealously controlled and vetted by Boomer leftists. In short, liberal hawks need to do to the Democratic Party what the young Goldwaterites did to the GOP when they took the Republicans from being the Party of Nelson Rockefeller to the Party of Ronald Reagan in just 16 years. This will incidentally, help my party as well because a quality opponent will make it less easy for GOP leaders to adopt bizarre and harmful policy positions beloved by small sects of exceptionally vocal wingnuts.

There’s a Party of Ted Kennedy just waiting to be refashioned for the 21st century.

Saturday, May 28th, 2005


The mighty Firstborn of Zenpundit had her first slumber party this evening amid squealing and an oversupply of treats, ice cream and microwave popcorn. Needless to say the festivities cut somewhat into my blogging time tonight. I am currently winding down with a Sam Adams and am contemplating a light night of just commenting on the blogs of others.

Saturday, May 28th, 2005


(Hat tip Dave at The Glittering Eye )

Thursday, May 26th, 2005


While doing some research on foreign policy and military strategies of the Bush administration I happened to pull up some NCW articles by Dr. Barnett’s mentor, Vice-Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski which I found to be very stimulating reading. In particular, one powerpoint graph by Cebrowski had a segment he labelled ” Shared Awareness“that was adjacent to Network-Centric Operations to indicate the real-time, mutual, cognizance of the same information and concepts throughout the chain of command in a battle. I found the Shared Awareness concept an attractive one and upon reflection decided that Admiral Cebrowski had articulated a phenomena with far wider application than in the military scenario alone.

In public affairs we hear journalists and intellectuals refer to ” the marketplace of ideas ” and “the war of ideas “, usually to illustrate the conceptual competition between Right and Left for the public acceptance of their policy proposals and general political ideology. Marketplace is a kinder and gentler term or end of a continuum for a contest that in international relations or undemocratic societies often accompanies or incites ramped up levels of organized violence or implies that possibility. Despite claims of detente there was nothing peaceful about the coexistence of the Soviet Union and the West. Likewise, the caustic rhetorical contempt hurled on liberal democracy and on the Jews by the Nazis was a necessary prelude to trying to liquidate both. The Cold War and WWII both represented true “wars of ideas” as well as physical battles.

Memes and memetic theory are a popular explanation for the process by which ideas spread through a population by a sort of ideological Darwinist competition. Certainly some ideas seem to be more “contagious” than others, particularly those concepts that are produced via Horizontal thinking and cross the borders of domains. Some ideas, particularly political and religious concepts can inspire so much intensity of devotion that millions have willingly gone to their deaths to champion them or committed ghastly atrocities on ” non-believers”.

I’m borrowing here from both Richard Dawkins and Admiral Cebrowski when I suggest that wars of ideas are fought in the realm of Shared Awareness with the mediasphere of modern telecommunications being the primary transmission belt, allowing the rapid networking of adherents that was impossible fifty, thirty or even ten years ago. The speed of transacting attractive memes through self-organizing networks is what may drive public debate in the future, possibly today – a ” dominance of the intellectual battlespace”:

To dominate the intellectual battlespace, a network injects its memes into the Shared Awareness of the mediasphere either spread its worldview, achieve concrete objectives or discredit and frustrate rival networks. Memes do not need to be true to become contagious or be more ” right” than the memes of rival networks – just have a greater psychological attraction. What makes memes attractive ? I’d postulate that two factors weigh heavily – utility and versatility.

I use the term “utility” to refer to the capacity of the meme to fill a psychological need by lowering anxiety by either increasing an individual’s comprehension of the world ( positive) or by reinforcing denial ( negative) and screening out perceptions and innoculating the individual from concepts they consider disturbing. The flourishing of concepts like anti-semitism, Nazism, racism. Stalinism, xenophobia, conspiracy theories, astrology and the like are evidence that truth or at least falsifiability are not directly related to a meme’s attractiveness.

I use the term “versatility” to refer to the horizontal quality of the meme – the extent to which it can be adapted across the boundaries of domains or cultures. Simple memes would seem to have a greater advantage over complex memes in terms of becoming attractive. String theory for example, has not spread as widely through our Shared Awareness as concepts from classical physics because String Theory is only well-understood by relatively few people and is difficult to analogize. Complex memes however, might have greater traction within a domain, among field experts or they might move to discredit the meme if it runs counter to orthodox ideas.

A meme that has high utility and high versatility would be a good candidate to ” infect” other networks and systems through the common space of Shared Awareness or to distract as an attention-diverting ” white noise” attack. A network that systematically and strategically plans the introduction of memes into our Shared Awareness is a network aiming to dominate the intellectual battlespace.

Switch to our mobile site