Sunday, February 29, 2004

Carlton is pondering the legacy of Dubyah. Here are the two cents of a lapsed historian.

I suspect that Dubyah will be remembered in a wide variety of ways depending upon which historian is doing the remembering.

In the US, if things stay more or less the way they are, the coming generations of historians will pay little attention to the sort of things which currently exercise us. If Iraq/Afghanistan turn out to be Vietnam-like quagmires, he may be pilloried, but like as not he will be cast as the victim of good intentions gone awry (look at LBJ). The 9/11 attacks will loom large, however, and Dubyah’s posturing with regard to them will as well. Bear in mind that these were the first foreign attacks on the US proper (Hawaii being a territory in 1941) since the War of 1812. Of course, very few now remember that war (which the US started). On the other hand, the corruption of the administration will likely not be recalled since there has been, thus far, no great political outcry. Teapot Dome and Watergate and other, similar scandals were precisely that: scandals.

Assuming future historians in the US are more critical than most of their masters, they will likely note that Dubyah was par for the course. As criminal as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been, they are not unusual presidential adventures. Similarly, the “culture wars” have been raging since at least the Nixon administration and Dubyah (unless he is the last of the warriors) will be a blip. The anti-civil-rights amendment may be worth a footnote unless it turns out that Dubyah loses the election primarily because of this issue.

What it will boil down to is this: historians in the US are divided. There are some (Howard Zinn springs to mind) who argue (in all the detail you would care to read) that the US government tends to be on the wrong side of the fight for human progress. There are others (Arthur Schlessinger, Jr springs to mind) who argue (in all the detail you would care to read) that the US government tends to be on the right side of the fight for human progress. There are blips of goodness for the Zinns (full voting rights for all adults, however belatedly implemented) and blips of badness for the Schlessingers (the Taft-Hartley amendment), but that’s more or less the way it breaks down. The Zinns are FAR outnumbered by the Schlessingers among historians in the US.

Outside the US, the Zinns have long been ascendent. The average student of US history in most countries other than the US tends to see much more bad than good in the story. In the US, folks tend to learn “how we got to be so darned good”, whereas in much of the rest of the world the story is more “how they got to be so darned dominant”. This is why serious Americans can genuinely wonder “why they hate us” and serious people everywhere else can easily and quickly answer.

Look at the various treatments of the British Empire for an example of how this is the norm. Hell, look at the Roman Empire! Who remembers Comodus (other than viewers of “Gladiator”)? He may be a perfect example, in fact: a savage idiot in charge of a great empire. Who cares what the Huns or the Jews or the Gauls thought about the glory that was Rome? Think of the aqueducts!


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