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  • Privilege and Morality

    Posted on May 25th, 2014 Helian 2 comments

    A Princeton freshman named Tal Fortgang recently made quite a stir with an essay on privilege.  Entitled Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege, it described his encounters with racism and sexism rationalized by the assumption that one is privileged simply by virtue of being white and male.  In his words,

    There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. “Check your privilege,” the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year…  “Check your privilege,” they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.

    As it happens, Fortgang is Jewish, and his ancestors were victims, not only of the Nazis, but of Stalin and several of the other horrific if lesser known manifestations of anti-Semitism in 20th century Europe.  His grandfather and grandmother managed to survive the concentration camps of Stalin and Hitler, respectively, and emigrate to the U.S.  Again quoting Fortgang,

    Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: “I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?” Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College.

    I a word, there are some rather obvious objections to the practice of applying crude metrics of “privilege” based on race and gender to Fortgang or anyone else, for that matter.  When pressed on these difficulties, those who favor the “check your privilege” meme typically throw out a smokescreen in the form of a complex calculus for determining “genuine privilege.”  For example, in a piece at The Wire entitled What the Origin of ‘Check Your Privilege’ Tells Us About Today’s Privilege Debates, author Arit John notes that it was,

    Peggy MacIntosh, a former women’s studies scholar whose 1988 paper on white privilege and male privilege took “privilege” mainstream.

    and that MacIntosh’s take was actually quite nuanced:

    What MacIntosh classifies as a privilege goes deeper and more specific than most online commentators. There’s older or younger sibling privilege, body type privilege, as well as privileges based on “your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background,” she says. Men, even straight, white, cis gender men,  are disadvantaged by the pressure to be tougher than they might be.

    The key is acknowledging everyone’s advantages and disadvantages, which is why Fortgang is both very wrong and (kind of) right: those telling him to check his privilege have privileges too, and are likely competing in the privilege Olympics. At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt him to check his privilege.

    Which brings us to the point of this post.  Our species isn’t good at nuance.  The “privilege” debate will and must take place in a morally charged context.  It is not possible to sanitize the discussion by scrubbing it free of moral emotions.  That is one of the many reasons why it is so important to understand what morality is and why it exists.  It does not exist as a transcendental entity that happened to pop into existence with the big bang, nor does it exist because the Big Man upstairs wants it that way.  It exists because it evolved.  It evolved because at a certain time in a certain environment unlike the one we live in today, individuals with the innate behavioral traits that give rise to what we generalize as “morality” happened to be more likely to survive and procreate.  That is the only reason for its existence.  Furthermore, human moral behavior is dual.  It is our nature to view others in terms of ingroups and outgroups.  That dual nature is not optional.  It is all-pervasive, and artifacts of its existence can easily be found be glancing at any of the myriads of Internet comment threads relevant to privilege or any other controversial topic.

    The above insights have certain implications concerning the matter of privilege.  It is certainly not out of the question that, in general, it is to an individual’s advantage to be male and white.  However, as pointed out by Ms. MacIntosh, there are countless other ways in which one individual may be privileged over another in modern society.  As a result, it is hardly out of the question for a person of color or a female to be more privileged than a white or a male.  Given the nature of human morality, however, that’s almost never how the question of privilege is actually perceived.  As pointed out by Jonathan Haidt in his The Righteous Mind, we are a highly self-righteous species.  It is our nature to rationalize why we are”good” and those who oppose us are “bad,” and not vice versa.  Furthermore, we tend to lump the “good” and the “bad” together into ingroups and outgroups.  That, in turn, is the genesis of sexism, racism, and all the other manifestations of “othering.”

    It would seem then, that we are faced with a dilemma.  Privilege exists.  It is probable that there are privileges associated with being white, and with being male, and certainly, as Thomas Picketty just pointed out for the umpteenth time in his “Capital in the 21st Century,” with being wealthy.  However, insisting that the playing field be leveled can lead and often has led in the past to racism, sexism, and class hatred.  The examples of Nazism and Communism have recently provided us with experimental data on the effectiveness of racism and class hatred in eliminating privilege.  Fortunately, I know of no manifestations of sexism that have been quite that extreme.

    What “should” we do under the circumstances?  There is no objective answer to that question.  At best I can acquaint you with my personal whims.  In general, I am uncomfortable with what I refer to as “morality inversions.”  A “morality inversion” occurs when our moral emotions prompt us to do things that are a negation of the reasons for the existence of moral emotions themselves.  For example, they might be actions that reduce rather than enhance our chances of survival.  Giving up a privilege without compensation is an instance of such an action.  Furthermore, I object to the irrational assumption by the habitually sanctimonious and the pathologically pious among us that their moral emotions apply to me.  When the implication of those moral emotions is that I am evil because of my race or sex, then, like Tal Fortgang, my inclination is to fight back.

    On the other hand, I take a broad view of “compensation.”  For example, “compensation” can take the form of being able to live in a society that is peaceful and harmonious because of the general perception that the playing field is level and the distribution of the necessities and luxuries of life is fair.  Nazism and Communism aren’t the only ways of dealing with privilege.  I now enjoy many advantages my ancestors didn’t share acquired through processes that were a good deal less drastic, even though they required the sacrifice of privilege by, for example, hereditary nobilities.

    However, like Mr. Fortgang, I reject the notion that I owe anyone special favors or reparations based on my race.  In that case, the probability of “compensation” in any form would be essentially zero.  Other than whites, I know of no other race or ethnic group that has ever sacrificed its “privileges” in a similar fashion.  Millions of whites have been enslaved by Mongols, Turks, and Arabs, not to mention other whites, over periods lasting many centuries.  The last I heard, none of those whose ancestors inflicted slavery on my race has offered to sacrifice any of its “privileges” by way of compensation.  I would be embarrassed and ashamed to ask for such reparations.  I am satisfied with equality before the law.

    Beyond that, I don’t insist that the dismantling of certain privileges can never be to our collective advantage.  I merely suggest that, if dismantle we must, it be done in the light of a thorough understanding of the origins and nature of human morality, lest our moral emotions once again blow up in our faces.

  • Academic Left Update: Party Time at Swarthmore

    Posted on May 13th, 2013 Helian 2 comments

    Paul Gross and Norman Levitt published their now classic Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science almost two decades ago.  The book described the flipping and flopping of the various species of self-appointed saviors of mankind on campus left high and dry by the collapse of Marxism.  In the absence of that grand, unifying philosophy, the authors found them running about like so many chickens with their heads cut off, engaged in internecine warfare, and chasing after the various chimeras of postmodernism, eco-extremism, radical feminism, anti-racist racism, etc.  For some reason, perhaps because they were scientists and they objected to their ox being gored, Gross and Levitt were willing to subject themselves to the incredible boredom of attending the conferences, following the journals, and reading the books emanating from these various swamps.  Since they happened to be on the left of the ideological spectrum themselves, their book was also thoughtfully written and not just one of the usual rants from the right.

    Unfortunately, no one with similar insight and tolerance for pain has published anything of similar stature in the ensuing years.  We have been reduced to scrutinizing the data points that periodically bubble up through the froth to formulate some idea of how close we are to being saved.  Based on the meager information at our disposal, we gather that no great new secular religion has sprung up in the meantime to take the place of Marxism.  The only thing on hand to fill the vacuum left behind by its demise has been radical Islam.  Since, in a sense, it’s the only game in town, we’ve been treated to the amusing spectacle of watching leftist “progressives” making eyes at the fanatical zealots of one of the most reactionary religious systems ever concocted by the mind of man, while the latter have been busily cannibalizing the revolutionary vernacular familiar from the heyday of Communism.

    Other than that, it would seem that the scene today would be quite familiar to readers of Higher Superstition.  Consider, for example, the recent “revolutionary action” that took place on the campus of Swarthmore.  If we are to believe the somewhat overwrought account at National Review Online, it involved intimidation of the school administration and bullying of conservative students at what was advertised as an open Board of Managers meeting.  The ostensible goal of the disruption was to get the administration to agree to the divestment of stocks in fossil fuel companies, apparently based on the rather dubious assumption that nothing disagreeable would happen if all mankind suddenly stopped using them.  However, the divestment thing is hardly what is nearest and dearest to the hearts of the “academic left” at Swarthmore.  What is nearest and dearest?  According to NRO,

    The radicals are demanding a massive expansion of Swarthmore’s politicized “studies” programs, with a new Latino Studies major specifically dedicated to Latinos in the United States, and mandatory classes for all Swarthmore students in ethnic studies and gender and sexuality studies.

    I doubt that the gentry at NRO really understand what is going on here, because they lack the proper grounding in Marxist theory.  As Trotsky might have put it, they just don’t understand the dialectic.  What we are really seeing here is the emergence of a new exploiting class of gigantic proportions, cleverly attempting to obfuscate their true historical role behind a smokescreen of revolutionary jargon.  These people are exploiters, not exploitees.  Ensconced in their ivory towers, untouchable within their tenured cocoons, they are increasingly gaining a monopoly of the social means of education.  Like the bourgeoisie of old, who used the social means of production to suck the blood of the exploited workers, they use their own monopoly to feast on the sweat of the academic proletariat – their students.  They accumulate these useless “studies” courses for the same reasons that the capitalists accumulated money.

    Little realizing that they are being reduced to debt-serfs, with lives sold out and mortgaged to maintain these academic vampires in their accustomed luxury, the student proletariat are kept docile with fairy tales about “saving the world.”  Now, if Marx was right (and how could he possibly be wrong?) this “thesis” of the academic exploiters will soon run head on into the “antithesis” of the developing revolutionary consciousness of the student proletariat they have so cynically betrayed.  At least the bourgeoisie used their monopoly to produce something useful.  The new class of academic exploiters fobs off its victims with “studies” that they will find entirely useless in their struggle against the slavery that awaits them, unless they are among the happy few co-opted into the exploiting class.  Where is this leading?  How will the exploited academic proletariat react when they finally figure out, crushed under a mountain of debt, with heads full of “liberating” jargon and no prospect of employment that the “radical and emancipatory” blather they were being fed really leads to chains and slavery?  I can but quote the ringing warning of Edwin Markham in his famous poem, Man with the Hoe:

    O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
    How will the Future reckon with this Man?
    How answer his brute question in that hour
    When whirlwinds of rebellion shake the world?

    The pundits at NRO should relax.  If I’ve interpreted the Marxist dialectic correctly, the revolutionary climax will be followed by a brief period of the dictatorship of the academic proletariat, followed by the gradual withering of academic administrations, and a new era of universal wisdom based on enlightened self-education.

    And what of the academic exploiters?  I think it goes without saying that it will be necessary to “expropriate the expropriators.”  However, being by nature a kindly and sedate man, I can only hope that it doesn’t come to the “liquidation of the academic exploiters as a class.”  On the other hand, I don’t want to be accused of “right opportunism” and realize full well that “you have to break some eggs to make an omelet.”

  • On the Afterglow of Historical Fairy Tales

    Posted on February 13th, 2012 Helian No comments

    We are fortunate to be living in an age in which historical source material is becoming increasingly abundant and difficult to destroy, because we are also living in an age that has been prolific in the rearrangement of historical fact to suit ideological ends.  I just ran across yet another data point demonstrating the process whereby the myths created in the process are transmogrified into “historical fact.”  It turned up on Atomic Insights, a blog penned by nuclear power advocate Rod Adams.

    The reason this particular “historical fact” turned up in one of Rod’s articles is neither here nor there.  As far as I know he’s perfectly sound politically, and has no ax to grind outside of his nuclear advocacy.  It was apparently reproduced without any malice or intent to deceive as a “well known fact” in an article about the mutual hostility of the U.S. and Iran.  According to Rod,

    On the other side of the issue, Iranians date their hostility to America to 1953, when the United States CIA took actions to stimulate the overthrow of the democratically elected leader named Mohammad Mosaddeqh. Our main beef with him was the fact that he had decided that the oil and gas under his country actually belonged to the people, not to the companies that had arranged some sweet deals during a colonial era. When he moved to nationalize the oil reserves, the UK and the US took action to install a dictator who was more compliant with our “interests.”  That part of the controversy is pretty well known and discussed.

    In fact, that part of the controversy isn’t discussed nearly enough.  If it were, this version of “history” would have been relegated to the garbage heap long ago.  I wrote a series of articles debunking it some time ago that can be read here, here and here.  The “official” version of this particular historical fairy tale, entitled All the Shah’s Men, was written by New York Times reporter Steven Kinzer, apparently in the proud tradition of Walter Duranty’s glowing accounts of Stalin’s Russia.  Kinzer’s “history” was based largely on a CIA source document, which is available to anyone on the web.  Evidently he assumed no one would actually bother to read it and the other easily available source material, because the idea that they “prove” the great Mossadegh Coup myth is palpably absurd.  The CIA activities described were so dilettantish they wouldn’t have seriously undermined the flimsiest of banana republics, not to mention Iran.  On the very day that the coup happened the supposedly miraculously effective CIA plotters in Tehran, convinced that the coup had failed, sat meekly on the sidelines, taking no significant role in directing events whatsoever.  To believe the claim that their actions were undertaken solely to mollify evil US and UK oil and gas cartels it is necessary to willfully blind ones self to the possibility that Communist aggression ever actually existed or that the US government ever honestly believed that it was a threat at the time.  Of course, I cannot prove that I am any less prone to historical distortions than Mr. Kinzer et. al.  However, I can suggest that anyone interested in the facts read the source material.  It speaks for itself.  I suspect that anyone reading it with an open mind will conclude that his yarn about the mind boggling effectiveness of the great CIA plot and the reasons it happened are baloney.

    That hasn’t prevented these myths from gelling into historical “facts.”  Rob’s blog is hardly the only place you’ll find similar disinformation.  The more a given myth serves ideological ends, the faster the gelling process proceeds.  In this case it was doubly effective.  It stroked the egos of the CIA supersleuths who had no trouble convincing themselves that they really had “killed seven at one blow,” and it also had just the right “anti-imperialist” touch for the ideologues of the left.  But heaven forefend that you should take my word for it.  Look for yourself.

    One could cite many other similar instances of rearranging history.  For example, there’s the old southern schoolmarm’s yarn about how the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, the anti-nuclear activists’ yarn about how the atomic bomb had nothing to do with ending World War II, the Nazi yarn about how the German army lost World War I because it was “stabbed in the back” by revolutionaries on the home front, and so on and so on.  One often hears the old bromide that “history is written by the victors” from the creators of these fantasies.  That may be, but in all the cases cited above, and many more like them, there is no lack of source material out there for anyone interested enough to dig it up and read it.  In the case of the Civil War, for example, it reveals that common people in the north thought it was about slavery, common people in the south thought it was about slavery, foreign observers uniformly concurred it was about slavery, and southern politicians made no bones whatsoever about the fact that it was about slavery in their declarations of secession.  Under the circumstances, based on the unanimous testimony of the people who actually experienced it, I tend to believe the Civil War was, in fact, about slavery.  If you make the effort to “go to the source” with an open mind, you’re liable to find a lot more fossilized historical “facts” that aren’t quite what they seem.

  • What Hath God Wrought: Slavery Beyond Political Correctness

    Posted on September 12th, 2010 Helian No comments

    Works of history reflect not only the times they purport to describe, but also the times in which they were written, and the nature of the people who write them. Seen in that light, the authors who wrote during the so-called “Dark Ages” were a great deal more interesting and entertaining than their counterparts today. You’ll have to look long and hard for a contemporary work that has anything to compare with Procopius‘ touching firsthand account of a boy abandoned by his mother in a country swarming with hostile invaders or his vignettes of the wild barbarians serving under his general Belisarius in the so-called “Roman” army, Bede’s wonderful story of Pope Gregory’s encounter with the Angle slave boys, or Gregory of Tours’ chatty, gossipy accounts of the doings of Queens Brunhilda and Fredegund in his “History of the Franks.”  Pick up a typical history today and what you’ll find is a morality play written by some hidebound ideologue who has never heard of confirmation bias, and whose apparent reason for writing is to make sure you can distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys.”  Journalists are the worst offenders.  Their shallow bowdlerizations of the lives of the people they write about to make sure they fit neatly in the “saint” or “sinner” slots are painful to read.

    College professors with their relentless political correctness come in a close second.  Victor Davis Hanson just penned a vignette of the tribe that seems a tad overcritical, but probably gets their abject fear at being considered “illiberal” and politically heretical by their colleagues about right.   However, unlike journalists, most of them have a deeper knowledge of the subjects they write about than one finds in a typical newspaper article.  As a result, they can occasionally be very useful as “sources of the sources.”  Take, for example, Daniel Walker Howe’s “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.”  In it one finds the usual heroes and villains, all chosen according to the most up-to-date political standards.  However, Howe has a deep knowledge of the intellectual, literary and religious trends of the period he writes about, and mentions a great many of the people who played a significant role in shaping those trends at the time, but are mostly forgotten today.  Since most of them wrote well before the 1922 copyright threshold, it’s not necessary to rely on Howe’s ideologically filtered picture to learn who they were and what made them tick.  You can let them tell their own story, because much of what they wrote can be found among the invaluable collection at Google Books. 

    Consider, for example the issue of slavery.  Opposition to the South’s “peculiar institution” was crystalizing during the period Howe describes, and he mentions a number of people, mostly forgotten today, who had witnessed the reality of slavery firsthand, and wrote about what they had seen.  They included Fanny Kemble, a British actress who married a southern gentleman while visiting the United States.  When he subsequently inherited a plantation in Georgia with many slaves, she insisted on accompanying him there, and wrote an account of her experiences.  On one occasion she asked a young woman about her reasons for running away:

    She told it very simply, and it was most pathetic. She had not finished her task one day, when she said she felt ill, and unable to do so, and had been severely flogged by Driver Bran, in whose ” gang” she then was. The next day, in spite of this encouragement to labor, she had again been unable to complete her appointed work; and Bran having told her that he’d tie her up and flog her if she did not get it done, she had left the field and run into the swamp. ” Tie you up, Louisa!” said I; ” what is that ?” She then described to me that they were fastened up by their wrists to a beam or a branch of a tree, their feet barely touching the ground, so as to allow them no purchase for resistance or evasion of the lash, their clothes turned over their heads, and their backs scored with a leather thong, either by the driver himself, or, if he pleases to inflict their punishment by deputy, any of the men he may choose to summon to the office; it might be father, brother, husband, or lover, if the overseer so ordered it.

    Accounts of beatings like this, a daily occurrence on large plantations, are pervasive in the source material of the time, the descriptions have much in common, and it’s clear they weren’t all made up by abolitionist demagogues.  It is unlikely the slaves could have been driven to work without them.  Kemble’s book also has several interesting descriptions of the demoralizing effect that slavery had on the white population.  For example:

    On our drive we passed occasionally a tattered man or woman, whose yellow mud complexion, straight features, and singularly sinister countenance bespoke an entirely different race from the negro population in the midst of which they lived. These are the so-called pine-landers of Georgia, I suppose the most degraded race of human beings claiming an Anglo-Saxon origin that can be found on the face of the earth—filthy, lazy, ignorant, brutal, proud, penniless savages, without one of the nobler attributes which have been found occasionally allied to the vices of savage nature. They own no slaves, for they are almost without exception abjectly poor; they will not work, for that, as they conceive, would reduce them to an equality with the abhorred negroes; they squat, and steal, and starve, on the outskirts of this lowest of all civilized societies, and their countenances bear witness to the squalor of their condition and the utter degradation of their natures. To the crime of slavery, though they have no profitable part or lot in itj they are fiercely accessory, because it is the barrier that divides the black and white races, at the foot of which they lie wallowing in unspeakable degradation, but immensely proud of the base freedom which still separates them from the lash-driven tillers of tho soil.

    Kemble’s work was published in Great Britain in 1863, and did much to discourage British intervention on behalf of the Confederacy.  Theodore Weld was co-author of a compendium entitled, “American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand WitnessesIt includes numerous similar eyewitness accounts.  For example:

    There was a slave on the plantation named Ben, a waiting man. I occupied a room in the same hut, and had frequent conversations with him. Ben was a kind-hearted man, and, I believe, a Christian ; he would always ask a blessing before he sat down to eat, and was in the constant practice of praying morning and night.— One day when I was at the hut, Ben was sent for to go to the house. Ben sighed deeply and went. He soon returned with a girl about seventeen years of age, whom one of Mr. Swan’s daughters had ordered him to flog. He brought her into the room where I was, and told her to stand there while he went into the next room : I heard him groan again as he went. While there I heard his voice, and he was engaged in prayer. After a few minutes he returned with a large cowhide, and stood before the girl, without saying a word. I concluded he wished me to leave the hut, which I did ; and immediately after I heard the girl scream. At every blow she would shriek, ” Do, Ben ! oh do, Ben!” This is a common expression of the slaves to the person whipping them : ” Do, Massa !” or, ” Do, Missus!”

    After she had gone, I asked Ben what she was whipped for : he told me she had done something to displease her young missus ; and in boxing her ears, and otherwise beating her, she had scratched her finger by a pin in the girl’s dress, for which she sent her to be flogged. I asked him if he stripped her before flogging; he said, yes ; he did not like to do this, but was obliged to: he said he was once ordered to whip a woman, which he did without stripping her : on her return to the house, her mistress examined her back; and not seeing any marks, he was sent for, and asked why he had not whipped her : he replied that he had; she said she saw no marks, and asked him if he had made her pull her clothes off; he said, No. She then told him, that when he whipped any more of the women, he must make them strip off their clothes, as well as the men, and flog them on their bare backs, or he should be flogged himself.

    Ben often appeared very gloomy and sad: I have frequently heard him, when in his room, mourning over his condition, and exclaim, ” Poor African slave ! Poor African slave!” Whipping was so common an occurrence on this plantation, that it would be too great a repetition to state the many and severe floggings I have seen inflicted on the slaves. They were flogged for not performing their tasks, for being careless, slow, or not in time, for going to the fire to warm, &c. &c.; and it often seemed as if occasions were sought as an excuse for punishing them.

    Samuel Gridley Howe was famous as an educator of the blind and mentally disturbed. One of his letters describes slavery at its “best,” in the Charleston Slave Depository:

    The only clean, well organized and thoroughly administered institutions which I have seen in the South are the Slave Depositories, if I may so call them. That in Charleston is a large, airy building, with ample court-yard and well ventilated rooms. Every part is kept scrupulously clean; everything is well adapted to its purpose; every officer is active and energetic; its tread-mill and its whipping post are the ne plus ultra of their kind. Into this place are brought for safe keeping and for board the gangs of slaves which are to be sold in the market. To it also a master may send his slaves to be boarded merely, or to be conf1ned and whipped, or punished by solitary confinement. They pay 18 cents per day for board and the privilege of the tread-mill,and 25 cents extra for each whipping. The gangs for sale and the mere boarders are not punished however, nor even confined, except at night. On the contrary, they are incited to walk about in the courtyards ; they are well fed, they lodge in large, airy, clean rooms, and are daily promenaded in clean clothes to take the air, even out into the country. ” They are happy,” says the slave-holder, and he says but the truth; they are happier, urges he, than the free blacks of the North or than the negro in Africa — and it may be too true; but in this he speaks his own condemnation and shows the brutalizing effects of a system which can make a human being content in such utter degradation.

    It seems to me that firsthand accounts like this are a great deal more effective in explaining what slavery was and why a great war was fought to end it than any book of history written a century and a half later could ever be.  Of course, slavery and the fight against it wasn’t the only thing going on in the period Howe describes.  Read his book, and you will turn up any number of thinkers who can tell you a great deal more about the times they lived in and the things that mattered to them then any modern history.  Thanks to the Internet, you can find many of their works on line, and let them tell their own story.

  • Hiroshima and the Revisionists

    Posted on August 8th, 2010 Helian 2 comments

    Another August 6, another round of historial revisionism. The fabricators of adjusted realities always make their appearance about this time every year to spin their yarns about how the atomic bombing of Japan wasn’t really necessary, how Japan was just on the point of surrendering but the bombs were dropped anyway for an assortment of nefarious and evil reasons by the nefarious and evil rulers of a nefarious and evil country, how the “real” reason for the surrender was the obvious and long expected Russian entry into the war, how this or that scrap of information or this or that “official” report “proves” that the bombings didn’t in any way hasten or even encourage surrender, etc., etc. These periodic attempts to reinvent the past come from any number of different sources. Of course, the pathologically pious head the list; those whose penchant for imagining themselves to be the “saviors of mankind” goes beyond mere daydreaming to the invention of alternate worlds, drawn in colors of stark black and white, in which they appear in the role of virtuous heros, eternally saving the rest of us from evil. Of course, they never quite accomplish that worthy goal, and the “victims” they strive so mightily to save somehow always seem to remain “victims” in spite of their most heroic efforts, because victims are indispensible. After all, if the victims were ever really saved, virtuous heros would become superfluous.

    But I digress. Of course, there is also Japanese officialdom. Ever since the end of the war, they have been busy rationalizing, relativizing, and generally seeking to consign to oblivion such horrific crimes as the rape of Nanking, the deliberate slaughter of the civilian population of Manila (in both of which cities more civilians died than in Hiroshima), the Bataan Death March, the deliberate starving and murder of prisoners, the wholesale rape of a generation of Korean women,


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    germ warfare experiments with human guinea pigs, etc., etc. The bomb has always been their most effective foil for diverting attention from their country’s criminal past. Other than that, there are the legions of Ameria-haters worldwide for whom the United States is well-suited for the role of “out-group,” satisfying the universal need wired in the human brain for an evil enemy.

    It is usually easy to identify historical revisionists.  They tip their hands by insisting on a version of reality that allows no room for doubt, and that neatly fits their ideological preconceptions.  In this case, for example, in spite of the undeniable coincidence of the atomic bombing and the surrender of Japan, they insist that there was absolutely no connection, and that the bombing had nothing at all to do with the Japanese decision to capitulate.  Obviously, especially in view of the careful destruction of relevant documents by Japanese officials, it is irrational to claim that it has absolutely been proved that the bombing and the surrender were purely coincidental, and the former’s contribution to the latter was trivial at best.  That, however, is precisely what the revisionists claim.  Look at their books and essays, and you will also find that they invariably leave out salient facts that don’t fit the altered reality they are trying to construct, and that other facts are “reinterpreted” to give them a significance they don’t deserve. 

    Readers who have been around long enough may recall a previous round of Hiroshima revisionism on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the bombing back in 1995.  Earlier in the year, officials at the Smithsonian Institution, a magnet for leftist academics whose tastes run to interpreting all American history as the story of an oppressor’s playground on which a series of invariably  pure, noble and morally immaculate classes of victims were brutalized by an invariably greedy, selfish, and evil ruling class, had attempted to introduce the now familiar adjustments to reality in conjuction with the Institution’s planned display of the Enola Gay.  Fortunately, enough people with firsthand knowledge of what really happened and who objected to the bowdlerization of history, were around at the time to mount an effective resistance to the fabricators.  Now most of the eyewitnesses have passed from the scene.  It is, therefore, all the more important that the critical source material relating to the atomic bombing be preserved and made easily accessible. 

    Revisionists of one stripe or another will always be with us.  At different times and in different places, they have succeeded in constructing alternate realities in spite of the existence of a far greater volume and variety of source material than exists in the case of the atomic bombing of Japan.  Schools in much of the US South, for example, raised generations of students who firmly believed that the Civil War “really” occurred for any number of reasons besides slavery, in spite of overwhelming evidence documenting that the leaders of the South believed it was about slavery, the leaders of the North believed it was about slavery, the populations in both sections believed it was about slavery, and foreign observers were unanimous in confirming that it was about slavery.  Today Holocaust deniers control the public narrative in much of the Middle East.  In both of those cases, the source material available to document what really happened was orders of magnitude larger than what remains pertinent to the atomic bombing of Japan.  The Hiroshima revisionists would seem to have a much easier task.  The amount of documentation it will be necessary for them to drop down the “memory hole” is a great deal smaller, and their attempts to construct a mythical reality may consequently turn out to be a great deal more successful than those of the Iranian theocracy, or the “Southern heritage” crowd.

    History can and will be falsified.  In the case of Hiroshima, those who are attempting to revise it are influential and determined.  The antidote to revisionism is the preservation of facts.  The truth is important.  One must hope that enough facts about the atomic bombing of Japan will be preserved to give future generations at least a fighting chance of finding it.

    UPDATE: This article by Richard B. Frank (hattip ChicagoBoyz), entitled “Why Truman Dropped the Bomb, which appeared in the Weekly Standard in 2005, is a must read for those seeking the facts about the atomic bombing of Japan.  Money quote: 

    There are a good many more points that now extend our understanding beyond the debates of 1995. But it is clear that all three of the critics’ central premises are wrong. The Japanese did not see their situation as catastrophically hopeless. They were not seeking to surrender, but pursuing a negotiated end to the war that preserved the old order in Japan, not just a figurehead emperor. Finally, thanks to radio intelligence, American leaders, far from knowing that peace was at hand, understood–as one analytical piece in the “Magic” Far East Summary stated in July 1945, after a review of both the military and diplomatic intercepts–that “until the Japanese leaders realize that an invasion can not be repelled, there is little likelihood that they will accept any peace terms satisfactory to the Allies.” This cannot be improved upon as a succinct and accurate summary of the military and diplomatic realities of the summer of 1945.

  • Slavery and Fanny Kemble’s Journal

    Posted on July 20th, 2010 Helian No comments

    Google Books is one of several wonderful resources a click away on the Google home page.  You can find almost any book of any significance printed prior to 1922 there in digital form.  One of them is the Journal of Fanny Kemble, an English actress who married an American on a visit to this country.  When he inherited a large plantation in Georgia worked by slaves, she insisted over his objections on moving there and witnessing the system for herself.  Her Journal, written in the form of letters to a northern friend that were never sent, was the result.  Its descriptions of the squalor and misery of slavery exploded the myth of the “happy negroes” in the antebellum South and, published in England at a critical point in our Civil War, did much to prevent Great Britain from siding with the Confederacy.  A brilliant woman who eventually divorced her husband and took up the abolitionist cause, she analyzed the reasons for the demoralization, not only of blacks, but of their white masters as well caused by the South’s “peculiar institution” with rare insight.  I recommend the book to anyone who wants to get a closer look at the ugly face of slavery than the dispassionate descriptions in history books, or who needs yet one more data point confirming what the Civil War was really all about.  You can find it here.

    Fanny Kemble