History off the press (August ’11 edition)
Have your relatives ever told you stories about your ancestors that made you reevaluate your own identity? My grandmother once told me that her father (my great-grandfather) possessed a mellifluous voice and staged concerts for his fellow Allied soldiers imprisoned in a German POW camp during World War I. Hearing this story, it made me question how genetic quality could dissipate so quickly, for my vocal chords can’t produce a single melodic note if my family’s honor depended on it.
Like talking to our grandparents about departed relatives, reading history can change our perspective about our own selves or our community. I selected the books for August (remember, these are previews, not reviews: I have not read these books yet) that drew me in either because they addressed a need for self-knowledge or promised to inform me about the world around me. As a result, almost of them, I noticed later, have to do with U.S. history. But I think our subjectivity is what lights our interest afire. Our bias is our personality, and without it history narratives wither before us like dehydrated fruit.
New York City roots
For several months, I’ve had an itch to discover “literary” neighborhoods in Chicago. Seeking counsel, I asked fellow Chicagoans (full disclosure: I live in the suburbs, not the city proper) where writers live or congregate in the Windy City. No one had an answer, which made me despair that the only destination for writers in the United States was prohibitively-expensive Manhattan.
A new work published this month sent a wind-gust of hope through my flagging coals: Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life. I am about a third of the way through this book written by Evan Hughes, who argues that Brooklyn (which I was surprised to find out is more populous than the cities of Boston, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Miami combined) has since Walt Whitman been the “literary capital” of America.
I can afford paying rent in Brooklyn, I thought to myself. So ever since, like furtive midnight snacks, I’ve been relishing thoughts of a move east. Thankfully, this gluttonous enthusiasm has been tempered by the realization that New York City is not the only place in America where pen is put to paper. Chicago, as some cursory research has show, has a rich literary tradition in its own right. Really, you can find a literary community anywhere (public libraries are always a great place to start).
But ever since my first visit there in the summer of 2006, New York City has held a fascination for me. I admire Manhattan for retaining its grit even while cleaning up its slums over the previous century. I like how New Yorkers walk past each other without smiles or hellos, but if you ask them for directions, they help you without hesitation.
This hardness of character owes its part, I think, to the culture of the immigrants that came through the city in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Many crossed the ocean to escape disastrous circumstances in Europe.
Among the Europeans making a new home in New York City during the mid-19th Century were immigrants fleeing from a terrible famine in Ireland. Ciaran O Murchadha recounts, in a new account of the subject titled Great Famine: Ireland’s Agony 1845-1852, the extent of the potato blight that sunk millions of Irish into poverty and sent millions of Irish more to the shores of New York in a massive wave of emigration. The black and white prints which pepper the book are a nice touch to a narrative about a people that continue to influence American culture.
Empires and civic responsibility
U.S. soldiers are oversees fighting a native Muslim insurgency. It is a prolonged struggle that has lasted about a decade. Many around the world criticize this occupation as being an imperialistic grab for power while hundreds of American soldiers die trying to pacify a foreign land.
Although this sounds like the War in Iraq, all of these points apply to a much earlier war in which the U.S. took part when it acquired the Philippines from Spain a century ago. In The Moro War: How America Battled a Muslim Insurgency in the Philippine Jungle, 1902-1913, James K. Arnold has written a fresh account of the conflict that came about as a result of the Spanish-American War. Since the Moro War mirrors (on the surface, at least) the Iraq War so closely, I think it’s worth reading this book to compare for oneself how similar the two insurrections really were.
From the Moro War until the present time, U.S. military power and global influence has steadily grown. The Second World War and the Cold War gave America reasons to keep military spending high. But the end of the Cold War did not stop this trend. U.S. military spending remains greater several times over than the amount spent by our top five supposed threat nations combined (North Korea, Iran, Cuba, China, and Russia). This is a surprising statistic given our nation’s financial problems. You’d think it would be wise to trade off some defense spending for stabilizing the economy or resolving the national healthcare problem.
How did our military spending become such an integral part of American industry and policy? In State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire, Stephen Glain examines the historical tension between the Departments of Defense and State, and how the former has all but won control over American foreign policy.
In the 1930s, a much more vicious empire than the United States began gaining power in Europe: Nazi Germany. While the Nazi party managed to sway millions of its own citizens to its banner, Hitler’s propaganda machine was also successful in winning over foreign journalists to write sympathetically about the regime in newspapers around the free world.
One man that was underwhelmed by Nazi persuasions was William L. Shirer, who headed the Berlin bureau for CBS news from the time the Nazis took power in Germany to the beginning of the Second World War. He is famous for writing the somber post-war classic (colored black with a stark swastika on the cover) that you will find in almost any library or bookstore: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
But during the 1930s, he resisted Nazi threats and propaganda to write honestly to his American audience about Germany’s descent into madness. In The Long Night: William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Steve Wick retells Shirer’s story during his time reporting from Nazi Germany, a courageous example of journalism’s role in challenging aggressive regimes.
False dilemmas resolved over time
If they are on the right side of history, we refer to rebels and revolutionaries from long ago as being “ahead of their time”. Many prescient ideas suffer an early death (frequently along with their purveyors) from popular or institutional opposition.
The Decembrist uprising of 1825 in Russia, for instance, was a protest led by the first liberal reformers in Russia that was crushed by the Tsar’s soldiers in St. Petersburg. The Decembrists’ ideas would live on even though social reforms would not come until many decades later.
Sometimes great ideas gain acceptance only after a maelstrom of criticism. Supporters of Charles Darwin were rowing upstream of public opinion for many years to carry his ideas about human evolution into mainstream thinking. But sometimes such intellectual conflicts are, if not futile, at least grounded in false dilemmas.
Stephanie Muravchik begins her new book, American Protestantism in the Age of Psychology, by asking the following questions: “Has America traded its soul for its psyche? Has therapy replaced religion in our lives?”
Sigmund Freud was both an ingenious scientist and an imaginative myth-maker. This latter legacy of his in psychology, along with psychologists assuming the therapeutic role in American society that religious leaders used to have, has often embittered religious leaders to the science.
On the surface, there seems to be something profane about scientists reducing what once was thought of as a “soul” to the workings of chemical reactions in the mind. But as Muravchik shows in her new work, there has been a history of fruitful cooperation between psychology and Christian religion among those religious groups who have chosen to view scientific knowledge as an opportunity to help others rather than a threat to their beliefs.
Like the study of psychology, leftist ideas also confronted a cold reception in the United States during the 19th and 20th (some may argue even the 21st) Centuries. The Bolshevik Revolution and the ensuing Communist regime which ruled Russia and nearby countries for almost a century represented a cautionary tale for many Americans about the peril of authoritarianism coming in the guise of progress.
In American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, Michael Kazin, a distinguished historian, describes how leftist visionaries and reformers may have lost the battles but won the war. I think this book may be a useful study for both progressives and conservatives. The latter can gain an appreciation of the improvements liberalism has helped bring to society (abolition of slavery, civil rights, greater access to healthcare, improved working conditions, cleaner food, and many others). And liberals will observe that defeats they may suffer in the political arena may not be all in vain. History has its own tempo for progress.