INSANITY’S RESURRECTION

Book Review
Personal Library
cheyarbrough.blog

The Professor and the Madman
By Simon Winchester
 

Simon Winchester (English author, National Book Award Winner for Non Fiction)

Simon Winchester’s book begins with a “bang”. It comes from a hand gun brandished by Dr. William Chester Minor (1834 to 1920)

Minor arbitrarily murders George Merrett on a London suburban street in 1871.

Minor is an American civil war surgeon who lived through the “battle of the Wilderness”.  An innocent and unsuspecting Englishman is shot dead by Minor in a small town near London. 

Surprisingly, this random murder is the beginning of a brief history of the Oxford Dictionary. Dr. Minor is “…the Madman”. “The Professor…” is James Murray, a lexicographer, principally responsible for the completion and final editing of the first Oxford English Dictionary.

Winchester reveals how an intelligent young physician’s life evolves from an American civil war surgeon to murderer to skilled etymologist (an expert in word origins).   He describes how Minor’s criminal madness isolates him.

After trial for murder, and conviction, Minor is sent to an English insane asylum to serve his sentence.  Minor, a Yale graduate, uses his incarceration (when not debilitated by paranoid delusions) to read books.

Broadmoor Hospital (High-security psychiatric hospital)

After “The Professor and the Mad Man” ‘s murderous opening, Winchester recounts the early history of dictionaries; dating back to the 17th century.

Winchester touches on the first Oxford dictionary created by Samuel Johnson in 1755.  In 1857, over 100 years after Johnson’s original English dictionary, a speech is given at the London Library.

Richard Trench suggests a new, more comprehensive, Oxford English Dictionary (to become known as the OED) should be created. This monumental undertaking is estimated to take two years in Trench’s opinion. It takes over sixty.

Richard Chenevix Trench (1807-1886, Irish Poet, Anglican archbishop)

The editor who completes the dictionary is James Murray. Murray becomes a lynch pin reputational resurrection of William Chester Minor. Minor’s resurrection is tied to his voracious reading habit.

James Murray (1837-1915, Scottish lexicographer and philogist.)

Methodology for the OED’s reification relies on past dictionaries and volunteers.  Volunteers are recruited via flyers and letters asking for readers to glean words and quotes from books written in particular periods of time; for example, books written from 1200 to 1300.   

W.C. Minor receives one of these flyers at the asylum.  He responds and becomes an important source of information for the Dictionary. 

Minor establishes correspondence with editors of the compendium and begins delivering some of the detail needed to complete the book for publication.  It gives his life a focus that partially mitigates his madness.

Murray takes the helm 22 years after former editors earlier work to update Samuel Johnson’s master work.  Five years after Murray’s appointment, the first publication is made.  It covers A through Ant in 352 pages.

Perhaps the most productive editor of the dictionary is Professor James Murray. 

OED first edition by James Murray.

Winchester goes on to describe the odd first meeting between Minor and Murray.  Murray has no idea that Minor is in an insane asylum.  Minor is housed 60 miles from Murray’s editing facility, the Scriptorium.  Several versions of the meeting are reported.

Minor is eventually repatriated to the United States from his asylum incarceration in England (interestingly because of Winston Churchill’s intervention) but he dies ignominiously.   

Ironically, according to Winchester, the source of W.C. Minor’s story are George Merrett’s descendants (the murder victim’s family).

Dr. William Chester Minor

Insanity is not a crime. It is also not necessarily the end of one’s contribution to society.

The Oxford English Dictionary was finally completed in 1927, nearly 70 years after its conception.

GREAT LEADER THEORY

Book Review
Personal Library
chetyarbrough.blog

War and Peace
By Leo Tolstoy

Translation by Anthony Briggs
 

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910, Author)

Among many themes in Tolstoy’s classic, “War and Peace”, is the denial of the “great man” theory of history.  

In terms of America, Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt are historically recognized as great men. For women, it might be Abigail Adams, Sojourner Truth, and Frances Perkins. Each were men or women of their time who stood firm in their belief about what is right. Many of their decisions were unpopular at the time of their implementation, but history proves the rightness of many of their actions.

In Tolstoy’s view leaders are great because they rise to the circumstances of their times; not because they are wiser, more intelligent, all powerful, or omniscient, but because their decisions appear right in light of history.

In America today, the question for some is whether America has a leader in President Trump who meets a similar or lower standard than most American Presidents? So far, Trump seems about 7% right; not a passing grade.

The crises of today, and President Trump’s results:

  • Resolution of a trade war with China (unresolved)
  • Immigration Policy (unresolved)
  • North Korean nuclear armament (unresolved)
  • Afghanistan military withdrawal (unresolved)
  • An acceptable Taliban treaty (unresolved)
  • Peaceful government transition in Iraq (unresolved)
  • Climate change policy (withdrew from Paris Accords on climate)
  • Gun control legislation (unresolved)
  • American response to Iran’s alleged missile strike in Saudi Arabia (unresolved)
  • International alliance building (Signaled lack of cooperation with traditional allies of the United States with America First Program)
  • Health care for the uninsured (Reduced number of people eligible for insurance coverage)
  • American homelessness (Unresolved)
  • The opioid crises (1.8 billion dollar funding to attack crises)
  • Control of an “out of control” budget deficit. (Reduced taxes that benefit the rich more than the poor and middle class)

Tolstoy writes of conditions in 1812 Russia. He focuses on human spirit that can make individuals great enough to meet the circumstances of their time.

Borodino is a small town outside of Moscow.  In Tolstoy’s book, it is a site of a spiritual triumph of the Russian army over Napoleon, interpreted by some as a Russian military victory.

Leaders of the Russian army did not militarily defeat Napoleon at Borodino, but neither did Napoleon decisively defeat Russia. Napoleon moves on to Moscow but the government and its defenders leave the city to hide in the countryside.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821, Emperor of the French 1804-1814)

In history and in Tolstoy’s story, Napoleon Bonaparte’s army moves to occupy Moscow but his army abandons Russia without victory, and returns to France.  Tolstoy makes Borodino a turning point in Russia’s battle with Napoleon’s army.

Napoleon lost 70,000 of his 250,000 soldiers in the Borodino battle. This is over 25% of the attacking French force in Borodino. He loses many more soldiers in the winter of his withdrawal from Moscow and his return to France.

There are many characters and themes in “War and Peace”.  The three most memorable characters are Andrew Bolkonski, Natasha Rostova, and Pierre Bezukhov. 

Bolkonski is an elegant aristocrat with consummate personal honor, intelligence, and sophistication. However, Bolkonski elegance is found to be flawed. He fails to understand what is important in life until he is at death’s door. 

Rostova is a young ingenue, thinking of a life with an aristocrat like Bolkonski. She is beautiful but ignorant of the meaning of life until its too late. She grows to understand her ignorance as Bolkonski dies.

Bezukhov is a bumbling naïf that inherits wealth, fumbles through a foolish marriage and divorce, and grows into a life of contentment and ease when he marries Rostova.

Tolstoy is not denying superiority of some over others but his story emphasizes man’s mortality, common fragility, and ephemeral existence.  To Tolstoy, greatness dwells in all humankind with individual extra-ordinariness born of circumstance; not innate greatness.

There is a large element of predetermination in Tolstoy’s characters.

Every character seems destined to live their lives according to a Master’s plan.  To Tolstoy, innate human frailties are determinant’s of man’s path in life. 

Tolstoy implies happiness comes from an acceptance of fate, exemplified by the marriage of Bezuhov and Rostova after many tragedies and triumphs in their lives.

At the end of “War and Peace”, one gets some sense of what it means to be Russian.  The exuberance of living life, working through hardship, believing in something greater than your self are all evident traits in Tolstoy’s characters.  These human qualities reflect Russian tolerance for inept leadership and endurance when faced with the unendurable.

America certainly does not have a great American President today, but at least 3 (maybe 4) have been 70% right in the last 243 years.

If not today, what about 2020? Can Americans vote for a person who can be at least 70% right?

ADHD

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Unbroken


By Laura Hillenbrand

Narrated by Edward Herrmann

Laura Hillenbrand (Author)

Hyperactivity in children is a blessing and curse. 

Louis Zamperini (1917-2014, American WWII Veteran, participant in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.)

Every parent that faces life with a hyperactive child listens to Hillenbrand’s story of Louis Zamperini and thinks of what might be if their child’s high energy can be focused rather than blurred by the hurly-burly of life.

Hillenbrand vivifies Louis’s life with stories of his early years of running away, hopping trains, practical joking, stealing, and raising hell.  Louis idolizes an older brother that lives a more conventional life but Louis refuses to follow the placid image of the good son; the obedient child.

Fortunately, Louis is blessed with a tolerant mother and a stern, but understanding, father who accepts Louis for himself rather than what he, or his mother, want him to be.  Louis does not outgrow his hyperactivity but channels his energy into the discipline of a sport.

With that beginning description of Louis Zamperini, Hillenbrand tells the story of Zamperini’s advance as a world class runner; i.e. the youngest member of the near 4 minute mile club of the 1936 Olympics.

Louis meets Adolph Hitler, not as a winner of the race, but as an Olympic competitor that gives all he has-to be the best he can be.

Zamperini is alleged to have said “I was pretty naïve about world politics, and I thought he looked funny, like something out of a Laurel and Hardy film.”

Louis Zamperini returning from imprisonment as a POW with his mother (Louise) and father in the backrground.)

World War II strikes the United States at Pearl Harbor.   Zamperini’s stellar running career is grounded.  He returns home to be drafted by the Army/Air Force.  He becomes a bombardier.

Zamperini is assigned to a B-24 Liberator as a bombardier.

The story of “Unbroken” begins with a rescue mission for a B-27 crew downed in the Pacific Ocean.  The rescue crew includes Louis Zamperini.   

The rescue crew is unsuccessful; i.e. the lost crew is not found. 

On the return flight, engine trouble forces the rescue plane into the Ocean. Three men (possibly four out of 20 plus men) survive the crash.  With a poorly provisioned life raft, two live to be placed in a Japanese prison camp, Louis and the rescue plane’s pilot.

This story of survival is inspirational.  It can be listened to as a true adventure.  One may also hear a cautionary tale about parenting. 

It is difficult to raise children in an affluent society where both parents must work to pay the bills. One wonders about the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder). 

Where does a parent draw the line on drug treatment for children with this diagnosis?  Is the diagnosis real or is it a symptom of a society that does not have enough time to parent?

CHINA AND RUSSIA

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

George F. Kennan: An American Life

By John Lewis Gaddis

Narrated by Malcolm Hilgartner

John Lewis Gaddis (Author, Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale.)

When Churchill gave his famous “iron curtain” speech in March 1946, George Kennan already understood the iron curtain’s implication and consequence. Kennan is known as “the father of containment” during the Cold War of 1947-1989.

The relevance of Kennan’s containment policy resonates with today’s American relationship with China. However, its relevance is one of contrast; not similarity. Today, there is no iron curtain that separates China from the rest of the world. The iron curtain has become a cloak. It is a cloak that obscures intent.

After the war, Kennan insisted on being relieved of duty in Russia and returned home to Wisconsin because President Truman was ignoring Kennan’s recommendations on a “sphere of influence” approach to the U.S.S.R. 

As a deputy head of the Moscow ambassadorship, Kennan sent the famous “long telegram” to the then Secretary of State, James Byrnes, explaining how the Soviet Union should be handled after the end of WWII.  The “long memorandum” makes Kennan famous because it capsulizes what became U.S./Russian foreign policy for the next 30 years.

Kennan recognizes Stalinist Russia’s pursuit of world domination as a Marxian belief of inevitability. With an eastern Russian’ ethos that endorsed persistence and patience (a quality we see in China today) Russia reveals its strength and weakness. 

Kennan recognizes the threat of Russian domination in the 50 s and 60 s. However, he believes it can be managed with patient and persistent opposition by America. Within the limitations of military and economic might, the United States could directly intervene in Russian encroachment when feasible.

When direct confrontation was not feasible, overt cooperation could be undermined based on Machiavellian’ assessment of Russian expansion.  In other words, Russian expansion could be contained and managed by a prudent use of force and guile by the United States. This approach worked with Russia. It is less likely to work with China.

China focuses on international domination through economic growth and influence.

Modern Russia has a similar ambition, but its domination is based on the threat of force and military intervention. Both countries expand their influence but Russia is constrained by a much weaker economy, and the limits of military threat and intervention.

China has little economic constraint on growth of the economy or military because of its growing prosperity, and broadening international influence.

China’s military strength is largely based on deterrent capability; backed by economic growth. Russia’s military growth is based on economic constraint, and the political limits of intervention and force.

Kennan argued Stalinist Russia’s ideology would fail because it is flawed.

Kennan believed that the role of the United States was to contain Russia until it collapsed from the weight of its’ mistaken ideological belief in the unerring truth of collectivism.

There is a strain of collectivist belief in Xi’s Chinese communism but it is tempered by economic freedoms that have improved millions of Chinese lives.

In spite of Xi’s emphasis on communist party rule, the genie of economic freedom has made China more pragmatic and less ideological.

Xi is presently restrained in use of force in Hong Kong demonstrations. That restraint is not unending but it is influenced by Chinese communism’s change; a change that began with Deng Xiaoping’s policy of expanding personal economic freedom.

The Stalinist ideology that the collective is more important than the individual evolves in Russia but its evolution retains belief in force and intervention as reliable tools for world domination. That belief is Putin’s Achilles heal.

In later years, Kennan’s containment argument for the U.S.S.R. is found to be correct but even he suggests the cost was too high. He believed Russia’s decline could have been accelerated. The flaw in today’s Russia is not in exclusive belief in the collective but in use of force as a first, rather than last, resort.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and intervention in Syria negatively influence world opinion.

In contrast, Xi’s “Road and Belt” initiative positively influences world opinion. (This is not to say all countries are enamored by Chinese largess because it increases their debt, but in many cases China is the financier of last resort.)

A duel, positive effect of Xi’s “Road and Belt” initiative is to create a wider market for Chinese goods. China chooses positive behavioral reinforcement while Russia chooses negative reinforcement (military action, limited energy resource distribution, cyber attacks on voting preferences in other countries) to achieve world influence.

Xi may be more ideologically driven than Putin but he is constrained by Deng’s cracked door which opens the economy to private Chinese entrepreneurs.

Xi’s “Road and Belt” initiative expands China’s influence in the world while Putin’s actions diminish Russia’s influence.

Kennan, born in Wisconsin, went to Princeton after attending Wisconsin’s St. John’s Military Academy.  After receiving his undergraduate degree, rather than going to law school, he joined the newly formed U.S. diplomatic “Foreign Service” and became a vice consul in Geneva, Switzerland.  However, on a chance visit back home, Kennan met William C. Bullitt, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, and was asked to accompany him to the U.S. Embassy in Russia in 1933.

Because of Kennan’s extraordinary foreign language ability, he became a fluent Russian language expert on Soviet affairs.  He was a student of pre and post-revolutionary Russian’ culture; he used that knowledge to forge an American foreign policy to deal with Russian expansion after WWII; i.e., his prescient grasp of Stalin’s mind, and the Russian culture, allowed the United States to contain the Russian empire within Eastern Europe by limiting American overt action and covert action through confrontation, black-ops, and diplomacy. 

To Trump, international relations should be conducted on a give and take basis; leaving only winners and losers.

America’s President has no Kennan in mind. Trump looks at international relations as a transaction. Trumps thinks diplomacy is like a business. Government is not a business and governance always suffers when dollars and cents are the only criteria for measurement of success.

President Trump’s nomination of Jon Huntsman Jr. as ambassador to Russia is a case in point. Huntsman spoke Mandarin Chinese which made him a highly credible candidate for a stint as Ambassador to China during the Obama administration. Trump appoints Huntsman to Russia because he is a wealthy Republican business man. One doubts the appointment had anything to do with Huntsman’ understanding of Russia or its language.

Though containment was not entirely successful, Kennan’s assessment of its spread to Yugoslavia and China were recognized as independent power structures. Yugoslavia and China believed in the value of the collective but evolved into less doctrinaire belief in “the many being more important than the one”. Yugoslavia dissolved into different states with different economic principles, and China changed its economic philosophy by acknowledging the importance of one among many.

George Kennan’s biography reinforces a belief that understanding another culture requires emergence in that culture.  Ambassadors that are not fluent in a culture’s language and fail to spend years in that culture’s environment cannot understand what policies America should adopt to protect itself and promote world peace and freedom.  One wishes all American Presidents would recognize that need in Ambassadors representing the United States.

Kennan’s biography reveals the importance of self-interest in foreign policy and how a Machiavellian manipulation of events is essential for a reliable margin of success.  Of course, some American Presidents have taken self-interest and Machiavellian manipulation to an extreme.

Trump is not the first American President to cross the line of truth and morality but he seems one of the most prolific.

Kennan is revealed as a human being in this biography, not perfectly right or entirely wrong; subject to mistakes, personal biases, and prejudice; but grounded by life in a real, not purely theoretical, world.  Kennan lived through many great events in world history, from WWII to Vietnam. His active professional life gave the United States what it needed most; i.e., perspective and practical diplomatic advice.

MILITARY INTERVENTION

Audio-book Review

By Chet Yarbrough

chetyarbrough.blog

A Concise History of the Middle East, Ninth Edition

By Arthur Goldschmidt and Lawrence Davidson

Narrated by Tom Weiner

Messieurs Goldschmidt and Davidson have created an insightful overview of the origins and impacts of an area of the world not well known or understood by much of the American public. 

Arthur Goldschmidt Jr. (Author, historian)

Lawrence Davidson (Author, History professor)

History is made up of facts but never the whole truth. Events are reported out of the context of their historical era, a time which can never be fully explained even by the most knowledgeable historian. 

So, why is understanding the Middle East important? 

In the Middle East, more than a million human lives have been lost from war since 2001.

Since 2001, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syrian conflicts have killed over 6,700 Americans, nearly 3,000 NATO coalition soldiers, an unpublished number of Russian and Turkish soldiers, 182,000 Iraqis, 111,000 Afghans, and 400,000 to 570,000 Syrians. 

MORE REASONS ABOUND

OIL

From an economic perspective, there is the importance of oil imports from the Middle East.

IRAQ INVASION’S COST

There is the cost of military intervention in foreign countries.

RELIGION

From a religious and cultural perspective, the Muslim religion is the second most common in the world.

SYRIAN REFUGEES IN TURKEY (Turkey spends $30 billion on Syrian refugees.)

Countries like Turkey are overwhelmed by the cost of housing and feeding refugees from the Syrian war.

From a humanitarian perspective, hundreds of thousands of refugees have been created. Where do they go? How will they live. There are many consequential reasons for a better understanding of the Middle East. 

This audio book provides some history and, more importantly, perspective on religious belief, ethnicities, and secularism in the Middle East; i.e., it explains some of the differences within and among Middle Eastern countries. 

Goldschmidt and Davidson help one understand the difference between a Muslim Sunni and a Muslim Shiite.  Their history gives the listener a better appreciation of the importance of an Imam to a Shiite and what happens in Shiite dominated Iran versus what might occur in a majority Sunni country like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.

Goldschmidt and Davidson point out that Shiite’ beliefs are evolving because they are Imam’ interpretations of the Koran while Sunni’s beliefs are more static and grounded in literal readings of the Koran. 

The authors reflect on religious conflicts among believers in Islam, the creation and growth of the state of Israel, the secular leanings of Turkey, the Kurdish conflicts between Turkey and Iraq, the history of Iraq and its makeup of Kurds, Shiite, Sunni, and Christian factions.  They report on the Hezbollah and Palestinian movements surrounding Israel.  They touch on our 2001 New York tragedy and the hostility of al-Qaeda and its influence on American perception of the Middle East. 

“A Concise History of the Middle East” is an eye opening journey through centuries of border conflicts, colonialism, nation building, and evolving nationalism.

There is little doubt, considering what has happened in Iran (and is presently happening in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and Syria), that there is a growing discontent in the Middle East, a burgeoning desire for freedom; a freedom that is forged by a variety of belief systems, tempered by the will of its indigenous people. 

Goldschmidt and Davidson help one understand that, like America, there are many conflicting beliefs in the Middle East that have led to misconceptions, tragic mistakes, civil wars, and violent actions perpetrated and perpetuated by committed believers. These believers are either vilified or commended by the passing of time and the distance of recorded history.

ANCIENT MIDDLE EASTERN MAP

The Middle East is shown as the world power it once was; its devolution into a variety of colonial and/or monarchical nation states; and  its re-growth as an oil producing behemoth.

The Middle East is working its way into the 21st century as a new world power.   One is drawn to the conclusion that this new world power is in a state of creation from a variety of competing Middle Eastern nation states that may or may not survive the 21st century. 

Goldschmidt and Davidson’s writing is a gift that makes reports of the Middle East more accessible to the general public. What the authors reminds one of is the folly of outside military intervention in countries of which one has little understanding.

COLLECTIVIST BELIEF

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Darkness at Noon

By Arthur Koestler

Narrated by Frank Muller

Arthur Koestler (1904-1983, Author)

Though Stalin is never named in “Darkness at Noon”, Stalin is the “one” that encapsulates a vision of Communism that demands submission by the individual to the collective. 

When a young communist refuses to distribute Stalinist Party’ literature that ignores Nazi attacks on local Communist’ cells, he is expelled from the Party.

In real life, Koestler joined the Communist Party in Germany in 1931.  His resignation from the Party in 1938 is a likely motivation for writing “Darkness at Noon”.

Koestler’s hero is a young communist leader that disagrees with his Russian controller and is expelled from the Party in the 1930s.  The substance of the disagreement is the heart of the story.

The central character of “Darkness at Noon” is Nicholas Rubashov. Rubashov enforces Stalinist’ Communist belief in the collective, but he has doubts. Rubashov is the apparatchik who is ordered to expel a young German’ Communist because he looks at Russian Communism as a personal rather than collective savior.

Rubashov is characterized as one of the original participants in the 1917 revolution. As he ages, his blind acceptance of Stalin’s Communist belief in the collective waivers.  Rubashov is imprisoned and ordered to sign a confession.  The interrogators, Ivanov and Gletkin, are responsible for getting a signed confession from Rubashov. 

Ivanov, who is a former acquaintance and civil war comrade of Rubashov’s, offers an opportunity for Rubashov to redeem himself. Ivanov suggests that Rubashov confess to a lesser charge to justify incarceration for five years with a chance to return to political power. 

Rubashov initially says “no” but Ivanov’s “plea bargain” approach works and Rubashov signs a confession. 

However, Ivanov is later removed from power and Gletkin takes charge of Rubashov’s case.  Gletkin argues Ivanov’s approach is a mistake.  Gletkin insists on a complete confession of guilt; i.e. no redemption, only execution.

Much evidence is brought before Rubashov.  The evidence is weak but Rubashov becomes convinced through sleep deprivation, and a clever manipulation of Rubashov’s logic, that he must be executed. Rubashov’s personal feelings of guilt come from his denial of collective good. He reasons–the way he has been judged is the way he has lived his life; therefor his life should be forfeit for the cause; in the interest of the many over the few.

Gletkin might be characterized as a mindless Neanderthal because of his belief in torture, but one of many of his clever manipulations suggests he is diabolically clever.

Gletkin suggests Rubashov was given a watch when he was 7 or 8, which Rubshov acknowledges is probably correct.  Gletkin says he did not have a watch until he was a teenager and that he did not know there were 60 minutes in an hour until then.  No one in his social class looked at time in segments; waiting in line was not characterized by time but by results from waiting in line. 

This recollection was another way of saying that the end result is what is important; not the means and time that one stands in line. This is a quintessential belief of the “true believer” in Stalinist communism.

HISTORY’S SKEPTIC

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

The Great Courses: The Skeptic’s Guide to American History

By: Professor Mark A. Stoler

Narrated by Professor Stoler

Mark A. Stoler, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Vermont

Contrary to popular opinion, Professor Stoler argues history does not repeat.  Stoler suggests history reflects current beliefs influenced by past remembrance. 

What is the truth of history?  Is there a truth?  Mark Stoler, like many historians, sets out to debunk modern perceptions of history.  To professor Stoler, context and interpretation are the arbiters of history’s truth.

The frustration one has with all historian’s analysis of the past is with “fact choices”; as well as their interpretation. A great part of Stoler’s argument shows that some historians, like most human beings, view the past through the prism of the present.  The result confuses readers of history who seek truth. 

Some suggest Kellyanne Conway’s comment about “alternative facts” means there is no truth.

Councilor to President Trump

 An example would be historians who argue about past Presidents by choosing facts of history that support their argument.  A past President of the United States is great, average, or awful depending on what facts are chosen and how those facts are interpreted.  History seems revised in every generation. 

George Washington is the father of our country. Washington made many mistakes as leader of the military during the American Revolution.  Washington won the most important American battles of the revolution leading to British withdrawal.

Thomas Jefferson sold all his slaves (except for the offspring of Sally Hemmings, his black mistress) to pay debts before his death.  He believed blacks were inherently less intelligent than whites. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence which stated “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal…” 

Abraham Lincoln proposes a plan to ship all American Negroes to another country to solve the issue of slavery.  Lincoln executes the emancipation proclamation that frees American slaves.

Franklin Roosevelt supported industry over labor during the depression.  He represented the upper-class of society. Roosevelt created jobs for American unemployed with a government financed program, the WPA. 

Stoler infers there is truth, but it lies in knowing history is a phenomenon that cannot be separated from the present.  The facts of the past do not change but unreported facts are dredged up by subsequent historians and history is revised.  We call this revisionist history; i.e. a euphemism for reinterpretation of selected facts of history.   

That is why Stoler insists history does not repeat itself while Twain suggests history rhymes.  With human nature as it is, the past is always present but in similar; not identical ways.  History is not repeating itself. New history is being made based on new facts that fit modern societal norms.  Stoler implies context of the present has changed history of the past.   

Stoler supports his argument with numerous examples:

  1. The origin of religious tolerance is not a founding principle of America.  Early Americans were as religiously intolerant as the countries from which they came.  Stoler suggests religious tolerance evolved in American history through the mechanism of unintended consequence.
  2. Stoler argues American history is a story of imperialism, and that America has never been an isolationist country.
  3. Stoler explains George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt remain as the three highest rated Presidents but with interpretations of history that have changed in different eras.  Many American Presidents have risen and fallen in the eyes of historians.  Wilson fell in part because of disclosed information about his racism.  Grant rose in part because of disclosed information about his opposition to Andrew Johnson (Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President) who condoned slavery.
  4. In Stoler’s opinion, one of the greatest unsung heroes of American history is George Marshall because of his service to country.
  5. To Stoler, America’s role in WWI and WWII is misleading in many American histories because of misinterpretation of America’s contribution to the war’s beginnings and endings.  Nationalism often gets in the way of objective truth when assessing any countries role in war.
  6. Stoler notes the United States has never had a laissez-faire government.  American government has always had an out sized influence over winners and losers in the economy.

Stoler’s lectures are a remembrance of things past, but just as with all historians, Stoler reports facts he chooses to recognize.  The value of his lectures is realization that facts of history are immutable; interpretation is not.  Interpretation is based on newly report facts, current events, and society’s evolution. 

There are no alternative facts in history.  There are only new facts that lead to different interpretations of history.  Is that a truth or another fiction foisted on every new generation?