Timothy Egan clearly sees himself as the rightful heir to Thomas Friedman, who is willing to say anything, no matter how inane or offensive, as long as it guarantees him air time and column inches. Three weeks ago, Egan claimed that sports are the most progressive force of our time, no matter that Muhammad Ali was barred from boxing in his prime for daring to oppose the Vietnam War from the standpoint of his solidarity with the Nation of Islam, or that the last bastions of homophobia are the two most popular professional leagues.
Two weeks ago, he claimed that “commencement bigots” had hijacked freedom of speech and diversity of opinion. His primary case in point was Condoleeza Rice, who, as George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser, heedlessly promoted a needless invasion of Iraq and earnestly defended torture—-not just any kind, but waterboarding—-as the necessary corollary of a larger “war on terror.” According to Egan, she stepped down from her $35,000 gig at the Rutgers commencement because the “forces of intolerance” had silenced her. No matter that she declined the invitation because a grass-roots movement led by former undergraduates (most prominently, Larry Ladutke, a former student of mine), then taken up by a faculty petition, insisted that she had the right to express her opinion, and the opportunity to be honored and compensated as an exemplar of education, but not at the expense of and by the Rutgers community, faculty and students included, without its consent.
Here is how Egan addressed these issues, among them torture, in his column on “commencement bigots”:
“She canceled after a small knot of protesters pressured the university. It’s no contest who showed more class. Near as I can tell, the forces of intolerance objected to her role in the Iraq war. O.K. And by shutting her down the point is . . . what?
“The foreign policy that Rice guided for George W. Bush—two wars on the credit card, making torture a word associated with the United States—was clearly a debacle. Contemporary assessments were not kind, and history will be brutal. But if every speaker has to pass a test for benign mediocrity and politically correct sensitivity, commencement stages will be home to nothing but milquetoasts. You want torture? Try listening to the Stanford speech of 2009, when Justice Anthony M. Kennedy gave an interminable address on the intricacies of international law, under a broiling sun, with almost no mention of the graduates.”
In her official capacities as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, Rice advocated waterboarding in the name of an unjust war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. What’s the big deal? You want to know what torture is? Never mind Guantanamo, go directly to a Stanford commencement, where, exposed to the California sun, they make you listen to a Supreme Court justice drone on about the rule of law as it regulates the behavior of nations at war.
And now today, Timothy Egan berates Americans for digging “a serous national memory hole.” They’re ignorant of their own past, and so they keep saying stupid things. It’s not just the 18 year-olds who lack a “firm grasp of our nation’s history.” No, “look at the top”: “Opinion leaders, corporate titans, politicians, media personalities, and educators-—dunce caps for all.”
Tom Perkins, Ken Langone, for example, who’ve been “comparing the plight of our country’s very rich to the objects of Hitler’s wrath.” And Sarah Palin, who has “recently declared that torture is as American as Sunday school”! OMG, what were they thinking? Rich people aren’t persecuted as Jews were in the Germany of the Third Reich, also, c’mon, the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and did I mention that torture is a violation of human rights and international law?
Do I have to spell this out? Today Timothy Egan accuses Americans of lacking exactly what he does—-historical consciousness, a sense of the past and its weight. “One doesn’t expect Palin to know that the Eighth Amendment prohibits ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ or that torture is banned by international treaties signed by the United States. But is it too much to ask for her to realize that Imperial Japan, our enemy in World War II, was prosecuted for waterboarding?”
No, it’s not too much to ask of her. How about you, Tim? As a student or faculty member at Rutgers, how would you feel if the Board of Governors announced that it was giving an honorary degree to Sarah Palin, plus an honorarium for her commencement address? Would you join a small knot of protesters, or just chalk it up to fair and balanced free speech?
Timothy Egan is so incapable of thinking historically about his own ideas, let alone his own country, that he approached two of the worst historians on the planet for explanations of the lack he attributes to the rest of us, and was happy with their dumb answers.
“I asked a couple of the nation’s premier time travelers, the filmmaker Ken Burns and his frequent writing partner Dayton Duncan, why so many Americans can’t even place the Civil War in the right half-century, or think we fought alongside the Germans in World War II.”
Burns thinks the problem is a lack of “civics” in the school curriculum, which he compares to the “operating system” for citizenry: if only we grasped it, we’d “know how government is constructed” and appreciate its design. As if I’d be a better driver if I understood internal combustion or a better blogger if I could write code. Duncan goes for the profoundly tautological: “Americans [have] tended to be ‘ahistorical’” because they “choose to forget the context of our past.” Like Egan, and like most professional historians, he mistakes his own intellectual affliction for a cultural epidemic.
Egan begins and ends with slavery and the Civil War, as I suppose he must. He complains that according to a Pew Study of 2011, “nearly half of Americans think the main cause of the Civil War was a dispute over federal authority—-not slavery.” He laments the fact that “the South was allowed to promote the inaccurate narrative of ‘the Lost Cause’-—[it was] all about states’ rights and Northern aggression.”
No matter that for a century Americans were taught that slavery was a secondary issue in the coming, the conduct, and the conclusion of the Civil War, by teachers, by statesmen, by progressive historians like Charles and Mary Beard. No matter that William H. Dunning of Columbia meanwhile supervised dozens of PhD dissertations that proved Reconstruction was no less a tragedy than the Civil War itself, because the cause of racial equality was never more than a childish dream. No matter that the Dunning School ruled the journals and the presses—and the movies—until the 1950s.
I survey my students in the 100-level survey class, asking them what they think was the proximate cause of the Civil War. They split according to what they’ve been taught in high school, states’ rights here, slavery there. Why not?
Here’s a longer look at the question of History Standards.