U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Adam Gopnik’s Plaint: A Philosophy of What History Isn’t

This is from Adam Gopnik's Twitter profile.

This is from Adam Gopnik’s Twitter profile.

Writing for The New Yorker in a piece published this morning, Adam Gopnik asks “Does It Help To Know History?”

I love it when these kinds of big philosophical questions are posed in highly public fora. Let’s analyze Gopnik’s answer—paragraph by paragraph (don’t worry, it’s only eight paragraphs long).

Gopnik’s opening (bolds mine): About a year ago, I wrote about some attempts to explain why anyone would, or ought to, study English in college. The point, I thought, was not that studying English gives anyone some practical advantage on non-English majors, but that it enables us to enter, as equals, into a long existing, ongoing conversation. It isn’t productive in a tangible sense; it’s productive in a human sense. The action, whether rewarded or not, really is its own reward. The activity is the answer.

My take: Is this his thesis—i.e. studying and learning history is rewarding, in a human sense, whether or not it proves helpful in a tangible way?

Paragraph two (bolds mine): It might be worth asking similar questions about the value of studying, or at least, reading, history these days, since it is a subject that comes to mind many mornings on the op-ed page. Every writer, of every political flavor, has some neat historical analogy, or mini-lesson, with which to preface an argument for why we ought to bomb these guys or side with those guys against the guys we were bombing before. But the best argument for reading history is not that it will show us the right thing to do in one case or the other, but rather that it will show us why even doing the right thing rarely works out. The advantage of having a historical sense is not that it will lead you to some quarry of instructions, the way that Superman can regularly return to the Fortress of Solitude to get instructions from his dad, but that it will teach you that no such crystal cave exists. What history generally “teaches” is how hard it is for anyone to control it, including the people who think they’re making it.

Translation/summary: There’s a lot here, but let’s unpack it in order. The value of reading, studying, and knowing history matters because history appears regularly on the op-ed page, in various forms, to support new prospects of death and destruction. But, Gopnik says, one should read history not for deciding moral cases, but because history teaches us human goals are defeated by unforeseen circumstances. According to Gopnik, the energy of history tends toward entropy and away from human control.

Paragraph three (bolds mine): Roger Cohen, for instance, wrote on Wednesday about all the mistakes that the United States is supposed to have made in the Middle East over the past decade, with the implicit notion that there are two histories: one recent, in which everything that the United States has done has been ill-timed and disastrous; and then some other, superior, alternate history, in which imperial Western powers sagaciously, indeed, surgically, intervened in the region, wisely picking the right sides and thoughtful leaders, promoting militants without aiding fanaticism, and generally aiding the cause of peace and prosperity. This never happened. As the Libyan intervention demonstrates, the best will in the world—and, seemingly, the best candidates for our support—can’t cure broken polities quickly. What “history” shows is that the same forces that led to the Mahdi’s rebellion in Sudan more than a century ago—rage at the presence of a colonial master; a mad turn towards an imaginary past as a means to equal the score—keep coming back and remain just as resistant to management, close up or at a distance, as they did before. ISIS is a horrible group doing horrible things, and there are many factors behind its rise. But they came to be a threat and a power less because of all we didn’t do than because of certain things we did do—foremost among them that massive, forward intervention, the Iraq War. (The historical question to which ISIS is the answer is: What could possibly be worse than Saddam Hussein?)

My summary: In addition to historical analogies and mini-lessons, op-ed columnists also engage in History Channel-style contingent history speculations. When those columnists created these “imaginary pasts,” they do it for partisan political reasons—usually to clean up, or white wash, past or recent imperialist endeavors.

Paragraph four (bolds mine): Another, domestic example of historical blindness is the current cult of the political hypersagacity of Lyndon B. Johnson. L.B.J. was indeed a ruthless political operator and, when he had big majorities, got big bills passed—the Civil Rights Act, for one. He also engineered, and masterfully bullied through Congress, the Vietnam War, a moral and strategic catastrophe that ripped the United States apart and, more important, visited a kind of hell on the Vietnamese. It also led American soldiers to commit war crimes, almost all left unpunished, of a kind that it still shrivels the heart to read about. Johnson did many good things, but to use him as a positive counterexample of leadership to Barack Obama or anyone else is marginally insane.

My summary: Op-ed columnists also revise history for mini-lessons that white wash the evil effects of bad foreign policy.

Paragraph five (bolds mine): Johnson’s tragedy was critically tied to the cult of action, of being tough and not just sitting there and watching. But not doing things too disastrously is not some minimal achievement; it is a maximal achievement, rarely managed. Studying history doesn’t argue for nothing-ism, but it makes a very good case for minimalism: for doing the least violent thing possible that might help prevent more violence from happening.

Gopnik’s point: The study of history points toward restraint and extreme caution in using force to solve foreign policy problems. Action and toughness in leaders leads to tragedy.

Paragraph six (bolds mine): The real sin that the absence of a historical sense encourages is presentism, in the sense of exaggerating our present problems out of all proportion to those that have previously existed. It lies in believing that things are much worse than they have ever been—and, thus, than they really are—or are uniquely threatening rather than familiarly difficult. Every episode becomes an epidemic, every image is turned into a permanent injury, and each crisis is a historical crisis in need of urgent aggressive handling—even if all experience shows that aggressive handling of such situations has in the past, quite often made things worse. (The history of medicine is that no matter how many interventions are badly made, the experts who intervene make more: the sixteenth-century doctors who bled and cupped their patients and watched them die just bled and cupped others more.) What history actually shows is that nothing works out as planned, and that everything has unintentional consequences. History doesn’t show that we should never go to war—sometimes there’s no better alternative. But it does show that the results are entirely uncontrollable, and that we are far more likely to be made by history than to make it. History is past, and singular, and the same year never comes round twice.

Reactions: Now we are getting to the heart of the matter, sort of. To Gopnik, presentism encourages a sense of human control that belies the historical research. He argues that history helps prevent the over-exaggeration of present problems, and engenders a proper respect for unintended consequences. But then Gopnik undermines his sense of historical universalism by rather strongly emphasizing, in his final sentence, how the present really is unique from the singular past (historicism?). If the present is different, then perhaps it does require urgent action. It seems that Gopnik’s philosophy, as articulated, falls into the false dichotomy of presentism-v-historicism. Gopnik needs an ethic, or assumption, of transvaluation—a philosophy of limited universalism.

Paragraph seven: Those of us who obsess, for instance, particularly in this centennial year, on the tragedy of August, 1914—on how an optimistic and largely prosperous civilization could commit suicide—don’t believe that the trouble then was that nobody read history. The trouble was that they were reading the wrong history, a make-believe history of grand designs and chess-master-like wisdom. History, well read, is simply humility well told, in many manners. And a few sessions of humility can often prevent a series of humiliations. What should, say, the advisers to Lord Grey, the British foreign secretary, have told him a century ago? Surely something like: Let’s not lose our heads; the Germans are a growing power who can be accommodated without losing anything essential to our well-being and, perhaps, shaping their direction; Serbian nationalism is an incident, not a cause de guerre; the French are understandably determined to take back Alsace-Lorraine, but this is not terribly important to us—nor to them either, really, if they could be made to see that. And the Ottoman Empire is far from the worst arrangement of things that can be imagined in that part of the world. We will not lose our credibility by failing to sacrifice a generation of our young men. Our credibility lies, exactly, in their continued happy existence.

My take: Gopnik encourages us here to read the right histories. But, based on the previous paragraph (six), would right histories be historicist one’s that emphasize the particulars of humility demonstrated in a specific historical frame? Or would the right histories be presentist one’s that translate historical instances of unintended consequences, or humility, into a language that speaks to present political affairs? If humility is Gopnik’s universal ethic for transvaluation, is there not a middle way that treats the particulars of historical events respectfully while also identifying the gossamer threads that help build a case for the present, in a language that speaks to present-day readers?

Paragraph eight: Many measly compromises would have had to be made by the British; many challenges postponed; many opportunities for aggressive, forward action shirked—and the catastrophe, which set the stage and shaped the characters for the next war, would have been avoided. That is historical wisdom, the only wisdom history supplies. The most tempting lesson that history gives is to not tempt it. Those who simply repeat history are condemned to leave the rest of us to read all about that repetition in the news every morning.

My take: Gopnik’s historical wisdom here tends toward peace. In addition, we are “not [to] tempt” history. But what does this mean? It would seem that the only way to tempt history is to read the wrong histories. We don’t know what Gopnik’s right histories are (presentist? historicist?). But apparently the wrong ones do not point out unintended consequences, do not teach humility, and overemphasize human control. Fair enough. But to learn something universally valuable one needs themes that he/she can translate for present-day audience. Meaningful history probes not only the deepest problems of historical thinking in bad histories, but also provides some sort of basis for expanding historical knowledge—if not the fund of practical thinking for present deadly crises. Surely Gopnik hopes to teach from the historical fund of examples of cautious and peaceful deliberation? Or are those episodes too particularistic and unique to translate?

All in all, this article—when read closely—is confusing. Gopnik’s plaint leaves one wanting more by way of what history is positively. He leaves unanswered his original question: Does it help to know history? – TL

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. There are, as you point out, a lot of weird things going on here. For one I’m not sure how his version of “here’s the right lesson” is really drastically any different, in form, from what the op-ed writers he criticizes are doing. It’s not the activity of “anecdote to some sort of usable or at least informative truth-finding” he disagrees with, just that he thinks they get “the lessons” or, I guess, the singular “lesson” wrong.

    And that’s probably because only a true nihilist can really pull off avoiding doing exactly that. It is exceedingly hard for humans not to tell themselves stories about the present based on the past. Even when his position kind of flirts with a nihilist conclusion — what can you do!?, entropy man, so, fuck it — he still makes suggestions towards “inaction” that I think still constitute a program of “history should suggest we should do this….” (because a decision to not act is itself some sort of action in a way, right).

    But anyway. He’s *definitely* right about this: “Johnson did many good things, but to use him as a positive counterexample of leadership to Barack Obama or anyone else is marginally insane.”

    And it’s not just the Vietnam War; LBJnostalgia spreads even further than that. But of course my schtick is to spoil everyone’s nostalgia in that regard, so there’s my self-promotion for the week 🙂

  2. It’s notable just how conventional the idea of what constitutes the proper object of historical study is here, as if social, cultural, economic (not to mention intellectual!) history have no place in the historical imagination. He’s really, apparently, just concerned with policy, and foreign policy in particular. He’s right that historical consciousness is a good antidote to a kind of ahistorical optimism about means and ends, I think, but it you don’t have a broader scope for thinking about history than the one he offers here, it really is history in the realm of op-ed punditry. He’s willing to grant that the study of literature is not to be gauged by its policy implications or its moral didacticism; I wonder why history doesn’t get something equivalent.

    • Agreed, Dan, on Gopnik’s narrow focus on politics and foreign policy. His philosophy of history doesn’t derive so much from philosophy or history as an independent realm of knowledge, but from his view of correct interpretation in his conventional topical areas (power by elected officials and policy). – TL

  3. While reading Mr. Gopnik’s piece, I found myself bring constantly reminded of Albert Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction. His piece contains all of the “rhetorics of intransigence” described by Hirschman. The perversity thesis, the futility thesis, and the jeopardy thesis are all on display, as is Hirschman’s “immanent danger” progressive narrative to justify action.

    Does it help a child to remember that a stove is hot, and not to touch it again? Does it help to know that soldiers have committed atrocities against Native Americans in the late 19th Century, or against Filipino nationals in the early 20th Century? Maybe there is something inherent in the nature of combat that leads to May Lai or Abu Ghraib? Would it help to have a minimal understanding of critical race theory to understand the nature of our current educational problems or the events in Ferguson? History tells me that fifty students in a drum circle won’t force the administration at UIUC to correct its recent decision to “dehire” a scholar because of his Twitter account. Each and everyone of us uses some sort of historical thinking skill to navigate our way through each and every day.

    You are correct, Professor Lacy, it is a confusing article. I am not sure if Mr. Gopnik understands how much “presentism” is determined by the historical weight of the past. His argument failed to persuade me.

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