Evidence in current history

If we believe in one thing here at UR, it is judging past and present by the same standards. This includes standards of truth and evidence—a subject last week’s post may have raised.

Personally, I believe in judging past and present by the same standards because I believe that the dead are entitled to the same consideration as the living. Could they come to life and judge us, as any ancestor would, we would like to be able to answer them honestly and with a straight face. I don’t feel our society meets this test at present—do you?

One easy solution is to apply the standards of the present to the past. This is called presentism. In general, the results of presentism are so dire, comical, and infamous that we cannot avoid concluding that something is terribly wrong either with the method, or the present, or both. Surely this pattern holds true for evidentiary standards.

For example, a common present standard of truth is that the New York Times is always right. We could follow the logic of presentism and apply this to the past, by saying that just as the New York Times of 2009 is always right, the New York Times of 1909 is just as always right. This, in turn, can be easily refuted by showing that the two occasionally disagree.

We also could be pastists and apply the standards of 1909 to 2009. This would be much more fun, and probably produce better results. But at a philosophical level, it is no less gay.

Rather, it is best to come up with a common set of standards for historical evidence, one which does not implicitly trust the New York Times, or the Catholic Church, or even USG, or any institution or set of institutions past or present. So we know we are doing history, not PR.

Thus, to emphasize the commonality, we speak not of current events, but current history. To even begin to know the events, even as they happen, we must think historically.

By the standards of history, my standard of evidence is strict but hardly unusual. I prefer single-malt sources, as it were. I want to see original documents whose authenticity is without question, and the only lesson I take from an authentic document is that it exists and whoever wrote it wrote it. I distrust digests, samples, statistics, surveys, reports, encyclopedias. I would rather have one good source than a thousand bad.

And most importantly, in history there are no reliable sources—no person is trustworthy by definition. Without trust we can know nothing, but trust must always be a product of reason. It can never be automatic. It must always be considered and tested.

Here’s an example of trusting authorities: Half Sigma, normally a real bastion of common sense, assuming that because Sonia Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton and won the Pyne Prize for its “most outstanding undergraduate,” she cannot be dumb as a post.

This does not strike me as sound evidentiary practice in current history. Let me explain why.

Here is a fact I trust: if we had access to Princeton’s records, they would confirm the text below (from the Daily Princetonian, February 28, 1976):

J. David Germany and Sonia M. Sotomayor are the joint winners of this year’s M. Taylor Pyne Honor Prize, the highest honor the university confers on an undergraduate.

The prize, given to the senior or seniors who have “manifested in outstanding fashion… excellent scholarship and effective support of the best interests of Princeton University,” carries with it an award equal to a year’s tuition, $3,900 this year, which will be shared by the two recipients.

The Pyne Prize is not the first recognition of Germany’s scholarship-he has won both the Freshman First Year Honor Prize for the highest grades during freshman year and the Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Prize for the highest academic standing prior to senior year.

Two years ago, after winning the freshman award, Germany said, “There’s a choke factor on every final exam, and I’m really due for a big one. But I’m going to enjoy this as long as I can.” Today, his transcript shows 21 A+s and 9 A’s. […] Sotomayor, a history major, has maintained almost straight A’s for the last two years, but is especially known for her extracurricular activities.

Her dedication to the life of minority students at Princeton has been illustrated by her service on the Governance Board of the Third World Center and in her efforts to form the Latino Students Organization.

(On a side note: I bet myself, when I read this text, that the “Third World Center” is no longer the “Third World Center.” I won. Yes, dear Princeton: I know, you know, and God knows, that “Third World” was once a term of approbation to you. This too is on your tab—not yet summed.)

Again, I am confident that Sonia Sotomayor’s transcript “for the last two years” would show “almost straight A’s.” Who assigned her these straight A’s? And why?

At this point we leave the domain of verifiable facts, and enter that of proof by authority. Half Sigma does not know. Nor do I. Nor does anyone.

I am quite confident that David Germany is a smart cookie. Unless his name is pronounced “DavEED HermANee” or even if it is, I doubt he is of Puerto Rican descent. Which means he is just another white guy. Which is not a quality of any value at all. But does mean that to get his Pyne Prize, he had to beat a lot of other very smart white guys.

What did Sonia Sotomayor have to do? Whom did she have to beat? It is not at all clear.

My judgment is that when we look at the career of a progressive race activist of the late 20th century, institutional records and personal endorsements tell us just about nothing. Every rule can be, and is, bent for these people. What’s clear is that at Princeton, David Germany was first and foremost a student, and Sonia Sotomayor was first and foremost an activist. Why on earth would anyone expect her grades to mean anything?

I will repeat the analogy I used when I questioned Barack Obama’s Columbia record: the academic records of college athletes, who are regularly found to have graduated from reputable universities, while remaining almost literally illiterate. Trusting the academic records of a race activist—especially when not actually disclosed, but merely attested to—is credulous beyond belief. Behind any Sotomayor is an army of activist professors whose commitment to la lucha is, shall we say, slightly greater than their commitment to the academic integrity of Princeton. At least, in the athlete’s case, his coaches and his professors are different people.

This is what is truly remarkable about Judge Sotomayor: at every stage in her career, her success is plausibly and parsimoniously explained by her mere ancestry. In every institution in which she has produced a record of excellence, her biology below the neck is a sufficient explanation of that record. As historians, we cannot even exclude the possibility that she got her Princeton A’s because someone helped her with her papers. We have no evidence for this, but we also have no evidence against it—and we are writing history, not conducting a criminal trial.

Thus I feel the best public evidence as to Judge Sotomayor’s actual talents consists of her speeches, such as this famous one (published as an essay in the La Raza Law Journal). Here is a speech by a white male colleague of Judge Sotomayor’s—i.e., one who owes his position on the Second Circuit to neurology, not dermatology. If you retain any doubts, please compare.

(Judge Sotomayor’s judicial opinions, while also notoriously bad, are much less interesting, because they are produced with at least the assistance of law clerks. Perhaps Judge Sotomayor does not choose the best clerks, but she has the best talent pool to hire from. They know how to use a comma. It’s not clear to me that she does.)

Similarly, Barack Obama, or someone writing under his name, produced one book which betrays nontrivial, if hardly world-shattering, literary ability. And nothing else. As Jack Cashill has observed, the author of Dreams From My Father, whoever it was, misspells Frantz Fanon in a rather distinctive way—and is also fascinated by tidal hydrology. Frankly, if someone can point me to a work in which Shakespeare mentions “Franz Fanon” and speaks of rivers flowing backward, I’ll be prepared to at least consider the possibility that the real author of Hamlet was Billy Ayers. I know what a solid case for literary attribution looks like. This is it.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Ordinary claims require ordinary evidence. The claim that a politician’s book was ghostwritten is an ordinary claim. Especially in the post-FDR era, when it is simply assumed that the task of a politician is to take other peoples’ words and claim them as one’s own, an act that previous generations of American would have regarded as unspeakably contemptible.

If you don’t believe that John F. Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage, why should you believe that Barack Obama wrote Dreams from My Father? Because everyone says he did? This is the evidentiary standard of a fishwife, not a historian. Why should you regard it as true, until proven false? Why not regard it as false, until proven true? What percentage of political memoirs are actually written by the purported author?

In fact we have almost no evidence of any historical validity that describes the early life of Barack Obama. Take the famous “birth certificate” controversy: I believe that Barack Obama was almost certainly born in Hawaii, but only because the converse seems labored and unlikely. The ordinary English meaning of birth certificate is an original physical document, produced at the actual date of birth, i.e., 1961. It is not a printout of a database record, which is what we have.

Again, I am confident that this document exists for Barack Obama. The refusal to disclose it is just as contemptuous and contemptible as everything else in the process that produced him. Stonewalling on all life records of this man—from birth certificates to college transcripts—is a classic Alinskyian maneuver, pure vicious hardball. It serves the exact purpose it achieves: to generate as many conspiracy theories as possible, most of which are false. Any actual dirt will disappear in this cloud of vain speculation. This is the regard for truth, decency and honor which Americans can expect from their rulers today. Were it actually discovered that Barack Obama was born in Papua New Guinea, I would find it far less damning.

Nor is this excessive respect for institutional authority an isolated glitch in the epistemology of current history, as most practice it today. It is actually a symptom of a much deeper syndrome: the tendency to analyze democracy in terms of its appearance, not its reality, even when that reality is known to everyone.

Here is a perfect example—courtesy of Powerline, which is by far the best neoconservative blog. The authors of Powerline are top-flight attorneys with excellent political connections, and the scholar they are quoting, Charles Kesler, editor of the Claremont Review of Books, whose mission is “to make war on the progressive administrative state,” has a Ph.D in government from Harvard—an honor that does not appear to have been conferred on account of dermatology. In short, these individuals have the right talents, the right knowledge, and the right enemies.

And yet, by my standards of evidence, all this is a waste of time. The error is at step one:

Claremont Review of Books editor Charles Kesler sat down last summer to read the books and speeches of Barack Obama. Professor Kesler concluded that Obama is a serious and ambitious politician who has set about to engineer a transformative leftward shift in American politics and government.

We see that Professor Kesler starts his work with one completely unsubstantiated assumption. He assumes that “the books and speeches of Barack Obama” were written by Barack Obama.

Indeed, he knows for a fact that the “speeches of Barack Obama” were not written by Barack Obama. Fifteen seconds on Google will tell Professor Kesler that he is, at the very least, reading the books of Barack Obama and the speeches of Jon Favreau. As we’ve seen, he is more likely reading the books of Billy Ayers and the speeches of Jon Favreau (to name only two Obama ghosts). These certainly tell us something about Billy Ayers and Jon Favreau. Do we care? The former, at least, is certainly no longer employed in this capacity.

Of course it is the accepted convention of 20th-century American politics that we refer to these as Obama’s books and speeches—as if they were the work of, say, Lincoln, or Cicero, or Gladstone. At least, I am pretty sure that Cicero and Gladstone didn’t employ ghostwriters. I have my suspicions about Herndon, Hay and Nicolay.

There is a grain of truth in this convention. We know that Barack Obama, the actual person, has at the very least approved all the words he utters, and those published under his name. Billy Ayers may have written his own girlfriend into Dreams, but he at least started with Obama’s notes, and Obama got to edit the result. Even if he made no changes, this too was his choice. So in a sense, even if he did not write “his” speeches, he is morally responsible for them.

But even this grain, when scrutinized, conceals a deeper fallacy. For even if Barack Obama did write “his” speeches and “his” books, analyzing them as Professor Kesler does demands another spectacular and completely unjustified assumption.

Again by convention, Professor Kesler is assuming that Barack Obama is sincere in his words—that when he says or publishes X (a knowable, and known, fact), the best explanation for this event is that he believes X. His speaking or publication of X implies his belief in X; his belief in X is the best explanation of why he spoke or published X. This assumption, quite unstated, is everywhere in almost every discussion of all these works.

Of course, if you know anything about the actual career of Barack Obama, the most salient quality you see is ruthless, nihilistic cynicism. “To my mind, we were just abiding by the rules that had been set up.” It is possible that the actual person, Barack Obama, actually has some beliefs or principles, but I have seen no particular evidence of it.

This syndrome is hardly unique to current history. One historical figure of whom Barack Obama reminds me is Abraham Lincoln. Like Obama, Lincoln was an extremely guarded and deeply ambitious man whom we know almost nothing about. (Unlike Obama, he had a sense of humor.) Understanding Lincoln is not a matter of casual observation, but serious historical detection.

And if you go to a bookstore and look at the popular Lincoln biographies, all of them will take the Keslerian approach to analysis—assuming, without even mentioning it, that Lincoln’s words are more or less identical to Lincoln’s thoughts. In the normal Lincoln biography, you get Lincoln the saint; a good one will give you Lincoln the statesman, or maybe Lincoln the tyrant; you have to get into actual scholarship to see Lincoln the politician. And there is scholarship, and scholarship. The old is generally better than the new. (My Lincoln is Beveridge’s Lincoln, or possibly Masters’.)

In terms of historical evidence, I feel I know no more about Barack Obama than about, say, Daniel Craig. Daniel Craig does an excellent Bond, but I don’t think he’s actually killed anyone. Nor do I know, or expect to know, which lines were written for him, which he changed, and which he improved.

Barack Obama gives an excellent press conference, but I have no idea what his role, if any, is in the Obama administration. Maybe he contributes a lot in the meetings, maybe he is just a stooge for David Axelrod, maybe it is somewhere in between. Whichever it may be, you or I or any ordinary person has no opportunity to know. His present is just as mysterious as his past.

The resemblance between film and politics is not at all superficial. Solid analogies between the two are too numerous to count. There are many differences, too, and here is a big one: if you are watching a movie, even a documentary or “reality show,” you know that you are looking at an artifact of production. At least in 2009, the average consumer of visual entertainment is quite sophisticated as to the entire production process. The man in the seat may not know a C-stand from a DP, but he basically knows how a movie is shot and edited. And he is certainly aware that he is watching a movie, not a live performance, and certainly not an accidental happening.

Whereas: who knows what actually happens inside the Beltway? As in the old Taoist proverb, Democrats know and don’t tell. Republicans tell, and don’t know. Both parties are married, at opposite ends, to the same lie. Voting continues in glorious bliss.

If USG is a film, it is a period film. The actors are all playing 18th-century statesmen, by 18th-century rules, in 18th-century clothes. The production itself is a substantial business, which is registered in Delaware and operates entirely in the 21st. Its operations are not entirely independent of audience participation, but what you think matters less than you think.

Obviously, as an enemy of “the progressive administrative state,” Professor Kesler is not operating under the belief that he is actually looking at an 18th-century architecture. His failure to actively disabuse his constituency of this notion does not reflect any actual belief in the system. No—this would be mere harmless stupidity.

No. Professor Kesler’s error is far worse. Professor Kesler believes that, although 20th-century politicians such as Barack Obama are not 18th-century statesmen, or even 19th-century statesmen, since the American system of government went from Thomas Jefferson to Barack Obama, it must be able to go back. The true, inner, ideal form of USG is its Jeffersonian form. (Or possibly, for a muscular Claremontian like Professor Kesler, its Lincolnian form.)

USG is our father and our mother, its bones are sound, and any pox it has will heal or be cured. It’s true that it is smelling a little, has not moved for years, and is awfully bloated. None of these problems can’t be solved with a dolly, a scalpel and some Chanel No. 5. So, in order that USG may recover its senses, Professor Kesler undertakes to humor it, to treat it (like a wise parent) not as it is but as it should be.

He is, in a word, Burkean. The trouble was that when Burke praised Marie Antoinette, he was praising Marie Antoinette—not Steven Rattner. When he spoke of reforming one’s government as surgery on the body of one’s own living father, he spoke under the great oak of the 18th-century Whig aristocracy. Corrupt in its own way this was, but Old Sarum returned Pitt—not Wade Rathke. Had Burke spoken of an autopsy, he had spoken differently.

Professor Kesler’s error is no pathetic mistake. It is a true tragic flaw. The entire conservative movement, throughout the age of democracy, has been in the iron grip of tragedy. If Othello could recognize his jealousy and correct it, he could cast out Iago and reward Cassio at once. The play could end at any act. Yet it runs all five, for that is tragedy. Similarly, conservatism could snap out of it at any time—but it won’t.

The desire that leads the conservative astray is, as always, the desire for power. To present any criticism of USG as a plan for reforming it, by returning it to its original perfect state (a state so perfect that it has turned into what we have now!), is to render oneself eligible for command of the small army that sees this outcome as the inevitable future. The loyal opposition.

Gentlemen, power—as Fidel Castro puts it—is sweet, like honey. If you intend to wrest it from those who have it, I advise one of two courses. One is to be bigger, stronger, more ruthless, more devious and more mendacious. The other is to rely on magna est veritas et prevalebit.

If you have the choice, by all means choose the first. It is far more effective, and faster as well. If you have the first option and you do not succeed with it, you are beyond any advice I can offer.

However, if the first is not an option, your only recourse is the second. The second is certain, while never quick. It has gained a reputation for unreliability which is wholly undeserved.

The problem is the principle of wine and sewage: any mixture of wine and sewage is sewage. The same is true of reality and illusion. In propaganda, you may mix them freely. Propaganda, however, is only useful as an adjunct to superior physical force. It is not the second strategy.

Clearly, Professor Kesler does not have superior physical force. Otherwise he would be in, and the progressives would be out. Thus his only conceivable armament is veritas prevalebit.

While this is probably what Professor Kesler thinks he is wielding, it is not. Instead, Professor Kesler and the authors of Powerline—and the vast, pyramidal food chain of conservative thought beneath them—seek to replace one illusion, behind which there is at least an actual reality, with another illusion, which does not exist at all and perhaps never did.

USG is what it is. USG used to be what it was. USG evolved from what it was into what it is. But this is no reason to believe it can evolve just as easily in reverse. Furthermore, if your critical standards for assessing USG as it was are just as lax as those you use for assessing USG as it is—since you prefer to see the 18th-century illusion, not the 20th-century reality—your understanding of the real 18th century is perhaps not what it should be, n’est-ce pas?

Thus the conservative comes armed against one sham, with another sham. Goliath brings a club, and David brings a smaller club. Consequence: Goliath kicks the shit out of David, and has done for the last two centuries and change. Conservatives are losers by definition. The locomotive steams on, Buckley’s cadaver baking on its cowcatcher.

I see this as a tragic flaw because I see it as a surrender to the desire for power. David is just David, and he gets his ass kicked. But it was certainly fun to be William F. Buckley. “Fun” understates this elemental lust—and, under democracy, the loyal opposition can still confer status and even, in a sense, achieve victory. It never achieves its goals. In order to remain loyal, it has denied itself the weapon of veritas prevalebit—the only real weapon it can have.

Whereas if you accept veritas prevalebit, you must refuse to accept the conventional illusions, the naked emperors, the pious frauds. You thereby render yourself disloyal. And you lose your army, your pomp, your sceptre and general’s tent.

So be it. Because sovereignty is great, the reactionary must remain loyal in body. In soul, he is a stateless pirate—a well-armed creature of the open sea. His one authority is his own. He does not outsource truth. He looks into the matter himself, or finds someone he trusts; and that trust is not given lightly.

And the figure nailed to his bow is not Burke, but Carlyle. It is Carlyle’s twelfth hour of the night—and has been, for over two centuries. “Birds of darkness are on the wing; spectres uproar; the dead walks; the living dream.”