The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article by former Kerry campaign staffer Jeffrey Scott Shapiro expressing what is rapidly becoming the stock neoconservative argument: that in the fullness of time, George W. Bush will be judged to be a political visionary rather than a complete and utter failure.
Even by the standards of the genre, Shapiro’s paean is particularly infantile, amounting to an accusation of ungratefulness on the part of the public toward the man who has plunged his nation into an unjust and unnecessary foreign war, bungled a just and necessary one, depleted our treasury, ruined our moral standing and killed 4,000 American soldiers and untold numbers of Iraqis. A direct response would be a waste of energy, but the strategy itself deserves comment, if for no other reason than having exhausted bluster, jingoism, personal attacks, incessant accusations of media bias and outright dishonesty, the appeal to history seems to be the only arrow left in the neoconservative quiver.
Betting on time’s redemption is an unfalsifiable hypothesis; you can continue to defer judgment on a subject until the sun has burned out and the earth floats dead in space. In the meantime, reality will call upon you to make determinations about your behavior, and abstaining until history has rendered an absolute and objective assessment for every past deed is, unfortunately, not really an option. We determine as best we can the wisdom of earlier actions and make future decisions accordingly. Our information is never complete or perfectly accurate but that doesn’t absolve us of the burden of moving forward.
What do we really mean when we appropriate the vantage point of history? There’s certainly no divine personification of the passage of time, jotting down verdicts and separating the victorious from the vanquished. To call on historical hindsight is to hope that the common wisdom of future generations will remember you fondly — as if they were the ones that elected you.
That these future generations will have attained some extraordinary perspicacity is simply assumed. But why exactly? Flynn Effect aside, there’s little reason to believe our descendants will live in a world any less populated by people willing to pretend the invasion of Iraq was a wise decision, or unwilling to reconsider ideology in the face of new developments.
For the moment, the leaders of the conservative movement have tied themselves inextricably to W’s foreign policy. Having failed to recognize, either out of arrogance or ignorance, the terrible ramifications of the Bush Doctrine when there was still time to alter the course of history, what possible reason would they have to reconsider when nothing but reputation (and not even that, really) is on the line?
Of course, suggesting that the neocons will somehow manage to pervert our descendants’ understanding of the present is pointless, insofar as the consensus of our children’s children is unlikely to be right in the first place. Most people are poorly enough informed of contemporary events, and they show an even weaker grasp of the past. Can the average American today explain the origins or ultimate effects of World War I? And in many ways it is easier for jingoism and arrogance to seep into our perceptions of our ancestors’ activities than it is our own. Our attitude is more or less “nothing to be done about it now, might as well mythologize it.” Better to think the Doughboys died for something grander than Wilsonian self-deception and the Treaty of Versailles.
Really, this entire mode of argument is little more than self-aggrandizement at the expense of our forebears — “poor Grandpa, he didn’t understand how good a leader Truman was.” (And as far as this George W. Bush is Harry S. Truman thing goes, James Buchanan also left office loathed by the populace he purported to serve, and history remembers him an abject failure.) Maybe the Greatest Generation was a little more on the ball than we realize. Truman wasn’t loathed because he dropped a pair of atomic bombs on civilian population centers, but because he entangled us in a foreign war without clearly defining attainable objectives or appropriate strategies. (Actually there might be something to that Truman analogy after all.)
We fixate on Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki while glossing over the Korean conflict because we’d prefer to memorialize our history as one of just and terrible avengers rather than semi-competent invaders of Asian countries of questionable strategic significance. Our grandchildren may wish to remember our generation in a similar light, but the apologue they create won’t qualify as objective assessment of history any more than ours does. Human judgment is fallible, and there’s no reason to think another 50 or 100 years will change that.
So allow me then to peer into the future: A small percentage of America will remember our neoconservative adventures abroad as mistakes, a smaller percentage will remember them as glorious victories, and the vast majority of the population will ignore them completely, too taken up with whatever 22nd century diversion replaces YouTube to care about the debates of earlier generations. The descendants of William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer will continue to insist that another quarter-century of war will see the bloom of civilization sweep the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, and the rest of America will continue paying off the debt this attempt at horticulture has incurred.
But for now, we’re stuck here, citizens of a nation hemorrhaging from self-inflicted wounds. If Jeffrey Shapiro and his like continue to insist that only time will tell what’s wrong with the country while others bleed, fine. As for the rest of us, we’ll find a new doctor, a quicker diagnosis, and plenty of bandages.
-Daniel Polansky is a writer in Washington.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire