I'll Grant you...

>> Thursday, March 18, 2010

I got an e-mail today from Nathan, who pointed me to a New York Times op-ed by Sean Wilentz from last week about the rehabilitation of President Ulysses S. Grant. Nathan thought it might make for a nice follow-up to a snarky bit of business I wrote several weeks ago about efforts to put President Ronald Reagan on the fifty dollar bill.

The gist of my piece was that it was only fitting to replace the head of one of the reputedly most-corrupt presidencies in history with a successor administration that was even more corrupt. Wilentz's gist is that the corruption of the Grant Administration never touched U.S. Grant in the first place and was grossly exaggerated by racists at the turn of the 20th Century in any case.

Fine, fine, fine--be fair about it, why don't you?

I kid, somewhat, with that line about fairness: I mean, the real point I was making was about the Reagan era's overwhelming corruption, something I understand Wilentz (who authored a book titled The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008) to have written about at some length. Slagging Grant was only incidental to that purpose, a useful foil given Grant's reputation.

Unfortunately, I have to admit Wilentz is probably right, or more-or-less right. There's not a lot of evidence, if any, that Grant was a part of the corruption that occurred beneath him; then again, there's not a lot of evidence Reagan was aware of just how corrupt his administration was before all the indictments and resignations--and, as another President famously had engraved on a plaque on his desk, "The buck stops here." The President is the big kahuna, and bears an executive responsibility for employing criminals, for creating an environment in which they may thrive, and perhaps for failing to adequately clean house if he fails on those first two measures. Being responsible for his subordinates is why he gets to have United States Marines playing his theme song every time he enters a room, like he's Rocky Balboa or James Bond or something.

And the thing Wilentz is really right on is the thing that troubles me enough to write some kind of concession in the first place: certainly, the South has borne a disproportionate influence in writing history since Reconstruction. While that disgracefully includes a number of Southern historians, as Wilentz says, there have certainly been honest Southern historians like the late, great C. Vann Woodward; a more pernicious influence on American history has been Southern politicians, particularly those historical laypersons elected in general elections to choose and purchase textbooks. (The current attempt by Republican members of the Texas State Board Of Education to rewrite time and space in their own images is merely one recent example, and not the first.)

The fact is that Grant's competence as a President should bear no relation at all to the fact that the Confederacy was a betrayal of the solemn compact entered into by thirteen former colonies, 1787-1790 (and therefore an act of treason), or to the fact that the Southern states were completely on the wrong side of history itself. It is not merely that freighting human beings and treating them as property, as farm machines was an inexcusable evil that cannot be mitigated by any rationalization, justification or excuse; it is also a fact that the nations that held onto or came into power as the 19th Century bled into the 20th were those industrialized nations that had abandoned feudal (or, in the case of the Southern plantation system, crypto-feudal) economies and adopted strongly-centralized governments. The Southern cause was not noble or heroic: it was backwards, doomed and immoral, and we Southerners should be grateful we lost, however bloody it was, so that we could live in a great modern nation and not the racist Third-World backwater the Confederacy almost certainly would've become had Lincoln left us to our own devices.

For some, however, that's a painful thing to come face-to-face with, and especially so at the turn of the 20th Century when there were still millions of Americans around who had been alive during the Civil War and Reconstruction, some as children and some as actual veterans of the conflict. Hard to admit that you or your daddy were on the wrong side, but harder still to sit there and maintain that it was moral and proper to traffick in humans (and, rubbing salt in the wound, to defend the trafficking in humans for the sake of being able to farm the way people did in the Fifteenth Century during an epoch in which cities are becoming luminous with electricity, messages are being sent instantaneously across the Atlantic, steamships bigger than buildings are racing 'round the world in mere days, and some Ohio boys vacationing on the North Carolina beach just defied the laws of gravity). So it's easier to go ad hominem, instead of trying to pretend slavery was good (though a few would even resort to that--saying that those who survived the Atlantic crossing in chains had it better than those whose cultures and independence were crushed by the European powers), easier to just assault those who fought to hold the Republic together. Grant and Sherman were butchers and Lincoln a hypocrite, and that's all you need to know about that. But, you know, even if those statements were true, how the hell would that make it okay for Charleston millionaires to send the poor sons of the South to die in droves for the right to own a man and work him to death like a beast?

(Stop asking questions, troublemaker. Lincoln didn't care about slaves, he said so himself, freed 'em just to stir up trouble, didn't matter if he was right because he was wrong anyway.)

The bitch of it is that just because revisionists trashed Grant for the wrong reason doesn't mean Grant ought to be restored to full good graces automatically. In the plus column, he was largely a good general who helped save the Republic and crushed those who, however innocently most of them did it, served evil. He kept up the fight for civil rights in the Reconstruction era even as political knaves and opportunists began turning their backs on human duty. In the negative column, while he was President, the Republic was for sale--indeed, the efforts Grant made on behalf of Native Americans were indelibly tainted by not one, but two ugly corruption scandals. He presided over what was, up to that point, the worst financial crisis in American history and may have made it worse with the slow, clumsy response by his administration (indeed, he may have indirectly and passively precipitated it in the first place).

It may be that the "pro" column should outweigh the "con." And maybe not. Regardless, what one really has to say is that nuance isn't something we Americans do all that well, left or right, and a rehabilitation of Grant's image shouldn't come at the price of forgetting his faults, just as the tarnishing of his image shouldn't have been allowed to eclipse his achievements (or the failings of his opponents) in the first place.

On a tangent: while gathering threads for this entry, I did find a review of Wilentz's Age Of Reagan up at the website of The Claremont Institute, a conservative think-tank. They didn't like the book that much, though they were kinder than you might expect. The main reason I mention it, though, was this unintentionally amusing excerpt:

The core of the problem is that, in a book on the period of conservative ascendancy, Wilentz has almost nothing to say about conservative ideas. He makes it clear from the start that he dislikes Reagan and conservatism—Wilentz was one of Bill Clinton's most outspoken academic defenders when Clinton was impeached—but the problem goes beyond bias. He simply does not want to engage with conservative thought. The book has no discussion of the complexities of conservative thinking, how conservatism relates to modern American culture, or how conservative thought has contributed to the changes of the past three decades.

I don't know how much I have to say about "conservative ideas," to be honest; at the risk of undercutting my own earlier comments about nuance, the first thing that crossed my mind when I came across the above lines in the book review was, "Conservatives have ideas?"

I know, I know. Unfair. Biased, left-wing partisanship, not meeting them halfway, open contempt, out-of-touch, etc. I'm a horrible, awful person. Anyway, it's not true that conservatives don't have ideas, it's simply that an awful lot of those ideas, e.g. unregulated free market libertarianism or Constitutional strict constructionalism, are bad ones. I haven't read Wilentz's book, but it's possible he gives conservative thought as much engagement as he thinks it deserves.

As I write this, I think--"Y'know, it's possible there are some good conservative ideas in there somewhere." Unrepentant mixed-economy socialist that I am, I'd like to think I'm pragmatic enough that I wouldn't throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. The problem, however, is that in America (at least), any modern conservatives who do have good ideas are buried beneath a bunch of rubbish that can't even be called "ideas" (e.g. pretty much everything that comes out of the teabagger movement, and no, I'm not about to dignify them with any other title).

The other thing about the excerpt quoted above, that gets picked up in a later line in the review--"Even as he acknowledges Reagan's political successes, Wilentz criticizes him as intellectually inconsistent without admitting that there might be a connection"--is that cognitive dissonance is not "subtlety." To provide one example: whatever one accuses Henry Kissinger of, nobody has ever accused him of being inconsistent or an idiot--Kissinger's willingness to accommodate tyrannical regimes went hand-in-hand with his realpolitik philosophy of America's ends justifying any means necessary. Reagan, on the other hand, publicly (and apparently privately) regarded the world in binary terms--good vs. evil--and his administration still treated with human rights abusers like the Nicaraguan Contras.

Quite frequently, you know, you see someone on the right accusing various parties of having a "double standard" when it comes to some scandal or another--a Republican who cheats on his wife, for instance, gets more of a drubbing in the press than a Democrat who did the same. While there may well be some bias, let's point out that very few Democrats make their marriages a centerpiece of their campaigns--and those like former Senator John Edwards who do and are caught cheating on their wives get drubbed pretty thoroughly. Pointing out hypocrisy isn't a double standard, it's a standard. Similarly, a Republican politician who makes a huge deal out of opposing gay rights and then is caught in flagrante leaving a gay bar is much more newsworthy than an openly gay Congressman who, what-a-shock, is having gay sex--having gay sex, do we even have to point this out, is something that a gay man might do which we would not expect a man who has spent many years raging against gay sex to also do; you might even define a "gay man" as "a man who has gay sex," believe it or not.


Warner (aka ntsc) Friday, March 19, 2010 at 9:28:00 AM EDT  

By the only definition that counts, Grant was more than - largely a good general.

He was the winning captain of what was to that time the largest and possibly most intense war in history. As Lincoln is reported to have said 'He fights'.

A conservative who has a good idea is likely to cause change.

The most important thing to a conservative is to prevent change.


Ideas which cause change are not good nor are they conservative.

Eric Friday, March 19, 2010 at 9:54:00 AM EDT  

By the only definition that counts, Grant was more than - largely a good general.

Actually, that's a good point. I was sort of hedging largely because of Cold Harbor, but you're right: Grant won the war.

As for conservatives and change: I think I know where you're going, but did you really mean to say ideas that cause change aren't good or that they're not good for conservatives? And in all fairness, I will admit that sometimes it's a good idea to leave things as they are--"If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

A common conservative mistake, unfortunately, is the inability to tell when things are broken, or to mistake what works for them for something that works for everyone (there's no doubt that tax breaks for the rich work quite nicely--for the rich).

My Dad pointed out on the phone yesterday evening that there are, in fact, some conservatives with good ideas--we call them "Democrats." Touché. I suspect I've been contaminated enough by the media to momentarily overlook the fact that the Democrats, with the exception of outliers like Kucinich, remain a center-right party in fact, though not in rhetoric.

Nathan Friday, March 19, 2010 at 10:33:00 AM EDT  

I'm actually more interested in whether it's historical revisionism to attempt to restore Grant's reputation as a President than as a General. I think he's pretty safe on the Generalship side of things.

I don't know what others learned in school, but having grown up in Florida, we were basically taught (really briefly), about the corruption scandals and not much else. I have no doubt that much of what I might find honorable about his presidency is precisely why Southern sources would have reviled him during Reconstruction and into the early 20th Century.

OTOH, is getting elected twice really evidence of greatness? I don't think I'd apply that criteria to Bush's presidency.

Is being wildly popular (in some circles) evidence of greatness? A certain Ms. Palin is wildly popular right now (in some circles).

I'm not arguing against restoring Grant's reputation but if I'm going to be intellectually honest about things, don't I have to question where the line is drawn between rewriting and correcting historical accounts?

Eric Friday, March 19, 2010 at 1:10:00 PM EDT  

Nathan: historical accounts are almost always being revised in some sense or another. Primarily, that's a matter of how a consensus of historians interpret agreed-upon facts, but even facts may be revised (c.f. recent debates over whether Marco Polo really went to China or whether his entire claim is a hoax).

What usually prompts an accusation of "revisionism" as opposed to what's simply the usual course of the field is when re-evaluations of the facts or their meaning is prompted by political agendas. E.g. claims that Ronald Reagan proposed "Star Wars" primarily as a means of bankrupting the Soviet Union (a hypothesis presented as a fact by some conservatives) flies in the face of both public speeches and internal documents from the Reagan Administration and appear to be motivated less by an interest in what the truth might be than by the interest some on the right seem to have in creating Reagan haigiography. (On a punny tangent, is any book about the life of Reagan's first Secretary Of State a haigiography by default?) At its most extreme, "revisionism" may be the wholesale falsification of history, as has frequently occurred in totalitarian regimes throughout history.

Further muddying the waters are schools of thought arrising from deconstructionism that hold that all history is inherently political or reflects the biases of its authors. This is something that I personally think is inevitably true up to the point that it hits any indisputable facts: e.g. The Battle Of Agincourt either occurred or it didn't, and it happened on October 25th or it didn't, and relaying this objective claim may not reflect on the author, although the author's interpretation of the significance and focus on the French or British sides or the effects of military technology or tactics on the battle, etc., will tell you as much about the author as it does the event. But even here we will eventually run into questions about epistemology and subjectivity, i.e. what we objectively know or think we know may be murky depending on how well it has been documented and by whom. We will never know, for instance, how or when or where Richard II of England actually died.

I don't know if this provides any guidance in where a line is drawn, in part because it's not a clear line to start with. The historical consensus is always in flux, with new factual claims and new interpretations and new agreements and disagreements constantly bubbling up. What is a given, accepted "historical fact" today might not be such tomorrow for all sorts of reasons (and if you take an extremely postmodernist stance, the idea itself of a "historical fact" may be suspect, something that can frustrate non-historians to no end). A re-evaluation of Grant's Presidency based on what we know and driven by an agenda of wanting to understand Grant and his time (as opposed to an agenda driven by wanting to use Grant for some purpose, perhaps symbolic) is unlikely to be "revisionism" in any critical sense--it's merely the practice and field of History.

Warner (aka ntsc) Saturday, March 20, 2010 at 7:58:00 AM EDT  

Change isn't good, that it isn't good for conservatives is beside the point as for a conservative that is a given.

Or as they say in Chicago 'Ubi est me?'

Eric Sunday, March 21, 2010 at 7:53:00 PM EDT  

Nathan, (if you happen to check this thread), you might also be interested in in this excellent post over at Edge Of The West.

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