Hillary fires back

Since Dr. Burgess has had his say, it’s only fair to showcase Hillary Clinton’s perspective of the Progressive Era:

Now we’ve done this before. We did the same thing back at the turn of the 20th century. Back then, the American economy was dominated by large corporate monopolies. Corruption was far too common and good government far too rare. Women couldn’t vote, and the minimum wage, well, that wasn’t heard of and worker rights were completely unimagined. Back then, America was a country filled with haves and have nots — and not enough people in between.

In response to these excesses, the progressive movement was born. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the progressives busted trusts and fought for safe working conditions and fair wages. They created the national park system, and replaced a government rife with cronyism with a merit-based civil service. They understood, as the great progressive President Teddy Roosevelt once said, that “The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us.”

I am especially into the Roosevelt quote, which I feel may indicate that Ms. Clinton shares an interest in palaeological grammar. (Unfortunately, the pleasures and pains of the campaign trail must have delayed her, for I snagged the $10 Palaeologus myself.)

In any case, there’s no question but that Ms. Clinton approved these words – whoever wrote them. And I think they’re a good way for me to explain why I don’t trust history.

Every high school student in the US has a textbook which gives them Ms. Clinton’s interpretation of the Progressive Era. I would be surprised if a single one gets Dr. Burgess’s. Perhaps in some obscure, appalling Appalachian backwater. But probably not.

In fact, I myself obviously have some sympathy with Dr. Burgess and his cause. But how did I hear of him? Where did I find this work? I found a gilt-and-leather 1990s reprint at a used bookstore, the day before yesterday. I have never seen Dr. Burgess, “founder of American political science” (two of his students, for example, were Nicholas Murray Butler and Theodore Roosevelt) mentioned by any political essayist, historian or blogger.

I’m sure if I was actually a qualified specialist, this would be different. It is not quite as though Dr. Burgess was airbrushed out of the Kremlin parade. He has a Wikipedia page, after all. But it is not a long one.

I think this tends to confirm my general perspective, which is that history is not trustworthy in a democracy. In a democracy, power depends on public opinion, and public opinion depends on history. Since history – by definition – is written by historians, democracy vests vast powers in this tiny, self-selecting, and utterly opaque elite.

Of course, the facts of the Progressive Era are not in dispute. It is a fact that Woodrow Wilson was elected President in 1912. But if facts were all we wanted from history, we’d need databases, not historians.

And of course, both Dr. Burgess and Ms. Clinton are entirely sincere. Or at least the former. And whatever goes on inside Ms. Clinton’s head – I would not dare to speculate – her views are not her own. They come from her staffers, who got them from their professors, who I’m sure were historians no less capable or sincere than Dr. Burgess.

This does not answer the question of why their views replaced Dr. Burgess’s. Not just in the textbooks, not just under Ms. Clinton’s polymerized coif, but even at Columbia University – where I’m sure President Wilson is now seldom compared to Julius Caesar.

Perhaps, for example, the Progressive historians were simply right. And Dr. Burgess – who obviously has a bad attitude – was simply wrong. Perhaps God, the Lord of Hosts, was looking on, and put a subtle finger on the scale when the tenure decisions were going down. Can we disprove this? We cannot.

Another possibility is that what we’re looking at here is no more than intellectual fashion. Why are skirts long one year and short the next? Because Anna Wintour says so? Or is it the stock market? Whatever the answer, I don’t know it and I don’t think my girlfriend does, either. The word “random” is much misused, but it represents a negative result in the analysis of cause and effect, and it should always be on the table.

However, there is an even simpler and more disturbing explanation.

I think we have to consider the possibility that the extinction of Dr. Burgess’s views, and the adoption of Ms. Clinton’s, is an adaptive phenomenon. That is, it is easiest to explain by postulating some effect, at some point between 1915 and 2007, in which historians holding Dr. Burgess’s perspective were less likely to prosper and spread their ideas, and historians holding Ms. Clinton’s perspective were relatively more successful.

Of course, one cause of this would be our first hypothesis: that Dr. Burgess is wrong and Ms. Clinton is right. Given that they are both expressing value judgments, however, it is hard to justify this. And certainly if you read Progressive equivalents from the period – The Promise of American Life (1909), by Herbert Croly, is a good example – let’s just say I think it would be quite difficult to claim that events since have discredited Dr. Burgess and vindicated Mr. Croly.

A simpler explanation, I think, is just to postulate a feedback loop between Progressive victories in Washington, DC, and in the Columbia faculty lounge. Progressive historians assist Progressive politicians by spreading the notion that Progressivism and righteousness are equivalent. In return, Progressive politicians assist Progressive historians by giving them funding, fame and influence.

It is important to remember that this analysis is adaptive, not volitional. The historians and politicians do not meet up in some little smoke-filled room where packets of twenties change hands. When all are sincere, there is no need to conspire.

The key to the Progressive victory, which this theory so accurately postdicts, is that there is no equivalent libertarian feedback loop. Progressive historians win because Progressivism itself is inherently pro-historian. Historians, after all, are enlightened and benevolent experts, and the central idea of the Progressive Movement was and is that government should be run by enlightened and benevolent experts. You do the math.

This is also why I dislike the idea of “media bias.”

There is no such thing as journalism. Journalism is just recent history. And saying that journalists have a “liberal bias” may be true, in some sense of the word. It is also deeply misleading, and worse, it understates the appalling size and scale of the problem. It is more that liberals have a journalist bias – that the very idea of liberalism (ie, progressive idealism) is pro-journalist.

So this statement, which seems so damning, reduces to the proposition that journalists are pro-journalist. This may not be a tautology, but it’s close. For obvious reasons of human psychology, journalists – like other historians – are likely to favor political systems in which they themselves are more important and powerful. The same is true of poets, climatologists, economists, and for all I know dishwashers.

Democracy does not provide any obvious ways for dishwashers to influence public opinion. So no feedback loop can develop which favors self-aggrandizing schools of tableware hygiene. (Otherwise, used dishes would probably have to be sent to an official sterilization facility.)

The same is not true of historians, poets, climatologists, or economists. And without a way of breaking the feedback loops – which certainly does not exist today – we should expect democracies to produce some extremely strange and corrupt versions of history, poetry, climatology, and economics. To name only a few such fields.


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