Reading History Morally?

Published:November 19, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

An interesting historical debate has broken out in the pages of the New York Times Book Review. A few weeks ago, John Jeremiah Sullivan reviewed Nicholson Baker‘s new collection, which includes the essay “Why I’m a Pacifist,” which, in turn, is a response to the hullabaloo that erupted on the publication of Human Smoke (2008), Baker’s book-length argument on why American involvement in World War II was wrong-headed.

I don’t need to tell you too much about that controversy, because whatever you might imagine it to have been—believe me, it was. Sullivan notes that Baker’s new essay focuses “on the idea that we may have hastened the Holocaust by joining the fight, or worsened it, or even helped to bring it about.” Baker notes that upon American entry into the war, Goebbels wrote in his diary a paraphrase of a speech given by Hitler: “The world war is here. The annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary consequence.” Baker also quotes a historian who suggests that once the United States entered the fray, Jews living under the Germans “lost their potential value as hostages.”

No big surprise, then. Arguing that our defeat of Hitler was a net negative for the Jews is going to stir up some strong feelings.

In his review, Sullivan responds:

Some of Baker’s critics have claimed to find his argument historically vapid. They drive right past the fact that he was thinking along completely different lines, reading history not as a pragmatist but as a moralist, and asserting as he did so that this is a legitimate way to read history. He moves forward from the position that it’s wrong to kill people, to take life, and that wars are first and foremost large, organized killings of human beings, to be avoided whenever it’s in our power to do so. Thus far we don’t fault him. But the logic of Baker’s claim that we acted against those principles in responding with force to Hitler’s prior aggression, that we succeeded only in increasing the planet’s suffering, depends too much on an attempt to predict the thoughts of a Hitler—the behavior of a psychopath, in other words.

In this week’s Book Review, a professor named Gerald Sorin writes in to say, in effect, “Yes, Baker’s essay is vapid! And yes, it does depend too much on reading Hitler’s mind!” Why, for instance, does Baker omit the fact that Hitler is the one who declared war on us? And any implication that the United States was responsible for the Final Solution ignores the fact that Jews were being systematically murdered for two years prior to December 1941.

Above: Conscientious objectors work at a camp in Oregon during World War II.

Sorin continues:

Nor does [this argument] recognize the world’s indifference to the fate of the Jews—as evidenced by the Evian Conference in 1938, at which, of 32 countries, only the Dominican Republic was willing to admit small numbers of Jewish refugees. Even after evidence of genocide was available to world leaders, including our own, there were no serious rescue efforts, and more ghastly, immigration restrictions were strengthened everywhere. That Baker, a pacifist, was reading history morally rather than pragmatically, as Sullivan claims, is no excuse for an argument unsubstantiated by evidence or logic.

Agreed. (And I love Nicholson Baker’s writing!) But what of this idea of “reading history”? Whether you’re doing it pragmatically—war is sometimes necessary—or morally—war is always bad—you’re still using history for ends that are non-historical. One of my pet peeves is when we in the humanities (and the encyclopedia is a program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities) go on and on about all the ways in which we are useful in everybody’s real lives. This is how we justify ourselves, after all, but the point of good and accurate history ought to be the satisfaction of having created good and accurate history. How other people “read” it—or what they “do” with it—is not our concern. (As Stanley Fish has argued, “The humanities are their own good.”)

So part of the problem here is that Nicholson Baker and his critic, Gerald Sorin, are engaged in different tasks. The latter engages in a pursuit called history, the former in one that is—what?—moral, political, philosophical, even religious. The distinction is not between pragmatism and moralism, but between history and something that is not history. Baker seeks not to explain but to justify: himself (why he is a pacifist) and the future he imagines, one in which we do not wage war. Perhaps that’s why—as I noted when Human Smoke first was released—the New York Times assigned its review not to a historian but to a novelist: Colm Tóibín.

As Seinfeld might say: Not that there’s anything wrong with that (i.e., engaging in business that is non-historical). In the New York Review of Books last year, the eminent historian Gordon S. Wood took to task another historian, Jill Lepore, for finding so distasteful the Tea Party’s full-throated embrace of an essentially inaccurate version of America’s founding. Wood quotes the historian Bernard Bailyn on the subject of historical memory:

It is not a critical, skeptical reconstruction of what happened. It is the spontaneous, unquestioned experience of the past. It is absolute, not tentative or distant, and it is expressed in signs and signals, symbols, images, and mnemonic clues of all sorts. It shapes our awareness whether we know it or not, and it is ultimately emotional, not intellectual.

And it’s necessary, if sometimes distasteful, just as Baker’s argument is necessary, if also sometimes distasteful. The problem with Human Smoke, though, is that it’s non-history dressed up as history. As I wrote previously, “The form is literary (hence Tóibín as a reviewer) and designed, perhaps, to invoke feeling more than thoughtful consideration. Why not write a history if yours is a historical argument? And if it is not primarily a historical argument—if it is, for instance, primarily a political argument—why couch it in history?”

Ask the Tea Party; they’ll tell you.

IN ADDITION: For more on the Civilian Public Service Camps like the one pictured above, about ten of which were located in Virginia, check out this great site.

RE THE POST’S TITLE: It is also the title of Sorin’s letter. I stole it, in other words.

IMAGES: A German soldier stalks the landscape during World War II (provenance unknown); Warfront No. 2, 1951 and War Fury 3 (Four-Color Shadows); workers at the Civilian Public Service Camp No. 21 in Cascade Locks, Oregon, ca. 1942 (Lewis & Clark Digital Collections)