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July 08, 2008

When Current Events Becomes History

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

When I was about to become a teenager I began to notice that the history textbooks we had in school "left off" several years before their publication date. That bothered me a little, because I really enjoyed history and wanted the whole thing.

I now realize that the leaving off was prudent. I also am aware that besides History, there is a category that bookstores tend to label Current Affairs or maybe Current Events. So let's see. First you have News. That quickly mutates into Current Affairs which then ferments into History.

These distinctions are useful. History ideally is a dispassionate, balanced account of past events. The closer events are to the present, the less likely they are to be described in a balanced, dispassionate manner. That's because current politics or ideological positions, along with associated strong emotions can get in the way of clear observation. Given this likelihood, it's a good thing to have a label for the transition period from News into History.

I suppose there must be guidelines here and there regarding what point History kicks in, but I'm not going to research that. After all, I need to generate 2Blowhards content, don't I?

Let's discuss this. Although Current Affairs or Current Events can easily be construed as happenings within the last year or two, I think History needs to wait about 20 years (preferably 30 years -- a generation) before passions cool. For example, we're just reaching the point where the Reagan presidency can be discussed without blood on the floor. This does not mean that defenders and opponents of George W. Bush, for instance, should remain silent. Personal accounts of White House life, Cabinet debates, bureaucratic and legislative maneuvering, diplomatics actions and so forth are necessary grist for later historical accounts.

So how long do you think the period from News to History ought be? (And, for what it's worth, I think the argument that all history is biased is irrelevant. Taken to the extreme, it implies that there is no point in writing or reading history, and that notion is foolish.)



posted by Donald at July 8, 2008


There's a line drawn at t'other end too. I studied Modern History at Oxford, starting around about the fall of the western Roman Empire - or, in university administrative terms, at the point at which "Classics" left off.

Posted by: Alan Little on July 9, 2008 2:05 AM

I'll go along with the passage-of-a-generation theory. When most, or a substantial percentage, of the people involved with the events in question are dead, the events go from being "current events" to being "history."

Which isn't to say that the changeover can't occur earlier. This can happen when the events being studied are no longer particularly relevant to what's happening today. For instance, the Jimmy Carter presidency is arguably more history than current events even though many of the dramatis personae, including of course Carter himself, are still around. Things that happened during the presidency were, for the most part, rendered irrelevant by subsequent events.

Note that this relevance to the present factor can work in reverse. For example the 1967 war in the Middle East is still current events although nearly all of the main figures are gone, as the war continues to have a major effect on that part of the world. Applying the same analysis, however, the Vietnam War is history.

Posted by: Peter on July 9, 2008 9:24 AM

It's important to remember that history is written by the winners. That is not to say that the winners are necessarily wrong. Just that the verdict going back far more than 20 or 30 years is not objective.

A good example would be the verdict on WWII: the just war, the necessary war, the war that was fought, that had to be fought to defeat evil.

Well, was it? There has been a firestorm around Pat Buchanan's recent book on the subject (I think the title is Churchill, Hitler and The Unnecessary War, but I'm not sure) in which he writes (judging by reviews I've read of the book) that Britain under Churchill made a fateful mistake honoring its treaty obligation to Poland when Germany attacked, with the resultant catastrophic outcome for the British Empire and Britain as a great power. There's more to it than that but essentially Buchanan argues that if the West had stayed out of WWII that that war would inevitably have pitted Nazi Germany against the USSR and resulted in the mutual destruction of both totalitarian states.

We, of course, will never know. But we can be sure that that version of WWII - a terrible and costly mistake on the part of Britain (and by inference the United States) - will never be the official version or verdict.

Posted by: ricpic on July 9, 2008 9:55 AM

"...There's more to it than that ..."

I bought the book. There is less to it than that. Buchanan's book is a mess of lies, distortions and half-truths.

The original question: When does news end and history begin? Two answers. 1. When historical methodology begins to be applied to it, which can be almost immediately, or soon after the events. We had "histories" of the initial invasion of Iraq within months, which were in fact histories, based on documents, interviews and other data. 2. When the current policy relevance of the historical issue has died down to the point that objectivity is relatively possible. To some extent, everything in American history is still news, since the Founding, and what the Founders did and said, are live issues that influence the current debate. To some extent, all history is always being mined and picked over for "use" in current debates. Nonetheless, a good cutoff would be a period long enough for all the people who were alive at the time to be dead, roughly a century or a little less. We are only now starting to get fairly objective assessments of World War I, 90 years ago, for example, though that too is still a source of ideological ammunition. We are getting a somewhat more objective assessment of the Spanish American War, 110 years ago, which was very ideologically contentious at the time. So 100 years is probably about right.

Posted by: Lexington Green on July 9, 2008 6:12 PM

ricpic, you will note that Buchanan waited until the men who actually experienced that war were either dead or in their mid eighties. Those who are asked to sacrifice in war become very emotional when challenged, and don't care to philosophize about its merits when they visit a cemetery to lay flowers on a comrade's grave. We may call a 30 year waiting period "perspective"...but in Buchanan's case, it was pragmatism.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on July 9, 2008 7:00 PM

"To some extent, everything in American history is still news, since the Founding, and what the Founders did and said, are live issues that influence the current debate." Surely almost everything about the Founding Fathers known by almost every American is likely to be crude propaganda, indoctrinated from an early age? It's always seemed to me that we have an advantage in Britain - the tales of our founders are excellent for children, but not something we are expected to take literally in adult life. Did Alfred burn the cakes? Who cares? Did Bruce learn persistence from the spider in the cave? Could be. Did Canute brave the waves to humiliate his fawning courtiers? I dare say. Did Arthur win at Badon? We'll never know.

Posted by: dearieme on July 9, 2008 8:08 PM

Buchanan's book is no doubt silly. But I think this is partly because his discussion of World War 2 is limited in the same way modern conservative discussion of affirmative action is limited. That is, there are certain salient facts, such as those mentioned by Yuri Slezkine, that may inform Buchanan's worldview but that he cannot mention. His argument is convoluted because he cannot say what Slezkine can say:

In your book, you say that Jews experienced three Paradises and one Hell in the 20th century. Hell of course refers to the Holocaust. What are the Paradises?

These are the destinations of the three great migrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are the two we all know about--from Eastern Europe, mostly the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, to America and to Palestine. Then there is the one I am particularly interested in: from the Pale of Settlement to the Soviet cities. Most of the Jews who stayed in Russia moved to Kiev, Kharkov, Leningrad, and Moscow, and they moved up the Soviet social ladder when they got there. This third, invisible or less visible, migration was much bigger than the one to Palestine and much more ideologically charged than the one to America. And, for the first 20 years or so of the Soviet state, it was also seen by most people involved as the most successful. But, by the end of the 20th century, it was seen by most people involved--the children and grandchildren of the original migrants--as either a tragic mistake or a non-event.

All three migrations were, in a sense, pilgrimages, and all three represented different ways of being Jewish, and of being modern, in the modern world: non-ethnic liberal statehood in the United States; secular ethnic nationalism in Israel; and communism--a world without capitalism or nationalism--in the Soviet Union. That, plus the Holocaust, of course, which stands for the dangers of not going on one of those three pilgrimages, represents much of the 20th century, I think.

Why were Jews so successful in the early Soviet state?

The story of the Jews in the early Soviet Union is similar to the story of the Jews in America. That is, they were especially successful in the realms of education, journalism, medicine, and other professions that were central to the functioning of Soviet society, including science.

Jews in the Soviet Union were much more literate than any other group, they were untainted by any association with the imperial regime, and they seem to have been very enthusiastic about what the Communist Party was doing. This was to some extent a conscious commitment to ideology, but mostly it was just because there were no more legal barriers against Jews. The doors opened, and they flooded in and did exceedingly well in the 1920s and the first part of the 1930s.

My belief is that you can’t understand the second part of the Jewish story in Russia--the anti-Semitic policies, and what happens to Soviet Jews later, their desire to emigrate, for example--unless you know the first part of the story, which is mostly about amazing success.

You write that Jews were important members of both the secret police and those who ran the gulag. This was news to me.

The fact was not known to me when I was growing up in the Soviet Union. Most people found out about it when they read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. He didn’t make a point of it at the time, but he talks about the people who were running the White Sea Canal labor camps, and they were virtually all ethnic Jews.

What was your reaction?

Mostly surprise, because it seemed so incongruous to those of us who thought of Jews as the primary victims and primary opponents of the Soviet regime. But later I discovered that the role of communism in modern Jewish history was tremendously important. I don’t think you can understand modern Jewish history without considering the Russian Revolution or understand communism without considering the role of the Jews.

And for another missing piece of the puzzle:

Hitler’s “Russian” Connection: White Émigré Influence on the Genesis of Nazi Ideology, 1917-1923 While historians have carried out a great deal of research on the intellectual origins of the Third Reich, the crucial influence that extreme right-wing “Russian” émigrés in collaboration with völkisch (racist) Germans exerted on the development of Nazi ideology remains relatively unexplored. I hope substantially to increase historical knowledge of National Socialism’s “Russian” connection, focusing primarily on the years from 1917, with the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution, to 1923, with Hitler’s failed putsch attempt. By investigating the thought, actions, and background of such “Russian” émigrés as Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi Party’s chief ideologue whom Hitler placed in control of the Party after the putsch, Fyodor Vinberg, whom the Führer cited as proof of the pernicious influence of “Jewish Bolshevism,”1 and Max von Scheubner-Richter, of whom Hitler asserted that he alone of the “martyrs” of the 1923 putsch attempt could not be replaced,2 I hope to shed new light on the intellectual origins of Nazi ideology as a pernicious fusion of primarily German and Russian radical right-wing ideas.

Just to top it off, here's a NYT article from 1919.

RED AGITATORS FROM THIS CITY POTENT IN RUSSIA; Former East Siders Largely Responsible for Bolshevism,Says Dr. Simons.ATROCITIES TO YOUNG GIRLSTerrible Fate of Hundreds ofThem Sanctioned by Official Authority.VICTIMS OF THE RED GUARDSMethodist Official from PetrogradTells of Aliases Usedby Leaders. Sees Parallel to the I.W.W. Text of Propaganda Order. List of Aliases Given. NEW YORK REDS POTENT IN RUSSIA East Side Leaders of Reds. German Influence Strong. Russian Element Submerged. Bolsheviki Praised Robins. Bitter Against Allies. Murders Number Thousands. Girl Victims of Atrocities. Compared to the I.W.W.

Special to The New York Times.
February 13, 1919, Thursday

Page 1, 4000 words

WASHINGTON, Feb. 12.-- The Senate committee which is investigating Bol shevism was told today that present chaotic conditions in Russia were due in large part to agitators from the east side of New York City, who flocked into that country immediately after the overthrow of the Czar. It was stated that....

Let's just be clear what I'm saying. All groups have blood on their hands. Obviously the Nazis were evil. But it complicates matters when you realize that they arose in part because of the mass murder occurring just to their east...with reliable reports of the identities of some of the key perpetrators coming both from Russian white emigres and the New York Times itself.

Posted by: asdf on July 10, 2008 5:59 AM

"Surely almost everything about the Founding Fathers known by almost every American is likely to be crude propaganda, indoctrinated from an early age?"

Yeah, at this point, the crude propaganda is that they were a bunch of racist White Males, basically a bunch of bad guys.

That is what kids learn in school, and it is a bunch of crap.

As to everybody else, they read books by David McCullough, or Ron Chernow, or Joseph Ellis, or David Hackett Fischer about the Founders, or they dig even deeper. These are generally decently written and fair-minded assessments of the Founders.

So, the basic thrust of your comments, that the Founders are understood in some glorified light, is absolutely wrong. They are either unfairly villified, or discussed in an intelligent manner, generally. If anything, George Washington, to pick one critical example, is underrated in importance at this point due to forty years of purported "debunking", much of it ideologically motivated and wrong.

As to this "...but not something we are expected to take literally in adult life." This is also absolutely wrong for a very important reason. We have a written Constitution. What it means must be interpreted. What the people who wrote it were trying to do is pertinent to that interpretation, so lawyers refer to it when arguing Constitutional cases. The Federalist Papers are still cited. Joseph Story is still cited. Like it or lump it, the Founding Era has contemporary relevance. The recent Heller decisions proves that.

Posted by: Lexington Green on July 10, 2008 1:26 PM

Tahnks for posting

Posted by: Affingignog on August 3, 2008 10:10 AM

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