Blogs > Cliopatria > Jumping on Victor Davis Hanson ...

May 8, 2005 3:06 pm

Jumping on Victor Davis Hanson ...

When Victor Davis Hanson published"What Happened to History?" Washington Times, 7 May*, it seemed to challenge history bloggers to give it a fisk. Here's mine:
[Hanson's op-ed] is a conservative's apologia for what we do. On first reading, it seems moving; but on second reading it seems to have come from some op-ed generator. As a conservative, Hanson is clearly drawn to some of the"hooks," viz., 3, 5, 7, 9, that Tim Burke identified and suspicious of others, viz., 1, 4, 6, 8. There are the obligatory contemporary references. Here's one example:
We argue endlessly over the academic freedom of a Ward Churchill -- plagiarist and faker -- as he becomes famous for calling the 3,000 murdered on September 11, 2001,"little Eichmanns." Few in the debate pause, if just for a moment, to think of the thousands of now anonymous Americans blown apart over Berlin or on Okinawa to ensure we can freely embarrass ourselves over this charlatan.
I'm not one to argue that Churchill is no plagiarist or faker. But I look back at Hanson's opening line:"Our society suffers from the tyranny of the present." Hmm."... the tyranny of the present" is Ralph Waldo Emerson's phrase, but Hanson gives him no credit for it.** We are, indeed, the beneficiaries of a legacy we barely acknowledge. Isn't that right, Victor?

*He gave it as a lecture at Williams College on 19 April. It is circulated by Tribune Media Services and appears in the Jewish World Review and the San Jose Mercury-News.
**It also appears in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's diary, 31 December 1822. Goethe had a similar thought when he wrote that"The present moment is a powerful goddess." Emerson and Shelley's version of it is commonly traced back to Cicero.

But I'm not the only one. Reflecting on Hanson's theme of Americans' ignorance or indifference to their history, eb at No Great Matter suggests that those who are ignorant of the history of Americans' ignorance of their history seem bound to point it out repeatedly, each time as if it were some recent phenomenon or discovery. Over at Liberty & Power, David Beito finds Hanson's essay full of lofty prose, but lacking in substance. As evidence, he cites the same paragraph on Ward Churchill that I criticized. But Beito also challenges Hanson's reverence for state action as" critical" and his denigration of the social history of ordinary lives as"trivial.""The history of the pencil, girdle or cartoon offers us less wisdom about events, past and present," said Hanson,
than does knowledge of U.S. Grant, the causes of the Great Depression or the miracle of Normandy Beach. A society that cannot distinguish between the critical and the trivial of history predictably will also believe a Scott Peterson merits as much attention as the simultaneous siege of Fallujah, or that a presidential press conference should be pre-empted for Paris Hilton or Donald Trump.
"Statecraft" often leads us into monumental blunders, Beito points out. Citing Leonard E. Read's essay,"I, Pencil," he points to the contrasting simple genius of what Hanson calls"trivial."
I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that's too much to ask of anyone—if you can become aware of the miraculous ness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.
Altogether, I'd say Victor Davis Hanson has some answering to do.

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More Comments:

Grant W Jones - 5/9/2005

About half a year ago I sent Hanson a question asking for his opinion on Douglas MacArthur. Hanson only mentions MacArthur a few times in passing in his works. From those comments I think Hanson has a low opinion of the General. But, that's just a guess as he didn't reply, either on his website or by e-mail.

Chris Bray - 5/9/2005

I have noted that he answers questions on his website. My point is that he answers only those questions that he likes or finds easy, and carefully ignores difficult questions or inconvenient points of fact.

Tom Bruscino - 5/9/2005

Mr. Bray:

I'll let Hanson respond, should he choose to do so, but there are several factual mistakes in your comment. For example, at his website, he has two sections where he responds to questions and criticisms: see here, here, and here. They might not be the responses everyone is looking for, but it is notable that he takes the time. (As far as not answering your question about enrollment in "studies" programs, is it at least possible that he wasn't talking about enrollment but rather the resources colleges and universities put into such programs at the expense of traditional liberal arts?)

It should be noted that Professor Hanson is still, to my knowledge, a Democrat. I do not know if he has ever identified himself as a conservative.

I also think it is an exaggerration to call Hanson a declinsionist. On the particular issue of liberal arts in the academy, yes, but his work is built entirely around what he sees as the lasting vitality of the Western heritage. In that vein, he has long explicitly rejected folks like Paul Kennedy. He's not a total optimist because he wants to protect that vitality from modern weaknesses, but he is pretty far from a straightforward declinsionist.

Chris Bray - 5/8/2005

Just guessing at all of this...

His appeal is the simplicity of his argument, and the simplicity of the solution to his manufactured problem: Everything used to be great, until the damn radicals ruined everything in the sixties, so any discontent you feel with your life or society could be undone by overturning the work of the damn liberals. (We need to go back to the fifties, when everything was happy and America still worked as advertised.)

I'm guessing his audience is the discontented white upper-middle class, people who feel like they're losing social and economic place.

Declensionist narratives appeal to people who feel like they're slipping, and want to go back to the old ways and their old status. Victor Davis Hanson is old, old news.

David Timothy Beito - 5/8/2005

Where do his legions of fans come from? What is the appeal?

Chris Bray - 5/8/2005

One of Hanson's defining characteristics is that he simply doesn't respond to criticism or answer questions in a meaningful way.

Hanson posted a rant on his website, back in March, arguing ("arguing") that the traditional liberal arts curriculum is dead, and race/gender/sexuality "studies" programs have taken over the academy. So I emailed a New York Times story to him, noting that the story reported the difficulty of marginal departments in getting students to major in their fields. At UC San Diego, for example, many thousands of students are majoring in economics, biology, and other traditional subject areas, while the women's studies program has attracted a grand total of 24 majors. There has been, guess what, no response. If you're Victor Davis Hanson, you simply know that everybody's studying this damn queer studies stuff, and you don't need to hear a bunch of damn sissy facts to interfere with what you already know.

This has happened before. After Hanson wrote a column for the National Review Online arguing that bold state action against the status quo had created positive societal transformation in the Middle East, I emailed him to ask if he favored bold state action against the status quo to create positive societal transformation in the United States -- or if he still actually regarded himself as a conservative. Cue deafening silence.

I would argue that there's a pattern here: Victor Davis Hanson is a man who thumps his chest and bleats loudly for war, sneers at pacifism and diplomacy, and somehow never managed to make it into a military uniform. He's one of those guys -- loud, blustering, and a coward.

So I'm not holding my breath for an answer of a debate over his latest facile pile of emptiness.