Home/Daniel Larison/Hey, Lay Off, She’s A “Student Of History”! All Ten Years Of It

Hey, Lay Off, She’s A “Student Of History”! All Ten Years Of It

“Nobody can go back and reinvent the past,” Condoleezza Rice told Katie Couric on “60 Minutes” Sunday night. But this nugget of truth came amid a flood of retrospective reinvention in which Rice equated the war in Iraq with the civil rights struggle of the 1960s — and left me wondering whether I was hearing polished sophistry or a case of total denial. ~Eugene Robinson

Perhaps there’s some devilishly clever postmodern irony in Secretary Rice’s comments.  People reinvent the past all the time–not literally, but in the sense that everyone reshapes the past by reshaping the interpretation of what happened.  The past is something that can be contested and controlled, and as Michael has observed recently he who controls the past controls the future.  Consider a few examples of recent reshaping.  President Bush says that he and his administration never implied any connection between Hussein and 9/11, even though he rhetorically aligned 9/11 and the “threat” from Iraq in numerous speeches.  No one ever said that Iraq had nukes–except for the Veep.  “You go to war with the army you have,” the Poet of the Pentagon said–except that Rumsfeld neglected to mention that he intentionally left rather large parts of that army elsewhere on purpose and with no intention of remaining there very long.  And so on.  Some people call this selective memory, others call it putting things in the best light.  Less generous people call it lying, but let’s not get too judgemental. 

Hacks and propagandists manipulate history to serve the turn of their masters.  This has been going on since, well, ever since history was recorded.  Thus anarchic Iraq can be likened to the period of the Confederation, because this tells us that things will get better and the Iraqis are doing just fine, the Sunni insurgency can be likened to the non-existent “Werewolves” of post-WWII Germany (Rumsfeld & Condi) to prove that everything will work out, and everything (and I do mean everything) can be likened to 1938 Europe and every enemy can be compared with fascists as a way of rallying people to the colours and convincing them of the vital necessity of fighting for “as long as it takes.”  Normal people might want to stop fighting Iraqis who are butchering each other, but relatively few want to pitch in the towel in the anti-fascist crusade.  It has become something of a commonplace in the historian’s trade that people reinvent the past all the time, because the person who dictates what happened in the past can often determine what should be done now through an appeal to (created) memories–and who would be better for this than the people with the empire that creates its “own reality”

Incidentally, why doesn’t anybody liken things to 1689 Augsburg?  The Augsburgers have called and complained about the obvious ongoing discrimination against the War of the League of Augsburg (known as King William’s War to us colonials), one of those petty disputes over rights in a German principality and French aggrandisement under Louis XIV–which has so many obvious parallels to today’s problems, don’t you think?  I mean, isn’t it obvious how a French invasion of small German states applies to today’s problems?  Aren’t the parallels between the Sun King and Saddam Hussein just jumping out at you?  No?  Why not?  You must want to submit to the Islamobourbons! 

Now presumably Secretary Rice meant that you cannot actually go back and alter events in the past, which is true.  Who would know this better than the “student of history”?  But Rice shows that you can abuse history to no end and still claim to be a student of history–apparently in all seriousness. 

But Robinson is late to the game if he has only just now discovered Rice’s Iraq-is-the-new-civil-rights-movement argument.  (One might like to think that the fantastically obvious glaring differences between predominantly nonviolent protest for political change inside an existing democratic political order and a war of aggression to overthrow a foreign despotism would stop Rice short, but it doesn’t–after all, it’s always 1938, unless it’s 1963 in Birmingham.) This has been at the heart of her stump speeches since almost the start of the war, offering us such pearls of wisdom as this selection from her 7 Aug 2003 speech:

Like many of you, I grew up around the home-grown terrorism of the 1960s. I remember the bombing of the church in Birmingham in 1963, because one of the little girls that died was a friend of mine. Forty years removed from the tragedy I can honestly say that Denise McNair and the others did not die in vain. They — and all who suffered and struggled for civil rights — helped reintroduce this nation to its founding ideals. And because of their sacrifice we are a better nation — and a better example to a world where difference is still too often taken as a license to kill.

Knowing what we know about the difficulties of our own history, let us always be humble in singing freedom’s praises. But let our voice not waver in speaking out on the side of people seeking freedom. And let us never indulge the condescending voices who allege that some people are not interested in freedom or aren’t ready for freedom’s responsibilities. That view was wrong in 1963 in Birmingham and it is wrong in 2003 in Baghdad.

The desire for freedom transcends race, religion and culture — as countries as diverse as Germany, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey have proved. 

This is how she, the black woman from Birmingham come to Washington, makes the war in Iraq not just the grandiose project of advancing the “freedom agenda” but also makes it into a particularly personal quest to make sure that Title VII is vigorously enforced from Basra to Sulamaniyeh…or something like that.  No one will be denied accommodations or employment on the basis of race in the bombed-out marketplaces of Baghdad–no, siree.   

In spite of having apparently missed this long-running theme in Rice’s self-indulgent rhetoric, Robinson makes a couple solid observations:

In her interview with Couric, Rice went on to argue that critics of the administration’s Middle East policies are like the racists who contended that black Americans were not ready to participate in democracy because they were “kind of childlike” and couldn’t handle the vote. But that’s a bizarre analogy. The last stand by white racists against integration and voting rights for African Americans wasn’t about patronizing attitudes some whites might have held — it was about power. It was about the knowledge that blacks were not just ready but also determined to exercise the right to vote.

She makes it sound as if those who disagree with the administration are standing in the schoolhouse door. But no one wants to deny Iraqis or anyone else the chance to practice democracy. The question is whether democracy should, or can, be imposed at the point of a gun.  

Yes, you see, if you oppose a war that kills tens of thousands of foreign people, you hate those people and think them inferior and inherently incapable of self-government.  If you support that war and believe that all the Ay-rab understands is force–because you, unlike the Arabs themselves, understand the depths of “the Arab mind”–then you are an enlightenened and benevolent friend of those people.    

Frankly, if it makes any difference to those inclined to believe the Secretary, the civil rights movement/Iraq analogy is actually insulting to black Americans, who were not typically likely to empower parties with armed militias that would be engaged in ethnic and sectarian mass killings.  There is also the small problem that black Americans in the 1960s were, well, Americans and partook of the same cultural and political inheritance that made representative government possible here.  To be blunt, Nuri al-Maliki isn’t really anything like Medgar Evers, now, is he?  The Iraqis, whatever else you might want to say in favour of them, have had no such advantages and have been doing all of this more or less from scratch; in practise, they have shown their preference to side with people like themselves (which is perfectly normal) and to vote in the interests of their ethnic or religious community, and these communities have their allegiances to the exclusion of the “nation” or the government.  This is not really a knock on the Iraqis, who are failing just as any other people would fail to adapt to a political system that is totally alien to their history and culture (we would likely make a mess of Byzantine ceremonial rites and Chinese court protocol), but it is simply an observation that such habits are highly unlikely to produce successful mass democracy in a heterogenously populated  nation-state that lacks any real political consensus. 

Real students of history know these things.  Professional liars–and what are diplomats if not that?–do not, and more importantly they don’t care that they don’t know it.  They will say whatever they need to say to make the deal or sell the policy.  Mix that ingrained dishonesty with fanatical, moralistic self-righteousness, such as this “we are fighting the new KKK” sort of argument, and you have a very nasty, dangerous cocktail on your hands.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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