Volume III, Issue 1 -- February, 2002
George's History Lesson
a brief note
The American president enjoyed an overwhelming amount of popular domestic support by the end of 2001, in large part attributable to what was perceived as his leadership after the September terrorist attacks. The junior Bush -- perhaps not a stupid man, but certainly not a man anyone would mistake for an intellectual -- seems to have gotten by well enough throughout his life without being bookish. He apparently does not read a great deal, either for pleasure or for profit -- an attitude that seems to play well in the heartland. The complete review, of course, finds there is much to be gained by reading widely, so we are somewhat concerned by this head of state's indifference -- to books in particular (and intellectualism in general).
The New York Times recently (in the issue of 9 January 2002, in an article by Richard L. Berke) reported that over the course of 2001 Karl Rove "summoned several leading historians to the White House to meet with staff members, and often the president" and that he also gave "Mr. Bush several history books to read, and they chatted about them". It sounds like a heartening instance of the administration trying to gain a larger, broader perspective. But how heartening is it ?
Among the "historians" who were invited were Joseph J. Ellis and Stephen E. Ambrose. Mr. Ellis notoriously puffed up his résumé, claiming to have served in Vietnam when in fact he hadn't. He apparently believed this made him more credible as an historian -- though surely nothing an historian who goes so far as to lie about his personal history says could ever be considered believable. Mr. Ambrose recently acknowledged having copied phrases and sentences from Thomas Childers' book The Wings of Morning and using them without proper attribution in his own bestseller, The Wild Blue (and has since been credited with numerous other misappropriations in several of his other books). A liar and a thief, in other words -- at least that's what they are in our opinion. With "intellectuals" and "scholars" like this, no wonder anti-intellectualism is carrying the day and isn't particularly influential.
The same article also mentions some of the books Rove recommended to the president -- including James Reston Jr.'s book about the Third Crusade, Warriors of God. Readers are told:"He was sort of dismissive in the beginning of the Saladin book," Mr. Rove said of Mr. Bush. "But then he got into it and told me he enjoyed it."Maybe the president's gut instincts aren't all bad. C.J.Tyerman reviewed the book in the Times Literary Supplement (in the issue of 9 November 2001). He felt that Reston's "approach reeks of a refusal or inability to engage with the past on its own terms". He has nary a positive thing to say about the text, and believes: "Some muddles suggest a feeble grasp of the period." He closes his review saying: "The many textual inconsistencies and egregious errors which have escaped editorial scrutiny should be a matter of shame for Faber."
Books are not per se good, reading not necessarily instructive or beneficial. A culture -- or an individual -- which can't differentiate between what is good and bad -- because it is not a bookish culture, because scholarship is no longer judged by its rigour, because style is valued more than content -- will find itself at sea, without support. Where intellectualism undermines itself (by aiming for popularity rather than truth) anti-intellectualism flourishes -- as, perhaps, well it should.
Tyerman writes in his review of Reston's book:If knowledge of the past is increasingly transmitted through such popular works, they possess power that cannot be ignored or lightly worn.It is a warning that should be heeded. If this is the kind of book given to the most powerful man in the world, and if he is reading it to enrich his understanding of history, culture, and tradition -- and if he perhaps then plans to apply the lessons he learns here to the world as he now sees it ... well, that probably won't work out well.
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