The Long View 2003-06-04: Alternative History

In this post, John discusses two books with the same title: Empire. As I noted, imperialism was a fascination with John, so this should not be surprising. What really made this post was the authors of the two books were put together into one interview on NPR. Regrettably, this combination did not nick.

Eventually, John was able to add a third book review for a book named Empire to his site. The third one was a lackluster effort by Orson Scott Card, detailing an American civil war in the time of troubles leading up to the formation of the universal state. We won't get to that one for a few years yet.

Alternative History
Regular visitors to my site will know that two widely discussed books called Empire have appeared in recent years. The first, published in 2000, is by the postmodern Marxists, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. To the extent they will let themselves be understood, the authors critique globalization with an eye toward a future that would not be just post-capitalist, but post-human. The review is here. Niall Ferguson's Empire, which came out just last year, argues that what the world really needs is a new British Empire; here's the review. What we have here is a difference of perspective. Brian Lehrer of WNYC had the sense to invite them both onto the same talkshow: the joint interview aired yesterday.
The exchange did not sparkle. Ferguson confined himself to talking about history. He confessed that he found the Hardt & Negri book difficult to understand. The interesting thing was that Hardt apparently did so, too, though the book's thesis is so elusive that maybe he did not think it worthwhile to try to explain in a 45-minute segment. In any case, as far as I know, Hardt never claimed to have been much more than Negri's translator.
Neither mentioned Toynbee, by the way. Not once.
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You have to go back to the 1930s to find the last time when only the very best people were paranoid about the president, at that time about FDR. Richard Nixon had his detractors across the social spectrum. The demonization of President Klinton in the 1990s, though it had a large audience, was terribly downmarket. (I believe that spelling comes from a Simpsons episode, by the way, in which Bill Clinton is secretly replaced by an extraterrestrial.) The quality of people with anti-Bush-mania is much higher, if you consider academics a superior sort of person. James Traub put the phenomenon nicely in a New York Times Sunday Magazine piece, Weimar Whiners:
Have you heard that it's 1933 in America? God knows I have. Three times in the last few weeks I have been told -- by a novelist, an art historian and a professor of classics at Harvard, none of them ideologues or cranks -- that the erosion of civil liberties under the Bush administration constitutes an early stage, or at least a precursor, to the kind of fascism Hitler brought to Germany. I first heard the 1933 analogy a few months back, when one of the nation's leading scholars of international law suggested at a meeting of diplomats that Bush's advisers were probably plotting to suspend the election of 2004.
The piece goes on to itemize the several reasons this is nonsense, and ends with the ringing endorsement of democracy: "When will the left learn that this is not simply a nation of dimwitted yahoos?" This is all well enough, but I suspect that the Bush Administration's most ardent opponents don't believe those things literally. That's why they are so angry; they are just losing policy debate after policy debate, and they don't know how to stop losing. The anti-Bush sentiment does have real effects, however, in that it leads those who suffer from it to jump to the worse possible conclusion about anything the Administration does, long before the evidence is in. This is, in fact, part of the secret to the Administration's success: the opposition often appears unbalanced.
We are seeing some of this effect in connection with the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In the course of just a few days, it seems, the consensus in the prestige media has become that there has been no Iraqi WMD program since 1991, and that the Administration knew this perfectly well. Some of the more foolish members of Congress are insisting on hearings. The odds are that those hearings will find themselves reviewing newly discovered evidence of an extensive WMD program, one that was designed to be invisible to any inspection the UN could do.
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Speaking of people who make unnecessary trouble for themselves, Jeffrey Rosen also had an article in the Times Sunday Magazine, How I Learned to Love Quotas. In that piece, he explains why he changed his mind about race-conscious affirmative action, which he now supports. The context is the case before the Supreme Court about the admissions practices of Michigan University. This is a matter about which the academic establishment is even more irate than it is about the Bush Administration. A whole service industry has been built to create ethnic diversity on campus; in university parlance, the term "diverse" has become almost interchangeable with "good." Perhaps for that reason, Rosen seems to have abandoned his constitutional scruples, and now argues on purely pragmatic grounds:
If the Supreme Court bans affirmative action, the political pressure to achieve racial diversity will force universities to lower academic standards across the board, damaging the schools more than affirmative action could.
The astonishing thing is that this piece appears in The New York Times, the former employer of Jayson Blair. The Blair incident simply made undeniable what regular readers of the Times have known for years: that the paper was no longer credible on an increasing range of issues, and that this was due chiefly to the paper's diversity ideology. I think we can say without equivocation that the Times would be much better off today had it never instituted any systematic affirmative action program, even if that meant a much whiter newsroom. It is a measure of the continuing ideological blindness at the Times that it could run an article like Rosen's without seeing the irony.
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Finally, I would like to make an argument for a point of usage. Again, regular readers will know that I have a large section on my website devoted to counterfactual history (I just did a review of Robert Sobel's For Want of a Nail). There are several terms for this activity. Niall Ferguson uses "Virtual History"; others use "Alternate History." I gather that I am in a minority, because I use "Alternative History." Nonetheless, it seems to me that "alternative" in this context is better than "alternate." The word "alternate" implies just two possibilities, as in "alternating current." "Alternative," in contrast, suggests a range of possibilities that is wonderfully diverse.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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