Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Glib Historical Analogies Department

Nobody of course beats Professor Newt Gingrich when it comes to slinging the glib historical analogy. The other day, while making his pre-pre-pre-presidential-candidacy announcement, Gingrich declared that 2012 will be a historical turning point of momentous proportions without parallels in American history — save for two other occasions when the nation faced a great crisis, and a great leader came forth in its moment of need.

These, Newt says, were 1932 (when FDR was elected) and 1860 (when Abraham Lincoln was).

To those who are now scratching their heads trying to discover any similarity between Newt Gingrich's life, career, values, ideologies, and positions and those of FDR or Lincoln, let me save you the trouble: You are over-analyzing the matter. The point is that if 2012 is 1932, then Newt is FDR. QED.

Newt also has been peddling his newfound salvation as a convert to Catholicism (good thing he got those first two messy divorces out of the way before completing the process) by pushing a "documentary" film about Pope John Paul II he and his wife made. With his newfound expertise on the subject, Newt recently declared to an audience at a screening of his film at a Catholic school in Ohio that “to a surprising degree, we are in a situation similar to Poland’s" under communism. Just as in Poland, Newt explained, "in America, religious belief is being challenged by a cultural elite trying to create a secularized America, in which God is driven out of public life.”

It certainly is surprising, since under Poland's communist regime the state in the 1950s assumed legal authority over all religious organizations, imprisoned 8 bishops and 1,000 priests, raided convents, and sought to destroy the church altogether. Though in fact by 1981, when John Paul visited Poland, the embattled communist regime actually turned to the church in an effort to save itself; recognizing the moral authority that the church held over the public, the government asked the church to mediate between the government and the Solidarity labor movement. (And exactly how is the apparatus of a totalitarian state a "cultural elite"? But now I'm over-analyzing. The point is that Newt is either Pope John Paul II, or Lech Walensa, except that Newt opposes labor unions. Or something.)

Events of late in the Arab world have been an especially fertile source of glib historical analogies. Leaving aside Glenn Beck's apocalyptic revelations about a liberal plot for the revival of the Muslim Caliphate, we have been hearing that Egypt is either exactly like Iran in 1979 or Iraq in 2003, that the West is or is not trying to be like Lawrence of Arabia, that Obama is Jimmy Carter or George W. Bush or George H. W. Bush.

Most of this is fairly harmless gassing. But some is pernicious, and potentially worse. Nowhere is this more so than in some recent pronouncements on how we should be dealing with the Somali pirates (who killed four American captives last week), with copious analogies drawn to Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Wars of the early 19th century . . .  the moral of the story usually being that when we finally decided to get tough on the Barbary pirates who were preying upon American merchantmen in the Mediterranean, we were able to put an abrupt end to their depredations.

The most serious defect in this analogy is that the Barbary raiders were state actors, while the Somali pirates have flourished precisely because of the collapse of national authority in Somalia. The Barbary Wars are a key backdrop to the American navy's role in the War of 1812, and when I was researching my book Perilous Fight I delved deeply into the whole story, which ended up in fact comprising about the first one-third of the entire book.

Like many writers I had somewhat casually referred to the "Barbary pirates" in my first draft. But the U.S. Navy's historian at the USS Constitution, Margherita Desy, who had very kindly agreed to read my manuscript, quite rightly called me to account for that phrase — making exacty this crucial point that they were not pirates. The North African states like Tripoli were certainly obnoxious in demanding tribute from countries that wanted to pass through their surrounding waters, and in capturing ships and holding prisoner their crews from nations that refused. But their corsairs flew the flag of the state; they were operating under the authority and power of the local pashas; and Tripoli even formally declared war against the United States at one point to demand additional tribute.

The fact that they were state actors above all meant that putting military pressure on the state was a completely and directly effective solution to the problem. The difficulty America faced was not that it faced a particularly complex social, political, tribal, warlord-ridden, law enforcement situation; the problem was that America had practically no navy at all. "Had we 10 or 12 frigates and sloops in these seas," wrote Captain William Bainbridge despairingly from the Mediterannean, "we should not experience these mortifying degradations."

As soon as the War of 1812 ended, the U.S. Navy set sail at once for the Mediterranean with the first truly powerful force it had ever been able to deploy there, swept up the fleet of the dey of Algiers, and dictated the terms of a complete, and completely effective, peace treaty all within a few months.

By contrast, Somalia has no government to pressure, no government to negotiate with, no government capable of securing the good behavior of the pirates operating from its shores even were a government to exist and to agree to terms. It is a frightfully complex problem with no simple military solutions.

People often bemoan the extraordinarily short historical memory of Americans, but I think that is actually begging the question. I always think of Montaigne's wisecrack about Socrates being told that a certain man had grown no better for his travels: "I very well believe it," Socrates replied, "for he took himself along with him."

Historical lessons are no better than the acuity of the analysis that produces them. For most, alas, history even when it is recognized is little more than a source of magical thinking and wishful thinking, and affirmation of prejudice, of the kind that Newt Gingrich for one is depressingly adept at.