Political Animal


THE LESSONS OF HISTORY….By coincidence, right after I finished my history lesson below, I got an email from Randy Paul of Beautiful Horizons pointing me to this Washington Post article:

“The earliest vivid memory in my life,” said Kazuo Matsubayashi, “is the day my father was arrested on January 7th, 1943.”

….The internment of Japanese Americans? No. Matsubayashi was recalling a shameful and forgotten chapter in American history. From 1942 onward, the United States abducted some 3,000 people of Japanese, Italian and German ancestry from Latin America, shipped them to the United States and placed them in internment camps. These prisoners were never charged with crimes.

This is why I think it’s important not to romanticize the past: it prevents us from learning from our mistakes. Yes, interning those people was wrong, but it’s different today. Don’t you understand that the world is a far more dangerous place than it was in our parents’ day?

No it’s not. And if in hindsight something was wrong 60 years ago, it’s also wrong today.


NOSTALGIC FOR THE 50s?….Just a quick comment on history and foreign relations. How often recently have we seen a statement something like this:

What distinguishes the North Korean crisis from any other is the nature of North Korea. The U.S. isn’t dealing with a rational adversary as with the Soviet Union in the Cuban missile crisis.

This nostalgia for the good ‘ol days of nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union is charming in its own way, I suppose, and is surely proof that we really did win the Cold War. But we’ve also lost our collective memory about it and this occasionally makes me miss graying pundits like David Broder, who were actually alive back then and know what it was like.

So, a quick history lesson: back in the 50s and 60s, when all this stuff was actually happening, nobody thought the Soviet Union was just a big, furry ? and rational ? teddy bear. Krushchev was the guy who banged his shoe on the lectern at the UN while promising to bury us, and risked global annihilation by sending nuclear missiles to Cuba. The Soviets invaded Hungary, they invaded Czechoslovakia, and they had two million troops massed behind the Iron Curtain. Schoolkids were taught to duck and cover because an ICBM from Kamchatka might be headed our way any minute. Sputnik was a terrifying example of Soviet superiority in science, raising the spectre of Russian space platforms stocked with nuclear missiles staring implacably down on us 24 hours a day. Lyndon Johnson ran television ads suggesting that nuclear war was right around the corner if you voted for Barry Goldwater. People were scared.

For some reason, every generation loses the ability to appreciate the emotional impact of events from the previous generation. They become merely words in history books, and the players seem somehow like misguided little children making silly mistakes that, really, are sort of obvious in hindsight, aren’t they?

Don’t fall for it. North Korea and Iraq are not the first dangerous countries we have encountered, 2003 is not the first year we have had to worry about nuclear weapons in dangerous hands, and Kim Jong-il and Saddam Hussein are not the first thuggish dictators we have had to face.

In fact, when you get right down to it I’ll take Kim Jong-il over Joseph Stalin any day. Anyone who thinks different is invited to read a biography of Uncle Joe ? pretty much any one should do ? and then report back. 2003 will suddenly seem a lot brighter.

NOSTALGIC FOR THE 80s?….Atrios today

NOSTALGIC FOR THE 80s?….Atrios today recommends that you read Haynes Johnson’s Sleepwalking Through History, an “often ignored” history of the Reagan years. Well, it’s a good book, but good books are often ignored because, well, for starters they’re books, and for finishers they might be just a tad on the bland and dull side

So instead here’s my recommendation for all you fast-paced, attention deficit disordered, video-game-playing, image-oriented, media savvy consumers out there: Paul Slansky’s The Clothes Have No Emperor: A Chronicle of the American 80s. Technically, it’s a book, but it’s a big, colorful book with lots of pictures, a fun quizzes after every chapter, and chunks of text that are never longer than a hundred words each. Sort of the Classics Illustrated version of the 80s. You’ll get stuff like this:

  • 10/11/82: “You can’t drink yourself sober, you can’t spend yourself rich, and you can’t pump the prime without priming the pump. You know something? I said that backwards….You can’t prime the pump without pumping the prime…”

  • 10/5/84: Larry Speakes is asked if President Reagan has read the House report on the latest Beirut truck bombing. “I don’t think he’s read the report in detail,” he says. “It’s five-and-a-half pages, double spaced.”

  • 1/20/87: Robert “Bud” McFarlane goes on Nightline to separate himself from the decison to bring the Iranians a cake. “Simply put, there was a cake on the mission,” he says. “I didn’t buy it, bake it, cook it, eat it, present it or otherwise get involved with it….The cake was the product of a spontaneous idea of Col. North….I didn’t get involved with it.”

Ah, doesn’t this make you wistful for reruns of Cosby and Gary Hart? Doesn’t it make you want to jump up out of your seat and make a contribution to the “Let’s Put Ronald Reagan on Mount Rushmore” campaign? You know it does.

Unfortunately, Slansky’s book is out of print, so unless you like to prowl around used bookstores maybe you ought to read Sleepwalking Through History after all. Sorry about that.

Oh, and The 50s is a good book too. A very underrated decade, that.

UPDATE: Zizka points out that if you don’t feel like slogging through local used bookstores you can buy Slansky’s book online. It’s available from both BookFinder and Abebooks for a few bucks.