History repeating: Chamberlain, or Churchill?

August 31, 2006

Santayana’s warning to the ill-educated rests, sometimes uneasily, at the opening of this blog — a warning to get history, and get history right.

Presidents in sticky situations have occasionally suggested their domestic critics were less than patriotic.  Some claim the current administration has made this a standard claim against almost all criticism of foreign policy.  In speeches to the American Legion meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, both Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President George Bush criticized their critics.  (Here’s the transcript of Rumsfeld’s remarks, from Stars & Stripes; here is the transcript of Bush’s remarks from Salt Lake City’s Deseret News.)

Here are Rumsfeld’s words that sent so many to their history books; Rumsfeld said:

It was a time when a certain amount of cynicism and moral confusion set in among Western democracies. When those who warned about a coming crisis, the rise of fascism and nazism, they were ridiculed or ignored. Indeed, in the decades before World War II, a great many argued that the fascist threat was exaggerated or that it was someone else’s problem. Some nations tried to negotiate a separate peace, even as the enemy made its deadly ambitions crystal clear. It was, as Winston Churchill observed, a bit like feeding a crocodile, hoping it would eat you last.

There was a strange innocence about the world. Someone recently recalled one U.S. senator’s reaction in September of 1939 upon hearing that Hitler had invaded Poland to start World War II. He exclaimed:

“Lord, if only I had talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided!”

I recount that history because once again we face similar challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism. Today — another enemy, a different kind of enemy — has made clear its intentions with attacks in places like New York and Washington, D.C., Bali, London, Madrid, Moscow and so many other places. But some seem not to have learned history’s lessons.

(Someone has already wondered whether Rumsfeld got the quote right, and to what senator it might be blamed; Idaho’s Sen. William Borah is the likely candidate, according to The American Prospect.)

Rumsfeld’s example should get your blood heated up, if not boiling.  Problem is, according to Keith Olberman, part of the example should cut against Rumsfeld:  It was Neville Chamberlain’s government who criticized Winston Churchill as being in error.  Had the government only listened to the dissenters, many lives might have been saved, the war shortened, etc., etc.  Olberman’s opinion is worth reading through to the end, and it’s available at Crooks and Liars.

Sometimes it’s necessary to know more than the history; it’s necessary to know literature, too.  “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” wrote Sir Walter Scott.

Tip o’ the old scrub brush to Pharyngula.


School support for culture; nudes in museums

August 31, 2006

One lament I have heard my entire life is that schools “no longer support our culture.”  It’s an interesting complaint, upon analysis.

Most often, in my experience, the complaint comes from rather conservative quarters, often right-wing, and the lament is specific to some part of history that the complainer wants taught differently, or specific to some toleration of music, art, or fashion that the complainer wishes would end.  Around Dallas we have two controversies at the moment.  In one, the Dallas City Council is considering a law banning sagging pants.  In another, a parent has complained that the parent’s child saw a nude at the Dallas Museum of Art.

The two issues may appear unconnected, but they are not, really.  They both revolve around the issue of what culture is, and what culture is valuable enough to pursue, study, and teach in elementary and secondary schools.

The Dallas Morning News sized up the art museum flap, correctly in my view, with an editorial this morning, saying that one should expect to see art when one attends an art museum, and that’s okay. 

It should not surprise anyone that the DMA displays paintings and sculptures that depict the naked human figure. This has been done in Western art since antiquity. This is our cultural heritage. What we have here in this parental complaint is a failure to discriminate between art and pornography.

The distinction is, of course, famously difficult to pin down, but part of a young person’s cultural education is learning to distinguish precisely that difference. For example, the only thing that Michelangelo’s David has in common with a sleazy shot from a porn magazine is that they both depict a naked man. One exalts; the other degrades. Context matters. Artistic intent and execution matter. Using one’s brain and not jerking one’s knee matter.

It is to be expected that some people will not appreciate the distinction. It is also to be expected that educators will firmly and unambiguously defend field trips to art museums, of all places.

It’s not clear where Frisco school officials stand. They should speak up. Over 20,000 Frisco ISD students and their teachers shouldn’t have their artistic and cultural education chilled or constrained by parents who don’t understand the difference between Rodin and raunch – and by a principal too mousy to resist them.

It’s still legal to display the flag of Colorado in a Texas classroom. 


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