History Lessons at the New York Times

History Lessons at the New York Times

Nick Danforth: History Lessons at the New York Times

For anyone who thinks the study of history can offer crucial insights into contemporary problems, the New York Times appears committed to proving that it can offer banal, simplistic, or misleading insights as well. Every couple weeks the editors of the paper’s op-ed page run an article in which some sort of respectable professor tries to use the past to explain the present. More often than not, they do so by offering a smattering of facts, anecdotes, and historical examples in service of a crude, marginally relevant generalization. In a similar spirit, consider these highlights from the past few months.

“German Austerity’s Lutheran Core.” Steven Ozment, August 11, 2012

The Germans are not Nazis but good, responsible Protestants who will deal with the Eurocrisis accordingly:

With the steady advance of Islam into Europe over the last two decades and in the face of unrelenting economic pressure from their neighbors, it is no surprise that Germans of all backgrounds have now again quietly found “a mighty fortress” for themselves in their own Judeo-Christian heritage.

“London Struts on the World Stage.” Sergei Lobanov Rostovsky, July 26, 2012

The British love a good pageant, whether hosting the Olympics during tough economic times in the twenty-first century or going to war with France in the fifteenth:

The British can no longer conquer the world with yeomen’s cries of “God for Harry! England and Saint George!” but the world still tunes in to watch their spectacles with fascination. And more important, so do the British. These spectacles allow them to regain their composure after a season of bad news, but also to compose themselves as the Great Britain we know so well, turning the well-worn face of majesty to the world once more.

“Don’t Blame the Movie, but Don’t Ignore It Either.” Stephen Marche, July 26, 2012

Americans, meanwhile, love killing each other at the theater. Or at least have done so three times in the last 200 years:

The connection between the violence onstage and off was even closer for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the original spectacular murder in American history. John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln during the play “Our American Cousin,” firing immediately after the line that always got the biggest laugh: “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal—you sockdologizing old man-trap!” Booth’s choice of that moment to shoot the president must have been significant. Was Lincoln the man-trap, or Booth? Was the Civil War the man-trap? Or was it all just coincidence? Maybe Booth chose that moment to shoot just for the cover of the big laugh.

“A Confucian Constitution for China.” Jiang Qing and Daniel Bell, July 10, 2012

China needs a government in keeping with its longstanding Confucian traditions, perhaps a tricameral legislature complete with a House of Exemplary Persons:

The leader of the House of Exemplary Persons should be a great scholar. Candidates for membership should be nominated by scholars and examined on their knowledge of the Confucian classics and then assessed through trial periods of progressively greater administrative responsibilities—similar to the examination and recommendation systems used to select scholar-officials in the imperial past. The leader of the House of the Nation should be a direct descendant of Confucius; other members would be selected from descendants of great sages and rulers, along with representatives of China’s major religions. Finally, members of the House of the People should be elected either by popular vote or as heads of occupational groups.

“How Greece Squandered Its Freedom.” Nikos Konstandaras, June 14, 2012

Greeks can be inventive or lazy, disciplined or deluded. This bipolar national character explains how they could heroically resist the Germans in the Second World War but also how they lost Constantinople to the Turks 500 years earlier:

Maybe when the volcano rumbles, when the thugs come for our neighbor, when a society gives up the fight for progress, the familiarity of our routines numbs us to the dust and roar of the coming stampede. Maybe we do not think bad things will happen to us. Maybe that’s what the people of Constantinople felt before it fell to the Ottomans in 1453, or the Greeks who were swept out of Asia Minor in 1922, or the innocents sucked into the civil war of 1946-49.

“Bankers at the Gates.” Peter Frankopan, May 24, 2012

The Greek debt crisis is like the Fourth Crusade, when European knights sacked and looted Constantinople in 1204. Now Germany is Venice, Athens is Constantinople, and Baldwin of Flanders is a classic IMF appointee. Needless to say, Eurobankers are the rampaging crusaders.

The way Europe has behaved over the current Greek crisis is scarcely less shameful than the way those crusaders behaved all those centuries ago. If nothing else, that dark spot on the West’s historical record should be a warning to the bankers and politicians who would rather watch Greece fall apart than take responsibility for their own profligacy.

To be fair, the Times occasionally finds someone who uses history well. Spencer Fluhman’s June 3 op-ed “Why We Fear Mormons,” for example, is effective—in part because it limits itself to a topic and time span for which some degree of generalization is possible.

Still, if the past is any guide, there is more absurdity to come. Perhaps U.S.-Chinese competition will turn out like the Punic Wars, with Mitt Romney, aircraft carriers, and the Pacific replacing Hannibal, elephants, and the Alps. Or perhaps the real comparison is between Julius Caesar and Silvio Berlusconi, since neither one rules from Rome anymore. In any case, the Grey Lady might best be compared to Ghengis Khan, spreading a swath of questionable historical analogies across Europe and Asia.