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instructions from Superman's dad
August 29, 2014 9:26 AM   Subscribe

"But not doing things too disastrously is not some minimal achievement; it is a maximal achievement, rarely managed." Does it help to know history?
posted by theodolite (46 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
I like it.

Admittedly, at first I thought the reference to "Superman's dad" advice was going to be some variation of Man of Steel's "STOP, INVINCIBLE SON".
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:46 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


The real sin that the absence of a historical sense encourages is presentism, in the sense of exaggerating our present problems out of all proportion to those that have previously existed.
Amen, brother.
posted by yoink at 9:51 AM on August 29 [9 favorites]


No son, stand there and let me risk my life for the dog.

At least Spider-Man had the decency to feel guilty for years and work hard not to take life. Superman, not so much. I wonder if AP history classes would have given him a greater affinity for life?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:51 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


But the best argument for reading history is not that it will show us the right thing to do in one case or the other, but rather that it will show us why even doing the right thing rarely works out

And the lesson is, never try
posted by just another scurvy brother at 9:57 AM on August 29 [3 favorites]


The problem with Gopnick's essay is that are examples in history of nations and political leaders acting decisively and "correctly", notably the concerted effort to win World War II, and, after that, the Marshall Plan.

President Obama is supposed to base his foreign policy on the maxim, "Don't Do Stupid Shit". That acknowledges, as Gopnick suggests, that it is impossible to control events.

But some stupid shit has happened (notably the "red line" and Syria's WMD) that have weakened American moral authority.
posted by Nevin at 10:03 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


We will not lose our credibility by failing to sacrifice a generation of our young men. Our credibility lies, exactly, in their continued happy existence.

Many measly compromises would have had to be made by the British; many challenges postponed; many opportunities for aggressive, forward action shirked—and the catastrophe, which set the stage and shaped the characters for the next war, would have been avoided. That is historical wisdom, the only wisdom history supplies.
I think the point here is well-taken, but he is engaging in some historical cherrypicking of his own, as well. One could, and some frequently do, point to "appeasement" during the run-up to that other war with Germany, a few years later, as the end-product of exactly the same sort of minimally-interventionist thinking that he's espousing.

Looking back, certainly we can see that the First World War was an almost-unmitigated disaster, and that there are few humiliations that would have been too big to bear to prevent it.

But, having absorbed that lesson, the Great Powers also decided to let fascism fester in Europe, and failed to act when a small amount of decisive action might have prevented the horrors that followed.

Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, as they say. But you can easily find examples of impulsive action leading to catastrophe, and of reticence to act leading to catastrophe. Inaction is also action.

It seems to me that the real lesson is that we tend to overcorrect, oscillating from one extreme to another as we base our decisions on the lesson most recently seared into our collective consciousness in blood. Decisiveness, thoughtfulness; rashness, hesitation. Back and forth. It's easy enough to pick out historical examples for either side.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:14 AM on August 29 [8 favorites]


You know what weakened America's moral authority, economy, and military? Invading Iraq based on lies about WMD. You know who was successful at destroying Syrian chemical weapons? Obama.
posted by vibrotronica at 10:15 AM on August 29 [7 favorites]


One could, and some frequently do, point to "appeasement" during the run-up to that other war with Germany, a few years later, as the end-product of exactly the same sort of minimally-interventionist thinking that he's espousing.

But that appeasement was based on the idea that Chamberlain, et al. knew what would happen as a result. Appease Germany, this ends the conflict, and we're done. Obviously, that's not how it worked out. WWII proves Gopnik's point all over again: on this kind of scale, you can never reliably predict what will happen next, especially when we're talking about using history to justify new actions of your own, be those actions appeasement or attack.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:22 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


Yes but Obama is a "failed presidency", according to the 1% crowd - further confirmation he is the best President in recent times.
posted by stbalbach at 10:23 AM on August 29 [4 favorites]


Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, as they say.

Yes, but that's not something to be waved aside lightly. I mean, WWII, sure--yay! But for every "just war" with a compelling "prevented more harm than it caused" you can list dozens upon dozens where the cost/benefit analysis is much, much murkier. I don't think Gopnik's point is "do nothing" or "don't try to make anything better." I think it's much more "be realistic about the fact that unintended consequences are extraordinarily difficult to constrain."

In essence, I think he's making a version of Isaiah Berlin's argument, which I always find immensely compelling and morally wise: that we should never let shining visions of some platonic, ideal future sway us into the belief that the ends justifies the means. Because in the end, if we're planning to drop so many tons of explosives on a bunch of people pretty much the only thing we can be absolutely sure of is that a bunch of people who are currently alive will end up dead and horribly injured. The Brave New World we hope will emerge as a result of that act is a very, very chancy proposition.

I think the take away is not--to my mind--an absolute pacifism (although I can respect that option). It is simply that you should not intervene except in cases where you can see pretty short-to-medium term benefits from your actions. So you don't invade Iraq because you have a grand vision of a democratic Middle East where everyone will love you--because that's nuts. But you do, say, intervene in Rwanda when the cost of failing to do so is so readily apparent.
posted by yoink at 10:24 AM on August 29 [21 favorites]


Nice article, well-written and to the point. I especially liked this:

History, well read, is simply humility well told, in many manners. And a few sessions of humility can often prevent a series of humiliations.


Think about all the wars various countries have entered into, to avoid losing "credibility".
posted by Triplanetary at 10:24 AM on August 29 [3 favorites]


Re. credibility, Gopnik published this commentary last month, which is also a great read. The key line:
“Credibility” is defined as the willingness to kill a lot of people now for a not very good cause to assure the world that we’ll kill a lot more people if we can find a better one.
posted by theodolite at 10:27 AM on August 29 [19 favorites]


But some stupid shit has happened (notably the "red line" and Syria's WMD) that have weakened American moral authority

I would like to see a rigorous historical analysis that demonstrated that the "moral authority" of a nation had ever played any role in shaping the course of history over the years. For the most part I think appeals to "moral authority" have pretty much exactly the same weight as claims of divine aid. Of all possible reasons to decide to act or not act militarily, to do so because it preserves our "moral authority" (and note, I'm distinguishing that from acting because it is morally right to act--those are different things) strikes me as just about the most asinine.
posted by yoink at 10:28 AM on August 29 [5 favorites]


It's interesting to think about WWII in this context, and the chance that early decisive action would have averted it. Let's say France and the UK had stood up to Hitler early, sent some troops, tried to stop Germany's rearmament, etc.

I think Gopnik's point is that unintended consequences are greater than we think, and that those decisive actions by the Western powers might also have led to horrific outcomes. We tend to assume WWII could have been avoided with just the right mix of policies and actions, but the author says it is almost impossible to know what that mix should be, or that it would work.

In this alternate universe, where the West stood up to Hitler, historians might now be debating whether those decisive actions led to WWII and whether the perfect mix of appeasement and skillful diplomacy would have averted it.
posted by Triplanetary at 10:43 AM on August 29 [5 favorites]


Somewhat ironically, the article actually does accidentally criticize Superman's dad in Man of Steel. (Spoilers ahead.) In Man of Steel, Pa Kent more or less orders Superman to never show his true strength to the world, even when it means missing an opportunity to help other people. His reasoning is that such a revelation could only endanger Superman, let alone other people. Pa Kent later sacrifices himself to save the family dog, holding up his hand to prevent his son from saving him. So, uh, thanks, dad. This is supposed to eventually be meaningful, I guess, in light of the fact that the fight between Superman and General Zod winds up killing thousands of innocent people.

Aside from the lousy storytelling, the problem here is that Pa Kent assumes that only one specific thing will ever happen when Superman reveals his identity in any way. He refuses to believe that this story could play out other than how he pictures it. This is not a million miles removed from the poor judgment of any other ideologue with their own pet teleology. It's barely less absurd, either: at least Pa Kent really did save the dog.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:47 AM on August 29


Yes but Obama is a "failed presidency", according to the 1% crowd - further confirmation he is the best President in recent times.

If this is in reply to my comment above, I'm always surprised that any criticism of President Obama is considered to be partisan and without merit and an utter condemnation of his presidency. It's like critical thinking is not allowed, and we must be politically correct.
posted by Nevin at 10:49 AM on August 29


It's like critical thinking is not allowed, and we must be politically correct.

This is when all the furniture and other household items start cheering because someone said the word of the day, right?
posted by griphus at 11:05 AM on August 29 [10 favorites]


In this alternate universe, where the West stood up to Hitler, historians might now be debating whether those decisive actions led to WWII and whether the perfect mix of appeasement and skillful diplomacy would have averted it.

Well, they did stand up, just...later. I've seen people float the idea that appeasement may have accidentally helped the British. Some say that they would not have been ready to fight Hitler at that point, and/or that the weaknesses in Germany's strategy had developed only within a certain specific context. I couldn't tell you if that's true or not, and I certainly wouldn't credit Chamberlain for having had a good idea either way, but there is a point in there either way: perhaps "standing up to Hitler" at the wrong time, or in the wrong way, could have ended in even greater disaster, whether it was because of something that was different about the Allies at the time, or because of something which would have been different about the Axis had things gone down differently.

Filtered through hindsight, it's very easy to imagine both better and worse ways that the Allies could have handled it. The hard part is managing this sort of thing in the present, to the best of one's abilities, with workable knowledge of the fact that you can never control everything.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:08 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


World War One is an interesting case study, and I've come to the conclusion that, rather than being some sort of accident, it was a nearly inevitable outcome of choices made in the wake of 1848 and 1870.

1848 was the great attempt at a democracy that failed (everywhere except, perhaps, Canada), leaving Europe in the hands of aristocratic empires which focused on the dilemma of building effective fighting forces while not letting nationalism get out of control in a ways that would lead to more democracy.

The solution was seen in the Prussian rout of France in 1870; all the aristocratic regimes quickly saw that the solution was to copy the Prussian model by making the regiment the center of aspiration and life for their entire populations. The regiment was the place where nationalism could be safely heightening to a fever pitch with no democratic side-effects, with the added advantage of providing huge armies of men willing to blindly follow orders.

There was a great short-term benefit to the men, too, right up until the war, because the regiments became centers of self-improvement and learning and physical fitness and camaraderie. For almost the first time, aristocratic regimes saw the benefit of putting money into building a healthy, happy, productive population.

The long-term result, though, was a Europe filled with super-patriotic men who assumed that any war would be as short and glorious as Prussia's in 1870. It was a room full of gasoline vapour, simply waiting for a spark.

Thus, I think, Gopnick's suggested advice to Lord Grey is naive and wouldn't have made any difference. Only the re-education of a continent could've prevented WWI; if it hadn't come in 1914, it would've come in 1913 or 1916 or 1920 instead.
posted by clawsoon at 11:09 AM on August 29 [7 favorites]


History, well read, is simply humility well told, in many manners. And a few sessions of humility can often prevent a series of humiliations.


Even what went well during the second world war had some humility-enforcing ramifications; arming the Vietnamese to oppose the Japanese served its purposes, but as it turned out it also served its purposes against French colonialism and American/allied Cold War actions.
posted by mr. digits at 11:14 AM on August 29


Only the re-education of a continent could've prevented WWI; if it hadn't come in 1914, it would've come in 1913 or 1916 or 1920 instead.

Maybe. The problem with retroactive claims of "historical inevitability" is that they're untestable. The problem with proactive claims of "historical inevitability" is that they don't seem to succeed any better than chance. That gives us good reason to be suspicious, however, of the retroactive ones.
posted by yoink at 11:14 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


yoink: I would like to see a rigorous historical analysis that demonstrated that the "moral authority" of a nation had ever played any role in shaping the course of history over the years.

Rome set the template in the Western world for surrounding warmaking with "moral authority", with at least two interesting results. First, as Gibbon sarcastically put it, the Romans claimed to have conquered the world in self-defense. They never went to war without moral justification, but somehow they always managed to find a justification.

Second, somebody argued - I forget who - that Hannibal's ultimate failure in Italy may have resulted from the fact that Rome's moral authority did actually carry weight. Even when one Roman army after another had been destroyed, Hannibal was never able to win active support from any other Italian cities; they politely recognized his overlordship, but never did get around to sending any troops to fight against Rome.

That's not the rigorous analysis you're looking for, but it's interesting anyway, I think.
posted by clawsoon at 11:25 AM on August 29 [4 favorites]


yoink: The problem with retroactive claims of "historical inevitability" is that they're untestable. The problem with proactive claims of "historical inevitability" is that they don't seem to succeed any better than chance.

Aye; and yet somehow we have to try to learn from history anyway.
posted by clawsoon at 11:27 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


I am skeptical that poor decisions by a few individuals are the cause of any historical catastrophe, especially something on the scale of WWI. That war was a horrific mousetrap machine that was put into motion decades before the trap was sprung. The people who were nominally in charge could do little to stop it -- see the Willy/Nicky letters.

Even horrific miscalculations like the Battle of the Somme, which would seem to lie on the awful tactical decisions of particular generals -- the kind of general that would make those decisions was put in charge because particular politicians wanted them there, and those politicians were in charge because of certain constituencies and so on -- imagining a more humane general in charge on the day of the battle is really imagining a whole restructuring of society.
posted by empath at 11:28 AM on August 29 [4 favorites]


Rome set the template in the Western world for surrounding warmaking with "moral authority", with at least two interesting results. First, as Gibbon sarcastically put it, the Romans claimed to have conquered the world in self-defense. They never went to war without moral justification, but somehow they always managed to find a justification.

Oh, there's no doubt whatsoever that every empire and every nation on earth claims moral authority. The question is whether there is such a thing as an active "force" of "moral authority" that sways the events of the world. Gibbon, after all, is pretty hilariously ironic about the utter speciousness of most such claims.

Hannibal's ultimate failure in Italy may have resulted from the fact that Rome's moral authority did actually carry weight. Even when one Roman army after another had been destroyed, Hannibal was never able to win active support from any other Italian cities; they politely recognized his overlordship, but never did get around to sending any troops to fight against Rome.


But the problem is distinguishing between a move made out of a recognition of "moral authority" and a move made out of prudential calculation. You don't need to actually believe in Rome's "moral authority" to think "you know what...betting against Rome hasn't been a winner for quite a while, and if we jump into Hannibal's camp and he ends up on the losing side, we're going to have our arses kicked from here to Londinium. Better just sit tight and see who prevails in the long run."
posted by yoink at 11:30 AM on August 29 [3 favorites]


Not to mention that the Carthaginians were Phoenicians, a different ethnic group, different language (not even the same language family), different alphabet, different gods.
posted by empath at 11:34 AM on August 29


" But the best argument for reading history is not that it will show us the right thing to do in one case or the other, but rather that it will show us why even doing the right thing rarely works out."

I'd argue that history can probably be divided straight down the middle between, "Whoa! Just what I planned!" and "Whoa! I didn't expect this!" And even then, those reactions can completely differ over the same events but from different perspectives.
posted by Atreides at 11:43 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


If this is in reply to my comment above

It wasn't. It was in supportive reply to vibrotronica 2 posts prior, but Sticherbeast and I posted about the same time it got out of order.
posted by stbalbach at 11:44 AM on August 29


This is when all the furniture and other household items start cheering because someone said the word of the day, right?

The people that uncritically support Obama are just like the people who uncritically supported Bush. Obama is fallible.
posted by Nevin at 11:46 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


And the lesson is, never try

Did you learn nothing from "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie" at all?
posted by cjorgensen at 11:50 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


yoink: But the problem is distinguishing between a move made out of a recognition of "moral authority" and a move made out of prudential calculation. You don't need to actually believe in Rome's "moral authority" to think "you know what...betting against Rome hasn't been a winner for quite a while, and if we jump into Hannibal's camp and he ends up on the losing side, we're going to have our arses kicked from here to Londinium. Better just sit tight and see who prevails in the long run."

You make a reasonable point, but I'll suggest that the behaviour of an empire's tributaries when the empire is at its most vulnerable is the best measure we've got for its moral authority, as imperfect a measure as it might be. Cortes, for example, had little trouble turning Aztec tributaries into his allies; the Aztec empire had little moral authority, and they were eager to see it wiped out.

The alacrity with which Soviet client states left the Soviet empire from 1989 to 1991 provides another good example of an empire with little moral authority despite potentially overwhelming military power.
posted by clawsoon at 11:58 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


I'll suggest that the behaviour of an empire's tributaries when the empire is at its most vulnerable is the best measure we've got for its moral authority

But then your argument is entirely circular. The evidence you're using for "moral authority" is the alacrity with which they turn against the Empire. You need some independent measure of "moral authority" before you can demonstrate that it played any causal role there.

If I were to say "the favor of the Gods is the sole determining factor" and then was to say "and we can measure the favor of the gods by how quickly the Empire's client states turn against it" I would have constructed exactly the same argument as you have--and it would have exactly the same logical force. I.e.: none.
posted by yoink at 12:05 PM on August 29 [2 favorites]


But then your argument is entirely circular. The evidence you're using for "moral authority" is the alacrity with which they turn against the Empire. You need some independent measure of "moral authority" before you can demonstrate that it played any causal role there.

I think we've got plenty of independent evidence that the moral authority of the Soviet Union was weak, and it's not too much of a stretch to tie it to that empire's rapid collapse.

The other cases are more difficult to rigorously prove one way or the other, I'll admit, given their remoteness in time and the writing of history by the conquerors. I'm still partial to the idea as a rule of thumb, though.
posted by clawsoon at 12:20 PM on August 29


The measure of control over an empire's frontiers that it has is a good metric, but I don't know that I'd call it "moral authority"; it just seems like it's a measure of control over client states. Which is certainly interesting and says something about the empire in question, but I don't think imbuing it with moral weight really adds anything.

Or I guess what yoink said.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:21 PM on August 29 [2 favorites]


I have a lot of criticisms of Obama's policies both foreign and domestic, but compared to Bush, he looks like a goddamned foreign policy genius. Especially because he's spent the last 8 years cleaning up the godawful mess that Bush and the neocons left behind.
posted by vibrotronica at 12:26 PM on August 29 [1 favorite]


I wouldn't say that war is 100% unpredictable, but rather that we often engage in wars without thinking about the consequences and outcomes. Sometimes we engage in wars that have no possible good outcome, given our resources and the circumstances, like Vietnam.

Getting into a war you can't possibly win (there is no good endgame, no matter how lucky you get) is morally wrong. LJB's actions were blamable, but so were the actions of his generals, who went along with it when they should have known better. Millions of Vietnamese people and thousands of American kids paid the price.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:29 PM on August 29


But... political correctness! *shudder*
posted by shakespeherian at 12:29 PM on August 29 [1 favorite]


The measure of control over an empire's frontiers that it has is a good metric, but I don't know that I'd call it "moral authority"; it just seems like it's a measure of control over client states. Which is certainly interesting and says something about the empire in question, but I don't think imbuing it with moral weight really adds anything.

It's only when an empire is weakened, when control of the frontiers is uncertain, that the weight of moral authority will be obvious. If there's firm military control over client states, then you may be able to say little about moral weight. But if client states are eager to cling to a weakened empire, and if that's driven by nostalgia for fairness and prosperity during the empire's heyday, then you've got a reasonable case for "moral authority".

If client states feel like this, on the other hand, then you've got a case for lack of moral authority.
posted by clawsoon at 12:37 PM on August 29 [4 favorites]


yoink: If I were to say "the favor of the Gods is the sole determining factor" and then was to say "and we can measure the favor of the gods by how quickly the Empire's client states turn against it" I would have constructed exactly the same argument as you have--and it would have exactly the same logical force. I.e.: none.

It's interesting that traditional Chinese political theory ties moral authority and the favour of the Gods together in the idea of the "mandate of heaven". Heaven grants its favour to an emperor, the theory says, to the degree that the emperor governs well and fairly. In other words, the actions which lead to moral authority among men (ruling well and fairly) are exactly the same actions that lead to the favour of the Gods.

As a result, the loss of good governance both leads to, and justifies, revolution. Both heaven and earth rebel against an unjust ruler.
posted by clawsoon at 1:05 PM on August 29 [7 favorites]


All that "moral authority" really means in this context is how strong or weak the longer term popular perception of the legitimacy of a government is, isn't it? If so, I don't see how it's a stretch at all to imagine the popular perception of moral authority playing out in a stronger or weaker diplomatic and strategic position. For example, if you have a conscription army made up of soldiers who don't believe their own nation's authority is legitimate, they won't be as effective a fighting force. If you need the help of other regional partners to make it easier to move supply lines through an area, not having moral authority could mean it's more difficult and costly logistically because no one wants to let you through their territory without resistance. Seems to me all the various things summed up under the heading "moral authority" work as a sort of force multiplier, not necessarily a force in itself, but no less a potentially deciding factor in the ultimate outcome.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:43 PM on August 29 [2 favorites]


But it's not really, or at least totally, based on a "good-evil" morality. It's really about what people believe in this or that circumstance, some of which will be based on moral judgments (are you an evil person), others on value-neutral ones (can you kick my ass).

One example is Franco's collaboration, first with the Axis, then with the allies, during WWII. By switching his support, he was able to remain in power. Sweden kept supplying Germany with iron ore, but it didn't have much choice: if it had stopped shipments, the result would have been an invasion.

States only exist inasmuch as people believe they do. Even relatively "moral" ones have to expend a huge amount of effort to keep that belief alive: that's what all those museums, literature courses, civics classes, military ceremonies, monuments, etc. are for.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:59 PM on August 29 [2 favorites]


I tend personally to think of the core question of ethics not so much as being about "good" vs "evil" as "right" versus "wrong." Evil is just wrong writ so large it looks and acts like a monster. I don't know that I really even understand what deeper notion people mean when they talk about "morality." Morality's really just about thinking critically about what choices are best to make when choices are available. That's why economics began as a species of ethics--because it concerns the rules for making choices related to limited resources. I'm not sure I really understand what the more wooly metaphysical conception of morality people seem to use and discuss is...
posted by saulgoodman at 2:09 PM on August 29


Speaking of the lead-up to World War One...

Nearly two decades before the onset of World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II set his imperialistic sights on the Americas. But to establish a presence there, Germany would have to put the U.S. in its place. To that end, it devised not one, but three plans to attack and invade America. Here's how history could have unfolded very differently.
posted by rory at 2:43 PM on August 29 [2 favorites]


saulgoodman, I think you've summed up the case for "moral authority as a real thing" quite well. I can see yoink's point too, though; it's because the moral authority narrative fits together so nicely that we have to be extra vigilant to make sure we're not being taken in by a Just-So story.
posted by clawsoon at 5:47 PM on August 29


At the risk of undermining my own earlier contribution to the thread, and in further support of yoink's suspicion that it might be too easy to see the force of moral authority at work when it's not the most important (or even a) factor, a few similar examples of mistakes by historians come to mind: A related theory of history which ties a nation's success to its moral authority is uncomfortably strong in what we think of as our enlightened age, that being the theory which blames almost everything bad that happens on the gays. Advocates of that theory would also insist that moral authority leads to national success.

I'd like to think that governance which is fair, kind and wise will build up moral authority and lead to an increased chance of success and longevity for a state, a nation, or an empire, but hopefully some of these examples illustrate how dangerously easy it is to misinterpret vast swathes of history because a theory about morality seems simple and sensible.
posted by clawsoon at 9:01 PM on August 29 [2 favorites]


When Clinton was president there was plenty of strife. At the time, nobody was aware of the strife that was not happening, that we would all soon be a party too with Bush. I'm let down by Obama, but suspect it is the same - sure there is lots of strife now, but watch the wheels fall off when somebody less competent takes over.
History occurs, and we are very poor at measuring it as it happens.
posted by bystander at 5:51 AM on August 31


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