The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Lecture Series on the American Civil War

| 41 Comments

My friend Martin Schafer first directed me to this series of podcasts about the American Civil War.  Jen and I have been listening to them together, and have been really impressed.

We just finished #5, so if anyone wants to listen to them and talk about anything up to that point, feel free to do so.

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

41 Comments

  1. After having grown up in northern Virginia at the juncture of many of the great battle fields, steeped in the south but well within the shadow of Washington DC I always find the amount of misunderstanding on both sides of the attitudes and origins of the war astounding. Like any history it is much more nuanced than the prevailing attitudes and boiled down sound bites that the average citizen will think about. The world of 1850 was set on a collision course almost regardless of the issue of slavery, though it certainly added napalm to the embers.

  2. I am reading the transcripts rather than listening, and my overall impression thus far is that he’s using a scattershot approach. For example, in Lecture 3 he devotes a paragraph each to a half dozen examples of defending slavery but without going into any depth on any of them. He mentions or quotes from a single author who presented the particular idea he’s touching on, but immediately goes to another one without having established connections, reactions, public response etc.

    I realize this is just a survey course (I’ve never liked those), but it feels very incomplete, like the sort of thing that will give the students the idea they’ve learned much more than they have.

    In the first three transcripts, he hasn’t gone into any real details for any aspect of any subject. A good example is in Lecture 2, which touched on the concept of Southern honor (wasn’t it Twain who said you could blame the war on Walter Scott?), but only superficially. He watered it down by dragging in Togo, neckties and his Bush impersonation.

    Tangent: A favorite comment on the subject of honorable behavior is an observation about Southern college students in Connecticut in 1835: “[T]hough they had many qualities which some might pronounce ‘gentlemanly’, they hardly possessed any which could be considered as very ‘desirable'”. Everything is a matter of perspective.

  3. I’m finding Blight a knowledgeable and interesting speaker. The lectures are meant to supplement readings, not be the entire learning experience.

  4. Oh, sure, I get the intention. One of the deficiencies of survey courses, especially required courses aimed at first year students, which I assume this is, is to pretend students already have enough background to establish the context of a given question when that context is actually what they need from a well-informed instructor. The overview should be in the reading and the elucidation in the lecture. I have a history degree myself, so I’m familiar with these classes, and I made the gentlest criticism of his approach I could.

    But since I assume the invitation to discuss meant the content (scanty, in my view) and not the framework, and because I have strong feelings about certain approaches to studying, I won’t go on.

  5. Steven – I know this isn’t the right place, exactly, but I published an essay today heavily shaped by discussions on this blog about not letting “isms” get in the way of basic labor solidarity. This one and the followup which will be posted in a few weeks.

    1. I hope you and the other readers here like it.
    2. Thanks to you and the other readers here for pushing my analysis in this direction (I expect it doesn’t go far enough, but, it’s a process).

    https://chroniclevitae.com/news/461-sharecroppers-migrant-workers-adjuncts

    I promise to post a relevant comment next.

  6. I’m a history professor. I’ve long argued that survey courses belong at the END of a students’ major, not for intro courses. Intro is best served by really interesting topical explorations with more depth than breadth, so people can see what depth looks like.

    This is especially true at college, where all the history most highschoolers experience is all survey, often names/dates memorization.

    I do teach a first-semester Freshman survey, as it happens, but I make it a “welcome to college let’s learn how to read” class, in which content serves skills.

    As for these kinds of podcasts – Anything that gets people listening to, or reading, or thinking about history at all makes me happy.

  7. Interesting point about introductions. I like it. It bolsters my argument that “1861:A Northern Awakening” would be a wonderful introductory book.

    As for the podcasts, I’m liking them a lot: while I, in some sense, *know* the material he is covering, he throws things out there that make me go, “Wait, is that true? I need to dig into that.” For example, his contention in #5 that being an Abolitionist in the 1850’s required a willingness to engage in “extralegal” activity. Anyone who gives me that reaction is doing well, by my standards.

  8. skzb

    David: Interesting essay. It took me a while to figure out what an “adjunct” was in that context, but I got there. There are any number of professions where the worker is, in fact, exploited (in the technical sense), but the exploitation is more or less concealed, first by working conditions that appear relatively luxurious, and then by psychological factors. Teachers, computer programmers, scientists, and many others fall into this category. As the crisis of capitalism deepens, and the drive for unfettered profit becomes sharper, one thing that happens is that the illusion of a fundamental difference between a laborer and a “white collar” worker is gradually (or sometimes suddenly) dispelled, resulting in increasing class consciousness among those workers.

  9. “One thing that happens is that the illusion of a fundamental difference between a laborer and a “white collar” worker is gradually (or sometimes suddenly) dispelled, resulting in increasing class consciousness among those workers.”

    Quite – this is the process I’m trying to help along in my small way in this and the next column. Because it turns out when full-timers, contingents, grad students, and staff all see themselves as labor and ally, things get better. Or less worse anyway.

  10. Mr. Perry: “I’ve long argued that survey courses belong at the END of a students’ major, not for intro courses. Intro is best served by really interesting topical explorations with more depth than breadth, so people can see what depth looks like.”

    I wish you could convince colleges of this. I’ve always felt survey courses should serve as a filler, as a way for students to fill in the blanks once they have a grasp of whatever topic they’re studying. They’re a terrible form of introduction.

    “As for these kinds of podcasts – Anything that gets people listening to, or reading, or thinking about history at all makes me happy.”

    I wish I could say that, but millions of people have listened to, read or thought about history as presented to them via Fox News, the Discover Channel and web sites too numerous to list and come away with notions so simplsitic (generally a black and white interpretation of events) and factually wrong that I just can’t get enthused.

  11. skzb: “Anyone who gives me that reaction is doing well, by my standards.”

    Have you gotten to #27 yet? He talks about Bruce Catton and his complete misunderstanding of the Lost Cause ideology, which may be a perfectly valid criticism (I’ve not read the essay he references), but he goes on to imply that there is actually a right way to think about the Civil War, with the further implication any other way is wrong. (“Because by circa 1965 the understanding of the American Civil War in the broad mainstream culture…”), or more generally there is a Right Way to think about history’s effects and thus a Wrong Way. Have you any thoughts on that?

    I have to confess this bit is what soured me on him when I was read these Tuesday.

  12. One of the best courses I had in college was, essentially, a survey course. It was Sociology 101, and covered five schools of thought, as represented by five tomes of varying weight, density, and mass. By focusing on the *concepts* of the five schools of thought, rather than by spending a significant amount of time delving into the fine details of a *specific* school of thought, it gave me a much better appreciation for the subject as a whole. And consequently gave me an entirely different set of tools for understanding, describing, and theorizing about the world.

    Only covering one school of thought would have left me believing that it was the *right* way, which none of them are – although they’re all helpful.

    As such, I think a survey course is a good thing to start college with. Particularly when one is not really sure what one actually *wants* to learn.

    I’m sure CS101 turned a lot of people into English majors despite their best intents to join the proletariat that are banging out the data on the xerox line.

  13. skzb

    Nope, not there yet. I have my own issues with the Lost Cause Ideology (not to take anything away from Catton’s wonderful work, or his excellent writing), so I look forward to it. Arguing that “there is only one way to look at the Civil War and any other way is wrong” is, in my opinion, far less offensive than, “it is all a narrative and we choose based on which one fits our agenda and none is more true than any other.” When I hear his interpretation, I’ll probably disagree with it, which will drive me to dig deeper to prove him wrong. Which means he’s doing his job. Or I might just throw up my hands and scream, “Bullshit!” Or maybe I’ll even agree with him.

    In general, we study history for the same reason we study anything else–to learn how it operates, so we can use that information to change the world in accordance with our wishes. Insofar as he succeeds in uncovering the laws that guide the development of history I approve; to the degree that he obscures them, I don’t. I see no reason why our standards for history should be different from our standards for astronomy, or geology, or physics.

  14. Hey, wait a minute. Maybe it is a narrative. And maybe we tend to choose based on which one fits our agenda. But any narrative is as true as any other?

    What if we tried that reasoning with science fiction. It’s a narrative, and we tend to read stories that fit our agenda. And every SF novel is as beautiful as any other. David Drake and Piers Anthony are just as good as Steven Brust.

    No way!

    It’s clearly true that people often choose their historical narratives for reasons other than truth. Truth does not guarantee acceptance any more than literary quality guarantees commercial success. But that does not at all say that everything is as true as everything else.

  15. J. Lowery: I talked to some co-workers about survey courses, and there was an interesting split. Three of us liked them, two hated them, and the split fell along the lines of who had to take a required class vs. who chose to take them. I and another only took those required for a degree and hated them while the others were major shopping and enjoyed them. I think I can spot the pattern there.

  16. L Raymond: “I wish you could convince colleges of this. I’ve always felt survey courses should serve as a filler, as a way for students to fill in the blanks once they have a grasp of whatever topic they’re studying.”

    Well, I’ve now got a regular column at the Chronicle of Higher Ed and their social media site. This is on my long list of potential topics over the next year. I think a survey of schools of thought might work very differently than a survey of historical content, though one well-organized around cohesive themes can work.

    Any kind of course design /can/ work. It’s the intro survey as default in history to which I object. In general, defaults in course design, rather than intentionality in course design, leads to bad design.

    I do wonder if there’s something specific about history (as opposed to say, biology or psych?). When history wants to be a social science, we pretend there’s a core body of knowledge you have to have first before you can get to the really interesting stuff. When history belongs to the humanities, then it’s about intertwined narratives. And that seems to me (looking at the transcripts of this podcast) what’s going on here. It’s also my kind of history.

  17. The phrase “narrative” itself seems to me almost offensive with respect to history, except I suppose in certain narrow and restricted usages. The idea that real people trying to do real things can be reduced to some superficial storyline is ugly.

    That being said, I grant that it’s easier to understand sequences of events in history within some kind of apparently intentional planned structured system, but that doesn’t mean it’s right to make a storyline out of it — except of course in historical fiction 🙂 The “intentional stance” is often incorrect even with respect to groups of people.

  18. Does Blight sound like Harrison Ford to anyone else?

  19. L.
    If I go to the trouble to call myself “jeff”, perhaps you can extend me the same courtesy.

    And I’ll try very hard not to spell your last name wrong, either. Because I’m polite, and pay attention to names.

    I never said I *wanted* to take Sociology 101. I had to take some credit in some class in that overly broad department to complete my major. And Soc 101 seemed like a nice burner course. You know, the “soft sciences” and all that fol de rol.

    I just allowed myself enough room to be surprised by things I did not know, and despite having to struggle terribly with entirely foreign concepts to those taught in Computer Science and Art, it ended up being the best class I took.

    So, if nothing else, I am the exception to your attempt at a rule. I didn’t want to take the class, but I quite enjoyed it. And I only threw in the bit about major shopping as an example, rather than as a thesis.

    Out of curiosity, did you attend a college, or a university? I imagine the differences you are ascribing to ‘the willingness of the participant’ may in fact be explained by ‘the quantity of unwilling students a professor has to deal with’.

    But that’s an imagining, not a thesis, nor even a hypothesis. Not nearly enough data from which to attempt either.

  20. “The phrase “narrative” itself seems to me almost offensive with respect to history, except I suppose in certain narrow and restricted usages. The idea that real people trying to do real things can be reduced to some superficial storyline is ugly.”

    I wasn’t the person who introduced narrative to the thread, but …

    I am a historian of narrative. I write books and articles about the way people tell stories about the events that happen to them. It reveals all kinds of things and boy, do they matter. Now my subject is the Fourth Crusade and I could tell you a lot about the Greek memory of that crusade, but it’s sort of remote and off topic. Let’s take the Civil War.

    There was a war, Things happened during it. Those things really matter. After the war was over, people started telling stories about what it all meant. Those stories often conflicted and say something about the civil war, but say at least as much about the people telling those stories. In the South, the War of Northern Aggression was about states rights [PLEASE NOTE I DO NOT BELIEVE THIS, OK?]. That’s the story they tell and this story matters if you want to understand the modern south. That’s the kind of history that interests me. I don’t think it’s a superficial storyline at all.

  21. skzb

    What is significant, however, is the note you emphasized by putting it in all caps. I don’t believe it either. And I (evidently like you) believe that some interpretation are wrong.

    How we interpret history is important, and a useful clue about the needs and desires and interests of those doing the interpreting. But some interpretations are, quite simply, wrong. Others are not. There is objective truth in history as much as in astronomy. That it can sometimes be difficult to know what is true is no excuse for not making the effort to do so, or, indeed, to deny that historical truth exists.

  22. I agree with all of this. And my all-caps are, indeed, telling. Despite having gone to a super-theoretical school as an undergrad, I’ve never believed that there is no objective truth to history (too many negatives).

    What post-modern historical theory does get us, though, is that we, as humans, inject ourselves into the process of historical analysis in all sorts of ways that are hard, but not impossible, to tease out. My father always says, “the sources always say yes.” Which is to say that if we come to the sources with a question formed, we’re likely to hear the sources say yes. Some new objectivists say that it’s possible to approach the sources without questions, but I am skeptical. It’s a challenge that I wrestle with constantly. I have this giant meta-theory about the history of Venetian culture from 600 to after 1600. My sources are screaming yes at me. No one else has ever said this giant meta-theory before. I’m publishing on it now, but am worried.

    What interests me is what the stories people tell about the past, especially stories I believe or know to be wrong in relation to objective truth. The “civil war wasn’t about slavery” narrative says so much about the American South and the American right-wing in general. I guess it is partially my job to insert disclaimers in large caps that the story isn’t true, but it’s not my only job.

  23. Yes, the history of narrative is different from saying history is a narrative.

  24. Mr. Perry:

    “When history belongs to the humanities, then it’s about intertwined narratives. And that seems to me (looking at the transcripts of this podcast) what’s going on here. It’s also my kind of history.”

    I’ve never thought about it as a social science vs. humanity, but I certainly agree with you here. I hated history as presented in high school since it was all so disconnected – everything happened in a vacuum with little to no reference to any outside influence. That’s just wrong.

    “What interests me is what the stories people tell about the past, especially stories I believe or know to be wrong in relation to objective truth.”

    Here you touch on something that has always bothered me, when people don’t separate fact from fiction (interpretation of events). I’m very glad to know someone with this persepctive is in a position to write about it where people will see it.

  25. skzb: “Insofar as he succeeds in uncovering the laws that guide the development of history…”

    I’m sure I’ve said elsewhere I disagree there are such things as “laws of history”, but it is a phrase I’ve come across fairly often in the past year or so, but with no explanation as to the nature of these laws. For instance:

    “I see no reason why our standards for history should be different from our standards for astronomy, or geology, or physics.”

    I’m curious to know how history is similar to these fields. Stars, rocks and electrons are not sentient, never act against their own best interests, and react to stimuli in readily predictable ways. I think suggesting the study of life is just the same as the study of inanimate matter needs support.

  26. “If I go to the trouble to call myself ‘jeff’, perhaps you can extend me the same courtesy.”

    If I’m going to address someone directly rather than hang a name on an attribution, I will certainly do so properly, Mr. Lowery.

    I’m terribly sorry I irritated you so much with what I had thought was an obviously tongue-in-cheek comment about spotting a universal pattern from talking to only four people, but irritated you were, so I’ll be charitable and assume you hadn’t meant the contempt you displayed by addressing me as single letter of the alphabet, and of course I’ll ignore the inappropriate familiarity of your invitation.

    Maybe later, on a topic less controversial than survey courses, we can exchanges thoughts again.

  27. “After the war was over, people started telling stories about what it all meant. Those stories often conflicted and say something about the civil war, but say at least as much about the people telling those stories. In the South, the War of Northern Aggression was about states rights [PLEASE NOTE I DO NOT BELIEVE THIS, OK?]. That’s the story they tell and this story matters if you want to understand the modern south.”

    I’d like to hear more about this. I wasn’t aware that the attitudes had changed that much.

    The modern Southern view is pretty consistent and logical once you accept their peculiar assumptions.

    First, they say the USA is a republic and not a democracy. In a democracy the majority can do anything it wants to oppress minorities, but a republic provides Constitutional safeguards to protect minorities.

    They argue that the US government can legally do only the things the Constitution specifically says it can do. They say that they can tell what it is allowed, anybody who reads it honestly can tell because anybody who reads it honestly will read it the way they do. They do not interpret the Constitution, they read it and understand it. (This is of course similar to the Fundamentalist interpretation that they have no interpretation of the Bible but merely read it and take it literally.) They reject the right of the courts to interpret the Constitution.

    When the Federal government impinged on the rights of Southern states they seceded, and fought, and lost. The Federal Government has continued to do more UnConstitutional things at an increasing rate but nevertheless they are right and the government is wrong, they support the Constitution and act to get it reinstated as the law of the land.

    When I look at the Constitution, I see a couple of ways that minority rights are protected. Like, there’s an amendment that says Congress will make no laws about religion. That protects Catholics and Quakers from Congress. In practice, the protection is incomplete — the IRS gets to rule on whether your religion is actually a religion or only a cult. The IRS gets to rule whether your pastor must pay taxes on the income your church gives him, on whether your church camp serves a religious function or is only a taxable summer camp, etc. But the line looks bright and clear even while the IRS rains on it.

    The Constitution gave a different kind of protection to two minorities. States with small populations got special safeguards so they could have power out of proportion to their numbers, specifically so they had a voting advantage to help them keep large states from oppressing them. And slave states got special safeguards.

    There was no amendment that said “Congress shall make no law about slavery”. All slave states got was, like small states, extra representation. So to argue that the USA could not interfere with slavery they had to argue strict construction. “I can read what the Constitution allows Congress to regulate and slavery is not on the list.”

    They figured the Supreme Court had no right to make rulings about slavery, except of course it did have the right to decide that escaped slaves must be returned from free states because that wasn’t a law about slavery but about stolen property.

    They fought for states’ rights, namely for the right of states to have slavery.

    When they lost they believed they were still right, and right about all the other rights of states additional to slavery as well.

    Are they wrong to say this is what they believed all along? Or is it a valid interpretation, and saying they’re wrong is like saying it WAS NOT about the right of states to have slaves, but INSTEAD was ONLY about slavery….

    I had no idea that the new version misrepresented the old so much, except to vaguely soften the slavery angle.

  28. “I see no reason why our standards for history should be different from our standards for astronomy, or geology, or physics.”

    ‘I’m curious to know how history is similar to these fields.’

    HIstory is more like astronomy or geology, than it is like physics.

    Physics is an extreme among the experimental sciences. Physicists are trying to understand the fundamental interactions, and they are finding very simple relationships at the lowest levels. That isn’t everything that’s going on in physics, but it’s there and it’s something people point to. They believe they are approaching the fundamental truths of the universe.

    Geology is much less an experimental science. You can take samples from a geological formation that took 100 million years to create. You can guess how it happened. You can’t control the conditions and wait another 100 million years to find out whether you’re right.

    Astronomy is pretty much like that too. You can observe light that may have taken as much as a billion years to arrive. Or even more. You can guess what’s out there from the light you receive. You can guess how stars formed, how they change over time, etc. You can do no experiments on any stars. Perhaps we might eventually be able to experiment on our own sun. I hope we don’t — it’s the only one we’ve got.

    So it’s possible to figure that geology and astronomy are less like science, and more like history. If you are a splitter and not a lumper, you can look at the ways that history is far different. But there are similarities too.

  29. skzb

    David: “The “civil war wasn’t about slavery” narrative says so much about the American South and the American right-wing in general. ” Yes.

    Miramon: Exactly

    L. Raymond: “I’m curious to know how history is similar to these fields. Stars, rocks and electrons are not sentient, never act against their own best interests, and react to stimuli in readily predictable ways. I think suggesting the study of life is just the same as the study of inanimate matter needs support.”

    Not just humans–my dog frequently makes decisions that operate against his interests: jumping up on strangers which results in having his nose swatted, barking at inappropriate times, &c. But we know why he does so–it has to do with the complex relationship between his perceptions, his training, and his experience. Those who work with dogs, and have studied them, explain these behaviors. With human beings, it is a couple of orders of magnitude more complex, but that is no reason to call it unknowable.

    In order to agree with your comment, one must assume that individual choices come purely from inside the mind–in other words, that human thought is not determined by social conditions; or, at least, that the connection between objective social conditions (delivered by history) and individual thought are unknowable. I reject this assumption. History–the actions of individuals–are as much a part of the objective the world as anything else. Humans acting (or, much more often, appearing to act from the view of someone alien to them) against their interests is simply one of the factors we attempt to understand. The idea that there are laws of motion that determine every aspect of the material world except that guiding humanity’s development requires a leap of faith that my epistemological legs just aren’t strong enough for.

  30. J Thomas – I am not expert in modern Southern narratives about the Civil War. I grew up in Nashville and became an historian, but I don’t study this stuff. My sense is that the efforts are to minimize slavery as deeply as possible. But I can’t say how new it is or how it’s developed over time – but if I was a Civil War historian, that’s the kind of question I’d be asking.

    The next question about history and narrative is this: As a historian, is it always certain that the objective truth of what happened is more important than the story. Must one, if studying an untrue history, spend a lot of time saying – THIS IS NOT TRUE – in my all-caps fashion. I wonder often whether people “really believed” some of the not-true stories I study, but I really don’t have that kind of evidence. So instead I write about what the story said and how it functioned in a give place, time, group, etc. I don’t spend a lot of time (maybe 1 sentence in my intro) noting that this is not true.

    That’s easy for me to get away with, though modern Greeks will be angry about my book. I suspect if writing a history of the narratives of the civil war, I’d have to use a lot more “not-true” disclaimers.

  31. David, to me this looks like one of those semantic snarls. Anybody who said it wasn’t about slavery, it was only about states rights would get laughed out of the room.

    But people who said it wasn’t about states rights but only about slavery would also be wrong.

    Slavery was the main states’ right that they were fighting about. They thought they were right about their rights, and they still think so except that the right to own slaves is no longer a primary concern.

    Their ideas fit together logically once you accept some basic assumptions that I find hard to accept. I don’t see that it’s even in the domain of true and false. What does the Constitution really mean? What did the Founding Fathers really intend? Are we obligated to support the Constitution or is it OK to sometimes ignore it?

    We could look at the written disagreements among people we decide are Founding Fathers, but the rest of it is not about the material world or objective reality.

  32. skzb: “In order to agree with your comment, one must assume that individual choices come purely from inside the mind…. History–the actions of individuals–are as much a part of the objective the world as anything else.”

    I’ve long known this is where I miss the point. As I see it, sociology is the science of understanding why people do what they do, including reacting to outside influences or internal changes, archeology is the science of locating and identifying physical artifacts (simplification, I know), then there’s paleontology and scores of other sciences the contribute to the study of humanity. I’ve always seen “history” as the interpretation we put on the events we’ve determined have happened.

    So if history can be reduced to “laws”, what do or will these laws describe, or what is it about history that sets it above these other sciences as a method of study?

    “In order to agree with your comment, one must assume that individual choices come purely from inside the mind–in other words, that human thought is not determined by social conditions; or, at least, that the connection between objective social conditions (delivered by history) and individual thought are unknowable.”

    I don’t think that can be infered from what I said. It is blindingly obvious that people’s lives are affected by thoughts and emotions as much by the world’s physical effects and society’s influence; I just didn’t think I had to spell that out. I will maintain that individual thought is unknowable if that individual is dead and can’t explain her actions, or if she never wrote her memoirs or otherwise spelled out why she did what she did.

    I know for a fact a kid named Zeph Pettibone was a cheater at egg spinning back in 1790 because a man was amused at another boy’s indignation at being swindled and he wrote about the incident. Did Zeph cheat to win eggs for eating? To trade for other goods? To win and so be seen as the top dog? How will the laws of history tell us if he was motivated by ego, economic necessity or mischeviousness? That is what I don’t get.

    ” I reject this assumption. History–the actions of individuals–are as much a part of the objective the world as anything else.”

  33. skzb

    “So if history can be reduced to “laws”, what do or will these laws describe, or what is it about history that sets it above these other sciences as a method of study?”

    What struck me in this are the words “above” and “reduced.” There are laws of motion that govern the activity of chemicals; do we “reduce” chemistry to laws? And if the behavior of individuals is knowable (as, indeed, the science of psychology asserts) then how is history “above” it? I do not speak about sociology, because (as it is generally taught) I consider it a collection of horse-pucky, rather than a science.

    “It is blindingly obvious that people’s lives are affected by thoughts and emotions as much by the world’s physical effects and society’s influence;” It is blindingly obvious that people’s lives are affected by *actions.* These actions, in turn, are influenced by thought; but I see no reason to turn these thoughts into something mystical, magical, and beyond the reach of our understanding. If so, why bother studying history at all?

    Of course, you are welcome to believe that it is pure coincidence, or beyond our understanding, why the slave-power of the South came to believe that slavery was a good thing, where the Northern capitalists with their hunger for free labor came to believe it was evil. You may believe that we cannot understand why, in the English Civil War, the aristocrats just happened to believe in the divine right of kings, while, coincidentally, it was the rising bourgeoisie that thought human freedom was more important. But such a belief seems silly to me. Being determines consciousness.

  34. “Above” and “reduce” are not moral statements. We have actually reduced the sun to a set of matematical formulae by looking at the big ball of fire, determining the actual composition of its layers, the nature of its chemical reactions etc. Breaking it down in this way hasn’t diminished it in any way, physically or in terms of its “wow” factor.

    I have also never, not in any way, shape or form, suggested thoughts are mystical or unable to be understood. What I have asked is *how* are you going to determine with absolute certainty the thoughts that drove an action? If the motivation doesn’t matter, then the hard sciences have history covered. If it does, then in what way will the laws of history describe them, and how will those laws differ from sociology et al.?

    I’m not asking for a philosophy dissertation, but trying to understand how the practical derivation of a historical law, any one of them, and its later application occur. Perhaps you could give a concrete demonstration of historical laws as they’d apply to the Pettibone incident?

    “Of course, you are welcome to believe that it is pure coincidence, or beyond our understanding,…”

    A strawman? Here?

  35. skzb

    Practical derivation of an historical law and later application are the same as in any other situation: generalizing from experience, applying those generalizations. Examples? Well, we’ve learned from the study of history that when the company brings in thugs against a striking union, reaching out to the rest of the labor movement is one of the more effective tactics. We’ve learned that social classes never turn power over to a different social class unless forced to; which is applied in the necessity of preparing for the possibility of violence against the revolutionary class. We’ve learned that lying to the working class will result in the working class not trusting you, so the application is to be completely honest even when it is unpopular.

    Regard the Pettibone incident, if I were a politician, I’d say, “we’re looking at that.” Since I’m not, I’m comfortable saying I’ve never heard of it.

  36. “I know for a fact a kid named Zeph Pettibone was a cheater at egg spinning back in 1790 because a man was amused at another boy’s indignation at being swindled and he wrote about the incident.”

    Have you ever seen a film named _Rashomon_ I think you might like it.

    “We have actually reduced the sun to a set of matematical formulae by looking at the big ball of fire, determining the actual composition of its layers, the nature of its chemical reactions etc.”

    Be careful. We have equations which are mostly consistent with what we have observed of it. Give it 50 years and we will probably think that the equations we have now are naive.

    What we have is a plausible explanation of the fundamental interactions. Nothing like “reducing” the sun to those.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helioseismology

    What would happen if we forced a thousand tons of nuclear waste into the sun? A lot of people who ought to know better, say that they know 100% that nothing would happen. We understand the equations. And the sun is so big that nothing human beings could do to it could possibly have any effect.

    They used to say that about the oceans, but they were wrong so now the claim has dropped back to something bigger.

    Understanding the fusion equations does not tell you how stable they are to unprecedented changes. It does not tell you what other reactions might be catalyzed by catalysts that are currently not present.

    Science works best when we can control all the variables we don’t care about, and study the effects of the ones we’re interested in under known conditions. That’s very useful for technology because we can control those same variables in a factory and get the effects we want. Less useful when we want to explain uncontrolled reality.

  37. “Well, we’ve learned from the study of history that when the company brings in thugs against a striking union, reaching out to the rest of the labor movement is one of the more effective tactics. We’ve learned that social classes never turn power over to a different social class unless forced to; which is applied in the necessity of preparing for the possibility of violence against the revolutionary class. We’ve learned that lying to the working class will result in the working class not trusting you, so the application is to be completely honest even when it is unpopular.”

    I would consider these historical rules of thumb. They look very useful. They don’t particularly express fundamental laws, but that’s OK. If the company doesn’t bring in thugs after all, then you respond to what they do instead. If a social class cedes power before they’re forced to, then you roll with it. Maybe sometimes you can lie to the working class and they’ll still trust you, but it isn’t worth finding out which times those are — the risk is too high and the reward too small to justify the research.

    A historical law might do something more like this — first, define sympathy. Then say that people are unequally sympathetic, they tend to sympathize more with people who are more like them than people who are less like them, they sympathize more with people who fill complementary roles than those who fill competitive roles or unrelated roles. They are more sympathetic to people who seem like no threat than to people who seem like a potential threat. Etc.

    With all that laid out carefully, we might get a definition of class that makes sense of social and economic classes, and the loyalties that people feel or (often) do not feel. We would have a full context for things like “Jewish self-hate” and “class traitors”.

  38. “Practical derivation of an historical law and later application are the same as in any other situation: generalizing from experience, applying those generalizations.”

    This is where you lose me, because I simply don’t see how these are “laws of history”. Analyzing such patterns are exactly what sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists (and increasingly economists) within their various disciplines. So are “laws of history” a sort of umbrella term for the theories of all these disciplines?

    “Regard the Pettibone incident, if I were a politician, I’d say, ‘“we’re looking at that.’ Since I’m not, I’m comfortable saying I’ve never heard of it.”

    I assumed you hadn’t, which is why I used it. If there are hard and fast laws governing historical occurances, I would think it’s possible to explain this incident with reference to them. Psychologists could give a reasonable explanation of the boy’s behavior, and a sociologist could analyze the full text within the context of the times and offer useful observations, but I could not imagine what “historical law” would have to say about it. I’m not trying to be tricky, you know, just fishing for a straight forward answer.

  39. skzb

    “This is where you lose me, because I simply don’t see how these are “laws of history”.

    Those were not laws of history; that was my answer to your question, how do you derive laws of history. Below that, I discuss a few of those generalizations, and how they are applied. Broader generalizations (ie, historical laws) include the increasing productivity of labor, the class struggle, the growth of new economic forms within the old, the law of combined development, &c &c)

    Regarding the Pettibone thing–*headsmack* I just realized that’s the egg kid in your earlier example. I managed to miss that; sorry. That strikes me as more psychology than history, unless I’m missing something. So “historical laws” would no more speak to that, then the laws of evolutionary biology would apply to particle physics.

  40. Well, I should have put an ellipsis there, because I was including to the text that followed. In any case, I gather my initial reaction on hearing the phrase “law of history” was correct, so thanks for tackling it.

    I think, from your perspective, a better comparison than the evolution/particle physics thing for egg boy would have been to point out theories of evolution by natural selection only apply to populations and not to individuals.

  41. skzb

    “I think, from your perspective, a better comparison than the evolution/particle physics thing for egg boy would have been to point out theories of evolution by natural selection only apply to populations and not to individuals.”

    I can accept that.

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