Sunday, May 12, 2002

Spinsanity is underwhelmed with a Victor Davis Hanson column in the National Review:

If Hanson wants to make his case for Israel, he should do so without assuming motivations and making cheap, jargon-based associations. Instead, he turns a piece supposedly about the Middle East crisis into a broadside against liberalisas our men would not fight here of their own free will, it was necessary to make them, whether they wanted to or not.m heavy on the pseudo-psychology and light on reason.

Uncharacteristic sloppiness, surely? Perhaps not. This Reason magazine review finds sloppy, slippery rhetoric at the core of Hanson's magnum opus, Carnage and Culture:

Hanson offers a series of battle narratives, from Salamis to Tet, illustrating his view of freedom as a military asset. In so doing, he turns everybody's "freedom" into the same value, despite disclaimers to the contrary: "What frightened Cortes's men about the Aztecs, aside from the continual sacrificial slaughter on the Great Pyramid, is what frightened the Greeks about Xerxes, the Venetians about the Ottomans, the British about the Zulus, and the Americans about the Japanese: the subservience of the individual to the state."

You have to love the tossed-off, "aside from the continual sacrificial slaughter." Digging through all the errors of reasoning in that sentence alone would take a steamshovel and a deep well of patience. It's hard to believe that the British, who were ruled by monarchs, saw something they identified as "the state" when they looked at the Zulus, and harder still to believe that the Spanish conquistadors descended upon the Americas with fevered cries of "One man, one vote!"

The review goes on to explain in detail how in several of his battle accounts, Hanson simply leaves out important facts which are inconvenient to his thesis. His account of the battle of Salamis, for instance, skips lightly over the skulduggery among the Greeks which led to the battle being fought there in the first place. Hanson says Salamis shows that "men fight better when they know that they have had the freedom to choose the occasion of their own deaths". But Herodotus reports that Themistocles goaded the Persians into setting up there, because he felt that "as our men would not fight here of their own free will, it was necessary to make them, whether they wanted to or not."

The appeal of this stuff isn't hard to see. Hanson's thesis, in effect, is that there is a shared core of beliefs within western culture (whatever that is) which has ineluctably led to its dominance, and that therefore, if we hold true to those beliefs, we have literally nothing to worry about, as continuing prosperity is assured. Which is certainly comforting.

I recently read a fairly good book about a culture which was, for a time, the master of all it surveyed, but which got too fond of thinking of its own comfortable beliefs, laws, and traditions as the cause of its position, and which became censorious and intolerant of the internal and external critics who repeatedly called the superiority of those beliefs, laws, and traditions into question --- "What Went Wrong" by Bernard Lewis.


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