Memory and History.03.02.13 03.02.13 03.02.13

George Jonas column in the Saturday National Post, “Awaiting Clio’s Caprice” (2.2.13, A23) had two themes. First, Obama is a pinko-socialist who, in his first term, did not display his true colours; American voters were distracted by the black issue and forgot the pink issue. Obama may be half black but the real issue for Jonas is that he is three-quarters pink. In his interpretation, in Obama’s second inaugural address, instead of being coy about his pink side, he threw away his disguise and revealed his left-liberal manifesto (Charles Krauthammer’s phrase). So for Jonas, as for me, there is a difference between appearance and reality, but both the appearance and the reality are radically different. So is the explanation. For Jonas, the explanation is a combination of Obama’s deceptive practices and the public’s distraction — though the colour of Obama’s politics was “unmistakable from the word go”.

Jonas’ second theme was about change. What happens in history is not determined by inaugural addresses or even by who occupies the White House, but by the caprice of History. As George Jonas interprets its role, “The muse of history has her own agenda. Governments don’t decide historic questions; Clio does.” “Until Clio wakes up in a different mood one morning, the Arab-Muslim world won’t accept a Jewish state within what it views as the House of Islam, and Israel won’t give up being a Jewish state.” Change comes by chance. There no rhyme or reason for Clio’s sleeping patterns. But the situation is as unmistakable as Obama’s political colours. “America lies so low in the water that a load of big government could sink it.”

Dow Marmur also wrote me this morning about the shift back in Israel to discussions about peace and three speculations that the discussion is simply necessary as a key ingredient in forming a coalition, that the shift is a result of pressure from the newly reinvigorated Obama administration, and, third, with Netanyahu’s pragmatism, his desire to have a legacy and he and his wife’s deeply felt animosity towards Naftali Bennett on his right whom both he and even more so, his wife, despise. Sow as qucick to add that these were speculations and not history.

Tomorrow when I return to the subject of Obama I will write about Jonas’ allegations about Obama and in a subsequent blog about Obama’s relationship to the peace process in Israel. Today I want to address the issue of Memory and History as almost a prolegomena to tomorrow’s blog. Clio was the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, a titan who was the personification of memory. But although memory is a prerequisite of history, history is not the same as memory. Further, memory is a prerequisite to other fields of study – the arts, including music, poetry, dance, drama, and science. The marriage of Zeus and Memory produced nine children, not just Clio.

Even as memory is a prerequisite of historiography, the two are quite different. Memory is used by history. Memory helps shape history. But memory is not history. First, memory is often flawed. Second, it often remains only part of an oral tradition and is not transcribed to be checked and falsified while history is recorded and becomes historiography. So there is a question when memory is written down and whether memoirs are a transition stage to history. Scholars also asked how history shapes memory.

And historiography has also changed. As Jacques Le Goff noted in his book History and Memory (New York: Columbia University Press), historiography has recently mutated. There has been a return – of the event, of biography, of politics as central issues, and the use, role and nature of narrative itself. (Preface ix) But the former three have been aufgehobt. The event has become the catalyst for digging a deep mine to find out what is underneath. Biography is now written extensively by historians as a form of both intellectual history and a complement to history — and even part of history when academics become political actors. The question of power is no longer unquestioned as the central core of politics, but both power and politics themselves have become problematicized. Further, the fourth of this quartet, which many thought had been consigned to a nursing home for the aged and infirm, has itself become problematic as historians both use narrative and question how such a form affects the interpretation of events and politics.

Goff himself explored how different disciplines distinguish the relationship of the past to the present differently. And so do different people with different ideologies. Conservatives idolize and reify the past as a model for the present. For Palestinian refugees, depending on your perspective, the powerful nostalgia for the past becomes either an obstacle in the way of resolving the current conflict or the means by which the efforts in the present to recover that past are informed and given impetus. (See chapter 7 in my book with Elazar Barkan, No Return, No Refuge.) Radicals want to discard the past into the dustbin of history. Others probe the dialectic between the past and the present and want to understand how innovation takes place while the past informs the present as the past and its interpretations are being transformed by innovation even as both are interpreted by historians.

My eldest son, Jeremy Adelman, an eminent Princeton historian who is the Walter Samuel Carpenter III Professor in Spanish Civilisation and Culture and former head of his department, has written a biography as an exemplar of the new historical biography (Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman) that combines the personal story of a very reserved, reticent and quiet activist with an intellectual history of Albert Hirschman (The Passions and the Interests) that Princeton University Press will bring out this Spring. If you cannot wait for Jeremy’s book, see an earlier piece written with Emanuelle Loyer, “Between Worlds: The Life and Work of Albert Hirschman,” that appeared in 2010 in The Toqueville Review 31:2. Better yet, Jeremy has a video on Albert Hirschman on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDjVoA2NfH4); it is the lecture he gave on 14 November 2012 on a return visit to Oxford.

Albert Hirschman is relevant to our discussions, not only because of how prescient Hirschman was and how his ideas inform our current discussions, but because Jeremy’s book began from his weekly lunch discussions with Albert and Albert’s recollections of his involvement in the Spanish civil war, with Jewish refugees (Operation Rescue) and with the Marshall Plan before he became the famous developmental economist or, as Jeremy depicts him, anthropological economist. The book is about fear of change that I am discussing in my Obama blogs and Hirschman’s reflections on the fear of capitalism. Hirschman was an economist, but not just an economist. He was truly a renaissance man. He was also a humanist. Further, unlike the vast majority of scholars who withdraw from commitment and action, Albert thrust himself into history. Most academics who do so fail; Albert did so with panache and success.

An influential essay of Hirschman’s, “Exit Voice and Loyalty”, explains the dialectical relationship between collective action and private action in contrast to the ideological musings of a classical nineteenth century liberal like George Jonas and his idolatrous ideological worship of individualism. Getting Ahead Collectively is Hirschman’s empirical and detailed research on grass roots development often targeted by neo-conservatives. Hirschman explores how upward mobility actually takes place on the ground. (It is also a book relevant to current debates over massive debt crises.) It asks the question, not about the caprice of history, but about how the poorest people take agency and responsibility and exercise collective action to improve their lives, how research on the ground can inform action and, to the extent possible, overcome caprice. Hirschman gave voice to their efforts and energies. While Hitler in the usual sociopathic Large Lie had the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” – Work Makes You Free – over the iron gates to enter a concentration and extermination camp, Hirschman wrote about how work actually frees you by finding solutions to problems rather than pontificating. Whether Hirschman dealt with black market currency exchanges and the intricate details of how fake travel documents are created for refugees, the empirical on the ground and the method of taking advantage of opportunities were critical to both human actions and intellectual examinations of those actions.

An additional underlying theme was the art of exiting, on which he also wrote as the other side of Michael Marrus’ history of Vichy France. Whereas loyalty, along with authority and tradition, are the holy trinity of neo-conservatism, Hirschman was the epitome of loyalty, but loyalty in practice not as an icon – loyalty to the cause of the fight against fascism in Spain in the 1930s, loyalty to the fight of the French against Nazi Germany in 1939, and loyalty to his country of refuge in 1941 America. He immediately enlisted in the military of the anti-Franco forces, the French army and the US army in turn. But his loyalty was not a dogma. He immediately left Germany in 1933; he did not stay and fight the Nazis. For he was also prophetic. He recognized when loyalty had its limits, when there was an opportune and necessary time to leave, and when you had to roll the dice and choose without knowing the outcome. For some places offer No Place of Return. He remained loyal to the end of his life to the land of the free and home of the brave even though his work was hounded by the paranoid and probably anti-semitic J. Edgar Hoover who remained ever suspicious of Hirschman’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War and with the illegal activities of and with refugees. Hirschman worked for the Federal Reserve Board and exemplified the creative and important role of mandarins that I wrote about in my parashat on Friday. His life was also an exemplification of the hidden and repressed, not in any denial of his Jewishness, but in the “Lie”, the foundational lie of his marriage and the split between his wife’s rich, aristocratic assimilated Jewish family and his own ostjüden bourgeois family across the border in Poland.

Stupid loyalties to the past could prevent seeking out opportunities. You should not get caught up in failures and losses. He saw nostalgia as a loser’s cover-up. Hirschman was not a theorist of economic development but a strategist of economic development based on empirical research and on what really works. He was suspicious of the overall big idea, such as the worship of balanced budgets and fear of enlarged government and suspicion of regulation. For in both intellectual and real life, middle range innovations; and not ideologies count. As he wrote in a report for the World Bank, the closed mind is a danger and one must be open to the unexpected. Similarly when reporting on the past, do not exaggerate what you can do as a doer or as a scholar lest you undermine what you have done or your study of what has been accomplished.

Jeremy had just finished pulling off a very large international conference that he had organized. He wrote me yesterday while he was in a Shanghai museum that “museumized” the past and which stood in sharp juxtaposition and opposition to China’s pell mell race towards the future through the construction of large and imposing monuments of glass and steel, raised highways and neon lights, paeons to post-modernity that were sinking the city into the silt of the Yagste delta and making it even vulnerable to the rising oceans if global warming and the melting of the icecaps continue apace. China seems willing to trash the past and allow thousands of years of a peasant world go up in carbon gases.

Jeremy had just visited his cousin, Keith, who had no “place” in the world as an authentic displaced cosmopolitan and carried the weight of three generations of Christian missionary work to the Chinese on his shoulders. Jeremy wrote about that visit, their joint efforts to piece together memories and biographies, and their discussions about their grandfather so associated in both their minds with his grandfather’s photography and the carvings and the calligraphy he brought back with him to give to his grandchildren as presents. This is how memory intertwines with history as one waxes homesick for wife and kids, gets to experience the awful emptiness of the homeless and yearns for roots. I remember the experience well when I lived in Dadaab refugee camp; personal experience has always informed my own work.

[tags history, memory, hirschman, economics]

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