Thursday, August 12, 2010

Don't Know Much About History: Letter-writer blames Truman for recognizing Israel but forgets when he was President

A modest little news item, but one that I am unable to let pass without comment because its errors are too egregious and too typical of a fashionable strain of casual argumentation.

I have nothing against ignorance, but I do have a problem with arrogance.

What people do not know, they do not know, and often, they cannot be expected to know more.  To criticize them in such cases would be uncharitable at best, and nasty, at worst. However, those who do not know yet think they do, and those who simply should know better—they are in a different category. 

One sadly typical example of this kind of smug class bias and cultural elitism appeared in a letter to the Gazette over the weekend. Responding to an earlier letter attacking President Obama as a smart man but a political failure, the writer took the opportunity to explain how "Truman's lack of learning led to tragic decision." No, not the dropping of the first atomic bomb, as one might expect.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

To the editor:

For the most part, the July 10 letter "Wise leadership not guaranteed by genius" is one with which I can agree. A first-class education does not guarantee good judgment by our presidents. However, I would not sleep better with Harry S. Truman at the helm directing the ship of state in our time of spectacular crisis, as the letter states.

Perhaps the letter writer is too young to remember one of Truman's first acts as president. Without consulting either the American people or the Congress, Truman recognized what became the state of Israel and, by so doing, made us the hated enemy of millions of Palestinians and their fellow Muslims. Truman wanted to lessen the pain of Holocaust survivors and their fellow Jews, as the majority of Americans did. The Holocaust was the creation of Hitler and the German Nazis. Why would Truman wish to punish the Palestinians for the atrocious crimes of the Nazis? I doubt that he did.

Ben Franklin maintained that the man who educates himself has a fool for a teacher. Harry S. Truman was no fool but he did have a very limited educational background. In a documentary on the career of former Secretary of State George Shultz, this leader credits his formal education, a very rich one indeed, for his very long, successful career as a statesman starting with high honors in economics at Princeton and continuing both as a scholar and teacher at the University of Chicago. As I watched the film, I found myself thinking about Harry Truman and I have come to believe that had he been able to afford the high-quality education available to Mr. Shultz, Truman would not have taken it upon himself, well meaning though it was, to recognize the founding of the new nation of Israel in the midst of another country, a move that has resulted in years and years of turmoil and death.

Beverly Parker Bingham

It's not worth taking the time to point out the host of factual and other errors, whether the canard that Israel was nothing but a misguided response to the Holocaust, or the convenient omission of the fact the UN had called for the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states over five months earlier.

So let me focus on the main point: it is stunning that, in the midst of condescendingly accusing our 33rd president of ignorance, the writer reveals herself to be, uh,  less than fully informed:
"one of Truman's first acts as president"?
Well, let's see:  when did Truman become President? Upon the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on 12 April 1945. And when did he recognize Israel? On 14 May 1948. Truman had in effect served more than three quarters of the presidential term by this point.

There are many things to debate with regard to US policy in the Middle East, but fortunately, the calendar is not yet one of them.

Truman ignorant?  Physician, heal thyself! (As an "educated" person, Ms. Bingham presumably knows the source of that quote.) Or, as we'd say nowadays,  attempted history lesson:  FAIL (she may need to look that one up:  here's a link.)

As for that great tv program on George Shultz:  We may note in passing that the three-hour (!) documentary was in fact controversial because of both its funders and its content (1, 2, 3, 4).  To be sure, Georg Shultz did some fine things, though he had a disturbing habit of working for or otherwise supporting some of the worst recent presidents.  Under Nixon, he helped to integrate construction unions.  And as Secretary of State under Reagan, he helped to re-professionalize the State Department.  He also attempted to maintain some distance from the Iran-Contra scheme, and eventually came to advocate dialogue with the USSR, though his record on both the Soviet bloc and Latin America is rather more complicated than the program suggests.

The writer would presumably take issue with some of Shultz's stances as a Cold Warrior. He endorsed and has even been called "Father" of the "Bush Doctrine" of preventive war.   Already in 1984, he said,
We must reach a consensus in this country that our responses [to terrorism] should go beyond passive defense to consider means of active prevention, preemption, and retaliation.
And as for Truman's "tragic decision"?  In 2007, in "The 'Israel Lobby' Myth," Shultz declared:
Israel is a free, democratic, open, and relentlessly self-analytical place. To hear harsh criticism of Israel's policies and leaders, listen to the Israelis. So questioning Israel for its actions is legitimate, but lies are something else. Throughout human history, they have been used not only to vilify but to establish a basis for cruel and inhuman acts. The catalog of lies about Jews is long and astonishingly crude, matched only by the suffering that has followed their promulgation.

Defaming the Jews by disputing their rightful place among the peoples of the world has been a long-running, well-documented, and disgraceful series of episodes across history. Again and again a time has come when legitimate criticism slips across an invisible line into what might be called the "badlands," a place where those who should be regarded as worthy adversaries in debate are turned into scapegoats, targets, all-purpose objects of blame.
Of course, it's really no different from what then presidental candidate Barack Obama himself said the following year:
It was just a few years after the liberation of the camps that David Ben-Gurion declared the founding of the Jewish State of Israel. We know that the establishment of Israel was just and necessary, rooted in centuries of struggle and decades of patient work. But 60 years later, we know that we cannot relent, we cannot yield, and as president I will never compromise when it comes to Israel's security. . . .
a secure, lasting peace is in Israel's national interest. It is in America's national interest. And it is in the interest of the Palestinian people and the Arab world. As president, I will work to help Israel achieve the goal of two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security
So, which is it?  Did Shultz take these positions because of or despite the "rich," "high-quality education" that he received from his elite prep school, Princeton, and MIT? And what's Obama's excuse? It was his educational qualifications that sparked the exchange of letters. Can both Truman the dummy and Obama the whiz kid be wrong?  It is perplexing.

President Obama also said, concerning peace-making, "I have no illusions that this will be easy."  Ignorant pronouncements of the sort contained in that letter certainly will not make the task any easier.

The next time the elitist writer is seized with a desire to dash off a letter to the Gazette, she would be better advised to walk over to the reference desk rather than rely on a stroll down memory lane.

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