A Historian Who Believes There Are No Good Guys, Bad Guys

Much of politics and history, especially in the U.S., is about Us and Them. Us, the Good Guys, versus much of the Rest of the World: the Bad Guys. If you're with us, with moral as well as material and diplomatic support, you're also good guys (though not as good as us). If you're against us, or simply not with us, you're bad guys. And our mission is to bomb, starve, and sanction you into changing your mind.

Historian Mark David Ledbetter does not accept such a simplistic view of wold affairs. His study of history, contained in three works of towering research, America's Forgotten History: Parts 1-3, tells him that every nation, at some point in its history, has been guilty of genocide or war crimes. It just happens that different nations are at different points of development and engagement with the rest of the world, and therefore, we don't all behave and think the same.

But that's just one element of Ledbetter's new book, Dancing on the Edge of the Widening Gyre: A History of Our Times, a wide-ranging, eminently sensible, serious, and important book that will both shake up and enlighten many a smug intellect (it did mine).

Ledbetter strikes me as passionately humane, antiwar, antiracist (though non-pc),  and globalist in his thinking. Also, his opinions are not always politically correct: a rare feature in an academic writer whose prose, though elegant, is as entertaining and readable as that of a good novelist.
Much of the Widening Gyre’s pleasure comes from its highly readable, entertaining, and information historical narratives. A shocking revelation, to me (and perhaps to many readers), is the degree to which racism, eugenics, and race theories were a central part of America’s immigration policy right until the late 1930s--at which point, their association with Nazism made them uncomfortable and unpalatable to the American ruling classes. (Do we see their resurgence in Donald Trump?) For example
Among politicians at the turn of the twentieth century, Theodore Roosevelt was the most vocal and eloquent in defining racial hierarchies, in advocating Darwinist racial warfare for world domination, in defending the imperial right of the strongest races to rule the others, and in the need for continual warfare – generally racial warfare – to keep the manly qualities of leading races sharp. He was, in fact, America's preeminent advocate of the White Man's Burden.
Later, he quotes Madison Grant’s Passing of the Great Race, which for a few decades was very influential in American academia and intellectual circles:
Africans, Grant hypothesized, were not merely a different race but a different species, a distinction which, if widely adopted, might have led to more extreme, even unthinkable solutions to the "problem." There was talk of waiting areas – concentration camps, actually – in preparation for deportation of blacks to Africa.
But wait … let us stop feeling so smug. Most of us, Ledbetter argues later, are far from free of racism, even those of us who think we are:
The new racism, then, might be ideological and cultural. Since we all agree that racism is bad, and since racism is based on race, the new racism, which lacks racial reference points, is safe. We can indulge our natural tendency to be “racist” without resorting to racism. We can stereotype to our heart's content. We can deny the humanity of the other. And we can do it all with impunity since our moral guardians, academia and the media, are so busy trying to ferret out every last tiny vestige of traditional racism – and homophobia and misogyny – they don't even notice this new form of an old instinct.
Anyway, categorizing the totality of individual people according to their cultural blueness or redness is a morally safe kind of “new racism.” That is, it gives us a chance to indulge ingrained human instincts to be both moral and “racist” at the same time, while avoiding the opprobrium of actual racism.
Ledbetter does not refrain from subversive comments about liberalism, that modern sacred cow:
If fascism is a religion of the state, so is progressivism/modern liberalism. For both, fascism and modern liberalism, as well as fundamentalist religions, creed and doctrine infuse everything. He quotes Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, “Again, it is my argument that American liberalism is a totalitarian political religion, but not necessarily an Orwellian one. It is nice, not brutal. Nannying, not bullying. But it is definitely totalitarian – or “holistic,” if you prefer – in that liberalism today sees no realm of human life that is beyond political significance, from what you eat to what you smoke to what you say. Sex is political. Food is political. Sports, entertainment, your inner motives and outer appearance, all have political salience for liberal fascists.”
Goldberg might be a bit too kind in saying American liberalism is not bullying. In academia, your job itself might be in jeopardy if you “come out” as a conservative, and it is certainly wise to be careful about expressing ideas contrary to liberal orthodoxy in the classroom. Speaking of coming out, gay conservative professionals have reported that it is easier and safer to come out as gay in professional circles than to come out as conservative. The iron hand of orthodoxy is a fearsome thing.
But here, to me, may be one of his most radical yet powerful ideas:
Then we need to dethrone democracy and make freedom the sovereign once more. Full democracy is the best idea for choosing the administrators of government, but government must be constrained by custom, constitution, and law. We have to recognize that freedom is the greater god, democracy the lesser god; or freedom the king, democracy the servant. When freedom and democracy are in conflict, it's okay to deny democracy in favor of freedom. Developed democracies need to expand freedom, restrict democracy's power to override freedom, restrict crony-capitalism, live within their means, discourage a politics infused with a highly developed consciousness of ethnic identity, and encourage an understanding of the importance of cultural receptivity. And then we need to restrain our natural desire to impose what we do on the Third World. Let it evolve naturally, as we did, even if it doesn't evolve in exactly the same way as we did.
On the subject of "No Good Guys, No Bad Guys", Ledbetter's study of history shows that America and England, like Germany and Japan and every other major country in the world, have committed their share of war crimes ... or crimes of genocide during times of "peace". Therefore, he suggests that we stop the endless cycle of blame and decide on what we need to do now to save the planet.

Ledbetter suggests that many idealists try to “to make the world fit theory rather than make theory fit the world.” You don’t have to accept everything that Mark David Ledbetter writes in order to read, enjoy, and gain tremendous insights from his book.

In fact, he probably wouldn’t respect you if you agreed with everything he says. He’s a highly tolerant, open-minded, sensitive, compassionate anti-war and anti-corruption writer, one of whose big bugaboos is the crony-capitalist state, of which the United States and many Western countries are prime examples.

Where I differ from him is in my heart-based approach to governments making sure that citizens have a basic safety net, compared to his intellectual argument that such well-intentioned interventions usually fail in the execution. At no point, however, has this affected the respect we have for each other. He is also, he writes in the present book, open to the Swedish Third Way (true free-market capitalism combined with a social safety net).

All of the above can only give you a tiny peek into a 116,000-word book. The only way to do it justice is to read it. The e-book edition is just $3.00, while the paperback is priced a very reasonable $11.70.

I have not read all of Mark Ledbetter’s many books, but I heartily recommend his America’s Forgotten History series (Books 1-3 are published, in paperback at Lulu and in e-book form at Amazon, and Books 4-5 are in progress), as well as Language and Globalization: The History of Us All—a short book that should be compulsory reading for all before they pass high school—if not in the original, for high school children, then at least in a form that summarizes and quotes its main theories and arguments.

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