Why Write About History, and Particularly that of the Early American Republic?

The Nature of My Interest in History, and How It Grew Into a Passion and an Active Pursuit

I have a horror of being, or being considered, a "history buff". It isn't a matter of just how much I am involved in history; many history professors are, I think, not very different from history buffs, in the nature of their interest.

There is a widely held, and I think well founded, belief that self-knowledge can be very empowering and/or therapeutic. I wholeheartedly agree, except that I would replace
"self-knowledge"          with something like
"a discipline of self-knowledge, self-integration, and self-design".
"Knowing" as a way of relating to the self is inadequate and potentially stupefying. The self will simply not sit still and be studied and analyzed. To imagine that it will is profoundly dis-empowering.

This "discipline of self-knowledge, self-integration, and self-design" pretty well summarizes what I'm trying to do when journalizing or writing an autobiographic sketch.

The idea that this "discipline of self-knowledge, self-integration, and self-design" could apply to society is, perhaps, the heart of my attitude towards history.

The historical view of our own lives: the piecing together of events and fitting them into an interpretative framework, is an important part of this discipline. Maybe a way to express this is "if you don't write your own history, it will write you". Perhaps that is just a glib phrase.

A primary (and biologically rooted) way that an individual, or a community, becomes more "centered" and coherent is by the spinning of narrative. Likewise it is one of the strongest ways of throwing off disorders (of individuals or of societies), of suiting oneself to a new environment, of healing oneself after a tragedy (again, apply this to societies as well as individuals). Narratives are sometimes interpretive accounts of what I, or we, or someone else, has been through. At other times, a narrative is an invented parable or story with a point, or a moral -- sometimes presented frankly as an invention, but quite often disguised as an actual happening.

I am interested, in case you're wondering, in the origins of the Civil War, but I mean to work my way forward from about 1828 or 1830, and try to view each half decade or so as it would be viewed by the people of that time, not teleologically looking towards the Civil War [Look up quote from the beginning of Wiebe's Opening of America (or something like that)].

The first thing that got me into reading history on my own was being on Harvard Square, Cambridge, for some reason, and picking up Stephen F. Cohen's Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (a book for which Gorbachev specially sought to meet Cohen) and after that, for several years, I read about the strange growth of the Soviet state.

I am always interested in the spontaneous growth, or creation, of something; some movement, institution, or body of knowledge.

After spending ten years pursuing (in a hobbyist's way; not in my current unpaid career-ish way), the study of something awful and tragic, I got interested in how institutions that are not totally psychotic evolve, which lead me eventually to the Early American Republic.

My Awakening to Action

About ten years ago, I started seriously trying to come up with a way to have my life be about this thing for which I have a passion. I had had an awakening experience, after which I determined not to go on drifting forever.

The beginning of that awakening experience was March, 1983, when I took the old "est" training of Werner Erhard and Associates. Actually they just called it "the training". I have not been involved with that organization, or its successor, Landmark Education, for several years, but still believe that it teaches something fundamental about living and being human.

What it teaches either can't be put into words, or it can, sort of, but the words don't do the job. Somehow something outside of language is demonstrated in those programs. If I am ever able to convey it in words, that will be the achievement of a lifetime.

If I told you you were going to die some day, you'd probably say "I know that already". But suppose you had the experience of "knowing" one day that you had one month to live, and lived with that for a month, then got a sudden reprieve from this death sentence. We hear of people having had such experiences who later say "I never really know that my life is finite".

A less profound example of knowledge that won't communicate in words is the difference between knowing the physics of riding a bicycle (most of us don't, so we have to imagine that), and having in your body the knowledge of how to ride a bicycle. Does anyone imagine that, knowing the physics of how to ride a bicycle, and never having ridden one, a person would get on a bicycle and not fall the first time?

These programs that used to be called "est" convey something that for some people is totally new, and for others is familiar, but convey it in a special way that is like intensely lived experience, which no mere statement could convey.

Soon after "the training", I signed on for another, even more intense experience, with the not very revealing name "The Six Day Course", that I like to call a "pie in the face" encounter with what it is to be a human being, I had this sense of "shit or get off the pot" about my life; or, to put it less crudely, "Stop daydreaming; stop putting your dreams in one compartment and your actual life in another".

This lead to two dramatic moves which eventually came to cross purposes. One was to sign up for what sounded like a very special and interesting tour of the Soviet Union, as a way to get more "real" about my interest in Soviet history.

About the same time, though, I went to a fundraiser and  learned of a program called Youth at Risk which I could see was literally saving lives of "at risk" teenagers; winning them away from their destructive and self-destructive ways, and I pledged $100 a month, by far the biggest contribution to a "cause" I ever made. Near the same time, I signed up for a two week tour of the Soviet Union, under what seemed like excellent guidance, and started learning Russian.

Some time after making that pledge, I heard that the Youth at Risk program would soon be launched in New York City; previously it had only operated in Oakland, CA. A very likable middle aged woman artist who was part of the volunteer group to create it, told me there was a meeting that night in New York. I asked if she knew of anyone involved from New Jersey, and she told me of someone working in the same building, at Bell Labs, Holmdel, with me. So I was off to the races, riding with these two real "pieces of work" as they say in New Jersey, Nick, and Jens (to be described later, perhaps).

The meeting turned out to be a special one, in which serious support from the parent body of Youth at Risk was being inaugurated for the first time. There was a woman there from California who took charge of the meeting who transformed it from a group of whiny volunteers to a credible facsimile of a group that was going do go into the awfullest slums of New York and save lives.

I had a kind of epiphany then. For several years I had had nothing but half relationships with women. There might be sex (occasionally), or a spiritual and intellectual fellowship, or some odd kind of love for an attractive crazy woman ten or fifteen years older than me, but no viable romance.

So I was watching this nice looking woman, about my age, named Maggie, who was ready and able to move mountains. The epiphany was realizing that, while rationally, I had a high opinion of myself, I didn't really see myself as capable, as in any way comparable with this Maggie. I carried around a dream of doing something really big and positive, but when I see someone really living that way, I was afraid to even think of myself on the same plane with them.

It seemed to me then that the only difference between her and me was action. She was acting on the world, while I, "believing in" "serving humanity in some way", was waiting for the way to do it that would "speak to me".

One thing she asked for was for someone from the New York group to fly out to California to be a volunteer in a ten day long intervention in the lives of "at risk" teens in Oakland, and I said then and there I would do it. I had no thought of chasing after Maggie - none to speak of, anyway; rather she had just furnished me with a revelation of why I did not measure up in my own eyes, and, as a symptom, didn't expect any real relationship of equals, romantic or otherwise, with someone I would admire and be excited by.

I thought something like "I don't know what's most right for me to do in the world, but until I do, I need to challenge myself to do something that I would strongly admire in another." To help save some few teenage lives fit the bill, and nothing else I could think of just then did.

That nixed my Soviet educational vacation plans. There was a direct time conflict, and I needed something immediate; not another (however grand) piece of the puzzle of my "real destiny".

Over the months leading up to the Youth at Risk "10 Day Program", I became what some other volunteers affectionately called a "committed fool", picking people up at airports, and driving around Brooklyn with my own TV and VCR to assist other people in making presentations.

Before going on, I should try to explain what a Youth at Risk program is. At the core of it is a teaching of that same lesson I spoke of before. Perhaps the Youth at Risk setting actually helps to clarify it. The people who show up at this program are used to thinking of themselves as victims. The point of the program isn't that they are or aren't victims; it is simply to show people that is is deadly to think of oneself as a victim, and to give them the experience of the strength, vitality, love, and sense of self-expression that can come from basically saying "I am my dream. I dare to dream something and say 'I will make this happen', and that promise is who I am." The youths who participate in Y.A.R. start out very far from that sort of attitude -- about as far as possible. Within a few days though, they become a community of people living that sort of proclamation about themselves.

Now suppose that is possible, just for a moment. One is apt to be pessimistic about the long-term effects; they're going back to their old environment. How much difference can ten days make? I think the pessimism, though, is based on a model that says we've for ten days, inculcated some new habits. But that is not what is going on at all.

In fact, they now know something they didn't know before of such a nature as to change their subsequent lives. Once you learn to ride a bicycle, you don't unlearn it. Balance is not a habit; it is a kind of knowledge. From my experience, it seems that it is possible to get a group of people into such a frame of mind for a few days, and it does leave them with a new knowledge that has important permanent effects.

I had a house mate several years ago whose use of the word "bi-stable" caught my attention. He was a physicist working for Bell Labs; quite possibly a brilliant one, investigating "self-organizing systems" (for a brief discussion of this , see pp65-67, Heinz Pagels, The Dreams of Reason; The Computer and the Rise of the Sciences of Complexity (Simon and Schuster 1988).

A self-organizing system is like a coin, which, in the "normal" condition, is either heads or tails. Some circumstances, like throwing the coin in the air, put it in a state of flux. Normally though, it is quite stable in whatever state it happens to be in.

Part of the point of this digression is to help explain what I have observed in Youth at Risk, and related programs.


After volunteering in the Oakland "Ten Day Program", I spent several months working with the New York volunteer program. First there was fund-raising; then there were presentations to be made to potential partner organizations. These "partners" were stable organizations with a long-term relationship with the youths that we would work with. They had to be so committed as to send some of their full-time employees to participate in the program with the youths. When the program actually went on, one of our partner organizations was the New York Department of Probation. Another was a school. So we had parole officers going through the program, and sleeping in cabins with, their parolees, and likewise teachers with their students. These "facilitators" as they were called, sometimes performed a special role in maintaining order, but much of the time, they were doing exactly the same things as the youths.

In the Oakland Ten-Day my main role was washing dishes, though, like all volunteers, I participated in certain physical activities (exercises and the very challenging ropes course).

In the New York program, I got to have a very privileged role, which was to be in the classroom all the time, making a record of everything that was said, or went on, there.

After this first New York Ten-Day Program, I made a personal commitment to make the program happen in New Jersey, and spent 2 years as founding chairman of what became the Newark Youth at Risk program.

After two years, I was unable to go on, and it was just a few weeks later that I lost a job due to excessive time spent working for Youth at Risk.

In the period when I was looking for a new job, in Spring of 1988, I first took a concrete step towards a project of communicating my attitude and insights towards history through storytelling. I took a course in screenplay writing, and began working on an imagined movie based on the American role, and particularly that of Gen. Joseph Stilwell, in the final disintegration of the old order in China, which led to its replacement by a Communist state.

In the late 70s and early 80s, I took various adult education type writing courses, and fancied I had some talent for short stories about the poignancy of human relationships. There was one story I worked on over several years, which some talented people encouraged me to believe had promise. It was about a failed romance (my last one, basically), and the glimpse it gave me of what it meant to have a mutually yielding relationship. Of course the glimpse came too late to do anything for that relationship. Anyway, I had some love for the process of writing, and maybe had some gift of understanding people, and talent for telling moving stories about them. But no particular stories, other than my own very limited stock, seemed to well up from my being, or wherever stories come from.

Why did I think I could write? And why did I have this thing about history?

The point of the long digression is to give some sense of what was in the back of my mind while reading about the evolution of the Soviet state. From a number of different directions (especially Iran and the U.S.), I was seeing a rampant mood of self righteousness, combined with a sense of being wronged, and an immature, sometimes irresponsibly gleeful urge to annihilate the oppressors. Entertainment trends, like most of the Sylvester Stallone movies, Charles Bronson's Death Wish movies, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Chuck Norris, seemed to be reflected by our entertainer-president when he spoke of the "Evil Empire" and "Star Wars", and joked, thinking he was off-air, saying "The bombing (of the U.S.S.R.) will start in 5 minutes".

To me, it seemed, Ronald Reagan understood the Soviet Union no better than did the "pinko" intellectuals of the 30s, or than Chamberlain understood Hitler, though his stubborn preconceptions went in the opposite direction from those of the "pinkos" or Chamberlain.

The Soviet Union was a dangerous phenomenon, but I think we have more to fear from its rotting corpse today than we had of the thing when it was alive. I think the danger was always that it was going to disintegrate in some fashion, leaving thousands of nuclear weapons in the midst of a chaotic and immature society.

Today people like Ronald Reagan and George Bush go around crowing about how we "won the Cold War". Instead of gloating, there was a desperate need to help a society undergo transformations the likes of which have never been seen before, and overnight grow up into a mature democratic society, before it went totally out of control. Those people (especially the Russians) are likely to blame their misery on others, especially others who go around gloating about "beating them".

A potentially powerful nation is never so dangerous as when it is beaten down, bereft of responsible leaders, with the rest of the world complacently gloating over its low state; especially when there are strong traditions of cruelty and/or militarism. Witness France around 1790, which seemed to be tearing itself apart one moment, and conquering the world the next. The same for Germany between the world wars; and a somewhat different, but close, dynamic was at work in Russia during World War I, and China prior to World War II. Often when a nation is getting beaten nearly to death, it arises tempered, and paranoid about the rest of the world, and is exhilarated to find that its desperate strength is more than a match for the rest of the world.

Following the time I spent chairing Newark Youth at Risk, when I lost my first good job; in the six weeks that I was not working, I took a course in screen writing, and tried to make a start a conveying the experience of Joseph Stilwell in China, inspired partly by Barbara Tuchman's Stilwell and the American Experience in China, and some other reading I'd been doing.

Stilwell was a type I admired; a humane soldier and a builder; one who took great responsibility for the people entrusted to him -- who knew how to shape the most downtrodden Chinese peasants into soldiers who would fight and win. There was also the spectacle of feudal China being thrust into the modern world in a brutal way, and of a terroristic state growing (as usual) from a governmental vacuum. There were media moguls (Luce and company) entertaining the public with simplistic notions of what was going on, while a world collapsed behind the sometimes pretty, sometimes thrillingly melodramatic facade.

The idea was also attractive in part because it was set in one of the most foreign cultures imaginable (among civilized peoples at least), but it was the story of an American trying to wrestle with all this strangeness (hence something that Americans might be able to relate to).

At this point in time, if one had asked me what kind of story interested me the most; what I would hope to be able to convey myself, I would have said something about the meeting of two mutually incomprehensible cultures. The medieval knight and the Arab or Turk. The Russian and the Chinese, or the American and the Chinese; the American and the Russian, who are closer and may think they understand each other; the more recent meeting between the American and the Viet Namese.

China as a whole was characterized by a cruel lack of caring (parental, one might say - the good side of the coin of "paternalism") leadership. Stilwell tried, almost single handed, to build up such a culture of caring leadership. By the time I was done with my assault on this project, I had dreamed up two awful scenes to portray the "cruel lack of (parental) caring".

This is a very harsh statement of the crux of the thing.

Stilwell had recently risen to the rank of general and beyond, in the brilliant shakeup of the army by George Marshall in the years preceding World War II. In his early years, he had served as liaison (attaché?) in China. He spoke the language fluently, and had a good understanding of, and sympathy for, Chinese culture. In 1939(?) he was given an assignment of unclear parameters; the job being more or less to, with his presence as a high ranking officer, impress the Chinese with U.S. commitment to them (without violating our neutrality towards Japan - very problematic); to advise and help modernize the Chinese military, with the help of a fair amount of material aid being shipped from the U.S.; and somehow to stiffen the resistance of the Chinese to Japanese expansion. He didn't want the job, knowing it was impossible as soon as the job description went out. Once placed in that responsible position, he stopped assessing it. It was no longer possible or impossible; it was simply his job to do.

Stilwell is the figure of one who takes responsibility for other people's lives, and does it with caring, in a catastrophic emergency when everyone else is lost. He could seem to be to be a ruthless, driving bastard, but was always protecting people from coming to harm stupidly and pointlessly (Typical examples of people coming to harm stupidly and pointlessly:  Chinese peasant soldiers being shoved into planes that flew at high, freezing altitudes -- stripped of their clothes because they were going to get uniforms when they arrived anyway; draftees who were rounded impressment-style being parked somewhere where they were forgotten and starved to death).

Stilwell was perhaps most famous for delivering his whole party safely from the Japanese invasion and collapse of Burma, in a situation where deliverance appeared impossible.

Social Issues Found in History That Have Preoccupied Me:

More Historiography, and

Other Qualities of the Early Republic Period

To find such a thing as a "usable past", or history from which we can learn something applicable to the present, I think we need to focus on periods of organic change, and on the points of origin of that change. I have sort of a triage theory of history. There are dull times, which we needn't examine very closely, and there are "mad" times, when all the wisdom in the world wouldn't help.

Then there are times when a society is evolving in some particularly interesting way.

History as something other than either:

What is most interesting to me is the creation of history not the person under control of events. "Ordinary people" are more interesting when they are establishing shops and farms, families; or collectively creating some cultural phenomenon like a religious revival. They are far less interesting to me when they are robbed of autonomy, battered by events. That spectacle can be, and usually is, unedifying and debilitating.  To the extent that it goes on today, we should be very interested; studying its occurrence in the past may outrage us, and that can be useful, but it won't teach us how to act.