Sunday, December 21, 2008

History Lessons

The book is Theodore H. White's "In Search of History, A Personal Adventure". Review written for
Other reviewers have hit the highlights of White's book, but not, to my mind, the potential importance of the thinking, and of the history. White end papers the book with two concepts, and the second may have been unintentional. White opens with the concept that history is driven by ideas. He closes with the impact of a discontinuity of ideas between leaders and those who are led.

However, these concepts are but ideas that illuminate the importance of the history also contained. For most of the book, White illuminates and illustrates the driving forces in four major segments from the middle of the twentieth century. The four segments are the emergence of modern China, the post-war reconstruction in Europe, American presidential political history from FDR through Reagan, and the impact of the changes of technology on the media, including the impact on politics.

White initially does give us a little window into the Boston of his youth, but it is little more than a window-view. Very early on, he mentions his first concept - that the shape of history is driven by ideas. Shortly after, we find ourselves with a war-time view of China, as it struggles with its place in history. What he tells us of China is not what we usually hear. What we usually hear is still colored by the terror, xenophobia, and bigotry that was so clearly revealed by the McCarthy years. Or, if not, then it is equally slanted, but still unrealistic and naive, a victim of misunderstanding the 'why' of what exists today. In telling us what he saw, White reveals many 'why's of today's China, including why Mao and the communists succeeded, when the Nationalists failed. [It wasn't due to the strength of their respective militias.]

White's telling of the post-WW2 European reconstruction is less revealing, but still informative. It does, however, serve as a segue to the next section - American political history in the mid-20th century. He has already set the groundwork for this section, by discussing FDR, Truman, and Ike during the first chapters. Now, he turns, focusing mostly on Kennedy and his assassination, but moving, like a piano player, up and down the keyboard of time, pulling in everything from Lincoln's heroism to Carter, with an unnamed allusion to the optimism of Reagan.

Interspersed with this are vignettes of the media industry. He clarifies a brief history, moving from the impact of getting our news from regular newspapers, through the changes periodicals wrought, and on to the huge impact of the early years of television (pre-cable, pre-internet).

In closing, he off-handedly discusses why ideas had such a large impact at the time of Kennedy's assassination. He shows us that this black swan of an event led to a discontinuity of ideas, which led directly to the dissonance of the years that followed. This concept is his end cap - the impact of a discontinuity of ideas. White uses revolutions and political turmoil as illustrative of events that result from a discontinuity of ideas between leaders and led. What he may not have realized is that this is a remarkable concept in and of itself.

Along the journey through this book, White explains, in simple terms, why America remains a two-party system (because each party is not a single unit, but a conglomeration of many regional and partisan viewpoints), and what concept separates American politics and culture, from the rest of the world (opportunity). His explanations are simple, understandable, and believable.

History since this book was written bears out White's observations. Reading these concepts, I can see that this past presidential campaign was not a fluke - taking two years - but a portent of how the transmission of news, via the internet, has changed politics. The delivery of news via the internet takes us away from the drive-by shootings of television-driven political campaigns, back toward meaningful discussions and observations.

This book is a keeper.


Ironically, what I read in this book gives me hope for the future for my Russian friends. They are now in a nationalist storm, perhaps a pendulum swing back from the last decade. If their government keeps most of its democratic structures, I believe there is reason to be optimistic about the longer term results - say, in another decade or so. My reason for this is because normal Russians now have "Opportunity". Perhaps I am wrong (I hope not), but I believe that still today everyday people can find ways to make money, to start businesses, to create work. This is a good sign.

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