Thursday, January 13, 2011

Misinterpreting the Great Depression

When we move from the level of concrete facts to larger interpretive generalizations, much mischief can occur. For this reason, it is important to do careful, and voluminous, work at the fact level before moving up to the meta-level. Historians can make radically mistaken conclusions in their categorical conclusions when they have failed to examine detailed evidence.

The Great Depression, which began in 1929, offers an example. A superficial acquaintance with the economic hardships of the era tempted one historian to write:

The Great Depression tested the fabric of American life as it had been seldom tested before or has since. It caused Americans to doubt their abilities and their values. It caused them to despair. But they weathered the test, and as a Nation, emerged stronger than ever, and we are all better today for their strength and their courage.

The first and last sentences of the above paragraph, despite some curious capitalization and syntax, are either supportable by data, or are emotive and constitute an interpretation of facts, and can thus be allowed. The middle two sentences, however, constitute assertions which would need to be supported by facts, and yet cannot be supported by facts.

In order to support his point, the author would need to produce evidence that (1) Americans doubted their abilities and values, (2) that the Great Depression caused this doubt, (3) that Americans despaired, and that (4) the Great Depression caused this despair. Such evidence cannot be found.

On the contrary, we can find evidence that, in the midst of hardship, despite hardship, and perhaps even because of hardship, Americans relied on their abilities and on their values. Such evidence would include the creativity and ingenuity which empowered people to survive these difficult years - creativity on a physical level, finding ways to make do with less than ideal supplies and materials, and creativity on a societal level, using the social structures of the time to offer material and emotional support to those who needed it. Americans continued to rely on their values, as evidenced by the continuance of societal norms based on cultural and moral tradition, and by continued eagerness with which they embraced the moral codes which directed individual choices and supported familial and social structures.

To be sure, individual exceptions can be found: those who perceived their abilities as insufficient, or those who doubted and even abandoned their values. But it would be necessary to show that these exceptions were measurably greater during the Great Depression than during other eras in history, and to show that such manifestations were caused by the Great Depression and didn't simply coincide with it. Even so, the number of exceptions would appear to be significant, and so the generalization would not stand.

Similarly with the notion that Americans despaired. Again, individual exceptions aside, as a categorical statement, we find insufficient supporting evidence. On the contrary, the resilience of the nation allowed for good humor, artistic creativity, and a form of hope or optimism in which people lived, loved, and worked, enjoying what could be enjoyed in the present, striving toward good moral character, forgiving their own failings and the failings of others, and establishing goals for the future. There was no general societal or national sense of despair.

What counts as evidence for all of the above? Evidence falls into different categories. Demographic and statistical evidence would count, offering information about everything from church attendance to divorce and suicide - with the usual caveat about the misuse and misinterpretation of statistics, per Mark Twain. Individual biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs - including oral histories and anecdotes - count as evidence. General histories of the era count, as do specific histories of a particular event, project, or series of developments: from accounts of agriculture to a chronicle of the development of the motion picture. Artifacts count as evidence: museums filled with machines, clothing, furniture, coins, etc., from the Great Depression.

Only a large amount of concrete specific evidence, and the analysis of this data, will confirm generalizations like those given above.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Arizona Assassin Motivated by Media?

In the tragic shooting which left several people, including a nine-year-old child and federal judge, dead, and which left a member of Congress severely wounded and in the hospital, the question looms: what motivated the assassin? The shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, clearly has extreme mental health problems. In search through the remains of his life, several items shed light on his potential motives.

Obsessed with politics and the Internet expression thereof, we find that he read various websites, including the Daily Kos, a notorious hate-filled site which regularly demonizes political leaders who fail to embrace its left-wing views. The Daily Kos wrote that Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the target of Loughner's attack, had a "bull's eye" on her because she has spoken against the liberal elements in her party. Loughner was encouraged by such violent language and began plotting to assassinate her.

The Daily Kos went on to tell its readers that Gabrielle Giffords should be "targeted" in the elections because she was not embracing the left-wing agenda favored by Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the Daily Kos.

Naturally, a reader in good mental health reads the violent rhetoric as merely metaphorical, and does not take words like "target" and "bull's eye" literally. But the hate speech of the Daily Kos has a different effect on those who are already in the grip of mental illness.

Loughner, a self-proclaimed fan of Karl Marx, in his delusional state, took the left-wing rants literally. In a free society, we cannot ask the media to censor itself merely because some insane individual will use words or phrases as a pretext for violence: no, we affirm the freedom of the press. But the freedom of the press also allows us to see the Daily Kos and Markos Moulitsas for what they are: merchants of hate and violence.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

What an Assassin Reads

Jared Lee Loughner is, according to early reports, likely the killer of six or seven people in Arizona, including a member of congress and a federal judge. This horrifying shooting rampage took only a couple of minutes, but resulted in traumatizing loss of life.

In such cases, we often ask, what makes this person tick? There is no simple answer, and psychologists will be mulling over the question for years to come. But we have at least one partial answer in the killer's own words. He listed some of his favorite books. He was obsessed by political and social concerns, and read, and re-read, The Communist Manifesto many times.

In addition, he listed Animal Farm and Brave New World as some of his favorites.

To what extent he properly understood what he read, we do not know. But these texts were the raw material out of which he constructed whatever twisted justification he used to explain his murderous intent.