Don’t Know Much About History

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I may be overly sensitive to the things that politicians say. Certainly it’s a morbid tendency to follow political speeches with more attention than the speakers themselves have given them, even if (as is very common) that attention has been minimal. Still, I can’t resist commenting on the bizarre views of American history that so frequently get embodied in their remarks.

Take, for example, Mark Green’s weird speech on the occasion of his defeat by Michael Bloomberg in the New York City mayoralty race (Nov. 6). Green’s “concession” speech was a mixture of self-pity and catty put-downs of Bloomberg.for having stolen an office that had obviously been invented solely for Green. The embarrassing performance culminated in Green’s impassioned recollections of the Sept. 11 attack. “Believe me,” he intoned, “no American city has ever suffered a murderous attack’… the way New York has.” Then he lectured Bloomberg, the miserable winner, on his obligation to put his shoulder to the wheel and his nose to the grindstone and start to rebuild” New York.

Now, listen. I’m still shell-shocked about Sept. II, but nobody should be so shell-shocked as to believe that New York City is lying in ruins after the U murderous attack,” or that if it were, only the mayor would be able to rebuild it. There is every reason to believe that if the mayor arranged police protection for the worksite and left for a year-long vacation, taking the other politicians with him, he would find the city nicely /I rebuilt” by the time he got back. That’s how private investment works. That’s how the capitalist system works.

Because that’s how people work. They don’t sit around looking at ruins; they clear them away, and they start rebuilding, whenever the land that the ruins occupy has any value. That’s what happened after the 1906 earthquake and

It grieves me to say this, but plenty of American cities have suffered more murderous attacks than New York suffered this year. During the Civil War, most large cities in the South were attacked and destroyed. Did Green ever see pictures of the ruins of Richmond in 1865?

 

fire in San Francisco, despite the fact that San Francisco had suffered incomparably more damage, in proportion to its size, than did New York in 2001. And that’s what happened in Chicago, Detroit, and innumerable other American cities that were destroyed by fire in the 19th century. Those were the days, mind you, before big government.

A few days ago, I visited San Francisco’s Swedish Hall, a beautiful gathering place for the Swedish-American community. The hall was constructed in 1906. “It must have been hard, building this place so soon after the earthquake,” I said. “Oh yes,” replied one of my hosts. “Lumber was in short supply, and labor was expensive. But the members pitched in, and got it built.” Nobody seemed surprised that the Swedes didn’t just stand around and wait for the mayor to put the roof on – and nobody should have seemed surprised. That’s the way things are supposed to be. Then there was an additional comment: “They couldn’t have built it anywhere near as fast today, with all the regulations and so on.” Exactly right.

But let’s go back to the earlier part of Mr. Green’s remarks, the part about the uniquely murderous attack on New York. It grieves me to say this, but plenty of American cities have suffered more murderous attacks than New York suffered this year. During the Civil War, most large cities in the South were attacked and destroyed. Did Green ever see pictures of the ruins of Richmond in 1865? I can’t see that the plight of cities like Richmond was lessened to’ any perceptible degree by the fact that the attackers happened to be Americans, not Saudi Arabians.

Perhaps Green would like to reflect on the fact that the Revolutionary War was fought almost entirely on American soil, and that it, too, resulted in quite a lot of nastiness in urban areas. He might also recall that during the War of 1812, the British captured the city of Washington and did what the terrorists of 2001 did not.succeed in doing – they destroyed the White House and the Capitol.

In Liberty’s last issue, I noted House Minority Leader Gephardt’s wild assertion that in the Sept. 11 disaster “we lost more people on our soil than in any conflict in history.” Democrats are always saying strange things, but this is one of the strangest. During the’ age of Nixon, Sen. Sam Ervin made himself ridiculous by talking about Watergate as the most serious crisis that our nation had faced “since the Civil War”; now Gephardt has forgotten that the war ever happened.

But I don’t want to confine my attentions to Democrats. On Oct. 31, President Bush said that it was no surprise that “consumer confidence is down. After all, we’re at war, and for the first time in American history, part of the battleground is here at home.” Following remarks like that, I wouldn’t be surprised if intellectual confidence were down. After all, we’re at war.

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