Sunday, July 21, 2013

eBook Review: The Forgotten Man

Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man

Product Details

  • File Size: 1134 KB
  • Print Length: 498 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins e-books (October 13, 2009)
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars (474 customer reviews)
  • Price: $9.78
1. Short review:  (Amazon rating: 4 out of 5 stars -- I like it.)

2. Long review:
2.1. What I liked: The premise. The alternate view of the Roosevelt administration.
Roller-coaster or walk-in-the-park? A thought-provoking walk-in-the-park.
Worth the money. 

2.2. What I did not like: Ms Shlaes did not prove her premise. If she did, the proof was so oblique as to escape me.

2.3. Who I think is the audience: History buffs.

2.4. Is the book appropriate for children to read? No profanity, no sex, and no violence. If you think your child is head over heals for a chronicle of the Great Depression, have at it.

2.5. On the basis of reading this book, will I buy the author's next book? Maybe.

2.6. The plot in a nutshell.

     There is a plot, which is odd for a chronicle. There is even a hero: Wendell Wilkey.
     Ms Shlaes begins her chronicle with the tale of The Forgotten Man. Briefly, Mr A and Mr B enjoy the good life. They note that Mr C does not. A and B undertake to improve C's lot. In de Tocqueville's America, A and B chartered a benevolent association to accomplish this purpose. In Roosevelt's America, A and B lobby Congress, pass a law to create a bureau, and tax the citizenry to pay for C's uplift. The forgotten man in this scenario is Mr X, who never heard of Mr C but now finds himself taxed for C's improvement whether he desires C's betterment or not. Somehow the story got twisted and interpreted to make C the forgotten man.
     Ms Shlaes started with The Forgotten Man as her thesis; that is, that men changed from acting on their own to improve the lot of others to co-opting the coercive power of gov't to 'do good' as they defined good. She quickly abandoned her thesis. Instead, she chronicled the machinations of the Roosevelt administration. Wendell Wilkey figured large in much of the book because of his battles with the TVA.

 2.7. Other:

     I enjoyed reading Ms Shlaes's account of the Schechter case. I read the US Supreme Court's decision in law school. The writing in the decision was clear and coherent but dry. I never thought of the Schecters as anything more than appellants. Ms Shlaes put flesh on them and made them people to me.
     This is a book about lies.
     The Forgotten Man is the first chronicle I have read that does not take a laudatory view of the Roosevelt administration. In brief, Ms Shlaes says, "You have been lied to. The Roosevelt years were not all sunshine and cotton candy. There was a dark side, and it was inherent to the philosophy of the reformers."
     I did not witness the Great Depression. Neither did Ms Shlaes. She had to research the history, which means she had to rely on what others reported. She used secondary sources, but she also used primary sources -- contemporary news accounts and public records. She chose accounts according to her bias, but so does every historian.
     The Forgotten Man has garnered 474 reviews, including 55 one-star reviews. I read many of the one-star reviews. None of them suggests that The Forgotten Man is poorly written. Instead they say Ms Shlaes's conclusions are wrong. For having the temerity to disagree with their notions of history they gave the book one star reviews.
     Let's take the first one-star review by W. Kaiser. The review has 28 comments, comprised of denunciations of the review and Kaiser's defense.
     The review announces its stand in the title: Amateur History by a Politico. The first line reads "Shlaes is not an historian." At this point, my thought was "So fycking what? Theodore Roosevelt was not an historian, but he wrote the best history of naval engagements in the War of 1812." Two sentences later W. Kaiser writes "I have a PhD in interwar American literature and culture." The implication is that Shlaes is not qualified to write history but Kaiser is.
     I disagree. Strongly. Vehemently. Violently.
     I have a degree in History. I know many men and women with PhDs in History. I have never heard of a 'PhD in interwar American literature and culture'. A Google search for the expression returns only one item, the review in question. I readily acknowledge that one could write a dissertation on the subject, but I do not think one would submit that dissertation to the Department of Interwar American Literature and Culture.
     Anyway, my dealings with historians led me to the conclusion that some are the most educated and reasonable people in my acquaintance and others are over-credentialed ignoramuses.
     One professor of history at my undergraduate school showed me a monograph he had published in, I believe, the Journal of American History. His monograph posed the question, "Why was Cornwallis at Yorktown?" The answer: Cornwallis had discovered that the only gunpowder mill in the colonies lay at the first fall line on the James River. Yorktown lay at the mouth of the James River. Cornwallis was at Yorktown in order to receive supplies by sea before marching up the river to destroy the mill.
     I thought it was brilliant. It taught me that history differed from chronicle. Chronicle is "This happened, then this happened, then this happened." History is "This is why this happened."
    I had another history professor whose ignorance rankled me. He taught a course on war. A number of Vietnam vets signed up for the course. After a couple of weeks, they all dropped out. I should have taken my cue then and left. An example of the prof's inexcusable ignorance: He stated that a Brown Bess musket took three to four minutes to reload. Long rifles of the Revolutionary period took two to three minutes to reload. The British manual of arms stated that a trained musketeer should be able to fire five rounds a minute. In practice, green companies got off two volleys a minute; veteran companies, three a minute; crack companies, four a minute. But my prof had a PhD, so in the cocktail-hour circuit his views carried more weight than mine in spite of the fact that his ignorance of his subject matter was criminal. He was a fraud, pretending to knowledge that he did not possess.
    Here is a demonstration of how fast one can load and fire a Brow Bess musket:
    Three rounds in 46 seconds. Only an ignoramus who could not be bothered to validate his assumptions would state that the musket of the 18th century took three or four minutes to load.
     I attended a convention of historians and heard one 'professional historian' criticize Julius Caesar because his Roman army had no general staff. I pointed out that his criticism was anachronistic. The general staff was created by the Prussians in 1866. Did that mean that the functions the general staff performed did not get done until 1866? No, but before 1866 the general staff was called by other names, most commonly a Council of War.
     As for Kaiser's accusation that Shlaes follows discredited theories, what nonsense. Discredited by whom? By Kaiser and Kaiser's kin? Roosevelt's History of the Naval War of 1812 was condemned by British historians. Does that mean TR's history should be ignored?
     Shlaes has her say. She is swimming against the tide of Roosevelt hagiographies. The fact that she wrote a counter current is all the more reason to read The Forgotten Man.

     History is about lies.
     Shakespeare's history play Richard III is a lie, but it is a popular lie. The Russian history of the Great Fatherland War (World War 2) says that the Japanese capitulated from fear of the Soviet Army after the USSR declared war 8 August 1945. No mention of the two atomic bombs the USAAF dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japanese history makes no mention of the Rape of Nanking and World War 2 is reduced to the USAAF dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Emperor announcing the surrender on the radio. No mention of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
     Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay fought a war of extermination against Paraguay. I have read histories from both sides. Do you think they agree on the causes of the war? Do you think they agree on who were the heroes and who were the villains?
     What do you think British historians say about the American War of Independence? What do French historians say about it?
     I can tell you with certainty that the Mexican account of the Texas war is diametrically opposed to the history I was taught in school.
     Historians lie to you. Some lie from ignorance, and that is inexcusable. Most lie from bias. That I can live with. For balance, I just read an historian with the opposite bias. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.
     Amity Shlaes wrote a biased book. So have others. I can live with that.

2.8. Links: Amity Shlaes

2.9. Buy the book: The Forgotten Man

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