The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum

03 May 2013

Last week saw the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, situated on the campus of Southern Methodist University. The project is the result of one half billion dollars in fundraising. Its dedication was attended by every living president, from James Carter, through a wheelchair bound George H.W. Bush, to a spry, and comparatively young, Barack Obama. For a brief moment, it occupied national and international attention, with most major American news sources adding their particular take to a very well worn story. Here is a sampling of journalistic fare from the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Mother Jones, the New York Times, and The Atlantic.

Reporters seem to have gravitated towards telling one of two stories. The first looked at the "Obama angle". Yes, the current POTUS was in attendance, and also was able to set aside ideological bickering across parties for a very brief moment. This story is favourable towards Obama, but rides on the idea that the Office of the President stands above the Washington fray. Bush escaped largely unscathed. The second story looked more closely at the content of the library and museum. The library and museum will house around 43,000 artifacts and millions of documents from the 43rd president's tenure. Reporters chomped at the bit of demand for journalistic objectivity to raise obvious questions about whether the history told the library and museum will in any way reflect reality. The Mother Jones article linked to above lists eight things you won't find in the new library and museum facilities--the eighth being evidence of the existence of WMDs of Saddam's Iraq. (Because there wasn't any.) In this second story, Bush assumes the form of an object of scorn.

Of the two stories, I find the second is intrinsically more interesting. With the first, we get to watch the great game being played out in a highly controlled environment. Instead of being allowed to criticize your opponents explicitly, politicians have to score points by appearing to play nice. Obama and Bush are cast as figureheads for much larger trends in American society. Their ability to play nice for a brief moment is indicative of the fading memory of a common destiny for all Americans. Compared to the immediacy of the first story, however, the intrinsic charm of the second story is found in its impoverished rendition of Winston Churchill's audacious claim, 'History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.'  Churchill wrote rather glowing accounts of the role he himself played in WWII in a six-part book series on the conflict. Consider the many hours invested in literary production alongside the achievements of Bush, who has taken up painting. Bush solicited wealthy friends to put up millions of dollars to have someone else do what can only be described as whitewashing a rather tarnished public image. Intellectually lazy only begins to describe this latter-day attempt to resuscitate a legacy.

My own take own the efforts of Bush and friends will be obvious from the tone of the preceding. The outrages of the GOP alumni against historical scholarship, however, interest me more as a illustration of larger problems associated with the interpretation of human history than they do as examples of individual failings. The default assumption, or what can best be described as the common sense way of thinking about things, is that the study of human history gets at something objectively out there waiting to be discovered, in the same way that the fundamental features of matter or new species of animals are out there waiting to be discovered. Hence Bush is confident that the 'facts', maturing with the passage of time, will reflect well on his tenure as president. Once all the facts are known, or have come to light, or what have you, they will show him in a much better light than his detractors are presently willing to admit. Not unsurprisingly, those detractors are convinced the same set of facts, in due course, will prove otherwise.

Which raises the question, What is meant by the term 'fact'? The dedication of a temple of Dubya's prowess raises questions about whether and in what sense the study of human history, or the study of the humanities more generally, is comparable to the natural sciences, like physics, chemistry, or biology. Is the historian's object, say, Bush's tenure as president, objectively available in the same sense of the natural scientist's object is available? This is not something scholars and scholars spend much time fretting about. The construction of the modern university discourages comparison between academic disciplines (even as it encourages something called 'interdisciplinarity'). Both groups can go about their day without giving much thought to where they stand vis-a-vis the other.

The fundamental criteria for factuality are that the object in question be observable such that others can verify what was observed in order to confirm the success of a theoretical framework framework to account for what was observed. The theory of evolution one such framework, within which is organized the relationships between different species of animals--or 'the facts' derived from the observation of fossils and living organisms. On this definition of factuality, Bush's tenure as president fails one of the fundamental criteria of factuality. While there is initial observation of the object, there is no possibility of verification. Bush's tenure is a one-time unrepeatable affair--thankfully.

But so is the evolution of this or that species of organism, would seem to be the obvious objection. That's true; but there's a second consideration will further complicate the comparison The material evidence for evolution and the material evidence for Bush's tenure as president are fundamentally different. Scientists theorize about processes operating in biological materials independently of creative human input. Human beings don't guide the long process that lead to the evolution of human beings. The material evidences for the evolutionary process is there to be studied, theorized about, maybe even interfered with, tweaked, 'improved' upon--but that's all. The historian, on the other hand, studies a body of material evidence that could have no existence apart from creative human input. It is impossible to conceive of all those textual, audio, visual artifacts attesting to Bush's tenure as president arising through non-human agencies, which is what evolutionary processes are. The historian never escapes the circle of humanity.

So I raise a Shakespearean equivalent to the middle finger and call a pox down on all their houses. How Bush's tenure will be judged in the long term won't come down to something called 'the facts', however broadly or narrowly that might be interpreted. Bush and friends need to take a page about the inevitably that future generations will judge you out of a Confucian playbook. Future generations will judge your actions, not against a set of objective facts, but for your humanity. If, to cast it in terms of extremes, you were a tyrant or a dandy, don't expect to be looked favourably upon. If the suffering of the mass of humanity increased under your watch, don't expect to be lauded. It one of the features of the interpretation of human history that the next generation is not likely to agree with your own assessment of yourself, especially if its trumped up way out of proportion. And if the next generation doesn't, then the generation after that will--or the generation after that, and so on, and on, and on, and on.

The lesson is that one does best measuring oneself against one's fellow human beings than against some objective standard or abstract goal. We are all, every one of us, in this together.