Scribble, Scribble, Scribble
Scribble, Scribble, Scribble

Scribble, Scribble, Scribble

Apr 20, 2011

Prepare to be challenged and entertained! The inimitable Simon Schama discusses American politics, past and present, and gives an impassioned defense of the importance of "the general welfare"--rather than rugged individualism--at the heart of the American Constitution.


JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you all for waiting patiently. You will not be disappointed.

Once again it is a pleasure to welcome Simon Schama to our Breakfast Program. If you have read anything Professor Schama has ever written, watched him on television, or heard him speak, you know that whenever or wherever he appears it is no ordinary event.

This time his voracious appetite for curiosity is reflected in a ménage of observations, reviews, many lectures, and reminiscences, which were earlier published in such places as The New Yorker, The Guardian, The New York Review of Books, and The Financial Times.

The title of this entertaining and delightful medley of essays is Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writing on Politics, Ice Cream, Churchill, and My Mother. Although the title sounds quite whimsical, surprisingly enough it is an actual quote borrowed from the Duke of Gloucester's celebrated remark to Edward Gibbon upon receiving a copy of the latter's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, to which the Duke said, "Another damn thick, square book. Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?"

Now, we all know that, no matter what your profession is, it takes talent and passion to succeed at what you do. Yet, as a writer, you also need a certain verve to produce a work that people want to read.

At this moment you may be asking yourself: What, then, is that certain something that makes this author, who has received numerous praises, accolades, and is even bold enough to christen his book Scribble, Scribble, Scribble, so compelling?

First and foremost, he is very clever. But wait, there is more. He is also imaginative, versatile, and has an excellent eye for detail, which gives Professor Schama the unique ability to make the familiar fresh, whether discussing Isaiah Berlin, Hurricane Katrina, or describing cheese soufflé.

When you combine these traits with his extraordinary use of language and turn of phrase, simply said, whether listening or in reading his work, you will be dazzled by this Schama style of social commentary and its infinite variety, from politics, ice cream, Churchill, and his mother.

At this time I invite you to fasten your seatbelts as you join me in welcoming the creative, the passionate, the humorous, free-associating thinker, speaker, and writer, Simon Schama. Need I say more?


SIMON SCHAMA: Thank you.

Gee, to actually have that amount of kindness and generosity and be this late—I mean, what would it have been like if I had been on time? If you're this late, you absolutely have to be Bill Clinton, really, which I apologize for not being.

As the driver—I don't know if you're out there, Dmitri Urleg—he was pursuing a kind of creative route, which led me in sort of remote areas of Kansas, so far as I can tell, from Westchester. I thought to myself, you could actually write a history about traffic misfortunes.

It would start with an anniversary, which we're about to—celebrate isn't the right word; commemorate—namely, the beginning of the First World War. Class, you all know this. Basically, our entire lives would have been different if the Archduke Franz Ferdinand's driver, who was probably Urleg's grandfather, for all I know, knew what he was doing and knew the way he was supposed to go, instead of which he got hopelessly lost in the streets of Sarajevo.

When Gavrilo Princip, the self-appointed assassin, had shown up, expecting the driver to know what he was doing, no car was there. So he thought: Oh well, it was a nice idea to assassinate the Archduke and plunge the entire continent into a horrendous war. But traffic was not on my side, I guess.

So he sat down in the nearest outdoor café, as one does in Sarajevo, only to see the car, completely lost by now, backing into the streets. He thought: That can't be the limo, can it? Where's my gun? And the world has never been the same since. He got off the shot, which produced many millions of bodies, Adolf Hitler, the Great Depression, and everything since.

So I'm sorry about traffic and history.

I do want to talk just a little bit about history.

I know you're a very spirited bunch at the Carnegie Council. Please, let's talk about anything you'd like to—about the Middle East, for example.

I have just come back from an interesting trip to Israel for the newspaper I mostly work for, The Financial Times. I was doing a profile of Tzipi Livni. Everyone told me about Tzipi Livni, that she's a lot less interesting than meets the eye. Absolutely untrue, as it turns out. There will be a big profile in the Financial Times Magazine, which in America comes out in the paper next weekend. But if you want to talk to me about the very interestingly, slightly nervously apprehensive temper that has taken hold of Israel in the Arab Spring, as we in a slightly stereotyped way call it, please do.

But I want to, with what time we have, talk a little bit about the historical moment right now, which I suppose includes the speech that the president may give today. It's not so much the historical moment, as it is this moment and its relationship to history. One of the surprises that has happened and overtaken those of us in the meat-and-potatoes history industry, working stiffs and professors, is that a populist movement—namely, the Tea Party, its title billboarding its own sense of coming out of the American past—that history, the present moment, and contemporary policy should somehow have got all scumbled up together in a creative, and possibly dangerously creative, way.

At its most bathetic, it results in Michele Bachmann believing that Lexington was in New Hampshire, not in Massachusetts. But the fact is that she is going to run a presidential campaign. She also is someone, you may remember, who thought John Quincy Adams was a Founding Father—"Hey, the name is John and there's a bit of Adams there. Whatever."

But it was an important moment because she also made the case—and this was in her response to the State of the Union, so we're not talking about a kind of trivial moment here—she wanted to make the case that "the Founding Fathers, gosh, had been really intensely engaged in a struggle with themselves about the nature of slavery and its relationship to both the Declaration of Independence, the famous First Precept written by the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson, and to the Constitution."

It's true, it did indeed exercise them, particularly the Founding Father she confused with the son, John Quincy, whose life very much was preoccupied with the inconsistency of a slave society and the promise of the Constitution. But it also did preoccupy his actual father, John Adams.

John Adams—of course you all know, class, being good historians, unlike Representative Bachmann—decided essentially, for the sake of the unity of the Constitution and the unity of the country, to shelve the issue of whether or not an African-American enslaved person was really three-fifths of a person, and the whole complicated, terrible sort of nettle that was slavery and its place in the future of American politics.

The issue of slavery, the institution, and even what the future of federal regulation of the slave trade should be, was agreed to be shelved at the time of the Constitutional Convention. That's why when the abolition of the slave trade happened in America, it was almost precisely 20 years to the day after that temporizing decision had been taken, namely in 1807.

So history is really very important, extraordinarily, to our own particular circumstances now and should not be abused.

The issue is whether the professoriate, whose number includes me, should actually, whatever their political opinions—whether right, left, or center—should sharpen their swords in the name of the integrity and the accuracy of history itself, to which you will not be surprised my answer is yes.

It is still odd to me that—maybe we haven't been, but maybe we've been as tentative as we have. I'm thinking particularly of one of the historians I most admire, not only in the United States but in the world, Jill Lepore, who writes incredibly eloquently, importantly, and seriously in The New Yorker, and who has written some of the most riveting books, on 18th-century history in particular, of any historian in the last few years.

This isn't a criticism, Jill, if you're out there at all, in any kind of sense. But I was very struck by when she wrote her piece about the Tea Party, about how tentative and concerned she was, rather than to have a certain amount of polemical muscle based on a sense of what the first fundamental obligation of the historian is—namely, actually to consider the absolute raw stuff, the empirical evidence of American history—and how maybe a sense of fair-minded decorum is getting in the way of those who really want to make a case that the narrative of American history ought not to be ceded to the likes of Michele Bachmann, an extreme case admittedly, ad absurdum.

It ought not to be ceded to the likes of Glenn Beck, whose model of historical narratives is derived from John Birch Society literature from half a century ago, or to those whose view of the Constitution is that it offers no provision whatsoever for any sort of legislation involving the economy, regulation, or Social Security, for example. We all know—don't we, class?—that both in the Preamble, and more particularly in Article 1 Section 8—so right after the Preamble of the Constitution—there is this absolutely plangent phrase, that was noticed to be plangent by both James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, referring to the "general welfare:" "Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises" are to be imposed on the new Union for the purposes of "the common Defence and general Welfare." This phrase "the general welfare" goes utterly to the heart of our contemporary considerations, wherever our political position is.

Whether you think it is in the spirit of the American political system, and the Constitution in particular, to entertain things like the Obama health care, or indeed the entirety of the New Deal legislation, or the entirety of the social and civil rights legislation of Lyndon Johnson's Administration in the 1960s—you cannot read the Constitution historically and possibly make the case that this is simply a contemporary imposition on the Constitution's notion that ultimately the Constitution was a product of a Jeffersonian philosophy of rugged individualism.

That is precisely the view that Alexander Hamilton was concerned to contest with his interpretation of what "the general welfare" meant. He did so in the "Report on Manufactures," one of the most important documents ever written in foreseeing what it was that, as the Founding Fathers said, the blessings of the Constitution were to be for the new Union, submitted to the president and Congress on the 5th of December 1790, a very important date in American history.

Hamilton's view was contested, to be sure, by Madison—they fell apart most dramatically as side-by-side co-authors of the Federalist Papers on precisely this point. Hamilton's point was that, apart from the introduction of the proper appropriations of taxes for roads, canals (what we call infrastructure), but also for the encouragement of the useful arts and sciences (what we would call education, technology, and so on), the purposes for which taxes could legitimately be raised could not yet be foreseen and ought to be left to the judgment of Congress after Congress.

It wasn't that Hamilton was saying that the phrase "the general welfare" was a way in which to legitimately extend the arbitrary power of the Executive. He was just saying that we don't know what the future holds, the purposes for which Congress might be willing to entertain the legitimate use of these taxes.

There was a great debate about whether or not revenues should be used—no one really thought it was a bad idea to try—to see to the care of wounded veterans and those who were still suffering from wounds they had received during the Revolutionary War, for example—"Hamilton care" I suppose we would call that. But he did think about that.

It was a view that was indeed resisted by Madison, who said: No, the General Welfare Clause is just simply an enumeration which specifies, the crucial word was "general" as distinct from local, and it didn't really mean anything; it was kind of an empty synonym.

It's a very, very weak argument, as a matter of fact. It fitted with this extreme limited government reductionist view that Thomas Jefferson and to some extent James Madison had.

I'm not saying which is true. All I'm saying is that if we leave the importance of history to our own present perplexities, debates to the likes of Professor Glenn Beck and Company, and the populist view prevalent in the Tea Party that the Constitution somehow is in its essence and details utterly and implacably hostile to something like the New Deal, then we are actually committing a frightening abuse to the essence of American history and its extraordinary organic address to our present circumstances, the heart of which is healthy argument.

You might say, "Well, we're having this healthy argument in Congress about the scale of the deficit cuts and about everything else." One hopes we absolutely will be, but you don't, as it were, hear Hamiltonian voices invoked from the middle.

The last time that we really heard it probably was Justice Cardozo, who did hear the case in the Supreme Court in 1935, United States v. Butler, that was specifically about whether or not Social Security was legitimated by the General Welfare Clause of Article 1 Section 8. Actually, it was entirely around that. Even though the Court was unsure that the opinion was a Hamiltonian opinion, there was a fair amount of vigorously articulate opinion that wished to strike down Social Security. Obviously, in the end it didn't succeed.

But it is the case that what "general welfare" means—it's quite legitimate to say it can't be an umbrella for absolutely everything we might entertain. Does "general welfare," for example, encompass the right of Congress to levy funds for Planned Parenthood? I don't know. But the possibility that "general welfare" may be something non-minimalist is actually a premise on which liberal American government has based its own legitimacy for some time.

It seems to me that we are getting to the point—and we may be much closer to the point, really; after Obama's speech today who knows?

To digress—what, moi, digress? Heaven forbid—one of the things that has struck me as odd about the president in the last couple of years is that when I was writing some of the essays that appear in Scribble, Scribble, for example, about George Bush, I was saying that one of the problems he has—and it may not be a problem; it may be Obama's Administration is a classic case of having too much history. I say this mindful that yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the attack on Fort Sumter, and Obama has this kind of Abraham Lincoln thing, probably in excess.

But one of the things I was saying about George Bush was that he lives in a kind of timeless present. There is not much in the way of historical anchorage, except pulling out the inevitable cliché about resisting the aggressors, that history has taught us that Saddam Hussein is just like Adolf Hitler, but with a slightly different style of mustache.

Obama is massively, super-saturated in history to the point where the speech at his inauguration was a procession of historical scenarios delivered before us, ending up with a not enormously cheerful sight of George Washington looking gloomily at the ice floes on the Delaware. Indeed, some of the most eloquent speeches that he has made—the Oslo speech, was a case in point, when he ran through without sounding too pedantic almost an entire history of the theory of just war. It was rather masterfully done. The Cairo speech made sure to invoke the tradition of expansive Islamic learning in the medieval Arab universities.

There was a Wall Street speech in the spring of 2008, three years ago, which extremely accurately represented the alternative views of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton about whether or not agriculture or commerce—commerce expansively thought to include manufacturing—should ultimately have a priority and would be the leading force in the economic nature of the American future.

That's Obama, the history professor. But it now seems that the point at which we've got to—so I'm off my digression, as far as I can tell, without being sufficiently caffeinated—the point that we've got to today is that it seems that we are desperately in need of a thoughtful debate about the first principles on which legitimate American government is constituted. What is American government for?

As a baby of the 1960s growing up with LBJ [Lyndon Johnson], the legacy of the New Deal, and a whole set of liberal professors whom I read, like my extraordinary predecessor, Richard Hofstadter—I didn't think we would ever have to have this debate. But it is probably a good thing to have.

It's a debate entirely about first principles. Is it the case that the American future depends on, you might say, a purist resuscitation of a Jeffersonian past in which the only legitimately, truly American government is indeed a massively hands-off government that is concerned pretty much only with the common defense, with the funding of our defense needs—although, one can notice that Homeland Security's budget has just been cut in this deal that has been struck (not the Pentagon, of course)—and maybe, to some extent, some involvement in infrastructure, in the canals, roads and bridges, one of the things that Madison and Hamilton agreed on, or is it not the case?

Is it the case that we are prepared that this is a real kind of Hobbes-Locke, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, 18th-century Enlightenment debate? We need to restore the sense of what it is that we surrender a piece of our otherwise absolute liberty and a large chunk of our private change in order to receive in return, for the general welfare.

It would be extremely healthy to have this historically enriched and informed debate in some form or other. You don't need a new constitutional convention. But it seems to me that is at the heart of the matter. It goes to the Paul Ryan view, where you are going to cut maximum tax rates from 35 percent to 25 percent, assumes—and certainly, both Rand and Ron Paul, father and son, would share this view—that what is legitimately American is as much of America as you can get with the government keeping right out of the way. They would invoke The Wealth of Nations.

But there were two Adam Smiths. Did I talk to you about the other Adam Smith the last time I was here? Nobody should ever invoke Adam Smith unless they have read The Theory of Moral Sentiments as well. It was the first thing that Adam Smith wrote and it was the last thing he revised before he died in 1790.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments
was about mutuality. It's what he lectured about in philosophy in Scotland. It was what happens when the otherwise uninterfered-with nature of the market addressed itself to the needs of what Smith called mutual sympathy.

Smith had, it turns out, a fairly broadly ramified view about the obligations of mutual sympathy—in other words, putting yourself in someone else's shoes—a very Scottish way of reconstructing and redefining essential Christian principles. It included help for the poor, and above all—this being Scotland—free public education for everyone. He wasn't prepared to impose this on anybody, but it was understood in the world of Adam Smith and, a fortiori, in the mind of Thomas Paine. If you want to read a version of what Thomas Paine thought the obligations of government were, he would qualify Rush Limbaugh as worse than Trotsky or someone that took an extremely interventionist view.

One wouldn't necessarily agree with Adam Smith or Tom Paine, but the notion that we can sort of adjudicate between probably the version of how we should approach issues of the deficit today in the president's speech and the Paul Ryan approach of minimalist intervention—what is it that we need to say are the irreducible obligations of government right now (health care, however one feels about it, being a case in point) and what are absolutely reducible? That's the debate we ought to be having, whether it's Head Start or it's educational policy.

For example, one or two unbelievably glaring things which came very close to being lost in the negotiations over the budget a few days ago—one is the status of Public Broadcasting. Should, in fact, any taxpayers' money go to support something which is a communal good—or maybe not a communal good? Is that a legitimate part, as it were, of our modern social contract? Is it the case that the American people really believe that something called the Environmental Protection Agency ought to be forbidden from regulating the quality of their air, which was at the heart of the debate? The Republican position was that the EPA should be forbidden from regulating carbon emissions.

If that is the case, if it's so anti-Hamiltonian that there shouldn't be an EPA and we will defund and destroy it because it is not anything remotely that the Founding Fathers could possibly have had in mind by the General Welfare Clause in Article 1 Section 8, that's fine. But let that debate happen, and perhaps let it truly happen in the presidential debates next year.

Will it happen? We're all gathered here over breakfast, are we not, to live in hope.

I was going to talk to you a bit about—which I'm not going to now—Scribble, Scribble, which is a selection of essays which is built—these books are sort of frauds, really. Sorry, my publisher is here. They are really collections of essays. But it does represent the sense in which both the concerns of historical scholarship and the journalistic concerns of the moment can be—maybe, possibly ought to be—bundled up together.

There was a view out there when I was growing up in Cambridge in the 1960s that if you did journalism, you touched pitch. The more you did journalism, the more it essentially contaminated your scholarship. Then there was the other view, which my wonderful professor J.H. Plumb—some of you in the room may remember Jack, who spent a lot of time in New York—traced to Thucydides.

Thucydides was not a professor. Thucydides was a retired general who had been fired in the course of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides was an attack historian; he was someone who felt that no one was better qualified to write a sempiternally powerful interpretation of what most mattered to the fate of the Athenian empire than someone who has been involved in it.

J.H. Plumb used to say, from Thucydides or even from Herodotus onwards, what a historian is, is someone who's out there in the public forum, kind of crying in the marketplace, provoking people. History, above all, ought not to be a stroll down memory lane. It shouldn't just be an Antiques Roadshow with kings and queens stuck in there. It shouldn't be varnished. It shouldn't just be a matter of charming escapism.

It's true that one of my favorite moments was when in Christ's Cambridge as a young professor, I saw two very sweet American ladies of a certain age wander into the courtyard at Christ's, and one turned to the other and said, "Mabel, don't you love history? It's so old."

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Last Thursday in Washington, Admiral Mullen said that today's Egypt is 1914 in Europe. Did he have a point?

And he then went on in full flow with the speech? There ought to be a surgeon general's warning on casual historical invocations. I have no idea what he was talking about when he said that, actually. This is the danger in wiring together historical precedent and present perplexity. It must never really be done casually.

Here's why that is so staggeringly and unhelpfully inappropriate. And I rather admire him, if we are talking about Admiral Mullen. He's still chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, isn't he? Yes, indeed. Then maybe we should fire him, actually.

They teach good history at Annapolis. I have a student of mine who is a history professor there.

Here's why it's so tremendously wrong. What turned 1914 into the utter end of a world was the fact that gigantic mega-powers—on the one hand, Russia, France and Britain; on the other hand, the central powers, Germany and the Habsburg Empire—were using Serbia and Bosnia, the issue of the Balkans, as a proxy place to fight their wars, in pretty much exactly the way in which it happened in Cuba in 1962. If something that was uncontrollable, volatile, fissile, and dangerous happened in a place, irrespective of whether your true interests as a huge power just blew up, you had no choice whatsoever but to lock horns, as great dinosaurs, on the fate of Ruthenia or somewhere like that.

That is manifestly not the case now. It may be the case that Russia and China shuffle about on the Security Council and don't want to be quite gung-ho as in—he was talking about Libya. But the notion that we are going to go to war with China—that they will suddenly one day announce that Muammar Qaddafi is its favorite "son"—is obviously not the case.

It's "crying wolf" in a way, if what Mullen really meant was to say—I'm only, now, getting into his very clever head—if he meant we're stumbling around without quite seeing what the outcome would be. Mullen should have said that, because that certainly is the case. But, thank God, whatever our trouble is, it's not a 1914 moment, I would say.

Ron Berenbeim.

In your canvas of what seems to pass for political discourse now, you mentioned Michelle Bachmann. It could be maybe that, like the devil, she has all the good lines. But why is it that there's no counterweight to that in the intellectual or political world? You lament that, but it begs for an explanation.

Yes, you're right. I don't know. Where it happens is in my friend Bob Silvers' publication called The Review of Each Other's Books. It's all very incestuous, actually.

I don't know why—I will tip my hat. The first time I heard Rush Limbaugh, a long time ago—I was still living in Lexington, Massachusetts—hello, Michelle.

Many years ago, I thought: What and who is this? I thought it was extraordinary. It was a genuinely new voice. It was self-important, bombastic, not unclever, and nothing would have happened, without whoever—it wasn't Roger Ailes then; I don't know who—without that. Al Franken—no, sorry—Air America didn't do that. It was rather like Pacifica Radio. The closest one gets is the sardonic "chuckledom" of Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, who I really love.

What we don't have—and this is not just the Brit in me, but the 18th-century John Wilkes Brit in me—we don't have a kind of raw, knock-'em-down, out-there-tough, put-on-the-brass-knuckles voice in the game. For a start, we need to get rid of the—you don't want to go around bearing the scarlet 'L' letter, as in "liberal," if they've already won the issue, or you want to take it back in a kind of dramatic way. "Progressive" might do. We're in the market for something that will fight for the general welfare and the common good of the American commonwealth.

Deficit reduction is being accomplished on the backs of the vast majority of the poor slobs who constitute the American commonwealth right now—Pell grants, cuts in Medicare—because of a fantasy that a 10 percent cut in the top rate of taxation will pay for itself by the magic growth of the economy. History tells us that this has not happened since the war. We tried that. We tried it with George Bush. We tried it with Ronald Reagan. Poppy Bush, bless him, had to raise taxes because empirically it has never, ever, ever happened, especially when you are fighting all these wars.

Sorry, I'm getting excited now.

I don't know why this voice—where are you now, Samuel Clemens? Where are you now, Mark Twain? It's not that American rhetoric in politics has always been bereft. Has American political rhetoric been notable for its demureness, its strangely thin high-mindedness? I don't think so.

So give me the money. I will start the radio and TV station that we all want. (Applause)

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