North Korea in the News-Trump is a dotard

As some of you may know, Kim Jong-un has referred to Donald Trump as a “dotard“, and this has caused a good deal of comment. Does this mean that Kim has “cracked open what apparently was a 1922 edition of the OED and called the president a “dotard.”” ? Maybe, or maybe not. The western press loves to make fun of Asian governments using badly translated idioms from their own languages or messing up western idioms. Those wacky, primitive Asians!

At least some people in the West knew exactly what Kim’s speech writers meant when they put this word in. It appears in the Lord of the Rings, and some of us looked it up when we first read it. ‘Folly.?’ said Gandalf. Nay, my lord, when you are a dotard you will die. [speaking to Denethor] When I first saw the quote from Kim I sort of assumed everyone knew the word. Honestly, it is in LOTR, that is not exactly obscure to some people.

So what does this tell us? Is the North Korean propaganda apparatus filled with Tolkien fans? Or is their understanding of modern idioms based on an idiosyncratic selection of foreign texts? I would guess that it is the latter, but the former would be cooler and more optimistic.

Maybe Kim himself is a Tolkien fan. The Kims are notorious movie buffs, and while I assume there was a Korean translation of LOTR even before the movies came out, even if there was no translation before, Kim could have ordered one. I could see how the metaphor of a hermetically sealed kingdom ruled by and overlord opposed by all others could be applied to N. Korea, although maybe Kim does not see himself as Sauron. Or maybe he does. (I wrote that as a joke, but now that I think about it, it may explain things.)


On “Buddhist Atrocities”

One of the odd substrains of commentary on the ongoing Rohingya genocide in Myanmar is Americans (mostly, as near as I can tell) shocked that a Buddhist society is capable of the kinds of cruelty we associate with Western imperialism and 20th century totalitarianism.

As I said on twitter:

People saying that Rohingya genocide proves that “Buddhist atrocities” can happen apparently ignored Sri Lankan civil war, Imperial Japan.
The hell of it is, Buddhism is as much a ‘religion of peace’ as Islam,Christianity. Same basic lessons, most adherents perfectly nice people
Like Islam, Christianity (I’m just covering major world religions here), Buddhism intersects with systems of power that implement violence.
Like Islam & Christianity, Buddhist institutions have, historically, validated state violence when it was in their institutional interest.
Buddhism’s reputation in the West benefits greatly from being not associated with any particular 20th century power (unless you’re paying
close attention to states like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand and their treatment of non-Buddhist populations) and being strongly associated
with countercultural, anti-imperialistic movements (centered in 60s, but not exclusively) including association with Gandhian nonviolence.
(Gandhi was Hindu, not Buddhist, but *ahimsa* is common value among Jain, Buddhist, some Hindu traditions. Plus, sloppy Western orientalism)

I doubt any readers of this blog need me to fill in the historical details.

China-Burma-India and popular history sources

Looking for information on the American involvement in China in World War Two? Not too long ago that would have been the last thing anyone who did serious China work would be looking for, but given the new interest in transnational history, the war period,  some people might be interested all the old ephemera that is popping up all over the web to fascinate historians with its insight into the daily experience of the past while frustrating them with its poor sourcing. One example is CHINA – BURMA – INDIA Remembering the Forgotten Theater of World War II

It includes reprints of a lot of stuff you could get elsewhere, but it is easier to find it here, as well as accounts from vets (all Americans) and lots of pictures.

Some show Chinese wartime propaganda in situ

They have a collection of blood chits, which I found interesting since I never realized how 文言文 the early ones were. Hard to see why you would do that given the intended audience, but the later ones get better. Apparently the American military was working on how to communicate with foreigners.

And of course they have lots of maps. Ever wondered what Chongqing looked like to Americans?

A student could get a really good paper on American images of Asia from all this.

Syllabus blogging for Fall 2017

There is a tradition here of posting our syllabai and asking for advice on how to teach things. Ideally we would do this long enough before the semester starts to get advice on what to assign and do, but I don’t think we ever do that.

My two new-ish classes for Fall are

HIST 106/ASIA 106 Samurai and Gongfu Heroes: Masculinity in East Asia

and HIST 434 Modern China 1800-present

The Samurai and Gongfu class is mostly movies. This may sound like a shameless attempt to drum up enrollment by putting Samurai and Gongfu in the title and also promising to watch movies…and it is of course. On the other hand, it should be a way to draw a lot of students into some of the main narratives of East Asian culture in print and elsewhere and in both their modern popular and older versions. The original course title was Masculinity and Self-Cultivation but I was advised to drop the Self-Cultivation. We will still read some Xunzi, however. As you can see I have tried to split it into thematic units, which may or may not work. (some seem to make sense, some I struggled with.) I am hoping the student presentations at the end are good, since my main hope is to get them to the point where they can watch an Asian film and understand it in some sort of cultural context. We will see how it works.

Modern China is part of my attempt to split up modern China. I know most people like to do Late Imperial and Modern in a single class, but for both China and Japan I think that Ming/Qing and Tokugawa lend themselves to a social/cultural approach and then after 1840 or 1853 it is time to put politics in command. This is also a class where I am starting to rely more on the books that are available on electronically via our library. Once upon a time you had to get them to buy books, and then you were more or less stuck using the whole book. They are still buying a couple books, but now it is easier to use bits and pieces of things they can read for free. We will see how this works. Any comments are welcome.

ASIA 106.f17

Modern China434Sylf17

Would the Boxers vote for Trump?

Of course not. They were not registered, and in any case that would be foreign interference in an election that would Hurt The Feelings Of The American People.

Still, if you want an interesting take on the Boxers and how they fit into Chinese ideas about the body, masculinity and the nation, you can look here, or see the same post here. Here a a sample

The physical culture of the Boxer era in China was, in its vague nationalism and muddled politics, remarkably similar to the physical culture of Germany in the mid-19th century. So why does the latter seem to encapsulate the very core of fascism as physical spectacle, while the former never merits a mention?

More (perhaps) later


Yi Soon Shin: Warrior and Defender and Yi Soon Shin: Fallen Avenger: Bad

At Planet Comicon in Kansas City last month, I came across a gentleman selling a comic book series based on the Hideyoshi invasions of Korea, known in Korea as the Imjin War, focused on the escapades of the national hero Admiral Yi Sunshin. Naturally, I was curious, and asked how historically accurate they were: “very,” I was told, though a bit of liberty had been taken with a few characters for the purposes of dramatization. A quick perusal suggested a lot of fighting, but it was a war comic after all, so I got the whole extant set, two volumes of a planned three-volume story1 ; this means that this is a review, of sorts, of a work in progress.

This is a terrible historical comic. It’s possible to do interesting and dramatic historical stories as comic books, and it’s possible to do historically sound stories as comic books, and it’s even possible to do interesting and dramatic and historically sound stories as comic books. This is none of the above. This isn’t even a good comic book, at least not compared to the sorts of things I consider good comic books. The chronology is more or less accurate, as near as I can tell without doing a lot more background work, but that’s damning with faint praise.2

In an interview with the Korea Times, Kompan said

“All we have is historical documents, journals, and fragments of weaponry and clothing. That being said, we don’t have a complete disregard of what actually happened. It is not our intent to be historically inaccurate but our objective is to bring Yi into the spotlight,” Kompan said. “We aim to give everyone around the world a fresh and new take on admiral Yi’s story.”

The team takes liberties to tell the story interestingly, but they also do their best to ensure that dates, battles and major events are historically accurate.

“Another important thing to note is that the integrity of admiral Yi is what drives this story. He is an incorruptible force that must overcome all the odds set against him. That’s not something that you can fictionalize. That’s what happened. That’s who he was. That is reality.”

The creative team has been stable except for the artist: Lead author, and convention seller Onrie Kompan is joined by DAK (David Anthony Kraft) as co-writer and editor, Adriana de los Santos as colorist, and Joel Saavedra as letterer; Giovanni Timpano did the art for the first volume, El Arnakleus did the art for the second, and they are looking for an artist for the third volume. Timpano was from Italy, de los Santos and Saavedra from Argentina, and El Arnakleus is “An artist from the Far East, who came to America to follow his dream.” I’ve never heard of any of these people before, but they claim to have extensive experience in the comic book industry, and they got Stan Lee to write a glowing foreword for the first volume. They also claim to have gotten a lot of help from Korean sources, including the Navy and the “Research Institute of Yi Soon Shin at Soonchungyang University.”3

Searching for that misspelled resource led me to this lovely graduate student historiography of Yi Sun-shin by Lee Seung Ho Historiography of Yi Sun Sin and Artificial Embodiment Within 2010. It’s a pretty damning indictment of the comic books, even if it doesn’t know it. It points out that even Yi’s own journals show his character to be … pretty normal for an elite professional. It points out that the mythologies around Yi are both relatively recent, and fading fast in Korean literature and history. Unfortunately, the heroic attitude towards Yi is one of the least terrible aspects of this book: if that were the worst thing about it, I could at least credit it with providing “a Korean perspective” comparable to the Chinese and Japanese perspectives I’ve read (though both of those were academic presentations that took Koreans and sources reasonably seriously).

What Kompan, et al., have done is considerably worse than usual for historical drama: vulgar, incoherent, lurid, inaccurate, poorly executed, and, ultimately, boring. Women characters exist mostly to show off implausibly proportioned body parts4 , and to give the male characters motivations for conflict or a pallette on which to demonstrate their depravity. The pivotal figure in the story is “Baron Seo,” a treacherous slaver, abuser of women, two-faced spy, and generally disgusting character; loosely (almost libelously) based on the So family of Tsushima. Japanese warriors are predictably tedious, honor-obsessed, vicious, and effective.5 There’s a great deal of sexual deviancy in this comic: samurai homosexuality is portrayed as shameful and abusive; sexual abuse of slaves and captives is routine; pedophilia and pederasty are attributed to particularly evil characters, who get to carry it out with some frequency.6 The violence is accompanied by massive blood-sprays and, of course, the severity of the wound depends entirely on the needs of the plot, which reads like a kind of sado-masochstic soap opera.7 The bombastic warrior-speak is leavened with vulgar colloquialisms, all in English except for ninjas (whose untranslated Japanese appears to be machine-generated) and scattered technical terms: ashigaru and “BANGPOHARA!” (which appears to be the Korean for “Fire!”) are the most frequent unexplained vocabulary. As with the research institute, names are often sloppily rendered for no apparent reason. Some of the art in the second volume appears to be based on posterized photographs or models, which is distracting and unsubtle. And in at least one case, the writer and letterer appear to have had an epic breakdown of communication.

Hideyoshi’s execution of Sen no Rikyu is portrayed as a result of the tea master’s defiant doubt that the invasion would go well, and his prediction haunts the authentically angry, but ahistorically handsome and trim Hideyoshi in his appearances. This gets us into the historical questions raised by this drama, which are mostly of the “sins of omission” sort, and really too numerous to detail. Granted, this is focused on Yi Sun-shin, but that doesn’t justify skipping over five years in the middle of the war as though it were a lost weekend. Nor does it explain what was really going on in the land war, how the Chinese were involved (they are “just as bad as the Japanese” as far as the people are concerned), or even what the real strategies and issues were at sea, including some grossly oversimplified and mythical elements that turn Yi from a tactical and organizational genius into a kind of simplistic trickster. And we won’t even start with the imaginative weapons (samurai with battle axes!), armor, etc, and the fact that these characters spend a lot of time staring at reflective blades and seeing things in them that aren’t there.

As I said, it’s bad history. It postulates Yi as a national hero during the war, one whose popularity threatens the King’s position (who cites the frequency with which generals supplanted monarchs in the Choson dynasty, which I don’t remember being an issue), rather than being merely a good leader to his troops. While it highlights the pain and suffering of the Korean people during the war (well, during the interesting naval bits, anyway), it distills that experience down to sexual degradation (slaughter and other forms of slavery are mentioned, but not depicted, and forage/taxation burdens are implied). The intrigues and conflicts within and between Korea, Japan, and China, are turned into psychosexual dramas rather than politics, and the warfare, which should be the best part, is splashy and simplified and loud. It’s a pretty bad comic book, too, unless you like that particular sort of thing.

  1. technically, only the first volume is available, plus the four issues of the 2nd volume, which has yet to be published as a single volume. Also, since I bought them from the writer, I got them all signed! I do love comicons.  

  2. I’ve read a Chinese-oriented history of the war and a Japanese-oriented history of the war, but I don’t have either of those books at hand. Wikipedia, however, has a much more historically sophisticated take on these battles than this comic book.  

  3. also known as the Yi Sun-shin Research Institute at Soonchunhyang University.  

  4. this is a job requirement for whatever artist applies to work the third volume  

  5. except for the ninja, who don’t succeed in killing anyone, I don’t think. The surprised look in their eyes when they get beheaded was intended to be funny, which tells you a great deal about the level of maturity at work here.  

  6. Normally, I’d shelve this with my other historical manga and comics, in my office, but it’s so obviously inappropriate for a workplace or educational setting that I will have to refrain.  

  7. Cinematically, this would be a Quentin Tarantino History Channel production  

End of an Era

On this date, April 25, in 1644 the Chongzhen Emperor, last ruler of the Ming Dynasty hung himself from a tree on Meishan in Beiijng, bringing an end to Ming (and thus Han) imperial rule over China. Of course, if you are a Ming restorationist the dynasty may still be the proper rulers of China even today. Regardless of your political stance, his story is a good one, and the link above summarizes it pretty well.

April History Carnival! #164!

Happy April! Most April Fools Jokes will fall into the May carnival, of course, but I can’t help noting two:

Speaking of the AHA, Sadie Bergen has a nice look at “Collaborative History Blogs” or, as we used to call them, group blogs. I don’t mind that the defunct HNN group blogs (Cliopatria, Liberty and Power, etc.) aren’t mentioned, or early (if now quieter) special topics blogs (Frog in a Well, Chapati Mystery) aren’t mentioned… actually, I kinda do. NOTCHES, The Junto, S-USIH blog are all excellent projects (as are Active History Canada, Sport in American History, which aren’t mentioned) though they don’t submit stuff to the History Carnival, another phenomenon too old to attract the attention of the AHA bloggers… ok, enough ranting. It’s a decent discussion of the professionalization issue (“recreational” was how one department chair described my blogging), just a wee bit foreshortened. What do we actually have this month?

P1090511Manan Ahmed on Richard Eaton and Phillip Wagoner’s 2014 Memory, Power, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600: How To See

Brett Holman on The Melbourne balloon riot of 1858

Sharon Howard rounding up her Womens History Month posts and commenting on a few others.

Historian On The Edge with a survey of the immense amount we don’t know about King Arthur as an ahistorical figure

Karl Steel on oddities of Medieval manuscripts, including multicolored crochet repairs

David Bellos, on the publication of his book about the history of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables

Norman Rockwell, Rosie the Riveter. Crystal Bridges Museum, ArkansasRobert Smith on the purported anniversary of the first flight of K5054 the Supermarine Type 300 Spitfire prototype

Michael Meyer at TNI, on the great 19th century scientist Mary Somerville

Erik Loomis on “This Day In Labor History” looks at a 1959 Mexican railroad strike and the anniverary of Philippine independence

Hels of Melbourne on a failed 1939 attempt to get refugee visas for German and Austrian Jews

Jon Piccini on Human Rights, Women’s Rights and Third Worldism in Mexico City, 1975

VIDA: Blog of the Australian Women’s History Network is another great group blog project, and they had a predictably good Womens History Month!

Walters 2012 - Europe - Weapons - Bulletproof Helmet - grinJessica Cale at Dirty, Sexy History gets the award for the best blog name I hadn’t heard of, and has two posts: The “Poor-Whores Petition” and the Shrove Tuesday Riots on 1668 and Daniel Mendoza and the Modern Art of Boxing

Howard Dorre, The Skinny on John Quincy Adams’s Skinny Dipping Interview and debunking the myth of Anne Royall’s shame.

Speaking of debunking, I got some pushback on my Last Samurai review.

The next History Carnival will be at Yvonne Seale, author of Papal Bull? “The Young Pope” and Teaching the Middle Ages

and Hosts are needed from Jun 2017! Please contact the co-ordinator if interested.

Delayed Reaction, or, I get mail.

In response to my review of The Last Samurai movie, I got the following email yesterday:

Message From: your mom Message: I read your review of "The Last Samurai", you sir are an idiot. You must be a liberal left wing piece of garbage. This was an extraordinary film, but i bet you didnt like "Open Range" or "the Passion of The CHRIST". Liberals are the scourge of the earth. You have a phd in what??< NOTHING. I have three degrees in real science, Geology, Geography, and Physical Science. Science proves the existence of God. I have never read the Bible, but Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Biology, etc, PROVE there is a CREATOR. You sir are an idiot, and i hate liberals like you. Good day sirThe text reads:

Message From: your mom
Message: I read your review of “The Last Samurai”, you sir are an idiot. You must be a liberal left wing piece of garbage. This was an extraordinary film, but i bet you didnt like “Open Range” or “the Passion of The CHRIST”. Liberals are the scourge of the earth. You have a phd in what??< NOTHING. I have three degrees in real science, Geology, Geography, and Physical Science. Science proves the existence of God. I have never read the Bible, but Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Biology, etc, PROVE there is a CREATOR. You sir are an idiot, and i hate liberals like you. Good day sir

I can’t wait to see how he reacts to my review of 47 Ronin.

Chiang Kai-shek, Enemy of the People

I have found and interesting source. Dr Jeremy Taylor at the Department of History, University of Nottingham has a site entitled ‘Enemy of the People’. visual depictions of Chiang Kai-shek. As he points out

Chiang Kai-shek was one of the most caricatured, satirised and lampooned leaders in twentieth-century Asia―if not the world…..Unlike many of his fellow dictators, Chiang is impossible to tie down to one particular event, moment or issue…….. He was an anti-imperialist revolutionary, a wartime leader, a defeated militarist, an anti-communist stalwart, an authoritarian despot, and many other things to many different people.

The site is a bit hard to navigate, but there are a lot of good images in there. Most of them are from the 40’s and later, which is too bad. Here is a nice image of him as an authoritarian from Shanghai manhua. I think I have a few from the “Red Chiang” period as well.

Fake News? Chinese Cannibalism Cookbooks?

Sy Montgomery’s review of CANNIBALISM: A Perfectly Natural History By Bill Schutt includes the following paragraph:

Next time you eat Chinese, for example, you might discuss how, during the Yuan dynasty, royalty and upper-class citizens did so, too. So frequently did high society dine on fellow citizens that the various methods of preparing human flesh — including baking, roasting, broiling, smoke-drying and sun-drying — filled 13 pages of one book Schutt consulted. (Children were considered the tastiest, followed by women and last, men.) In fact, so-called epicurean cannibalism — that is, eating your fellow men/women/children because they taste good and not just because there’s nothing else in the house — was still widespread in China into the late 1960s during the Cultural Revolution.

Smithsonian Sackler - China - bce 10c Western Zhou Ritual Food Gui with handlesI know there are documented cases of cannibalism in Chinese history (Great Leap Famine), and plenty of food crises in which cannibalism was at least widely rumored (including the Yuan era), but for all of the “The Chinese Will Eat Anything” articles I’ve seen, I’ve never seen a claim of anything like this. Schutt is, apparently, a biologist and the review claims that he’s interviewed and consulted anthropologists. My immediate reaction is that he can’t tell the difference between a satire and a supernova, and has fallen prey to the “primary sources must be true” school of amateur historiography.

However, I’m open to the possibility that I’ve just missed out on these sources, and that every other food historian and anthropologist who’s studied China has missed them as well, or decided to keep them a trade secret. (credit to Matt Thomas for bringing this to my attention)

Anyone want to weigh in?

p.s. The most comprehensive source I’ve found so far is Sutton, Donald S. “Consuming Counterrevolution: The Ritual and Culture of Cannibalism in Wuxuan, Guangxi, China, May to July 1968.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 37, no. 1 (1995): 136-72. This is an attempt to put Zheng Yi’s account of the 1968 Wuxuan county wave of cannibalism into cultural context, but doesn’t support either of the claims above, either that cannibalism was “widespread” in the Cultural Revolution (though I guess that would depend on your definition) or the Yuan cookbook. It does corroborate the tradition of using human body parts as medicinal ingredients/sacrifices and some ritual consumption of defeated enemies, at least in stories.

Diaspora experience as a function of modernity, imperialism, and nationalism.

From my online course on Asia-US migration, an upcoming discussion:

The second half of [Vinay] Lal’s book [The Other Indians: A Political And Cultural History of South Asians In America] is our first detailed look at the post-1965 Immigration Act situation, and particularly interesting look through the lens of Diaspora. South Asian immigrants to the US are just as connected to their homelands as pre-war Japanese or Chinese immigrants were, and though the technologies of interaction are dramatically more effective, a lot of the dynamics are familiar. Reinvestment of income in family communities, development of local cultural institutions, 2nd generation cultural gaps, aspirational tensions, redefinition of ‘culture’ to be a narrow subset of hobbies and traditions, returnee issues, ethnic nationalism and overseas influence issues, etc. You could even argue that the influence of Indian religions in non-Indian Americans (ISKCON, Vivekananda, etc.) parallels the influence of Zen Buddhism as an attempt to find new and alternative non-Western spiritual traditions.

A few months ago I came across Wajahat Ali’s play “Domestic Crusaders” (, where you can download the script for free) which is a family drama based on 1st and 2nd generation Pakistani immigrants in the US. It is funny, touching, tense, and lively, and nothing in it was the least bit surprising to someone like me who grew up with family dramas based on 1st and 2nd generation Eastern European Jews.

This is why, honestly, “Diaspora” is such a useful scholarly term: there really are patterns, comparisons, predictable developments. Historians often shy away from that sort of talk, because we’re more interested in particularity and complexity, but sometimes we have to admit that the sociologists are on to something. This leaves us with two questions: Why? and Within the pattern, how is each one distinctive and unique?

I think the “Why?” question is pretty easy, actually, especially in the US where persistent racism makes it hard for even third-generation Americans to be considered fully mainstream and acceptable. That tendency to exclusion enhances what might be considered the ‘natural solidarity’ of immigrants who share linguistic and cultural characteristics. The modern infrastructure of transportation and communication means that immigrants can and will remain in contact with home countries, and contribute economically, but also have resources with which to implant and expand their home cultures locally. This is enhanced on both sides by the discourses of modern nationalism and the nation-state which, even in the America, define citizenship culturally as much as legally. The combination of modernity – in which anxiety about ‘kids these days’ is a constant feature (though it does go back a long, long way in human societies) – and the sensation of being on a cultural frontier enhances tensions between assimilation and preservation of culture in the 2nd generation. Even in the 1st generation, the impossibility of fully replicating the home environment (both due to distance, and the fact that things change, even in the homeland) means that their attachment to home becomes more focused on particular aspects of home culture (religion, or certain cultural activities) and allows for a great deal more assimilation than they will admit (until they try to go back…). These patterns are structural, building on the most fundamental aspects of modernity: nationalism, infrastructure.

That last paragraph is kind of ambitious, but I might work up a presentation expanding on it…

Oh, internment again.

This is something I wrote for my Asia-US migration class this week. We’re reading Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America. You can figure out which bits, I think…

You’d think, reading Lee, that most of the critical questions surrounding the internment of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans during WWII were pretty clearly settled. You’d be wrong: Joseph Shoji Lachman, “I can’t believe I’m responding to another pro-Japanese Incarceration piece.” 30 January 2017. Lachman’s frustration stems at least in part from the fact that this is an historical battle that has been going on for over a decade, since Michelle Malkin published her book In Defense of Internment: The Case for Racial Profiling in World War II and the War on Terror. This was in the relatively early days of blogs, and history blogs in particular were quite active. She was answered quite vigorously by a number of scholars, including myself: the most effective were Dave Neiwert (better known for his work on right-wing militias and conservative politics, which gave him a solid background in Malkin’s political foundations), Eric Muller (lawyer and historian, author of American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II) and Greg Robinson (who had already published one book on Japanese internment, and would go on to publish A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America which helpfully added Canada to the history, and which Lee has drawn on heavily in her Canadian sections). You can see one of Greg Robinson’s responses here  and one of Eric Muller’s here and even one of mine here If you want the full debate, you can still find Robinson and Muller’s joint blogging reviews

Fundamentally, defenses of internment boil down to a few core arguments, none of which I find persuasive:

  • Fear of unrest, because of panicking racist non-Japanese (which was a consideration, according to US officials at the time). Essentially a form of blaming the victim, or if you want to put it in the nicest possible way, sacrificing the rights of the minority to protect them from the majority.
  • Cautionary principle, based on extreme risk-aversion (a very popular argument right now, as it turns out), which basically allows any remotely plausible scenario to justify overwhelming force; actual evidence helps, but it isn’t necessary.
  • “It worked, didn’t it?” In other words, since the policy was carried out successfully, the necessity for it must be assumed. This is particularly popular in the debates about the use of atomic weapons in WWII as well.
  • Rational reaction to available information. This is more or less the tack that Malkin took, though she abused her sources viciously to arrive at her conclusions. This is an argument to which historians are really more sympathetic generally, because it involves taking the mindset (or mentalité, to use the original French) of historical actors seriously, but for it to work requires proving that the information was available and credible, that countervailing information was not (available or credible, or both), and that the reaction is rational and proportionate. Lots of moving parts, and lots of places where it can fail.

Of course, the historian’s job is easier if it’s about causality and complexity and not about justification. In fact, it could be argued that political justification and ethical considerations aren’t entirely appropriate historical theses. If all history was done by academic historians, it’s possible that they would never come up, but one of the great things about history is that it matters to everyone. People take their histories seriously, and use historical examples to justify their present actions. Ethics and politics are embedded in everything we do, sometimes subtly and sometimes terribly obviously. We are mostly narrative thinkers, and the stories we tell can be very persuasive.