Sunday, May 01, 2005

Sheila Agonistes

"what would you have done better?"

At the end of another academic year, I've accumulated a wee bit of hostile energy toward some of my students. Papers arrive a week beyond the assigned due dates, accompanied by the predictable, woeful anthology of fables and distortions, none of which I have the energy to challenge. Entire lives crumble — jobs are lost, marriages and relationships fail, pets and distant relatives expire gruesomely — in uncanny proximity to the year's final obligations. T. S. Eliot was not entirely wrong when he wrote that April is the cruelest month. Had be taught at an American university, though, he might have included the first week of May as well.

As circumstance would have it, amid the usual frustrations I've also been thinking a lot recently about Richard Nixon. The other day, I got to reminiscing about a student — we'll call her Sheila — who wobbled into my office a few years ago to ask me what I would have done if I'd been in Richard Nixon's shoes. I had just finished a class in which I'd outlined why Nixon's years in office continue to be recalled as a stew of crookery and violence, much (but not all) of which radiated from the bizarre personal character of the man holding the office of president. Sheila disagreed, claiming that Nixon was instead a great but misunderstood character who would someday find vindication. (This was a student, I should mention in passing, who believed that Billy Joel lyrics contained valid historical insights. Once someone announces this in a public setting, there's no point in responding to her in complete sentences.) "If you're so clever and smart," she seemed to be saying, "what would you have done better?" Responding to the challenge with a degree of seriousness it did not deserve, I explained carefully that while it's important to imagine what historical actors must have experienced, and that it's helpful to think of the alternative and unrealized possibilities that existed in the past, it's not always helpful to imagine what we as individuals might have done differently. We don't have to fully accept the Leninist idea that serious history begins where the masses are, but the point is well taken. Individuals are not omnipotent. If we were to be transported magically back in time, many of us would fail terribly, long before we had any opportunity to make epochal decisions.

I, for example, would make a terrible president. I'm disorganized and lazy; I'm terrible at delegating authority; I have no inspiring vision for the future; and while I get paid to talk to people for a living, my social skills outside the classroom are wanting. At large, anonymous social gatherings, for instance, I tend to hover somewhat phobically by the food table, where I stuff my face to avoid conversation with people I don't know. These are all, it's safe to say, horrendous leadership qualities. None of this prevents me from acquiring a certain historical understanding the Nixon presidency, but it makes it difficult to engage in facile counter-factuals of the "what-would-you-have-done" variety. What would I have done? I would have cowered in the Oval Office for four years, eating peanut butter sandwiches, staring into space, and excoriating myself for not doing more with my life.

This bit of sophistry was lost on Sheila. She liked to think of herself as being "engaged" and "persistent," which were her euphemisms for "irritating" and "thick-brained," and so she pressed onward. "How would you have done any better?"

"Well," I conceded, "eating peanut butter sandwiches — from a certain vantage point, of course — might have been better than invading Cambodia, or hiring an entire covert staff to spread lies about political opponents, or using the Attorney General to sanction domestic espionage, or lying about the progress of a war to solidify my own re-election. I guess I'd like to think I wouldn't have done those things."

"But what would you have done better?"

"I don't know, Sheila. Maybe not grinding the US Constitution into a fine powder would have been a good place to start?"

"Well, I guess I just think the world's getting better all the time, and Richard Nixon must have helped in some way."

This time of year, when I need reasons to be grateful for the arrival of summer, I think of Sheila.