The Experience of Evidence
David A. Bell’s review of Joan Wallach Scott’s On the Judgment of History threatens to reignite an old—and valueless—quarrel between advocates of two progressive paths: welcome reform and radical transformation [“Distant Moments,” May 16/23]. Both writers are accomplished historians who study past moments marked by these kinds of contradictions. But we know that the social democracy that Bell wishes to be better appreciated, having done its work of avoiding bloody revolutions like those at the end of World War I, was repaid with as much welfare as could be pried out of the capitalist framework. It is everywhere in the West now a bureaucratic hulk with limited voter loyalty. Like the French Socialist Party, Western social democracy has moved from elegant headquarters in the power center of the capital to a lower-rent locality outside the city. We see the feebleness of our own Democratic Party struggling—too often half-heartedly and largely unsuccessfully—to keep some pieces of the social politics that had been achieved by the New Deal and the civil rights and women’s rights movements.
In the past, movement forward has been most effective when social reformers and revolutionaries contest. In doing so, they make both spaces and challenges for each other. A bit like the mix in the two wings of the Democratic Party in Congress. Or like how President Emmanuel Macron, a onetime Socialist cabinet member, co-opted Socialist voters and thereby opened the way for a new, more radical united left to form. The moderate progressives are forced to make space for advocates of the New. As the party of the New gains political support from the discriminated-against and economically weak, it has space to push for more and better. Thus, the kinds of pressures liberated by the theoretical reach of a Joan Scott are absolutely necessary to force social democracy out of its current complacency and voter flight. An either/or model is not helpful to understand the dialectic of these twin forces in lived history.
SUNY Trustees Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History
Stony Brook University
stony brook, n.y.
David A. Bell rather remarkably casts Joan Wallach Scott as the moralistic judge of history in a book that is, explicitly, a critique of the idea that history can ever judge. Missing the point, he writes that Scott “hands out failing grades in two of her three case studies (Nuremberg and South Africa)” in her recent work On the Judgment of History.
Scott argues that it is not only the persistent myth of historical progress that structures the “judgment of history,” but, and perhaps more importantly, the nation-state as an abstract form. It is, for Scott, the conjunction of history, justice, and the nation-state that shapes political and ethical possibility. Abstract ideas structure our thought, forming and limiting liberation, emancipation, and justice; they often operate insofar as they remain uninterrogated. It is not that the Nuremberg tribunal or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were somehow at fault and could have been corrected. Rather, it is the underlying premises of their operations that need to be examined if we are to apprehend their limited political outcomes.
Bell worries that Scott’s critical scholarship is a faux politics. He does not see how it will “help drive political change,” because it overstates domination, underplays progress, and lacks a practical solution to intractable political problems. The reason these problems are intractable, however, lies in the naive liberal belief in progress that Bell wants to cling to, despite evidence from our current crises (climate, racial, economic, political) that calls into question the plausibility of that belief.
Associate Professor of History
University of South Florida
The Nuclear Bandwagon
Charles Komanoff proposes to defer the plan to shut down Diablo Canyon in California, the last nuclear plant in the state [“It’s Time to Rethink Carbon Taxes,” May 16/23]. As the world confronts the ravages of climate change, some propose nuclear energy as a path to decarbonization. But that is a false solution. Producing atomic power includes uranium mining, milling, purification, enrichment, and fabrication. These emit six to 24 times more carbon and pollution than wind power, at a much greater cost. Huge amounts of waste remain highly toxic for hundreds of thousands of years. Some is released into the air and water, raising the cancer risk for local residents. And the chance of a catastrophic meltdown is ongoing.
The sun is setting on nuclear power. Japan closed all 54 of its reactors after the Fukushima meltdown in 2011; only 10 have restarted. Germany is closing its last reactors this year—as its share of electricity from wind and solar soars past 40 percent. In the US, Washington and Oregon are also past the 40 percent mark, with several states close behind. Jumping on a nuclear bandwagon is not only unnecessary but hauntingly dangerous. The Diablo Canyon reactors should close as planned, to allow safe renewables to take their place.
New Jersey Board Chair
Clean Water Action
Radiation and Public Health Project
ocean city, n.j.
The letter to the editor from Roy Singham in the March 21/28 issue misidentified his city of residence. It should have been Shanghai, not Beijing.
Due to an editing error, the article War and Peace in Ukraine,” by Katrina vanden Heuvel [March 21/28], listed Norway as a neutral country. Norway is a member of NATO and therefore not neutral.
In Sherry Boschert’s “Truth, Light, and Title IX” [March 21/28], Carmita Wood, whose story helped inspire the fight against sexual harassment, was identified as a Black woman. This was incorrect; she was a white woman.
“Psychedelics Inc.,” by Zoe Cormier [April 4/11], stated that at one point in the 1950s, the CIA had ordered 100 million doses of LSD, enough for every citizen in the United States. The article should have specified that this was enough for every adult. By 1950, the US population exceeded 151 million.