Grading Papers

Teaching high school English back in the seventies wasn’t bad at all, especially at that prep school in upstate New York. That’s the thing about private schools – they’re exclusive. Those who won’t be able to keep up aren’t admitted, unless their parents have deep pockets. Old money talks even louder – such schools thrive on prestige as much as on turning out those whip-smart kids they send off to the best colleges, so they accept some not terribly prepossessing students, for the family name. Paying in full helps too – that provides some extra cash for a few scholarships, for the good kids who weren’t born lucky. All in all it’s not a bad system, at least for those who land teaching position in a place like that. The pay is crap, but the classes are small and the students are eager, or know they should be. If they’re not there’ll be hell to pay at home. This isn’t public school. This isn’t free.

Putting aside the questions around perpetuating elitism and undermining the whole concept of democracy and equality of opportunity, the job was fine. The classes were lively, save for the usual late-adolescent sulking and posturing, which had nothing to do with anything other than the fits and starts of trying to forge an adult ego structure out of thin air. That comes with the territory, as they say, and there are ways to work around that, or step out of the way at the right moment. Teaching was a breeze, more or less. The problem came late at night – grading papers. In school like this, one assigns a lot of them – one a week or so – and it’s really best to be encouraging. Note the errors in spelling and grammar and syntax, if there are any, and comment on how well they made their point, and suggest even better ways to make that point. That’s fine, if there is a point. Often there wasn’t – just a string of likely-sounding words assembled in a kind of hopeful way, but very carefully, with real effort. It was obvious the kid wanted a good grade, and would probably demand one for what was sitting there on the page, whatever it was – and that was depressing. There was nowhere to start. There wasn’t enough there to even be wrong, even if it was presented quite nicely. What was there to say?

There were always papers like that. This would end in angry tears the next day, made worse by being unable to explain to the kid that his or her argument – such as it was – really didn’t even rise to the level of being wrong. That’s hard to explain, and that was always the hardest part of the job. When asked, in a kindly and helpful way, what they were really trying to say, they fumbled around, shamed and embarrassed. That was uncomfortable. Both parties were embarrassed.

Those days are long gone. There’s no more sitting around late at night trying to find something to say about likely-sounding nothing, but it was good training for dealing with the likely-sounding nothing that turn up elsewhere in life. Anyone who follows politics runs into such stiff all the time – careful academic arguments that don’t even rise to the level of being wrong.

In 2010, in Forbes, it was Dinesh D’Souza with this:

Barack Obama is the most antibusiness president in a generation, perhaps in American history. … The real problem with Obama is worse – much worse. But we have been blinded to his real agenda because, across the political spectrum, we all seek to fit him into some version of American history. In the process, we ignore Obama’s own history. Here is a man who spent his formative years–the first 17 years of his life–off the American mainland, in Hawaii, Indonesia and Pakistan, with multiple subsequent journeys to Africa.

It all goes back to Obama’s Kenyan father. “To his son, the elder Obama represented a great and noble cause, the cause of anti-colonialism.” He throws in the Mau-Mau Rebellion for good measure too, and Newt Gingrich chimed in saying Dinesh D’Souza was the “most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama.” Just think about it – “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together his actions? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”

It is? See Slate’s David Weigel pointing to D’Souza’s claim that Obama supported offshore drilling in Brazil but not here at home because “he wants neocolonial America to have less and the former colonized countries to have more.” Weigel notes that the Brazil approval came from the Export-Import Bank full of Bush appointees, that the offshore funding was from private investment, and that D’Souza’s mistake likely originated with a similarly “bogus” Glenn Beck segment. Weigel adds this – “I’ve read much of D’Souza’s upcoming book, from which this article was adapted, and this is not the only lazy error. It’s a revealing one, however, demonstrating just how eager he is to find ‘aha!’ moments of Obama’s alleged ‘anti-colonial’ politics. He’s so eager that he doesn’t have time to check the facts.”

All high school English teachers know papers like that, and the American Conservative’s Daniel Larison said that this was “possibly the most ridiculous piece of Obama analysis yet written.”

Larison was worried however:

Considering how atrocious D’Souza’s argument is, why spend any time answering it? For one thing, when nonsense like this isn’t countered it tends to gain traction. Another reason is that conservative pundits and writers such as D’Souza have been indulging in so much evidence-free, ideological babbling for the last two years that many of them now seem convinced that this babbling is actually extremely serious, insightful commentary. If we are going to have anything remotely resembling an honest or informed debate over foreign policy or anything else during the remainder of Obama’s time in office, arguments like this one have to be knocked down.

Yes, but how do you knock down such arguments? Where do you start? Who has the patience for nonsense? No, Shakespeare, in Hamlet, was not writing an insightful allegory about America’s involvement in Vietnam, as it relates to the death of Janis Joplin – an actual student paper from way back when. Proving a negative is hard enough. Disproving nonsense is even harder. It’s best to just walk away, even if English teachers can’t.

D’Souza’s Forbes article did turn into a book, and then a movie, and then the whole notion disappeared. Soon enough no one would argue with him, carefully explaining to him how he was just making stuff up. There was no point. English teachers don’t have that option, but that worked well enough in the political arena. Evidence-free, ideological babbling subsided for a time.

It’s back, with a vengeance. There’s a new book by Diana West about how the Soviet Union “occupied” America under FDR and dictated foreign policy to serve communist interests – American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation’s Character – and it’s pretty amazing:

West digs deeper to discover the root of this malaise and uncovers a body of lies that Americans have been led to regard as the near-sacred history of World War II and its Cold War aftermath.

Part real-life thriller, part national tragedy, American Betrayal lights up the massive, Moscow-directed penetration of America’s most hallowed halls of power, revealing not just the familiar struggle between Communism and the Free World, but the hidden war between those wishing to conceal the truth and those trying to expose the increasingly official web of lies.

American Betrayal is America’s lost history, a chronicle that pits Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight David Eisenhower, and other American icons who shielded overlapping Communist conspiracies against the investigators, politicians, defectors, and others (including Senator Joseph McCarthy) who tried to tell the American people the truth.

American Betrayal shatters the approved histories of an era that begins with FDR’s first inauguration, when “happy days” are supposed to be here again, and ends when we “win” the Cold War. It is here, amid the rubble, where Diana West focuses on the World War II Cold War deal with the devil in which America surrendered her principles in exchange for a series of Big Lies whose preservation soon became the basis of our leaders’ own self-preservation. It was this moral surrender to deception and self-deception, West argues, that sent us down the long road to moral relativism, “political correctness,” and other cultural ills that have left us unable to ask the hard questions: Does our silence on the crimes of Communism explain our silence on the totalitarianism of Islam? Is Uncle Sam once again betraying America?

Add this disclaimer from West:

I am a journalist, not a historian, although writing a syndicated weekly newspaper column since 1999 makes me one of those first-drafters of history. Indeed, I came very close to completing a History major at my alma mater, Yale, until changing my major to English after deciding I preferred the fiction of the ages to the politics of the history department.

That’s telling, and at David Horowitz’s everyone-hates-liberals-for-good-reason site FrontPage, Ronald Radosh surprisingly lets it rip:

Many Americans at both ends of the political spectrum view history in conspiratorial terms. The late Senator Joseph McCarthy set the bar very high when he claimed to have uncovered “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man – a conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.” In that famous speech to the Senate on June 14, 1951, McCarthy condemned former Chief of Staff of the Army and Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense as a traitor who made “common cause with Stalin on the strategy of the war in Europe,” who “took the strategic direction of the war out of Roosevelt’s hands and – who fought the British desire, shared by [General] Mark Clark, to advance from Italy into the eastern plains of Europe ahead of the Russians.”

Diana West, who expands the scope of this conspiracy in American Betrayal, is McCarthy’s heiress. She argues that during the New Deal the United States was an occupied power, its government controlled by Kremlin agents who had infiltrated the Roosevelt administration and subverted it. Like McCarthy, whom West believes got everything correct, she believes a conspiracy was at work that effectively enabled the Soviets to be the sole victors in World War II and shape American policies in the postwar world.

At this point it would be best to walk away, but Radosh can’t, as the stakes are too high:

As a historian I normally would not have agreed to review a book such as this one. But I changed my mind after seeing the reckless endorsements of its unhinged theories by a number of conservative individuals and organizations. These included the Heritage Foundation which has hosted her for book promotions at a lunchtime speech and a dinner; Breitbart.com which is serializing America Betrayed; PJ Media which has already run three favorable features on West; Amity Shlaes, who writes unnervingly that West’s book, “masterfully reminds us what history is for: to suggest action for the present”; and by conservative political scientist and media commentator Monica Crowley, who called West’s book “A monumental achievement.”

Now these folks have always hated FDR. He created Social Security and unemployment insurance and got us all used to the idea of a social safety net – which eliminated Americans’ sense of personal responsibility and led to Head Start and Medicare and Medicaid and now Obamacare, not to mention all that intrusive civil rights stuff in the sixties. He created the SEC and all that banking regulation stuff – capital requirements and no buying stock and bonds on ninety-percent margin and all that – ruining American business so good people could no longer make big money. He did all that WPA make-work stuff to keep people employed in the Great Depression, when the private sector should have done that, or unemployment should have been sky high, to keep labor costs low and profit margins soaring, or something – he undermined the free market and all that. They’re fine with the journalist who says she’s no historian proving, definitively, that FDR was a communist too.

Radosh isn’t fine with that:

West writes without an understanding of historical context and lacks awareness of much of the scholarly literature on the subjects she writes about. Moreover, she disregards the findings of the sources she does rely on when they contradict her yellow journalism conspiracy theories. Consequently she arrives at judgment after judgment that is not only bizarre on its face, but also unwarranted by the evidence and refuted by the very authorities she draws on. …

West has evidently seduced conservatives who are justifiably appalled by the left’s rewriting of history, its denials that Communists ever posed a threat, and its claim that Communist infiltration was a destructive myth created by witch-hunters intent on suppressing dissent.

Yes, but bullshit is still bullshit, and Radosh, with more patience than any English teacher could ever muster, dismantles her arguments one by one.

His takedown of West’s book is itself masterful, and several thousand words long. It’s a real historian eviscerating a fake one – if you like that sort of thing – but one or two highlights will give you a sense of it:

West insists that Lend-Lease aid was a crucial “rogue operation” orchestrated by Hopkins and the NKVD [the precursor to the KGB] for the purpose of getting not only war supplies to the Russians, but “the materials that go into making an atomic bomb… up to and including uranium.” … A significant part of her book is devoted to “proving” that Lend-Lease helped make the USSR “the true victor of World War II.” She refers to Lend-lease as “the plunder of atomic secrets … spirited out of the country on a U.S.-government sponsored flight.” The reference is to a shipment of uranium to Russia in 1943, allegedly orchestrated by Harry Hopkins as Agent 19. To her, this proves that the Lend-Lease Act “was a slam-dunk victorious Soviet influence operation.” Or, as she refers to Lend-Lease at the end of her book: “All that American booty pirated by Harry Hopkins for Mother Russia.”

These claims, which lie at the heart of her conspiracy theory, are demonstrably wrong, and show that she even fails to understand the nature of the unrefined uranium the Soviets actually received under Lend-Lease, which was not strategic in terms of making an atomic weapon. General Leslie Groves, who was in charge of The Manhattan Project, signed off on the shipment, as has been well known for more than 60 years, because he feared that if he rejected the requests it would tip-off Moscow that uranium was a highly sensitive commodity, something he was certain they did not yet know.

Even if they had known, the Soviets would have faced an insurmountable problem in using the shipped ore for bomb making. The problem they would have faced was in separating bomb-grade U-235 (which makes up only 0.7 percent of natural uranium) from U-238 (99.3%), a difficult technical engineering challenge. Until the Soviets could figure out how to separate the isotopes, which they eventually did through the post war espionage at Los Alamos we are all familiar with, the uranium ore they received would be useless for making a weapon. While separating uranium ore was a daunting technological issue, mining uranium ore and refining it into metal was easy, and the Soviets, like other nations, did so for industrial purposes vital to the prosecution of the war, such as producing steel alloys for arms. Even after the Soviets learned how to separate the isotopes, the amounts of un-separated uranium needed were huge, because so little of natural uranium is U-235. The shipment sent under Lend-Lease was a tiny fraction of what was needed to extract enough U-235 to build a bomb, even if the Soviets had the know-how, which at the time the shipments were made they did not. In fact, as we now know, the first Soviet A-Bomb, detonated in 1949, and copied from our “Fat Man” weapon, was a plutonium based bomb.

All of this information and more can be found in David Holloway’s definitive study, Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956, which West seems not to be aware of.

Radosh doesn’t fool around, and then there’s this:

In her effort to paint the Roosevelt administration as a puppet of Soviet intelligence, she argues that towards the end of the war, the American government turned down the opportunity to arm German soldiers willing to form a new army to go to war against the USSR. American leaders were so pro-Soviet, in other words, that they missed one final opportunity to halt the Red Army’s advance into Eastern Europe, thereby delivering these countries to Stalin’s tender mercies and precipitating the Cold War. As she writes, “There existed many German anti-Nazis, even many high-ranking ones… who wanted to end World War II early; that’s the basic concept… we ignored them… Our best interests, once again, were subverted for Soviet ends.”

Her case rests on a story told by FDR’s old friend and former Governor of Pennsylvania, George H. Earle. She spends pages relating how Earle contacted German intelligence chief Admiral Wilhelm Canaris in 1943, and tried to persuade him to accept U.S. “peace feelers.” Although this is another well-known episode, West organizes the material to make the reader believe that it was ignored when first made public years ago, and that her own book is finally revealing its momentous significance.

In presenting her case, she has facile answers to the obvious difficulties that confront her scenario. She writes, for example, that the US could have supported the opposition to Hitler and backed a coup against him, thus producing “the defection of the German army and negotiate its surrender to the Allies.” She suggests Canaris and others had the ability to overthrow Hitler, close the death camps, and thwart Soviet conquests in Europe and Asia.

It is apparent that West is unfamiliar with much of the research that has been done on World War II, or the fact that her counterfactual speculations are not regarded as realistic possibilities by any reputable historian of the era. She does not seem to know the context of the decisions that FDR, Churchill and the generals in the field made, or appreciate the factors they had to take into account. Or more likely she prefers to ignore them because her theories could not survive the encounter.

There’s much more that follows, but she heard somewhere that we could have teamed up with the good Nazis, who weren’t really Nazis, and kept all of Eastern Europe out of the hands of Uncle Joe Stalin, but we didn’t – because FDR was a communist plant, or something, which befuddles Radosh:

Consider the political difficulties of reversing the course of wartime history at this late juncture. For four years, the Soviet Union had been portrayed as an ally to western publics, praised for its sacrifices and efforts in behalf of “freedom,” while the Germans had secured a place in the public mind as evil incarnate. Could Western leaders turn this equation inside-out while the war was still hot? These are the kinds of questions that never occur to West because she is entirely focused on explaining the decisions of the Allies in terms of the Soviet “occupation” of Western governments: “World War II could have been ended years earlier had Communists working for Moscow not dominated Washington, quashing every anti-Nazi, anti-Communist attempt beginning in late 1942, throughout 1943 and 1944, to make common cause with Anglo-American representatives. Their main condition, Allied support on keeping Russian troops out of central and eastern Europe, was an instant deal breaker – the anti-Red line – neither the Communist-occupied British government nor the Communist-occupied American government would dare to cross.”

To West, Roosevelt and Churchill were seeking to liberate Europe for the Soviets, because of the Communist occupation of their governments. This construct is a conspiracy theory that has run off the rails and is utterly oblivious to the realities on the ground.

That’s just a taste of it. There’s much more, and there are the Amazon reader reviews including this:

Where West’s contribution differs from anything else, thus far available, is that in addition to assimilating all of the most important aspects of the Soviet infestation she illustrates a parallel action on the part of the Islamists today. An understanding of the current Islamic penetration into our society, government and culture alike, is vitally important, and should be readily apparent.

One might ask, apparent to whom? Evidence-free, ideological babbling is back, but one Amazon review is terse and pithy:

History that I never got in school!

That sort of depends on where you went to school. Some schools are better than others. In some schools the teacher will ask, in a kindly and helpful way, what you were really trying to say, and then try to help you out. It’s just a guess, but it’s possible that Diana West never had that particular teacher – but there are few of them left anywhere now. All of us moved on. Disproving nonsense is tiresome, and moving beyond it sometimes impossible. That seems to be the case here.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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