Bruce Cumings and what he deserves

by on August 6, 2010 at 10:51 am in Books, History, Political Science | Permalink

Many of you are objecting to my post on his book, either in the form of comments or emails.  You are objecting to his ideology and objecting that he does not denounce the North Korean regime with sufficient fervor and with sufficient recognition of its true awfulness, though he does denounce it, using the word "reprehensible."

On these points I (mostly) agree with you, the critics.  Yet it is still a good book and it should open many people's eyes to the history of the Korean War and the not always pretty American role in that war.  I haven't seen good comments or reviews finding fault with the book itself (but if I do I will pass them on).  The book, by the way, does not allege that South Korea started the war.

Keep in mind how many history or foreign policy books or essays are written by people who are essentially toadies to power or apologists for the U.S. government, or for some other foreign regime.  It is expected that we accept those problematic inclinations and affiliations without comment or condemnation.  In contrast to many of the works by establishment historians, Cumings is a breath of fresh air.

Overall I seek to narrow rather than widen the following category: "cannot be praised without accompanying symbolic denunciation."  If it turns out that, in the process, Cumings reaps more relative status than he deserves (and I am not very influential in shaping the reputations of historians), I'm not especially troubled by that.

In fact maybe I'm happy to see you squirm a bit.

One of my major purposes in writing this blog is to nudge people away from judging political issues, or for that matter books, by asking which groups or individuals rise or fall in relative status.

1 Brian Moore August 6, 2010 at 11:11 am

I feel that each book should open with an introductory chapter that outlines the various actors with the author’s desired level of condemnation, to clear up these confusions.

Mr. Cumings could then make it clear that:
North Korea: 214 condemns
South Korea: 92 condemns
China: 160 condemns
US: 113 condemns
MacArthur: 7.9 condemns

Prominent literature critics could also go back and add these little appendices (condemndices?) to major works, like Shakespeare, to enhance transparency.

2 Joe August 6, 2010 at 11:17 am

This is one of the reasons why I read MR, despite disagreeing with much of what Tyler thinks.

3 psota August 6, 2010 at 11:44 am

Korea brings out the best in leftist crank historians. Chalmers Johnson may be a few leaves short of a spliff, but his writings on the US involvement in Korea throughout the Cold War is spot on.

4 MikeMcK August 6, 2010 at 11:48 am

Amen Professor Cowen, Amen

5 Rich Berger August 6, 2010 at 11:56 am

Tyler

In fact maybe I’m happy to see you squirm a bit.

6 E. Barandiaran August 6, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Closely related to the issue of critical thinking, I recommend to watch the new BBC series on the question of “why are smart people so consistently fooled by evil regimes?”
See http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p008vd41

In relation to the first episode of the BBC series (titled “Useful Idiots”), M. Moynihan has written this interesting column http://reason.com/blog/2010/08/05/a-webb-of-lies

7 MattJ August 6, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Reprehensible, eh?

Kim Jong will be feeling that barb in the morning.

Keep in mind how many history or foreign policy books or essays are written by people who are essentially toadies to power or apologists for the U.S. government, or for some other foreign regime. It is expected that we accept those problematic inclinations and affiliations without comment or condemnation.

Really? It seems to me that many such books are not accepted without comment or condemnation. My memory is filled with back-and-forth criticisms accusing this author or that author of being insufficiently fair to once side or another. I really can’t tell what you’re talking about.

When it comes to a historian like this who seems to be so often wrong, and so clearly biased, I’m a little concerned that his book might ‘open my eyes’ to a lot of facts that simply aren’t true. Isn’t that what his previous books managed to do for so many? Hastn’t this guy proven yet he can’t be trusted on this topic?

Even if you’re right and this is a good book, the fact is that there are many good books to read. I shall read others.

8 SMU Cox MBA August 6, 2010 at 12:14 pm

We Americans have a way of wiping our past from our consciousness. While this has it upside – we don’t hold grudges for long, it also deprives us of any perspective on *how* we got to be where we are today on any given topic. And frankly, we such an insular country, that most of our population has no idea how the rest of the world lives. I think a big reason for that is just our sheer size. Heck, I can drive for 8 hours non-stop at highway speeds and still be in Texas. I can drive for 12 hours and still be well within the US. And there’s not a lot of impetus for Americans to travel outside our own borders and if we do, it’s to Canada (which may as well be us) or Mexico. Frankly, I doubt even 50% of Americans could locate Korea on a map and I’d be willing to bet that not even 25% of them are aware of the circumstances surrounding the Korean war.

9 E. Barandiaran August 6, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Tyler, further to my earlier comment, I’d appreciate it greatly if you comment on the supply of useful idiots –in particular, at what price a well-known economist may be willing to become one? In addition to the case of the Webbs discussed in the Moynihan’s article linked in my earlier comment, I’m intrigued by economists that are eager to accept high government positions that require a large loss of autonomy (see Mankiw’s post on C. Romer) or to argue any nonsense (for today’s soup see
http://justoneminute.typepad.com/main/2010/08/krugmn-will-believe-anything-that-makes-health-care-reform-look-good.html )

I look forward to your comments and I hope you take into account what we already know about the supply of prostitutes, in particular high-end prostitutes; see
http://moreintelligentlife.com/node/964
http://the-idea-shop.com/papers/prostitution.pdf

10 Steve Sailer August 6, 2010 at 1:03 pm

I did some reading on Korean history a year ago, and was surprised to find how much validity there was for Cummings’ view of 1945-1949. But, we now know, he had gotten the big one — June 25, 1950 — wrong, and hasn’t particularly changed his tune, other than in details, since he was proven wrong.

11 E. Barandiaran August 6, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Perko, I’m familiar with Tadelis’ paper but if anything useful idiots and high-end prostitutes are good examples of people not concerned at all with their reputations (that is, with the effects of their current performance on their future earnings).

12 Tom August 6, 2010 at 1:28 pm

I just wanted to add my concurrence to Roy’s comment. I don’t read Al Franken* to learn about Republicans are bad and Democrats are good, or Rush Limbaugh to learn about how Democrats are bad and Republicans are good, and I don’t believe either has anything useful to tell me on either point. Similarly, reading “Korea’s Place in the Sun” was enough to cure me of any future need to read Cumings. Is he sometimes right? Sure, but only when events happen to have conformed to his ideological biases.

*-I only read about 5 pages of “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot”, but am extrapolating from that.

13 BKarn August 6, 2010 at 1:34 pm

“Keep in mind how many history or foreign policy books or essays are written by people who are essentially toadies to power or apologists for the U.S. government”

Please put a number to this, Tyler, just for kicks. In my decades of consumption of foreign policy-related material (individually, throughout university and into my professional career), I can count a small minority of such material which was _not_ at least critical of American policy and behavior. Much is at minimum equally as hostile toward the U.S. position as toward foreign actors. I know that you are a voracious reader, but do you actually read a great deal of foreign policy material?

My perception has long been that you are often so committed to the idea of “making people squirm” (or “fostering critical thinking,” whether you are trying to motivate others or yourself) that you lose sight of important facets of how you do that. Do you really believe the MR audience is so insular that they are not already aware of these positions? I don’t believe most of us are college-aged or younger; we’ve already been through the “everything you know is wrong – prepare to let me blow your mind!” period of our lives. I would think you would have seen evidence of this not just in previous threads on this same topic, but on a daily basis.

And why is it that the “American” position must be made to squirm? Are you recommending virulently pro-American works to make the European and Asian vantage uncomfortable? Do you make recommendations for works that take on the seemingly endless galaxies of myth and distortion aimed at the United States?

At base, I simply do not understand the use of a _blatantly_ and even proudly biased and bigoted authors to try to make your point, and it seems that you are missing what people are saying here. Are there not _other_ histories of the Korean War that are not penned by someone writing through a deeply biased lens? This is not a case of simply shooting the messenger, it’s a case of wondering why anyone should bother with _this_ messenger when there are so many _others_ whose work does not come pre-loaded with trust and credibility issues on a virtually line-by-line basis. There is a point of diminishment beyond which the challenge to both learn and critically evaluate previous knowledge and opinion becomes little more than an wildly inefficient use of time spent learning little about the topic and much about the author.

14 dearieme August 6, 2010 at 2:28 pm

“he does denounce it, using the word “reprehensible.””
Oof! It seems my schoolteachers denounced me every week. Oof, indeed!

15 Fat Man August 6, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Cummings is the only apologist for the North Korean regime in the entire world, and he hates the United States with a burning fervor. Why would any sane person believe a word he has written? It isn’t a question of debunking myths. It is a question of not wasting time and money on garbage.

16 Outsider August 6, 2010 at 3:13 pm

I like MR because it fosters thinking on complex issues and a chance
to re-evaluate beliefs.

Try reading Thomas Nagel’s “The View from Nowhere”

Objectivity is problematic.
Someone smart once said that we don’t
see things as they are but as we are.

The facts are often bent to support a world view the tough part is
sorting out what is what based on the evidence and arguments presented.

17 Robert Speirs August 6, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Wonderfully useful post. I had wondered when the real Tyler Cowen would show up. All my worst fears are confirmed.

18 Barkley Rosser August 6, 2010 at 5:42 pm

I agree pretty much fully with Tyler’s take here. I have not read this new book, but have
read several others by Cumings as well as many other books on Korea by others. Cumings is
certainly biased, but he presents much factual material of interest that others do not.

Several of the critics here seem not to have actually read him. All those claiming he
supports the idea that the South started the war are simply wrong. There have been others
who made that argument, I.F. Stone among them. Also, all the yammering about Cumings being
anti-US has got a problem. He has done more to reveal and emphasize the very positive
influence the US had on Korea during the Teddy Roosevelt period. Seoul was the first city
in Asia to have a number of modern infrastructures in place thanks to the US. The people
shooting off their mouths about “useful idiots” are just ignorant.

19 The Money Demand Blog August 6, 2010 at 6:50 pm

The prospect that Cumings is unbiased seems very remote, but the prospect for him being either insane or dedicated to presenting a deliberately unbalanced view of the situation is far from remote (1). It is certainly possible but not likely that reading his book will make you reassess facts that toadies to power or apologists for the U.S. government are choosing ignore and you will realize that America’s role in current wars is also not always pretty.

(1) – http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2010/08/a-question-for-tyler-cowen.html

20 Dave August 6, 2010 at 8:17 pm

The comments on Tyler’s original post showed the extent to which anti-communism is still the political correctness of the intellectual right. It is great that you loathe communism, in the same way that it is great that the left loathes racism. It becomes pathological when it becomes an overused shortcut to accuse everyone who disagrees with you of complicity in the greatest crimes of humankind.

21 Pensans August 6, 2010 at 8:29 pm

really, back rubbing free thought platitudes. What deception. You wouldn’t touch something as offensive for exactly the same reasons if it were a right wing controversialist

22 Barkley Rosser August 6, 2010 at 10:16 pm

John B.,

Thank you for an informed perspective.

Roy,

If you were responding to me, I have spent time in a lot of Asian countries, including Korea, and I know Asian scholars very well.

The biases of Cumings are certainly distracting and annoying. However, he has much to offer. One point, not made so far, is that most Americans are unaware that a lot of South Koreans have a lot of resentments towards the US. Most Americans think, oh, we are the good guys who saved them from the evil North Koreans, and we did, and they are grateful. But it is Cumings who explains why that is not enough for them not to have quite a few resentments towards us, although the more idiotic commentators here view such discussions as evidence of his “anti-Americanism.” Pish posh.

23 DPR August 7, 2010 at 1:24 am

Howard Zinn is dead. Cumings merely wishes to take his place.

In Wikipedia’s section on Praises for Cumings, the Socialist Review states that Cumings is a “good read…given the lack of books which aren’t hysterical denunciations from the US right or hymns of praise from Stalinists.”

So by framing Cumings between the “hysterical” right and the mass murderer Stalin, the socialists lead the reader to the conclusion that Cumings (and themselves) are fair, balanced, and moderate in their opinions and conclusions.

This is a classic logical fallacy of false moderation:

“Many dietary experts would claim that some arsenic is a necessary part of the human diet while others assert it is a toxic and dangerous substance if consumed in quantities in excess of 150 parts per billion. It seems reasonable, therefore, to conclude that arsenic consumption of 50 ppb is both safe and nutritious.”

The criticisms of North Korea are far from “hysterical” and not confined to the “US right.” Comparing hyperbole to killing tens of millions of people and oppressing hundreds of millions, defining their extremes to establish a fulcrum for their “balance” appears a tad off.

It would be humorous if it weren’t so sickening to hear socialists speak of Stalin as if he were a black swan among socialists.

Tyler, I’m surprised you fell for this.

24 john sager August 7, 2010 at 3:17 am

Although I find Cumings to be a loathesome apologist for the world’s nastiest regime, I would and have recommended his Korea’s Place in the Sun. It is true that much could be learned about Korean history from it. If you can keep him away from his hobbyhorses, his work can be downright enjoyable.

The smarminess of this particular post is just mind-blowing.

25 Bill August 13, 2010 at 9:28 am

As many have I am calling BS on Cumings and on you. The objections to his book are that it is in reference to the start of the war, Soviet involvement, and the current NK regime they are lies and not particularly good ones. B. R. Myers says it much better then I.

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/09/mother-of-all-mothers/3403/

The mixture of naiveté and callousness will remind readers of the Moscow travelogues of the 1930s, but Cumings is more a hater of U.S. foreign policy than a wide-eyed supporter of totalitarianism.

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