Sunday, October 28, 2012

Thoughts on "The . . . Anti-Japanese Resolution of 1943," by Rich Rifkin, with a Response by John Lofland (83)

Preface: Rich’s thoughts are expressed in a complexly formatted email that has seemed best to publish intact as screenshots, of which there are three.

Rifkin 1 of 3

Rifkin 2 of 3

Rifkin 3 of 3


Many thanks for your review remarks. You do a nice job of identifying and clarifying what seem to me to be the three main issues. First, does Madson’s intent matter or not? Second, can we discuss his act without also imputing intent? Third, can we be certain of his intent?

1. I would agree that in a strict and logical way why Madson commented as he did is irrelevant. His remarks did indeed have certain consequences regardless of his intent.

2. The problem is that one cannot write about his act without, of linguistic necessity perhaps, imputing intent. To single him out and describe him with such muscular words as “stand,” “leadership,” and “prevail” is to make a (perhaps “subtext” or unintended) claim that he is an exemplar.

I notice that you call to attention to him in the context of advocating putting up a “Davis history sign” in his honor. If you strictly adhere to the rule of irrelevant intent, then I think the sign should honor only the act and not mention his name, lest we inappropriately credit his character, which is logically irrelevant to his act. (Public life would, indeed, perhaps be elevated if, as a general practice, we honored acts rather than people.)

3. You say neither of us knows Madson’s intent--at least not with great clarity. I agree. But, I also think we can make reasonable and tentative inferences about it. That is the point of my calling attention to other things we know about him and suggesting consistency in his behavior.

Because you--albeit unintentionally--put Madson forth as a Davis style Atticus Finch, I thought it reasonable to place him in the context of his time and point to reasons to doubt this conception.

All of this fretting about intent and character makes a difference because it affects how we honor or do not honor our predecessors. In the case at hand, whether Madson was a “pragmatic realist,” an “inclusionist champion,” an indecipherable cipher, or somethiing else altogether should inform how we speak of him today.

Was he a racist acting pragmatically? Was he a racist who grasped “the American dilemma” and rose to the occasion? Was he our own Atticus Finch who did, indeed, provide genuine moral leadership?

We do not know for sure from the data we have at the moment. But I think we do know that it matters for us to want to know and to get it right. We do not want inadvertently to elevate tarnished figures to unwarranted honor, to detract from those who truly deserve honor, or to be inaccurate about the reasons we accord honor. Unfortunately, reality is often messy and the empirically accurate course of action is unclear--as is true in this case.

I take heart in the appreciation that this kind of disagreement is one of the most common, enduring, and unresolvable in historical writing. We work on topics for which the data are poor and incomplete and we try to make the best of what little information we can muster. Virtually everything we write is tentative and subject to challenge and revision time and time again.