Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Gingrich Delusion

The irony of Newt Gingrich's run for President doesn't lie in the fact that he has about as much chance of success as Donald Trump (that is, none at all), but that he continues to justify himself through an undergraduate--even adolescent--view of history.  That he styles himself an intellectual and sports a PhD in history makes this rich.

Gingrich mistakes pattern for truth, and misunderstands "pattern" itself as applied to intellectual studies.  A pattern of any sort exists in part because we notice it.  That is, it is part of us as much as it is part of whatever we are studying.  As we are subjective beings and have contributed to the pattern, we had best be suspicious of any claims of its objectivity; we had best remove from our minds the possibility of full objectivity for the pattern.

Also, a pattern is not predictive unless it can be tested and the test reproduced--something not possible with history (the scientific method gets its name for a reason).  Identification of pattern can be useful to study in the humanities, but that utility is limited.  Any real historian--any real intellectual, for that matter--knows this.

Matt Bai, writing in The New York Times, observes that "Gingrich is a devotee of the historian Arnold J. Toynbee, who meditated on the concept of 'departure and return' — the idea that great leaders have to leave (or be banished from) their kingdoms before they can better themselves and return as conquering heroes."  This may have been the pattern for some--apparently Gingrich points to Charles de Gaulle and Ronald Reagan as exemplars--but it is not the pattern for all.  In fact, there is no pattern (or, perhaps, multiple patterns) for the evolution of great leaders.  Some grasp for the chance, some have it thrust on them; some work to develop the skills, others seem to come by them naturally.  Some seem to achieve through a steady progress, others by happenstance. 

Unlike a real historian, who constantly tries to pare away her own or his own biases through study, Gingrich attempts to use knowledge of the facts of  history and the patterns he perceives in them for personal justification.  His motivations have never been intellectual but political and personal.  That's why he has never been taken seriously as an historian. 

It is also one more reason why he will never be president: He has let belief and desire trump knowledge, has placed a pattern of his own creation over the realities of the past.  Though he has been quite successful over the past thirty years, he remains a naive and immature man--not someone who can craft a successful campaign for the White House.

He'll not likely prove a great leader anywhere but in his own mind.

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