Gongol.com Archives: September 2021

Brian Gongol


September 30, 2021

The United States of America Speaking with the past

A group of historians met in March with the President. Some have interpreted this as a signal that President Biden was trying to figure out his legacy even before his administration was truly underway. A different interpretation is offered by Jon Meacham, who coordinated the event and says the President wanted to know "how have previous presidents dealt with fundamental crises[?]". ■ The two reasons don't have to be at odds. In fact, anyone with even a sliver of awareness about the Presidency knows that we mostly remember our Chief Executives not for anything they ever promised on the campaign trail, but rather for how they responded to critical events -- George W. Bush on September 11th, John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Franklin Roosevelt on December 7th, 1941. It's the unpredictable events that make the Presidency. ■ Moreover, we should want our Presidents to behave with an eye not merely on the present, but to the judgment of history. What's popular in the moment may not be what's right for the well-being of the country, particularly for generations to come. As Calvin Coolidge put it, "While it is wise for the President to get all the competent advice possible, final judgments are necessarily his own. No one can share with him the responsibility for them. No one can make his decisions for him." ■ In that sense, perhaps our Presidents should meet with historians more often -- like a Kitchen Cabinet, but composed of people there strictly to offer the advice of history. Presidential problems are never exactly the same twice, but they can be informed by previous experience. That's certainly why Presidents decorate the Oval Office with portraits and busts of their predecessors and other laudable figures. ■ Ideally, a President would seek to study and interpret the past on his or her own, since there is no substitute for organically learning a subject -- but not everyone is as voracious a reader as Theodore Roosevelt, who was said to tear through a book a day. Time and other constraints preclude most Presidents from becoming their own Presidential historians. ■ We should consider, though, whether a thoroughly modern invention could help -- even if only modestly. It has become clear that artificial intelligence has a lot of potential, but it depends mightily on the raw material it has been fed. Just a little of the wrong source material and things can turn quite rotten. However, it seems like there is abundant reason to consider experimenting, at least, with training artificial intelligence to behave like what one might call a "personality engine". While a search engine uses AI to query the world of knowledge, a personality engine would use AI to delve into the thinking of an individual person. ■ Presidents in particular leave behind long trails of raw material: Speeches, notes, autobiographies, letters, and more. Even though some of that material is now ghostwritten, it's always written to intentionally reflect the "voice" of the President credited with those thoughts and words. It seems likely we could take a former President's body of work and use it to train an engine of artificial intelligence to tell us: Given this problem, what would Abraham Lincoln do? It seems daft not to at least try. ■ The advice of modern-day historians is a worthwhile supplement, but it also comes filtered through the thinking of the individual historian. The unfiltered, AI-adapted version of former Presidents, meanwhile, might well be more authentic -- but certainly would need, from time to time, to be interpreted through contemporary standards. No President had to even consider the women's vote until Warren Harding, and even some modern-day Presidents have held loathsome prejudices on matters like religion and race. ■ But on many big-picture questions, the volumes of words left behind by prior Presidents may well offer aid to those considering the problems of today. If the advice is bad, it can certainly be ignored. But to really extract the advice of the past, a President surely needs more than two hours with some historians once in a term.

News Sometimes, a new coat of paint isn't enough

One aspect of living in the "New World" that remains easy to underappreciate is just how lightly we are attached to the past. We certainly have landmark structures that are protected from any kind of change -- nobody would dare think of tearing down the Golden Gate Bridge, for instance -- but by and large, Americans are comfortable with tearing down the old and replacing with the new. ■ Perhaps that makes us unsentimental. Perhaps that means we're so commercial in mindset that we would sell our memories to make a buck. Perhaps we just don't build things to last forever. ■ Evidence can be found for each of those arguments: Even our most sentimental national pastime, baseball, takes place almost entirely in post-war parks, and the majority wouldn't be old enough to legally drink a beer. Once-legendary places like Tribune Tower are gutted and converted to condominiums nearly as casually as one might replace the tires on a car. And some buildings are set for demolition just a decade after "complete" renovations. ■ But this lack of attachment keeps a lot of things fresh in America's urban and suburban life. Perhaps even restless. And when faced with the alternative, it might not look bad at all. See, for instance, the case of the British homeowner who painted his house a subdued lilac color -- only to find out he was in violation of strict rules on maintaining the "traditional" look of the building. The "tradition" in question dated merely to 1902. But it is apparently considered significant enough that the local government authorities exercised the power to intervene -- just as they can across a giant swath of the community. ■ A sufficient appreciation for private property rights requires that planning and zoning ought to take a light touch. Traditions have a place, to be sure, but so does dynamism -- and anchoring the choices of the present to what well may have been the deeply arbitrary choices of the past can be a dangerous game to play. As the urbanist commentator Nolan Gray noted, "The most beloved neighborhood in your city is secretly a bunch of kit-built houses, mailed out by the 1920s version of Amazon, constructed by amateurs using cheap materials." (But really: Sears sold houses as kits, and what was intended to provide shelter on the cheap back then makes for a peculiar subject of "preservation" efforts today.) ■ Communities have the right to set reasonable standards and to keep neighbors from imposing irresponsibly on others -- you aren't allowed to dispose of radioactive waste in your front yard, of course. But it's daffy to become so attached to the past that "tradition" mandates the prohibition of a fresh coat of a gentle hue of paint on an otherwise ordinary house in a largely unremarkable area. It's not overturning the Magna Carta.


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