Should we occupy giddy minds with foreign quarrels?

Larry Rogers

Larry Rogers

Shakespeare, in one of his history plays, had King Henry IV give advice to his heir, Henry V. When the people complain about the quality of your rule, he argued, arrange to have their “giddy minds” be occupied with foreign quarrels. Then they will be distracted and you can do what you please.

Charles Beard, the great progressive American historian, wrote an article for Scribner’s magazine in February of 1935. Beard called the article “Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels.”

Beard argued in an archly ironic way that the United States had missed innumerable opportunities to interfere in the affairs of other nations. His list of missed opportunities went on for five pages and included enough examples of almost unknown events that it clearly functioned as satirical in intent.

Or did it? Maybe Beard meant to say that we shouldn’t have intervened where and when we did, much less in other places and times. He also observed that “confronted by the difficulties of a deepening domestic crisis and by the comparative ease of a foreign war, what will President Roosevelt do? Judging by the history of American politicians, he will choose the latter.”

So what do we do about assumptions like those made by Beard? Was Beard right about Roosevelt (and his predecessors)? Does what he said apply to today’s choices? Is it unpatriotic to suppose that it does apply? Is it vaguely totalitarian to suppose that making the connection makes one disloyal? Can we have a civil conversation in this country about the responsibilities and limits of American power and interests?

What does the American public think? Or, better, what does the “American street” think-a usage that parallels journalists’ generalizations about the Arab “street.”

Polls about the American public’s attitude toward war with Iraq are interesting. People repeatedly say (by a margin of two to one) that they were not given enough information to make a judgment about the decision to go to war. They also repeatedly say (by the same margin) that they back the administration that failed to make the case for war in a compelling manner.

In effect, they back the decision to go to war because that’s what administrations get to do. There are limits, of course. “Time” contains a CNN/ Gallup poll that considers how many casualties Americans are willing to absorb to change the government in Iraq.

If journalism is the first draft of history, what are opinion polls? Maybe we’ll know in a few weeks, unless we’re too giddy to know the difference between opinion and reality.

One of the advantages of being a military veteran, by the way, is that I paid my dues as a question-asker.

Larry Rogers is an associate professor of education and a veteran of the Vietnam War. Write him at [email protected]