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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Who runs the Democratic Party?

 At least since the 2022 election, it seems to me, average Democrats have made clear to pollsters that they would prefer a different presidential candidate to 81-year old Joe Biden.  I have written before that Biden's rise to the White House tells a lot about what is wrong with American politics.  During his very long Senate career, Biden combined a cozy relationship with corporate interests--many of whom headquarter in Delaware for legal reasons--with the ability to make appropriately liberal noises on a variety of issues.  He eventually tried twice for the Democratic presidential nomination, in 1988 and 2008, and demonstrated no appeal to primary voters on either occasion.  Then, however, Barack Obama picked him as his vice president.  Like Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George H. W. Bush, and Al Gore--three of whom had also tried and failed to win their party's nomination for president--Biden immediately emerged as a very serious presidential candidate.  I have speculated before that the vice presidency confers both national name recognition, and access to leading donors.  Being first lady did the same thing for Hillary Clinton.  This week, the New York Times printed a remarkable story enlightening me as to how important donors can be.  

The story focused on Jeffrey Katzenberg, a very successful ex-studio head in Hollywood, described in the piece as "one of the most prolific cash generators for Democratic presidents for a generation." The story, by Peter Baker, does not tell us how he and Biden got to know each other, and it doesn't say anything about Katzenberg's role in the 2020 primary campaign.  Perhaps it was enough that Biden succeeded Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton as the leader of the Democratic establishment.  Both Biden and some of his staffers, we learn, talk to Katzenberg, a dynamo, several times a week.  He helped put together the State of the Union address.  The real point of the story is this:  a number of other major contributors, apparently, shared average Democrats' concerns about Biden when he announced his candidacy for re-election last year.  Katzenburg took on the mission of persuading them that Biden was up to the job, partly by bringing them into the oval office to see him in action themselves.  And that apparently worked.  None of them backed another possible candidate, and none ever emerged.

Before 1960, leading politicians in both parties, not campaign contributors, played the most important role in deciding who their candidates would be.  Franklin Roosevelt carefully cultivated Democratic leaders around the country while he was governor of New York from 1929 through 1932, and that secured him the critical 1932 nomination for president.  Theodore Roosevelt was far more popular than incumbent William Howard Taft in 1912, but he could not overcome the opposition of party leaders and win the Republican nomination.  (The party professionals paid dearly for supporting Taft in that case, as the Democrats won control of the government  handily.)  Richard Nixon owed his career to his cultivation of Republicans around the country.  In 1960 John F. Kennedy had to convince local party leaders like Richard Daley in Illinois and David Lawrence in Pennsylvania that a Catholic could win the election and would not hurt their local parties in order to get the nomination.  These party professionals were in day-to-day contact with ordinary voters.  Today's contributors are not.  The only national politician with a sincere, devoted following among the electorate is, of course, Donald Trump.

Presidential primaries were introduced in some states early in the twentieth century, and by 1932, when Roosevelt won a number of them and lost two others, they had some influence.  They seem to have fallen out of favor between `1932 and 1960, but they allowed Kennedy to prove that he was electable even in overwhelmingly protestant areas like West Virginia, and by the 1970s they had become the mechanism for choosijng almost all the delegates. That was supposed to put the power to select the nominee in the hands of the people, but it hasn't.  The only candidate before Trump who used primaries to defeat the establishment's choice was Barack Obama in 2008 against Hillary Clinton, and even then, the establishment split and parts of it went over to him before the race was over.  Thanks to various Supreme Court decisions, money is more powerful in US politics than ever.

It is hard to believe that Katzenberg's influence does not also extend to policy, and he and Biden reacted publicly to the October 7 attacks in exactly the same way: by condeming Hamas and expressing unequivocal support for Israel.  That, however, is much less important to me than contributors' power to choose party's presidential nominee, based mainly on  how the nominee treats them.  Let me be clear: I do not expect any drastic campaign finance reform to change this situation.  This is where history has taken us.  Following up on last week's post, I have written this one to to change the world, but simply to understand it.  That's a paraphrase of a famous man, and I wonder if anyone will recognize it.


Sunday, June 09, 2024

Reflections

 My birthday, which has just passed, always coincides roughly with the end of the academic year, which even though I am no longer living on an academic calendar still always provokes reflection.  There has been plenty to write about in the last two weeks, starting with Donald Trump's conviction in New York, and including the continuing war in Gaza and a story in today's New York Times on the spread of Islamic terrorism in West Africa--a further step in the catastrophe of US foreign policy that began in Afghanistan and Iraq and spread to Syria, Egypt, and Libya under the Obama administration.  The influence of inflatoin upon the election is also very much in the news.  Yet for the time being I seem to have lost my appetite for analyzing these milestones on our uncertain road.  The enterprise of American journalism, like the enterprise of American history--which has taken up far more of my time--has relied from the beginning on the belief in progress and a story which, while full of twists and turns, is always neaded for a happier ending.  I now find this very difficult to believe. In addition, pointing out what has gone wrong has usually had a corollary: suggesting how we might fix it.  I don't have much faith in solutions that I might propose.

Thus, yes, Donald Trump in my opinion was clearly guilty of the offense of which he was charged, and after reading the judge's charge to the jury I thought that the legal argument behind the case was a lot stronger than many continue to argue.  The evidence clearly showed that he falsified records to make it possible for him to win the election.  Yet months before he did so, his nomination had confirmed the bankrupt collapse of the Republican Party,which had not been able to find a candidate that could defeat him.  Shortly thereafter his victory over Hillary Clinton showed that the Democratic Party suffered from the same problem.  And now, eight years later, Trump leads Biden in the polls and has established himself, I think, as the most personally powerful politician in the country since Ronald Reagan.  And the biggest reason, I think, is that he, unlike any established political figure, has exploited the weaknesses of the establishment order that has dominated our politics at least since Clinton.  Recent focus groups show voters favoring him because they think that we need drastic change, and that only he will provide it.  Is that so wrong?  The conviction will not change their minds.  And whether he is guilty of various charges or not, who can deny that the various trials are indeed an attempt by the establishment to do what it has not been able to do in the broader court of public opinion--to eliminate him as a political factor?

Our establishment's embrace of the global free market, which took its biggest steps under Clinton, with NAFTA, and Bush II with China's accession to the WTO, has probably done more than anything else to discredit it in the eyes of millions of hardworking Americans.  That however was not all.  Barack Obama accepted the view of his Boomer advisers that the crash of 2008 did not reflect anything fundamentally wrong with our economy, and that it could be weathered merely with a massive influx of liquidity from the Fed.  The Democrats abandoned the New Deal solutions of putting people to work to fight unemployment and restructuring mortgages to save homes and farms.  The establishment also relies completely on the Fed to fight inflation.  Inflation has dramatically influenced US politics for generations.  It was the biggest reason for the Republican Congressional sweep of 1946.  It hurt Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and in 1971, Richard Nixon, unlike Joe Biden, saw high inflation as a critical threat to his re-election, and actually imposed wage and price controls.  He eventually lifted them, and further inflation helped bring down Gerald Ford in 1976 and crush Jimmy Carter in 1980.  Biden and the Democrats have been in denial over inflation for three years now and I haven't seen a single mention of possible wage and price controls.  We no longer expect our government to act to help ordinary people against it.  The same is true about our housing crisis, apparently the worst since the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.  Then the federal government took a number of serious steps to encourage the construction of new, relatively low-cost housing around the country.  The housing stock expanded so rapidly that even black Americans, who had to cope with segregation, increased their percentage of homeownership dramatically in the decades after the war.  Now we are hearing nothing from the government about the problem.  In those days the country felt a debt to the young adults who had won the war for us and their families.  Now we have already forced millions of young adults to mortgage their futures just to attend college.  And last, but hardly least, we have lost the common values, the sense of common purpose, and the common identity that in the past allowed us to achieve great things.  

It has been two weeks since I posted something here, and I have very busy weeks ahead.  I may be moved to post again in a week or two, or it may be longer.  Believe me, these observations are very painful to record, but I can't ignore them.  I hope to get to a different place for myself and my faithful readers of 20 years standing, but I don't know exactly where that place will be.  Meanwhile, as Orwell had his garden, I have music, family and friends, and the continuing drama of athletic competition to keep me fully engaged with life.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

A commencement address that no one will hear

 Good morning, and a hearty welcome to friends and family who are sharing in this great occasion this year.  And congratulations to all our graduates.

This has been one of the  most difficult years in the history of American higher education, and certainly the most difficult since 1969-70, when protests against the invastion of Cambodia shut down hundreds of campuses and administrators canceled exams to encourage the protests. I myself had graduated from Harvard in the spring of 1969, in the wake of a protest there that had occupied the administration building, led to a violent police bust, and disrupted commencement.  Then, too, the demonstrators had demanded amnesty for evrything they had done, but the administration had suspended some of them and some of them faced charges in court.  Today the protesters demand divestment from any Israel-related enterprise, then they demanded the elimination of ROTC.  The administration caved into that demand, and for decades it was impossible for students to attend Harvard on scholarships while preparing to serve in the nation's officer corps.  That, to me, was a sad and tragic decision.  Yes, we were in the midst of a mistaken and horrifying war, but the country still needed an army and it was a better army, and a better nation, that included Ivy League graduates within it.  But then, as now, a good many students had concluded that that war was not simply a tragic mistake, but the symptom of a hoplessly oppressive society that had to be transformed utterly.  The faculty and administration gave into that view.

Today, two utterly irreconcilable views divide the campus, the faculty, and various parts of alumni community, including some very important donors.  One view argues that Israel, a "settler colonialist" state, has no legitimacy, and that Palestinians should rule the whole territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Some who hold that view, by the way, also see the United States as a settler colonialist state and deny its legitimacy as well, although it is less clear exactly what changes they woul would like to make now to remedy the injustice of the nation's creation.  On the other side, people regard Israel as an essential refuge for the Jewish people and claim an Israeli right to takle all necessary steps to defend their country's security and subdue Palestinian groups such as Hamas that do not accept it and act volently against it.  Both views are based upon near-absolute ideas of right and wrong, and in my opinion, they mirror the views, not of all Israelis and Palestinians, but certainly of the Israelis and Palestinians who now exercise political power over their two peoples.  I have been an historian of international conflict all my life and I have watched the development of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for at least 58 years.  Today, as we finish a year dominated by that conflict, I want to offer you a different perspective on it--one based not upon one particular idea of justice, but upon the facts as I have come to understand them.  And I do so partly because I think that you, our new graduates, will need that perspective as you make your way through life.

The Jewish people originated millenia ago in what we call the Middle East, and apparently settled or resettled in what is now Israel after a period of captivity in Egypt.  They established their Kingdom, their written language, and their religion there, although they were conquered a few centuries later, first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans.  Judaism then gave birth to Christianity, perhaps the source of its greatest worldwide influence.  The Romans apparently scattered the Jews around the Mediterranean in the early Christian era.  Then, a few centuries later, Islam arose further East, and eventually conquered and conversted the whole southern shore of the Mediterranean as well as most of the Middle East.  Eventually it conquered the Byzantine Empire as well, both in Asia and parts of Europe, and for several centuries it occupied Spain and Portugal.  Jewish communities suffered discrimination  in Christian and Muslim communities alike during the Middle Ages.  By the end of the Middle Ages, the largest Jewish communities were in Poland and Russia.

In the 18th and 19th centuries nationality began to replace the hereditary right to rule as the organizing principle of Europe.  Where did that leave the Jews?  They might in theory become equal citizens of the new nations in which they lived, as they eventually did in western Europe and above all here in the United States.  That option did not appear to be open, however, to the much larger Jewish populations in Russia and Russian-ruled Poland or in Austria-Hungary.  A good many of those Jews immigrated to the United States and elsewhere, but millions remained.  And among them, in the late 19th century, the dream of Zionism was born--the idea of re-establishing a state of Israel in the Holy Land where they could live.   During the First World War, leaders of the international Jewish community secured the support of the British government for a "Jewish national home" in Palestine--a province of the Ottoman Empire--and the new League of Nations endorsed that idea after the war, while reaffirming the rights of the existing Palestinian population.  Britain secured a League mandate to rule Palestine

It immediately became clear within Palestine that the Muslim Arab population would not accept the idea of a Jewish national home, and periodic outbreaks of violence between Jews and Arabs began.  Meanwhile, nationalist political movements in Poland, other Eastern European nations, and eventually in Germany became strongly anti-Semitic, arguing that Jews had no place in their communities.  The Soviet Union treated its millions of Jews better than Tsarist Russia had, but also stopped emigration for them.  As conditions for Jews became harder in Europe, the United States and other western nations restricted immigration, and the British eventually put limits on immigration into Palestine to mollify the Arabs.  Then came the Second World War and the Holocaust.  Those events left the Zionists in Palestine determined to create a new state of Israel, which they did in 1948.  In retrospect that decision was very understandable.  Six million Jews, the vast majority of them from Poland and Eastern Europe, had just been murdered by the Nazis.  The United States maintained strict immigration quotas against them.  The western European nations had not been able to protect them against the Nazis.  In addition, the creation of Israel and the decolonization of much of the Arab world left the Jews there living in hostile evironments, and they immigrated en masse into the new state.

I now must try to summarize about 75 years of Arab-Israeli conflict.  It has been marked, I think, by irreoncilable goals.  Most of the surrounding Arab states refused to accept Israel, immediately went to war against it, and refused to conclude a real peace treaty with it.  Decades later, after wars in 1948-9, 1956, 1967, and 1973, Egypt, and eventually Jordan, made peace with Israel--but the Palestinian population of hte territoy that became Israel never did.  Most of it was driven out of Israel in 1948-9 and has lived in refugee camps in Gaza, Jordan, and Lebanon ever since.  The 1967 war left Israel in control of an additional large Palestinian population in the West Bank, and also began a long-term Israeli attempt to add much, or all, of the West Bank to Israel itself.  Both the Jewish population of Israel and the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank have continued to increase, and they are now approximately equal.

The Israelis and Palestinians have never been able to make peace, in my opinon, because they have irreoncilable goals.  Both peoples include many individuals who would welcome a two-state solution and peace, but such individuals have never predominated among their peoples.  In the early 1990s, Yitzak Rabin,  a former Israeli military leader and hero of the original war of independence in 1948, became Israeli prime minister and reached agreements with Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Authority, or PLO, providing for Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and the possibility of an eventual Palestinian state.  Rabin,. however, faced bitter opposition from Israeli factions who regarded the West Bank as an indissoluble part of Israel and dreamed of replacing its Arab population with settlers, and one such person assassinated him.  His successor tried to conclude a new agreement with Arafat but could not do so, and we will never know if he could have sold such an agreement to Israel as a whole. Meanwhile, the Palestinians used their limited self-rule to build up military capabilities in the West Bank and eventually unleashed the second intifada, a terrorist campaign against Israel itself.  Later, Hamas supplanted the PLO as the Palestinians' effective political authority in Gaza and began building military capabilities there after the Israelis withdrew from it.  That allowed them to mount the attacks of last October 7.

The Israeli government now argues that it cannot agree to a Palestinian state as long as it seems that the Palestinians will simply use it to prepare further attacks against Israel--and I must say that the history supports that view of what will happen. But on the other hand, the current Israeli government also apparently rejects peace because it wants Israeli control of the whole territory "from the river to the sea" as well.  Some members of the present government are openly calling for forcing the population of Gaza to become refugees in some other country, and clearly have similar plans for the population of the West Bank--and the Israeli military campaign in Gaza is, in fact, making the whole territory uninhabitable, with consequences that we cannot foresee.  

Where does that leave US citizens, the US government, and indeed, the whole international community?  Here I have my own perspective.  To all of you--and especially to those of you who have protested on one side or the other, except for the Israelis and Palestinians among you--let me suggest that we aim for some humility.  We cannot solve the problem, frankly, because neither side really cares what we think.  They are dedicated to their own irreoncilable goals which preclude a peaceful solution, and if anything is to change, it must change, first among them.  In these tragic circumstances--and they are tragic--foreign governments, it seems to me, can play one important role.  They can insist,in word and deed, that given their irreconcilable goals, both sides have a responsibility to keep the conflict at the lowest possible level, simply to allow their peoples some security and the opportunity to live their lives.  This, in the current crisis, they have failed to do.  Other previous US administrations did this after wars in 1956 and 1973 and during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s, and I regret that the current administration has not done the same.  Yes, the Israeli government had a right and a duty to retaliate for the terrible attacks on October 7, but no right, in my view, to kill more than 30 Palestinians, most of them civilians, for every single Israeli who died that day, or to level most of the buildings in an area in which two million people live.

And to the US citizens among you I point out that our forefathers did found a nation on principles that have allowed people of every race and religion to live together on a footing of relative equality.  Yes, it took centuries to turn the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution into reality for all--but we never stopped trying and we eventually succeeded in doing that.  And that effort, as Lincoln argued, kept the hope of such a world alive elsewhere.  Because we are human we are not perfect--but I believe we must keep our original dreams alive, lest we, too, sink into endless conflict, and perhaps even into collapse and disunion.

The protests of the past year, like the ones I lived through as an observer in 1969-70, assume that a vision of absolute justice can solve anything.  Such a view denies the essentially tragic character of human existence, as recognized by the ancient Greeks, by Shakespeare, and by the greatest of modern historians.  My own education and my own life have taught me a good deal about such tragedy.  Yours may  or may not have done the same for you--but life will do so in due course.  You will find that heroism and tragedy are inseparable and that the noblest goals can still have terrible results--both as citizens of your nations, and in your own life.  That is why now, as you receive your diplomas, your education is only beginning.  Good luck with it, and thank you.



Sunday, May 19, 2024

Our Competing Aristocracies

         In August of 2017 I devoted a long post to journalist Jane Mayer's superb book Dark Money, which had appeared a  year earlier.  While I hope readers may go to it and read the whole thing, I am gonig to quote the first few paragraphs here.

"Last weekend I finished Dark Money by Jane Mayer, which appeared last year.  It was marketed, largely, as a history of the involvement of the fossil fuel magnates Charles and David Koch in American politics over the last few decades, but it is much more than that.  I intend in what follows to summarize what I found in the book, but from a slightly different perspective than Mayer’s, and without much of any attention to the voluminous, and fascinating, personal data that she provides about the Kochs and other financiers of our new “conservative” political movement.  Instead I am going to treat the book as the first draft, as it were, of a genuine political history of the last 40 or 50 years—because it explains more about where we are and how we got here than anything else that I have ever read.   Mayer leads her readers through the story in rough chronological order, and I recommend the book to everyone.  I on the other hand am going to try to identify its major features in an effort to explain how we got to the miserable point at which we find ourselves.

"Charles and David Koch are the most striking example of extraordinarily wealthy Americans who have had an outsized impact on the politics of the last forty years—and whose impact is reaching a new peak right now.  They followed in the footsteps of their father Fred, who in the 1950s was one of the founding members, along with candy manufacturer Robert Welch, of the John Birch Society.  Nothing illustrates what has happened to American politics in my lifetime in more striking fashion than this.  The ideas of the John Birch Society, a group of fanatically anti-government lunatics who in the 1950s identified Dwight D. Eisenhower as a member of the international Communist conspiracy, are now the single most influential set of ideas in American political life. Their main tenets are an unlimited faith in free enterprise and a conviction that government attempts to moderate the negative impacts of capitalism are simply a power grab designed to establish dictatorship.  And because of the success of their political movement, their fortunes have grown by orders of magnitude over the last few decades.

"In addition to the Kochs, the superrich political elite has included John Olin, a chemical manufacturer; Richard Mellon Scaife, a scion of a Pittsburgh family prominent in banking and industry; and Harry Bradley, another Birch Society acolyte who ran the Allen-Bradley Electronics Company in New York.  In the middle of the twentieth century, when marginal income tax rates topped out at 91%, these men had all taken advantage of a provision in the tax code—first used by the Rockefeller family—to create a “philanthropic” foundation to shield substantial portions of their enormous income from taxes.  Unfortunately, the definition of philanthropy has been broad enough to include the subsidy of a particular ideology—and ultimately, direct intervention in politics.  That one tragic flaw in our tax code has reshaped opinion and redistributed power at every level of American government.

"Now I have rarely been impressed by any of the ideas coming out of the new Right during the last few decades, but like many liberal Democrats, I suspect, I have assumed that conservative intellectuals had honestly come by their ideas.  I am not suggesting now that they have lied about them, but Mayer leaves no doubt that the entire new right wing intellectual establishment was created from the ground up by the handful of major benefactors listed above.  Both the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation—the two centers of conservative “thought” in Washington—were originally funded largely by Richard Mellon Scaife. The Bradley and Olin Foundations were also powers behind the Heritage Foundation, and the Kochs have been involved as well.  I have always thought of the Cato Institute as a nest of principled libertarians—partly because it tends to oppose foreign interventions—but it turns out to have been started by Charles Koch.  Charles Murray was an unknown writer before the Olin foundation adopted him and subsidized his first book, Losing Ground, arguing that social programs were hurting the poor.  (Spoiled, perhaps, by success, Murray went a bridge too far when he and Richard Herrnstein argued in The Bell Curve that black people were intellectually inferior to whites.)  And I was amazed to learn from Mayer that the Bradley foundation gives four annual awards of $250,000 each to leading conservative journalists, activists, and intellectuals. Winners have included George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Thomas Sowell, Ward Connerly, Heather MacDonald, Shelby Steele, Victor Davis Hanson, John Bolton, William Kristol, Paul Gigot, Michael Barone, Jeb Bush, Harvey Mansfield, Edwin Meese, Roger Ailes of Fox News, General John Keane, and Charles Murray."

I certainly think that I was on to something then, but I have suddenly realized that this was only half of the story of what has happened to our political life.  I discovered the other half in 2022 book by a much younger conservative journalist, Luke Rosiak, entitled, Race to the Bottom: Uncovering the Secret Forces Destroying American Public Education. Now, while I haven't met either Mayer or Rosiak face to face, I suspect I would enjoy dinner with Mayer much more.  Rosiak is a rather angry early middle-aged man whose prose drips with contempt; Mayer is more of an old school journalist.  But Rosiak's book, like Mayer's is so exhaustively documented and carefully footnoted that there is no question but that he has also identified a very important presence in our political life.   The right wing foundations that Mayer documented turn out to be only half of the story.  

The power of foundations, as Mayer and Rosiak both point out, stems from a particular provision of the tax code that allowed some of America's richest families to escape the very high income and inheritance taxes of the middle of the twentieth century.   The Rockefellers and the Fords were among the first to escape inheritance taxes by turning much of their fortunes over to charitable foundations named after themselves.  And although Rosiak's book focuses on various serious problems within the US public educational system, the biggest lesson I drew from it is that the Ford, Rockefeller, John T. and Catherine MacArthur, Gates, Kellogg,  Annie E. Casey foundations and the Open Society Foundation founded by George Soros are playing at least as large a role in American life as the Koch, Scaife, Bradley and Olin foundations that Mayer focused on.  They, however, are run by left wing, largely woke bureaucracies, and their grants have created whole infrastructures of educational and public policy activists who are providing K-12 curriculums for schools based on woke ideas and pushing for radical changes in schools, especially in our largest districts, in the name of "equity."  Our new gilded age has become a struggle between two groups of billionaires, one left wing and one right, in which the views of average citizens play a very limited role.

The Ford Foundation, Rosiak reports, provided about $60 million in funding for racial equity issues a year between 2011 and 2020, and announced a further $180 million increase in 2020.  The MacArthur Foundatin indirectly subsidized the career of Nikole Hannah-Jones when she worked at Pro Publica, and has funded the Pulitzer Foundation, which has distributed curricula based on her historically inaccurate 1619 Project to school districts around the country.  The foundations, Rosiak shows, have many links to teachers unions, whom serious educational reformers--the ones who run effective charter school networks--now regard as the biggest obstacle to necessary changes.  (I know this because one of my sons worked for one of those networks for more than a decade.)  The Ford, MacArthur and Soros foundations have joined with the National Education Association to fund FairTest, which lobbies to limit the use of standardized tests in schools on the grounds that they are discriminatory.

Rosiak, himself a parent of school age kids, spends a long chapter on the disastrous decision to shut down schools during the pandemic, one that has inflicted damage upon a whole generation that seems likely to last for a long time.  He also shows how the educational establishment used that crisis to implement many other changes that activist groups--funded by the foundations--have been pushing.  These included easier grading systems that make it almost impossible for students to fail, a de-emphasis on standardized tests (a policy also adopted by many colleges, although some are now reversing it), and an end admissions standards to elite high schools based solely on standardized tests--the practice that turned schools like Boston Latin, Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science, and Lowell High School in San Francisco into the highest-achieving schools in the country, public or private.  Such policies, new racial advocates argue, are "inequitable"  by definition because the produce student bodies composed mostly of Asian and white students.  I read Rosiak quite carefully, and I don't think he ever mentioned another activist demand:  that the teaching and administrative staffs of inner city schools reflect the demographic makeup of their students as closely as possible.  I have heard this demand frequently voiced by Boston area activists on my local NPR stations, on the grounds that "children of color" can only get the education they need from "educators of color."  Not coincidentally, NPR is very heavily supported by the foundations that Rosiak lists.  

On another front, Rosiak discusses the widely held view, particularly among liberals, that public education in the United States promotes inequality because it is financed largely by local property taxes, and thus, poorer communities spend much more per children than rich ones.  He presents some data showing that this simply is not true, and I can now corroborate that based on data from my own state of Massachusetts.  Boston, the city with by far the largest number of poor students in the state, spends $28,882 per pupil per year, one of the highest figures in the state. Cambridge, which ranks 134 out of 341 cities and towns in per capita income,. spends the second most, in the state, $36,712 per pupil.  Brookline and Wellesley, two of the wealthiest suburbs, spend nearly as much as Boston, more than $25,000 per pupil each, but Newton and Lexington, whose schools seem to have the best reputations of all, spend just  $16, 804  and $22,736  per student, respectively.  I suspect that the cost of education in Boston is so high for the same as it is at Harvard University--administrative bloat. These are, obviously, fragmentary data, but it does seem that the correlation between per-pupil spending on the one hand, and wealth and educational achievement on the other, is not nearly as strong as many people tend to think.

And although Rosiak doesn't mention this, the MacArthur Foundation also uses its renowned "Genius Grants" to reward its favorite intellectuals in the same way that the Bradley Foundation, as I mentioned above, rewards prominent conservative thinkers--but on a much larger scale.  The Bradley Foundation awards are one-shot gifts of $250,000, while the MacArthur grants are worth $800,000 over five years.  The foundation began awarding these grants in 1981, and their rosters are a kind of history of the last 43 years of US intellectual life.  In the first five years, winners included political scientist Seweryn Bialer, literary critic Harold Bloom,  historian Henry Louis Gates, Political Scientist Alexander George, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable, novelist William Kennedy, novelist Cormac McCarthy, historian James A. McPherson, novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, filmmaker John Sales, and poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren.  Since 2015 they have included Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Homeric translator Emily Wilson, historian Ibram X. Kendi, and interdisciplinary scholar Imani Perry.  They now include far fewer scientists than they originally did.  Of the 20 2023 winners, 2 are white males and three are white females.

I am proud to have read both Mayer's and Rosniak's books.  One was written primarily for liberals, the other for conservatives, but both paint very convincing pictures of the intellectual and political power of great wealth, protected by the tax laws and dispensed by foundations without any public accountability at all.  They are a very important part of the new aristocracy which controls so many aspects of American life, and none of them seems to care very much about what is good for average Americans.  

 




Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Historical perspective

 I grew up, I think, at the climax of the Enlightenment, which had begun several centuries earlier.  By Enlightenment I mean above all the idea that human reason could improve human life, economically, medically, and politically.  That was, as my new book shows quite clearly, the idea upon which the United States was founded, and the idea which our greatest presidents tried to sustain amidst changing circumstnaces, including a civil war fought over slavery, a great depression, two world wars, and a worldwide ideological struggle between communist dictatorship and capitalist democracy.  The ideas of the Enlightenment did not create a utopia, partly because science, in particular, allowed humanity to do both good and evil on an unprecedented scale.   On the one hand, advances in medicine, food production, and industry mutliplied the world's population again and again.  On the other hand, advances in military technology, culminating in the atomic bomb, allowed for unprecendented levels of destruction, and still threaten the complete destruction of civilization.  And last but hardly least, humanity has never really managed to substitute reason for primal emotion.  Those two critical aspects of human nature have remained at war, and what distinguishes the period roughly of 1750-1968 is that reason, on the whole, had the upper hand, and that kept the dream of the Enlightenment alive.

I knew by the mid-1970s that something had gone very wrong in American political life in the late 1960s, and that the nation had lost the capacity to focus on the common good, partly because of the Vietnam War.  By the 1980s I had come to accept that we had lost something, and I did an interview late in the Reagan era that showed that I had shed many of my youthful illusions.  (I still have it, but I would have to retype the whole think to link it, and I don't think it's worth the trouble.)  The fall of Communism and the return of the Democrats to power under Clinton seemed to promise a brighter future.  Then, around 1995, I read Generations and suddenly saw the past, the present, and the future in a new light.  The erosion of civic order that had begun in the late 1960s, Strauss and Howe taught me, was a reucrring phenomenon, which had been followed in the 1860s and the 1930s and 1940s by a rebirth of unity in pursuit of new, inspring values.   They confidently expected to see something similar in the first fifteen years or so of the new century, and I welcomed that hope myself.

In fact, between 2001 and 2020, the nation experienced not one, but three crises of the type that they had predicted:  9/11, the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession, and the COVID pandemic.  None of them, however, had the regenerative effect that they had predicted.  George W. Bush, probably encouraged by Karl Rove, tried to mobilize the nation on behalf of a generational crusade to spread democracy through the Middle East, but he couldn't bring himself to ask the mass of the population for a real sacrifice via a draft or tax increases, and his goals were as unachievable as our parents' were in Vietnam.   Ben Bernanke, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner--Boomers all--persauded Barack Obama that there was nothing wrong with our economy that a massive infusion of liquidity couldn't cure.  Donald Trump tried to ignore the pandemic at first, and he and Biden dealt with its economic effects with another massive infusion of cash that tended to benefit industry and local government.  Meanwhile, teachers unions insisted on closing schools, a step whose disastrous effects may persist for a decade or more.  These repeated failures and an extraordinary growth of tribalism have left us with a polarized, divided electorate, which has transferred the control of either the White House or at least one hosue of Congress in eight of the last nine national elections and is very likely to do the same again this November.

Meanwhile, two new ideologies have replaced the idea of using reason to advance the common good.  The first was, very simply, the profit motive and the revolt of our economic elite against the New Deal order, whose prophets were Milton Friedman and Lewis Powell, whose famous memorandum, written just before he went on the Supreme Court, called for an attack on the regulatory state and a rebirth of the values of free enterprise.  The second, which began in academia but has now spread to many of our important institutions, was the tribal revolt against the idea of equal justice and equal opportunity for all, which new ideologies branded as nothing more than an excuse for the domiation of straight white males.  Any presidential candidate who genuinely sought to build a new majority coalition would have to take on at least one of those ideologies, and probably both of them--and no such candidate is on the horizon.  The spread of those ideologies made the kind of regeneracy that Strauss and Howe counted on impossible, and that, in turn, establishes the late 1960s as a critical turning point in world history.

The age of the Enlightenment, I believe, was an heroic age.  Its spirit encouraged both journalists and historians to see public affairs as a story of progress, and perhaps to try to use history and journalism to further progress.  Journalists and historians, by and large, now use their platforms to push their own ideology, which they identify with progress.   Unfortunately, I believe, on many fronts, the era of progress has come to an end, and academics and journalists, with rare exceptions, are simply promoting an ideology--or at times, their own superior wisdom--rather than facing facts.  They still claim to have the answers that will make our lives better, but the mass of our people have learned the hard way that they no longer do.  

The gap between ideology and reality is also behind much of the growing division over the Middle East.  Both supporters of the Israeli govenrment and of the Palestinian revolt believe that their cause must triumph because it is just, and this blinds them to the real tragedy of two peoples of roughly the same size claiming the right to control the same piece of land.  This is the kind of tribal conflict which Enlightenment principles cannot solve, either.  Yes, a two-state solution would reflect those principles--but the political authorities on the two sides reject one, and I suspect that majorities of their constituents do, as well.

This fall will mark the twentieth anniversary of History Unfoolding.  Much of it, particularly for the first six years or so, was written in the Enlightenment spirit--in the belief that better ideas could make a difference.  I am trying to let that idea go now, and it isn't easy.   We live in a tragic era rather than an heroic one now, and I no longer expect to live to see a great rebirth, even if I can live to be 100.  Yet as the great German historian Ranke tried to tell us nearly 200 years ago, we must accept all human history as reflective of some divine plan--as he put it--or as Thucydides said, as reflective of human nature.  We can value the eras that have made civilization and modern life possible even in a long era of entropy and decline, and we can keep certian non-monetary, non-tribal values alive in our own lives.  Some day new generations will revive the Enlightenment values in all their glory, bulding on the 18th and 20th centuries as those times built on antiquity.  And meanwhile, as Orwell once said, the earth continues to revolve around the sun.