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New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Saturday, September 24, 2022

The New World Crisis

 The war in Ukraine and worldwide inflation and its consequences lead the news these days.  Many stories note that they are related.  The war has led to sanctions against Russia and a retaliatory cutoff of energy exports from there, sending energy prices skyrocketing.  Both, in my opinion, are the result of something much bigger: a crisis of globalization and its destructive effect on political authority around the world.  I cannot at this point see how we are going to get out of it.

As the world discovered in 1914, economic globalization relies on peace.  It encourages nations to depend on other continents for critical materials--food then, food and energy now.  When war comes those flows are disrupted.  When that happened in the First World War, both Germany and Japan eventually decided to try to create autarkic empires that would not be vulnerable to wars and world economic swings.  The United States led the coalition that defeated them and promoted globalization in the non-Communist world--but western governments continued to regulate trade and currencies effectively.  The deregulation of the world economy began in the 1970s with the end of the gold-exchange standard, and the gradual opening of Chinese markets and the fall of Soviet Communism spread the new system all over the world.  

Like the world of the 1920s, the world of the 2000s had become very financially interconnected.  In 2008, as in 1929, a credit crisis in the United States rapidly spread around the world.  China alone, as Adam Tooze pointed out in his book Crash--which I reviewed here--decided to fight the crisis with massive government spending on infrastructure, as both Germany and the US had done in the 1930s.  In the west, Tooze shown, central bankers, not elected leaders, determined the response, and transferred the burden of the crisis from the bankers who had caused it to ordinary citizens. The pandemic caused the next economic crisis, and massive infusions of capital from central banks appeared to be getting us out of this one.  But then inflation struck more than a year ago.

The inflation we are experiencing now replays the years of my young adulthood, from 1965 to 1982 or so,  when prices tripled.  They had already increased 50 percent by 1973 when the Arab oil embargo struck, and they had doubled by 1978 before further oil shocks raised inflation into double digits again.  Twice the US government took significant action to try to stop the inflation.  Richard Nixon in 1971 imposed wage and price controls, which cut inflation from nearly 6 percent in 1970 to a little over 3 percent for the next two years and insured his re-election.  After the oil shock in 1973 the US froze the price of domestic energy--a step which would have reduced inflation here very significantly today, since we are now energy self-sufficient.  Ronald Reagan and then-Fed chair Paul Volcker, however, finally broke the back of inflation with high interest rates leading to nearly 11 percent unemployment in 1982.  That was the formative experience for the Boom generation of economists and now the Fed is replaying that scenario.  Although many of them won't admit it, most orthodox economists really want a recession to control inflation, and I am not aware of a single western political leader who is trying to challenge that policy.  That threatens our political system.

Joe Biden's 60 Minutes interview last weekend illustrated what I mean.  Inflation is the nation's leading concern right now and will probably cost the Democrats control of the House, which will paralyze our politics and make it impossible for the Democrats to strengthen their case for re-election over the next two years.  Trump meanwhile is running neck and neck with Biden in national trial heats for the 2024 election--and I feel sure that Kamala Harris, who has never establish a real rapport with the American people, would poll significantly worse. Biden in the interview simply bragged that energy prices were down and that things could be worse.  He had nothing to offer, because the federal government has turned the care of the nation's economic health over to the Fed.  Rather than beating the Trump Republicans by taking big, active measures to restore economic health, the Democratic leadership seems to be counting on prosecutors in New York State and the Justice Department to bring Trump down.  They are in other words counting on the Deep State, which plays into Trump's hands politically.  That may succeed against Trump, but not against Ron DeSantis.

Similar political situations may be found in other parts of the world.  The German government courageously lined up with NATO to sanction Putin but has held back on giving Ukraine its best weapons, and now faces a major energy crisis because of cutoffs of Russian gas.  Inflation, as I have just learned, is much more serious in countries like Lebanon and Turkey and may threaten political collapse.  Prime Minister Truss of the UK has just announced a new round of high-income tax cuts, panicking financial markets there.  The most stable European country by far seems to be France, whose leader was just comfortably re-elected--partly, perhaps, because of de Gaulle's decision to use nuclear power to make France largely energy independent.  

A friend of mine, a scholar of China, has just informed me of a further breakdown of globalization.  Frightened by the crisis over Taiwan, she says, many foreign companies are pulling out of China so has not to be badly hurt by western sanctions against China if an attack on Taiwan occurs.  It seems clear, as Robert Skidelsky argued in his book Money and Government, which I also reviewed here--that western countries should try to become self-sufficient in more key products, or at least make sure that they buy them from friendly states.  But are governments actually strong enough  nowadays to make those changes?  They were from about 1870 until the late twentieth century, when democracy was a relatively new idea and governments had to mobilize resources to face serious foreign threats. They may not be now.  We don't know what the consequences will be.

Friday, September 16, 2022

The March of History

 Last week the New York Times published a fine story about Iraq today.  The George W. Bush administration was gearing up for the Iraq War 20 years ago, Obama pulled out of Iraq at the Iraqi government's request in 2011.  American troops went back after ISIS took over much of the country in 2014, and by 2017 ISIS had lost almost all its Iraqi territory.  ISIS had taken advantage of the long-standing antipathy between the Sunni minority, which had run Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and the newly impowered Shi'ite majority--much of it allied with Iran--which has ruled the central government since the American invasion.  ISIS's defeat, as Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker has shown, led to horrifying Shi'ite reprisals in the cities in had ruled, which will ensure that the bitter hatred between the two sects endures. The new story deals with the Shi'ite led portion of the country, which it describes as a failed state.  Various Shi'ite militias divide authority, struggle for power among themselves, and collect protection money from virtually every enterprise, great and small, in the country.  Iraq is again generating important oil revenues but the government has never managed to use them to benefit the mass of the people, many of whom lack reliable energy and water.  A well-informed foreign observer says that Iraq has never been a functioning state and that no prime minister has controlled the security forces or the borders. Various regional powers are competing for influence within Iraq but the United States government appears to have washed its hands of the country it shattered beyond repair.

The Iraq War was the third great turning point in the great crisis of the last 22 years or so. The first was the 2000 election, handed to George W. Bush by a Republican Supreme Court majority that kept the state of Florida from making sure of who had actually won.  The second, of course, was 9/11.  Ten years before that, when the Cold War came to an end and the Soviet Union collapsed, United States foreign policy had already entered a new phase. A recent article--"Introducing the Military Intervention Project: A New Dataset on US Military Interventions, 1776–2019," has shown that American military interventions abroad became significantly more common after the Cold War was over.  The authors do not systematically to explain this, but it seems clear to me that from George H. W. Bush onward presidents have assumed that without a peer competitor or a challenge to their leadership of the developed world, Republican and Democratic presidents assumed that they could use the military to secure any result they wanted anywhere in the world.  The Bush II administration assumed that they could turn Iraq into a free-market pro-American neoconservative paradise within a couple of years at most.  Like good Leninists, they trusted to history to achieve their goals and felt entitled to give history a bit of a push.  They fabricated a case based on non-existent weapons of mass destruction and links between Saddam Hussein and Al Queda to get Congress's approval for war--in which every major Democratic leader except the venerable Robert Byrd, who remembered the Tonkin Gulf, to go along.  After the occupation they destroyed the whole machinery of the previous state--something that US officials had not done in Germany or Japan after 1945--without any idea of what would come after.  Chaos resulted, and it continued to this day.  Iran was one of the big winners, extending new influence into Iraq.  That in turn triggered a bitter Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia that is being played out in civil war in Yemen, and that may lead to both countries acquiring nuclear weapons.  And the Obama administration pursued the same policy in Libya and Syria, with two kinds of disastrous results. 

The tone for the last thirty years was set, in fact, by the first President Bush, in the wake of the collapse of Communism and the first Gulf War.  "The triumph of democratic ideas in Eastern Europe and Latin America and the continuing struggle for freedom elsewhere all around the world all confirm the wisdom of our nation's founders,” he said in a State of the Union address on January 29, 1991, in the midst of the Gulf War. “Tonight, we work to achieve another victory, a victory over tyranny and savage aggression.” “Yes,” he continued, “the United States bears a major share of leadership in this effort. Among the nations of the world, only the United States of America has both the moral standing and the means to back it up. We're the only nation on this Earth that could assemble the forces of peace."  On March 6, he hailed the advent of a new world “in which freedom and respect for human rights find a home among all nations. The Gulf war put this new world to its first test. And my fellow Americans, we passed that test."

I don't think that our feelings of omnipotence are gone yet.  I certainly support everything we are doing now for Ukraine--indeed, as some readers will remember, I would have supported much stronger action once the war began.  Yet I don't see any serious thinking in our government about how we are going to live with China or Russia, when neither government shares our values or our vision for the future.  The post-9/11 resolution authorizing the executive to act anywhere in the world to pursue the war on terror is still in effect and we are still applying it in various ways on several continents.  The American people have largely lost interest in events abroad, but our foreign policy establishment seems as ambitious as ever.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

The Revolt Against Modernity

 This has been a good week for the New York Times.  Yesterday I wrote most of a post about the legacy of the Iraq war, prompted by an excellent story there about the chaotic situation in Iraq today, which has not had an effective state since the fall of Saddam Hussein.  Today, however, I have been diverted by another long piece of investigative reporting that appeared this morning: a look at the New York area's Hasidic schools, which educate about 50,000 young orthodox Jewish boys and a lesser number of girls (for which the story does not give any figure.  It turns out that most of the children in in these schools--particularly the boys--are receiving almost no real education.  In some of them not a single student has been able to pass state standardized tests in reading and math.  Many give all their instruction in Yiddish, and do little or nothing to help their students learn English--much less history or science.  The instruction deals mostly with the Talmud and other religious topics.  Corporal punishment is very frequent.  As a result, thousands of kids graduate from these schools without marketable skills and immediately fall into poverty.  Meanwhile, the Hasids have used their political power to secure considerable financial assistance for the schools from both the state and federal governments, and have successfully blocked serious investigations of their performance.

I was reminded of the talk I heard last May at the conference I participated in by the black scholar Shelby Steele, an almost exact contemporary of mine who was one of the first and most severe critics of victimhood culture among black Americans.  Now available on youtube, that talk argued that when the great civil rights acts gave equal rights to black Americans in the mid-1960s, they created a situation  that was too frightening for some black Americans to cope with.  They now had to compete on an equal footing with everyone else, with no excuse for failure, and some preferred to argue that the system was still rigged against them.   After the talk I introduced myself to Professor Steele and tried to extend his argument.  Modern life, I argued, in which every one of us has to prove themselves in a free labor market, is terrifying for many people of all backgrounds, and many of them would gladly seize upon a psychological escape hatch to avoid the competition.  He agreed with me.

Both the Hasids running Yiddish schools and the critical race theory acolytes railing against standardized tests, middle-class work habits, and the idea of meritocracy as racist constructs, it seems to me, are revolting against the modern world.  So are some evangelical Christians who want to make their religion the foundation of our educational system and our law.  So are MAGA Republicans who will not accept the clear results of elections even if certified by other Republicans.  And so are the majority of academics in the humanities, such as the ones who descended upon President Sweet of the AHA a few weeks ago and compelled him to write a letter of self-criticism confessing the sins of objectivity and disregarding their feelings.  In place of rationalism and fair competition, they want tribalism and redistribution of resources based on various forms of superstition, both ancient and modern.  And they are well-organized and powerful within many institutions and within both political parties.

The story about the Hasids raises interesting questions about the history of American Judaism.  The battle between tradition and modernity took place within many immigrant families a century ago, including my own father's.  His father became for a time a successful American businessman and encouraged his younger children to go to college, while his mother was a staunch traditionalist who had never wanted to leave Ukraine for the United States and tried to force his father to return there.  Modernity triumphed among American Jews in the mid-century period, but traditionalism has had something of a comeback.  The authors of the Times story are Eliza Shapiro and Brian M. Rosenthal, and Jonah Markowitz took the photographs.  They evidently are among the great majority of American Jews who do not regret the transition to modernity, and I commend them for exposing Jewish attempts to subvert it.  They are counterparts of Shelby Steele, my friend the economist Glenn Loury, and young podcaster Coleman Hughes, black Americans who reject the black revolt against modernity.  The future of the United States depends on men and women of all backgrounds like all of these, whose first loyalty is to impartial principles. 

Modernity unfortunately has come under effective attack because it has itself gone off the track during the last half-century.   Modernity can be cruel and helpless. A meritocratic educational system reveals that a small minority of young people are much smarter than anyone else.  The establishment, I think, cannot sell modernity to the great mass of the people if the rewards for that small minority--and the hardships of those who do not belong to it--are too great.  That is the situation today, when our whole elite educational system seems designed to identify our smartest young people and funnel them into careers on Wall Street and where CEOs make hundreds of times as much money as their workers.   Franklin Roosevelt brilliantly focused on the plight of the average American and did a great deal to improve it.  Since Ronald Reagan we have left the average American behind.  Our future depends not only on better ideas, but on better policies.  Only they can preserve our modern heritage against increasingly widespread attacks. 

Saturday, September 03, 2022

The Last Great GI

Early last week I had one of life's great recurring experiences when I spied a book on the library shelf that I didn't know about and knew I had to read. It was The Making of a Justice, the autobiography of Justice John Paul Stevens, who served on the Supreme Court from 1975 to 2010 and died three years ago at the age of 99.  He had a classic GI generation life--superbly educated at little cost, a code-breaker during the Second World War, and a successful attorney in his home town of Chicago.   He does not seem to have been very active in politics, but he knew then-Senator Charles Percy fairly well, and Percy in 1970 secured Stevens's appointment as a federal district judge. Five years later, that very underrated president Gerald Ford chose Stevens for the Supreme Court.  He served with eighteen different justices, including three chiefs, over the next 35 years.  

The bulk of the book is a term-by-term, case-by-case account of Stevens' years on the court.  Condensing a lot of legal history into a small space, he is occasionally too abrupt, and there were times when I could not figure out exactly what the case under discussion was about.  He is unfailingly polite towards all his colleagues, referring to them without exception by their first names, including "Tony" for Anthony Kennedy and "Nino" for Antonin Scalia.  This does not however conceal the major historical theme of the book:  the court's steady rightward movement on various fronts during his tenure, marked by a steady erosion of defendants' rights, a narrowing of the government's power to regulate corporate behavior, and some very strange decisions involving the scope of federal power.  And last but hardly least, Scalia saves his most detailed discussions for two 5-4 decisions which can only be described as nakedly partisan: Bush v. Gore, which awarded George W. Bush the presidency in 2000 without finding out who had really carried the critical state of Florida; District of Columbia vs. Heller, in which the majority threw out more than two centuries of legal and legislative precedent to create an absolute individual right to bear arms--a more drastic extension of judicial power, in my opinion, than Roe v. Wade, and one handed down with a 5-4 majority instead of a 7-2 one.  Citizens United vs. F.C.C., which effectively eliminated limits on corporate contributions to campaigns, is a third such decision. 

I came away from the book without much respect for the leaders of the conservative bloc during Stevens' tenure, including Scalia, Chief Justice Rehnquist, and Clarence Thomas.  In particular, the idea that these men--especially Scalia--were genuine "originalists" devoted to determining what the framers originally had in mind simply does not hold up under scrutiny.  A lot of liberals nowadays are comfortable with that characterization because they themselves feel that the founders' opinions came from another age and don't deserve much respect, but in fact, on many issues of great current interest--such as gun control and, often, economic regulation--the founders held views very different from those of today's conservatives.  To give one of Stevens's favorite examples, Justice Rehnquist took the lead in turning a rather fanciful interpretation of the 11th amendment to the Constitution into law.  That amendment, a model of brevity, reads in full: "The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State."  Rehnquist decided that that amendment confers a kind of "sovereign immunity" upon the states that forbids the federal government from, among other things, requiring states to observe federal wages and hours laws.  

Stevens's account of numerous death penalty cases also depressed me.  He himself came to oppose the death penalty on principle because the risk of executing an innocent person is simply too great--as DNA evidence has made indisputably clear.  I personally oppose it on principle as well, simply because it is a barbaric act--although, like him, I think that life imprisonment without parallel is an essential substitute. (See inter alia, Sirhan, Sirhan.)  Conservative court majorities however have consistently tried to remove any obstacles to the application of the death penalty.  In a case that did not involve the death penalty, they denied a convicted man's request to do a DNA test that might have proven his innocence of a crime of which he had been convicted.  Many cases involving lesser punishments also reach the court under the 8th amendment's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments."  These, alas, are particularly frustrating to citizens like myself who believe that courts should not make law, because there is no way to decide them without the justices using their own definition of "cruel and unusual" and, at times, substituting it for that of state authorities.  I did think that Stevens made an excellent point in arguing repeatedly that prosecutors should not be able to use "victim impact statements" made after a jury has convicted a defendant to influence the length of their sentence pronounced by the judge. Any evidence that can increase a person's sentence, he argued, needs to be tested by the adversary process and submitted to the jury.  Eventually Stevens began losing that fight as the court moved rightward. 

Stevens and some of his conservative colleagues also  argued about the proper use of history--especially legislative history.  Confronted with the question of what a statue really means, Stevens and many other judges look to legislative debates to understand better what the legislators had in mind. Scalia on the other hand argues that they should rely purely on the text of the law in question--which can easily become an excuse for relying on their own view of what it should mean.  

Bush v. Gore and the Heller cases get the most detailed treatment of any in the book because they disturbed Stevens the most.  Regarding the first, Stevens explains that when the Florida dispute over possible recounts to determine the actual winner of an incredibly close election, he and his clerks did not believe that the Supreme Court would ever become involved.  The case involved a dispute over state procedures and state law, and numerous cases at all levels had affirmed that thorough recounts were the proper means of resolving disputes over close elections.   The conservative majority led by Chief Justice Rehnquist did not tip its hand until after the Florida Supreme Court demanded a recount in certain counties, and the 5-4 majority immediately granted a request for a stay and agreed to hear the case. They then fashioned a rather spurious reason for stopping the recount:  that different counties might impose different standards of what constituted a valid ballot, thereby denying Floridians the equal protection of the law.  Stevens appears to note that the effects of different standards would almost certainly be random, and another dissenting justice argued that that problem could have been turned over to the Florida Supreme Court.  The majority, which had presumably been bewailing the nation under the rule of Bill Clinton for eight years, refused to let anything get in the way of Bush's accession.

I wrote my own analysis of Scalia's opinion in D. C. vs. Heller in 2008 when he handed it down, and I think it holds up pretty well. Stevens's dissent emphasized that the Supreme Court in 1939 in United States vs. Miller, had upheld a law banning the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because such a weapon would be of no use in a militia.  A footnote to a 1980 opinion had restated that principle. His fellow dissenter Steven Breyer also pointed out that major cities in colonial times had strict legal regulations against the use or possession of particular firearms within their limits, as did many states subsequently.  Stevens also argues in his book that the Court should never have overruled these earlier precedents without giving some consideration to the obviously disastrous effect that their decision would have in real life.

As for Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission, it figures in the book as one of Stevens's last dissents, because speech problems he encountered while reading his opinion in court convinced him that he had had a very small stroke and needed to retire from it.  There two, however, a 5-4 majority threw out provisions of at least three venerable pieces of legislation: The Tillman Act of 1907 banning corporate contributions to campaigns, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, and the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971.  It is not going too far, I think,. to say that most recent Republican nominees for the Supreme Court share the view that the entire first two-thirds of the 20th century, including the Progressive Era, and New Deal, and the Great Society, were an unfortunate detour from the true path of American life whose major achievements have to be undone.  That seems to be true to some degree at least of Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett, as well as of Clarence Thomas.  By 1975 the principles of that era were sufficiently mainstream that even a Republican president like Gerald Ford could nominate a prospective justice who evidently shared them, just as Richard Nixon, perhaps unwittingly, had nominated Harry Blackmun, and George H. W. Bush later nominated David Souter. Stevens did not in his book make the point that my late friend James MacGregor Burns argued very convincingly in his last book, Packing the Court. The Supreme Court for most of its history has used its extraordinary power to protect property and the status quo, and the Rehnquist and Roberts courts have simply returned to that tradition, taking advantage of the new judicial activism that arose under the Warren Court for their own purposes.  Our best hope for change would be a restoration of the legislative authority of Congress and state legislatures--who now face the task of securing abortion rights.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

History sinks beneath the waves

    While I was away on a six-day trip, a controversy broke out over a monthly article by James Sweet, the current President of the American Historical Association.   For reasons that I explained more than two decades ago in a published article, I have not belonged to the AHA for a long time, but a friend sent me an article about the controversy.  Just today it made the op-ed page of the New York Times.  It's a sad and revealing story.

      James Sweet, a professor at the main campus of the University of Wisconsin, is an historian of the Atlantic slave trade.  That probably accounts for his election as the association president, but it turns out that some of his views contradict the new orthodoxy.   In his column, he criticized "presentism" in the historical profession--the increasing tendency to see the past through the lens of the present, and to mine the past, not always accurately, to score points in contemporary political debates.  "This trend toward presentism," he wrote, "is not confined to historians of the recent past; the entire discipline is lurching in this direction, including a shrinking minority working in premodern fields. If we don’t read the past through the prism of contemporary social justice issues—race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism—are we doing history that matters? This new history often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines. The allure of political relevance, facilitated by social and other media, encourages a predictable sameness of the present in the past."

Continuing, Sweet told his readers that he is working on a contribution to a forthcoming forum in the American Historical Review about the 1619 project, which has drawn scathing criticism from certain older historians such as Sean Wilentz and James Oakes. While he did not in his post echo their specific criticisms, he pointed out that most of the contributors to the project were not historians--led by its leader, Nikole Hannah-Jones--and that the project is an explicitly political document making a case for reparations for today's black population.  On a recent visit to Ghana, Sweet took a tour of Elmina Castle, a key stop in the slave pipeline, and was disturbed that the tour guide focused on the minority of the slaves who passed through it who went to North America. He also largely ignored the role of Ghana's tribes in the slave trade, and added that a forthcoming film about Dahomey, The Woman King, falsely portrays African leaders as fighting the European slave trade, while they actually participated in it. 

Continuing in a bipartisan vein, Sweet took Justices Thomas and Alito to task for misusing history in their majority opinions in cases that overturned a century-old New York gun law (NYSRPA v. Bruen) and overturned Roe v. Wade (Dobbs vs. Jackson.) He is absolutely right about this, particularly with respect to Thomas's opinion, which managed to erase centuries of legitimate regulation of the carrying of firearms both in the US and in medieval and early  modern England. "Doing history with integrity," he concluded, "requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors. Historical questions often emanate out of present concerns, but the past interrupts, challenges, and contradicts the present in unpredictable ways. History is not a heuristic tool for the articulation of an ideal imagined future. Rather, it is a way to study the messy, uneven process of change over time."

I'm sure I was not the only historian surprised and delighted by Sweet's timely post.  It immediately set off a firestorm of bitter criticism on twitter--one which I cannot quote or even read because the association has now blocked its twitter account.  The Wall Street Journal provided a summary of the reaction today, however, which I will excerpt.  

     “Gaslight. Gatekeep. Goatee,” said Laura Miller of Brandeis University, detecting patriarchal privilege written on Mr. Sweet’s chin. Benjamin Siegel of Boston University, who thinks his politically correct profession is “leveraged towards racist ideologies,” called the essay “malpractice.” Dan Royles of Florida International University accused Mr. Sweet of “logical incoherence,” which is academic-speak for “idiot.” Kathryn Wilson of Georgia State detected an even more heinous error, “misrepresentation of how contemporary social justice concerns inform theory and methodology.” Other users accused Mr. Sweet of using a rhetorical device called the “white we,” pitching for a guest slot on Tucker Carlson’s show, and writing “MAGA history.” Many called any questioning of the “1619 Project” racist. David Austin Walsh of the University of Virginia advised historians to support the project regardless of whether they thought it good history, because criticism would be “weaponized by the right.”

And then, after just a few days, Sweet wrote an abject apology, or should I say a letter of self-criticism.  " I had hoped to open a conversation on how we “do” history in our current politically charged environment," he wrote. "Instead, I foreclosed this conversation for many members, causing harm to colleagues, the discipline, and the Association. . . .I sincerely regret the way I have alienated some of my Black colleagues and friends. I am deeply sorry. In my clumsy efforts to draw attention to methodological flaws in teleological presentism, I left the impression that questions posed from absence, grief, memory, and resilience somehow matter less than those posed from positions of power. This absolutely is not true. It wasn’t my intention to leave that impression, but my provocation completely missed the mark."  Having begun by challenging the new orthodoxy, Sweet caved into it and left it more obviously supreme than ever.

The New York Times, which bears responsibility for the 1619 project and has explicitly refused to face much of the criticism that it aroused among professionals, weighed in on the controversy today in the person of Jay Caspian Kang, an opinion writer who does not seem to be a professional historian himself.  After summarizing what Sweet said (far more quickly than I did,), Kang gets to his main point.

"I agree with Sweet on the fundamentals of what he said, but I also understand why minority scholars felt like the integrity of their work was being questioned. An uncharitable reader might accuse him of singling out scholars who write about identity (read: mostly nonwhite scholars) and making unfounded insinuations about the motivations behind their work. This would be more forgivable if Sweet were not the president of the American Historical Association, a position that presumably gives him some influence over where the discipline is headed. There have been times in my own career when someone high up in an institution assumes that because I am not white, my work must be driven by identity politics. It’s an enraging experience."

This is an amazing kind of doublethink that always pops up when postmodern scholars defend themselves.  It is also inaccurate: the largest number of historians who write about identity are white women.  Moreover, for many decades now, many (though by no means all) female and minority scholars have argued specifically that their identity gives them insights which white males could never have,. and have explicitly argued for the necessity of having more of them in history departments on that basis.  Nor is that all.  Postmodern historians accept the idea that language, not events, are the true reality, and that all writing, historical and other, is a struggle between hegemonic elements--that is, white males--and marginalized ones.  Some also argue that hegemonic writing amounts to violence against the marginalized, which is why Sweet felt compelled to apologize for the emotional harm some minority scholars apparently accused him of inflicting upon them.  To them a disagreement between a white and a nonwhite scholar is not an intellectual dispute, it's a naked white attempt to reassert political power over the marginalized. Obviously--as Sweet's apology proved--no free intellectual inquiry can take place in such an atmosphere.  

Turning to Sweet's additional point that judges and journalists are continually using inaccurate history for political purposes, Kang leave no doubt where he stands.  “'The Case for Reparations' by Ta-Nehisi Coates," he writes, "which detailed the practice of redlining, certainly wasn’t the first piece of journalism that brought in historical techniques, but it was, without question and for good reason, the most influential of its era. History like this — cleareyed, thorough and written toward an explicit political end — showed a generation of young journalists how they might be able to leverage their skills in a new way. I was a young magazine writer when that article came out, in 2014. I recall feeling impressed by the prose and the research while realizing that Coates had raised the stakes for what a magazine story could do. He had, in effect, written a work that felt much more like an object, something that wouldn’t immediately decompose once the next news cycle rolled in.  I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Coates inspired thousands of imitators and ushered in a new type of journalism in which historical research could take precedence over reportage."

The problem is that Coates's "case for reparations" wasn't part of the solution--it was part of the problem.  He used anecdotal evidence from one city, Chicago, to argue that redlining--the designation from the 1930s into the 1960s of certain neighborhoods as unworthy of certain kinds of mortgage loans--had made it impossible for black Americans to acquire homes and wealth.  Having looked into this myself I can tell you that it is not true.  A detailed study of redlining found that initially, the redlined neighborhoods included far more white people than black people.  More importantly--and this is what Coates left out--black income, homeownership, and therefore, wealth, increased very rapidly from the late 1940s until the 1980s.  During that period, the percentage of white households owning their homes rose from about 43 percent to 75 percent.  At the same time, the corresponding black rate rose from 21 percent to 56 percent.   While many new housing developments were segregated, this did not prevent black Americans from making remarkable progress as property owners.  Since 1980 the white rate has remained constant while the black rate has fallen about 4 percent.  During the same period, black household income was rising from 50 percent of white household income, on the average, in 1946, to 68 percent in 1972.  During that time the income of the bottom 90 percent of the population tripled, and black gains were larger than white ones.  After 1980 the income of the lower half of the population stagnated, but black income still reached 75 percent of white income by 2014.  Black and white people in the lower half of the income distribution made gains in the postwar decades because of our expanding, largely industrial economy, strong unions, and the very rapid construction of new affordable homes.  When we abandoned those policies, those gains came to a stop--even as legal racism was abolished by federal law.

Kang is unfortunately correct: Coates has become a model for journalists and opinion writers who claim that black people have never been able to accumulate wealth, or that black veterans were completely excluded from the GI bill, or that Social Security was designed to exclude black people because it did not originally include farm laborers or domestics.  As I discussed at a recent conference, none of this is true.  Coates helped kick off a huge propaganda offensive based on false readings of history designed to make an overwhelming case for reparations for black Americans, one culminating in the 1619 Project, which our leading newspaper continues to promote.  Professor Sweet initially decided that it was time for historians and other Americans to hear more of the truth.  Then he caved in and agreed that the truth is too painful for various people to hear.  Fear and groupthink now rule university life and the editorial boards of our leading newspapers.