Friday, December 19, 2014

Endings and Beginnings

My books (see the list at right) have always tackled big topics, but their conclusions almost always put the events they describe in an even broader perspective.  I did this well before Strauss and Howe's books appeared in the 1990s, but they gave me a new framework. Some of these conclusions have included an element of prophecy, and this week, another one of those prophecies came true.

I will begin with American Tragedy: Kenndy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War, which appeared in 2000.  The last five pages of that book were the most intense that I have ever written, and although no reviewer saw fit even to mention them, I have been very gratified by the reaction they got from many readers.  They were written from the perspective of the top of Angels Landing in Zion Canyon, which I had climbed literally on the day in July 1965 that Lyndon Johnson effectively announced that we were going to war, and then again in 1998.  The last sentences read as follows.

"The massive rock mountains that surrounded him now inspired more humility than pride.  Carved by the Virgin River over many millions of years, they had loomed over the whole of human history, and would undoubtedly remain as they were for thousands of generations to come.  And meanwhile, in just three decades, the Vietnam War, horrible and tragic though it was, had definitely retreated into the background of American life. Having brought one era of American history suddenly and dramatically to an end, it had begun another that was probably less than halfway through even as the century drew to a close. The disintegration of the civic order that the war had begun continued, and seemed to be leading inexorably to some new and unforeseeable crisis.  In that crisis his own questioning, idealistic generation would finally discover its true destiny, while their children faced it wherever the front lines turned out to be.   The outcome of that crisis would probably create some new civic consensus, a new set of certainties, and new social roles.  And these new institutions and beliefs would prevail for perhaps two decades more, only to be rejected by still younger Americans in a seasonal cycle destined to persist through the whole of American and human history."

I did now know then, of course, that the crisis was less than two years away when the book appeared. The course of that crisis has been the main subject of these posts (which all told would fill two large books now, including the collection I self-published in 2009.)  It has been, needless to say, a huge disappointment--but great historians do not argue with history.

American Tragedy showed that John Kennedy had single-handedly kept the nation out of war in Southeast Asia in 1961, and very strongly suggested that he would never have gone to war there had he lived.  I did not realize it at the time, but it was therefore quite natural for me to spend the next six years investigating exactly why he had died.  The result was The Road to Dallas, which appeared in 2007.  Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, but Oswald acted as part of a conspiracy led by major organized crime figures.  They were the same men who the CIA had enlisted in 1960 to assassinate Fidel Castro, and they acted to destroy the power of Robert Kennedy, who was in an all-out war to put them out of business.  These men--particularly Santo Trafficante from Florida, and Carlos Marcello from New Orleans--were part of a huge network of mobsters, anti-Castro Cubans, right-wing Americans, and, at times, some CIA operatives.  (Most of the network was not involved in the assassination, and I do not think anyone from the CIA was.)  But the book drew me into the tragic story of the Cuban revolution and the United States' numerous attempts to overturn it, in which President Kennedy, I was sorry to discover, was deeply involved.  I knew when I finished The Road to Dallas that any chance of legal action against the conspirators was long past, and I think it unlikely that anyone involved in the assassination is still alive.  But I was haunted by the tragedy of Cuban-American relations, and they became the subject of the last two pages of that book, which I quote now.

"Fidel Castro Ruz, whose revolution did so much to set in motion the events that have been the subject of this book, has now held power for 49 years, longer than any other political leader of the twentieth century.  He has survived a 47-year American embargo, numerous assassination attempts, nine American Presidents, the fall of his Soviet Communist patrons, and, most recently, a serious intestinal ailment that required surgery in the summer of 2006 and forced him into an at least temporary retirement.  Largely because of American sanctions, Cuba remains a poor country, although its health care and educational achievements are much closer to first than to third world standards.  The people enjoy relatively little freedom of expression and the Communist party continues to rule, but Cuba’s hemispheric isolation is easing. In recent years Latin American politics have swung to the left, and Venezuela has become a new and important Cuban ally.. 
"During the twentieth century few countries had more closely intertwined destinies than Cuba and the United States.  In 1898 the United States helped win Cuba’s independence in a brief war with Spain, but promptly made that independence conditional.   For sixty years no Cuban government was fully independent, and American business interests controlled much of the island’s human and material resources.  Castro’s revolution reclaimed those assets and turned opposition to the influence of the United States into the organizing principle of Cuban political life.  It is not only the fault of the United States that relations have never been re-established since 1960.  On more than one occasion, Castro himself has spoiled a chance for improvement with some new initiative that was bound to anger his northern neighbor.
"Like members of the same family, Cuba and the United States have left their imprint too deeply upon one another to ever live in complete isolation.  To Americans Cuba means not only the war that made the United States a world power, but  also Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, Guys and Dolls and Desi Arnaz , Al Lopez, Camilo Pascual ,Tony Perez and Orlando Hernandez, and an ethnic minority that changed the face of a the Southeast and wields considerable political clout.  For Cubans the United States means not only independence—first with North American help, and then in opposition to the region’s strongest power—but also the source of Cuba’s own national game, and a huge expatriate community. Yet the chasm that has cost the two nations so dearly still divides them.  The author looks forward to the day when Cubans and Americans will vacation freely in each other’s lands, when Cuban families shall be re-united, and when a major league baseball team shall make Havana its home.  But all this still seems far off as 2007 draws to a close, and unlikely to come to pass at once, even after Fidel Castro, too, has finally left the scene."

Regarding Cuba, as in so many other cases, Barack Obama has been maddeningly tentative until now, but I am delighted that I have now seen the day I wished for come to pass.  I also believe, as I shall argue in a subsequent post, that the decision will turn out to be good policy (like FDR's recognition of the USSR in 1933) and good politics (like Nixon's visit to China in 1972.)  Obama, fittingly, had not yet been born when Castro took power, or even at the time of the Bay of Pigs.  He came into office determined to put the quarrels of recent decades behind us.  Instead many of them have gotten worse, but in this case, I predict, he will succeed. And since Jeb Bush, who has suddenly become the most likely Republican candidate, has already attacked the decision, it may help the Democratic candidate hold Florida in 2016 with the help of voters much younger even than Obama, who have even less reason to cling to their parents' prejudices.  More importantly, this is really the first step Obama has taken in seven years to vindicate his Nobel Prize.  Our endless conflict with Cuba has done nothing but harm.  In this case, to quote Clausewitz, he did not lose sight of "the ultimate objective, which is to bring about peace."
No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War was written squarely within the framework of Strauss and Howe's analysis, which dominated both the opening and the closing of the book.  Here is its last paragraph.

"Like the Transcendentals and the Missionaries before them, the Boomers thanks to their immense self-confidence did much to create a new crisis in American life, especially in the economic realm, but neither they nor any other living generation has produced another Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt to lead the nation out of it. In our current political climate, so reminiscent of the post-Civil War period, it is hard to see how anyone could do so. The battle now being waged in Washington relates mainly to the provision of income and health care for the elderly and the poor, while the broader economic role of the government has essentially been given up. No reversal of the trend toward economic inequality is on the horizon. Globalization has effectively destroyed the idea of an economy combining private enterprise with a measure of government planning. We have no new legions of social workers and macroeconomists determined to spread the benefits of American life more broadly. Millions of Americans are once again, as Roosevelt would have said, forgotten men and women.

"The world scene today is certainly less threatening than in the 1930s, but there, too, the Boom Generation has fall short of its predecessors. In the wake of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush quite obviously saw himself as a crisis President and dreamed of having an impact on the world comparable to Franklin Roosevelt’s. He frequently spoke of a great new struggle to define the coming century. Yet his administration lacked the capacity for clear thinking, planning, standing up resources, and taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the international situation that Roosevelt and his colleagues showed again and again in 1940–1941. The outcome of Bush’s quest was correspondingly disappointing: two wars, each of which has lasted much longer than American participation in the Second World War, and both of which now seem to have helped trigger the spread of anarchy throughout the Middle East. Most frighteningly of all, the Bush administration abandoned the earlier ideal of a world ruled by law. It went into Iraq in defiance of the United Nations, refused to treat prisoners according to long-established treaties, and flouted the opinion of the world. This was hubris worthy of the Boomers’ GI parents in Vietnam, and it suffered a similar fate. Boomers of both parties have defined the spread of democracy as the key to world progress, but this is not likely to increase peace and justice in the world if existing democracies, led by the United States, cannot provide a better example.
"Authority has eroded over much of the world. The most organized state of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union, suffered the greatest collapse in 1990–1991. Conscription still exists in only a few small states, and the size of militaries relative to population has fallen to an all-time low. This is in many ways a blessing, and the world does not need more conflicts comparable to the world wars of the twentieth century. Yet we may find our capacity for clear thinking, genuine devotion to principle, organization, integrity in action, and sacrifice for the common good has fallen so far as to threaten the foundations of our civilization as we have known it. At some future date, new generations may well face a crisis like those of 1933 or 1940–1941. If they do, the achievements of Franklin Roosevelt and the rest of his generation will provide a much needed inspiration."

Stay tuned.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Two kinds of war

War, wrote Clausewitz, is politics by other means.  At certain times during peace, politics becomes war by other means, and subduing the enemy becomes the objective of one or more political contenders.  So it has been here in the United States at least since the 1980s, when Newt Gingrich emerged as a leading figure in the House of Representatives, and so it is today.  And to understand why the Republicans are winning--as they surely are--it is necessary to delve a little further into Clausewitz and look at  a basic distinction he made between two kinds of war.

"War," he wrote in a preface written while he was still working on the book, "can be of two kinds, in the sense that either the objective is to overthrow the enemy—to render him politically helpless or militarily impotent, thus forcing him to sign whatever peace we please; or merely to occupy some of his frontier-districts so that we can annex them or use them for bargaining at the peace negotiations.”  At the Naval War College, we named these two kinds unlimited and limited war, respectively.  Those terms had nothing to do with the extent of the effort the two sides were making: they referred to the kind of victory they were seeking.  In many wars, the two sides have had different kinds of objectives.  The Union wanted to, and did, completely conquer the Confederacy and force it to submit; the Confederacy would have been content to force the Union to let it alone.  Other subtleties often intrude. North Vietnam was fighting an unlimited war against the South Vietnamese government, but a limited one against the United States, since it only wanted us to withdraw from Vietnam.  The US fought a successful limited war against Iraq in 1990-1 and a disastrous unlimited one in 2002.

Our political struggle is nearing its climax.  Its essence is quite simple.  The Republican Party has been fighting an unlimited war at least since the 2000 election.  The Democratic Party has been fighting a very limited one:  it wants to stay in power when possible, assure the rights of women and gays, and preserve social security, medicare, and the ACA.  The Republican Party is fighting an unlimited war against the whole edifice of government and workers' rights that has been built up since the Progressive Era.  Their propaganda argues that the Democrats are trying to replace the American system with dictatorship and socialism, but this is, frankly, ridiculous.  Barack Obama essentially wants to keep the country where it is.  In normal times that's a sound strategy, one followed in different ways by Ronald Reagan (who changed things more marginally than fundamentally) and Bill Clinton.  But we are living in the crisis predicted by William Strauss and Neil Howe nearly twenty years ago.  The old order which the Democrats claim to be defending is nearly dead, because the generation that were young adults when it was created are almost entirely dead, and thoroughly removed from power and influence.  The Democrats have not put forward anything new to take its place.   The Republicans have: a vision of almost complete economic liberty, in which the federal government no longer looks after the less well off, the United States economy is increasingly dominated by the financial sector and the production of fossil fuels, and both public and private employees lose the right to organize and bargain collectively.  It will also be a world in which about 10 million non-citizens continue living in the United States, working as hard as any of us without basic rights.  It will show no respect for civil liberties.  Its attitude towards the rest of the world is much less clear, but I hardly expect to see the Republicans pull back from the Middle East.

During the last four years President Obama has consistently been at a disadvantage dealing with the Congress because he always wanted an agreement--a peace treaty in a limited war.  They did not, and they threatened the destruction of the government to get more of what they wanted.  Now that they control the whole Congress, their tactics will get much worse. Indeed, this is already happening: the Republicans have slipped a major amendment of the Dodd-Frank law into the continuing resolution they are about to pass, and the Senate and the White House are clearly not going to threaten to shut down the government to force them to undo it.  This, mark my words, will be the pattern for the next two years.  One Republican rider after another will be slipped into budget bills, and the President will sign them, I predict, unless they materially change Medicare or Social Security--and maybe even then.  The Democratic illusion of limited war was evidently on display once again during Congressional negotiations last week, when Democratic leaders said a new, more generous provision on campaign donations by wealthy individuals was "a necessary compromise to forestall more aggressive efforts by Republicans next year to whittle away at other campaign funding restrictions."  Nothing the Democrats do will forestall anything the Republicans want to do.

Centrist pundits still refuse to believe what is happening.  They point to the renewed strength of more traditional Republicans vis-a-vis the Tea Party--a strength which is more apparent than real--and say that now that the Republicans control Congress, they will to to "show that they can govern."  But this is a total misreading, because the Republicans do not want anyone to govern the United States, in fundamental ways.  They want armed citizens to roam the streets of every city in the nation; they want freedom for Wall Street and employers; they want unregulated fracking.  The reason the Tea Party is so influential is that more radical and militant factions always become stronger and more influential in the midst of an unlimited war.  That was how the Jacobins took power in France in 1792 when European monarchs had invaded the nation, and how abolitionists won Lincoln over two years into the Civil War.  Because the Democrats are so committed to the status quo, the strength of their radical wing in the Senate has now been reduced to two, Bernie Sanders (who doesn't even run as a Democrat) and Elizabeth Warren.

This is why, despite the electoral arithmetic to which Democrats cling, I am so nervous about the next election.  Hillary Clinton, to begin with, is very much a centrist Democrat with close ties to Wall Street and AIPAC.  She will not be running as a revolutionary New Dealer. She will depend on getting young people, women and minorities to the polls in sufficient numbers to elect her--but will this work?  I see no reason to think that the youth or minorities will turn out for Hillary in the same numbers that they did for Obama.  The Hispanic vote might if she takes a really strong stand on immigration, but everyone will know that it will be impossible to deliver on real reform with the Republicans in control of Congress. And meanwhile, the Republican dau tranh campaign (use the search function, above, if you want to understand that reference), will have reduced us to near-chaos for two years, and the country may want to vote Republican just to get that over with.

The Repubilcans have also been winning, I think, because their goals reflect the spirit of their age and of the Baby Boom generation. Individual freedom in every area of life has been our mantra for nearly half a century.  Respect for leadership, sacrifice, and cooperation for the common good have gradually disappeared from our society.  Democrats find it necessary to pretend that they haven't; Republicans are going with the flow.  This has happened before, after the Civil War.  It took another 40 years before the country even began to get back on track. That could be our destiny, too.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Women's rights, economic rights, and human rights

For the past forty  years, as I've often noted, the left has been obsessed with the rights of less well of groups: black Americans, women, gays, and others.  And indeed, in some respects they have made great progress towards achieving full rights for these groups.  Gays in particular can now come out of the closet, form relationships, and even marry in most of the country.  Both women and minorities are far more represented in management and the professions, even though their champions claim that they are still underrepresented.  They also hold more public offices.  The elite of America, in short, is far more integrated by gender and race than it has ever been before.  Yet meanwhile, the elite has become much richer relative to the population, the economically lower half of the population has essentially no wealth, and uneducated people have lost the opportunities for job security and a reasonable life that they enjoyed before the de-industrialization of America.

A number of stories that I have read recently suggest to me that the gains of women, in particular, have been limited to a relatively small portion of the population, precisely because of increasing economic inequality.  The first, oddly enough, is the Ray Rice case, and related stories about the plight of NFL wives that have appeared in its wake.  With rare exceptions, NFL players come from relatively poor backgrounds.  The few college football players who actually make it into the league suddenly enjoy undreamed of wealth,. which makes it easy for them to induce young women of relatively modest backgrounds to live with an marry them.  The women seem to be willing to do so without any kind of prenuptial agreement that would do something to assure their economic future if their relationship goes badly.   (Perhaps some young women would like to do this, and a few may do so, but there is no shortage of those who will not.)  And thus, the economic pressure to remain within an abusive relationship becomes tremendous.  Rice's wife did not want the courts to take more severe legal action against her husband, and she issued a statement regretting that the NFL had become interested in the case.  Rice has raised her well up the economic ladder, and she presumably has no way of getting there on her own.  If professional athletes were compensated at a more modest rate, and good long-term jobs were available to the general population, these situations would not arise so much.  Money simply gives some individuals too much power over others.  (This morning's paper informs me that the NFL's arbitrator--a female judge--has overturned Rice's suspension on the grounds that he could not be punished twice for the same offense.   The lynch mob mentality that now dominates the media and university life still occasionally runs up against the protection of the legal system.

A second story concerned female undergraduates at leading universities.  Burdened by the disgraceful cost of higher education, a number of them are making ends meet, it seems, by finding older, wealthy male protectors on web sites who will pay very handsomely for casual sexual encounters.  I was immediately struck by the 19th-century flavor of these arrangements. Balzac's novels are full of them, even though the kept women he describes simply want to live in luxury, rather than pay for the education that is the price of admission to the elite. Thomas Piketty has shown that we are returning to 19th-century levels of income inequality, and we should therefore not be surprised to see older patterns of behavior re-emerge.   Ironically, while colleges become more and more concerned about sexual assault on campus, their tuition has risen so high that some of their female students apparently find it necessary to sell themselves off campus.  Once again we see that questions of gender equity cannot be separated from economic questions.

For forty years our society has focused on individual self-fulfillment, rather than the good of the larger community, the nation, or often, even the family.  More adults now do without families, probably, than at any moment in recorded history.  Yes, many families in earlier periods were dysfunctional and abusive, and many older gender roles were highly restrictive.  Yet at some point, I feel, things will begin to turn around--because of economic incentives.  With fewer and fewer good jobs, young people may find it worthwhile to marry and pool their resources earlier in life.  Similarly, on a completely different front, news forms of communally available transportation are emerging, and mass transit may be expanded, simply because so many people can no longer afford their own car.  We have created enormous wealth over the past few decades but it is now concentrated to an extent not seen for 100 years.  That will, I think, lead to more pooling of resources, first at the individual level, and later, perhaps, in cities and states, and even in the nation at large.

Happy Thanksgiving!