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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...

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.

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

1969 and 2024--more thoughts

 More parallels are emerging between the campus protests of 1964-70 and today's.  (The great Berkeley protest began in the fall of 1964; not until 1968 was there a second comparable one, at Columbia; Harvard followed in 1969, and all hell broke loose in the spring of 1970.)    Rather than edit the weekend post I decided to put them into this new, short one.

To begin with, these protests, like those, are increasingly focusing on a specific demand.  In 1968-70 those demands included the elimination of ROTC from campus, the creation of black studies departments, and an end to university expansion at the expense of surrounding communities.  The Harvard protesters secured the end of ROTC, tragically, and the creation of black studies in some form in 1969.  Today the popular specific demand is divestment from any Israeli enterprises.  I will be very surprised if any university gives into it.

Meanwhile, a second familiar demand is coming into play: that students receive no punishment for demonstrations and encampments.  That was called "amnesty" back in the 1960s, and the demand marked a significant break with the idea of civil disobedience as articulated by Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Civil disobedience recognized that civilization depended on laws and punishments, and its practitioners willingly accepted punishment for breaking laws that they thought were unjust.  The student radicals on the other hand demanded that they go free because their causes were just.  That demand has resurfaced on campuses today, and Columbia's administration is now offering to meet it, provided that protesters pledge not to violate university rules for another year.  I suspect that the protesters will refuse.  

And last but not least, administrations that call in law enforcement to break up demonstrations or encampments, now as then, risk alienating much larger numbers of students and faculty.  A Harvard Crimson editorial has already demanded that punishments play no role in the settlement of current disputes, but college presidents are bowing to pressure from the House committee, in particular, and suspending students for defying them.  And having put up this post, I have just learned that Columbia protesters in Palestinian garb have occupied Hamilton Hall, the administration building their elders occupied back in 1968--and thereby forcing the administration to escalate again.

All this reflects two of the enduring achievements of the radicals of the late 1960s.  The first was the idea of the moral superiority of the young, the idea of the nation's youth as the sole repository of goodness in a corrupt society.  Their second closely related idea was a complete disregard for established procedures, or indeed for the need of any regular procedures, to make decisions and settle disputes.  Colleges are now very unlikely to try to undo these ideas because they need their own students so desperately, and have given up the idea that they are offering a vitally important product--education--which students may accept or decline as they wish.  I could easily be wrong, but I am not aware that there has ever been a serious protest at one of the St. John's colleges--perhaps because students know they are there to learn.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

The Campus Revolt and its Enemies

 I have blogged many times over the years about the changes in our intellectual life in the last half century and their impact.  They actually began, at least embryonically, in the early 1960s, when the United States was in the midst of an era of unprecedented economic and social progress that culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and Medicare in 1964-5.  None of that was enough to satisfy a small cadre of undergraduate activists who formed the Students for a Democratic Society, whose 1962 manifesto painted a grim picture of an oppressive, stagnant American society and, fatefully, identified universities as the best place to begin the work of overthrowing it.  The Vietnam War--undertaken by Lyndon Johnson when his power was at its height--seemed to many young Americans to validate their critique of American society, and it turned colleges and universities into the leftist hotbeds of which the Port Huron statement had dreamed.  Meanwhile, women, liberated sexually by the pill and entering college in unprecedented numbers, began their own rebellion against traditional roles.  Eventually, in the 1970s, the gay rights movement followed.  Very recently, no less a figure than historian Drew Faust, a former president of Harvard, approvingly quoted those key paragraphs of the Port Huron manifesto in her own autobiography.

Something else, I am convinced, was at work--something much bigger.  The mid-twentieth century was the climax of Enlightenment civilization, based on the idea that reason, not emotion or blind allegiance, could become the organizing principle of society.  Impartial rules might govern our behavior, our institutions, and our education.  France, as I learned in college, was the country where these ideas had gone the furthest the fastest, and beginning in the 19th century and through most of the twentieth, they had provoked major intellectual revolts on both the left and the right by those who found these ideas too sterile and confining.   Something similar happened among the millions of Boomer university students in the late 1960s who suddenly rejected their parents' dress, much of their personal moral code, and many of the symbols--such as the American flag--that they revered.  The rebellion quieted down when the Vietnam War did, but within academia, it entered a new phase thanks to the ideas of intellectuals like Michel Foucault and Edward Said.  Foucault argued that the whole structure of Enlightenment ideas was just an oppressive mechanism designed by by a particular elite, and championed rebellion against it.  Said in effect extended a similar analysis to the whole of western civilization, which treated him very well--making him a Columbia professor--but which he saw merely as an oppressive mechanism directed against the Third World.   From the 1980s through the 2000s these ideas took over the humanities in American academia, leaving no place there for academics like myself who never accepted them.  (For new readers, that is a theme of my autobiography, A Life in History.)  

In the last seven months, we have seen a replay of the late 1960s on elite college campuses, with a twist.  Most of today's students are not radicals--just as most of them weren't radicals in the late 1960s.  Yet some of them have imbibed the idea that western civilization is inherently oppressive and that the job of students and universities as a whole is to alter it.  "Settler colonialism," a popular phrase nowadays, refers to the whole spread of European people and western ideas around the globe from the late 15th century onward, and treats it as one huge oppressive mistake.  That is the message of "land acknowledgements" that audiences routinely sit through nowadays at concerts and plays, of the renaming of public buildings and the removal of certain statues, and of movies and New York Times supplements that shamelessly rewrite history to eliminate any positive role for white people. And since the Six Day War in 1967, this ideology has treated Zionism and Israel as settler colonialist enterprises.  Ironically, this has become, at best, a half truth.   The elite that founded Israel in 1948 was indeed very heavily influenced by the Enlightenment.  It was largely irreligious and justified Zionism as simply one more application of nationalism, which had already rewritten the map of Europe and was about to do the same in Asia and Africa.  Now, however, a new Israeli elite draws much more heavily on the ancient ideas of the Jewish people as expressed in the old testament, where it finds its justification for an Israel that will indeed include the entire West Bank and Gaza, and, to some of its extreme elements, the East Bank of the Jordan River as well.  Israel and the United States are now two of the more religious nations in the world, and in both of them the Enlightenment has also faced determined long-term attacks from the religious right in recent decades as well.

And now, as in 1966-72, the left wing campus revolt has unleashed a right wing political backlash.  Ronald Reagan in 1966 won a landslide victory in California partly by attacking the Berkeley administration for not cracking down on the protests that had begun in the fall of 1964, and taking advantage of older Americans' feeling that their kids were out-of-control, spoiled brats.  The same belief contributed to the Republican victories in 1968 and 1972, when the share of the Democratic vote fell from 60 percent in 1964 to the low 40s.  Today, some Republican elements and Republican intellectuals have been complaining--rightly, in this Democrat's view--about the intellectual tenor of our campuses for a very long time, but they are complaining more loudly and with much greater effect now because they have powerful allies among very wealthy conservative Jewish Americans who are putting great pressure on college administrations to crack down on what they regard as anti-Semitic protests on campus.  I know some people would regard that last sentence as an anti-Semitic trope, but it happens to be a fact. (For the record, as I have tried to make clear, I do not regard opposition to the policies of the Israeli government as anti-Semitic.  I have explained my attitude towards the current conflict in two earlier posts.)  Pressure from that contingent played a critical role in the resignation of two university presidents.  And that, to me, is another tragic irony.  Society at large, and particularly our educated elite, did not try to do anything about the intellectual attack on the Enlightenment and the founding principles of the United States on campuses, until those changes seemed to threaten the tribal interests of one important element within society.  And to paraphrase Al Smith, the cure for the ills of tribalism is not more tribalism.  The bulk of American Jews, meanwhile, remain Democrats, at least half of them probably oppose the Netanyahu government, and a good number of younger Jews are taking part in pro-Palestinian protests, as is their constitutional right.  Nearly everyone, meanwhile, seems to share the fantasy that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one that the US government can and should resolve.  And no one is focusing on the broader failures of today's universities, especially in the humanities, which are threatened with extinction because they now offer products that almost no one wants to buy.

Great historians, I often say, do not argue with  history.  Like the rise of the Enlightenment in earlier centuries, the rebellion against it must reflect fundamental aspects of human nature.  Thanks largely to generational change, I think, history is inevitably cyclical, which means that gains made my some generations will be lost by others.  That is what has been happening, intellectually, politically, and socially, in the United States for the last half century or so.  As the fascinating book, The Closing of the Western Mind, pointed out, something similar happened when Christianity tried to wipe out the intellectual heritage of the ancient world, and that time, it took nearly a millennium before a renaissance came along to revive it.  We don't know how far current intellectual trends will go and when they might be reversed.  I take comfort in having spent my youth in the last years of Enlightenment supremacy, and in the historical record that suggests that it will indeed make a comeback, sooner or later, to the delight of generations yet unborn.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Ask and ye shall be given

 Nearly two weeks ago, when I concluded a post that referred to George Orwell and Animal Farm by wondering whether a parallel satire might be written about the present day, my old friend and college classmate the critic George Scialabba pointed me towards Lionel Shriver's new novel, Mania.  The library quickly coughed it up, and I read it pretty quickly.   It was the first of Shriver's many books that I had read.  This post will inevitably contain some spoilers but I will leave plenty of suspense for future reasons.  Mania isn't going to sell like Animal Farm did, but it is in my opinion a very telling satire--and so far the msm's reaction to the book is rather revealing as well.

I must say that while I liked the book, I was not bowled over by Shriver's writing.  She can be very funny, but she takes her time about everything.  The book runs to nearly 300 pages and I think 200 might have done the job just as well. Animal Farm has only 144 pages.  The book is an alternative history of the first quarter of the 21st century, written in the first person by a non-tenured literature professor at a mythical Pennsylvania university named Pearson Converse.  (I'd love to believe that "Pearson" is an homage to the great muckraker Drew Pearson, but I'd be surprised as well as delighted to find that Shriver knows anything about him.)   She has a partner, three children, and a lifelong "best friend" who figure very prominently in the narrative.  Raised as a Jehovah's witness, she became a hopeless contrarian, and therefore could not surrender to the ideological fad that swept the country (in the novel) in the early years of the century:  the Mental Parity movement, closely associated with the idea of Cognitive Equality.   Described by its mythical founder as "the last frontier of civil rights," the movement holds that no one is really more intelligent than anyone else, and that the illusion that some people are smarter is just a pretext for the oppression of the many by the elite few.  This has led to very significant changes in language, education, politics, and even in medical care, and has had severe consequences for the protagonist and her entire family, including her two brightest children.  Meanwhiles, her best friend, a television reporter, achieves new fame and fortune by climbing on the bandwagon.

Mania has already received mostly unfavorable reviews from Maureen Corrigan in the Washington Post, Anthony Cummins in The Guardian, Laura Miller New York Times.  While they recognized "cognitive equality" as a new form of wokeness, none of them seemed to share my view that it is an obvious stand-in for anti-racism, extreme feminism, and agitation for transgender rights.  More importantly, they did not acknowledge that those very real movements--along with a general decline in our educational system--have had exactly the same consequences in real life as cognitive equality does in the book.  That will be my topic today.

To begin with, the idea of cognitive equality, seasoned with the moral absolutism with which we have become so familiar, has in the world of Mania led to major changes in the English language.  Words like "stupid," "intelligent," "sharp," "profound," "idiot," "genius," and so on now represent thoughtcrime, and cannot be used in any context, as for instance to describe a sharp knife.  This has happened in our time.  Because slave owners described themselves as masters, the faculty heads of Harvard residential houses are no longer called masters--even though that title has a long academic history here and in Britain that had nothing whatever to do with slavery.  "People who can become pregnant" is now preferred in many quarters to "women" in deference to transgender ideology.  "Slave" has been replaced by "enslaved person," and "slave owner" by "enslaver," even though very few American slaveowners ever turned a free person into a slave.  Here, obviously, I could go on and on, but I don't really think I need to.

In other many other instances, however, I don't need to resort to parallelisms, because developments in the fantasy world of Mania and the one I've been living in for decades are identical.  "I'm supposed to stop focusing on traditionally towering figures of history. John Locke, Adam Smith, Rousseau. . .The point is, in my courses, I'm now meant to celebrate all the historical figures we've customarily overlooked."  That has been the watchword of the American historical profession for 40 or 50 years, and explains why, as Fareed Zakaria recently remarked, a white male who wrote about presidents would have no chance of getting tenure at most universities today.  And Locke, Smith and Rousseau are completely unfashionable, not because they were very smart, but simply because they were straight white males.  On another page, Pearson (the narrator) complains that the AP courses that her son would normally be taking have now been abolished.  School districts in California and in Cambridge, Massachusetts have dropped Algebra I for eighth graders, which allows students to take calculus as high school seniors, because so few black and Hispanic students found their way into it.  (Cambridge has recently reversed that decision.)  When Pearson insists to her friend Emory that "it's a fact," "not an idea," that some people are smarter than others, Emory replies, "According to you."  Postmodernism abandoned the concept of objective fact decades ago.  

And sadly, the thought police we encounter in Mania have real-world equivalents as well.  Pearson has to undergo some re-education on her job after she tries to assign The Idiot to her literature class, because the word is, of course, forbidden, and a few orthodox students turn her in to the dean.  Something very similar has happened to a tenured professor whom I know, who had to give up a very popular course in which he had stepped over linguistic boundaries (in a quotation) for a year.  She also gets visits from Child Protective Services who worry that she is steeping her own kids in false ideology.  In real life, parents in several states have lost custody of children after they refused to accept the child's desire to transition to a different gender.  

And last but  hardly least, the nomination, election, and now very possible re-election of Donald Trump proves that an obvious lack of intellectual distinction is no bar to highest office, and may even appeal to a significant number of voters.  That reflects the anti-intellectualism of the right, but the changes in the humanities that have favored ideology over creativity and judgment reflect an at least equally powerful anti-intellectualism on the left.  At one point in the book, Converse also notes that MacArthur genius grants are now being given to people of no intellectual distinction.  That too as happened with respect to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Ibram X. Kendi, none of whose writings, in my opinion, display exceptional intellectual ability.  It is even more interesting to compare the list of the first crop of MacArthur Fellows, selected in 1981, to the group selected in 2023.  

There is another critical aspect to our own crisis today that Shriver's work leaves out.  We still have very smart people who get very good educations--but what do they do with their lives?  A very large number of them reach the top positions in finance and industry--and there, because of another set of intellectual and legal changes, they focus all their brains and their energy on short-term economic gain.  That is why Boeing, for instance, can evidently no longer be trusted to build safe airplanes, and why our health care system is more and more corrupted by the profit motive.  That, however, is clearly a matter for another book.

I have been fascinated by greatness in a number of different fields all my life.  In 2017 I published Baseball Greatness, which used statistical analysis to identify the greatest baseball players of all time.  About 19,000 men had played major league baseball at that time--and many times that number had tried and failed to make the majors.  But out of those, my methods identified about 100 of them--less than one-half of one percent--who were demonstrably far superior to all the rest.  I see no reason to doubt that a similar percentage of individuals in any complex field of endeavor are capable of extraordinary achievements, but our whole society has indeed rebelled against that idea. This vast social change has happened much more slowly than the revolution in Animal Farm, but it may have equally fateful consequences. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Podcast discussion of the JFK assassination

 A new generation is hard at work muddying the JFK waters, and I managed to get on to this podcast discussion of the case earlier this month.  The host, Lorien Fenton, began with a 23 minute rant on her favorite subject, UFOs, but if you start at 23 minutes, the discussion is not bad, and I had no trouble trying to inject a good dose of reality into the situation.  While my interlocutors didn't agree with a lot of what I said, we were all unfailingly polite.  Paul Bleau, the other guy, has distributed several surveys to JFK researchers.  I'll have another important post, a book review, up by this weekend at the latest.

NOTE:  Getting to the audio may be a little more complicated than I thought.  Here are the instructions.  The date of the video was April 8.  Note:  read carefully as you go along, the instructions provide the username and password you need to log in.  You don't create one.

Finally, if you like the interview it is yours to share! A few days after the interview log onto https://Revolution.Radio, click on the "Archives" button. Follow the instructions to log in. Then scroll to "The Fenton Perspective" and click on the folder, then scroll to the date of our show. (Should be the latest/last entry). Download the file.