Saturday, June 24, 2006

Germany and the United States

In the United States I grew up in, Germany ranked as one of the countries most unlike us. The Second World War was barely over and memories were still fresh. I still remember December 1953, when Mrs. Bullet, my first grade teacher, decided to take a few moments to explain the meaning of Christmas. (It was also characteristic of that far-off time that it didn’t occur to her that not all her students might be Christians.” Jesus,” she said quietly, “was born to love everybody.”

“Even the Germans?” piped up my friend Billy Fry in amazement.

“Yes Bill,” she said, “even the Germans.”

Yet for some reason, when I began studying history seriously in the 1970s, various similarities between Germany and the United States began to occur to me. They had been the two rising nations of the Atlantic world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Emperor William II and his contemporary Theodore Roosevelt, who shared an obsessive machoism and a certain emotional instability, were often compared. And Germany, as I learned, had fatally decided in 1914 that its world position was inadequate and taken advantage of a crisis in the Balkans to launch the First World War. That case of overreach was parallel, to some extent, to the Vietnam War that I had just lived through, although it was far more serious, leading as it did to two change of regime, National Socialism, and an even more disastrous Second World War.

Civilization has advanced, thanks to the Second World War and Vietnam, and nations today are making mistakes on far smaller scales. We still have lost fewer men in Iraq than we did in three months of 1968 in Vietnam, and on average we have probably lost fewer men than Germany did on an average day in the First World War. But the political atmosphere within the US, I regret to say, has many parallels to what developed in Germany from 1914 through 1918, and this does not bode well for our future.

German foreign policy had been controversial before 1914, and the large Social Democratic Party, which won a third of the seats in the Reichstag in 1912, generally favored some kind of international reconciliation. But even though Germany had not been directly threatened in 1914, an enormous majority of the German people, including the socialist leadership, accepted the idea that Germany was fighting a defensive war against Russia and France. Not only that, the parties in the Reichstag, who had little real control over the government, not only supported the war but also pushed for the strongest possible steps to win it, including unrestricted submarine warfare against Britain. Only a small minority of left-wing socialists—the equivalents, perhaps, of the late Paul Wellstone and John Murtha—dared argue against the premises of the war. And thus, when Germany finally collapsed in November 1918 after failing to seek peace in time, it became easy to blame the defeat on treacherous policies and revolutionaries.

The Bush Administration, from the beginning, has fought the war in Iraq far less seriously than the Germans fought the First World War (although their war effort was also severely hampered by greed and division at home.) But it has successfully politicized the conflict from the beginning, first by arguing that Iraq was linked to Al Queda and threatened the US with weapons of mass destruction, and now by arguing that anything less than US victory will be a gain for terrorists. (In that they are correct. Terrorists, operating through militias, already rule much of Iraq and may well eventually rule all but the Kurdish areas, and that will have a ripple effect elsewhere. John Murtha is right, however, that persisting in our present course is quite likely to make things worse.) And it is extremely difficult, as the recent Congressional debates showed, for Democrats to take these premises on. I am reminded of the reminiscences of George Ball, who in 1964-5 tried to head off the Vietnam War by writing several of the most brilliant memos in the history of American strategy as Undersecretary of State. He failed, he remarked years later, because he couldn’t make giving up “look like a victory.” But persistence on a gigantic scale, in that case, only led to a greater defeat.

Politically, however, it has been the left wing, not the right, that has suffered from Vietnam, and the Republican leadership is obviously counting on that again. I do not doubt that Karl Rove has concluded that as long as 100,000 men are still in Iraq on January 19, 2009, Democrats (assuming they win in 2008) can take the blame for the subsequent withdrawal, and Republicans can ride any negative strategic consequences to victory. That, actually, is what the German Army and the German right wing did in 1918. When a center-left revolution overthrew the monarchy, its first act, inevitably, was to ask for an Armistice on any terms. They never lived down the consequences.

It was not until 1960 that a courageous German historian named Fritz Fischer dared argue, in a huge and well-documented book, that Germany had both started the war in 1914 and carried it on for offensive purposes. Even then that was controversial enough for the West German government to ask the United States to deny him a visa in order that he would not be able to peddle such subversive ideas across the Atlantic. (They failed, thanks largely to American historians.) By then Germany had suffered terrible consequences of expansionism—depression, Nazism, the deaths of millions in a new war, the destruction of almost all its cities, the ethnic cleansing of more than ten million Germans from Eastern Europe, and the Soviet occupation of about a third of the country for 45 years. That will not happen to the United States, for which we can be thankful. But at the same time, we shall not be forced, like the Germans, to recast our thinking. In the last few years I have realized that I have totally lost any residual fear of Germany or any tendency to equate today’s Germany with that of the first half of the twentieth century. That is partly thanks to my son, who in Scotland several years ago, while an exchange student, heard an interesting argument between a young Scottish nationalist and a German student. “I simply can’t identify with this nationalism,” the German said. “I have been brought up all my life to reject nationalism.”

The oceans, we used to say, protected our freedom. Now, I am afraid, they protect our hubris. 9/11 probably represents the upper limit of the harm foreign powers can do to us. Unfortunately the oceans do not prevent us from wreaking havoc in various parts of the world, or from debasing our own political life to continue harmful foreign adventures.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Rove's magic, part IV

I have just read a long interview with Karl Rove posted by a New Hampshire organization, Victory NH, which appears to be a front for the Republican Party. Readers can find it at http://www.victorynh.com/rove-interview.htm, and Rove comes across as far more articulate than any other Administration spokesman, leaving little doubt why he is, almost surely, the real power in Washington today. As I have speculated before, it was probably Rove who in 2004 told Ron Susskind that the Administration governed in defiance of “the reality-based community,” and his attitude towards facts is certainly apparent in the interview.

His attitude towards information warfare is too. The great advantage now held by the Republicans, he points out, is that millions of Americans can now get their news from Rush Limbaugh and the internet, rather than from major newspapers and wire services. That means, of course, that they can learn to understand the day’s news as a battle between valiant conservatives and wimpy, treacherous liberals, and millions undoubtedly do. He suggests that the internet has hurt the Democratic Party by encouraging its shriller elements. Actually it has the same effect on both sides, the difference being that Rove, by a variety of means, has managed to get and keep President Bush in the White House during the last two elections, one of which he almost certainly lost and the second of which he won by a very narrow margin.

Talking about the economy, though, Rove really hits his stride: He begins by listing Bush tax cuts and claiming they are responsible for “the creation of five million jobs” and for increases in home ownership. Then he says:

“And what has happened over the last 2 years? You match that kind of economic growth with the kind of spending restraint that we’ve seen in the federal budget, and some powerful things happen. Last year, between the increased revenues and restraints on spending, we had a dramatic decline in the deficit – well below the expectations of all the budget forecasters. And it’s happening again this year where revenues are running 11% above projections. That’s not because taxes have been raised, it’s because the economic growth has been so much higher as a result of lower taxes that we are blowing through the projections for the second year in a row in revenue.

“As a result, we are well on the way to reducing the deficit – despite the fact that we are in a war and having to pay for the largest natural disaster in America’s history. We are on the way to cutting the deficit in half by 2009. In fact, by the middle of the summer, with the so-called mid-session review (that’s where the Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury are obligated to report to the Congress on how we’re doing on collecting revenues and restraining spending), my sense is we will see a dramatic decline in the anticipated deficit for this year, as well.”

The reality is somewhat different. As I pointed out many months ago, Bush’s tax cuts in the first three years of his Administration had an unprecedented effect on the budget. Even Reagan’s cuts (and a huge recession) had forced federal revenues to fall in only one year, fiscal 1983. Bush’s cuts dropped federal revenues for three years in a row, a combined 15% or so drop by fiscal 1984. They have indeed risen quite rapidly since then, and reached 2.15 trillion this year, passing the 2000 figure for the first time. Meanwhile, outlays rose from $1.86 trillion in fiscal 2001 to $2.47 trillion in fiscal 2005—that is why we have a $330 billion deficit. “The budget deficit is in pretty rapid decline to where we will cut the deficit in half by 2009,” Rove says, but the executive branch’s own figures say no such thing. According to them, the fiscal 2005 deficit (fiscal 2005 ended last October 1) was $318 billion, a $100 million drop for last year, but the fiscal 2006 deficit will be $423 billion. Rove claims interim figures are more optimistic. We’ll see.

The basic rhetorical technique here is borrowed from Ronald Reagan, who also began his term with a big recession and then took credit for the jobs added in the recovery as if he had started at the bottom. Having gone from a $128 billion surplus (fiscal 2001) to a deficit of over $400 billion, Rove and President Bush now take great credit for getting it back down to $300 billion and promise more. Of course, future predictions of improvement are based on the scheduled expiration of some of the Administration’s tax cuts, which they have no intention of restoring. The device of passing tax cuts for only a few years at a time, I suspect, is designed to make Republicans and Democrats vote on taxes year after year and provide Republican candidates with sound bites.

Rove argues, of course, that Bush’s tax cuts have created the economic recovery. But remarkably, the money poured into the economy by his tax cuts—most of which, of course, has gone to very wealthy Americans—is dwarfed by the expansion of credit during his Administration. The deficits in his first four budgets total $1.266 trillion dollars, but during the same time, outstanding mortgages have grown by about twice that much. Consumer debt has grown another $3-400 billion, making a total private debt increase of nearly $3 trillion dollars. That, it would seem, is where the money to fuel consumer demand has been coming from.

Having apparently escaped indictment, Rove now has another rabbit to pull out of his hat, a victory in the November elections. His economic argument, above, will be one of his two pillars. The other will be blasting the Democrats as hopelessly weak and inadequate for threatening to pull out of Iraq and taking credit for the new government and the death of Al Zarqawi. (The Administration has, of course, already identified his replacement.)

It has occurred to me recently that think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Project for a New American Century are critical to the current Republican enterprise in a way that does not get much attention. They provide homes—families, really—where the holders of “conservative” beliefs can reinforce one another’s confidence rather than have to face reality or contend with opposing views. Supply-side economics has never worked, but it fits the political needs of Republicans so well that two or three generations of them have embraced it since 1980. William Kristol has apparently said that he may fold up the PNAC because its main mission, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, has been accomplished. In those tanks, Republican thinkers learn to refer to anything useful the federal government does as “programs that have failed,” and therefore not the sort of thing in which one would want to invest more money in, say, after Hurricane Katrina. These think tanks originally began as a response to the Brookings Institution, but it suffers from a critical disadvantage, a respect for facts and an assumption that others share it. Rove is counting on the men and women who get their news from Fox and Rush Limbaugh, and they have provided the critical margins in the last three elections. The Republicans today hold their economic premises every bit as firmly as their ancestral elephants believed in free markets before the Depression, and nothing but a similar catastrophe, I suspect, will change any of their minds.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Movies then and Now

I did not realize when I began these weekly contributions that they would focus so much on the decline of American and world politics. That, unfortunately, is what I see before me, and I am more and more convinced that things will probably get much worse before they get better. But today, after vainly scanning the movie pages of my state’s daily newspaper in search of worthwhile entertainment, I am moved to address another equally depressing topic, the decline of American movies and movie going. And to do so, once again, I am going to use a historical approach.

With the magic of Proquest, I have begun by securing the list of movies I might have watched in Washington, D. C. (not my home), on June 10, 1966, exactly forty years ago. This was a transitional moment for movies—a new audience of Boomers like myself was just coming on to the scene and the studios didn’t know how to appeal to us. The first thing that caught my eye was a double bill which I actually remember attending, Darling and Cat Ballou, which featured Oscar winners Julie Christie and Lee Marvin. I resisted the temptation to see Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy, or Dean Martin as Matt Helm in one of his James Bond rip-offs, The Silencers, but I had already seen Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. And I could also have seen Dr. Zhivago (Julie Christie certainly was hot that year) and Henry Fonda in Battle of the Bulge. The best movie playing, another holdover from the previous year, was The Pawnbroker, with Rod Steiger, which I had seen twice during my freshman year in college, just ended.

Things certainly had changed ten years later. The 1970s were almost surely the greatest decade in the history of American film, and a great many memorable offerings were available on June 10, 1976. Leading the pack were two classics, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and All the President’s Men, both showing at multiple theaters. (Cuckoo’s Nest had won the Oscar a few months earlier.) But I might also have gone to the Uptown on Connecticut Avenue and seen Jaws, still in theaters almost a year after its release. Taxi Driver was also in several theaters, and Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. was playing, too. Rounding out the field were The Exorcist, apparently in re-release (an almost forgotten concept), and the Italian classic Seven Beauties—all told enough to keep me busy for at least a month. And that was not at all unusual in those wonderful, long-forgotten days.

Let’s jump ahead another ten years. Alas, considerable deterioration was already apparent, and the idea that no one would go to the theater for a good movie after Memorial Day was beginning to take hold. In 1986 my choices would have included Hannah and Her Sisters, Oliver Stones Salvador, and a thriller I don’t remember called F/X to which Roger Ebert had given 4.5 stars. I could also have seen The Gods Must Be Crazy, A Room With A View, and Down, 9 1/2 Weeks, and Out in Beverly Hills, all of which I did watch without feeling I had wasted my time. But Cobra, with Sylvester Stallone, was apparently the most-screened movie, and Absolute Beginners and Invaders from Mars were also announced in the largest available type. I don’t remember either of those.

Live by technology, die by technology. Proquest runs out before 1996, except for the New York Times, and I cannot make the day’s movie schedules come up for June 10, 1996. The best I can do is to provide the ten top-grossing movies of that year (most of them, probably, released for the summer.) They are, in order, Independence Day, Twister, Mission: Impossible, Jerry Maguire, Ransom, 101 Dalmatians, The Rock, The Nutty Professor, The Birdcage (the remake of La Cage aux Folles of 1979), and A Time to Kill. I was still attending the movies regularly with my family in those days, and I’m ashamed to admit that I saw all but one of those movies. There is not one, however, that I have seen more than once, or which I can imagine wanting to see again.

And now?

I have seen The DaVinci Code, which was not very memorable and which is already dying at the box office. I’m looking forward to A Prairie Home Companion, and indeed, if we hadn’t been so late with dinner we might be on our way. Beyond those, however, my local multiplexes are offering a choice of Cars, The Omen, The Break-Up, X-Men, the Last Stand, Poseidon, and Over the Hedge. (I know a lot of smart people like the X-Men series, but I’ve never been much of a sci-fi fan.) The one genuinely great movie of the year to date, United 93, has already disappeared from view.

Hollywood still occasionally makes good movies, nearly all of which are released and shown in the same extremely short period of the year around Christmas time. Video, cable and multiplexes have annihilated an older tradition, in which The Godfather might play on the same screen for the better part of a year. Re-releases occur at a rate of considerably less than one a year, and there are far fewer revival houses even in Boston or New York than there used to be. Of course we can see anything we want at home—but the market for week in, week out movies is mostly for teenagers, and the lowest common denominator seems relentlessly to be eliminating anything with any real quality from Hollywood.

This was also the week of our local film festival, and we saw one extraordinarily good documentary, Buddy, about Buddy Cianci, the long-time Mayor of Providence now incarcerated for racketeering in Fort Dix, New Jersey. It is quite extraordinary and would make a great companion piece to the new All The King’s Men, for which I have great hopes. But we also saw five absolutely wretched shorts dealing in one way or another with the subject of romance. Young people who have spent their summers watching action movies and romantic comedies can’t, alas, be expected to do better. Perhaps it is the sameness and the consumerism of our everyday life that is to blame. Perhaps it will take some real tragedy that touches us all—as United 93 has shown to those who were brave enough to see it—to interest the public at large in serious art. “All things fall and are built again,” Yeats wrote almost 70 years ago, “and those who build them again are gay.” Our artistic heritage, like our political one, must regularly be rebuilt and rediscovered—a sad realization to the older generation, but a most rewarding challenge for our youth. And that was, after all, what my contemporaries managed to do at the movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Are we evil?

Yesterday the President spoke in favor of the Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. “An amendment to the Constitution is necessary because activist courts have left our Nation with no other choice. The constitutional amendment that the Senate will consider next week would fully protect marriage from being redefined, while leaving state legislatures free to make their own choices in defining legal arrangements other than marriage.” Virtually every commentator agrees that the President, who relied upon this strategy in 2004, wants to rally his base in the face of declining poll numbers. Undoubtedly he does, but the resonance of the issue in the heartland indicates that something significant is at stake here—in my opinion, a basic difference of opinion about human nature.

To varying degrees, all three of the great Middle Eastern monotheistic religions agree upon the essential depravity of mankind. Their basic texts portray a god who is quick to punish and often slow to forgive—one never more than provisionally satisfied with the human race he created. Sex, probably the most powerful of human instincts, is a particular target of these religions, which they have sought to tame and to control for much of their history. A devout Christian, an observant Jew, or a believing Muslim must all commit to confining their sexual behavior to certain specific channels, and all of them exclude homosexuality.

The fundamentalist Christians to whom the President is trying to appeal, however, seem to me to have taken matters a step further, perhaps because of their more general attitude towards sin. Satan, many of them believe, is nearly as omnipresent as God himself, and even the most devout Christians must face terrible temptations. Their attitude towards alcohol, drugs, and sex—particularly gay sex—implies that all of us, really, desperately want to drug ourselves senseless and commit homosexual acts. Only Christians have the strength to resist these impulses, and even they need the sanction of the law to keep them on the straight and narrow. To allow gay people to express their preferences openly and to claim the same sacred sanction for them as straights, it seems, would open the floodgates—few if any of us would voluntarily choose heterosexual marriage. That seems rather extraordinary to a lifelong, hopeless heterosexual like myself, but the implication of what they are saying seems to me inescapable. Satan doesn’t get that much attention in popular discussion nowadays, and I do not know what role he plays in Islam (he is barely present, if at all, in Judaism), but he may be a very important player indeed in our current religious controversies.

To believe that we are all constantly prey to sinful impulses is to condemn our essential natures. It lays a tremendous burden upon a believer to justify his or her existence and prove that he or she is worthy of god’s love. Unfortunately, that kind of terror can be a tremendous source of energy, and this may, in fact, explain why Judaism, Christianity and Islam have shown such an extraordinary propensity to expand their reach. The need to escape one’s impulses is the source of many addictions, and not merely those like drugs, or gambling, which society punishes, but also the addiction to achievement, to distinction, or to conquest. The creation and maintenance of an orthodox Islamic society is an enormous undertaking, but as I speak tens or hundreds of thousands are working hard to do just that all over the Middle East.

The rebirth and spread of Islamic fundamentalism is a serious setback to humanity, but I believe it will lead to an even greater setback if we decide that we must reverse the trend by force. That has already led to a disregard for international law and, to a certain extent, to a disregard for human life. In the same way that we can promote justice by accepting gay civil rights at home, we can promote human rights by respecting the rights of others to choose how they shall live. We may believe that rationalism and democracy are best, but we have no right to impose that idea on others. We have only the right to prove they are the best through our own use of them—and lately, we have not been doing too well.

Instead, our government has officially defined democracy and free markets as absolute good—and history teaches that that is a dangerous step. This was the theme of one of my favorite books, Albert Camus’ The Rebel, which I had not looked at for many years until I sat down to take up these issues today. It is a polemic against utopias, written in the wake of the Second World War. It has other lessons as well, I think, but those will have to wait until another day. Meanwhile, while I know few if any elected officials are willing to speak on behalf of gay marriage, I hope that the amendment will fail until such time as more serious problems divert our attention and we must once again seek our salvation here on earth.