Saturday, August 30, 2008

Bye bye; Boomers

For the past thirteen years, since I first encountered generational theory myself, I have managed to introduce several hundred students to it, become a major part of a network discussing it, and passed it along, with very mixed results, to family and old friends. I think perhaps now, for the first time, people are going to have to take it seriously. With the selections of Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, we find ourselves at an interesting historical juncture: for the first time in 24 years, since 1984, there will be no Boomer on either national ticket. I do not think that that is an accident.
Theodore White, the author of The Making of the President series, observed the Boom’s entry onto the national scene in 1968. Largely because White was himself such a typical GI and so committed to the values of his own youth, he saw what was happening, and put it in historical perspective, far more clearly than most people either then or since. Here, for instance, is how he described first-wave Boomer Sam Brown, Eugene McCarthy’s chief organizer in the New Hampshire primary.
“Such young people as Sam Brown are throwbacks—they come from a strain of American life that goes back probably to the Abolitionists, explosive with morality. [The abolitionists, of course, were Prophets like the Boomers, members of the Transcendental generation, born in the early constitutional era.] Born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, twenty-three years earlier, Sam came of what anyone in Council Bluffs would consider a ‘best family.’ . . Sam had gone to Redlands University in Southern California, where first he was president of the Young Republicans, then president of the student body. His first reflex of rebellion had come when the university had banned Communist speakers from the campus and Sam, protesting the ban, was branded a Communist by the trustees. That summer—1964—Sam became involved in the National Students Association, thus meeting Al Lowenstein and becoming alert to politics. [White did not mention that the NSA had also turned out to be a CIA front in 1967.] The summer of 1964 was also the summer of the student crusade in Mississippi and Sam felt the Democratic convention in Atlantic City that year sold out the students’ cause by its compromise on seating the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.” Later Brown—ironically, like David Stockman—had spent several months at the Harvard Divinity School before joining the McCarthy campaign to stop the war. He did not go so far as Barack Obama’s notorious acquaintance William Ayers, however, and decide that the war was so immoral, and American society so corrupt, that anything could be justified as long as it helped bring the war to a close.
In another part, White described quite accurately the technique of student campus rebellion that had so far reached only two major campuses, but which in 1969 and 1970 would surface at literally hundreds of them.
“Democracy is a phoney word to be sneered at unless carefully modified by such phrases as democracy of the streets, democracy of direct action or participatory democracy. Otherwise, democracy is a trick played on the people by the establishment. Establishment is, of course, one of the most fashionable words in American politics today, and was to be heard as frequently from Barry Goldwater’s thinkers as from the Students for a Democratic Society. [White in his 1964 book had been smart enough not to write off Barry Goldwater as a fluke, but had grasped that Goldwater represented something authentic and powerful—exactly how powerful White himself did not live to see.] . . .The glossary becomes operational when it moves on to its action words. Action opens by insistence on dialogue. A dialogue is begun (usually be a self-appointed delegation meeting with an official) when demands (non-negotiable demands) are presented and communications channels opened. The best ambiance for communications is something called creative tension, which is designed to reveal buried hates and unspoken prejudice. The rhythm of dialogue, creative tension, and communications in what is called confrontation, a riot condition.” (I must stop here, but White continues in the same vein on pp. 213-4.)
Now when the Vietnam War came to an end the student movement died with it, and during the 1970s and 1980s Boomers struggled with inflation, began having children, and became Yuppies. But in the 1990s they came into power throughout our society, and the style of their youth began to dominate large areas of American life. The media is now almost completely dominated by the language of confrontation, invective, and rigid ideological camps. Economic institutions have adopted a take-no-prisoners attitude as well. And White never imagined, I suspect, as he described the confrontations on campus of the late 1960s, that 35 years later a Boomer President would bring exactly the same approach—non-negotiable demands, confrontation, war, and even torture—to the conduct of international affairs. But that is what happened.
Prophet generations have historically produced politicians whose belief in their own righteousness far outweighed their ability to get anything done—including Jefferson Davis and Robert Toombs of the South, William Lloyd Garrison, Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner in the North, and later, Herbert Hoover. (The Missionary generation of post-civil war Prophets was more rationalist than the Transcendentals or the Boom, and the country and the world benefited.) The exceptions, of course, were those two great politicians who became our greatest Presidents, Abraham Lincoln (who rose to prominence very late in life) and Franklin Roosevelt. Strauss and Howe always expected Boomers to produce some one similar. It seems that that is not going to happen.
The most successful Boomer politicians have tended to rely on a mixture of ideological rigidity and family connections. Bill Clinton was in a way the Lincoln of his generation—a self-made man with considerable political skill—but he came to office in relatively peaceful times and did as little as he could to rock the boat. George W. Bush combined family advantages and ideology; so did Hillary Rodham Clinton. But her sense of entitlement turned off too many voters this year. (Both Clintons in my opinion, however, did rise nobly to the occasion at the Democratic convention, for which I thank them. I expect them both to be major assets in the campaign.) As for the Republican Boomers—led by Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee—they were either too obviously self-centered (Giuliani and Romney) or too ideologically bizarre (Huckabee. Even in 2008, one can perhaps reject either evolution or the income tax—but not both.) John McCain won the Republican nomination, in my opinion, because he was the only Silent Republican with the stomach to have stuck around this long, and because his personality has broad appeal. He has now—wisely—decided not to elevate any of his Boomer adversaries to the Vice Presidency. (This could change if Sarah Palin’s state trooper scandal turns out to be serious in the next few days, but McCain’s decision seems to have been made.)
As for Barack Obama, he won because he is a terrific natural politician with an inspiring life story who appealed, above all, to young people—people who have seen Boomers close at hand, as parents. As he made clear the other night in his fine acceptance speech, he wants to move beyond the climate Boomers have created. He picked a Silent, Joe Biden, who in contrast to Sam Nunn, Warren Rudman, Alan Simpson, and other contemporaries decided, like McCain, to stick it out in Washington—and who has really improved with age. I wish Obama well but this is going to be extremely difficult—especially when he actually takes office. Democrats may be ready for this; Republicans, and the media, are not. Panic that they may not in fact be the wave of the future is driving Boomer Republicans crazy. David Brooks’s appalling column Friday, in which he tries to ridicule Obama with half a dozen factual inaccuracies, is a case in point.
The older generation’s cliché about Boomers 40 years ago was, I regret to say, true. We never had to earn everything; we thought everything was ours by right—including the right to rule the world. Such generations are above all destructive, and some one should write a book about the actual impact of the Boom on our national life. It is more important now, however, to move forward. McCain cannot—his Presidency would resemble James Buchanan’s and would probably lead to another war. Obama might. A series of events, beginning with the Vietnam War, has combined to throw American politics off the track for the last four decades. It is now time to find out whether Bismarck was right, and whether the “special Providence” he identified still looks after fools, drunks—and the United States of America.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Evolution and its consequences

This morning's New York Times includes a long article about a lonely younger Baby Boomer in Florida, a high school biology teacher who has valiantly been struggling to keep the teaching of evolution alive in that highly politicized (and still politically crucial) corner of America. He is a true believer in evidence and facts, and he is obviously a very effective teacher, but he has to contend with an organized religious campaign that hands some of his students talking points explaining why the major contentions of his biology textbook are wrong. It occurred to me that the whole sad story was, in a way, a commentary on human evolution. Has our species evolved over the last few millenia? Yes. Has it evolved to the point where most of us can be ruled by our brains? No. And that fact is what makes the next twenty years of American history such a perilous enterprise.
The crises that convulse our (and other nations') body politics every 80 years or so, as Strauss and Howe showed, stem from several related causes. The first is the death of the old order, which comes about as those generations who helped create it pass from the scene. Currently those generations were the GIs (born around 1904-24) and the Silent generation (born 1925-42), the former of which, in particular, had a lifelong commitment to a particular set of beliefs and values by around 1950, as well as a terrific talent for politics. They valued rational thought over emotion; they produced dozens of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, but only one, Saul Bellow, in literature. Yet their calm and deliberate approach to problems did not prevent them from making a catastrophic mistake in Vietnam, as I showed at length in American Tragedy, and creating a confidence gap, if you will, which their Boomer children eagerly filled. That leads us to the second source of crises: the coming to power in one institution after another of the Prophet generation, that grew up under unusual conditions of stability and therefore took its parents achievements for granted and gave its own feelings free rein. Blessed or cursed by an overwhelming sense of right and wrong, the older Prophets become the leaders of crusades. The catch is that the wisdom of the particular crusades upon which they embark will determine whether they lead to triumph or to catastrophe.
American history includes examples of both kinds of crusades. The Transcendental generation, born from the 1790s through the 1810s, polarized around the idea of slavery and eventually tore the nation asunder and plunged it into civil war. Abolition, which inevitably became the goal of the North two years into the war, was surely a worthy cause, and one which triumphed; but by 1868 the country was sick of the Transcendentals, North and South, and swept them out of power. (Members of the younger Gilded generation--the generation that had actually fought the war--beat Transcendentals in the first three postwar Presidential elections.) The Prophets in any case, while seizing upon the right solution to slavery in principle--the transformation of slaves into full citizens--lacked the perseverance, organizational skill, and vision actually to make it happen, and white southerners re-established white supremacy. Politically the civil war created the Republican ascendancy that lasted, with rare and more or less accidental exceptions, until 1932, but its results were hardly commensurate with the sacrifice involved, and racial problems persisted for another one hundred years.
The next Prophet generation, the Missionaries (born 1863? - 1884 or so) did better. They were probably the least religious of any American prophet generation, and their leadership was probably the best educated (and indeed, they created the modern American educational system.) Because there was no Vietnam-like catastrophe during their youth, they had to maintain some respect for their elders. Many of them, like many of today's Prophets, adopted a religious faith in free markets, but others adopted the cause of economic reform, first in youth and middle age (in the Progressive Era) and then, after the stock market crash, during the New Deal. Helped by younger generations, they developed the regulated capitalism that created the longest era of equitable economic growth since the industrial revolution. And in the Second World War, Roosevelt led the nation into a genuine crusade to save western civilization.
Vietnam was not the Boom generation's mistake, but it released their most calamitous instincts. Faced with clear proof that their elders had been wrong, they were confirmed in their belief that they must be right--that the whole word was corrupt and in need of the redemption only they could provide. I will not rehash again the effects this impulse has had in various spheres of American life, but will skip to the present--encouraged in this respect by an excellent review by Max Rodebeck, an Economist correspondent,. of a new book by Kenneth Pollack on the Middle East. (I can't find any information either about Rodebeck's national origin or his generation, but he is a man of good sense). Like his fellow Boomers George W. Bush, Al Gore (whom I finally got around to watching in An Inconvenient Truth), and Thomas Friedman, Pollack's first principle is an unshakable belief in his own rightness, even when what he is saying today is the opposite of what he said a year ago. As Rodebeck points out, Pollack has not significantly been chastened by the impact of a previous book, A Gathering Storm, which in 2002 made a frightening and, as it turned out, completely fallacious case for invading Iraq, which he was sure was soon to have nuclear weapons. Now he wants to push ahead with reform of the Middle East, and refuses to admit (as Rodebeck points out) that the Israeli-Palestinian question might have anything to do with our problems there. But Pollack is part of something much bigger.
It was George W. Bush who escalated the American crusade for democracy by pursuing it through conquest, but it was his fellow Boomer Bill Clinton who started it. Clinton gave us both NATO expansion and the war over Kosovo. Indeed, Boomer Democrats are generally nearly as interventionist as Boomer Republicans--they simply tend to prefer more humanitarian causes. Together, Clinton and Bush have left a legacy of confrontation with Russia--still heavily nuclear armed--over the political allegiance of the states on Russia's borders. John McCain--a Silent whose Administration, if he has one, will be completely dominated by Republican Boomers in the same way that James Buchanan's was dominated by Democratic Transcendentals--will apparently escalate that confrontation if he wins. What would Barack Obama do?

Just this past week Obama gave an extraordinary interview to Time that showed an astonishing awareness of the issues I have been discussing here. I quote:

Does it make a difference that you are the first presidential candidate who came of age after the 1960s?

Yes, I think that the ideological battles of the '60s have continued to shape our politics for too long. They haven't shaped the lives of the American people. The average baby boomer, I think, has long gotten past some of these abstract arguments about are you left, are you right, are you big government, small government. You know, people are very practical. What they are interested in is: Can you deliver schools that work? I'm working really hard, can I get some health care that I can count on? Do we have a foreign policy that deals with our enemies but also has some sense of humility about it, so that we are able to gain cooperation from our allies around the world?
People recognize that government can't do everything and that most of us have to take individual responsibility, but what we do expect is that government can help. So those kinds of arguments have been resolved in the minds of the American people for a long time, but they still drive politics in Washington. And one of the things we have to do in this campaign is to break out of some of those old arguments. And what, frankly, the McCain campaign wants to do is to try to push us back into those old arguments. So the campaign they're running is a reprise of the Republican greatest hits of the last 25 years. "He's going to raise your taxes. He's not patriotic. He's going to be soft on our enemies."
Well, I don't blame them for that. It's worked for them. But it doesn't solve problems. It's part of the reason they've been governing so poorly, because what they campaign on doesn't have anything to do with the problems we have right now. He's got an energy policy that has been nonexistent for the last eight years, at a time where everybody could see that this is going to have as much to do with our national security, our environment, our economy as anything out there.

Obama is essentially making a generational gamble, betting that the Boomers have burnt themselves out in 16 years of fruitless ideological struggle and that the country is ready for what amounts to a post-crisis approach to its problems. The two younger generations--his own Xers and the Millennials--are surely ready for that, but Boomers will still dominate the media, Congress and the Supreme Court for a long time to come. And how exactly will President Obama sell, for instance, a less confrontational approach to the Soviet Union? Could he ride out a deluge of accusations of "appeasement?" And is there enough understanding of domestic affairs even among the younger generations--who were educated by Boomers who have never been very interested in domestic policy at all--to begin moving towards a more sanely regulated economy? I don't know.

Strauss and Howe's theory was flexible enough to account for anomalies, such as the one they found in the Civil War, which did not produce a Hero generation like the GIs (another reason why its results were so fleeting.) A successful Obama Presidency would be another such anomaly. But perhaps Boomers have been hoist on their own petard. They were the chief popularizers of postmodernism in academia and of "staying on message" in politics--in short, of the idea that only feelings and ideas, not results, matter. Perhaps they have indeed fought one another to a standstill on that terrain, sparing us another civil war, and allowing younger generations to get on with the business of rebuilding the country. But while I am hopeful, I am not convinced.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

The World Crisis Begins

During the early 1990s the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia fell apart. The collapse of the first two--and especially of Yugoslavia--involved considerable violence. But it occurred to me at the time--even before Strauss and Howe had discovered the 80-year cycle in human affairs--that these events, parallel in many ways to those of 1914-18, had not involved the rest of Europe and the world in a general war. When Serbia and Austria-Hungary came to blows in 1914, Russia and Germany regarded the outcome as critical to their own futures, and European war resulted. That war in turn shaped the great crisis in the Atlantic world that began in the early 1930s and unleashed an even greater war. It seemed in the 1990s that we were going to be spared such events. In 2000 Harvard Press reissued my book Politics and War, and I wrote a new concluding chapter. Things seemed to be going well in Eastern Europe by then, but I referred briefly to the possibility that nationality conflicts in the Soviet Union (where war was already raging in Chechnya) might draw in Western Europe. Little did I know. The events in Georgia this past week suggest that we are witnessing a reply of the first half of the twentieth century, one with potentially disastrous consequences.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is looking more and more like the collapse of the Russian Empire 74 years earlier, which culminated in the spring of 1918 in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Bolsheviks and the German empire. Brest-Litovsk rolled Russia back almost to where is today, excluding Russian influence not only from Poland, the Baltic States, and Finland, but also from Ukraine, the Caucasus (including Georgia), and part of Cental Asia. (Belarus remained part of Russia, but significantly, Belarus has already become a Russian satellite again now.) The restoration of Russian power under the Soviet Union occurred in two phases. In the first, the Communist Party re-assimilated Ukraine, the Caucasus region and Central Asia during the decade after the revolution and turned them into constituent parts of the USSR. Western Europe, pre-occupied with its own problems, did nothing to intervene, and Poland managed to save itself from a Soviet military offensive. The Soviet borders remained stable from the early 1920s until 1939, when the second stage began with the Nazi-Soviet Pact. That Pact allowed the Soviets to regain Moldavia from Rumania, to annex a substantial portion of Poland (one that today remains part of Belarus and Ukraine), to absorb the Baltic states, and to start a war with Finland that moved the Soviet-Finnish border to where it is today. The third stage, of course, took place during the latter stages of the Second World War, which brought Soviet troops to the heart of Germany, and the early stages of the Cold War, during which Communist governments came to power peacefully in Hungary and Czechoslavakia.
The various regimes established after 1919 in Eastern Europe also began as democracies but most did not remain so for very long. Westerners, and particularly neoconservatives, proclaimed "the end of history" again in the 1990s, and did not allow the rapid evolution of Russia from a proto-democracy into an authoritarian state dominated by oligarchs, the secret police, and a government-controlled media to disburb their inspiring vision. Meanwhile, two Administrations--those of both Clinton and George W. Bush--decided to regard the Soviet collapse simply as an opportunity to expand American influence as far as possible. With the Soviet threat gone, NATO became an expanding American sphere of influence, soon including Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States. NATO in 1999 went to war against what was left of Yugoslavia to free Kossovo, and has recently blessed its independence. Bush also abandoned the cornerstone of Cold War arms control, the ABM treaty, and halted progress on the reduction of Soviet and American nuclear arsenals. The Russians protested all these moves--and we ignored their protests. Most recently the decision to install anti-missile batteries in Poland and Czechoslovakia--weapons which are well known to be ineffective--has led the Russians to denounce the Conventional Forces Treaty that kept their army away from their western borders. The US also cultivated various Central Asian successor states, albeit with decidedly mixed results. 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, meanwhile, diverted our attention from what was happening in and around the former Soviet Union.
Those wars, however, and particularly the war in Iraq, now loom as the beginning of a new age of international anarchy which the United States should have done whatever it could to avoid. With only one real ally, Britain, in tow, the US government decided that the government of Iraq had to be removed and replaced, and proceeded to do so without UN endorsement. Last week President Bush and Secretary Rice issued daily pronouncements claiming that Russian tactics--the invasion of a sovereign state--did not belong in the 21st century. It would never occur to them, of course, that they themselves had made them a centerpiece of the twentieth century in Iraq and constantly reserve the right to revive them against Iran. The United States now has to deal with potential new crises in Eastern Europe without much of the moral and diplomatic capital it had accumulated in Europe during and after the Cold War.
The Russians have now lifted the taboo on the use of their armed forces (which they have evidently strengthened somewhat in recent years, even though they, like our own, remain relatively small) outside their borders. They did so partly because of the aggressively pro-western stance of Georgia's new President Shakashvili, who wants to get into NATO and who has also been trying to re-assert control over breakway regions with Russian populations. Lots of Russians still live in Ukraine (which wants to enter NATO) and the Baltic States (which already have), and similar scenarios are entirely possible there, too. Meanwhile, Russia retains a large nuclear arsenal, and--unlike either Germany or Japan in the 1930s--benefits economically from any increases in international tension because of its oil exports. On the other hand, Russia does not have, and is not going to have, a major European ally like Germany in the 1930s that is going to collaborate in re-occupying Eastern Europe.
In retrospect it looks more and more unfortunate that the US and the Western Europeans decided to substitute NATO expansion for further work on creating an international regime within which everyone could live in peace. Cooler heads of all political persuasions had doubts about NATO expansion into Eastern Europe from the start, regarding it as needlessly provocative. I suspect that the acceleration of NATO expansion to include Ukraine and perhaps even Georgia will now become a neoconservative demand and an issue in the Presidential campaign. But before taking such steps we have to give some thought to what they would mean in practice. We do not have the forces to set up a defense line on the border between Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states on one side and Belarus and the USSR on the other. Nor are we going to be stationing tactical nuclear weapons there as in days of old. Some believe that merely enlarging NATO will have the necessary deterrent effect on the Russians, but I am not so sure. We would still be much better off to focus on a peaceful competition for influence--in which we hold most of the cards--than to do anything to militarize the confrontation any further.
In 2003 Condoleezza Rice made a famous speech arguing in effect that the world had no choice but to accept American leadership (or hegemony) in the promotion of democratic values. It remains my belief that this is a fantasy. Perhaps at some level our increasingly conservative foreign policy establishment has welcomed Russia's nationalistic resurgence, thinking that it will help us rally a defensive coalition behind us, as in days of old. John McCain, I suspect, will make this a major theme of his campaign and it will not be easy for Barack Obama to respond effectively. And if Russian troops stay in Georgia and threaten new moves elsewhere, eventually there will be a call for the return to the draft.
The United States fought the Second World War to save western civilization in Europe--and won only by promoting the spread of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Far East. During the Cold War, in my opinion, our biggest problems invariably stemmed from our inability to distinguish between territory that was vital and territory that was not. The defense perimeters around western Europe and Japan served a very useful purpose (and did not lead to war); attempts to defend areas like Vietnam or to promote friendly clients in Africa led to nothing but misery on an enormous scale. It does not increase the security of the United States, in my opinion, to treat territories like Georgia or Ukraine as comparable to West Germany or Japan in their importance. I shall try to think in weeks to come about how we might begin to reverse the track that we are on, but it looks harder and harder. The world order is disintegrating in ways similar to those of the early 1930s now, and a new catastrophe is slowly becoming a real possibility.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Michelle Obama's thesis

Michelle Obama's senior year thesis in sociology at Princeton University, obtained from the school by Politico, has already been stereotyped. Politico calls it "a document written by a young woman grappling with a society in which a black Princeton alumnus might only be allowed to remain "'on the periphery.'" "My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my 'blackness' than ever before," the future Ms. Obama wrote in her introduction. "I have found that at Princeton, no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don't belong. Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second."

That quote from the introduction had already led a friend of mine to say that the thesis was about “racial isolation at Princeton,” but it turns out to be a throwaway line of little relevance to the actual subject of the work. Its title was "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” and it was not about her own and her contemporaries’ experience at Princeton at all. Instead, it was a rather sophisticated and very thoroughly researched effort to define the experience of four years of Princeton on the first substantial cohorts of black students who attended that august institution (always, actually, the most southern-dominated of the Ivy League) from the late 1960s until the early 1980s, when she entered herself. Having secured 400 names of black alumni from Princeton, Michelle Robinson (as she then was) mailed them each a detailed questionnaire about their attitudes and associations before, during, and after their college experience. The thesis details the results of the 89 replies that she received. (I wonder how many of those who threw the letter away still remember it and realize who that poor undergrad turned out to be!)

I have advised and graded a good many undergraduate theses at outstanding institutions in my time, and this one was certainly superior. Her adviser allowed a writing slip or two to go through (one dangling participle stood out), and I was annoyed by the statement that institutions like Princeton had only started admitting black students in the 1960s. (Certainly they didn't admit very many, but Harvard, for one, started admitting a few in the late 1800s.) These are however minor points. The author assembled a mass of fascinating data, run it through a computer many times, and distilled rather striking results which often obviously surprised her, as well as her readers. Her attempts to explain some of her most challenging results were careful, even-handed, and provocative. Her presentation was invariably clear. And rather than draw any racially charged conclusions, she essentially let the results speak for themselves.

The effect of four years at Princeton on the bulk of the sample turned out to be paradoxical indeed. Of those who replied, half defined themselves as lower middle class, with the rest about evenly divided between lower class and upper middle class. A majority had gone to integrated schools, and their high schools were more integrated, on the average, than their elementary schools. Michelle Obama focused on two issues: how the amount of time they spent with blacks, as opposed to whites, changed at Princeton (and how it changed again after they left), and how their beliefs changed. Regarding their beliefs, she asked about their adherence to one of two kinds of ideologies: one, separatist/pluralist, similar to the 1960s black power view that held that black people had first to consolidate within their own communities before increasing their interactions with whites, and the other integrationist/assimilationist. She was also curious about their degree of commitment to improving the lot of the rest of the black community.

The striking result that the thesis revolved around was this. The most common result of attending Princeton for her respondents was to spend less time with white people and to become more receptive to separatist/pluralist ideologies than in their high school years. After graduation and moving into the work force, however, things began moving in the other direction, and her respondents most commonly said that they were now spending more time with white people and tended more towards integrationist-assimilationist ideologies. She also found, not surprisingly, that her respondents tended to value their individual goals, rather than goals for their family, their race, or their God, more highly throughout, and that professional goals took a much larger role after graduation. (That was one question where I thought a white control group would have been interesting—I strongly suspect that it would have shown exactly the same results.)

The thesis included another interesting finding. Asked whether they were more comfortable intellectually with blacks, whites, or both equally, a significant majority responded both equally (although once again, those choosing blacks rose as percentage when referring to their Princeton years and fell back again afterwards.) Socially, on the other hand, a large majority consistently felt more comfortable among blacks. The goal of intellectual assimilation, in short, seemed to be doing very well, even though the Princeton experience itself had done less than nothing to advance it. Social assimilation was making less progress, but I see less reason to be very concerned about that.

The question that demanded a response, obviously, was why racial isolation and separatist attitudes increased at Princeton. Michelle Obama answered it carefully and responsibly. She mentioned some one named De Joie who had argued that elite white institutions were actually quite discriminatory towards black students, but stated that she certainly had not been able to confirm that view. (Apparently De Joie hadn’t published her findings—I suspect they had been presented at some kind of public lecture.) Instead, she speculated that blacks at Princeton fell back upon one another because of the loss of the black support group that their families (and in many cases, presumably, their neighborhoods) had provided during their integrated elementary and high school years, which made it easier to deal with any problems that arose in interacting with white students and white authorities. That is possible. Putting a slightly different slant on the matter, I would speculate that young black men and women suddenly plunged into an elite white institution could easily worry about losing a large part of their identity and would therefore try to reinforce it among themselves. Faculty indoctrination was apparently not much of an issue—the black studies program at Princeton was still very small when the thesis was written. Although the author didn’t (understandably) put it this way, her thesis was really about black baby boomers at Princeton. She, like her husband, was in the leading edge of the new generation X, and their generation's experience may have been different.

I have recently been reminded of an interesting study by a psychologist of my acquaintance in the early 1980s (about the time Michelle was writing) about white male reactions to minorities and women. The study found that members of the majority did not instinctively look down upon minorities. Instead, their opinions tended towards extremes. They were inclined to see a smart black as smarter than he or she really was, and a less intelligent one as less intelligent still. I admit that I was impressed by the study because I realized that I probably shared that tendency myself. (To state the results a little differently, one might suggest that true assimilation occurs when one is entitled to be regarded as average!) I do not think I am falling victim to it in this case, however. Like most good undergraduate theses from top schools, Michelle Obama’s was both more interesting and far more readable than the average professional academic journal article. She may well have been too smart to become an academic. She became a lawyer instead, and based upon her undergraduate work, she is probably a very capable one. Meanwhile, she had been exposed to, but had not succumbed to, some of the more inflammatory ideological currents that have been swirling around academia during the last forty years. And somewhere along the line, she had learned a healthy respect for facts which her Princeton experience did not undermine. I certainly would have enjoyed having her in my class.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The death of Solzhenitsyn

Alexander Solzhenitsyn died last week at the age of 89. His reputation in the West had experienced meteoric rises and falls since the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich during the Khrushchev thaw of the early 1960s. Several of his novels became best sellers in the West during the 1970s, but after his exile from the Soviet Union in 1975, he rapidly emerged as a critic of western society as well. He developed an increasingly authoritarian streak and fell out with some of his oldest friends, and devoted the late 20th century to the conclusion of a massive cycle of novels about the Russian revolution, The Red Wheel. Returning to Russia after the collapse of Communism, he had a brief career as a television personality and eventually supported Vladimir Putin’s restoration of governmental authority. He had in short lost much of the stature that he had earlier achieved by the time of his death, but to me, he will always remain one of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists, chiefly by virtue of his initial masterpiece, The First Circle, which he wrote in the years after his return from exile in the mid-1950s, and which I taught for many years both at Carnegie Mellon and in an elective at the War College. (I also enormously enjoyed August 1914 and Cancer Ward, but I never read The Gulag Archipelago.)

When I first picked up The First Circle in 1972, while on my way to the Soviet Union for the first and last time, I was astonished by the series of miracles that had enabled the book to appear. Superficially it tells the story of a December weekend in 1949 at Mavrino, a special prison near Moscow where the inmates are working on sophisticated communications equipment, including a “scrambler” telephone for Stalin himself. Solzhenitsyn, renamed Gleb Nerzhin, is one of the three main characters, the other two being Lev Rubin—really Lev Kopelev, a Soviet intellectual whom I later got to know myself—and Dimitri Sologdin, a talented engineer. Merely as a dramatic construction the book is quite extraordinary, cramming 700 pages and 87 chapters into a single Christmas weekend, and featuring about 100 characters, all caught in the catastrophe of Stalinist life. Obviously inspired by Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn drew many intricate links among his characters (some of whom are still living outside the prison system) and tried to include something about nearly every stage and every aspect of human life. I was most fortunate to begin reading it in Britain, where the published translation, done in the main by the late Michael Glenny, brilliantly captured the humor, sarcasm, and drama of the original far better than the version published in the United States, and when I began teaching the book I made every effort to get copies of that version for my students. I also made up my own table of contents, allowing me to get the sequence of events straight and to understand how so much action could have been packed into three days. (I cannot offhand think of another novel that achieves a comparable feat.) The real value of the book, however, lay in the themes that the author had developed as a result of his prison experiences.

The characters in The First Circle, the author shows us again and again in dozens of ways, are the only free people left in the Soviet Union. Having been deprived of their liberty for either 10 or 25 years (and indeed, no one, at the time the book was taking place, foresaw the thaw that would follow the death of Stalin and lead to the liberation of most of them), they had to live purely for the moment and, as they frequently tell one another, had developed a true appreciation of life. Only starving men (and most of them had been near starvation in Siberian camps) appreciated food; only men working 12 hour days for bread rations appreciated the value of leisure. Because they had already lost everything, they could afford to be themselves. Solzhenitsyn drives this point home effectively early in the book, when the Minister of State Security, Abakumov (a real person) calls in three prisoners to find out when Stalin’s own special telephone—which he has promised the dictator within a couple of months—will actually be ready. Without a shred of hesitation, and with considerable bemusement and anger, they tell him bluntly that at least another year will be needed, leaving him to face his own boss almost paralyzed with terror. (Abakumov survives his meeting with Stalin thanks to the dictator’s failing memory, but as the preface informs us, he was eventually executed about a year after Stalin’s own death.)

Real freedom, Solzehnitsyn tells us, comes from renunciation. The system occasionally tempts prisoners with privileges or even a promise of release, but to accept is usually to surrender one’s independence and one’s soul. Nerzhin (Solzehnitsyn) himself turns down an offer of a better job in the opening pages of the book because it will give him no time to meditate on the future of Communism (Solzehnitsyn at that time was, apparently, still a socialist), and is rewarded at the end with a transfer to Siberia. The internal freedom enjoyed by the prisoners gives them a vitality which, paradoxically, the “free” citizens of the Soviet Union have had to stifle. The free workers at the special prison have all received the direst warnings about the characters of the convicts, but they are repeatedly astonished by their good humor, wide-ranging minds, and capacity to cope with circumstances. At least three of the free women, indeed, find these qualities so seductive as to fall in love with prisoners (Solzhenitsyn was a devout believer in the power of both love and sex.)

One after another, in chapter after chapter, we learn the life histories of dozens of characters, and in almost every case they face some climactic choice that will determine both their external and internal fate. Two—which by the genius of the plot become closely connected—deserve particular attention. The first is Rubin—Kopelev, who later described the same camp in a memoir—who had been imprisoned in early 1945 because he tried to stop atrocities against Germans during the advance through East Prussia, but who in 1949 remained a committed Communist and a supporter of Stalin. Like Faust, whom Rubin discusses in a revealing fashion, Rubin has been seduced by the Communist dream of eternal human happiness, and even his own fate—which he certainly feels to be unjust—has not yet shaken his faith. And thus, in the midst of the book, he is initially delighted to be given a special assignment—an order to try to identify the voice of a Soviet diplopmat who, he is told, has tried to stop a doctor from betraying a state secret.

The diplomat, whose own personal drama begins the book, is Innokenty Volodin, a successful though somewhat skeptical young man, the son-in-law of an old Bolshevik and public prosecutor, who has accidentally heard that his old family doctor is about to travel to France for an international conference and provide a French colleague with a new drug. Under Stalinism this could only be construed as a treasonous act, and Innokenty, after a long struggle with himself, decides to call the doctor to warn him off from a pay phone. (He is moved, not coincidentally, by primal feelings from his childhood—a visit from this doctor had always calmed his household in any moment of crisis.) Unfortunately for him, the doctor’s phone is already being tapped, and he is one of only five diplomats who knew what was going to happen. The State Security office immediately passes the task of identifying the culprit to Mavrino, where Rubin, a purported authority on the identification of individual speech, is given the original recording and recordings of all five and set to work. (Ironically, Kopelev revealed in his own memoir that when he was given a similar assignment, it actually involved a genuine case of treason—an apparent attempt by a security officer to tip off the American embassy about the Rosenberg spy ring, in fact. The change, however, works brilliantly from a dramatic point of view.)

Chapter 33, in which Rubin receives this assignment, is one of the most dramatic of the book. Going inside Rubin’s head, as great novelists always do, it brilliantly portrays the struggle between one’s feelings and powers of thought that plays such a huge role in people’s submission to an ideal. Expecting to hear a vile traitor giving away state secrets, Rubin instead immediately realizes that no sane person can regard medical information in this light—“and on purely human grounds, Rubin couldn’t help liking this man who had been brave enough to telephone a flat under surveillance, probably without realizing what a risk he was taking.
“But objectively, although this man had imagined he was doing good, he was in fact working against the forces of progress. If it was considered part of the vital interests of the state to claim that all scientific discoveries had been pioneered in Russia, then anyone who thought differently was objectively standing in the way of progress and must be swept aside.” He takes the assignment.

Meanwhile, Innokenty gradually emerges as the most important character in the last third of the book. Obviously recalling his own experience, Solzhenitsyn traces his steps during his last 48 hours of freedom and describes in great detail the experience of his arrest and initial confinement. We learn the long chain of events that has brought Innokenty to his present pass, including the discovery of some of his mother’s papers, including the extraordinary remark, “Injustice is stronger than you—it always has been and always will be. But never let it be done through you.” At a dinner party, too, Innokenty discusses the philosophy of Epicurus, who believed that simple pleasures made a happy life and that man’s insatiable appetites were his worst enemy. (Epicurus also discouraged his followers from taking part in public life.) Yet by the time Innokenty leaves the scene—on the way to his interrogation—we cannot help but feel that all is for the best. His name was obviously carefully chosen—he is innocent, as the book begins, because he has never before obeyed a spontaneous impulse at the risk of his status and freedom. His innocence is now lost, but he, like the other prisoners, is now on the path to wisdom and self-respect.

Rubin, meanwhile, has been hard at work identifying the culprit, and has managed to narrow the field from five to two—Innokenty and the innocent Shchevronok. Having gotten that far, he becomes involved in a long argument with his boss on the subject, arguing that while Innokenty certainly sounds guilty, the characteristics of the voiceprints point to Shchevronok. When they present their dilemma to the security service, however, the solution is swiftly applied—both of them are arrested, plunging Rubin into new fits of despair. I can never read this passage without believing that Rubin’s subconscious is at work—that it has not forgotten that in this case, the words “innocent” and “guilty” actually mean their own opposites, and that Innokenty is innocent precisely because he did indeed make the call. Shchevronok winds up in the cell next to Innokenty, and Rubin has to console himself that, without his investigation, all five might have been arrested and, of course, convicted, since no one arrested under Stalinism was ever released.

The novel is indeed on of the last great artifacts of the Russian/Western literary tradition that gave us Dickens and Balzac, Zola and Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and all the rest. References to literature, painting and music abound throughout—the author is writing as a citizen of the world. Both its completion and its publication were nothing short of miraculous, all the more so since Solzhenitsyn had a bout with cancer not long after his release, when he must have been first working on it. I doubt however that very many American college courses are using it any more—some years ago it had actually gone out of print here. Anyone who takes the trouble to go to abebooks.com and secure a copy of the British edition, however, will feel amply rewarded.

I have only scratched the surface of the enormous resonance the book has always had for me. The choices Solzhenitsyn describes in such an extreme form between integrity and compromise are, of course, always present in life, and some of us seem capable of only one choice. Meanwhile, this blog has now been running weekly for almost four years and amounts to a rather large book--though not yet, I do not think, as long as The First Circle. (I am actually thinking about self-publishing excerpts after the November election.) Early in the book there occurs an interesting conversation between Sologdin, the other protagonist and the most brilliant engineer, and the elderly Professor Chelnov, a brilliant scientist who has spent the last few days of his life solving difficult technical problems in special prisons. Hoping to win his release, Sologdin has been working secretly on a design for the scrambler for Stalin, and he has visited the professor to get his opinion. Impressed by the design, Chelnov asks whether it is not time to show it to their boss.

“How shall I put it?” Sologdin replies. “Isn’t there perhaps a certain moral ambiguity? . . . . .It’s not as if it were a bridge, or a crane or a lathe. Our assignment is not for something of great importance to industry—it’s more like making a gadget for the boss. And wen I think of this particular ‘customer’ picking up the receiver we’ll make for him. . . .Well, anyway, so far I’ve been working on it just . . .to test my strength. For myself.”

He looked up.

“For myself.” Chelnov knew all about this kind of work. As a rule it was research of the highest order.”

Yup.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

A few updates

About a year and a half ago, after the issuance of the Iraqi study group report, I pronounced the political epitaph of the Silent Generation. That was, I can now see, a bit premature. That bipartisan group was composed almost entirely of members of the generation just old enough to remember V-J day, and it had produced a typical set of sensible, moderate proposals for a large-scale withdrawal from Iraq. The Bush Administration ignored it. The surge--which was intially very costly in lives and has remained very costly in money and strain on the military--has quieted things down in Iraq for the moment, but the withdrawal they called for seems clearly to be coming, and we don't know what will come next. Meanwhile, the Silents have produced a presidential candidate, John McCain, although I personally do not feel his prospects look that bright. But they have continued to exercise a considerable influence through their last bastion of authority, the Democratic leadership in the Congress. Whether that is a good thing I am not sure.
Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Charles Rangle, Barney Frank, Joe Biden, Jay Rockefeller, and the rest of the 65-and-over Democrats who now run the House and Senate have opted for the most responsible government possible. They have refused to consider the impeachment of the President or Vice President--perhaps a sensible decision given the imminence of the election, but one which nonetheless has the effect of excusing a great deal. They refused to cut off funding for the war in Iraq, postponing the day of reckoning into the next Administration. And, faced with serious domestic problems, they have often settled for the best bill they could get--which means a bill that some Republicans will support, largely out of fear of the consequences this November. Early this year they passed the stimulus package the President asked for, handing billions of dollars to Americans who really did not need them rather than combining job creation with doing something about our eroding infrastructure. Just last week, they passed a voluntary mortgage refinancing bill which, as a well-informed observer assured me on NPR, will have absolutely no effect on what is going on.
No one has been more critical of Boomer political excess than I, and my philosophy of government is probably pretty close to the leadership's in normal times--but I am not sure whether this has been a good thing or not. What is interesting is that the more accommodating spirit of the Democrats has done less than nothing--literally--to raise the esteem in which the public holds the Congress. Their ratings are at an all-time low, far lower than the PResident's. That will be a tremendous challenge for the next President: the public seems no longer to believe that legislation can really benefit it--and not without reason. The Democratic leadership hasn't staked out an alternative set of dometic policies--they have left that to the next President. In the 1930s and again in the 1950s and early 1960s the Congress was full of progressives of both parties with ambitious, specific agendas--to assure the rights of labor, to build infrastructure, to regulate markets, to provide a safety net, and to assure civil rights for black Americans. It is not clear that there is a comparable group today. Meanwhile, the cooperative spirit is not winning too many friends as we enter into a new era of crisis.
All this will put a truly gigantic burden upon Barack Obama if he is elected. He will need Congressional allies with ideals and determination to achieve anything in the areas of health care or the economy or global warming. And as the economic crisis worsens, the country will face a truly unprecedented task: climbing out of a deep recession after the de-industrialization of America, which has proceeded apace in the seven years since the last serious recession. We will indeed find ourselves in a completely new era.
Meanwhile, on another generational front, I finally got around to watching my Netflix copy of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, which had been sitting on my bureau for a couple of months. I was deeply disappointed and frankly, had to wonder how much better a Gore presidency would have turned out than a Bush one. The thrust of his presentation may well be correct, and it would in any case be a great thing to reduce fossil fuel consumption drastically, but his tone, throughout, exemplified the worst of his generation. Again and again he made clear that he was one of the only people who understood that the fate of the earth was at stake thanks to the transgressions of lesser mortals. The movie also looked suspiciously like a campaign document (although the campaign did take place), since a biography of the former Vice President was intercut with his presentation. Gore would not, I think, have gone to war in Iraq, and the country would have been in better fiscal health today, but I doubt he would have been able to accomplish too much. Meanwhile, yet another Boomer, Hillary Clinton, has made a very graceful exit from the center of affairs, and I for one would like to thank her.