Sunday, November 29, 2009

Discipline and freedom

[Although the pace has slowed, people are still arriving here because they have received an email on the current state of America. If you are curious about my own views of the origins and consequences of the current crisis in American life, I recommend this link. However, the email attributed to myself comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler, is a forgery which I did not write. All visitors may also be interested to read the following post. Meanwhile, here is the best explanation I've found of why that email is so incredibly popular.]

Last week, as often happens, a news item, read in the context of my current research, brought home to me the enormous changes in American life that have taken place during my adult life--changes that have involved significant steps forward at the individual level, but huge steps backward at the political and national economic level. The question now before us, in many ways, is whether we can manage to combine the far greater personal liberty we have achieved over the last forty years with the capacity to subordinate some of our personal beliefs to the greater good and establish some new and friendlier centers of authority.

My current research, as I have mentioned, focuses on the US preparation for, and decisions leading to, our entry into the Second World War. One cannot read very far into the archives of that era without realizing that the United States was then an entirely different country. The organizational effort that was involved in mobilization was altogether beyond anything that we would be capable of today. To go within three years from a military force of less than one million men to one of ten million was only one aspect of this. During the same period--from late 1940 to 1944--huge new industrial enterprises were built, tens of thousands of workers moved around the country to make them run, the Navy doubled in size, and the country built hundreds of merchant ships as well. Such an effort required organizational skill, which in turn depended, in large measure, on respect for authority. We understood in those days that a great undertaking required chiefs and Indians, and I frequently encounter men of all political persuasions, from Harold Ickes of the Interior Department to Frank Knudsen of General Motors (who contributed his services as one of the heads of Roosevelt's War Production Board), that no enterprise could function if a single man were not in charge. This did not mean that authority was either arbitrary or unrestrained. FDR insisted that war mobilization not involve any erosion of workers' rights and New Deal benefits, and except for voluntary no-strike pledges during the war,it did not. The same spirit continued, in many ways, through the 1950s and into the 1960s.

The great rebellion of the 1960s fought against the moral authority of a dying civilization, really the remnants of the Victorian era (and we should keep in mind that the grandparents of many Boomers were born when Victoria was still very much alive. It began as a rebellion against sexual taboos for young adults, quickly led to an explosion of divorce rates throughout society, and eventually became the most effective movement in history for women's rights, and the first for gay rights. Along with all this came a demystification of family life, acknowledging that parental influences could be very harmful, and encouraging people of all ages to acknowledge uncomfortable truths about those around them. All these changes have transformed our society. Because they have not been universally accepted, they have also become critical political issues--a most unfortunate development, in my opinion, which has diverted attention from the real business of government. But along with them, sadly, went a loss of respect for tradition and authority of all kinds. Boomer academics threw out a century of gradually acquired knowledge in the humanities and started over. Eventually Boomer bankers successfully agitated for the repeal of the New Deal legislation that their grandparents had put in place to restrain their parents. The individual, rather than the group, became our focus--a very important correction, undoubtedly, to the excesses of an era that had indeed become too standardized, too militarily threatening, and too mistrustful of human feeling. But like so many of such corrections, it has now destroyed much of the intellectual framework we need to cope with great national problems. The substitution of sound bites for any systematic analysis of them is in my opinion another manifestation of the same kind of problem.

The hook which got me thinking about all this was a story from the New York Times last Thursday about Claudette Colvin, a woman of 70 who has now been the subject of an award-winning children's book. In 1955 Ms. Colvin was a black teen-ager in Montgomery, Alabama, and it turns out that she had been arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a white woman on a city bus some months before Rosa Parks's more famous arrest, which ignited the bus boycott. According to the book about her by Philip House, however, the local NAACP decided not to make her a test case, partly because (although it is not clear from the whole story why) they did not think of her as a suitable symbol. Later, after the boycott began, Ms. Colvin's own mother, Colvin now says, told her that Rosa Parks would garner more white sympathy because her skin was lighter. I have not seen Mr. House's book, but the Times story, I can say confidently, leaves a very misleading impression about how the bus boycott actually got going and, more importantly, why it was successful.

The article mentions that Rosa Parks was, in fact, the secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, in those days by far the leading civil rights organization in the country and already a significant political power in Washington, D. C., and, though its legal defense fund, in the courts, where it had carried on a successful twenty-year campaign against segregated education culminating in Brown v. Board of Education a year before. But it doesn't mention the real difference between Rosa Park's refusal to give up her seat and that of both Claudette Colvin and another teen-ager, May Louise Smith, in the months before the crisis erupted. Colvin and Smith acted spontaneously. Rosa Parks did not. Her move was a planned first step designed to lead to controversy and to an immediate black boycott of the bus system, organized by the NAACP and by the young local pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr. The NAACP had learned from the world it lived in over the previous twenty years, becoming a formidable oganization under the leadership of Walter White and Roy Wilkins. They planned this campaign the way John L. Lewis or Walter and Victor Reuther planned union organizing campaigns. And it was a good thing that they did, because it took a full year for the boycott to lead to the negotiated end of segregated transportation in Montgomoery. The black community had to organize and maintain its own transportation network to get its people to and from work without the buses--and they did. And they very possibly did pick Rosa Parks to trigger the boycott and become its symbol because they knew and trusted her, because she was clearly a responsible middle-aged adult, and yes, conceivably, even because of her skin color. While that last factor may today make us all cringe, it would have been quite in character, in those days, for the NAACP to make such a decision based on the need to attract as much white sympathy as possible. That was how they had managed to accomplish as much as they had in the previous decades.

Indeed, it is fair to say that among no part of American society was the generational revolt more profound during the 1960s than among the black community. That was brought home to me again glancing through the autobiographies of Arthur Ashe, the great black tennis player and activist. A first-wave Boomer or last-wave Silent, born in 1943, Ashe grew up in segregated Richmond and was taught, as he explained again and again, that the only hope for black people to be successful in a white world--and in his case, that meant breaking in to the all-white world of professional tennis--was to be more accomplished, more courteous, and more dedicated to American ideals than whites. That kind of behavior had many tragic costs. In Ashe's case, I suspect, 36 years of continually suppressed rage--worsened by the trauma of losing his own mother when he was a small child--probably contributed to his early onset of heart disease, which in turn led to his contracting tranfusion AIDS and dying in his early 50s. The black rebellion of the 1960s--like the white--was above all a rebellion against the older generation's values. For young black Boomers that meant rejecting their parents' deference and respect for society's institutions. It also meant exalting spontaneity over organization. In the last forty years individual black people have advanced enormously, but the great civil rights organizations are a thing of the past.

Certain institutions within our society are still well-organized, if not always disciplined--including the new mega-banks, the drug companies, the gun lobby, evangelical Christian political groups, and the health insurance industry. There are, as far as I can see, no comparable organizations among the disadvantaged. That is the world with which President Obama and his Administration must now cope, and it is not surprising that they have so far made little impact upon it. And beyond this lies a broader question: will some future generations eventually learn to combine personal and emotional freedom on the one hand, with economic restraint on behalf of the general good on the other? Perhaps even to ask that question betrays, on my part, a somewhat naive faith in a future utopia that can combine the best of different eras from the past. Perhaps it would be better to accept that different eras inevitably highlight different aspects of human nature, both better and worse.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

The following were CEOs in charge of major banks during the years leading up to the deregulation of banks which occured in 1999:

John Reed, born 1939
Sandy Weil, born 1933
Richard Kovacevich, born 1943
Hank Greenberg, born 1925
Harvey Golub, born 1939
Hugh McColl, born 1935
John Gutfreund, born 1929
Philip Purcell, born 1943

The following are the politicians responsible for the two deregulation acts:

Phil Gramm, born 1942
James Leach, born 1942
Thomas Bliley, born 1932
Fernand St. Germain, born 1928
Jake Garn, born 1932

And last but not least,
Alan Greenspan, born 1926

Please point out the Boomers on the list who agitated most successfully for the repeal of New Deal legislation.

Luke Gilman said...

Very interesting. I would think a principal factor in the organizing power of particular groups would be the nature of the force they are coalescing against.

In that vein, wouldn't WWII naturally generate a more cohesive opposition in the public mind than Vietnam irrespective any generational differences? A clearer moral imperative emerged.

Perhaps I'm looking at this through 21st century googles but it also seems the civil rights movement also had open, patently racist opposition. Racial activism today has a more nebulous opponent. The court cases have moved from Brown v Board to Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle. These cases are now hard enough just to understand much less generate public outrage.

I would be interested to know if you think we are just blind to the otherwise equal injustices of our own time or if this shift in the balance of personal independence and organizing power is affected by the relative equality enjoyed by the current population (albeit with some glaring exceptions, but not on the quantifiable scale of the population of jews, blacks, native americans in say, 1941)? or perhaps I'm making some unwarranted assumptions about the welfare of our population?

Anonymous said...

If the current administration follows these simple maxims all will turn out wel:

A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to
regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and
shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has
earned - this is the sum of good government.

- Thomas Jefferson

"The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on
public assistance."
- Cicero 55B.C.

I would like to hear your perspective on the above thoughts Mr. Kaiser.

David Kaiser said...

Interesting points today. To anonymous I have two replies:

1. Perhaps you would like to provide a list of Boomers who were agitating against deregulation?

2. To answer your question more directly, I would suggest that William Jefferson Clinton (b. 1946), Larry Summers (b. 1954), Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors Laura Tyson (Smith College '69), Dennis Hastert, Tom Delay, and Dick Armey (all Boomers), were equally responsible for making it happen.

Mr. Gilman has a point--it was easier to recognize more obvious evils. Sadly, oppression does lead to greatness, whereas affluence breeds sloth. But there is more involved in all this than that.

Since writing the blog I read another interesting take on recent economic changes that would really benefit from generational theory, by a distinguished historian: nuts, it's not available on line yet. I'll post it when it is.

Anonymous said...

The following Senators were against the repeal of Glass-Steagall Act under the official name of 'The Financial Modernization Act.' were:

Byron Dorgan,Paul Wellstone,Russ Feingold,Barbara Boxer, Barbara Mikulski, Richard Shelby, Tom Harkin and Richard Bryan.

At the time Sen. Dorgan said the following:
"I want to sound a warning call today about this legislation. I think this legislation is just fundamentally terrible."

At the time Ralph Nader said the following:
""We will look back at this and wonder how the country was so asleep. It's just a nightmare."

The proponents of the 90 to 8 vote
said things like this:
then-Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, the guy who screwed up Harvard Endowment also:"Today Congress voted to update the rules that have governed financial services since the Great Depression and replace them with a system for the 21st century. This historic legislation will better enable American companies to compete in the new economy"

Sen. Dodd: "I welcome this day as a day of success and triumph."

Sen. Chuck Schumer:"If we don't pass this bill, we could find London or Frankfurt or years down the road Shanghai becoming the financial capital of the world. There are many reasons for this bill, but first and foremost is to ensure that U.S. financial firms remain competitive."

It should be noted that Sen. Dodd and Schumer were able to hammer out, as part of the legislation, the Community Reinvestment Act, which required banks to extend lines of credit to predominantly minority areas.

The biggest promoters in the Clinton administration for this legislation were: Robert Rubin and
Lawrence Summers.

The former is the part of the current administration.

Anonymous said...

David Kaiser, you have part of the full Rosa Parks story. There is quite a bit more to it.

Rosa Parks real employers in Montgomery Alabama were Clifford and Virginia Durr. Clifford had served with FDR's FCC as Counsel, his wife Virginia was sister to Justice Hugo Black's wife.

The Durr's were strong New Dealers, and on the death of FDR, they decided to leave DC, return to Alabama, and with help from Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Marshall Field Fund, they bought the magazine, Southern Farmer, in partnership with Aubry Williams, another New Deal vet, who had been Harry Hopkins deputy with the WPA. In truth, Rosa Parks was one of the Magazine's editors, though the Durr's listed her as a seamstress. It was the Durr's and Williams who provided the support for Rosa Parks to attend a several weeks course at Highlander Folk School, during the summer of 1956which focused on Non-Violent Direct Action, and the whole Gandhi theory and practice.

While Highlander was massively attacked during the 50's and 60's as a "Communist School" -- it was not that, The principle supporters included Eleanor Roosevelt (check every month from 1934 till she died, taken from her newspaper column earnings) and Reinhold Niebuhr, along with Marshall Field. Highlander was, in fact the only place in the south where a serious residential conference could be held by an integrated group.

When you add this background to your own Parks material, it is not only clear she was well prepared for her role in the bus boycott, but she, but the planned action, had quite high level support.

There may have been a rational at one time to write the history of milestone Civil Rights events as if they were seeming accidents. Planning under the system of segregation obviously had to be somewhat covert particularly since some Southern States entertained the possibility of charges for treason against state laws. But I think the time for that sort of history is past, for the truer history is about planning within that system so as to radically change it.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Kaiser:

in lieu of the following:

http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2009/12/1/public-service-law-school/

wouldn't have been better if Mr. Meyer had been still in charge for the greater good, even if he was making 10 or whatver more times in
salary than Dr. Faust?

I wonder what is your stance on that subject = do you still believe
that no one can have higher salary than Dr. Faust?

David Kaiser said...

Thanks for the fill-in on Rosa Parks. As I have often remarked here, it makes me very sad to think of the great southern liberals who sat in Congress from the New Deal through the Great Society--and who don not have a single counterpart today. I well remember the controversies over that school. During the hearings before the Senate Commerce Committee in 1963 on the Civil Rights Act (Public Accommodations), which I attended, George Wallace, I believe, produced a picture of MLK at that school, "proving" that he was a Communist. The NAACP also prospered by pursuing a rigorous anti-Communist policy back then.
Regarding Meyer, evidently Summers would not listen to him anyway, and he did more than anyone to turn the Endowment into a hedge fund.

George Buddy said...

RE; "There are, as far as I can see, no comparable organizations among the disadvantaged."

Oh, surely, you have heard of that huge special interest revolutionary peddler, ACORN?

Anonymous said...

Your article states: "Eventually Boomer bankers successfully agitated for the repeal of the New Deal legislation that their grandparents had put in place to restrain their parents."

I really wondered who those Boomer BANKERS were who were pushing the idea to the Senate and Congress, given that the CEOs of the major banks during the '80s & '90s were those listed in my original question.

I'm well aware that both Silent and Boomer politicians were the enablers...the Silent liking the idea of less regulation and the Boomers having absolutely no idea at the time what deregulation would do.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Kaiser:

I was wondering, based on the administration's decision to send additional 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, what your take on this development might be?

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Aunt Katie said...

i am going back and looking at these older entries.
What a wonder this one is.
I see the generational analogy a little better.
all the best,
GM