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Friday, June 15, 2012

Continuing stories

This week's post essentially follows up on a number of fairly recent ones, drawing in part on news and commentary in the press. It's a very busy news time. The coup in Egypt marks a new phase in that country's revolution, and may introduce even greater danger. The civil war in Syria--a warning of what could happen in Egypt--continues. The election campaign is heating up. But all this takes place against the background of what has become the main theme of these posts: the continuing decline of political authority around the world in general and in the United States in particular. Almost all over the world, political authority grew during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. It seemed to stabilize in the 1960s (although that is when the long-term threats to it first emerge), weakened beginning in the 1980s, and has been in free fall for the last twenty years. The question of how far this process can go before much of the world descends into anarchy is, I think, the critical question we now face. All these stories bear upon this.

A couple of months ago I blogged about the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case, the stand your ground laws in Florida and elsewhere, and the long tradition of individual violence, especially in the South, which they seem to be continuing. A recent investigation by the Tampa Bay newspaper uncovered a number of extraordinary cases in which men and women have been set free under the law, confirming my worst suspicions. As several law enforcement personnel note, it has become very easy for two individuals to get into an altercation that ends in death without either one of them being guilty of anything. Once one is in a situation that threatens death or bodily harm, one has the right to draw and shoot to kill, regardless of who started the fight or what it is about. In medieval times, killers in such situations usually owed a money payment to the victim's family; now, in Florida, and presumably in a number of other states as well, they owe nothing at all to anyone. It's a frightening development, and I wonder whether there will be a backlash.

On another front, the New York Review of Books just published a long article on the Texas textbook wars. Because of its size and its powerful elected statewide board, Texas, as you probably know, exercises disproportionate influence over America's textbooks, and this article explains how it has been used in recent decades. The story of course deals at length with religion and science, but I was even more struck by the explicit and increasingly successful effort by right-wingers to recast the whole story of recent American history. The Growth of the American Republic by Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager, the textbook in my high school AP history class, laid out a straightforward story of American history from the Civil War until the mid-1960s, showing how the Progressive Era and then the New Deal had repaired the damage done by the Gilded Age while the U.S. rose to world power. The counter-narrative (I hate that term, but it's appropriate) portrays the New Deal as a statist intrusion into American life which Ronald Reagan successfully began to undo. What depressed me the most about this is the complete failure of the contemporary left to stand up for the version I learned in school, which had the considerable virtue of truth. The academic left shares the right's contempt for almost anyone who has ever held or exercised power, and for thirty years it has been finding virtue only among the ignored and oppressed. This has not contributed much either to American history or to American life.

Last but not least, in the midst of what is becoming a world depression, right-wing parties all over the world are calling for smaller governments and left wingers are putting up very weak resistance. Here of course the principal authority is Paul Krugman, whose column today pounced on Mitt Romney's statement that President Obama thought we needed more policemen, firefighters, and teachers. As Krugman pointed out, state and local layoffs are in fact the major cause of continuing unemployment today, and they also portend a further deterioration of public services. But they are happening almost everywhere in the United States, and Republicans at every level are becoming more and more aggressive in bringing them about. Pension reform is another matter: pensions for state and local officials, especially police and firefighters, need to be reformed. But we still need government, and we already suffer, in many ways, from a shortage of it, not a surplus.

Meanwhile, I am nearly through the latest, fourth volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson. It maintains the consistently highest level of interest, I think, of any of the four volumes so far, and it is greatly enhanced, in its later sections, by the availability of Johnson's presidential recordings, which I used myself writing American Tragedy. It will provide the grist for at least one long post, probably starting next week. Stay tuned.



Anonymous said...

Trying to get a common thread through all the disparate things you mentioned here, Egypt, textbooks, Trayvon Martin and similar cases in South I could mention irrational/emotionalism/ideological and localization of politics.

In an earlier age people had hard physical work and few economic advantages, i.e. hard work with few physical amenities and little in the way of luxuries and a standard traditional "relgious" upbringing (whether in egypt, Syria or Texas) would mean repsect for parents, opinions of the state, etc. nowadays we are spoiled by luxury and overflowing in media, making everyone an instant expert, e.g. "Hey I can write a blog and can google the truth 24/7/365 and everyone I write about is corrupt and / or stupid so let's have a revolution". And perhaps that is unfortunately true but it certainly destabilizes everything. We have the "Cracker-barrel philosopher" Every man of the lowest common denominator without philosophical or historical or scientific(or even deep religous training unlike radical fundies of every stripe) training becomes the authority as they are more charismatic and shout down the other moderate voices. Reading about Rousseau, it was not much different. He was no good guy by any means and his crazy ideas still influence the left. Marx was a more scientific thinker but the resaults were distorted in practice. So we come to "the Medium is the message"., i.e. internet and cheap weapons to spread radical messages and carry out terrorsim and revolutions (or spread money into all corners of the Republic, supreme court, congress, to eliminate real democracy). Emotions are the main thing and not rational belief. "My interest and gut feel are all that matter, I am King Of the Hill".

Bozon said...


Thanks for this entry.

I have been reading Nevins and Commager's Pocket History.

Great to have a relatively unvarnished short account.

I especially appreciated your remarks on declining authority worldwide.

All the best

David Kaiser said...

For the moment, at at least, two comments on this post have been lost. It must be a bug. I checked all four and hit publish, but the first two aren't here. One identified a stateless minority in Myanmar, for which I am thankful. I hope they do show up!

Anonymous said...

Dr. Kaiser,

I am copying-and-pasting a post from Robert Reich, taken from his Facebook page and website:


I have a serious question for you. Do you believe the Republican Party is trying to establish one-party democracy in the United States?

I look at their attempts to defund government, their attacks on unions, and their drive for "voter ID" and other restrictions on voting by those who might vote against them. I watch their opening the floodgates to political contributions from corporations and the very rich (through a highly politicized Supreme Court) and to keep the identities of these sources secret. I hear their repeated and continuous lies about government and the economy and their rigid ideology with its fundamentalist religious component. I watch their "means justify the ends" brand of dirty politics, starting at least with the 2000 election. And I look at their fear-driven and often hateful electoral campaign rhetoric in ads and on yell radio, Rush Limbaugh, and Fox News (O'Reilly accuses people of being communists, for example), which can sometimes resemble a nonviolent kind of terror politics.

This is not fascism, but it is not the kind of representative democracy we have known in this country, either.

Between your posts and Secretary Reich's, I am left with the impression that the US may be closer to single-party hegemony than perhaps we have ever been. It has been happening not by any individual bold masterstroke, but by relentless erosion across an enormous spectrum of issues, values, rights and protections.

Is there precedent for this in history? Does the information age enable a type of hegemony that was previously impossible to achieve?

Flea52 said...

Declining authority worldwide seems to me to be in part a result of declining western economic (and by extension political) power. Conversion of the West from manufacturing to service based economies has slowed growth. The resulting financial pressures this places on the individuals bolsters the call for reduction in taxation. Government in response to retain power resorts to borrowing hoping better days economically in the future. Now that the West has come to the end of it's financial rope, it's declining influence has left a power vacuum at home and abroad.
Western secular subjugation of the Middle East and Islam is ending and with the Arab Spring the struggle for a new order is occurring. In America, liberal and conservative forces hyperpolarize in the argument over individual vs public financial influence of our increasing more fixed GDP.
Money is Power. Western governments now having less power (after years of trying to maintain it through profligate borrowing) and things are starting to unravel looking for new, hopefully stable, order. How that is going to look is anyone's guess.
New Enlightenment? New Dark Age? My money is on the messy and contentions Dim Age as globalization spreads the economic power thinner over world.

David Kaiser said...

This is for Thomas.

I think, certainly, that the Republican Party wants the maximum possible triumph for its principles. Some of them may cherish the fantasy that they will eliminate the Democratic political party as a serious political force, and they certainly are willing to use any tools they have to try to do so. But I don't think they can secure anything more than the Jeffersonian Republicans did after 1815, or the Republicans after 1872, or Democrats beginning with FDR. There are self-correcting mechanisms in American politics and they are already at work. Even during the Gilded Age, the Presidential elections from 1876 through 1894 were incredibly close. Every single one of those elections could have been decided by a shift of one state. I have written here that I think we're in a similar era now.