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.