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Friday, April 26, 2013

The American crisis

   One of the greatest accounts of the last Atlantic crisis, or fourth turning, are the first two volumes of the diaries of Harold Nicolson, covering the years 1931-9 and 1939-45, respectively.  They were brilliantly edited and published by his son Nigel in the late 1960s and I have returned to them many times. Nicolson, like his father, was a leading figure in the British Foreign Office who left his position in 1931, when he was still in his forties.  Ironically, he did so for the reason so often cited by disgraced American officials today: to spend more time with his family.  His family by then was of a somewhat unusual kind, since he and his wife, the author Vita Sackville-West, had after the birth of their two sons both turned to homosexuality, but they were intensely devoted to one another emotionally all the same.  Until her death in the early 1960s she lived at their country house, Sissinghurst, while he worked in London as a journalist and, from 1935 through 1945, as a member of Parliament.  Meanwhile, he kept a diary filled with inside political news and gossip.

Some of the most depressing entries in the diary refer, oddly, to the winter of 1939-40, the phoney war.  Nicolson had opposed appeasement and welcomed, in a sense, the coming of the war, but in those months he felt nothing around him but paralysis and drift.  The Chamberlain government had no idea either how to mobilize the nation or win the war.  Then came the utter disaster of the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, something which, according to British naval traditions, should have been absolutely impossible.  (Air power had rendered those traditions obsolete.)  And then, coinciding with the last stages of the Norway campaign, came the German invasion of Belgium, Holland, and France, and the fall of the Chamberlain government and the advent of Winston Churchill.  At that point, as often happens in politics and life, Nicolson's mood and that of his country shifted. Like nearly everyone else the world over, he and Sackville-West anticipated a German invasion that summer, and they prepared to commit suicide rather than be captured if it occurred.  But they and their countrymen were calm and determined, and inspired by Churchill's rhetoric.

My mood today, alas, corresponds more to Nicolson's mood in that fateful winter of 1939-40.  (My new book, now with my editor, takes up the very different story of how the United States reacted beginning in the same critical month of May 1940.)  The reaction to the events of the last week, combined with various news stories, suggest to me that our political system is very close to an all-time low.  Worse, we seem to be utterly incapable of uniting to meet any of our problems.  They are certainly far less serious than those Britain and the US faced in 1940, but they are still eating away at us like a cancer.

My initial prediction about the terror attack in Boston was largely borne out.  The attackers, like Faisal Shazad, Muslim immigrants. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, at least, was inspired by Jihadist videos, and he may, like Shahzad, have received some overseas training.  He may also have been a murderer at heart.  Although it has not yet been widely reported, there is reason to believe that he and his brother may be the culprits in an unsolved triple homicide in Waltham--next door to Watertown--on September 11, 2011.  Tarmlan knew at least one of the victims, who were young men from the workout culture of which he was a part.

Of the details about Tamerlan, the warnings the Russian government gave us about him, and the responses of the FBI and CIA to them, the detail that jumped out at me was this: the watch list onto which he was placed has over half a million names on it, and he was routinely dropped after a year.  Bingo.  In the frenetic atmosphere of the last dozen years, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the CIA have not managed to develop a sensible strategy to deal with the threats we face.  Sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but there are NOT half a million potential violent foreign terrorist in the United States.  I would guess that there are somewhere between 5,000 and 50,000.  But because the criteria for inclusion are clearly absurdly broad, the list is useless.  We do not have the resources to track or investigate half a million people.  If we focused on people who had returned to hotbeds of terrorism and returned, we would have a much better chance of identifying the next Faisal Shazad of Tarmlan Tsarnaev.

Equally depressing, however, is the response to the event nationally.  The authorities did a great job of studying video and identifying the criminals visually within 72 hours.   Friends of the two men filled in the blank.  The biggest hero of the story so far was the Cambridge citizen who was carjacked and had the courage to flee across Memorial Drive in Cambridge after Tamerlan had identified himself as the bomber and threatened him with a gun.  Whether fortuitously or by design, he left his cell phone in his vehicle, and that was what brought the police within range of the two brothers in Watertown within a very short time.  The second hero (see above) was my Watertown neighbor who noticed that the shrink wrap on his boat was amiss and followed Freud's rule of dream interpretation: the detail that doesn't make any sense is the one you have to focus on.

But in the wider world, all I can see is politicized shrieks from both the right and left.  Ann Coulter devotes an entire column to the immgrants who have committed multiple murders in this country.  Limbaugh (see above) cries out that this proves the Obama Administration doesn't take terrorism seriously.  But I have also encountered numerous left-wing voices complaining about the further encroachment of the police state, exemplified, would you believe, by the order to residents of Watertown and surrounding towns to keep inside their homes last Friday.   May I suggest to these self-styled protectors of our rights that when a human mad dog is on the loose, some one who has shown a willingness to kill literally anyone simply for the sake of killing, this order was the only sensible one to give.  The Founding Fathers understood that emergency circumstances might require emergency measures, and they wrote at least one of them into the Constitution.  But my contemporaries in particular are convinced that, for example, since the government wrongly interned Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, any exercise of government power is oppressive. They or their children are eventually going to have to learn the hard way the lesson the founders learned between Yorktown and the meeting of the Constitutional Convention: that too little government can be just as fatal to liberty as too much.  They are the unwitting allies of the Tea Party, both out to destroy any remaining civic authority.

And meanwhile, what passes for civic authority is collaborating in its own destruction.  Another blockbuster story runs in today's New York Times. The author, Sharon LaFraniere--who deserves a Pulitzer for it--explains how in 1997 some black farmers sued the Department of Agriculture for discriminating against their credit applications.  The individuals who brought the suit had a strong case, and the Clinton Administration decided not to fight it.  But they went much further, establishing a billion-dollar program to compensate any claimed victims of such discrimination--whether they could provide any evidence of having been deprived of a loan or not.  This predictably led to an avalanche of claims, many of them obviously fraudulent.  This is so typical of Boomer reformism that it brings tears of rage to my eyes.  When the GI generation, black and white, became concerned with racial injustice, they went into the courts, made their case, and secured their rights.  But the Boomers were so convinced of the righteousness of reparation that they could not be bothered to let the legal system--developed over hundreds of years here and in Britain--ascertain the true rights and wrongs.  The results will undermine public confidence in the system still further.

Here are some of the key paragraphs of the article:

"In 16 ZIP codes in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and North Carolina, the number of successful claimants exceeded the total number of farms operated by people of any race in 1997, the year the lawsuit was filed. Those applicants received nearly $100 million.
"In Maple Hill, a struggling town in southeastern North Carolina, the number of people paid was nearly four times the total number of farms. More than one in nine African-American adults there received checks. In Little Rock, Ark., a confidential list of payments shows, 10 members of one extended family collected a total of $500,000, and dozens of other successful claimants shared addresses, phone numbers or close family connections.
"Thirty percent of all payments, totaling $290 million, went to predominantly urban counties — a phenomenon that supporters of the settlement say reflects black farmers’ migration during the 15 years covered by the lawsuit. Only 11 percent, or $107 million, went to what the Agriculture Department classifies as “completely rural” counties.
"A fraud hot line to the Agriculture Department’s inspector general rang off the hook. The office referred 503 cases involving 2,089 individuals to the F.B.I.
"The F.B.I. opened 60 criminal investigations, a spokesman said, but prosecutors abandoned all but a few for reasons including a lack of evidence or proof of criminal intent. Former federal officials said the bar for a successful claim was so low that it was almost impossible to show criminality."

But  the process did not stop there.  Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack seems to be auditioning for a university presidency.  He, or people working for him, became convinced that the Department's credit bureau must have discriminated not only against black farmers, but against Hispanic, "Native American" and female farmers as well.  (These groups had filed parallel suits after the original 1997 court decision.)  Or--as an interdepartmental memo actually stated--he became concerned that the department would be accused of favoring black farmers over Hispanic, "Native American" and female farmers.  It is not clear why the feelings of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender farmers did not concern him--perhaps they are being saved for later.  Even as I speak perhaps some intrepid lawyer is preparing a suit on their behalf.  The Indian case, the article explains, was extremely weak, and the Agriculture Department would probably have been able to prove that it had not discriminated in granting loans to Indians. But instead it agreed to a settlement that gives $300 million to Indian farmers and an additional $400 million to Indian nonprofit organizations--and more than $100 million to the lawyers who brought the case. Vilsack says these steps usher in “a new chapter of civil rights at U.S.D.A.,” where “we celebrate diversity instead of discriminate against it.”

The cases of Hispanics and women are so few and so weak that no court had blessed them at all.  Only 10 women and 81 Hipanic farmers had filed claims.  But the Agriculture Department under the current Administration has, literally, solicited further claims from these groups.  "So far," writes LaFraniere, "about 1,900 Hispanics and 24,000 women have sought compensation, many in states where middlemen have built a cottage industry, promising to help win payouts for a fee."  Secretary Vilsack agreed to give it to them.

Before summing up, I would like also to note that Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack, whose salary is paid out of my pocket and yours, responded to the story in the same way the Koch brothers would have:  he refused to give Sharon LaFraniere an interview.  Clearly, however, he does not seem to be suffering from an overdose of shame.

It is ironic that, less than 24 hours after posting that Rush Limbaugh had fabricated a story for political reasons, I have written a very different post--indeed, Rush will undoubtedly be reading another version of this story on the air himself within a very short time. (Drudge doesn't have it yet, but it will.)  But, that's me.  I'm doing my own small bit for my nation.  In fact, I've realized something rather profound in the last couple of days: one reason I believe so deeply in truth is that it's the only basis, ultimately, upon which a necessary minimum of national unity can be preserved.  We are in terrible trouble because both the right and left believe in their own reality, each of which excludes the other.  If I can't take on my own side, I become, to use a phrase from my youth, part of the problem, and I'm not going to do that.  I'm flabbergasted that it never occurred to Vilsack, a former Governor from a swing state, that he is handing the Republican Party a free gift of true propaganda.  He's not only hurting his country, he's hurting his party.

One of my regular readers here is a southern businessman whom I know only from cyberspace. (He will identify himself at once.)  I would describe him as a moderate Republican.  We rarely agree, but we have a lot of mutual respect.  He frequently kids me about getting too much of my news from the New York Times.  I hope that when he reads this, he will follow the link, read the whole story, and ponder that the Times hired the reporter, devoted the resources, and saved the space to get it into print--as it certainly was fit to be.


tructor man said...

Thank you for excellent & truthful analysis of the Boston bombers, and for identifying major cultural/ideaological threats to our Nation.
Having been a "new-leftie" back in the day, and later a "Reagan-democrat" traumatized by 9/11 into initial support for the Iraq war disaster, I applaud your ability to look squarely at the distortions of both left and right. You are doing great service. Please let us know when your book comes out.

Bozon said...


Nice, wide ranging rant. Many thanks.
I especially liked the attack on Department of Ag Democratic foibles, which along with the republican ones, so fill the worthwhile history pages I have read.

Speaking of fobles, Have been reading Beschloss' The Conquerors.

All the best

steveftw said...

Again, professor, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Among my friends, we've been discussing the increasing level of chaos (freedom?) in today's American society, and it strikes me this is significant to this turning.

The internet and immediate access to limitless reinforcement of our own ideas (the cyber echo chamber); MSNBC/FOX (the media echo chamber)and our sociological drive to be in the tribe (anthropoligical echo chamber) seem to be reinforcing that what each of us believes is what's RIGHT (caps intended) - and that anyone that believes otherwise is the dreaded "other".

The lack of leadership (you may wish to find the Daily Show treatment of Sen. Reid, and how his top aide said his No. 1 job was to get re-elected - he really said that on video) is contributing to this fracture of the society I grew up in.

I'm seeing that echoed in popular media - all the TV series related to end of the world scenarios - zombie apocalypse, tech apocalypse, alien apocalypse - they all seem to be pitching to the anarchy we see unfolding around us.

Obama is still just the Cheerleader in Chief - and I, along with more every day, yearn for a leader that can - somehow - bring a new measure of unity to the nation, and find a new way forward for a new middle class; however that's defined.

I've also come to the realization that my age (58; still a kid) is a major contributor to my mourning the world that has passed - that time comes to each generation, and denial of that passing is one of the functional definitions of "conservative".

Regardless, any conversation that brings this society closer to healing the rifts of this gilded age are sure welcome.

Thanks again for all you do

Larry said...

Extremism of any stripe is always a threat to justice and social stability. Nice work David