Saturday, March 15, 2014

Taking things seriously

I was fortunate to be born into the world I inherited.  The greatest war in human history had ended less than two years earlier, paving the way for the triumph of industrial and democratic civilization in most (but not all) of the world's temperate zones.  Although my elementary school classes were large by today's standards--generally numbering about 30--and I spent one term in half-day sessions waiting for the construction of a new school, my teachers were caring, smart, encouraging, and often enthusiastic--even though they worked for next to nothing--and my fellow students were curious.   Public education was virtually free, and even private education cost less than 1/3 of what it does today, adjusted for inflation.   The older generation to which my parents belonged had been taught to value great works of art and literature, and new media like film and television still drew heavily on those older traditions.   They also had been taught a belief in equality and human rights, one which helped the civil rights movement end legal segregation in my childhood

I can see, now, that this atmosphere was the climax, really of a process that had begun in the middle of the eighteenth century: the attempt to design a new world based upon reason and principles of equality.  Indeed, that was the way our textbooks taught American history: as a long struggle for freedom, beginning with the Pilgrim's trek across the ocean to practice their religion freely and continuing through the revolution, the expansion of the nation, and the civil war, and culminating int he Second World War.  None of this happened by accident, or as the result of blind historical forces: men made it happen, based upon their beliefs.  And--critically--it was hard work.

Yes, civilization is hard work, politically, artistically, and in any other way.   I was reminded of that yet again watching the remarkable documentary, Tim's Vermeer, in which Tim Jenison, a specialist in film and television lighting, spends many months testing his theory of how Vermeer used a lense and a mirror to reproduce reality so exactly.  Jenison is like me, but with a broader skill set.  If he has an idea he wants to pursue he doesn't care how long it takes and, crucially, he doesn't need immediate feedback--the work is its own reward. Surely every great historian and every great artist has had that quality.  It is natural for many of us, but society has to encourage it to allow to thrive, and it is no longer a prized quality within academia or, for the most part, in the arts.   We are much poorer as a result.

It also took time, energy, concentration, and event he sacrifice of life to create and preserve democracy against many threats.  The Civil War was an unprecedented expenditure of energy and resources to prove, as Lincoln argued, that a democratic government could resist an internal threat.  The New Deal was a huge effort to organize industrial society and regulate capitalism.  The Second World War dwarfed any previous or subsequent feat of mobilization.  And all this raises the question--what kinds of activities command such energy and dedication today?

The answers, I'm afraid, are not encouraging.  Certainly the designers of new apps and video games have some of the same quality, but it is producing anything of lasting worth? (I ask--I'd be the last person to know.)  Hedge fund managers and bank division heads, who have some of the brightest young minds in the world at their disposal, move heaven and earth to find the tiniest new edge, regardless of the broader consequences.  Marketers strive to design movies just like the ones that succeeded last year.  There are still a few people in the movie business, such as George Clooney and Brad Pitt, who are willing to use their star power to make something great happen, but they are the exceptions who fall outside the system.  I wonder whether any twenty-something filmmaker would set out to do the kind of thing they do now.

And politically, all the energy in the nation seems dedicated to tearing down, not building up.  For many months, as regular readers know, I have wondered if the latest Tea Party outrage or Congressional shutdown might mark the high tide of the radical attempt to undo the last hundred years of American government.  Nothing, however, seems to daunt Republican enthusiasm for more--and worse, nothing seems to inspire Democrats to put forward a real alternative.  I am waiting for Nate Silver to begin sharing his insights once again at, but so far it looks like the best the Democrats can hope for is to hold on to an even narrower Senate majority.  Not only does Hillary Clinton seem to have no serious rivals for the Democratic nomination, but I can't imagine who the alternative candidates would be if she did not run. Democrats take women's issues and gay rights seriously, but they are no longer engaged in trying to remake our society along more just lines.

This is, alas, clearly a fundamental rhythm of human experience.  When younger generations like my own start taking their parents' achievements entirely for granted, they are in danger.  Thus Boomer foreign policy specialists have assumed for twenty years that the collapse of Communism meant the worldwide triumph of the American model.  Vladimir Putin is giving them the first of what may be a series of rude shocks.  Something similar seems to be happening even in Europe, where extreme right-wing parties attract more dedication, if not yet more voters, than mainstream ones.  Communism as it once existed is waning in China, but the same sort of oligarchy that now rules Russia seems like the most likely alternative to it.  Meanwhile, much of a new generation is repudiating their parents' pacifism in Japan.

Politically, I would argue, the Anglo-American world began traveling down a certain very inspiring path in 1688 or so.  Three hundred years is a very long time in the history of any civilization. We still have,. of course, our democratic freedoms and institutions but they are a shadow of what they once were.  Our ability to act on behalf of the common good is much reduced.  Here, surely, is a threat to our civilization at least as serious as global warming, but one that we are only beginning to understand.


Jim Rush said...

Good Morning:

My first reaction to your post was that you were being unusually or even unduly pessimistic.

Upon reflection, however, I cannot argue with any of your thesis.

Perhaps that is why we begin to feel irrelevant at this age. We are. The world will go on and on and then it will change again.

Thank you for another thoughtful piece.


ed boyle said...

I am now reading Ted Sorensen's "Kennedy" and have just finished reading the Inaugural address, which seems very idealistic but in terms of the last 50 years of international power politics either naive or cynical ( I give Kennedy the benefits of the doubt, he was not Nixon). I am very impressed with the intelligence and energy of Kennedy and by his determination and idealism compared to Nixon or other candidates. I suppose I would have to read their biographies or "negative" biographies of Kennedy to get "balance".

He put so much energy into governing, campaigning,etc. Nowadays it is all TV ads. He went to every little town in for example Wisconsin or West Viriginia, getting up at 5:30 daily and shaking thousands of hands and making hundreds of speeches(not always the same and ideologically simplistic speeches like Nixon but intelligent , researched, locally pertinent to his audience and well written) during the primary and lost Wisconsin in the general election. His religion was very controversial losing him 4.5 million votes which is why it was so close a contest.

Being raised Catholic and having tried out pentecostalism several years and New Age religiosity I can hardly imagine myself caring much about religious affiliation as it seemed to matter then but I see what Obama went through now the same bigotry by the same groups of people. Each new group has to fight for general acceptance against bigotry to achieve its goals.

There was massive hypocrisy and double standards applied against Kennedy due to his religion. Obama must be excessively tolerant compared to a WASP president. I see the same types of double standards being applied by America across the world as they demand "freedom and democracy" and use CIA methods to stage coups or invade countries using "false flag" events for decades all in the name of US Realpolitik masquerading as a fight for freedom as portrayed in Kennedy's inaugural address. Kennedy and 1960 was definitely a high point of Americanism and Roosevelt and WWII.

There is something however to the saying that "absolute power corrupts absolutely". America was almost all powerful after the war. The US and The USSR both promoted friendly dictatorships in the cold war. The war, in effect, was continued, by proxy. It continues to this day despite calls for peace.
(Kennedy's speech 20th Jan. 1961-referring obviously to Russia and America)

"So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us

Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah—to "undo the heavy burdens ... and to let the oppressed go free."

And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved."

ed boyle said...

(a bit more)

Obviously Russian influence has been fought back to a small corner of the world and even where they are, still the Nato powers are working on pushing them back to the farthest possible space using the same CIA tactics as were used in the last decades across the world.(

To a patriot this article linked above is no proof but a list of historical actions shows at least a pattern of behaviour.
"Boris Yeltsin was elected the President of Russia in June 1991, in the first direct presidential election in Russian history. During and after the Soviet disintegration, wide-ranging reforms including privatization and market and trade liberalization were undertaken,[77] including radical changes along the lines of "shock therapy" as recommended by the United States and International Monetary Fund.[78] All this resulted in a major economic crisis, characterized by 50% decline of both GDP and industrial output between 1990–95.[77][79]

The privatization largely shifted control of enterprises from state agencies to individuals with inside connections in the government. Many of the newly rich moved billions in cash and assets outside of the country in an enormous capital flight.[80] The depression of the economy led to the collapse of social services; the birth rate plummeted while the death rate skyrocketed.[81] Millions plunged into poverty, from 1.5% level of poverty in the late Soviet era, to 39–49% by mid-1993.[82] The 1990s saw extreme corruption and lawlessness, the rise of criminal gangs and violent crime.[83]"

My wife escaped this tumult by emigration in 1995 and Russians are now scarred by this USA/IMF engineered collapse after the fall of the communist dictatorship. Now communism looks relatively good to them looking back. In America the good old 70s with high union membership and livable wages looks good to people too. The banks, IMF types have destroyed the economy in the West as well.

The dreams and idealism of Kennedy of freedom, hard work and balanced inellectual endeavour and fairness by all sides was due to his coming from the outside and him and his family having to fight hard to be accepted as Catholics and Irishmen in an Anglo/protestant dominated country over several generations. Due to this he applied fairness to everyone and was never tired to accept all sides of an argument and to fight for the little guy. He prevented war with Russia, fought for civil rights and many other issues needing lots of tact in a country getting tired. A lesser man would have let the country down. He energized it.

ed boyle said...

(just a bit)
I think the modern cyniscim of the plutocratic American system is robbing a great land of its energy to lead a world. A true peace with Russia in an expanded Nato and free trade system could have been achieved a quarter century ago but was rejected. Now Nato is being expanded to Russian ethnic areas within spitting distance of Moscow provoking a negative reaction. ICBMS, massive troop buildup along Ukraine/Russian borders, trade sanctions, who would this help? Ike warned of the buildup of the Military-Industrial Complex in Jan 17, 1961:

"Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."

Military expansion has its own internal logic of aggression for its own sake. The press is bought up. Lies and propaganda and provocation are normal. Rational people are "cowards" and "pacifists". This is not the world we can survive in as civilized human beings. This is the world where we will be dominated by super rich military and banking people using the same type of language used to start the crusades in the middle ages, bigotted, racistic but really just meant to make profits for themselves at the cost of the blood of millions of innocent people. This why simplistic jingoistic TV commentary should not be accepted. Read histoy of the countries involved and all sides of the stories in many languages if need be. Kennedy would have.

Bozon said...

Many thanks for this post. Re Anglo American world, sorry to say, I think no such thing usually existed, back then in 1688, or later. I wish it had been so.

What is called the New England Rebellion, or over here, The Boston Revolt, happened in 1689.

all the best,

Joseph Young said...


What is most difficult for me to understand is why you have placed tremendous hope in a belief system which had done little to promote the very things you mourn about?

The Enlightenment system wasn't in fact responsible for the construction of left authority, as in fact the "Progressive Era" came about with the Social Gospel, not even Das Kapital.

Now don't get me wrong, creationism is a snake oil con, but even then, have we forgotten that William Jennings Bryan was also a presidential candidate, not a 19th century Ken Ham?

Of course that period has came and went, but there are a number of better places to start rather then simply throwing all our faith in "STEM degrees."

This seems more accurate to describe our predicament;

Forget Calhoun's autistic take that "MOAR SPACE=GOOD."

What the rats (and you) clearly tell us is that the fall of an external threat leads to Behavioral sink; when masculine role models collapsed, the whole "rat society" disintegrated into Japan/Occupy/Europe whatever.

That's a far more "accurate model" for these turn of events then simply crying the blues for "Locke," but since academia itself has compromised, good luck making that argument to them.

(Hell, if I could make that argument, I'd sooner make the case to allow a Credit Union to lease assets to cooperatives in exchange for deposits)

Larry said...

Always a delight to read your insightful posts Prof. kaiser

Timothy Hurley said...

You are more learned and wiser than I about politics and history. However, it seems to me we have passed into corporatocracy and the representative government is an illusion for the people's peace of mind. Perhaps the process is far from complete, but moving inexorably in that direction. If you agree, wouldn't you consider this a form of oligarchy?

George Keller Hart said...

Insightful post--thank you.

Curious what you think of our fellow Bostonian, who blogs here about Putin:

He has a very different perspective. Much rings true, some is a little chilling.

Ray C Neill said...

I have read your essay several times over the past few days and reflected upon its similarities to my own experience. Being of a similar age, I have also looked over my shoulder at my fortunate upbringing and recalled that " Gee, the old LaSalle ran great ! " many times while considering how the lives of my children will be very different and the goals set for them may be unreachable. I'm sure that every generation has done the same postulating and yet every subsequent generation somehow survives. Many of your readers have chosen to discuss the political aspects of evolving ideologies while overlooking some interesting issues that I am pleased to see that you have raised. Specifically, you referred to the lack of support for internally motivated individuals and the pursuit of trivial individual goals presumably at the expense of the common good. In these days of instant gratification, there are many people who are unaware of intrinsic motivation and even more who debase its value. Employers opine that we have created a hot house generation of workers whose members require constant reinforcement and applause for every effort and success like conditioned lab rats furiously pressing a feed bar that refuses to release a pellet. Internally motivated individuals, however, are often undaunted by criticism or even praise for that matter. While they are sometimes considered the eccentrics of our world, many of them like Galileo Galilei and Darwin have refused to be corrupted by overwhelming adversarial opinion and have contributed significantly to the world's knowledge and progress.
With regards to your inference to trivial goals, the western world seems to be currently floating in an ocean of mediocrity without a rudder or a significant direction. "Have it your way" and "grab some Buds" have become more than just tag lines. They are mantras for a generation which has little regard for the big picture or the common good. Moreover, the fast paced, ever changing technology that promises connectivity with individual entertainment devices has ironically isolated people from each other in many ways and offers a social network at a safe and isolated social distance. Is this the harbinger of Emile Durkheim's anomie? Will the speed of individualism and choice out pace morals?
In contrast, my father and his generation had very few choices. From his days at the front of a landing craft approaching a beach in Normandy, to raising his family back home, his path was direct and unwavering. Hard work, family and a dedication to country dominated his days. Life was straight forward. Boomers have had a more flexible but a somewhat structured path. Today's youth has immeasurable choice in everything and all the stress that goes with a structureless model. Will too much choice create debilitating sloth and will the desire for monetary success trump virtue? More importantly, will this generation follow a path of individualism that will make it difficult to engender common goals for the whole of society? Ray C. Neill

David Kaiser said...

Dear Ray,

Thanks for your comment. We have to face it, however: the discipline and straight-line focus of your parents' and my generation simply couldn't be passed on in its pure form--nor should it have been. they paid a huge price for it. Unfortunately, thanks in part o Vietnam, we went from one extreme to the other, and the pendulum has yet to start swinging back.

Bob Hallahan said...

I'm surprised to see "global warming" appear in your writing, after you seemed to dismiss it a year or so back. An entire post on the topic would be welcome.

Carbon pollution, and the twin evils it causes, climate change and ocean acidification, are tremendous threats to our civilization. Functioning, reason-based government will be a prerequisite to the necessary world-wide transition to clean energy which is required to minimize it.