Friday, November 01, 2019

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian, A Life in History.  Long-time readers who want to find out how the author of this blog became the historian he is will find information about the book in a new blog, ALifeinHistory.com.  

My talk at the Harvard Coop last May 28 about A Life in History, can be viewed here.  Enjoy! An interesting radio interview with a Denver talk show host about the book can be streamed or downloaded here.

The book can be ordered here.
I look forward to seeing your reactions. For the time being I am pinning this post. Thanks in any case to all of you for your faithful support.

Check below for more recent posts.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Trump's real analog

The political figure from American history whom Donald Trump most resembles, it seems to me, is Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who for a little more than four years--from February 1950 until the middle of 1954--terrorized Washington and much of the country with accusations of Communist conspiracies in the State Department, in other parts of the Truman Administration, and inside the Democratic Party.  The chief counsel of McCarthy's Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, Roy Cohn, later became associated with Trump in the 1970s and 1980s, and Trump credits him with a good deal of influence upon him.  I thought of all this as I read the stories about Trump's apparent conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and read the transcript of Rudi Giuliani's interview with Chris Cuomo.   Trump  employs essentially the same tactics as McCarthy, and seems to me to be, in important ways, the same kind of person.  That he has risen much further, alas, shows how much American political life has deteriorated over the last 70 years or so.

McCarthy burst upon the scene in February 1950, at a Lincoln Day Republican dinner in Wheeling, West Virginia, when he claimed to have evidence that more than 200 card carrying Communists were working at the State Department.  He had been elected four years earlier during a Republican sweep, thanks in part to complicated maneuverings within Massachusetts politics that even led to his receiving the support of the small Communist party.  The state was then very liberal and he needed an issue for his impending re-election. Communism became it.

Trump. of course, burst onto the national political scene in the summer of 2015 with his sensational claims about illegal immigrants, but his real similarity to McCarthy emerged when he had to respond to allegations that his campaign had worked with Russian intelligence during 2016.  Having "discovered" more than 200 non-existent Communists in the State Department, McCarthy treated all the opposition to him as evidence of how vast the Communist conspiracy was.  When he was challenged--for instance, by Senator Milward Tydings of Maryland, whose Foreign Relations subcommittee found his charges baseless later in 1950--he argued that his challengers were working for the Communists themselves--and he managed to secure Tydings's defeat, in his bid for a fifth Senate term, in November 1950, when Republicans made big gains again.  After that the Republican Party adopted McCarthy in much the same way that it has now adopted Trump.  With very rare exceptions, such as Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, Republicans decided that he was too big an asset to discard, and too much of a threat to oppose.   In 1952, when General Dwight Eisenhower won the Republican nomination, Ike planned during a campaign swing through Wisconsin to refer favorably to his old boss, General George Marshall, whom McCarthy had accused of treasonously handing China over to the Communists on the floor of the Senate.  His political handlers talked him into deleting it.  Richard Nixon, who had begun beating the Communist treachery drum well before McCarthy, regarded him as an important ally.

The election of Eisenhower deprived McCarthy of a Democratic target at the White House, and the Republican assumption of the control of the Senate gave him a powerful committee chairmanship.  Pushed by Cohn, McCarthy continued looking for Communists within the government even though it was now in his own party's hands.  Looking for Communists within the U.S. Army, he stumbled upon an Army dentist named Irving Peress, who had been discharged after he refused to answer routine questions about membership in organizations deemed subversive.  While this action against him was pending, however, he had been routinely promoted from captain to major, and "Who promoted Peress?" became McCarthy's rallying cry.  In the meantime, another committee staffer, David Schine--who had gone on investigative trips with the gay Roy Cohn--was drafted into the US Army.  McCarthy's office, it turned out, had tried to intercede with his commanders on numerous occasions to get him special treatment.  That led to another set of Senate hearings that eventually led to McCarthy's downfall.

Trump's response to the whistle blower's accusations about his phone conversation with President Zelensky last month, in which he apparently demanded that Zelensky pursue an investigation of Joe Biden's son Hunter, who had worked with a Ukrainian bank, comes right from McCarthy's playbook.  Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that Trump had withheld military aid from Ukraine for several months this summer to pressure Zelensky to go after Hunter Biden.  Before the content of the phone call leaked, however, Rudy Giuliani, playing the role of Roy Cohn, went on television to accuse Biden, essentially, of doing what Trump had done: of threatening to withhold aid from Ukraine if a previous president did not fire a particular prosecutor who, Giuliani claims without evidence, was investigating his son.  This was (and still is) of course the Trump team's tactic towards the Russia investigation as well: to insist that it was Hillary Clinton, not Trump and his minions, who colluded with the Russians to win the election. Both Trump and McCarthy seem to believe that attack is not simply the best defense, it's the only defense.

Going a layer deeper, I would suggest that the things McCarthy and Trump have done suggest another similarity: a total lack of commitment to, or respect for, anything but their own narcissistic self-image as superheroes fighting a hostile world.  McCarthy didn't care about the enormous damage he did to the State Department, the Army, and America's image abroad, provided that it got him more ink.   Trump in the same way has no respect for fundamental laws and principles of American government as he wages his endless struggle against his enemies.  That is why he was willing to try to conspire with a foreign government to try to destroy a political opponent, validating the charge that he had to fight with respect to Russia for two years.  Since Zelensky might help him, it was Zelensky's duty to do so.  Turning to him parallels what Trump did in the 1990s, when he turned to Deutsche Bank, a foreign entity, for credit, because American banks, burned by his successive bankruptcies, wouldn't lend to him any longer.  He sees himself, not simply as an American, but as Donald Trump, international superstar, the equal of men like Putin, Zi, and Kim Jong Un.  They can give him the stature that the reality based community here in the US denies him.

Sadly, Trump disposes of considerably more resources than McCarthy did in his own struggle for survival.  McCarthy had allies in the press and on the radio, but they did not compare in their reach to Fox News, Trump's own private ministry of propaganda.  While McCarthy had considerable influence within the Republican Party, he could not compete with a Republican President who had returned the GOP to power in a landslide, and who had more to offer his fellow Senators than he did.  Trump has essentially no Republican opposition.  Many Senate Republicans cut McCarthy loose and destroyed him in a censure vote in 1954 because they found it politically wise to do so.  It seems inconceivable to me that that will happen to Trump before the 2020 election.

Only the American voter, it seems, can drive Trump out of office.  Here the McCarthy parallel offers some hope.  Even at his peak, he was never nearly as popular in Wisconsin as many assumed.  When he stood for re-election in 1952 he defeated an almost unknown opponent by a plurality of 113,000 votes, while Eisenhower carried the state over Stevenson by 358,000 votes.  This week, every general election trial heat poll--including Fox News's--shows Trump trailing all three of the leading Democratic candidates.  Trump's election in 2016, however close it may have been, proved that the American political system had ceased to function for the public good.  The signs are that the public will be willing to take a first step in restoring it, by voting  him out of office.

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Government and Private Interests, 1962 and 2019



Last Saturday’s New York Times reported that the Justice Department has warned four leading car companies—Ford, Volkswagen of America, Honda and BMW--that it may pursue an antitrust case against them for sticking to a deal with the of California that would commit them to meeting mileage targets for their cars—and corresponding targets for carbon emissions—that are much stricter than the loose ones that the Trump Administration has just announced.  I immediately remembered another case, more than 57 years ago, in which the Justice Department threatened leading firms in a major American industry with antitrust action and helped change its behavior to meet a policy goal of the Kennedy Administration.  The comparison is a terrifying illustration of what has gone wrong in American life and American government since the early 1960s.

Some background is in order.  The 1940s, 1950s and 1960s saw remarkable economic growth in the United States, dominated by major industries such as automobiles, energy, and steel.  Meanwhile, they also saw a remarkable growth in the reach and power of the American labor movement, which had successfully organized coal miners, autoworkers, steelworkers, and just about every other major industry.  The unions made pretty steady wage gains for their workers, and their employers passed some of those gains on to consumers.  Inflation had become an intermittent problem during the 1950s, reaching about 3% annually in the middle of the decade, but falling in 1958-9 because of a recession.  Another recession struck in 1960-1, and the new Kennedy Administration, which included a number of prominent economists, wanted to encourage recovery without triggering a new round of price increases.  To do so, the administration, led by its Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg—himself a labor lawyer—tried to intervene in major contract negotiations.

The American steel industry in 1962 was easily the world’s largest, and changes in its wages and prices always had immediate effects throughout the economy.  Its union contract was expiring in the spring of 1962.  In meetings that included both union leaders and Roger Blough of US Steel, Goldberg and the President made clear that they wanted a new contract that would not lead to a steel price increase.  Blough said nothing in response.  Then, when the parties had reached a settlement, Blough immediately announced that US Steel was raising its prices—a signal to the rest of the industry to do the same.   The President reacted immediately, opening a press conference by declaring that the price increase constituted “a wholly unjustifiable and irresponsible defiance of the public interest.” When the nation was asking the military, union members, and all its citizens for sacrifice, he said, “ the American people will find it hard, as I do, to accept a situation in which a tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of private power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility can show such utter contempt for the interests of 185 million Americans.” (Readers who follow this link and read Kennedy’s entire statement will find a rather extraordinary contrast with a day or two of our current President’s tweets.)  The President led a government-wide effort to force Blough to back down, including the opening of an FBI investigation into price fixing in violation of the antitrust laws, and a shift of Defense Department steel purchases to companies that did not go along with the increase.  Within a few days, Blough rescinded the increase.  Kennedy had scored a remarkable victory for his Presidency—followed within the next six months by the successful attempt to secure the admission of the first black American to the University of Mississippi, and then, his remarkable resolution of the Cuban missile crisis.  During 1963 he followed those up with the introduction of the great civil rights bill that would end discrimination in public accommodations and the negotiation of the Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union.  No subsequent president has shown such a consistent ability to deploy the power of his office for the public good.

The Trump Administration’s decision to threaten the auto manufacturers with anti-trust action if they continue to observe their agreement with the state of California has an opposite purpose.  Kennedy successfully forced the steel companies to subordinate their private interests to the public interest.  Trump and Attorney General Barr want to help private interests—specifically, energy companies—at the expense of the public interest and the very future of human life on our planet.  Because of its vulnerability to pollution, the state of California has the right to set its own emissions standards, and because of the size of the market it represents, the car companies have an interest in observing those standards.  13 other states also follow California’s rules. Reducing the fuel consumption of our automobiles—now the single largest source of carbon pollution in the United States—is of course critical to any attempt to halt climate change.  The Trump Administration, however, remains in denial about climate change, and does not seem to want to lessen reliance on fossil fuels.  Its Justice Department is now accusing the auto manufacturers of conspiring to build more expensive cars, in an attempt to force them to abandon the California standards.  No one but Koch industries and other fossil fuel producers will benefit if the administration succeeds.

From the 1930s through the early 1960s, a sense of the public interest dominated the political life of the United States.  That enabled us to fight the Depression, prepare for and win the Second World War, and rebuild Europe. We expanded the nation’s housing stock and its school systems, undertook the interstate highway system, and mounted the civil rights movement.  Now nearly every politically active element in our society makes its demands on behalf of a particular economic interest or demographic group, not for the good of the nation of the whole.  That may be the biggest single reason for the catastrophic state of our political life.



Monday, September 02, 2019

Labor Day articles

A friend of mine recently described our local newspaper, the Boston Globe, as a shadow of its former self, and he wasn't kidding.  After the New York Times lost a great deal of money buying it some years ago, they sold it to hedge fund manager John Henry, who happens to be the owner of the Boston Red Sox. I remember it in the 1970s when it had a very robust Washington bureau and covered local politics very thoroughly.  Now it has an even more PC orientation than the Times, I think, typified by an article this morning that black entrepreneurs are being shut out of the booming new legal marijuana movement, despite the black population's role as consumers.  Something happened over the weekend, though, and I was astonished by the three guest op-eds I discovered in it today--all the more so because it happens to be Labor Day, and the staff might have found some one to discuss the plight of the contemporary American worker,  so many of whom are at work as usual today in retail and food service industries, among man others.

Reading from left to right, the first of these pieces is about college debt.  This problem, it argues, has been vastly exaggerated.  66% of Millennials (the generation is not defined by the author) have no college debt, it states, either because they never went to college in the first place or because they managed without loans, or have paid them off.  The article claims that of those who have borrowed, the average debt is $28,000--but another source that I found says that's the average for all Millennial college graduates, period.  (That source put Millennial birth years from 1981 to 1999 which I think is very close to correct).  The author, one Beth Akers, thinks they can pay that off relatively easily.  She also argues that  most of those who owe a lot more--say $100,000--will also be able to pay them off because they invested in well-paying graduate degrees.  She also mentions (but does not describe in any detail) programs already in place to make it easier to pay. She thinks our student debt system is too complicated and should be simplified, but on the whole, she sees no crisis at work.  Ms. Akers, the piece also informs us, is associated with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank that can be counted on to advocate free-market solutions to almost everything, and she does not stop to compare today's America to that of 50 years ago, when pratically no young people graduated from college with significant student debt, and tuition and fees were less than 1/3, adjusted for inflation, of what they are now--and paid for a much better education.

The second piece, by one Jennifer Braceras, asks what will happen to the billions of dollars that Johnson and Johnson agreed to pay the state of Oklahoma for its part in creating the disastrous opioid epidemic, which killed more than 217,000 Americans from 1999 through 2017 thanks to overdoses of perscription drugs.  Ms. Braceras talks a lot about what happened to the billions paid by the tobacco industry in response to similar settlements, complaining bitterly that relatively little of it went to help prevent smoking.  Instead, states spent the money on education, infrastructure, and making broadband accessible to rural areas, as well as simply for general purposes.  To those like myself who believe that some tobacco and drug company executives should be  headed for prison as punishment for feeding their fellow Americans poison, it seems quite logical to at least confiscate some of the wealth they earned by doing so and using it, in various ways, for the public good.  Ms. Braceras is also upset that Johnson and Johnson was found guilty at all, since its opioids were approved by the FDA.  When a corporation has enough political influence to get a fatal product approved, she seems to think, it shouldn't have to bear the consequences.  Ms. Braceras directs the Center for Law and Liberty a tthe Independent Women's Forum, a conservative organization that denies that climate change is man-made, takes conservative positions on women's issues, and has financial and other links to the Koch brothers. 

The third Labor Day op-ed, by Michael Rosenblatt, also deals with drugs--in this case, with how they are developed.  It's a full-blown defense of our private drug industries, who need the freedom to profit from ideas that may originally have been developed by government agencies if they are going to do the long, hard work of turning them into effective treatments.  The author says nothing about the well-documented preference of  major drug companies for drugs that treat chronic conditions for many years, as opposed to drugs that might actually cure diseases--much less about the corruption of the FDA which has led not only to the opioid catastrophe, but to the approval of numerous profitable drugs whose impact on disease is actually relatively marginal.   He, it turns out, is now an executive in a venture capital firm, having previously served as the chief medical officer of Merck.

What does all this mean?  While the mainstream media obsesses over President Trump's tweets, the difficulties of female presidential candidates, and a wide variety of sex scandals, corporate America is continuing its decades-long campaign to shape public discussion of economic issues in ways that will make the rich richer.  That's the job of the Manhattan Institute and the Independent Women's Forum, both of whom successfully stormed the Globe's editorial page today.  Trump will leave office in one-plus or five-plus years, but their campaign will still be continuing and still be having an effect.  Meanwhile, the number of workers in unions--and the number of workers who got Labor Day off--continues to shrink.  The Boston Globe remains a liberal newspaper, but its brand of liberalism isn't doing the average American much good.


Saturday, August 24, 2019

Trump and Stalin: A focused comparison

From the beginning of Donald Trump's presidency I have rejected the idea that he is, or could become, a dictator such as the world experienced in the 1930s and 1940s, or even a strong man like Erdogan of Turkey or Duterte of the Philippines.  I believe this mainly because we live in a completely different age, marked by individual and corporate freedom, and a general decline in political authority in most of the world.  The great difficulty the administration has experienced in trying to implement its policies on the issue it cares about most, immigration, illustrates the inertia that characterizes our political life today.  Any authoritarian ambitions Trump might have, it seems to me, threaten our nation much less than our chronic inability to make any large-scale policy initiative happen.

Yet as I pondered the President's recent fusillades of tweets, and got a message from a friend who was reading Darkness at Noon, it occurred to me that there is a profound similarity between Trump and Joseph Stalin relating to their world views.  Like Trump, Stalin inhabited a mental universe in which he could literally do no wrong.  He, and he alone, knew what the Soviet Union and the world needed.  He was better at anything he attempted than anyone else.  What he did was good by definition, because he had done it.  When anything went wrong, enemies must be at work, enemies who needed to be unmasked and dealt with summarily.  Stalin's view,  one could argue, was a little more sophisticated intellectually than Trump's, since he saw history and political life as a ceaseless class struggle, in which he represented the world's proletariat against the bourgeoisie. Trump has no such ideological scheme. For him, everything is personal. 

Stalin was far more dangerous to his nation and the world because he disposed of total power, wielded by secret police without any check upon it at all.  Thus, when the collectivization of agriculture led to famine in Ukraine and elsewhere, he could not only claim that the peasants must be hoarding their grain, but also send squads of police and young activists into the countryside to punish their non-existent sins, brutally.  When factories failed to meet their quotas the security services would fabricate cases of sabotage.  Beginning in 1937 Stalin had hundreds of high-ranking officers executed, as well as many high party officials from the USSR and elsewhere, based on false accusations of treason.  In the first half of 1941, he insisted against all evidence that Germany was not going to betray the Nazi-Soviet Pact and attack the USSR, and that reports to the contrary were provocations.  Interestingly enough, Stalin seems to have gotten a better grip on reality during the Second World War, but when the war was over, his paranoia returned with a vengeance.

Now let's compare Donald Trump, using just the current week's worth of tweets.  Last Monday the President announced, not for the first time, "The Fake and corrupt Media is sooo bad for our Country. The Enemy of the People!"  ("Enemy of the people" was a favorite Stalinist phrase.)   On the same day he announced that google had "manipulated from 2.6 to 16 million votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016 Election."  On Wednesday, he quoted an observer to the effect that he "is the greatest President for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world."  He also accused "the Fake News LameStream Media" of trying to create a recession," but threw in an attack on Chairman Powell of the Federal Reserve: "So far he has called it wrong, and only let us down.  He also blasted leading automobile companies who do not want to abandon the tougher pollution standards mandated by California in favor of his own new, much looser ones.  On Friday--just days after announcing that he was doing "great" with China--he asked, "who is our gibber enemy, Jay Powell or Chairman X?" He repeatedly claims that he has led the most successful administration, for the time he has served, in American history.

There is, of course, a clinical term for these problems.  The Mayo Clinic lists the following symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder.

"People with the disorder can:

"Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
"Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration
"Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
"Exaggerate achievements and talents
"Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
"Believe they are superior and can only associate with equally special people
"Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior
"Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations
"Take advantage of others to get what they want
"Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
"Be envious of others and believe others envy them
"Behave in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful and pretentious
"Insist on having the best of everything — for instance, the best car or office
"At the same time, people with narcissistic personality disorder have trouble handling anything they perceive as criticism, and they can:

"Become impatient or angry when they don't receive special treatment
"Have significant interpersonal problems and easily feel slighted
"React with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make themselves appear superior
"Have difficulty regulating emotions and behavior
"Experience major problems dealing with stress and adapting to change
"Feel depressed and moody because they fall short of perfection
"Have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation."

Because Donald Trump has been obsessed with the idea that he can do the impossible--both as a real estate developer and a politician--he constantly runs afoul of reality.  He generally responds with a habit that is not listed among the symptoms of narcissism, but which he shares with both Joseph Stalin and Joseph McCarthy: he blames a vast conspiracy of wicked enemies for everything that goes wrong.  He does not have the power to do the kind of harm that Stalin did, although American legal traditions have allowed him to carry out cruel policies towards those who have crossed our border without authorization.  But he clearly lacks the emotional and intellectual wherewithal to deal with any really serious situation.  A recession, I think, would undoubtedly make his symptoms much worse.  In any case, a government based on the idea of rationality needs a more rational person at its head in order to function.


Friday, August 16, 2019

The Most Important Administration of Our Times

For the last few days I have been watching an extraordinary miniseries, The Loudest Voice, which tells the story of the Fox News career of Roger Ailes on Showtime.  It ranks with the British production of Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson as one of the best historical dramatizations ever. Russell Crowe, who gained between 50 and 100 pounds for the part, turns in an extraordinary performance, and the show effectively uses real footage.  It also gives a terrifying portrayal of heavy duty sexual harassment at the highest corporate levels.  I haven't read the book on which it is based, but even some of the plot lines that might seem a bit over the top--including one that involves Rupert Murdoch's wife--have a certain ring of truth.The series focuses on critical years: 1996 (the launch of Fox News), 2001 (9/11 and its aftermath), 2008, 2009, etc.  The 2001 episode really got me thinking, once again, about the critical impact of the administration of George W. Bush on American life.  The collapse of the American political system, now so visible before our eyes, began, I believe, with him.

The collapse began, really, in November and December 2000, when our institutions failed a critical test.  Confronted with the closest election in American history, they failed to discover who had won and see that the right man was inaugurated.  Both sides of the controversy played a role in this sad outcome, because Al Gore didn't have the sense to demand a full recount of the whole state of Florida--a move which, a team of journalists later concluded, would probably have shown that he had won.  As it was, the Bush campaign orchestrated a coup d'etat, really, first by purging the Florida registration rolls before the vote, and then by getting a partisan Supreme Court to stop the recount altogether and award the election to Bush.  That, however, was only the beginning.

Once in office, Bush, Cheney, and Karl Rove showed that they wanted to play the role Strauss and Howe had laid out only ten years or so earlier in Generations: to preside over a crisis or "fourth turning" that would take the nation in a new direction.  9/11, which they did not foresee, gave them the chance to do that.  (The Loudest Voice shows that Ailes gave them some important help, which in turn established his network as the Ministry of Propaganda for Republican administrations.)  Bush, Cheney, and the neoconservatives who dominated their Defense and State Departments wanted to use 9/11 and the theme of "terrorism" to establish American rule over the whole world by successively overthrowing the "rogue regimes" or Iraq, Iran and North Korea that stood in the way of American hegemony.  Over a two-year period they planned and mobilized widespread support for the invasion of Iraq, the last major presidential initiative in the 21st century that enjoyed genuine bipartisan support, including intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, and Michael Ignatieff.  Never since then has the American elite and public united around a common enterprise.  Their publicists announced the beginning of "World War IV," designed to democratize the Islamic world.  They eventually spent about $1 trillion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while failing to locate and kill Osama Bin Laden.  They corrupted intelligence and created a myth of Iraqi WMD to make the war happen.  They created, as a senior official (probably Karl Rove) told Ron Suskind, "our own reality," and most of the country bought it for several years.  But the whole project turned into a disaster, because it rested on false assumptions about American power, the dominant historical trends in politics, and the specific politics of the Middle East.  The fall of Saddam in Iraq unleashed a catastrophic religious conflict between Shi'ites and Sunnis that continues to this day, after taking hundreds of thousands of lives.  The Afghan War, conducted in effective opposition to our "ally" Pakistan, has lasted now for 18 years without positive results.  For the second time in half a century, a generation of American veterans has had to cope with PTSD incurred in a worse than useless war.

While pursuing this disastrous project, however, the Bush Administration demonstrated the characteristic flaw of the Boom generation; believing that they could have everything at once.  Rather than raise taxes to pay for their crusade, like Lincoln and FDR, they cut them, turning a federal surplus into a permanent deficit.  They allowed the new shadow banking system to flourish, and did nothing about the housing and subprime mortgage boom that kept the economy going until 2007.  They staffed the federal government with ideologues and cronies, leading to the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina.  Re-elected in another close election in 2004, Bush squandered any political capital he had on an attempt to privatize Social Security that never got off the ground.  The Iraq war dragged on, and the electorate had had enough.  The Democrats won control of both houses of Congress in 2006.  Then the housing bubble burst, and in 2008, the market crashed.  It was at that moment that a large part of the Republican base deserted their establishment, even blocking the passage of the banks' bailout on the first vote.  John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin did not placate them, and McCain went down to defeat.

Barack Obama came into office with larger Congressional majorities, but without ambitions comparable to those of Bush.  He managed to get the Affordable Care Act through Congress and passed a moderate-size stimulus, but any hopes of an FDR-style New Deal faded away quickly when he appointed a team of establishment economists and decided not to try to break up the big banks.  He failed to mobilize the anger in the country, and the Tea Party turned against him.  Under the influence of the Koch brothers, I believe, the Republican Party became entirely obstructionist.  Obama managed to win a comfortable re-election, and he remains the only Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to win significantly more than 50% of the presidential popular vote.  But like his predecessor, he squandered any re-election dividend on a hopeless cause--in his case, on tighter gun control measures.  And to keep the government operating, he had to agree on tight rules on new spending that made it very hard for the federal government to take any new initiatives.  In his last years he relied more and more on executive orders.  By 2016 much of the  public had completely lost faith in professional politicians, and a reality TV star won the Republican nomination and the election.

Donald Trump's only legislative accomplishment, of course, is his tax cut, which undid the work of seven years of deficit reduction under Obama at one fell swoop. The Democrats in the House of Representatives have now passed some important legislation, but the Republicans in the Senate refused even to consider it.  Meanwhile, newspapers and web sites fill their pages with presidential tweets, endless rehashes of the Russiagate and other scandals, and stories about sex crimes.  The country has lost the habit of reading about public affairs, because since Bush II's disastrous grasp at world empire the government in Washington has given them so little to write about.  While the public cares a great deal, pro or con, about Donald Trump, it cares less and less about what its government is or might be doing.  This, it seems to me, is largely one of the legacies of George W. Bush.



Saturday, August 10, 2019

Race, Income, and Politics


A few weeks ago, I saw a video on Facebook that tried to explain the impact of “systemic racism.”  It compares the lives and family histories of two children, Kevin (white) and Jamal (black.) Kevin lives in well-to-neighborhood with good schools; Jamal lives in a poor neighborhood with bad schools. That, the video argues, is because, generations ago, Kevin’s grandparents bought a house with a cheap mortgage and went to college, whereas Jamal’s grandparents could not buy a house because of redlining, a practice which denied loans to residents of certain areas.  In addition, Kevin’s grandparents went into “a handful of top universities,” while Jamal’s grandparents’ college opportunities were limited by segregation.  The video also cites “implicit biases” which will make it harder for Jamal to get a job even if he goes to the same college and does just as well as Kevin.  The video also remarks, tellingly, that the problem with “systemic racism” is that no single person is responsible for it, making it very hard to fix.  It urges us all to become more aware of our implicit biases.

I have no doubt that in one way or another, racism, beginning with slavery, accounts for much of the aggregate difference in the lives of black and white Americans today.  I am writing this post, however, because I am convinced that that view, while accurate, is too narrow.  First, if one asks some different questions about Kevin, Jamal, and others like them, one finds that racism very clearly is not the only, or even the biggest, cause of economic distress in the United States today.  Secondly, to argue that it is makes it much less likely, in my opinion, that the nation will address the most profound causes of inequality today.   The equation of poverty and racial problems began in the 1960s and it has lasted, for different reasons, to this day.  Both conservative whites and many liberal whites and blacks, it seems to me, prefer to see poverty as primarily a problem of black people.  As it happens, it isn’t.

Focusing, like the video, on Jamal’s archetypal family and its neighbors, I decided to find out how many black families they might represent.  Uncle Google sent me to a nice table breaking down household income by race—white, black and Hispanic.  Unfortunately it dates from 2014 but I doubt that the picture has changed dramatically since then.  Let’s assume that Jamal’s family has an income of $25,000 or less.  That includes a lot of families well above the poverty line, but I think it defines, at the very least, a struggling family.  There were, as it happens, about 5.5 million black households in that category.  There were also 2.4 million Hispanic households in that category, making 7.9 million total black and Hispanic.  There were 22.3 million white households in that category—about four times as many as black households, and about three times as many as black and Hispanic combined.  If we change our threshold from under $25,000 to under $35,000, we get similar results. 32.2 million white households earn less than $35,000, compared to 8.1 million black ones and 4.6 million Hispanics.

Now the total numbers of 2014 households, the table shows, were 98.7 million white, 16.4 million black, and 16.2 million Hispanic.  That means that there were six times as many white households as black, but only four times as many under $25,000 annual income or under $32,000 annual income, confirming that blacks as a group suffer economic disadvantage. But counting the total numbers,we find that there far more white people in these categories than others.  (My household table has no figures for other ethnic groups such as Asians and American Indians.) And we decide elections by raw total numbers.

The video did not suggest to me that Jamal’s family was living in poverty, but I checked figures on families below the poverty line too.  A very thorough table on poverty included data through 2017.  It shows 39.7 million people in poverty in that year.  17 million of them were non-Hispanic whites, 9.8 million were black, and 10.8 million were Hispanic.  Here the black and Hispanic total slightly exceeds the white one, indicating that the overrepresentation of these groups at the lowest income levels is much greater than their overrepresentation in the under $25,000 or under $35,000 per household groups.  The same pattern emerges from census tables on single-parent, female-headed households and the number of them that live in poverty.  The largest racial group of such families (poor or not), 18.4 million, is also white, but the black total is 15.3 million and the Hispanic total is 12.2 million. The percentages of those families living in poverty is 33.3% for the black families (5.1 million people), 19.9 for the white families (3.6 million people), and 34.3% for Hispanics (4.1 million people.)  There are more poor white people in these families than there are blacks or Hispanics, but fewer than blacks and Hispanics combined.

What implications do these figures have?

We commonly see disparities between black and white wealth and income expressed in percentage terms, comparing the percentages of the two groups in poverty, or in terms of averages and medians for income and net worth.  All such measurements show that as a group, black America is much worse off than white America.  Often, median measurement are the only ones I seem to be able to find for important statistics.  I know that median black net worth is way below white, and that the disparity increased as a result of the Great Recession, but so far, I can’t find the numbers of black and white and Hispanic households with zero net worth.  (About 19 million households have net worth of $1000 or less, but I can’t find a racial breakdown.)  I also couldn’t find out how many of the homeowners who were foreclosed during the Great Recession (variously given out as 7 or 10 million) were white, how many were black, and how many were Hispanic. And I really would like to know.

What we do see here is this.  Racism has undoubtedly hurt the economic standing of black people and continues to do so.  But (limiting the comparison for a moment to white and black), for every specific economic problem from which black people suffer—relatively low household income, poverty, female-headed households, and probably, recently foreclosed homes—more individual white people suffer from it than black ones.  And this applies, remarkably, even to perhaps the most racially charged issue in our national life, the shooting of civilians by police.  Of the 992 people shot and killed by police officers in 2018—nearly 3 a day—452 were white, 229 were black, and 154 were Hispanic. (107 were listed as unknown.)  That too is a disproportionate number of black people, but a greater number of white people. So far this year the proportion of white victims (and the total number of victims) has dropped, but they remain the largest group.  And while the black incarceration rate is about five times higher than the white one and nearly three times higher than the Hispanic one, the number of white and black inmates is nearly equal overall.  Evidence suggests that one reason for the higher incarceration rates of blacks and Hispanics is that they have tended to receive longer sentences for the same crimes.

And why is all this important?

There are, it seems to me, two reasons, one intellectual and one political.  While racism has contributed to black poverty, it cannot be the only cause of poverty in the United States, because more white than black people remain poor.  I do not believe that the causes of poverty can be completely different for black people on the one hand and whites on the other.  People are poor, or have household incomes of $25,000 or less, for many reasons today, including poor education (which is what both low income blacks and whites receive), de-industrialization, the erosion of workers’ rights, our inflated housing market, involvement with the criminal justice system, family breakdown, and a great deal more. And those things affect large numbers of white, black and Hispanic residents of the United States.

The political reason is more important.

The great tragedy of politics in the United States today is this:  relatively poor white and black people (using the same scale) generally vote on opposite sides.  The 2016 CNN exit polls did not break down income and race, but they did break down educational levels (with or without a college degree) and race (broken crudely into white and non-white.)  Among nonwhites with no college degree, 77% voted Democratic and 22% voted Republican.  Among whites with no college degree—of whom about twice as many voted—31% voted Democratic, and 66% voted Republican.  That is why Donald Trump is in the White House. 

I don’t have access to a Gallup Poll database here, but I’m pretty confident that substantial majorities of both white and black voters without college degrees voted Democratic from 1936 through 1964.  In 1968, more than 15% of the white vote—much, though not all of it, from the lower half of our income distribution—moved to Nixon or Wallace.  The intervening four years had seen urban riots, the emergence of the black power movement, the beginnings of a crime wave, and, of course, the escalation of the Vietnam War.  It was during those years, I think, that liberal Democrats began associating poverty with race.  Since 1964, only one Democrat, Barack Obama, has won significantly more than 50% of the popular vote in a presidential election, and no Democrat has won 50% of white votes. 

Meanwhile, inequality has steadily increased, while income in the lower 50% of the population has been nearly stagnant for almost half a century.  Good paying working class jobs have disappeared by the millions, and the cost of a college education has at least tripled over that same half century. An exploding housing market has made it very difficult for young people to buy a first house in our richest metropolitan areas. We have, in short, a winner-take-all economy in which it has become much harder to reach the top.  We also have many more single individuals of all ages who cannot count on any other adults to help them get through life.  What this means is that the average person in the lower economic half of the population—regardless of gender or race—will probably be disappointed by their economic status, all the more so if, like so many, they have substantial student debt.  It is no accident, I think, that the United States made the greatest progress on racial issues in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, decades in which the economy was growing rapidly, inequality was decreasing, and so many millions of Americans had good reason to be satisfied with how things were going.  Now many fewer do, and many find it all too easy, I think, to blame racism, sexism, immigration, or what looks to many like a national obsession with nonwhite poverty, for their own inability to achieve as much as they would like.  While the less well-off blame other racial groups for their plight, we cannot do anything about steadily increasing corporate power. And neither party has really much of anything to arrest the trend towards inequality at the national level for a very long time.

Low income and wealth are diseases from which minority populations are more likely to suffer—but comparable or larger numbers of whites suffer from them too.  Any solution to the problem has to treat the disease for everyone.  History tells us how to do that: by taxing the wealthy much more heavily, by promoting rather than destroying the rights of labor, by building a lot more affordable  housing, by making the government an employer of last resort, and by raising the minimum wage.  Race- and gender-based political appeals will continue to thrive until we start dividing up the pie more equally.  The state of our economy is the thing which, more than anything else, has the chance to bring us together, improve our society, and leave some of the bitter antagonism of recent years behind.  And we need to do those things.




Friday, August 02, 2019

What a Democrat should say

The Democrats in this week's debates focused mostly on one another, making appeals to the most vocal and committed Democratic constituencies as they understand them in an attempt to make headway in the long struggle for the nomination.  They essentially ignored, in my opinion, the broader and more critical task of laying the groundwork for a successful general election campaign.  Count me among the many commentators who feel that they, and the nation, may pay very dearly for that approach next year--even though it is a sadly understandable result of the primary system that the late 1960s bequeathed to us.

Like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren (my candidate at this moment), and some of the others, I too want to return to the principles of the New Deal and mount a real attack on inequality.  I fear, however, that after eight years of an Obama presidency that failed to make much progress on those issues, such plans are going to ring rather hollow. More importantly, I think that, with our political system in a state of nearly total collapse, policy advocacy puts the cart before the horse.  Before our government can do meaningful things, it must start functioning again at all.  And to illustrate my point, I have written a draft speech, below, that I would like to hear a Democratic candidate deliver.  I don't know if this may reach the eyes or ears of any of the campaigns, but let me take this opportunity to renounce any copyright over these words and to donate any or all of them to anyone who wants to use them in the hope of getting the United States out of the awful mess that it is in.


"Like other Democrats, I have many hopes and plans for a better future for us and our people—hopes and plans that I will immediately begin working with Congress to achieve if I am fortunate enough to be elected.  Yet for us to focus on such plans, it seems to me, risks obscuring the most important stakes of next year’s election, the reasons that it is truly vital—a matter of life and death for the nation—that the Democratic candidate, whoever it may be, defeat Donald Trump.  The nation faces an unprecedented crisis because no man remotely comparable to Donald Trump has ever occupied the White House.  That is not primarily because of any of the policies his administration is implementing, but rather because he is utterly unfit, and he shows us nearly every day, to perform the duties of the great office, the tasks upon which the proper functioning of our government, economy and society depend.  He has no personal managerial skills.  He has no idea where to get real information and how to use it.  His foreign policy, as a result, has been disastrous. At home, he has utterly failed to turn most of his proclaimed goals into reality.  His rhetorical style cannot possibly bring the nation together for a common purpose.  He was elected largely because both major parties failed to provide the nation with more inspiration and better candidates.  Whatever our political views, though—and here I speak from my heart both to my fellow Democrats and to the nation’s Republicans, who I know care just as much about our country as we do—we simply must remove him from office in the next election in order to get the United States back on track.

"No President, of course, can run the United States government by himself.  Every President’s success or failure depends on the men and women that he appoints and his ability to work with them.  Two and a half years into his  administration, President Trump has left no doubt that he cannot trust men and women with experience and competence, that such people rapidly find it impossible to work with him at all, and that he has no idea how to make use of the vast human resources at his disposal.
Simple statistics tell the story.  The President has already had three White House chiefs of staff.  He has had two secretaries of state, three secretaries of defense, three attorneys general, three secretaries of homeland security, two ambassadors to the United Nations, and three national security advisers.  Discarded officials include a former CEO of one of the world’s leading corporations, three senior retired generals, and a former senior US Senator.  The President has often berated his own appointees in public, something that I cannot recall any other President ever doing.  He has no sense, clearly, of the processes that make government work, and he has allowed his current National Security Adviser to stop holding the regular meetings that have generated and approved our foreign policies for decades.  Meanwhile, he has given unprecedented foreign policy authority to his son-in-law, and given security clearances to a number of people whom the security authorities had denied them.  As so many of us know from our own experience, the style of a top manager inevitably infects his whole organization, and that has happened in Washington now.  An extraordinary number of senior governmental positions still remain unfilled more than two year’s after the president’s inauguration.  All of us, of course, complain periodically about specific acts of our government, and Americans have different views of exactly what it should do, and how it should do it.  Yet very few Americans deny that we need it to function effectively. That it cannot do as long as Donald Trump remains President.

"Foreign policy in our system is largely the responsibility of the President and his subordinates.  This President has conducted most of his foreign policy singlehandedly, basing it, apparently, on his personal esteem for certain authoritarian leaders around the world, including Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and others.  The steps that he has been taken on major issues have therefore been inconsistent and ineffective. Nuclear proliferation remains a pressing problem around the world, and the Obama Administration had scored a remarkable success by reaching an agreement with Iran that stopped its progress towards a possible nuclear weapon. President Trump repudiated that agreement without having anything to put in its place. Meanwhile, after threatening North Korea with destruction if it did not halt its nuclear program, he has twice traveled halfway around the world to meet with the tyrant Kim Jong Un, signing a meaningless agreement that did nothing to halt his program the first time, and failing to make any progress the second.  The President has blocked bipartisan proposals from Congress to punish the Saudi government for murdering a journalist residing in the United States at its consulate in Turkey.  He has insulted many friendly foreign leaders, and even singled out local foreign officials in countries that he was visiting, violating the diplomatic norms that make international relations possible.  The President frequently rejects the judgments of professional intelligence officers on matters vital to national security, such as Russia’s interference in our elections.  Were Donald Trump a thoughtful and well-informed man, he might at times be able to substitute his own judgment for the bureaucracy’s, as other chief executives have done—but he is not.  He is probably the least curious and worst-informed man ever to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

"In his career as a developer, Donald Trump continually announced magnificent projects, projected enormous profits for all, took out huge loans, failed to make good on them when his forecasts proved illusory, and had to declare bankruptcy.  A good deal of what has happened during his presidency fits the same pattern.  He railed against the federal deficit, which had shrunk steadily under President Obama, during the campaign—now he has more than doubled it, even though the economic growth begun under President Obama has continued.  He railed against illegal immigration, which has suddenly increased.  He is already blaming the Federal Reserve Board, loudly, for anything that might go wrong in the future.  He has no understanding of how the international economy works, and continues to insist that foreign countries pay for his tariffs, which in fact foreign exporters simply pass on to US consumers in the form of higher prices.  His trade war has hurt American farmers badly.  The United States cannot expect genuine economic progress under a man who insists, again and again, that two plus two make five.

"Having failed repeatedly as a businessman, the President discovered his true calling in our new century, hosting a reality show where he bullied contestants before a huge audience and further propagated the myth of his genius.  That was a harmless diversion, but we cannot afford any more of the same spectacle coming from the White House.  Presidents cannot fire their fellow citizens.  They owe us all honesty, respect for our views, and a genuine, sincere attempt to do the nation’s business well. That, this President cannot provide.  He continually insults large segments of the population in inflammatory terms.  He has demanded investigations of many political opponents, as well as officials of the federal government.  He delights in dividing us by race and national origin.
Today, as always, Democrats and Republicans disagree, both with each other and among themselves, on the future course of the nation.  Yet we can surely agree that the nation has no chance of steering a sensible course and working together for sensible aims as long as Donald Trump remains President.  Our system was not designed for, and cannot function with, a man like this in the White House.  Let us begin to restore some of our great traditions as a nation with a free government, re-establish respect and trust among us, and see, once again, what we can do.  We can start that process in the fall of November 2020 and get it underway full speed ahead the next January.  It is up to us."

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Postmodernism 101


A Postmodernist Primer and its Implications for Our Time

Last February, the Resource Center Team of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Amherst College released a “Common Language Guide,” a series of definitions reflecting the ideologies that dominate many campuses today, to serve as “a guide to common, shared language around identity.” Conservative students at Amherst immediately passed the document to right-wing media outlets, a flap ensued, and the office withdrew the document, denying that it “represent[s] an official position of the college or an expectation that everyone on campus should use any particular language or share a point of view,” while claiming that it did illustrate “the ways in which many people at Amherst and beyond understand their own identities.”

The document is still widely available on line.  It illustrates the enormous campus power of diversity bureaucracies at most of our major institutions, where they increasingly claim the right to critique course content and cross-examine faculty about things they have said in class. It also reveals a great deal about how contemporary academics think and how influential their thinking has become.  Although it looks simply like a set of definitions, many of the definitions have a political and moral content as well as a simply descriptive one.  And because the young people who populate our major media outlets, our artistic communities, and the Democratic Party have usually passed through leading colleges and universities, the ideas it embodies have worked their way into the American mainstream, with, in my opinion, tragic consequences.  I have never discovered a relatively short text that lays out the fundamentals of this ideology clearly and concisely, but the Amherst guide manages to do that without being systematic about it.  A number of key principles that are seldom if ever stated emerge from the definitions that the office clearly wanted its student body to accept.

The postmodern ideology that the common language guide embodies comes from several twentieth century thinkers, led by the Frenchman Michel Foucault, and revolves around a particular idea of power.  It does not see power primarily as physical force, but rather as something expressed, above all, through language.  Thus, the guide’s definition of power reads as follows:

             “1. The ability to name or define.
“2. The ability to decide.
“3. The ability the set the rule, standard or policy.
“4. The ability to change the rule, standard or policy to serve your needs, wants or desires.
“5. The ability to influence decision makers to make choices in favor of your cause, issue or concern (YWCA)[sic].Power can show up materially and immaterially, and in various domains, including: personal, social, institutional, and structural.”

The list begins with the ability “to name or define” because this ideology thinks that defining reality conveys more power than controlling it.  This does indeed reverse the traditional view of Enlightenment thought, that language is designed to describe the real world, not to create it.  We shall return later to the critical question of why this view has become so popular in the last three decades.  Meanwhile, I note that power can be “immaterial” as well as material, that is, it doesn’t necessarily imply physical coercion, or greater wealth, or authority over a certain sphere of human activity, but can merely be a supposed ability to control how people think.

The definition of “oppression,” on the previous page, identifies the holders of power, which belongs not to particular individuals, but to groups.

“A system for gaining, exercising and maintaining structural and institutional power for the benefit of a limited dominant group. An inequitable system where a select few hold material and social power and marginalized groups are coerced to participate in the system against their best interests. Oppression exists on the individual, interpersonal, institutional and ideological levels. There is no such thing as reverse oppression, because oppression is rooted in institutional power.”

The definition of “racism” identifies the group that holds power more specifically.

“A system of advantage and disadvantage based on the socially constructed category of ‘race’ and the idea of white racial superiority and black racial inferiority. Specifically within the United States, racism refers to white racial prejudice and power used to advantage white people over indigenous people, black people and people of color(IBPOC) and has been made possible by the historic and present-day unequal distribution of resources. Racism is enacted on multiple levels—institutional, interpersonal, individual and ideological—and can exist both consciously and unconsciously. Unconscious or covert racism is often hidden and not recognized as racial discrimination, whereas overt racism refers to conscious attitudes and intentions to harm and discriminate against IBPOC. Both covert and overt racism are forms of violence and are rooted in the idea of white supremacy.”

 In an age when any of us can send a swab to ancestry.com and receive a breakdown of the tribal and racial origins of our particular genetic inheritance, one cannot help but be a bit surprised by the assumption that “’race’” is nothing but a socially constructed category, even if one believes, as I do, that the intellectual endowments of all racial groups are comparable.  More shocking, however, is the extraordinarily America-centric idea that racism only involves beliefs in white superiority over black people (although the definition immediately includes other “people of color”—that is, nonwhites—among its victims.)  As a matter of historical fact, racism, whether defined as prejudice or as systematic oppression, has existed all over the world since the beginning of human history.  Many Asians remain convinced today not only that Asian civilizations are superior to others, but also that certain Asian peoples such as Chinese or Japanese are superior to other Asian peoples.  Both American Indian tribes and African tribes often regarded each other with the deepest hostility as well.  But here, racism connects only to “the idea of white supremacy,” and the rest of humanity receives a pass.  In the same way, while the guide defines misogyny as “A type of gender-based oppression founded in the belief that women are inferior to and must remain subordinate to men,” “misandry,” the parallel prejudice of women against men, does not appear in it.  This is because, as another entry on “reverse oppression” explains, “women cannot be ‘just as sexist as men,’ because they do not hold political, economic and institutional power.”

Gender, indeed, plays a much more important role in the guide than race.  Here is the definition of “male privilege”:

“A group of unearned cultural, legal, social and institutional rights extended to cisgender men based on their assigned-sex and gender. Cisgender men have access to institutional power, make the rules, control the resources and are assumed capable. Masculinity, as enacted by cisgender men, is universalized and viewed as the normative gender. Cisgender men are often unaware of their dierential treatment (see Fragile Masculinity). While trans men, masculine-of-center women and nonbinary folks have access to benefits based on their proximity to hegemonic masculinity (see above definition), male privilege is reserved for cisgender men. This is particularly true for white cisgender men.”

The term “cisgender men” (like “cisgender women”) refers to the “assignment” of male or female to newborns, based on whether they have a penis on the one hand or a vagina on the other.  We shall return to this concept shortly.  Trans men refer to biological females (my term) who have declared themselves to be men, while “nonbinary folks”, a critical concept, refer to people who refuse to be defined as men or women, for reasons that we shall explore later. I know, of course, that humanity includes a very small number of people born with indeterminate sex organs, and another small number who have always felt that they did not belong in the body they were born in, but the new view gender goes way beyond them, as we shall see.  The historical ignorance of this definition, which assumes that all males, and particularly white males, have “access to institutional power, make the rules, control the resources and are assumed capable,” boggles the mind.  The vast majority of men around the world have never fit that description and do not now; they have struggled to eke out a stable existence on the best terms they can.   Later we shall see how this extraordinary view could have emerged and become so influential.  This definition, interestingly, also seems to claim that nonwhite men have more privilege and power than white women by virtue of their “gender assigned at birth,” although not as much as white men. 

While I had already been familiar with much of the language and thinking behind the guide for years, it truly opened my eyes about gender issues, and particularly about the increasing numbers of young people who refuse to accepts pronouns like “he” or “she” and claim non-traditional gender identities.  I had assumed that they felt a disconnect between their physical selves and their self-image, but the guide suggests something more is involved.  Many, including the authors of the guide, are rejecting traditional gender terminology not on emotional grounds, but on political ones.  This emerges very clearly from the definition of the “gender binary”:

“A socially constructed gender system in which gender is classified into two distinct and opposite categories. These gender categories are both narrowly defined and disconnected from one another. They are strictly enforced through rigid gender roles and expectations. Further, there is a hierarchy inherent to the classification, in which one gender, men/boys/masculinity, has access to power and privilege and the other, women/girls/femininity, is marginalized and oppressed. These classifications are seen as immutable; those assigned male at birth should identify as men and embody masculinity, and those assigned female at birth should identify as women and embody femininity. This binary system excludes nonbinary, genderqueer and gender-nonconforming individuals. All people are harmed by the gender binary system, but your place within the system determines the degree and quality of harm.  The gender binary is weaponized through conquest, colonization and continued occupation of indigenous people’s lands. The gender binary system is inherently violent and foregrounds all gender-based oppression.”

In other words, hospital personnel don’t put M or F on birth certificates simply to identify different biological types, but rather to segregate infants into the critical social categories of oppressor and oppressed, for which the terms “man” and “woman” are synonyms.  The penultimate sentence also suggests that the creation, and maintenance, of those categories is responsible for war, conquest, and racism (see above.)  Those who choose to live outside the “gender binary” are not simply courageous iconoclasts, they are the only people in our society, it would seem, who want to escape from this traditional system of oppression.  Lest any readers think that I am overstating my case here, let me add the guide’s definition of “nonbinary”:

“An identity term for a person who identifies outside of the gender binary. A person whose beautiful existence transcends reductive binary constructs and works to annihilate gender and gender-based oppression once and for all.”  Rather than a minority that deserves our tolerance and respect, nonbinary folk emerge as the vanguard of the revolution that will lead us into a new utopia.

I turn now to some of the political implications of this world view.

The Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that dominated the western world from the late 18th until the late 20th centuries before starting to give way to the ideas embodied in the Amherst guide, took numbers and statistics very seriously.  It got into the habit of identifying species, or buildings, or systems of government, by the features which they had in common.  Eventually the Enlightenment gave equal political rights to larger and larger numbers of people, and entrusted the choice of political leaders to electoral majorities.  All these features of enlightenment thought and institutions gave more weight to the most common attributes of human beings, and of other animals and plants, and of various distinct kinds of institutions, when they attempted to describe them.  Democratic politics in particular tend to favor the thoughts and feelings of the average or median individual, and political leaders, to take one key example, have a better chance of being elected if they endorse and at least seem to embody, the values of the largest number of their voters.

The ideology of the Amherst guide stands this methodology on its head, because it denies certain realities of human existence.  Here is the very significant definition of   “Cissexism”:  

“The system of belief that cisgender individuals are the privileged class and are more natural, normal or acceptable than transgender, genderqueer, nonbinary and/or gender-nonconforming people.”

“Cisgender” individuals, to repeat, accept the definition of their gender that medical personnel put on their birth certificate.  They constitute well over 90% of the population.  While I believe that individuals who reject that definition, like all other individuals, deserve equal rights, that statistic makes “cisgender individuals” normal insofar as the term does in fact describe almost the entire population.  By normal I do not mean morally superior or praiseworthy, but simply enormously more common.  One could also make a strong argument that there is something natural about the tendency to identify as a man or a woman, given the frequency with which members of the human species have done so.  But to the new campus ideologues, the word “natural” always appears in quotes to indicate that it is an imposed category, and numbers mean less than nothing.  Indeed, as we have seen, the views of the overwhelming majority of “cisgender” individuals deserve less consideration, since they are collaborators in a system of oppression, the system that, in this view, “assigned” them a given gender, and thus a particular status, at birth.  This attitude towards statistical reality also emerges from the definition of “People of Color,”         “An umbrella term for any individual belonging to a racially minoritized group.”  One does not belong to a minority by virtue of comparative numbers, but because the dominant culture has designated one’s group as a minority, hence the new verb, ”minoritize.”  The postmodern movement has fought the idea of any particular person’s or group’s experience as “typical.”  I wonder whether a modern democracy can function without some such idea to bring us all together—combined, of course, with an equal respect for the rights of those who fall outside it. 

Another idea runs through all these definitions:  that only the oppressed are truly virtuous.  I think that that idea has found its way into the Democratic Party, which is deeply influenced by what happens on campus.  The only virtuous men, according to the Amherst guide, are those who embody “healthy masculinity,” who “work in solidarity with marginalized gender identities to end gender-based oppression. They have an understanding of how their masculinity is impactful, and do the work of healing, undoing and preventing harm.”  The current controversy over the “squad” of four Democratic women in the House of Representatives—Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley—stems in part from the belief that their views deserve more weight because they are “women of color.”  The election of more women has become a good in itself among Democratic activists, whether to make total numbers within Congress more equal, or to give women more of a voice, or to give female children and adolescents more inspiration.  Many of these activists also favor writing off the votes of the white working class, which in their eyes has proven itself to be hopelessly racist and oppressive.  We shall find in the coming year how many of our fellow citizens accept these views.

Two other definitions from the guide have also found their way into our politics.  The guide defines “equality” as follows:

        “Treating everyone exactly the same. An equality emphasis often ignores historical and structural factors that benefit some social groups/communities and harm other social groups/communities.”

         The definition of “colorblindness” elaborates on this view:

         “The ideology that believes the best way to end racial discrimination is through treating individuals the same, regardless of race, culture and ethnicity. This belief, however, ignores historical and structural factors that benefit white people and disadvantage indigenous, black and all other people of color. ‘Colorblindness’ does nothing [sic] to address inequity, since it does not acknowledge the impacts of institutional and systemic racism on people of color.”

        Although modern democracies, like other known forms of government, have never treated everyone exactly equally, they have made progress in that direction, and I do not think they can continue to function if they abandon the ideal of equal treatment as their goal.

The guide also included a definition of “Legal/Illegal”—one that does not include the word “law:”

         “Highly racialized term to describe a person’s presence in a nationwithout government-issued immigration status. Not an appropriate noun or adjective to describe an individual. Often misused to designate certain undocumented members of a society (specifically people of color) to deny their contributions, right to exist and recognition as people within certain national boundaries.”

In a recent Democratic debate a number of candidates appeared to accept this definition, in practice, when they called for decriminalizing entry into the United States without permission and access to health care for illegal immigrants.  What history and current events both tell us is that immigrants, like everyone else, need legal status—rather than simply the moral glow that comes from life in a relatively poor region—to assure them of basic rights.  As a matter of fact, a whole new school of legal thought, critical legal studies, tends to argue that the whole Anglo-American legal tradition was just another way to enshrine the power of straight white males, ignoring that without it, no one will be safe.

I turn now to the paradoxical relationship of the new ideology to western civilization.

While neither reason nor science were confined to Europe in the ancient and medieval worlds, both acquired an unprecedented influence within Europe and its settler colonies during the 18th and 19th centuries.  In the political realm, reason and science decreased the influence of religion in politics, tried to rationalize government to serve the people, and spread the idea of equal political rights and equal citizenship for all.  The Enlightenment also created the modern university, an institution dedicated to the use of reason, not religion, to explain the world.  Those ideas and institutions spread around the world in the 19th and 20th centuries, both by example and because of European colonialism.  Nations like Japan and Turkey concluded that they had to adopt some western ideas and institutions to compete against the west and maintain their own sovereignty.  Communism—an offshoot of the Enlightenment—became a potent revolutionary ideology in Russia, China, and Vietnam.  African peoples introduced to ideas of equal rights by colonial powers demanded those rights for themselves.  Many other empires, of course, had spread their values and influence over large parts of the world in centuries past, but the Europeans, for whatever reason, did so most successfully.  And yes, millions of people inside and outside of Europe and North America concluded that that showed the superiority of western civilization.

The Amherst guide bluntly denies that this historical development was a good one.  Here is its definition of “Eurocentrism:

 “A worldview that is biased towards European thought, history, knowledge, institutions, peoples and culture, often favoring eorts of colonization and development specific to countries in the Global North while dismissing the benefits and advantages of the thought, culture and history rooted elsewhere. Often used to refer also to Western-centrism, which is inclusive of non-European countries in the Global North.”

I see irony here, because this whole postmodern ideology could never have emerged from anywhere but at the heart of western civilization, which gave the world the idea of equal political rights and successively extended that idea to new economic and social groups, to all races, and to women as well as men.  Yet some postmodernists have now repudiated that idea as a snare and a delusion.  This is how the distinguished historian Joan Wallach Scott, who has worked for decades at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, could actually come to argue, in a recent book, that the Enlightenment, not the Muslim religion, has had the worst impact on women’s rights in the Muslim world.[1] That, however, offers a clue as to how this remarkable world view, so utterly at odds with both historical and contemporary realities, could have become so popular.  And here, in another irony, the postmodernists have something to tell us.

Reality, they constantly teach us, depends on one’s perspective, which in turn depends on one’s race, gender, and sexual orientation.  (The Amherst guide has remarkably little to say about class.)  The postmodern perspective did, I think, resonate with a particular group of individuals who began to emerge about half a century ago:  well-off women and nonwhites attempting to enter academia and the professions in the United States, and probably in certain European countries well.  What did they find?

They found a world where men unquestionably held nearly all the power, and where a good many of them (but never all, by any means) refused to take women seriously.  Some of these men also exploited their position to try to secure sexual favors.  In addition, these women—like their male counterparts, for the most part—found themselves in highly competitive environments where employment and promotion outcomes often had little relationship to ability and performance.  Faced with this daunting situation, some women easily concluded that the workplace (especially the academic workplace) was a male conspiracy and nothing more.  And that view became the basis of a good deal of scholarship, the kind of scholarship that led ultimately to the production of the Amherst guide.

The great flaw of contemporary academics—a flaw not confined to any race or gender—is to confuse their reality with reality in the rest of the world, even though they actually live in an environment every bit as separated from the real world as a medieval monastery.   And as a matter of fact, some postmodern ideas describe academia far more accurately than they do the real world.  In academia, language does matter more than reality.  One’s status frequently depends on adopting the right views, using the right jargon, and attacking the right enemies.  Very few people in academia have the discipline and patience to evaluate work on its merits.  The right to define what is important does determine a great deal in the academy, including who gets hired and who does not.  And groups can much more easily impose “hegemony,” as defined by the Amherst guide—“The imposition of dominant group ideology onto everyone in society”—on a campus than in the world at large.  Hegemony, the guide continues, “makes it dicult to escape or resist ‘believing in’ this dominant ideology; thus social control is achieved through conditioning rather than physical force or intimidation.” That is exactly what the Amherst guide was designed to do.

Like so many other intellectual movements, the postmodernist ideology, or “political correctness,” aroused a good deal of attention in the major media when it first became a force on campus in the 1990s.  It tended to fade from view over the next twenty years, but it meanwhile achieved almost complete hegemony on most of our campuses.  Now its impact has emerged on the national scene in the media, the arts, and politics.  Whatever Democrat is nominated next year will almost certainly have made a number of rhetorical and policy concessions to it.  Donald Trump, meanwhile, will do everything he can—which is a lot—to make the election a referendum on the gulf between the new ideology and traditional values.  The voters will decide.

       










[1] See the review of Scott’s book, Sex and Secularism, by Laura Kipnis in the New York Review of Books, May 24, 2018: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/05/24/secularism-letting-their-hair-down/