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Saturday, June 12, 2021

Living Through Metahistory

 My work on my new book--a concise political history of the US, based upon presidential addresses--has now reached the 1920s.  The last two chapters, covering the years 1897-1921, have been very rich ones, marking a great turning point in American history.  I am convinced that a comparable turning point occurred around 1981, after about 15 years of preparation, and that we have been living through its consequences ever since.  Our response to the COVID pandemic showed how far things had gone.

In the years around the turn from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, the US view of our domestic politics and of our place in the world changed.  Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to talk at length about the need for fairness in our new industrial economy, and so far in my researches I have found that every one of his successors--through Warren Harding at least--addressed that issue as well.   He was also the first president to characterize the United States as a great world power among other world powers, one that was playing its role in the spread of western civilization around the globe, and that might have to defend its interests and values in a great war.  It fell to Woodrow Wilson to put those ideas into practice for the first time, and although his handling of the First World War had decidedly mixed results, the same set of problems returned with a vengeance in the 1930s and led to the Second World War and the Cold War. And at least until the 1960s, the nation's leaders argued that we had to secure various kinds of justice at home--including civil rights for all--in order to make our values credible abroad. Wilson specifically asked Congress to pass the women's suffrage amendment to help the war effort in the fall of 1918, and Presidents Truman, Kennedy and Johnson all argued that we had to pass civil rights legislation to play our role as world leaders.  Meanwhile, the enormous military efforts of the two world wars and the cold war led to marginal tax rates as high as 90%, and a great increase in economic equality from the 1930s through the 1970s.  With rare exceptions, Americans accepted the nation's new role, trusted their leadership, and willingly made sacrifices for the greater good. They also began removing traditional inequalities based on race and gender--although the nation remained quite socially conservative.

The great backlash against the mid-century world began in 1964, on both the right and the left.  First, the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater, who entirely rejected the New Deal and the changes that it had wrought and much of the international order (such as the United Nations) that had grown out of the world wars. Goldwater went down to a crushing defeat, but as the journalist Theodore White suggested at the end of The Making of the President 1964, he turned out to be a prophet of a new era. And in that same fall, the most privileged young people on the planet--the students at the University of California at Berkeley--rebelled against the stifling authoritarianism, as they saw it, of their university, which was giving them a great education without any tuition at all.  Their leader Mario Savio explicitly compared the predicament of Berkeley undergraduates to that of black citizens in segregated Mississippi--and that comparison apparently resonated.  The Boomer undergraduates he was addressing did not remember the Depression or the Second World War and had had enough, apparently, of the discipline and social conservatism that had gotten us through them.  By the fall of 1965, the Vietnam War was escalating, and more and more students around the country were rejecting mainstream values.  By 1970 hundreds of campuses were revolting against imperialism, racism, and sexism, and university administrations were slowly beginning to adopt the students' values--notably by canceling exams in the spring of 1970 to allow students to protest against the invasion of Cambodia. Now, a half century later, much more extreme versions of those values have completely taken over higher education--enforced by bureaucracies that did not exist in mid-century.

In 1980 Ronald Reagan succeeded where Barry Goldwater had failed, winning the presidency in a landslide and moving actively to slash top tax rates, roll back the rights of labor, and demonize government.  Then in 1989 came the end of the Cold War, which liberated the nation from its fear of a worldwide enemy--a fear which, while doing considerable harm, had also kept us together in a common enterprise for several critical decades.  By the 1990s a new, much younger Republican leader, Newt Gingrich, felt free to demonize the entire Democratic Party, and Republicans did anything they could to delegitimize the very moderate Bill Clinton, just as they later did with Barack Obama.  In 2001, in the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush tried to revive a sense of great national purpose as he embarked upon a military crusade to bring democracy to the Arab world.  He severely weakened that effort, however, by cutting taxes further instead of raising them--recreating the permanent deficit that Clinton had eliminated--and he discredited entirely by adopting impossible objectives like bringing western-allied democracy to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the rest of the Middle East.  His successor Barack Obama stuck to that broad objective despite further failures.

The election of Donald Trump, I have said many times, showed that about half of the American people had lost all faith in our political leadership.  The response to the pandemic showed an even more extraordinary contempt for authority among a whole political party--not merely political authority, but medical and scientific authority.  In fact, our most politically active citizens, on both sides, view each other, not any specific domestic problem or foreign rival, as their major enemy and the major problem that has to be overcome.  While Republican activists and politicians regard the pandemic as a Democratic conspiracy to defeat Donald Trump and enforce the supremacy of an intellectual elite, Democratic activists view Republicans as racist, sexist and homophobic oppressors. We are locked in a series of internal political civil wars for power between two sides largely defined by race, gender, and social attitudes. The situation is quite parallel to the civil era, but we can't have a civil war this time to resolve it.  

President Biden's focus on infrastructure draws on an earlier tradition, the tradition of his youth that built the interstate highway system and thousands of new schools and universities.  The Republican Party however is refusing to authorize even $1 more in taxes to pay for his proposals and will try to limit them as much as possible.  Meanwhile, the rhetoric of both sides is fueling racial divisions and obscuring the common problems that Americans of all races and genders face.  Our major media outlets have all lined up on one side or the other as well.  I have seen in my researches (and in a lot of other reading as well) that earlier generations of Americans believed that democracy would only work if reason dominated over emotion and if citizens exercised their freedoms--including freedom of speech--with critical self-restraint.  I am afraid we are discovering how right they were.


6 comments:

Bozon said...

Professor
Very interesting summary.
Regarding reason, here is an old passage and citation regarding the Enlightenment:

"In theory, the philosophers stood for the toleration of all beliefs and the free expression of all ideas. In fact, however, the situation was less simple. The philosophers were by no means willing to allow liberty to their opponents, not even to those who were far from representing the formidable power of the church. Their method was not often the mild persuasion favored by liberals. They talked much of reason, but their sharpest instruments were ridicule and vilification, which enabled them to throw off a man's arguments by defaming his character or belittling his intelligence. (See Boomerbuster FN in parentheses below.) La Baumelle went to jail, thanks partly to Voltaire whose works he had ventured to criticize. Freron, a conservative and Catholic journalist, was called by Voltaire, in a single work, a scribbler, scoundrel, toad, lizard, snake, spider, viper's tongue, crooked mind, heart of filth, doer of evil, rascal, impudent person, cowardly knave, spy, and hound. He found his journal gagged, his income halved and his career ruined by the concerted attacks of the philosophers. To silence him, at least two of the philosophers, Marmontel and d' Alembert, appealed to the censors whose very existence the enlightened thinkers are supposed to have abhorred. It is not possible, in short, to accept as characteristic of these thinkers the statement often attributed to Voltaire, that, though he disagreed with what a man said, he would fight to the death for his right to say it." Palmer, Catholics and Unbelievers, circa p 7. For Voltaire's intolerance, Palmer cites to the index under Voltaire's works (Paris 1883-1885), Chaumeix, Trublet, Larcher, Guenee, and especially Juifs.

All the best

Bozon said...

Professor

Just a short comparative analysis post.

Trump, dumb.
Nobel Peace Prize, Ahmed, Ethiopia, dumber.

Biden, dumb.
Nobel Prize in Economics, Wilson and Milgrom, dumber.

Ridenhour Prize, Chanel Miller, Know My Name, dumb.
Pulitzer Prize, Lisa Wilkerson, Caste, dumber.

All the best

Energyflow said...

It seems that Strauss and Howe' s 80 year cycle is a half cycle between external and internal strife. The main emphasis in this saeculum seems to be repairing inner ideological riffs or going into separatist mode. In 2100 if America remains a single country then an external enemy could be met. Perhaps North America would be united under one flag and several official languages and a new constitution, making isolationist America autarch. At any rate the current identity crisis centers on racial and sexual politics. Not female rights, those we thought to have settled, but other rights. These could blossom limitlessly, polygamy, polyandry,polyamory, gay, transgender, lifestyle politics. Racial politics creating permanent quotas everywhere and separate but equal silos for life like in caste system India seems regressive to previous logic. If one accepts however that people have specific culturally, even genetically inborn advantages then, as in golf, everyone needs a handicap. One must do a DNA ethnic origins test, an aptitude test as well. These would be used for the placement in a handicap group. Lower IQed would have easier college access and easier grading and need to acheive less at work. Ethnic steretypes long since engrained( germans as good technicians, Jews as intelectuals, french and Italian as good in art, design, cuisine, Irish as sociial organizers, artists, writers, would all be dragged out to create one' s perspectives for life. We could forbid people marrying outside of their narrow group or even socializing. Aldous Huxley comes to mind. Certain women would become birthing machines for busy technocratic classes, lacking time to leave the work force. Since all these suggestions seem to come from the powerful and ideologically controlling leftwing then acceptance should be assured, except in a few isolated areas of rural Montana and Idaho which could be bombed. One thinks of the aboriginals or Native Americans children being brought into white homes to become integrated. Perhaps going a step further, all marriages or sexual unions and births in particular would need official approval. Ethnic homogeneity would be seen as racist. Blacks, latinos, Asians would all be mixed deliberately with the white majority to eliminate all ghettoization. Within two or three generations a mixed race, relatively homogenous would come into existence. Blacks, whites,Asians and latinos are admixtures after centuries from their own diverse regions. The next step to acheive is to obtain a unitary race where all have similar racial proportions genetically. I doubt this can be acheived voluntarily. Presumably only a bloody civil war would make this solution palatable as the alternative seems to be ethnic cleansing of some sort( idaho as a white nation, california pure latino, mississippi pure black, etc). How separate ethnically pure states or a homogenous new race would react to New Sexuality is hard to know. Birth rate battles might make them wary, needing young soldiers, perhaps forbidding gayness altogether. The constitution might be looked at like the old testament, a curious old manuscript without any modern application. One more major crisis like a climate crisis with a permanent restriction on access to transport, internet to save energy, reduce CO2 could help eliminate on and offline protests, gatherings as the military and drones patrol the landscape, enforce the new order from the Norad Bunker of Big Brother or Sister. Satire? Who knows.

Bozon said...

Professor
These are 2 old posts re the US and Israel, an additional layer for the artichoke, brings into prominence Jewish aspects usually left out of discussions.
Sat August 17, 2019 NYT TLF Trump is not helping Israel, Part I
Thomas L Friedman poses himself as Israel's friend and defender against bad Trump who wants only Republicans to support him, and by implication, to support Israel, as against Democrats who Trump says, Friedman says, should not support Israel.
So, Friedman accuses Trump of being the first American President to play the Israel card, making support for Israel a wedge issue in American politics, something Friedman says never ever happened before.
Let's just take a short walk off a short dock down memory lane...
As even so even handed a historian as David Kaiser has generously pointed out on his blog, the modern neocon movement itself first arose out of conservative orthodox Jewish (not right wing American, not Christian, not libertarian, not econo Reaganite) disappointment at the lack of enough support for the state of Israel as a strong religious state among American Democrats.
They have never, ever, had, and never will have, enough support from Americans, baby!
As TLF quite accurately puts it: America is Israel's vital political, military, and economic backer (you might say its only backer, of that kind) in the world.
PART III
Friedman and the NYT wants all Christian stooges to help all Jews everywhere.
One could also say, and TLF admits as much in his article, that Friedman and the NYT are not helping Israel.
But liberal Jews cannot be seen to be anti Israel, even while they really are.
That is one of the dirty little secrets of liberal Jewry here, and how they have to dance all around an issue like this.
And it explains how TLF comes out looking like a real idiot, and his article here a real roundhouse Pig's Breakfast of sophistry, trying to claim with a straight face, while at the same time admitting the truth, that Trump is not helping Israel.
They don't want to see liberal Christians not support Jews in general, and have been willing to go along with liberal Christians supporting Israel as well, rather than enlighten them regarding liberal Jews' Christian stooge point of view.
That is also why he talks about both the virtues of both Republican and Democratic Christians stooges promoting all Jewish causes, rather than dividing Jewish causes up, as he accuses Trump of doing, by Republican for Israel or Democrat against Israel.
Post, or just glance at.
All the best

Bozon said...

Professor
Speaking of media lining up, or not lining up, on one side or the other, reflect on this:

The origin of Covid 19, see Nicholas Wade's article, citing David Baltimore's investigation, quoted in Vanity Fair recently:

https://nicholaswade.medium.com/origin-of-covid-following-the-clues-6f03564c038

For the China huggers, why let them kid themselves?

All the best

Bozon said...

Professor
The American colonists were the most lightly taxed population, relative to their wealth, and to their status as commoners, in the history of the world. R R Palmer

Jump to your 60s Boomer ingrate narrative:

"...Their leader Mario Savio explicitly compared the predicament of Berkeley undergraduates to that of black citizens in segregated Mississippi--and that comparison apparently resonated..." DK

The wealthy white planter rebel colonists, though owning, holding, and clinging to their negro slaves and their smuggler and duty dodging urban colonists, (triggering the rebellion? who knows), yelped loudest, as Samuel Johnson put it, for their so called liberties.

Patrich Henry, the Mario Savio of his day, was a poorly educated indolent white lawyer on the make when he trumpeted Give me liberty or give me death, as if he were a negro slave fighting for his freedom from the chains of King George.

All the best