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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Surveying the future

I have my own ways of dealing with the world, and sometime in the 1990s, I think, I pretty much gave up watching TV news, except on election nights. That leaves gaps in my consciousness--I never saw the first President Bush lose his cookies in Japan, for instance, and more recently, I didn't see a minute of footage of Barack Obama's trip to the Middle East and Europe. (I did however read the Berlin speech in its entirety.) The trip seems to have been an unqualified success and Obama continues to lead McCain in enough states to win with over 290 electoral votes (even though some of them have actually tightened up recently.) Obama's reception shows that Europe, at least, would be delighted by an American President who speaks in terms they can understand and reaffirms our community of values. At the same time, the trip included alarming signals suggesting that there may not be that many changes after all when Obama takes office, at least on the foreign front.
One cannot, of course, take campaign rhetoric too seriously--and I can easily imagine strategists in Obama's campaign chuckling as they remember George W. Bush promising a more "humble" foreign policy in 2000. But with one tantalizing exception, Obama on this trip, I am sorry to say, echoed several of the major positions of current Bush foreign policy in the Middle East. He reaffirmed his support for withdrawal from Iraq, and has won the support of Al-Maliki (despite efforts by the White House, speaking through an Iraqi official who works more closely with Americans, to deny what Maliki said to Der Spiegel.) But he wants to make a greater effort in Afghanistan, which has emerged as another quagmire, and where the conflict also seems to be having a profoundly negative effect in nuclear-armed Pakistan. Worst of all, he echoed the Bush Administration approach on Iran, refusing to take a military strike off the table while calling for "big carrots" as well. Regarding Israel and Palestine, there is, I am now convinced, essentially nothing that he or any American President can do. Obama, like any other major candidate, has already bowed publicly to AIPAC. In any event, as an article in today's Guardian points out, there is not the slightest chance of meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations any time in the near future--or perhaps, ever. The Israeli and American governments are engaged in a disgraceful charade, kicked off by President Bush last November, as they pretend that peace may be at hand. Meanwhile the Israeli presence in the West Bank is more intrusive and settlement construction is increasing. Israel will still get whatever it wants, and no Palestinian leader can make peace on that basis. The one truly provocative part of Obama's Berlin speech was his reference to the need to tear down walls, which could obviously be interpreted to refer to the Israeli security fence and even to the blast walls all over Baghdad--but we may live to see swords beaten into plowshares before that wall comes down.
The danger and illegality of an attack on Iran was laid out brilliantly by Thomas Powers in the last New York Review of Books. It could lead to chaos in the Strait of Hormuz, yet another oil shock, a coup in Lebanon, and terrorism on a larger scale over much of the Middle East. Obama may not intend it, but his endorsement of it as an option--in effect--shows that the idea of preventive attack has now become mainstream, perhaps as accepted among our political elite as containment was during the Cold War. He could, of course, reverse this trend, at least in practice, after he is elected, but I'm afraid that the chances that he will just fell. Concidentally, these broader issues are the subject of a review in the current NYRB by Samantha Power, Obama's one-time foreign policy adviser who had to quit after calling Hillary Clinton a "monster." Reviewing books by J. Peter Scoblic and Matthew Yglesias on politics and foreign policy, she shows how neoconservatives have managed to bring the doctrine that might makes right into the mainstream, and lays out how much work Democrats will have to do to rehabilitate international cooperation as foreign policy. (She also takes a swipe at one of the more pernicious ideas to have emerged recently: an "association of democracies" outside the UN to join in imposing American will around the globe. John McCain has endorsed that plan.)
How has this happened? It has become more and more obvious to me, partly as my students (almost always in the 35-50 range) get younger, that the end of the Cold War during and immediately after Ronald Reagan's Presidency had an enormous amount to do with it. As I try to explain to them year after year, Reagan made quite a different impression on many of us old enough to remember the 1950s. We had grown up awash in the rhetoric of evil Communism and seen it in 1962 lead us to the brink of nuclear war, and, in 1965, into Vietnam. Many of us had totally re-examined our assumptions during that conflict and concluded that the Soviets and Chinese were not in any meaningful sense bent upon world conquest, and that the United States did not have to control political events in every remote corner of the world. We had also seen two Republican Presidents, Nixon and Ford, move towards détente and declare nuclear war unwinnable. The return of the rhetoric of our childhood came as quite a shock. Those born after 1960, however, came to consciousness as America was "held hostage" under Jimmy Carter and found Reagan invigorating. Then, in the late 1980s, came the collapse of Communism.
Space does not allow for a thorough examination of Reagan's contribution to that result, but I have to say that I find the argument that his policies were decisive absurd. The same policies--massive military build-up, intervention in third world trouble spots, and threatening rhetoric--had been tried twice before, under Truman as soon as the Korean War broke out, and in the early years of the Kennedy Administration. Kennedy in 1962 enjoyed nuclear superiority over the Soviets such as Reagan never dreamed of, and he used it, along with local conventional superiority, to force Khrushchev to back down over Cuba. He promptly used that victory to begin
détente, concluding the Test Ban--but the long-term result was a huge Soviet military build-up. Some Republicans talk as if Reagan had re-established such American military supremacy that the Soviets had no choice but to give up their system and collapse, but they had dealt with worse before. What killed their system, I think, was the death of nearly everyone who still believed in it--the generation that were actually young adults who helped build the Communist economy beginning in the early 1930s. That simply happened to coincide with a swing to the right in America, but it enshrined the idea that the threat or use of force can solve every problem in American politics, and no major figure, as yet, has repudiated it.
John McCain obviously will not. As the New York Times pointed out a couple of days ago, thanks to the finally growing influence of Condi Rice and the State Department--whose only real achievement to date is the breakthrough with North Korea about which neocons like John Bolton are complaining bitterly--and of Robert Gates at the Pentagon, McCain is now sounding more hawkish than the Bush Administration. Obama, I think, will surely repudiate some aspects of it in practice. He could conceivably adopt the strategy of Charles de Gaulle in the early 1960s as well, and argue that while the U.S. must remain a great world power, military force is no longer the key element of such a role. He could also be genuinely forced to divert attention from overseas involvement to deal with economic collapse at home. But for the moment, the battle of ideas appears to have been won by proponents of a muscular foreign policy--including, as Samantha Power points out, those Democrats who supported the Iraq war on "humanitarian" grounds and still, after the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis and the flight of two million refugees into neighboring countries, think some outcome could vindicate them.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Implications of history

I will not enjoy writing this post. The Israeli Benny Morris is one of the best and most honest historians of my generation. A leader of what has been called "new history" in Israel, he has written a series of extraordinarily even-handed book about the Arab-Israeli conflict, beginning with The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, continuing through Righteous Victims, a thorough history of the conflict beginning in the late 19th century which I own, and now including 1948, an account of the Israeli War of Independence, which I happen to have out of the library at the moment. At least three important historical points recur through those books.

1. When Zionists began arriving in Palestine, as it was then, in large numbers, they encountered a hostile Arab population. Most of them recognized this, and after the First World War, when Zionism began working actively for statehood, some, including David Ben-Gurion, began to talk about the removal of Arab population from the new Israel as the ultimate solution to this problem. When war broke out in 1948 the Israelis intermittently (although not, obviously, uniformly) carried out that policy and forced a great many Arabs out of the territory claimed by the Jews. The Israelis also committed atrocities. The Arabs, Morris makes clear in the conclusion of 1948, enjoyed no moral superiority, and indeed were officially eager to kill Jewish civilians while Jewish military authorities tried to impose some rules; but in practice, largely because they were the stronger side, the Israelis, he concludes, probably killed more civilians than the Arabs--about 800, as opposed to about 200.

2. Although the Israelis from 1917 onward were willing to accept various compromise proposals offered by the British and then by the UN to divide Palestine while the Palestinians were not, the Israeli leadership never regarded any of these proposals--including the 1948 partition boundaries and the armistice lines of 1949 that lasted for 18 years--as a final settlement and consistently planned to expand those borders. They tried to do so in 1956 during the Suez crisis, conquering the Sinai peninsula, but had to yield those gains in the following year under heavy American pressure. (President Eisenhower reportedly threatened to make American contributions to Israel non-deductible, which, in the days of 91% marginal tax rates, was a serious threat.) Since 1967 they have expanded into the West Bank and have never reached any consensus on where this process should stop. (This point was made in the 1980s by Conor Cruise O'Brien in his essentially pro-Israel study, The Siege.)

3. The Palestinian Arabs understood the implications of Zionism from the beginning and totally rejected it. Moreover, Morris's evenhanded treatments consistently imply that their attitude was both logical and understandable, and he never seems to suggest that they had some kind of duty to make peace with the Zionists.

Now anyone who has read much of my own work will understand why I appreciated and admired Morris. As I said in the last pages of American Tragedy, some of my favorite historians--like the Italian Luigi Albertini, the West German Fritz Fischer, and Thucydides--are those whose feelings for their own nation led them to explore, rather than to try to excuse, its faults. That is, I think, the only useful basis for nationalism in today's world. Morris was in that tradition--he was acknowledging, in a sense, that Israelis were no different from any other organized people founding a state against opposition, in the same way that US citizens have to hear today that imperialism is still imperialism, even when we do it.

Meanwhile, Morris in the 1980s opposed the occupation of the West Bank (he was in his late thirties at the time--we are nearly the same age) and actually served some jail time because he refused to help rule the Arab town of Nablus. He also hoped that Israel could reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians based on the 1967 borders. The events of the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, changed his mind, as he explained in a widely re-published interview with Ari Shavit in early 2004.

Morris had by then concluded that the Palestinians had rejected the deal offered by Ehud Barak in 2000 because they would never accept Israel's existence. Peace, he said, was impossible. In addition, he now went beyond simply reporting that leaders like Ben Gurion had favored "transferring" the Arab population out of Israel and endorsed that practice himself, arguing, indeed, that Ben-Gurion should have gone further down that road in 1948. And he added that under certain circumstances--if, for instance, an Islamic regime came to power in Egypt or in Jordan--Israel should expel the entire Arab population of the West Bank as well. I quote:

"And today? Do you advocate a transfer today?"

"If you are asking me whether I support the transfer and expulsion of the Arabs from the West Bank, Gaza and perhaps even from Galilee and the Triangle, I say not at this moment. I am not willing to be a partner to that act. In the present circumstances it is neither moral nor realistic. The world would not allow it, the Arab world would not allow it, it would destroy the Jewish society from within. But I am ready to tell you that in other circumstances, apocalyptic ones, which are liable to be realized in five or ten years, I can see expulsions. If we find ourselves with atomic weapons around us, or if there is a general Arab attack on us and a situation of warfare on the front with Arabs in the rear shooting at convoys on their way to the front, acts of expulsion will be entirely reasonable. They may even be essential."

"Including the expulsion of Israeli Arabs?"

"The Israeli Arabs are a time bomb. Their slide into complete Palestinization has made them an emissary of the enemy that is among us. They are a potential fifth column. In both demographic and security terms they are liable to undermine the state. So that if Israel again finds itself in a situation of existential threat, as in 1948, it may be forced to act as it did then. If we are attacked by Egypt (after an Islamist revolution in Cairo) and by Syria, and chemical and biological missiles slam into our cities, and at the same time Israeli Palestinians attack us from behind, I can see an expulsion situation. It could happen. If the threat to Israel is existential, expulsion will be justified."

Morris, born in 1948, is an Israeli Prophet, and thus prone to thinking in absolute terms. His position here has a certain logic, but I would prefer to think that the Israeli people would never actually want to carry it out and that their government (and he admits in the interview that he is an historian, not a statesman) would reject it. One cannot, however, be sure. Similar things have happened in the heart of Europe in the last century--with the concurrence of the United States and Britain.

Now, however, Morris has gone further still. In an op-ed yesterday in the New York Times, he predicted advocated an Israeli preventive strike on Iran during the next seven months designed to cripple Iran's nuclear program. If a conventional strike did not do the job, he added, Israel would have to follow up with a nuclear strike, either before or after Iran had acquired nuclear weapons. The piece can be read in several ways; it seems at times to be an attempt to blackmail the Bush Administration into joining with the Israelis, or at least allowing them to use bases in Iraq (a move certain to have disastrous political consequences there), in order to try to make sure that a conventional strike does the job. Showing utter contempt for the American people, Morris also suggests that the strike has to take place between the election and inauguration of a new President, so that American voters will have no chance to influence the decision. And with his respect to the nature of the Iranian threat, he puts himself squarely in the camp of Vice President Cheney, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, and President Bush.

"Every intelligence agency in the world," Morris writes, "believes the Iranian program is geared toward making weapons, not to the peaceful applications of nuclear power." That sentence will come as a surprise to CIA analysts who recently reached and published the opposite conclusion. But even if Iran still has that goal--and it may--Morris has to explain why this is so completely unacceptable as to justify preventive nuclear war. Israel, he says, is "threatened almost daily with destruction by Iran’s leaders. . .Israel, believing that its very existence is at stake — and this is a feeling shared by most Israelis across the political spectrum — will certainly make the effort. Israel’s leaders, from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert down, have all explicitly stated that an Iranian bomb means Israel’s destruction; Iran will not be allowed to get the bomb." The statement about Israeli leaders may be true, but that simply means that they, like Bush, Cheney and company in 2002, have convinced themselves of something which may not be true at all. Contrary to what Morris says, Iranian leaders have never threatened militarily to destroy Israel. Ahmadinejad's famous statement that Israel should be "wiped off the map" simply means that in his opinion, a Zionist state should not exist in the Middle East. (That opinion is shared by the vast majority of the Arab population of the region, of course.) Officially, Iran wants all Palestinian refugees to return to Israel and take part in a vote on the future shape of the state. In practice I suspect most Iranians know Israel is here to stay. (We should not forget, by the way, that Israel, along with the United States, was a major covert ally of the Shah of Iran, any more than we should forget that the United States helped overthrow a democratically elected Iranian government in 1953.)

Fulfilling a fantasy of mine, Senator Obama this week called for a world without nuclear weapons. Morris in my opinion would be on firmer political and moral ground if he coupled his Carthaginian threat with an offer by the Israelis to give up their nuclear weapons if thorough and effective controls are put in place throughout the region. But he doesn't. Like President Bush, he claims the authority for Israel to decide who should have what weapons, and the right to enforce its views by any means, including nuclear weapons.

I now ask readers to look very carefully at what I am about to say because I do not want to be misinterpreted. I believe that Israel over the last 60 years has established its right to exist as well as any other nation, since every nation, in truth, has been built on the backs of others. And I do not in the least agree with Morris that Israel has to act with any means necessary to destroy the Iranian nuclear program in order to survive. If deterrence was good enough for the United States when the Soviet Union could deliver 10,000 nuclear warheads upon us, it is good enough for Israel. But if Morris were right--if Israel could only continue to exist by claiming and exercising the right to make preventive nuclear strikes on Muslim nations--then I would suggest one would indeed have to question the wisdom of creating it in the first place. Some Israelis may believe that history entitles them to use methods forbidden to others, but the rest of the world will never accept that view. The original idea of Zionism, as I understand it, was to eliminate, not reinforce, the exceptional status of the Jews--to give them, like other peoples, their own state. That means, to me, a state that lives on equal terms with others. Yes, it is true that many among Israel's neighbors (though not all) deny Israel that right--but if Israel gives up the idea of living in peace with its neighbors, its enemies, in my opinion, will have won. The rest of the world, in any case, simply cannot accept preventive nuclear war as a legitimate tactic. If we do many of us will live to see the nightmare we thought we had escaped in the 1990s--a regional or world war fought with nuclear weapons.

p.s. Thanks to a couple of links, a great many people are visiting here for the first time. I hope you will check some of the other posts and use the feedblitz link to subscribe if you are interested.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Obama's story

I spent last week on vacation in Quebec--really a combination of perhaps the most spectacular urban setting in North America, a tourist trap, and a French provincial town, but one which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially for the chance to see the sites of the 1759 campaign first hand--but meanwhile, I finally kept a promise to myself and read Barack Obama's Dreams from my Father. It was a remarkable experience.

We live, as I have been forced to realize in many ways, in an increasingly semi-literate culture. We are still inundated with words, but remain in the midst of a general decline in sustained argument, original thinking, and books of any length. Barack Obama does represent an exception to all this--or at least, he did when he wrote his first book, long before he had become rich or famous to command the services of a ghost. Dreams For My Father is 450 rather dense and well-written pages long. No Presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson (both of whom were far more prolific) has demonstrated remotely comparable literary ability. The book is, however, far more intensely personal than anything that they wrote. In some respects, indeed, its relentlessly personal focus frustrated me. Obama repeatedly makes clear that he has been a voracious reader all his life but almost never refers to anything specific that he has read. I don't believe that he mentioned a single course that he took during his college years at Occidental and Columbia--I didn't even learn what his major was. Yet he shows a highly developed sense of both American and world history, because the real story of the book is about how he fits in--an issue with which I can certainly identify. Yet I get the impression that very few journalists and pundits have actually read it. It is, perhaps, too literate, too long, to much of an effort for today's America.
Thus, I have the impression that most people are still only vaguely aware of the details of Obama's complex life--perhaps because they simply cannot be fit into a standard television news feature. His mother's parents were midwesterners who wended their way across the US and eventually to Honolulu in the late 1950s, where their only child, his mother, attended the University of Hawaii. There she met his father, Barack Obama Sr., a young Kenyan from a rural family who had come to America to learn managerial skills that could help his nation, then on the verge of independence. Obama is provocatively vague about the dates and circumstances of their marriage, but his grandparents clearly accepted it. According to his mother, however, when his father graduated from Hawaii she could not accompany him to Harvard, where he went for some graduate studies, and decided to get a divorce when he returned to Kenya. All of this happened before Barack was old enough to remember his father, whom he met for the first and only time when the elder Barack came to Hawaii for an extended visit when Barack was ten, in 1971 or so. By then, many other events had supervened.
Specifically, his mother had now met, married, and then divorced an Indonesian named Lolo, who had also been studying in Hawaii, and the family had moved to Indonesia when Obama was about six. (Exact dates are often missing from the book.) Both his father and his step-father, in short, belonged to the age of newly emerging nations--nations originally expected to follow roughly in the western path. But both of them, it eventually turned out, had their careers ruined because they found themselves on the wrong side of the politics of their native land. The Sukarno government sent Lolo abroad to study but was overthrown in 1965 while he was away, and he returned to find himself a suspect person who was quickly herded into the army for two years of difficult duty in Papua New Guinea. Meanwhile, back in Kenya, Barack Obama Sr. was also falling victim to a mixture of tribal politics and his own contentious personality, and his bright future as a civil servant or politician eventually evaporated as well.
For all these reasons, Barack's years in Indonesia--where a younger half-sister was born--were anything but luxurious, but they were quite exciting. He did briefly attend a Muslim school, where he explains he was criticized for inattention to religious subjects. Both his father and step-father were clearly only the most nominal of Muslims--facts which of course do not have the slightest interest for the right-wing blogosphere. When he was ten, his mother--had blossomed as an English teacher to supplement the family income--decided to send him back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents and attend school there. He was accepted to Punaho, Honolulu's leading private school (from which, as it happens, a close friend of mine at Harvard had just graduated.) About a year later his mother left Lolo and returned to Hawaii as well
By this point in the book Barack Obama, born in 1961, defined (and rightly, I am convinced) by Strauss and Howe as the first year of Generation X, has emerged clearly as an interesting kind of generational hybrid. On the one hand, his own life has many classic Gen X features: divorced parents, frequent moves, and, later, a mildly rebellious youth that included a good deal of pharmaceutical recreation. (Xers, as a group, used far more drugs as teenagers than Boomers.) But on the other hand, he retains through his parents an acute sense of the glorious age of optimistic innocence that was coming to an end at the time of his birth--the age I memorialized in the last pages of American Tragedy. "In the end," he writes, "I suppose that's what all the stories of my father [that he heard from his mother and grandparents] were about. They said less about the man himself than about the changes that had taken place in the people around him, the halting process by which my grandparents' racial attitudes had changed. The stories gave voice to a spirit that would grip the nation for that fleeting period between Kennedy's election and the passage of the Voting Rights Act: the seeming triumph of universalism over parochialism and narrow-mindedness, a bright new world where differences of race or culture would instruct and amuse and perhaps even ennoble. A useful fiction, one that haunts me no less than it haunted my family, evoking as it does some lost Eden that extends beyond mere childhood." Indeed.
Yet by the time Obama had reached high school he had left universalism, for the moment, behind, and was becoming obsessed with the issue of being black. In a moving passage, he describes reading some of the black political classics, including Richard Wright and W. E. B. Dubois, and noting how many of these thinkers had ended their lives in bitter exile. He was also very influenced by Malcolm X's autobiography and by the dramatic turn Malcolm was taking in the last year of his life (also the year of the Voting Rights Act.) But as the Library of America's second volume on Reporting Civil Rights, which I recently read, shows so clearly, in that very same year the balance among younger blacks had started swinging towards the view of American society as hopelessly imperialist and corrupt--the view still taken by Jeremiah Wright, a minor character in this book, and who happens to be a very near contemporary of both of Obama's parents. Obama struggled particularly with the popular idea that success and selling out were, for black Americans, synonymous, but he had an epiphany at Occidental College after making a brief public speech against divestiture. When a black female student named Regina complimented him on his charismatic presentation, he replied cynically and resentfully that the speech would be his last. "I don't believe we made any difference by what we did today," he said. "I don't believe that what happens to a kid in Soweto makes much difference to the people we were talking to. Pretty words don't make it so. So why do I pretend otherwise? I'll tell you why. Because it makes ImeI feel important. . . .That's all."
She reacted angrily. "You wanna know what your real problem is? You always think everything's about you. You're just like Reggie and Marcus and Steve and all the other brothers out here. The really is about you. The speech is about you. The hurt is always your hurt. Well, let me tell you something, Mr. Obama. It's not about you. It's never just about you. It's about people you need your help." That conversation, he implies, led him to his career as a community organizer in Chicago after his graduation from Columbia, where he transferred for his last two years. "I had stopped listening [to homilies like these] at a certain point," he writes, "so wrapped up had I been in my own perceived injuries, so eager was I to escape the imagined traps that white authority had set for me. To that white world, I had been willing to cede the values of my childhood, as if those values were somehow irreversibly soiled by the endless falsehoods that while people spoke about black."
Obama never entirely followed up that tantalizing hint in Dreams for My Father. He did not make much of an attempt to push universalist values during his years as a Chicago organizer, and most of the black authorities he worked with--including the Reverend Wright--rejected them. And yet I come away from the book, perhaps optimistically, feeling that he has eventually come to believe that in a world of many races and of modern economic structures, universalism is the only answer.
This, it seemed to me, was also the implication of the long last section of the book, which describes Obama's first, long visit to his ancestral home in Kenya just before his entrance into Harvard Law School, in which he came to know many members of his extended family after his father's death. On the one hand, he experienced truly traditional family life, in which continual rituals of hospitality combined with an intense sense of the obligations of the richer family members towards the poorer. On the other hand, most of the younger family members--led by his half-sister Auma, who had studied in Germany and who had come to accept many western values--had to try to make their way in an increasingly modern world, even though it might offer the first generations only modest rewards. Obama does not pass judgment, but it seemed to me that he left with an understanding that traditional society offered few answers for the future. At the same time, it is hard to believe that some one so keenly aware of the impact of colonialism could ever favor an adventure like that in Iraq.
Obama's life does embody much of the tragedy of the modern world--including the incredibly disruptive impact of European civilization upon other continents, no matter what its ultimate outcome turns out to be. The encounter of American slave traders with Africa was particularly fateful for the United States because it brought millions of Africans to this country against their will--the thing which, I am inclined to believe, most differentiates black Americans even now from most of their fellow citizens, since they have no heritage of choice to fall back on. (Obama mentions the slave trade several times, but I was disappointed that he never acknowledges another important fact--that white people did not create the African slave market, which was already in existence when they came upon the scene. Evil, as well as good, is a human universal, it seems.) That, however, was only the beginning of a long and sad story. It seemed in the mid-20th century that black Americans might be following the path trod by more recent European immigrants when they migrated to the North to take industrial jobs--but de-industrialization struck, as Obama discovered in Chicago, before that process was complete and their children had begun entering the middle class and the professions in large numbers. Then came the Reagan and Bush II Administrations, and the dramatic widening of the gap between rich and poor. The question we must now confront as a nation now is whether we truly can offer a decent and rewarding life to all Americans and a better one to their children. Any true universalism depends on an affirmative answer. Although we knew in the early 1960s that this promise was not yet fulfilled, we assumed that it could be. Now that hope needs to be renewed.
I do not know if Obama, if elected, can begin to do that. His autobiography left me with a even heightened sense of his uniqueness. He is not only the first candidate of partly African descent, but the first even to have a non-American parent since the days of the early Republic. On the other hand, it proves that education remains the great channel of mobility in our society--his resume is far more similar to Bill or Hillary Clinton's or even George W. Bush's than it is to the average American's. He evidently got a good practical education in urban problems during his days as an organizer and in his law practice in Chicago. He is obviously a natural as a politician and an orator. And like every great President, he has a profound sense of history and his place within it. All that, certainly, is far more than we had a right to expect after the events of the last eight years. We shall now find whether Bismarck's dictum holds--that a special Providence looks after fools, drunks, and the United States of America.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The ebb of discipline

The Wimbledon final--the second best that I have ever seen, after 1980, the one it most resembled--is finally over. I'm going on vacation tomorrow but I wanted to post today.

The Supreme Court is on vacation, and I can therefore turn to a much broader issue that I have been thinking about for a long time--about the decline of discipline in western civilization. While I am convinced that such a decline has taken place, I cannot really decide whether it is a good thing or a bad thing.

The decline of discipline is related to something else I have often discussed here--the decline of rationalism, which began, I think, a little over 40 years ago when my generation became young adults and had to confront the ultra-rationalistic world that our parents had created. They were rightly proud of that world--in many ways, particularly economically, it was one of the more just societies that had been created. Yes, it had denied opportunities to black Americans and to women, but the first of those problems was being corrected and the second would easily be as well. Yet it was a world of discipline and restraint. Men and women dressed alike and expected their lives to conform to established patterns. Women devoted themselves to their families, men to lifetime careers with the same corporation or institution. Sex and procreation were intimately linked. Work was highly organized, both for unionized workers and for executives. Expectations were also disciplined, partly by 90% marginal tax rates. (Those rates had been significantly rolled back in 1964, but Lyndon Johnson did impose a surtax in 1967 to pay for Vietnam.) Academics had to base their findings on thorough research. Professional athletes had little bargaining power and had to listen to management and their coaches. Politicians had to respect the interests of their parties, and also understood the need to compromise across party lines to get something done.

In praising those times, I cannot ignore something else--they were, in a sense, inhuman. A new generation was certain to rebel. Nor were our elders, alas, infallible, as the catastrophe of Vietnam proved. The reaction against everything they had taught went too far--but it was inevitable. And meanwhile, we can now see the mid-twentieth century as the product of a much longer series of developments in western life that had had many sad consequences.

The western impulse towards rationalization and organization goes back to the 18th century and the Enlightenment. In the 19th century, it re-organized economic life along industrial lines, and untold millions toiled ten hours day, 52 weeks a year, to create a new civilization. Industrialized war swept the world beginning in 1914, and the first 2/3 of the twentieth century were the age of mass armies and wars that killed in the millions. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia showed that the impulse towards discipline and organization could be combined with the basest human emotions, with catastrophic results. Since humanity is only intermittently rational--and since reason, as Hume argued, tends to become the slave of the passions--a belief in rationality, it turns out, can be as much of a trap as a belief in revealed truth.

The western revolt against authority that began in the late 1960s has continued and has had far-reaching consequences. Some are pernicious. In academia, the authority of data has given way to the authority of perspective, and conclusions are accepted or rejected based upon who has reached them. Others, however, have made our mistakes less disastrous. The end of conscription of the United States (eventually followed in every western country) was one of the most enduring results of the Vietnam War. It has not stopped my own generation from undertaking its own ruinous wars, but it has very much limited their scale. That is not a bad thing.

More broadly, one could say that in the last forty years restraints upon sexual and economic excess have been loosened, while new kinds of restraints limit the damage of political excess. The economic irresponsibility of the last three decades seems about to come home to roost. It seems that most, if not all, major financial institutions now hold large quantities of probably worthless assets such as bonds based upon sub-prime mortgages or incomprehensible derivatives, and that is bound to catch up with us sooner or later and wipe out a great deal of accumulated wealth. Sexual behavior is, if anything, subject to new rounds of regulation, but there is no sign of a return to the 1950s. But in the political sphere--and particularly in foreign policy--we have probably seen the worst excesses we are likely to see, and by comparison with the 1930s and 1940s they are not so bad.

The Boom generation has been ruled by its emotions for 40 years. Generation X is not. That is why Barack Obama's sudden emergence--at a moment when the youngest Boomers are still not yet 50--makes a certain amount of sense. The country is ready for a lower-key approach to its problems. I hope he can deliver on the opportunity.