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Friday, August 27, 2010

The anti-imperialist tradition

A few weeks ago, writing on American imperialism, I promised a post on the anti-imperialist tradition. Here it is, drawing on a remarkable book from that fateful year 1968, Twelve Against Empire, The Anti-Imperialists, 189801900, by Robert Beisner. The war against Spain in 1898 was brief but eventful, resulting not only in the liberation of Cuba (which was promptly turned into an American protectorate), but also in the acquisition of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. This momentous change in American life provoked enormous debate. It turned out to be the start of something big.

Charles Francis Adams, Jr., the older brother of my alter ego Henry, had fought for four years in the Army of the Potomac in the Civil War, but like many of his contemporaries, he had seen enough of conflict. Watching the escalating pressure to become a world power, he complained in his private journal that the drumbeat of "Expansion, World-Power, Inferior Races, Calivinizatin, Duty-and-Destiny twaddle and humbug" were unbearable. "The clergymen have all got hold of the idea of Duty," he wrote; "we have a Mission; it is a distinct Call of the Almighty. They want to go out, and have this Great Nation impart the blessing of Liberty and the Gospel to the Inferior Races, who wait for us, ass for their Messiah;--only we must remember to take with us lots of shot-guns to keep those other Superior Races,--all wolves in sheep's clothing--away from our flock. they would devour them;--but we won't. Oh no!--such ideas are 'pessimistic'; you should have more faith in the American people!" In December 1898 he spoke out publicly against imperialism, but sadly, he could not in 1900 bring himself to support the anti-imperialist Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, because of Bryan's positions on economic issues. Having lived through the postwar disillusionment of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, Adams had no patience with further crusades and wanted the United States to start living up to its ideals at home. I expect that attitude to revive during the next five years or so.

Carl Schurz was a true nineteenth-century citizen of the Atlantic World. Born in Germany in 1829, he had to flee his native land after the failure of the Revolution of 1848 and come to the United States. Joining the fledgling Republican Party, he became a key figure in the wooing of his fellow German-Americans, and was sufficiently prominent by 1861 for Lincoln to make him Minister to Spain. Returning after a short tour, he was commissioned in the Union Army and became a very unlucky general in the Army of the Potomac. He became the great postwar reformer of the Gilded Age--sadly I cannot think of a single Senator or Representative who publicly opposes our own rampant corruption as forthrightly as he--and was driven to vote for Cleveland against James G. Blaine in 1884. He objected to imperialism on other grounds: that the establishment of tyranny over foreign lands would inevitably create tyranny at home, just as it had in Rome. That prophecy has never fully proven out in the United States, but a century of our world role has created a large bureaucracy that operates largely in complete secrecy--a trend that has once again accelerated in the last two Administrations. Watergate was in many ways a response to that development, but George W. Bush carried out even worse abuses, in some respects, unscathed.

Andrew Carnegie had come from Scotland and was obviously a great and well-rewarded believer in the free enterprise system, but he had never had any patience with foreign expansion either, and in 1885 he penned words with chilling resonance today.

"The American people are satisfied that the worst native government in the world is better for its people than the best government which any foreign power can supply; that governmental interference upon the part of a so-called civilized power, in the affairs of the most barbarous tribe upon earth, is injurious to that tribe, and never under any circumstances whatever can it prove beneficial, either for the underdeveloped race or for the intruder. They are further satisfied that, in the end, more speed is made in developing and improving backward races by proving to them through example the advantages of Democratic institutions than is possible through violent interference. The man in America who should preach that the nation should interfere with distant races for their civilization, and for their own good, would be voted either a fool or a hypocrite."

I was recently reminded that Carnegie might not be so wrong about the American people, even today. Last week I was contacted by the producer of a statewide morning radio talk show in Mississippi as a result of the scurrilous email still circulating under my name. This time, however--in contrast to three similar previous occurrences--the producer had actually done a web search. They knew that I hadn't read it, but after reading a little of historyunfolding.com, they wanted to interview me anyway, even though the station is usually extremely conservative. The host was a guest host, and we talked very courteously for 90 minutes about American foreign policy, the Kennedy assassination, and other matters of interest. I had expressed my skepticism about our ability to do any real good in Afghanistan, and we took three calls on that subject. All the callers clearly agreed with me 100%. The news this week emphasizes once again the inherent absurdity of that enterprise, since it turns out that the high official who was arrested by the special American-Afghan anti-corruption unit after falling victim to a sting, only to be released at the order of President Karzai, has also been taking money from the CIA. The American people can see that in this case at least, American imperialism has gone too far. No high official in Washington, however, seems to get it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Historical Novels and Historical Dramas

This post will begin with a somewhat lengthy digression, but please bear with me--I think it will be one of the more important ones I have done.

Many of us have books on our shelves we have been meaning to read for years, or, if we are old enough, for decades. In my case one such was The Historical Novel, by George Lukacs, a Jewish Hungarian Communist intellectual. A truly cosmopolitan European born in 1885, Lukacs had studied in prewar Germany, coming to know many of the leading lights of the post-Bismarck Prophet generation in that country such as Max Weber and the Mann brothers, but became a Communist during the First World War, participating in the failed Communist revolution in Hungary in 1919. He then moved back to Germany and eventually, after Hitler took power, to Moscow. Lukacs originally wrote The Historical Novel--in what language I am not sure--in about 1936. It was not published in English in Britain in 1962 and I acquired my copy in Britain around 1972. I had previously heard of it from Frederick Jameson, the most brilliant teacher I had in my four undergraduate years at Harvard, in the spring of 1967, but he had put only a copy in French on reserve, and I don't think he had studied it very thoroughly. (Sadly, Jameson joined the vanguard of the new academic ideas I will be referring to later in this post and never fulfilled his early promise.) In 1972 my soon-to-be wife was a graduate student in literature and she read The Historical Novel sometime during that year. She said it was one of the finest books she had ever read, but shortly thereafter she (wisely) abandoned her graduate studies and I never got to it--until now. It is not an easy read, especially because of its use of Marxist terminology, and I am still only a bit more than half way through but have been entirely bowled over by its implications both for history and for current politics--implications which would not have been apparent 40 years ago at all.

I am doing this post because of the contemporary implications of Lukacs's argument but I must briefly review some aspects of it before turning to them. The author was both a Communist and a very careful reader of literature and student of history. Most importantly, his Marxism gave him two critical beliefs: that history could be treated as a science, and that history was going somewhere. What has staggered me about the book is the realization that those ideas, in general at least, were almost universally held by intellectuals and politicians of all stripes as late as the middle of the twentieth century, and that they have now suffered an almost total eclipse, with catastrophic consequences, not least for American politics.

I do not mean to say, obviously, that everyone was in those days a Communist. What I do mean to say was that every major political movement of the twentieth century crisis in the Pacific and the Atlantic World specifically placed itself within a scheme of history which it believed could be scientifically demonstrated. Fascists, Nazis, Communists, democratic socialists in Britain, Japanese imperialists, and, crucially for the US and the world, New Dealers all thought they were on the side of history. Nazis believed they would build a racial utopia in Central and Eastern Europe and add to it a world empire. Russian Communists believed they were the vanguard of world revolution, and Chinese Communists thought so as well. The Japanese thought they were expelling the white man from Asia to create a greater East Asia Co-prosperity sphere. Roosevelt strove to empower labor, create institutions to moderate the excesses of capitalism, and provide for the basic needs of the population. He also fought the Second World War in an attempt to create a world ruled by law. The Second World War effectively consigned the Nazi and Japanese visions of the future to the ashcan of history, but it seemed to validate both the liberal American and Communist ones, as well as the ideas of the British Labour Party, which actually created a socialist economy in 1945-50. It also put an end to a centuries-long movement towards imperialism, a change which was embraced and integrated into a new view of French history in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Charles de Gaulle.

Now there is no question that this global struggle among world views was enormously destructive and, in many ways, tragic. Because the strongest nations of the world were indeed fighting to shape the future for decades to come, they mobilized their economies and their populations on an unprecedented scale, sent men to die by the millions, and obliterated whole cities with aerial bombardment. But at the same time, their world views enabled them to undertake enormous projects of civic importance and focused them--all of them, actually--on the needs of the population as a whole. The New Deal built dams, parks, roads and bridges all over America. Britain created the National Health Service. France eventually decided to draw most of its energy from atomic power. The Soviet Union performed astonishing, if temporary, feats of industrialization. National Socialism meant not only war and death camps, but also the autobahns, the Volkswagen, and Germany's own form of welfare state. After 1945, defeated Germany and Japan embraced the task of building a new, less destructive civic order within an alliance of capitalist and democratic states. Until the mid-1960s, humanity, especially perhaps in the more advanced nations, lived in a world with a purpose, and I would not be who I am today had I not grown up in the midst of it.

Now the real revelation of Lukacs' book occurred, for me, when he discussed the impact of the revolutions of 1848, again within his particular view of history. The drama of the history of the 16th to the 19th centuries, in his view, came from the gradual emergence of bourgeois society and the decline of feudalism. Bourgeois society meant not only capitalism, but equal opportunity, equality before the law, democratic institutions, and so own--all developments thoroughly embraced by Karl Marx as necessary steps towards the eventual emergence, and victory, of the proletariat. Lukacs argues that the greatest historical novels, those by Sir Walter Scott (of which I have to admit that I have never read a single word) and by Balzac (of which I have read about half a dozen), deal with the impact of critical moments in these transformations on the lives of representative figures of different social classes. In Lukacs's eyes such works were chronicling history's march forward. Despite a reaction against these ideals after 1815 among the European leadership, the reading public and middle-class intellectuals, he thought, continued to embrace them until 1848. But in that year, a new bourgeois revolution in France in February--one that was immediately imitated all through Central Europe--led in June to a proletarian insurrection. So frightened were the bourgeoisie by this new development that they not only crushed it, but handed their liberty over to Napoleon III three years later. And suddenly, as Lukacs pointed out, new views of history became more popular, views which did not integrate current events into a progressive scheme. The political consequences of this fear were equally important. In Germany, his adopted home, this led 20 years later to the compromise between the aristocrat Bismarck and the German bourgeoisie, and the creation of a unified Germany in which the monarch and aristocracy still controlled ultimate power. France did create an enduring Republic in the 1870s, but only after a much larger workers' insurrection in Paris, the Commune, had been crushed with the loss of 20-30,000 lives. Britain in 1867 began taking slow steps towards democracy.

And now it is time to jump ahead about a century to look at the parallel developments that have transformed both American intellectual and political life during the last 45 years. Beginning in 1965--the year that the Vietnam War began in earnest and that the Boom generation made up the entire undergraduate bodies of American universities--two new attacks on progress as it had been understood for 35 years began. They have continued without interruption ever since, and they now threaten us with intellectual and political catastrophes which Lukacs and his contemporaries could never have imagined. And they came, this time, from both the right and the left.

The New Deal had established an extraordinary consensus within the United States, built around the idea of a strong state that helped meet the needs of the American people. The opposite view, that the state was the enemy of freedom and that the free market alone would do a better job of meeting the peoples' needs, had become a fringe position by the mid-1960s, as the fate of Barry Goldwater's Presidential candidacy showed. But as so often seems to happen in history, the supreme moment of postwar liberalism, the passage of the Great Society legislation of 1964-5, turned out to presage its almost immediate decline. Johnson's Democratic majority had entirely disappeared by 1968, when Hubert Humphrey won less than 45% of the vote. Twelve years later Ronald Reagan won by a landslide campaigning on the idea that government was the problem, not the solution, and promising to get it off the backs of the American people. Government action to help the people was now seen by the public as government action to help the poor, particularly the black poor--with disastrous results. As the right-wing momentum grew over the decades, the attack on progress led by the government has become an attack on the idea of progress itself, and even on modern science. (Glenn Beck's attempt to demonize the word "progressive"--welcomed by no less a figure than Sarah Palin--sums all this up.) And, of course, as the government abandoned the goal of leveling the economic playing field, income inequality grew apace. Money now dominates our politics and millionaires provide an astonishing number of new candidates.

Much of the right-wing attack, which had never completely stopped all through the New Deal era, was of course to be expected, since the New Deal did make it much harder to amass huge fortunes. The left-wing attack was more surprising and in a way--if one remains committed to twentieth century ideas of progress, as I do--more damaging. Essentially, beginning the late 1960s, the left wing of my generation decided that the whole idea of progress, as heretofore understood, was a fraud, because progress before 1965 had meant progress for white males at everyone else's expense. A new generation of historians, with breathtaking speed, demolished both the idea of history as progress and the idea of history as science. And here it behooves us to look at Lukacs' extraordinary comments about changes (only momentary, as it turned out) in history in the second half of the nineteenth century.

In the age of the French Revolution, Lukacs writes, "both Hegel's objective idealism and the writings of the great historians of the time were permeated through and through with the conviction that objective reality, and therewith history, was knowable. Thus, the important representatives of this period. . . attempted to uncover the real driving forces of history as they objectively worked out and to explain history from them." They believed, in short, in discoverable objective reality, as I still do, with the caveat that 100% certainty will always elude us. But, Lukacs writes about the second half of the century, "This now ceases right along the line. Vulgarized bourgeois economics can no longer act as an auxiliary to history: during this development economics itself turns into an analysis of economic notions rather than the objective facts of production." Lukacs is not a graceful writer, but that sentence would apply equally well to modern economics, which has of course become almost purely theoretical in the last forty years. And he adds, during this same period, "the modernization of history gains a broad ideological basis. It seems that the only possible way of 'understanding' the past lies in projecting our way of seeing things,l in starting out from our own notions." That is exactly the way in which legions of feminist scholars have tried to turn western history into nothing but the history of prejudice against women.

This is not all. The idea that history was no longer going anywhere found clear expression in the Bush National Security Strategy of 2002, which proclaimed that the struggles of the 20th century had established the unique truth of a single model of development, capitalist free markets and electoral democracy. The invasion and occupation of Iraq proceeded on that basis, so far with results that have hardly validated that doctrine. But worse than that, Barack Obama--a progressive liberal who genuinely wants to reverse some of the trends of the last forty years--almost never tries to place what he is doing in any broader scheme of history, something which Lincoln and FDR constantly did. To do so he would have to acknowledge, as they did, that history ultimately is founded upon what Lukacs calls "contradiction," that is, upon struggles between opposing forces, and that he is taking sides. Barack Obama is, among other things, the first President to have passed through our elite educational system after academia had given up the idea of progress as customarily understood, and I cannot help but wonder if that has not affected him in this respect. And because he does not want explicitly to take sides, but rather to rely on the presumed appeal of a reasoned, intelligent approach to our problems, he has, as I mentioned two weeks ago, been unable to mobilize, or counter, the vast anger abroad in the world.

It is time to bring this post to an end, but I am sure I will be taking up these same themes next week. I should however end with a comment on Lukacs' own limitations, which were equally crucial to failures of twentieth century intellectual life. History is a story of contradiction and of struggle, but his Marxist belief in the centrality of class struggles was largely an illusion. The nature of our struggles and their direction varies widely from era to era, and they are driven by psychology as well as by objective reality. Strauss and Howe's great contribution was to understand this, and to identify the 80-year framwework within which the struggles usually take place. They too were in their way mid-century optimists, however, and while they predicted our current crisis in 1993, they were far more optimistic about its outcome than the facts, so far, have confirmed. Of that, more later.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Our new empire

For about 45 years, from Nasser's seizure of power in Egypt in the early 1950s until 9/11, the United States essentially lived with the Middle East and the broader Muslim world as they were. During that period openly hostile regimes ruled Egypt (until about 1974), Syria (almost without exception), Iraq (after 1957), parts of Yemen, and, after 1979, Iran. Egypt became an American client in the late 1970s after making peace with Israel, and promptly lost its leadership position in the Arab world. Iran had been by far our strongest Muslim ally in the region from 1953 until 1979 but then, not coincidentally, became our bitterest enemy. An anti-American regime took power in Afghanistan in 1996 after we assisted the Afghans in expelling the Soviets. When our two biggest enemies clashed in the 1980s, we helped both of them at different times and in different ways. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 the first Bush Administration contented itself with restoring the status quo ante. The Palestinian Authority seemed on its way to becoming an American client at the height of the peace process in the 1990s, but the failure of that process in 2000 helped set things on another path. Meanwhile, the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan and collapsed, and Central Asia saw the founding of a number of newly independent Muslim "stans."

Many of the leading intellectual lights of the Bush Administration had favored a more active policy during the 1990s, and they evidently began discussing one as soon as they came into office. 9/11 gave them their chance. George W. Bush's mantra--that those who sheltered or aided terrorists would "share their fate"--was in effect a declaration of unlimited war on all our enemies in the region, since Iraq and Iran (as well as Saudi Arabia) had all helped terrorist groups. The imposition of new American client governments began in Afghanistan and spread to Iraq. Bush also proclaimed that no unfriendly nation would be allowed to secure nuclear weapons. Now Bush has been out of office for more than eighteen months--and all those policies remain orthodoxy. We are launched, indeed, on the most ambitious imperial project since that of the British in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Thus, in Afghanistan--one of the remotest, poorest countries on earth--more than 50,000 American troops are trying to prop up an inept, corrupt client government against a well-organized insurgency that enjoys the support of much of the neighboring Pakistani government. Numerous stories last week suggest that we shall remain in Iraq, in one way or another, for decades to come, and that we are committed to building a new Iraqi Army with American weapons so that Iraq can defend itself conventionally against its neighbors. (The market for arms races in the Middle East, apparently, never dies.) We are doing whatever we can to strengthen the Palestinian authority on the West Bank, even though we can't stop Israel from building more settlements. Nor is this all. The New York Times magazine recently published an article suggesting that Yemen, one of Al Queda's new homes, would be the next Afghanistan. And the US military is deeply involved in many African governments, looking for new sources of radical extremism and trying to find ways to head them off. Lastly, the new Administration, like the old, continues to argue that we have a right and a duty to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. And as a result, President Obama's popularity in the Muslim world has plummeted.

Our new enterprise as other dimensions explored in this Sunday's New York Times. After we occupied Iraq I commented to a colleague that the US had now acquired its own much larger West Bank--a more or less ungovernable territory that we would have to police violently for as long as we remained there. The Times story shows that this new West Bank now includes Yemen, Somalia, and unspecified North African territory as well. Copying the Israelis, we are identifying hostile militants in those countries and trying to kill them with precision strikes from drones or cruise missiles. One could argue at length whether this is war or rather a new form of international law enforcement based on summary executions without trial and, inevitably, with considerable collateral damage and killing of innocents. I do not believe that a stable world can be built with such tactics, and indeed, the story concludes with a reference to a new book about them by Micali Zenko that analyzes their use and concludes that "such operations seldom achieve either their military or political objectives."

During and after the Cold War, Presidents did from time to time successfully change their rhetorical thrust and their policy. President Kennedy announced in effect at American University in June 1963 that we did not seek the downfall of the Soviet Union, but rather merely to live in peace. His great rival Richard Nixon did something similar, albeit with less grace, during his first term, and reaped great short-term political benefits. So did Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush in response to Mikhail Gorbachev. In his Cairo speech President Obama seemed to want to reverse course, but he had already selected an entirely conventional foreign policy team. Secretary Clinton's policies have not differed in any fundamental way from Secretary Rice's. This weekend the President endorsed the construction of the Muslim cultural center in downtown Manhattan, a courageous gesture towards Muslims here in America. He has not made any new similar gestures towards Muslims abroad. [Note: on Saturday the President backed away somewhat from his original statement, declining to pass judgment on the "wisdom" of constructing the center while re-affirming the rights of all religions.]

When the British extended their control over greater India, Egypt, much of East Africa, and much of the Middle East in the years 1857-1925, western civilization was more self-confident and relatively more advanced, and the populations of those territories were much, much smaller. The British relied mostly on native troops, something which we have not been able to do. Only in India and some parts of Africa was their influence very lasting. In sharp contrast to either 1940-1 or the early stages of the Cold War, we have assumed this enormous new role without any real national debate. The rest of the western world has abandoned formal imperialism on this scale. I am looking forward to reading my friend Andy Bacevich's new book on Washington's permanent war mentality. Meanwhile, I wonder what effect a successful terrorist attack in the US will have on all this, and whether I will live to see a Middle East free of substantial American forces. I will not be surprised if the answer is no.

Saturday, August 07, 2010


A Fourth Turning or Crisis inevitably has a large emotional component. We cannot say exactly why accumulated anger seems to burst forth every eighty years or so in modern societies, but we have seen it happen again and again, beginning with the American and especially the French Revolution in the late 18th century, and continuing through episodes like the Paris Commune and its violent suppression in 1870-1, the American Civil War, and even, perhaps, the great Indian Mutiny of 1857. In crises like the French and Russian Revolutions the violence becomes organized terror, leaving a terrible legacy behind. In the American Civil War and the much briefer German wars of the 1860s and 1870-1 the violence generally remained organized and military. One of Franklin Roosevelt's many great achievements was to channel American anger in productive directions between 1933 and 1945--first, against poverty and distress itself, then against the corporate interests that stood in his way, and finally against violently expansionist regimes abroad. Unfortunately we have not found such useful outlets during our current crisis.

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove were certainly three very angry individuals indeed, and they intuitively seem to have sensed the anger in the country at large into which they could tap. 9/11 allowed Bush to mobilize the country to undertake vast imperial adventures in South Asia and the Middle East, even though the logic behind them clearly left a great deal to be desired--and even though he never caught the man actually responsible for the deaths of 3000 Americans on that day. Rove and Bush also cleverly mobilized peoples' anger over abortion and gay rights, while at the same time Fox News and Clear Channel stirred anger against bicoastal elites 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All that was enough to increase Bush's popular vote significantly and win a narrow re-election in 2004. Then, however, a series of disasters, culminating in the economic crash of 2007-8, turned the nation's anger largely against him, and swept Democratic majorities and Barack Obama into office. Still, the anger against Muslims persists, as illustrated by the disgraceful controversy over the mosque near ground zero. Republicans now talking about amending the 14th Amendment to do away with birthright citizenship may eventually propose inserting "except Islam" into the 1st Amendment.

I have now come to believe that Barack Obama, that calm, measured, intelligent man who never loses his temper, would have been a much more effective President in fifteen or twenty years' time, after the crisis was over. He had every opportunity to mobilize anger on his own behalf when he came into office--against bankers and the regulators who failed to restrain them; against officials from the previous Administration who had tortured prisoners in violation of US and international law; against the Bush Administration for leading us into endless wars of highly dubious utility; and against the Republican Party that refused, in effect, to work with him on anything from the word go. But he did not, trusting the American public to appreciate a measured and unemotional approach and seeking to leave painful controversies like torture behind. Perhaps all this might have worked had the economic crisis not been so serious--but as it turns out, it hasn't.

The President and the Democratic Congress are feeling the heat not only about the economy--which would have been much worse without the stimulus package, but which, as some pointed out at the time, needed and still needs even more drastic action--but also about another emotional issue, immigration. Illegal immigrants have become another focus of outrage, and the Administration seems to be taking their side. The Republicans, of course, are making the situation worse by refusing even to hear of immigration reform that would allow some people to stay, but the President has gone out on a limb by asking the Justice Department to challenge the Arizona law. Numerous reports tell us that the White House's political strategists are convinced that that law will accelerate the movement of the Hispanic vote into the Democratic Party, but I am not so sure. A lot of anecdotal evidence suggests that Hispanic citizens resent illegals just as much or more than mainstream whites. In any case, the lawsuit certainly looks like an attempt by a relatively weak federal government to prevent states from responding to their peoples' will. I doubt that the White House's strategy will pay dividends this fall.

The combination of our first black President, widespread economic distress, and a relatively interventionist economic policy has also revived the kind of white racist anger that helped bring Ronald Reagan into the White House. Millions of white Americans still believe that government entitlements keep minorities in clover while the deserving middle class suffers. In fact, federal welfare has practically disappeared, but much of the population was already accustomed to regarding Democrats as the giveaway party. They may have voted Republican in any case, but they are making more noise now.

Another specter looms now, thanks to the federal court decision restoring gay marriage rights in California. I know some readers will be offended by this position, but I wish the judge had not handed that decision down. His legal logic--that a ban on gay marriage is a clear denial of equal protection of the laws--is surely strong, but I would have been willing (not that I have a direct stake in the matter) to wait a few more years for gay marriage in California and other blue states simply for the sake of our political culture. Younger people are far more liberal on this issue than oldsters, and as a result, California voters would almost surely have accepted gay marriage the next time they voted on it. Instead we may have a replay of Roe v. Wade, another bottomless source of conservative resentment. The country may be ready to move beyond this issue--or it may not.

Immigration now seems to be the hottest-button issue, and the President in any case has to get on top of it and tell the country in no uncertain terms what he thinks we should do. He is a good person to explain the obvious--that we cannot simply expel all illegal aliens, who are estimated to make up as much as 1/5 of the population of Arizona, for instance, and thus have no choice but to find a way to legalize some of their status. But clearly tougher measures against illegals are inevitable in any case. One reason, perhaps, that the last Crisis turned out so well for the United States was that this issue had been taken off the table in 1924, by a tough law whose provisions were not loosened until 1965. Meanwhile, whoever actually wins the Congressional elections this fall, they are certain to leave the electorate more polarized than ever. The most reliable political web site shows the Republicans certain to recapture Senate seats in the red states of North Dakota, Arkansas, and Indiana, and has also suggested that Blue Dog Democrats are particularly vulnerable. More paralysis awaits. President Obama has real legislative achievements--the stimulus, health care, and, perhaps, financial reform--but none of them has done anything to cure the emotional ills of the American people, and we shall all pay the price for that.