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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Morally superior?

The United States, in my opinion, is likely during the next few years to lose its world leadership, albeit peacefully. Two items in Thursday's New York Times suggested to me that one reason is the infuriating attitude of moral superiority which has become second nature among American elites. The rest of the world has already largely rejected it, and our hypocrisy is now becoming too obvious to miss. It has also become a terrible obstacle to dealing with the world as it is, which remains the main task of leading power like ourselves.

The first of these two items, sadly, was President Obama's speech to the United Nations on the Middle East. 44 years after the Six Day War, the Palestinians are doing more or less exactly what the Israelis did 20 years before that: asking the United Nations to recognize their state. (I have not been able to discover, by the way, why that issue in 1947-8 was handled by the General Assembly instead of the Security Council.) This is the kind of problem the UN was created to solve, obviously, and since Israel has disclaimed any intention of making all the inhabitants of the West Bank citizens of Israel and Jordan has renounced that territory as well, it seems logical enough to acknowledge the principle of Palestinian sovereignty. In addition, the current Israeli government clearly is not interested in creating a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, or any state that enjoys true sovereignty, including the control of its borders. President Obama began his term by asking Israel to freeze settlement construction, a prerequisite, clearly, to such a deal, and they refused to do so. Now he is reduced to arguing that the Palestinians have to wait for their state until the Israelis are willing to give it to them, and the Palestinians are quite right, it seems to me, to conclude that that day may never come. More importantly, nearly all the rest of the world agrees with them. The President is now enjoying the worst of both worlds, since he hasn't been able to move the peace process forward but has cemented a new alliance between the Republican Party and the Israeli government. In a new low in American politics, reports state that the Administration actually enlisted Benjamin Netanyahu to convince the Republicans not to cut off all aid to the Palestinian authority--at least not yet--in retaliation for their demand for statehood. What Netanyahu giveth, he can taketh away, and there is a good chance that he will if the Palestinians get what they want fro the General Assembly. Obama also disturbed me by reading the list of Arab leaders, some of them long-time American allies, who have been overthrown in the last year. One can welcome political change in the Arab world without pointing to scalps nailed to a nearby wall. It was the business of the Arab peoples, not ours, to deal with those leaders, and they have done so.

The second item was Nicholas Kristof's op-ed, describing a remarkable interview he had with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In a rational world, that interview, combined with other Iranian statements and recent acts--including the freeing of two American hikers--could be hailed as a sign of a possible diplomatic breakthrough. Ahmadinejad told Kristof that Iran would in fact abandon its uranium enrichment program if we would sell them uranium enriched to 20%. Kristof did welcome this statement and asked the government to pursue it, but in giving his account of the interview, he focused on the embarrassing questions he kept asking as if to show Ahmadinejad that he didn't meet American standards of statesmanship. He asked him to compare the revolts in Syria to those in Iran, had repeatedly suggested that Ahmadinejad didn't enjoy the support of the rest of the Iranian leadership, and he invited him to repeat the Iranian cover story about the famous picture of the murdered Iranian protester. Kristof routinely tries to impose his own morality on the world, and not only in commentary. Journalists like himself no longer have to respect the traditional reporters' prejudice against becoming part of the story and some years ago he treated us to several columns about his attempts to free a young Cambodian girl from a brothel. (He took her out, but, in a telling commentary on American altruism, she returned as soon as she could.) Now in fact neither he nor anyone else can turn Iran into a modern western society with our values. We have taken a stab at this once before, when Kristof and I were young, with disastrous results. The only serious question is whether, in fact, we can reach a deal regarding the Iranian nuclear program--a deal which would head off a very real possibility of a disastrous war between Iran and Israel in which other important Muslim states might now join. Iran's human rights record is not really very important compared to that, and Ahmedinejad's personality isn't either.

Under the influence of the Boom generation, both the American left and right have contributed to this tendency. The left, including Obama advisers like Samantha Power, have decided that morality trumps international law and proclaimed not only a right, but an obligation, to disregard the sovereignty of other nations. The right is now drunk on "American exceptionalism." This will leave us with fewer and fewer friends. Nicolas Sarkoczy, the most pro-American French leader in modern times, has now distanced himself from Washington over the Palestinian issue. In the 1940s we fought the Second World War for a world of impartial principles--but the include respect for national sovereignty and the rights of all peoples to choose their own forms of government. I can't see when we will return to that view.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A turning point in history

[Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people still find their way every year here thanks to a scurrilous, anonymous piece of propaganda comparing President Obama to Hitler which has been circulating under my name for two and a half years. It is sad that so many people can be taken in by something whose actual author has never even come forward, but that, for reasons I discuss below, is the world we live in.]

When The Fourth Turning came out in 1996, I wrote in a review for the Boston Globe that I was both frightened excited to think that I might live through great events comparable to the Civil War and the Depression, New Deal, and Second World War. It now seems clear that, for better or for worse, the very real crisis which we are experiencing will not resemble either of those. But I now do realize that I have been living through a great historical change during the last 45 years or so, one which might conceivably turn out to be more significant, though initially less violent, than either of those. That change is nothing less than the beginning of the end, perhaps, of the rationalist era in western--perhaps, indeed, in world--civilization. There have been two such eras in western history, one in the Mediterranean world of ancient Greece and Rome, the second beginning in the Renaissance and extending into the twentieth century (frighteningly, an era of about the same length.) Only the latter parts of the second fall within my real area of expertise.

The gradual substitution of reason for faith actually can be dated in the Middle Ages, when Thomas Aquinas attempted to reconcile them, but it gathered speed in the 17th and 18th centuries, largely because of breakthroughs in science. The key steps forward, from my point of view this morning, involved the application of reason to human behavior, human conduct, and what came to be called the general welfare during the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Essentially, in Western Europe and its offshoots (such as North America) the idea took hold that the human brain could design, build, and live in institutions that would promote justice, greater wealth, and human happiness. It could also improve health and even protect against fatal disease, beginning, at the end of the 18th century, with smallpox. The Anglo-Saxon nations very fortunately grafted these ideas onto a long, existing political tradition that included elections and deliberative bodies. That allowed the US Constitution, for instance, to combine the ideas of individual rights, debates over legislation, and elections, the latter providing a regular, peaceful outlet for the public's displeasure, which of course would always be partly emotional as well as intellectual.

Rationalism seemed to be triumphant in the late 18th century, when orthodox religious belief had become extremely weak in the north Atlantic world, but the experience of the French Revolution showed that it was no guarantee against human excess, terror, and murder on a large scale--that indeed reason could be invoked as an excuse for such crimes. This in turn led to a religious revival in much of western Europe in the first half of the 19th century, but Darwin, geological research, and medical advances dealt religious belief another blow. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw outgrowths of rationalism. In politics they included the idea of planned economies, the reformed US governments of the progressive era, Marx's purportedly "scientific socialism," and other more or less utopian ideas. And these ideas were, in one way or another, the intellectual background to the great crises that transformed Eastern Europe in the era of the First World War, and Western Europe and the United States from 1933 to 1945. These crises also revealed, particularly under National Socialism, that reason and purported science could justify almost any horror, but the victors in the Second World War were at least as dedicated to science and reason as the vanquished, and probably more so.

Nor was this all. Viewed from today's perspective an even more striking feature of the period 1870-1970 or so was the elimination of any serious rivals to rationalism in most of the world as well. Other civilizations still existed, but nations like Japan, China, and even the Ottoman Empire quickly realized that they had to adapt key aspects of western modernity to survive. The European imperial powers had extended their sovereignty over nearly all of Africa and a good portion of Asia by the early 20th century, spreading their ideas, which educated colonized peoples adopted for their own purposes. And thus, by 1950, the western educated elite--especially in the United States--was convinced that it had discovered the major secrets of social and economic life, and the United States was experiencing a remarkable degree of intellectual consensus that probably peaked around 1960.

I have reviewed key aspects of the last 50 years here many times, and I will not do so again this morning. Instead I shall simply compare today to that era of intellectual consensus, in order to see how much damage has been done to the rationalist ideal, and where the attacks upon it have come from.

Emotion is often the enemy of reason, and emotion in the middle of the 19th century was largely suppressed and very poorly understood. The whole world in the 1950s, we can see now, was suffering from various degrees of PTSD. Meanwhile, psychology was largely in the hands of Freudians, who had adopted a very mechanistic model--the drive theory--of human behavior and unhappiness. These ideas did not survive the coming of age of the postwar generation.

Rationalism has been attacked in recent decades by all major American political movements, and from at least three different angles. Probably the single most powerful attack comes from greed. The 90% marginal tax rates the richest Americans paid from the time of the Second World War until 1964 came from several causes: the government needed the money to finance the enormous effort of the Second World war, great wealth seemed unjust in an age of great poverty, and, in addition, economists genuinely believed that economic inequality stood in the way of economic progress. In the 1930s prevailing opinion held that underconsumption caused by a lack of purchasing power among the bottom half of the population had done much to cause the depression. In addition, it had clearly become necessary to restrain certain financial practices that had made certain people very rich, but at the expense of systemic economic risk. To judge from the history of the last 80 years, those economists knew what they were talking about. Economic growth was steadier, incomes were more equal, and financial markets were far more stable from 1933 until the 1980s, when tax rates really began to come down, than they have been since. Data, however, has not been allowed to stand in the way of greed. A thirty-year propaganda campaign turned Milton Friedman, an extremist in the mid-1960s, into the guru of a new orthodoxy. America discovered the glories of an unregulated free market. And even the financial catastrophe of 2008 and our movement into a new long-term depression has done almost nothing to shake the prevailing orthodoxy, which seems to be shared by all the leading figures in the Obama Administration.

We associate the greed attack from the right, but an equally significant attack has come from teh left, especially in universities. Infuriated by the older generation's certainty that even the Vietnam War must be right, the Boom generation violently attacked the idea of "reasoned discourse" in the late 1960s and began to elaborate its own theory of reality. By the 1990s the idea of verifiable truth in human affairs had nearly disappeared from the academy. Contests about knowledge, the historian Joan Wallach Scott wrote, were now understood to be not about the opinions of individuals, but the influence of groups. Men and women, whites and blacks, and straights and gays all had their own realities, and the biggest problem facing the world was the supremacy of the ideas of white males, that had to be contested and subverted in all possible ways. One of the most serious impacts of all this, we can now see, was the loss of academic interest in politics as they are actually practiced. The hiring of more women, minorities and gays in university departments became a social cause, one that drew far more attention than the economic rights of poorer Americans. It is no accident that feminism and gay rights will apparently be the only significant leftist achievements of our area. Rationally I believe, of course, that women, minorities and gays deserve equal rights, but I will never accept the idea that the political achievements of the last three centuries only, or even mainly, benefited white males.

Last but not least, rationalism is once again under attack from religion. The Muslim world had had a huge religious revival with enormous consequences, and most observers agree that the recent revolutions in the Mediterranean are going to speed it up. Turkey, the bastion of rationalism and secularism in the Muslim world, has fundamentally changed without violent revolution. And religion has achieved an almost unheard of place within American politics. No one can become a Republican candidate for President who does not profess to be deeply religious and cede an important political role to religious belief. Findings about evolution and climate change are constantly subject to political attack.

Nowhere is the decline of rationalism more apparent than in our attitude towards the press. The mainstream media of the High and the early Awakening--the three networks, the news magazines, and the New York Times and the Washington Post--reflected the rationalist consensus. It has now lost most of its circulation and even more of its influence. A whole new media purveys an alternate reality, and commands the allegiance of millions.

Where will all this go? I do not think the world will repudiate modern science--it cannot afford to. Meanwhile, the rationalist ideal is alive and well in Western Europe, which is struggling with equally serious economic problems of its own without losing its intellectual grip. But I think it will take a long time for the idea that government, using reason, can promote the general welfare to become truly influential in American politics. It has in a sense been done in, for the time being, by one of its own tenets: the idea of inevitable, continuous progress. Human beings as it turns out are too complex for that. Rationalism remains an ideal, one worthy of our dedication, but always, it seems, only one of the magnets that attract and repel the human species, guaranteeing that the drama of human existence will continue, both comically and tragically, for as long as the species still lives on earth.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Ten years after

In less than a year, between November 2000 and September 2001, the United States was blind-sided by two almost unprecedented events. On the eve of the anniversary of the second of those events, I am convinced that they marked one of the great turning points in American history, one whose effects will surely be felt for the rest of my life and well beyond. Unfortunately, together they put the United States irretrievably, it would seem, on the wrong track for decades to come. That does not mean the end of America or of hope for the future, but it makes this anniversary a very sad one for national, as well as personal, reasons.

The first event, of course, was the accession of George W. Bush to the White House, in one of the two U.S. elections that was almost surely decided in defiance of the expressed wishes of the American electorate. On November 7, Al Gore won the national popular vote by over half a million votes, but the voting in Florida was microscopically close. The results had been altered in two critical ways, one purposeful, one inadvertent. The Republican candidate's brother, the Governor of Florida, had evidently encouraged a purge of the voter registration rolls, removing hundreds of people whose names approximated those of convicted felons from other states. Since most of them were black, this meant that several hundred people found themselves unable to vote. Then came the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach county, one of the great accidents of history, which led a number of Al Gore voters to cast their votes for Pat Buchanan. All that made the results close enough, on election night, for John Ellis, a cousin of George W. Bush then working at Fox News, to convince his network to call the election for Bush long before the counting in Florida was sufficiently complete. The other networks followed suit, and a Bush victory became the default result that Al Gore was trying to overturn.

In an America that still cared about civic virtue the whole process would have been held in abeyance pending a recount. I have seen this happen, in New Hampshire in the early 1970s, when a recount in a comparably close Senate election reversed what seemed to be a Republican victory. As it was Al Gore was on the defensive from the beginning and did not even push for the state-wide recount which the situation obviously demanded. Instead, he focused on four counties likely to favor himself, weakening his case. The Florida courts properly sided with him. But the Supreme Court made an unprecedented, partisan intervention in the case, stopped the recount, and handed Bush the election. Although it is not generally known, when elements of the media eventually carried out the full recount that should have been ordered, it turned out that regardless of the standards used, Gore won the state, and therefore, the election.

Had Gore won the election there would have been no first round of Bush tax cuts. I believe 9/11 would most likely have happened anyway--it was the kind of one-off, surprise event which, although detected by intelligence, rarely leads to timely counteraction in advance. But I suspect that Gore would have reacted to it in a completely different way. Rather than invading one country after another, he almost surely would have used the attack as an excuse to move away from dependence on foreign oil. Given what President Bush was able to do in the wake of the attack, he might well have succeeded. But in any event he never would have proposed the successive rounds of tax cuts that have now crippled the federal government's response to the economic crisis. (After making this post I read an outstanding article by George Packer in this week's New Yorker, entitled "Coming Apart: After 9/11 transfixed America, the country's problems were left to rot." It makes essentially the same points with the help of very detailed micro-examples. Unfortunately, for the time being, at least, it is available to subscribers only.)

Instead, George W. Bush has, on the one hand, drastically cut back the capacities of government by creating a permanent large deficit; made it impossible, as I have said many times, for his successor to respond adequately to the economic crisis; and involved us in an endless war with Middle Eastern extremists. The shifts in federal resources have had unforeseen consequences. The FBI, it turns out, moved 500 agents from white collar crime to terrorism, a large part of the reason why the greatest financial crisis since 1929 has produced virtually no prosecutions. Our involvement in Central Asia seems nearly as solidly established as part of our foreign policy now as NATO was in the 1950s (even though it is on a much smaller scale.) Although Bin Laden is finally dead and Al Queda is weakened, our tactics continually generate more terrorists. The Arab spring is almost certain to lead to more Islamist governments in the Middle East. The Middle East peace process came to a crashing halt after 9/11 and has not been effectively revived. Israel and the US are more isolated than ever. Nuclear-armed Pakistan has a tottering government and a large militant Islamic presence. Indeed it is now clear beyond any doubt that elements within the Pakistani government have been protecting Al Queda all along.

This is, in my opinion, the third great crisis of American national life, after the Civil War and the Great Depression and Second World War. It is ending like the Civil War, but lacking one positive accomplishment on the scale of the abolition of slavery. As in the 1870s, we are deeply in debt, with an unstable economy dominated by corporate giants--railroads then (I will have more to say about that soon), and big banks now. Now as then, our political system belongs to corporate money. An unhappy electorate, now as then, swings wildly from one party to the next without making anything new happen. We are again preoccupied above all else with our national debt, even though this time it is severely exaggerated, as I pointed out a month ago. A whole political party is now dedicated to the end of government as we have known it, and the question is how far they will be able to go.

The events of November 2000 and September 2001 must not be given too much weight. The trend towards corporate freedom, economic inequality, and deregulation was already well advanced before that. And the left, as well as the right, has contributed to it. But those events deepened and accelerated those trends. Still, as I survey the events of my adult lifetime, now in its 46th year, the most striking feature of it is the almost complete failure to grow a new generation of effective progressive leaders. The heirs of the New Deal took their parents' achievements for granted, turned their back on them, and then undid them. The children of the losers in the last national crisis, an the great-grandchildren of the losers in the one before that, had more to prove. They have won a series of victories; the best we can do is halt things where they are. Younger generations, including some yet born, will have to chance to revive the dreams of the Enlightenment--if they choose to do so.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Obama the Man

[To new visitors: the email that has circulated for two and a half years under my name comparing President Obama to Hitler is a forgery. I do not agree with it. You are however encouraged to read a post or two here. To all posters: as I announced more than a year ago, comments that are abusive and anonymous are deleted.

After last week's post I did a great deal of thinking, and at length I have decided to address a topic I have generally stayed away from. I spent a lot of time in the early days of this blog (fall 2004) analyzing George W. Bush's personality; I have spent much less time on Barack Obama's, partly, I suppose, because I wished him success. Yet he is not succeeding, and it won't do any good to ignore elephants in the room. Barack Obama's personality is in many ways the opposite of what his bitterest opponents think, but it is getting away of effective governance all the same. And while I have never met him and probably never will, there's no reason why I shouldn't use insights from Alice Miller and elsewhere on him as well.

A year or two ago I was talking on the phone with a very interesting friend of mine and the television show The Wire came up. I asked him who his favorite character was. For the benefit of those of who who watched that amazing show, my favorite was Lester, the quiet, highly intelligent Boomer who had never wanted, or risen to, a position of authority, but who took intense pleasure in running down the details of the case. If you've ever read any of my books you'll know why I liked him. I can't remember who my friend's favorite character was, but I told him I had read recently that Barack Obama liked the show, and his favorite character was Omar. Omar was an Xer, like the President, and an anarchist. He wasn't a drug dealer, but he made his living with a couple of friends robbing drug dealers. He was also gay, and he helped kill Stringer Bell, the drug kingpin who took classes at the local business school, after Bell killed a lover of his. "Well, I can see why Obama loves Omar," my friend said, "because he obviously has a fantasy of. . .shooting everybody." I had to think about that one for a long time.

I haven't yet had time to read the biography of Obama's mother Stanley Ann Dunham, but the reviews were very informative. The childhood of many Gen Xers was marked by divorce, moves, economic turmoil, and growing up much too fast. Obama's childhood had all that, plus a few years living in a distant third world country--an experience which is not easy even if you are living in an embassy residence, as I was, and which he most certainly was not. His mother had two husbands and a number of other men, it seems, in her life. When he was ten he returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents. Both his mother and his grandparents evidently made clear, however, that they had great hopes for him, and he responded. Punahou School is the Sidwell Friends of Hawaii, and he evidently performed well enough to go first to a good liberal arts college in California and then as a transfer student to Columbia. Then came his two years as a community organizer--which seem to have had almost no effect on him--Harvard Law School, the Harvard Law Review, and his legal and political career in Chicago.

All this sounds very easy, but I think that is profoundly misleading. Barack Obama as a child and young man had to prove that he could put up with anything and still perform as expected, and he did. He indulged in some outlaw behavior in high school but never seems to have been directly rebellious against his parent or grandparents. He became President of the Law Review by emerging a conciliator, winning support from conservative and liberal factions. Let us not kid ourselves: no one has ever run for President, ever, who did not have an enormous need for personal recognition. That often comes, as Alice Miller pointed out, from childhood trauma. And it can create highly adaptable personalities, of which Obama seems to be one.

There are at least two episodes in Obama's adult life which, while they have gotten some attention, have gotten it from the wrong angle. One is his membership in Jeremiah Wright's church. When Wright's sermons came to public attention in 2008, conservatives eagerly argued that they represented Obama's own views. They obviously didn't--but there's the problem. Wright's church was politically visible, and Obama found it expedient to join it, even though he evidently does not think like Wright at all. This was another adaptation.

The second episode is Obama's fascination with former Harvard President Larry Summers, who is known to all who have dealt with him as one of the most personally difficult people on earth. The Kennedy White House initially included some one quite similar to Summers, another economist, Walt Rostow, who knew exactly what should be done in any situation and why. Rostow lasted less than a year in the White House because JFK did not want to listen, apparently, to that kind of man. (He returned to the White House, disastrously, under LBJ.) But Obama did not mind working with Summers for two years. I was so shocked by Summers's original appointment that I really went into denial over it and hoped for the best--but Summers was very influential in selling the President on the new economic orthodoxy. He believed that only monetary problems had caused the Great Depression, and that easy monetary problems could solve the crisis we faced in 2009. He also did not want to undo any of the deregulatory reforms he had helped push through under Clinton. He was terribly wrong on both counts and Obama is paying a terrible price for listening to him.

As I think about these issues, I wonder whether Obama's accommodating nature may also be the key to his puzzling treatment of the Clintons. The appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State was surprising but many explained it in an Abraham Lincoln sort of way, as a means to co-opt his leading rival within his own party. But that was only the first of many, many key appointments of veterans of the Clinton Administration--in other words, of the Democratic establishment. Obama has not wanted to put his own stamp on things. He has not, unlike FDR or JFK, made national figures out of virtual unknowns like Robert McNamara or Harry Hopkins or Harold Ickes. He has also, as I have noted, failed to inspire those around him, many of whom have already left the Administration. Even his Supreme Court appointments are moderate liberals, well to the right of Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, or Thurgood Marshall.

Some one who has had to repress his deepest feelings all his life loses touch with them, and finds it easier to rely on conventional wisdom than on his own eyes. If like Obama he is something of an outsider, he learns to take advantage of the fear he might arouse, as he did, perhaps, at Harvard Law. But what worked with the conservatives among his fellow law students has not worked with John Boehner and Eric Cantor. Even to fight these Republicans to a draw, rather than steadily retreat before their onslaught, would have required a completely different approach, one of which, as yet, he has proven incapable. I will be delighted but very surprised if this week's speech marks a real departure.

There is no doubt that I will be voting for Barack Obama a year from November. He believes in rationality, in some measure of equality at least, in science, in the separation of church and state, and in at least some of the achievements of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society. He will probably face an opponent who believes in none of those things, leaving me with a very easy choice. Yet I do not think at this point that his re-election will put the United States on a new path. The best it could do would be to calm our political climate, put the disastrous crisis of the last ten years behind us, and allow for some problem solving to begin at least at the local level. But that is much much better than what a Republican victory would mean.