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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Orwell, Revisited again

George Orwell wrote 1984 in response to the emergence of totalitarian regimes, whose work he had observed first hand in Spain, where Soviet agents had wiped out competing leftist parties on false grounds. He set the drama of the book inside the mind of his hero, Winston Smith--a name which, his publisher once assured me, was not chosen by accident. "Freedom," Smith wrote in his diary, "is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four." All else would follow from that. In an age in which totalitarian governments constantly redefined reality, that was a brilliant insight, and it was no accident, once again, that the climax of the book occurred when O'Brien, his interrogator, tortures Winston into accepting the idea that two plus two can equal five. 1984 will live forever, but as I realized while reading this morning's paper, the problem of our time is essentially the opposite.

The New York Times leads this morning with the arrest of 35 teachers and administrators from the Atlanta Public Schools for cheating on their students' standardized tests. The scandal has been suspected for years, but it took former Governor Sonny Perdue, born in 1946, to take it seriously enough to appoint two special prosecutors with a large investigative staff that eventually persuaded a few guilt-ridden teachers to tell the truth about what they had done. Among those indicted are the former superintendent of the schools, Beverly Hall, who had become one of the poster children of the educational reform movement thanks to the dramatic improvement in her students' scores. There was nothing subtle about the cheating. Teachers sat down with their students answer sheets after the tests were completed and changed wrong answers to right ones.

The stakes for the school district went well beyond its leaders prestige. Many millions of dollars depended on the test results. So did the careers of the teachers who administered the tests. Much of this goes back to George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind act, which made standardized tests the measure of educational performance and the key to the funding, and even the survival, of individual public schools. I know some people believe that law was designed to discredit public education in America. Certainly that is going to be one result of the Atlanta scandal.

And how does this relate to Orwell? Just as freedom depends on the ability to say that two plus two equals four, effective authority depends on the ability to insist that two plus two equals four and to penalize people who refuse to recognize it. And I am convinced that only people raised to respect objective truth by either their families, the educational system, or both, an lead in this way. I have been a teacher all my life and I have been acutely conscious that I am there to let my students find out how good they can be. But I can only do that if I evaluate them honestly. That is probably the greatest crime perpetrated on the schoolchildren of Atlanta: many of them have no idea how smart they actually are. Their schools taught them that they were participating in a scam, and there's no way that lesson did not thoroughly percolate down to them. It is interesting that the enemy of truth, in this case, was money. The lies the teachers and administrators told were worth millions. That is the same phenomenon that destroyed the financial system, where there no longer seems to be much respect for truth.

The Times story reveals this in other ways. Atlanta for over a century has had by far the best race relations and the strongest black community of any southern city. The performance of the city's schools, whose students are mostly black, was a source of pride to the whole community in general and the business community in particular. Governor Perdue was amazed when most of the business community protested his attempts to find out what was really going on. He thought they would want to know that their new generation of workers was truly well educated, but they cared only about the damage a scandal might do to the city's reputation.

Knowledge and respect for truth are, of course, above all the responsibility of our higher educational system--but it has given that responsibility up as well--also, largely, for money. When researchers depend on government grants, as so many do, they design projects that can continue indefinitely without coming up with an answer. Meanwhile, the humanities have abandoned even a theoretical commitment to truth, arguing again that knowledge is about power. Of course knowledge and power are intertwined, but knowledge can prevail if it has an independent and determined constituency. The decision of universities to forsake that role has been catastrophic. So has the decision of the mainstream press that its own opinions don't matter, and that its job is to report the things politicians say. So has the utter subservience of our political class to moneyed interests.

Society and the institutions within it can only survive on the basis that two plus two equal four. We shall learn that lesson, too, the hard way.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Back to Politics

This morning, my local newspaper the Boston Globe (now for sale) leads with the kind of extended news-feature one finds at least once a week in its parent company, the New York Times. The subject is something that I missed entirely at the time: the Senate's failure, by five votes, last December to ratify an international treaty guaranteeing the rights of the disabled--rights that have been enshrined in our own law for more than two decades. (The story is here, but you may not be able to access it if you are not a subscriber.) The story focuses on former Senator Bob Dole, who pioneered the Americans with Disabilities Act and secured its passage along with Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell during the Administration of George H. W. Bush, and who was brought out of retirement to lobby for the passage of the treaty. He thought it would be a lead pipe cinch, but it foundered on the shoals of modern Republicanism. As so often happens, this amazing story has a lot to say about long-term trends in American and world history.

During the Reagan era, Republican fund-raiser and strategist Richard Viguerie frankly described the nature of the new Republican Party: an alliance of angry groups, including Christians believing their values were under attack, neoconservatives who wanted a stronger national defense, small businessmen who hated regulation, and (more quietly) white southerners who still resented civil rights. This story shows that trend has continued, but the coalition now includes far more extreme elements than it did then. They brought the treaty down, for reasons that had nothing to do with its purpose: to protect the rights of the disabled.

One of the organizations that played a key role, believe it or not, is called the Home School Legal Defense Fund, which represents 80,000 families, and whose head, Michael Farris, gave critical testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He argued that the treaty would give the United Nations the right to tell parents how they could home school disabled children--even though the treaty is simply a statement of principles that are already embodied in US law, which, I am quite sure, includes nothing about private homes. It turns out that Farris, who also founded the extreme conservative Patrick Henry University in Virginia, mobilized opposition to the treaty based upon the idea that it would surrender sovereignty to the United Nations. And as if that were not enough, Parris enlisted Rick Santorum, no less, to say that the law would have enabled the UN to order Santorum and his wife to abort their own disabled daughter--surely an odd interpretation, one should think, of a treaty designed to protect the disabled world wide. (For anyone curious enough to read the text, it's here.) Faced with an onslaught of lobbying from Parris and various Tea Party groups who share the concern about the UN, several Republican Senators, including Jerry Moran from Dole's home state of Kansas who had originally announced his support in the strongest terms, defected. The final vote was 61-38 in favor of the treaty. A 66-33 vote would have ratified it.

Now to begin with, the treaty failed because of extreme Republican opposition to international authority, which is one aspect of broader opposition to any governmental authority over anything. But behind that is something much, much bigger, which has gone so far that no one really notices it any more. It is very much on my mind because I've just finished the draft of my new book on U.S. entry into the Second World War.

The problem in the late 1930s, as defined by Franklin Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and Secretary of War Henry M. Stimson, among many others, was the failure of states like Germany, Italy and Japan to observe fundamental principles of international law, beginning with respect for the territorial integrity of other nations. The world, they argued, like American society, needed to operate according to law, and aggressor nations were sending into anarchy, threatening fundamental American values. This was the theme of one after another of their dozens of speeches in the critical years before the war, and the foundation of their war aims. But the Republican Party no longer believes in these principles: it believes in "American exceptionalism," including a unique American relationship to a higher power, which gives us the right to do whatever we please. That is not simply a fringe position. George W. Bush undertook the Iraq war in defiance of world opinion and the United Nations, leading at least one commentator, Andrew Bacevich, to suggest implicitly that we were now the counterpart to the aggressor states of the 1930s. And that's not all: because support for whatever Israeli policy happens to be is now required of nearly all elected US officials, we can no longer oppose Israeli settlements which are a clear violation of international law. The drone program and Guantanamo are also very dubious under international law, but the Obama Administration has continued or expanded them both. For half a century the United States sold its leadership of much of the world on the basis that we stood for impartial principles. Incredibly, we have now given that up.

But the failure of the treaty illustrates the paralysis of our political system. People like Farris represent a very small segment of American opinion, but because of the nature of the politics of red states and gerrymandered Republican districts, they can dictate the behavior of enough Republicans to pass anything they want in the House and stop anything they want--like this treaty--in the Senate. They can check any movement towards a world, or a society, effectively regulated by law and providing for the basic needs of its citizens, and that's what they've been doing for the last two years and will continue to do for as long as they can.

And that, to me, raises the question of whether Democratic optimism about the country's future, based upon the results of last November's election, might be wildly optimistic. Yes, demographics favor the Democrats, but their voters, while more numerous, are far less motivated and play far less role in determining what comes out of Washington these days. President Obama simply can't convert his majority into effective action on behalf of the American people. If the sequester triggers another recession any hope of regaining the House of Representatives will probably go out the window. And another terrible problem is the almost total lack of any substantial Democratic figures under 60, except the President of the United States. Hillary Clinton looks to me like a shoo-in for the nomination in 2016 if she chooses to run simply because there is no one else on the horizon. By that time the immigration issue may be off the table, and we don't know how effective a 69-year old white woman will be among new Democratic constituencies.

The Democrats have not won anything yet. They staved off the end of modern government at the last election, but it threatens nonetheless. We are close to throwing out the lessons of the last two centuries, and I'm not sure what can be done to stop it.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Education and Sports

The news remains full of things to blog about, but today I'll take a moment to go in a new direction, regarding the past, present and future of American higher education--with specific reference to my own Alma Mater.

Long ago, clergy founded universities to study the meaning of life. In nineteenth-century America a new kind of institution developed: the seminary or normal school, designed to train teachers. One did not in fact need to attend one of those institutions to run a town schoolhouse, but it probably made better positions available. I was quite astonished some years back to find that my maternal great-grandmother, Hannah McLean Greeley, had worked her way through Mount Holyoke Seminary in the midst of her teaching career. (She was born in 1848 and died in 1906.) Meanwhile, in the second half of the nineteenth century, a network of boys' and girls' schools modeled on English public schools sprung up around the northeast, and began feeding students into what is now the Ivy League. It was in the late nineteenth century that a recognizably modern curriculum began to develop, based upon modern languages and history rather than either religious texts of the classics.

Early in the twentieth century, however, came another most fateful development: the invention of intercollegiate athletics, led by football. In the early years of university sports, the leading academic institutions fielded the strongest teams, but by the 1930s that had changed. The athletic powerhouses became the great state schools of the Midwest and the Far West, and a number of Jesuit institutions in both the Midwest and the Northeast. In the mid-20th century, one leading university, the University of Chicago decided to be different. It dropped football, in which it had remained a power for a long time, and explicitly decided to focus upon academics. In the Ivy League only the University of Pennsylvania maintained a serious football program into the 1950s. By that time college basketball was also on the national radar, and it really took off thanks to television in the 1960s. Meanwhile, thanks to the GI bill, the baby boom, and relatively cheap higher education in the 1950s and 1960s, student populations had exploded.

During the last forty years our elite schools have shamelessly exploited the educational monopoly their reputation has given them. Although the student population has continued to increase, amazingly, no new elite institutions have emerged. Growth is occurring elsewhere, because the modern university has a new priority: money. Higher education is big business, and the growth is occurring in mass-production for profit on line outfits like the University of Phoenix. Federal loans finance an enormous amount of higher education, and these new schools have managed to get their hands on a lot of that money. There is indeed a lot of talk out there about a higher education bubble--but that is a subject for another time.

Two of the ways in which colleges try to improve their bottom line and hire more administrators--which is the single biggest source of their higher costs--are by improving their US News rankings, and fielding competitive sports teams. The US News rankings may be the worst thing that has happened to higher education. No good college or university should have to worry about attracting students. For most of the twentieth century students simply flocked to them. Now universities are competing with respect to facilities, dining halls, menus, and dozens of other factors that have nothing to do with education. Larry Summers, the former President of Harvard (and an economist), referred to his students as "customers" whose tastes had to be respected. He was speaking for most of his peers.

Big-time athletics, however, is where the real money is, thanks to television contracts. Harvard has emerged over the last two decades as both the richest and the greediest institution in the land, pioneering the new model of endowment management that some of my classmates and I have campaigned against for a decade. I am not surprised that some one, in the last five years or so, decided to upgrade the basketball program. And so it was that, two nights ago, I discovered that Harvard was playing New Mexico, a favored team, in the NCAA tournament. And the irony, I must admit, is that while I don't think this is where Harvard men belong in March, I was emotionally engaged, and, yes, thrilled when they pulled out an upset victory.

I was also intrigued by the commentary. The commentators noted that Harvard had invested in a top-quality coach, Tommy Amaker, who had played at Duke and coached at the University of Michigan, in 2007, in the midst of the Summers era. Sure enough, within two years Amaker had been cited by the NCAA for recruiting violations, which Harvard eventually had to acknowledge. Then, last year, two of his top recruits were caught in the Government Department teaching scandal, in which students were evidently coached by teaching fellows to take the computerized exams in a notoriously easy course, and more than 100 of them were forced to withdraw from school. (Harvard has always had a policy, which I support, that almost nothing is sufficient to earn permanent expulsion from school, and those students will return.) The commentators expressed amazement that the program had survived the loss of two top players and still won the Ivy League title and was now playing in the NCAA. They also said again and again that Harvard got there by lowering admissions standards.

Now that, I'm here to tell you, was, shall we say, a half truth. The athletic department at Harvard has always had a separate set of admissions standards for elite sports, going back at least to the 1960s when I arrived and probably a good deal before that. The football team drew on talent from all over the Boston area, as emerges very clearly from the wonderful documentary about the most famous football game in Harvard history, Harvard Wins, 29-29. But as I discovered as a faculty member in the late 1970s, the most questionable admissions practices involved Harvard's highest-profile team, the hockey squad. They too drew their talent from the Boston area, and some of them, I had occasion to learn, had academic credentials fully comparable to those of big-time college football or hockey stars. Harvard, in short, had lost its athletic virginity long before Tommy Amaker arrived on the scene.

Schools field athletic teams for two reasons: they bring in tv revenue (I don't have the time this morning myself, but perhaps some reader can tell me how much Harvard's NCAA appearance is worth), and they excite the youthful passions of alumni, who can therefore be counted upon to increase their contributions. That won't happen with me, but I was very excited nonetheless to see Harvard play so intelligently--really--down the stretch the other night, cleverly exploiting its strengths, particularly three-point shooting, to defeat a highly favored opponent. You see, I'm human too--I wish Amaker had never been hired, I wish Harvard would scour the country for the most effective teachers in the Humanities (the way James Bryant Conant did in the 1950s), and I wish they could restore their genuine educational excellence so that no one would dare teach the kind of course that led to the cheating scandal. But I still loved seeing my alma mater win. Harvard tips off against Arizona at 6:10 this evening at Salt Lake City, and I'll be watching.

Friday, March 15, 2013

In black and white

Rarely, if ever, is there a shortage of things to write about as a week draws to a close here. I had thought earlier this week about discussing the crisis on the Korean peninsula. While I am no expert on it and the North Korean regime is hard to interpret, the steps that it has taken, and particularly the denunciation of the nearly 60-year old armistice agreement, would in other times have been an almost certain prelude to an imminent war. I was reliably informed by a rare American visitor to North Korea about 15 years ago that that nation would not possibly be capable of sustained military action, but. . stranger things have happened. However, before I could begin, my email led me to something else.

I do not think there are very many professional academics among my 2-3000 regular weekly readers here, although I know there are some. I have discussed the states of academia, and particularly the humanities, from time to time, and I always worry when I do that I'm not making much of an impression, because I don't think the lay world has had much of an idea of what is happening on campuses for several decades. What reached me today was an opportunity which I simply cannot pass up.

It began with an email reporting on the recent annual meeting of the National Association of Scholars, which was founded in 1988 to try to preserve traditional values in universities. At that time it attracted a wide variety of impressive scholars, including an above-average number of conservative academics, but also some traditional liberals like myself, and even Eugene Genovese, one of the greatest Marxist historians the United States has ever produced. I joined in the early 1990s and I wrote one article, "My War with the AHA," for its journal, Academic Questions, although I've never attended an annual meeting. The organization was dedicated to maintaining traditional values of scholarship and to opposing postmodernism and poltiical correctness. Academic Questions has run wonderful articles skewering the work of some of the most prominent academics in America, including Stephen Greenblatt, Martha Nussbaum, Frederic Jameson (who gave perhaps the single most brilliant course I ever took in college before he became a postmodernist), and Louis Menand. In recent years, however, its membershpi has aged, shrunk, and moved very measurably to the right. I still belong and read the journal, but I feel much less at home in the organization than I used to.

Well, today I got an NAS email reporting on the recent annual meeting at the Harvard Club in New York, which, to repeat, I did not attend. But it referred to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the NAS that appeared in the issue of March 1, "National Scholars' Group Turns 25, Showing Its Age," by one Peter Schmidt. The NAS, it began, like many professional higher education associations, is in trouble financially for a variety of reasons. "But most other such groups," Schmidt continues, "exist to represent specific sonstituencies, like admissions officers or language professors, and can alter their messages to keep up with the times. The NAS cannot change its message because its message is its reason for being."

And then came the sentence that nearly made me shriek, right in the middle of Sawyer library here at Williams College.

"That message is that colleges should be meritocracies focused on teaching, research, reasoned discourse, and the scientific method, and should resist tailoring their policies and instruction to conform with anyone's political views."

I don't think there's a way to insert a poll in these blog posts, but if there were, I would do so, asking everyone to indicate whether they regard that sentence as a controversial statement. Because you see, if you don't think it's controversial--and I sure as hell don't--then you evidently, pace The Chronicle, an intellectual dinosaur peddling snake oil. Schmidt continues:

"It is a message rooted in romanticized recollections of how America's colleges operated in the middle of the 20th century, before the advent of affirmative action, ethnic studies departments, and other products of the 1960s that the association regards as anathema."

Now I am very eager to test this statement out on my current class, but unfortunately it crossed my path at the worst possible time, the day before the start of spring break, so that will have to wait for two weeks. I did ask a random undergraduate in the library whether he regarded the summary of the NAS message as controversial or debatable, and he replied, interestingly enough, that it might be, but only because simple, straightforward intellectual tasks are now being outsourced or performed by computers and that colleges therefore might need to be more "conceptual." I then showed it to the inhabitant of the next office over, an economist, who found nothing controversial in it at all. But Schmidt and his editors apparently do.

If you asked him for his alternative vision, he would probably begin by saying that the job of a university was to offer a diversity of viewpoints reflecting the diversity of the world's population, which is divided into different races, genders, classes, and religions. Many would argue that there was never a single truth that universities could try to teach, merely European white male truth which the ruling group used universities to promulgate in an effort to maintain their "hegemony," intellectual and otherwise. That was indeed the rationale for founding ethnic and gender studies departments and it is at least part of the rationale for affirmative action in universities for everyone from undergraduates to faculty. That is the reality. Now to understand how this happened, and what it means for the future, let's go back to Schmidt's original statement, which I think is accurate, of the NAS view.

"That message is that colleges should be meritocracies focused on teaching, research, reasoned discourse, and the scientific method, and should resist tailoring their policies and instruction to conform with anyone's political views."

That is a good statement of what universities in the western world aspired to be for approximately a century, i would argue, from around 1870 to 1970. Many would argue that the picture was an idealized one. They are right. No generation produces enough men and women with the curiosity, dedication, passion and self-discipline that is required to do that kind of serious intellectual work and show others how to do it. A great historian or literary critic isn't any more common than a great hitter--which shouldn't be in the least surprising, since both skills require a rare mix of talent and dedication. But as long as this remained the ideal, universities and colleges could thrive and perform a critical function for the rest of society. It was the abandonment of that idea about forty years ago that has led to the catastrophic situation that they face today.

Yes, Virginia, the modern western intellectual tradition was a great thing, but it was not a natural outcome of the human mind. It had to be founded, built upon, and continually revised. Several generations spent substantial portions of their youth in libraries and archives introducing themselves to it. (I was really one of the lucky ones, because that was about as hard for me as it is for a pig to lie in mud. But to repeat, that's very unusual.) That's why it has been so much easier to tear it down than to build it up. That's why it's future is now extremely uncertain. Remember, more than a Millennium passed between the end of the first great era of rationalism in Greek and Rome and its revival in the Renaissance.

Those like myself, who were introduced to that tradition when it was still vibrant and swam against the tide of their adulthood to keep it alive, now face an interesting dilemma. What in fact could we do to try to keep it alive? As I remarked here very recently, it's not clear how that could happen in universities, where newly minted graduate students have never been exposed to it. What other forum exists that could, crucially, attract younger people and in turn give them a chance to replicate themselves? I don't know.

My students at Williams still can, and do, respond to opportunities to do serious historical work, but there are fewer and fewer such opportunities in colleges. Ironically, the resources available on line have made serious historical work easier than ever, and the book I am completing on U.S. entry into the Second World War is much better, drawing on far more sources, than it could have been when I started out, because I could access and store so much more data so efficiently. And there will be readers for this book. How many people under 40 remain who might write one like it, however, is an entirely different question--and one that makes me very sad.


Saturday, March 09, 2013

A Nineteenth-century Ideal

As I reach the end of my full-time career as an academic I have been moved to reflect on the discipline of history. It has been steadily disintegrating for the last forty years or so, and while I am still doing what I can to keep the best of it alive, I don't see how any real regeneration is going to come from inside the academy now. But I am more concerned with the impact of the decline of history upon society at large. One of contemporary history's many problems is its inability to take a truly long view about almost anything. Today's historians generally compare the values and behavior of societies in the past with those of contemporary academic departments, and inevitably find them wanting. They assume that their department represent the summit of civilization because of their diversity and opposition to any kind of privilege. In my opinion, however, they have been contributing to our general slide towards anarchy, not least because they help educate the leaders of tomorrow.

For a different view altogether I have turned to the founder of modern history, the German Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), who contributed fundamentally to the discipline in several ways. First, he insisted that when possible, historians must rely on primary sources--actual state papers and diplomatic documents, for instance--rather than memoirs. Second, he insisted that the historian's task was to recreate the past "wie es eigentlich gewesen"--German words usually translated as "as it really was," although I once translated them as "in its own right." Thirdly, Ranke, a religious man, made the critical statement at least once that "every epoch is immediate to God," which I would once again adapt to mean that every major epoch and episode of history, from the founding of the United States to Stalin's purges and Hitler's death camps, represent actual elements of human nature. And lastly, writing the bulk of his enormous output about the development of European states from the 16th through the 18th centuries, he focused upon the role of particular states, the individual national characteristics which they embodied, and the ways in which they all drew upon a changing European or even Atlantic spirit of the age. Ranke was born in Saxony and spent his working life in Prussia. By the standards of his time he was a moderate conservative. He never wrote a major study of the transformative event of his childhood, the French Revolution, but he indicated in asides, I have discovered, that he believed the revolutionaries had wrongly abandoned religion and chosen to worship Reason instead. He was himself a devout Lutheran, although his works on early modern Europe, including a multi-volume history of the Papacy, treat Protestantism and Catholicism with extraordinary balance.

What caught my eye some months ago, reading a selection of his early writings, were these remarks from a "Dialogue on Politics" that he published in 1836. How, one of his mythical interlocutors asks, can the interests of different regions and even of individuals be reconciled with the good of the whole?

"Ultimately, undoubtedly, [because] the idea of the state permeates every citizen, that he feels in himself some of its spiritual force, tha th econsiders himself a member of the whole with an affection for it, and that hte feeling of community in him is stronger than the feeling of provincial, local, and personal isolation."

How could a state maintain this goal?

"Nowadays every government must be benevolent. Its powers, as we all agree, are based on the gneeral welfare of the people anyway. But it also must show that it is benevolent int he proper way. It must take care to be recognized. People should nwo what it does. And every single citizen must see that his own affairs, as far as they are connected with the public affairs, are dealt with as efficiently as possible. If their reluctance is finally overcome, this invisible, penetrating, unifying motive will have seized them all. Compulsion will be transformed on a higher level into voluntary individual initiative. Duty will become liberty. . . .I am convinced that the development even of a man's personality depends upon the sincerity of the inner interest which he takes, not necessarily in the forms of a constitution but in the progress of public welfare in the common good."

It is rather interesting to read these words, written in the midst of the Restoration era in Germany by a subject of the absolute Prussian monarchy, by a man who lived to see the advent of something approaching modern democracy in all the major nations of Europe but who to my knowledge did not address its consequences in detail. Clearly he believed that the subject of a monarchy could have the same investment and involvement in his government as a citizen of a republic. But more importantly, it seems to me that Ranke was expressing the fundamental idea behind all the great political achievements of the modern era, the idea of political organization to assure the security of the citizen and promote the common good. That idea grew in power in the half-century or more after his death, and lay behind all the major political developments of the first half of the twentieth century, from the Bolshevik Revolution to National Socialism to the New Deal, the democratic socialist regimes of western Europe, and so on. Those examples illustrate that it was the foundation of enormous efforts, both for good and for ill--although in the end the good predominated, a result which Ranke would probably have interpreted to confirm his religious beliefs. But beginning in the late 1960s--triggered in large part by a disastrous American national effort, the Vietnam War--that idea went into decline, and that decline has not only continued but accelerated both in the United States and in the rest of the world. In fact, those nations which in the Cold War had created the strongest states--the Soviet Union and the US--have experienced the most spectacular declines, it seems to me, in civic spirit. And now this process, I think, is raising the question of whether our society can still cope with the demands of modern life.

The idea that the development a man's (or woman's)personality depends upon his or her commitment to the public welfare is virtually anathema, of course, to almost any Republican today. That party believes in our right and duty to pursue our own self-interest alone, and regards the state as nothing but a swindle that takes from the deserving and gives to the rest. It even believes that our personal security is more properly our own affair than that of the state, and denies the state the power which a younger German, Max Weber, defined as the essence of a modern state, the exercise of a monopoly of legitimate force. That is why the Texas legislature, as I read today, allows members to carry weapons into the capitol. But this problem is not confined to Republicans. The idea of a state serving the public welfare is bound up with the idea of common citizenship, and the left has been undermining that idea since the mid-1960s as well, claiming that traditional ideas of citizenship have excluded everyone but heterosexual white males and that the universal language of our Constitution and laws was nothing but a sham. That is why, it seems to me, the Boom generation has failed to produce a new cadre of truly dedicated public servants comparable to the contemporaries of Franklin Roosevelt or of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Like the Right, the Left is interested above all in personal liberty issues such as the freedom to practice birth control, to enter legally recognized same-sex relationships. They have also focused upon opening up the elite to women and minorities. And that, ironically, has encouraged women and minorities to focus upon their own individual well-being, rather than to commit themselves, as earlier generations did, to the betterment of all. They have also insisted on their right to define their own reality, which inevitably involves a repudiation of the Enlightenment tradition upon which the modern state, and modern ideas of consensus, were based.

The decline of Rankean civic spirit can be seen, I think, even in much of Europe, where governments have mindlessly adopted austerity in defiance of the damage it is doing to their body politic. It seems to be strongest in Germany, which still puts the highest priority on high employment, and to a lesser extent in France, which has returned to the high marginal tax rates of the past. But elections in Greece and Italy have shown the established parties in disarray, just as they were in the last crisis 80 years ago. The idea of a common European destiny is even more threatened by the current crisis.

A great historian, it has always seemed to me, should know better than to argue with history--as Ranke generally declined to do. The steady civic decline of the last half century--which it seems our current national crisis is NOT going to reverse, as Strauss and Howe hoped twenty years ago--is a gigantic historical event, connected to other equally big ones such as the decline of print media and the eclipse of much of the western intellectual tradition in universities. If circumstances are to force us to reverse the trend, they would have to be very bad indeed. History is not however at all likely to die out completely, and the example of the three centuries from the late 17th until the late 20th will remain, and eventually, perhaps, inspire those yet unborn to cultivate the virtues of that increasingly distant era.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Who's winning?

This week, my two favorite periodicals, the New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, had articles on the Republicans in the House. The first, by Xer Ryan Lizza, is entitled The House of Pain; the second, by Silent Elizabeth Drew, asks, "Are the Republicans Beyond Saving?" (It, alas, is available only to subscribers.) Both of them discuss the recent Republican retreat at Williamsburg and the arguments between Speaker Boehner and the Tea Party wing, and both suggest that Republican extremism is going to doom their party to extinction. In my opinion, both these articles are 1) entirely wrong in their implications and 2) very representative of why civilization as we know it is going down the tubes. Both Drew and Lizza are products of New Deal America, and they cannot apparently understand not only that the Republicans are determined to destroy what is left of it, but that they are succeeding in doing so.

The point to which both articles return repeatedly, naturally, is that Mitt Romney lost the election and that demographic trends suggest that it will be very difficult for a Republican to win one any time soon. The first contention is undeniably true; the second is much more dubious. Lizza scores a very funny point in his lengthy account of the Williamsburg retreat when he quotes the CEO of Domino's Pizza, who turned the company around, as he explained, by doing some research and discovering that he was marketing a terrible product. He also scores some points off of Eric Cantor, who gave a speech at a conservative think tank trying to explain, very unconvincingly, how Republican policies could actually help average Americans. He concludes suggesting that Cantor is beginning to accept the realities of leadership. Drew also patronizes the Republicans in many ways, but she concludes more realistically that the real danger they pose is to the ocuntry, not themselves. The articles of course were written before the sequester, but it could easily have been anticipated.

The reality is that the Republicans have enacted into law the progressive dismantling of the federal government as we know it, and stage one began today. Defense spending and discretionary spending are essentially frozen in constant dollars for the next eight years under the sequester, even though the population of the United States, economic growth, and tax revenues are not. This means an $83 billion cut over the next nine months. It means, I am reliably informed, massive cuts in aid to school districts around the country. It means hundreds of thousands of layoffs. It means, in short, that we are repeating the disastrous experiment run by the British Tories, which has kept Britain mired in recession. But the Republicans, from Boehner on down, are trumpeting their victory: this is their fantasy come true.

I share Lizza and Drew's opinion that the Republicans in Congress are clueless regarding the demands of a modern civilized society and what it takes to pay for it, but that, in a sense, does not matter. I share their opinion that they cannot govern, but that misses the real point: they don't want to. They don't want America to be governed: they want a nation ruled by hedge fund managers, health insurance companies, the big processed food manufacturers, and above all, energy magnates. Most of the Republican Congessmen, as Lizza points out, come from the South and the mountain states and from thoroughly gerrymandered districts in the Midwest, with a few left in the middle Atlantic. Financed by superpacs, they owed nothing to John Boehner nad now have forced him to dance to their tune. They will never agree to any more tax increases and none can be passed, for the foreseeable future, without them.

I am rather terrified that Jacob Lew, the architect of the sequester, is now Secretary of the Treasury, because I think it must have been amazingly self-delusional to believe that the current Republican Congressional delegations would back away from implementing this sequester. Of course they wouldn't. I'm amused that Bill Kristol, bless his heart, is apoplectic about the defense cuts, because he and his fellow neocons and allies in the old Bush Administration did so much to make the Tea Party possible. The Tea Party couldn't care less about foreign policy, except for knee-jerk support of Israel to please Sheldon Adelson. Their enemy is the federal government, not Iran, and they have no struck a big blow against it. (One fellow Boomer who gets it is Robert Reich.)

For half a century now the Left--the readers of the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books--have focused mostly on social issues like abortion and gay rights, and on criticism of US foreign policy, which has offered plenty to criticize. They have assumed that the economic achievements of the New Deal and Great Society were simply part of life, like the seasons, and worse still, they have assumed that everyone else felt so too. That is why we have no mass oRef Democrats just as determined to preserve those things as the Republicans are to destroy them. That is why Barack Obama has so foolishly compromised, time and time again, with Republicans who are determined to destroy him and everything he stands for. And that, I suppose, is why the White House is now trying to divert attention from this debacle by attacking Bob Woodward for telling the truth, namely, that the sequester was their clever idea.

I suspect we will see more crises in the next two months over continuing resolutions and the debt ceilings. It is at least possible that when the cuts go through, the Republicans will be willing to keep things where they are. But they are not going to reverse policy, and that will keep the economy work. Some of them undoubtedly think that will help them in the next Congressional elections--a possibility that I don't think either Lizza or Drew mentioned. That is their trump card. Because we need government, weakening government makes the people mad. The Republicans have been quite successful in channeling that anger against the government itself. They are counting on that strategy to overcome their demographic disadvantage.