Featured Post

Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Dramaitc change

   Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak was one of the books I used to teach in my course,  "War and Revolution in the Twentieth Century."  Strauss and Howe had not written their books in those days, but Pasternak's book is, among other things, the history of a fourth turning or crisis, in this case the First World War and Russian Revolution.  And near the end of the book, musing in a lonely cabin in the Urals, Zhivago, writing for Pasternak, pens a remarkable passage about historical change.

   "He reflected again that he conceived of history, of what is called the course of history, not in the accepted way, but by analogy with the vegetable kingdom.  In winter, under the snow, the leafless branches of a wood are thin and poor, like the hairs on an old man's wart.  But in only a few days in spring the forest is transformed: it reaches the clouds, and you can hide or lose yourself in the leafy maze.  This transformation is achieved with a speed greater than in the case of animals, for animals do not grow as fast as plants, and yet we cannot directly observe the movement of growth even of plants.  The forest does not change its place, we cannot lie in wait for it and catch it in the act of change.  Whenever we look at it, it seems to be motionless.  And such also is the immobility to our eyes of the eternally growing, ceaselesslychanging history, the life of society moving invisibly in its incessant transformation."

Strauss's and Howe's view was not dissimilar, because they rightly assigned such importance to the emergence and death of generations.  The Websters and Clays of the Compromise generation held the Union together from 1820 through 1850, but when they disappeared from the scene the Civil War was only a matter of time.  In the same way, the GI generation (born roughly 1904-24) and the  Silent Generation (1925-42) maintained and even extended the achievements of the New Deal, and preserved the world Roosevelt and Missionary Generation (b. 1863-83) had bequeathed them--the world into which I was born.  That world was still very much alive when Strauss and Howe published Generations and The Fourth Turning in 1993 and 1996, respectively, and indeed, they expected the Crisis they foresaw to restore some of its most important aspects.  But that is not what has happened.  Instead, with frightening speed--the same speed which Pasternak saw in the change of seasons--their world has disappeared.

And that, I think, will turn out to be a turning point in western history, because their world was the climax of the process that began with the Enlightenment, the attempt to use human reason to design and create a better world.  To that, Roosevelt and the other Missionaries, as No End Save Victory shows quite clearly, had added a moral dimension:  they were specifically seeking a relatively just economic order at home that would allow every American to live a decent life, and an international order within which all nations could live in peace.   They understood, critically, that neither of those things would come easily or automatically: they required effort, imagination, and sacrifice.  The Boom generation quite naturally took all their achievements for granted.  Boomers have concentrated, for the most part, on wringing maximum enjoyment and advantage from the world they inherited.  As a result, that world is disappearing along with them.

The first Boomers, my own contemporaries, were typical items of mass production.  Our parents provided for our material needs, sent us to good public schools and remarkably cheap colleges, and assumed that we had no feelings.  That led in turn to an extraordinary explosion of emotion in the late 1960s and 1970s and to a loosening of restraints on behavior that continues until this day.  But it also led to the erosion of the idea of any universal moral or intellectual standards.  That change first emerged in academia, where by the 1990s everyone's view of history or literature was deemed to be equally valid or invalid, conditioned by their race, class and gender.  But it has gone so far now that critical scientific questions like global warming have become matters of faith.  More importantly, the whole Republican Party has repudiated the idea of government using reason and science to improve our lives.  The market, they argue--that is, the law of the jungle--will produce the most just outcomes.  It is perhaps because these views represented the most complete rebellion against our parents' values that they have come to dominate the Boom generation, the majority of which voted Republican in the last election.

What is really frightening, however, is that the younger generations now coming to power--Gen Xers and Millennials--have no experience of a world run on different values, and thus, no belief that it is even possible.  Boomers, to be sure, led them down this path.  If a GI had remarked, "Books are a dying medium--young people don't read them," he would have done so not only in sorrow, but in an attempt to reverse the trend, because he understood that books were part of the foundation of western civilization. But when Steve Jobs made that remark--and while I can't find it on google, I am positive that I read it at the time--he was simply stating a trend which he was proud of recognizing, accelerating, and profiting from.  Today's young people have not experienced college as an experience that opened up new intellectual worlds.  It has rather been a very expensive series of hoops to jump through in order to become one of the winners in our winner-take-all economy.  This is all they know and it won't occur to them to try to make it something different.

And this, it seems to me, is why the Obama Administration has been so hopeless in selling the ACA.  Yes, it now has seven million sign-ups and is benefiting real Americans, . Nonetheless, Democratic candidates in states like Georgia, where it was desperately needed, are running without mentioning it.  That is because it represents the idea that government can improve the lot of all the people--and in much of the country, that idea has given way to the idea that government simply takes from the deserving and gives to the undeserving.

Let's go a step further down the health care road.  The key to solving our health care problem is simple.  We simply have to recognize that health care, which we all need sooner or later, is a public good,  like roads, schools, and national defense. It should not therefore be a source of profit.  Yet the extent to which profit rules health care is once again on display.  The FDA has just approved the use of a new opiate, timed-release hydrocodone, over the objections of its advisory panel.  Drugs like hydrocodone, it is clear, have led hundreds of thousands of Americans into addiction, and many have turned to heroin, which is both cheaper and more readily available.  It seems that the drug companies were determined to break into the multi-billion dollar market for narcotics in this country, but that have disadvantages in that will not provide them as cheaply as criminal gangs.  We obviously need the moral courage to recognize that addictive opiates are not a real solution to anyone's long-term health problems, but because they can make money for drug companies, that is lacking in today's world.

The last American representative of the world I grew up in on the world stage seems to be John Kerry. He is four years older than I am,, and he too was a diplomatic brat.  He belongs to the diplomatic tradition of John F. Kennedy, George H. W. Bush, Richard Nixon and my own father, all of whom believed (yes, including Nixon) that diplomats were supposed to solve problems among nations.  (Hillary Clinton showed no sign of grasping this in her four years as Secretary of State.)  Yet because such people now lack the backing and moral authority that they used to have, his efforts to revive the Middle East peace process have collapsed completely.  That is another symbol of where we are, and another fearful warning of where we might be going.


Friday, April 18, 2014

Collapsing authority

Two news items this week suggest, first, why the United States is still in such a terrible mess five years into the Obama Administration, and secondly, how things may get much, much worse.

The first was an item in the Boston Globe.  My local paper got a hold of an advance copy of Elizabeth Warren's new memoir and manifesto, due to appear next week.  Entitled A Fighting Chance, it appears to be a carefully put-together mix of politics and autobiography, complete with the kind of personal details (such as her daily conversations with a pregnant daughter) that many publishers like nowadays.  But it also contains some real substance, and Matt Visser of the Globe knew what to lead with.  In 2010, Warren met with President Obama in the Oval Office, and he informed her that he could not make her the head of the the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she had just designed, because of objections from Senate Republicans and bankers. “You make them very nervous,” he told her.  In a second meeting, he browbeat her into doing additional work on the design of the agency anyway.

Now there are two questions that immediately occur to me, questions that I would like to pose to President Obama.  First of all, can you name one instance in which George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and the rest of the Bush II White House decided not to do anything because it would make Democrats in Congress and labor unions nervous?  I can't.  Both of the last two Democratic Presidents have generally decided that they can be as Democratic as the Republicans will allow them to be, and no more. (The ACA was one exception.)  But the second question is more fundamental.  How on earth can we fix our financial woes without making Wall Street nervous?  Does the President really not understand that the crash came, and the next one will come, precisely because our financial institutions have much too much power and much too much money?  The only way to restore us to health and stability is to take away a good deal of both. Prosecutions of leading figures, which the Obama Administration also eschewed, would have helped as well.  Sadly, Obama got where he is by never offending powerful members of the Establishment, and he has stuck to that SOP as President.  Because of this, much of the anger generated by the financial crisis was directed at him, not at more appropriate targets, and the Democrats are in danger of losing control of the government.

The second episode is truly astonishing, and potentially even more serious.  In Nevada, a rancher, Cliven Bundy, who has been illegally grazing cattle on federal land and refusing to pay fines for about twenty years, forced the Bureau of Land Management to stop rounding up his cattle with the help of armed militiamen from all over the West.  Fox News covered the story in detail, cheering Bundy on for defying the federal government. 

As I have remarked before, Max Weber, about one hundred years ago, defined the modern state as an entity possessing a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.  The NRA and its acolytes, as well as even more extreme groups, do not want a modern state in America.  They evidently want anarchy similar to what prevailed (as I described in Politics and War) in early modern Europe, when great men walked around with armed retainers and frequently took the law into their own hands.  Similar developments--militias raised by Nazis and Communists--did a great deal to destroy the Weimar Republic in Germany more than eighty years ago.  No state, whether in Ukraine or the United States of America, can afford to cave in to armed resistance.  That is what the federal government has just done.

The late Bill Strauss used to speculate that the United States might break up during the current crisis.  I do not think that is likely, but it does seem that anarchy might become the norm in large parts of what we now refer to as the Red states.  The power of those states is vastly exaggerated by the number of Senators they control, even though their population, as a percentage of the nation's, has never been smaller.  Perhaps this is why the Washington Post, no less, in this lengthy account of the long-term origins of the Nevada stand-off, seems to be trying to be as even handed as possible.  "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. . .. "

Monday, April 14, 2014

A note to foreign readers

   The statistics for hits on this blog show the following origin of hits over the last 5 days or so, including 1500 from the US.  I would love to see comments from some of these readers about how they found historyunfolding, what exactly they are reading, and what they think of it. Thanks in advance.

United Kingdom

Friday, April 11, 2014

Child Abuse and its Consequences

In the 1980s I was introduced to the work of the Swiss psychoanalyst (as she was then called) Alice Miller.  It turned out after Miller's death that she was actually a Polish Jew who had survived the Holocaust by posing as a gentile in Warsaw, but she never referred to any of this specifically in her work--even to her Jewish origins.  Like Hannah Arendt, apparently, she was a real child of the Enlightenment who was writing for everyone and for all time.  She became a critic of Sigmund Freud, who she argued had betrayed his patients and himself when he decided that their stories of sexual abuse at the hands of their parents were fantasies, not real events, and thereby shifted the guilt for these acts from the innocent children. She focused increasingly on the impact of all kinds of child abuse, and in one of her best books, For Your Own Good, she explored its impact in the twentieth century via the Nazis in general and Adolf Hitler in particular.

In a remarkable chapter of that book, Miller explored the evidence of Hitler's abuse at the hands of his father, who beat him frequently, and the ways in which various biographers had treated it.  While the evidence was too clear to ignore--Hitler had himself spoken of his beatings by his father in his official circle--most German biographers had denied that the abuse could have contributed to Hitler's crimes.  They invariably argued either that it was not really that severe, or that the physical discipline of children was so common in  Austria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that it should not be taken too seriously.  Miller argued the opposite, suggesting that the frequency of child abuse in Germany and Austria not only provided many Nazi recruits, but also made large numbers of Germans identify with Hitler's boundless hatred, which could not be directed against its real targets, his abusive father and his mother, who had failed to protect him.   She noted how, in Mein Kampf, Hitler first "discovered' his hatred for the Jews when he finally got out of his father's house, moved to Vienna, and found a target for all his pent-up rage.  But, she argued persuasively, even killing millions of Jews, Poles, and other Europeans, and sending millions of Germans to their death, could not provide him with any relief, since he still hadn't acknowledged its real target. Indeed (and I confirmed this from Albert Speer's memoirs) he was one of many abused children who insisted that the beatings did him good.

Once Miller had opened this door for me it was not difficult to find other historical and literary figures who were evidently acting out the consequences of abuse.  It is harder, however, in the heat of the moment, to identify contemporary political figures who are taking the sins of their parents out on the rest of us.  From time to time, however, I have been able to do so, and I was reminded of this once again reading a book review a few weeks ago in the New York Review of Books.  The subject was Gabriel Sherman's biography of Roger Ailes, and the author was Steve Coll.  "Roger Ailes was born in 1940," it read," and grew up in a small Ohio town. When he was a boy, his father beat him viciously with a belt to discipline him, even though Ailes suffered from hemophilia and could conceivably have died from any bleeding wound. Sherman quotes Ailes’s brother Robert about their father: 'He did like to beat the shit out of you with that belt. He continued to beat you, and he continued to beat you…. It was a pretty routine fixture of childhood.' As an adult, perhaps unsurprisingly, Ailes has exuded a portentous, Dreiserian air. By Sherman’s account, he displays a fierce temper around the office, holds grudges, and regularly vows vengeance against his enemies."  Curiously enough, Jacob Weisberg in The New York Times showed the same kind of denial Miller found in so many Hitler biographies. " Ailes himself," he wrote "grew up cared and provided for in an intact family in the middle-class town of Warren, Ohio. A diagnosis of hemophilia made his parents think he was living on borrowed time. But he was encouraged not to let the disability stand in his way, and for the most part it didn’t. His father had a cruel streak, which led to a divorce from his less-than-affectionate mother, but not until after Roger and his older brother — who did speak to Sherman — had gone away to college."  End of story--or was it?

Was it simply a coincidence that Ailes in 1968 discovered another father figure, Richard Nixon, who also grew up with a stern father in an emotionally starved household, and carried an unquenchable hatred of various enemies into adulthood?  Ailes's media strategy may well have lifted Nixon into the White House in a very close election.  Is it simply a coincidence that Ailes and his employees at Fox News, which he has run for many years, serve up a steady stream of hatred of liberals, Democrats and President Obama 24/7, year after year after year?  And might not this be the explanation of why Ailes--and many other Republican pundits--are pushing their hatred far beyond the point of diminishing returns, and making it harder for Republicans to win state and national elections?  We certainly have ample evidence that many homophobic conservatives are expressing their own fear of the homosexual impulses they have not been able to defeat. This is another way in which repressed personal feelings decline our politics.

Ailes is not the only Nixon acolyte to have acknowledged child abuse. Another who did so was Pat Buchanan, who spoke approvingly of his stern father's use of a strap in his autobiographical work, Right from the Beginning.   He, too, has been driven by hatreds of liberals, and, at times, by  hostility to Jews--hostility which even his mentor William Buckley would not defend.  I am convinced from other examples I have encountered that early childhood trauma lies between many ambitious peoples' drive for achievement. Both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan grew up in very dysfunctional families, and Barack Obama was raised by a single parent in very difficult circumstances for the first decade or so of his life.  And what about George W. Bush?  He has lived his whole life trying to emulate his powerful, high-achieving father.  As a small child, he suffered the traumatic loss of a younger sister without any preparation or real emotional support from his parents, who appeared to believe, as parents did in those days, that children had no real feelings.

These issues, I am afraid, never really go away.  In the 1980s, when I was teaching Alice Miller together with various historical novels from the first half of the twentieth century, I eventually allowed my Gen X students to express themselves about their own childhoods. The results were quite astonishing, and I do think there was more openness then than there had been for my generation about these issues.  Now, however, it seems many, many parents--particular the better-off ones--are too obsessed with their children's lives to realize that they might be doing them any harm.  And the opportunity in the 1970s and 1980s to explore our interior lives was to some extent a luxury, a benefit of growing up and living in a relatively stable economic world.  We will be more preoccupied for some time with real-world problems--even if we seem to have lost the knack of solving them.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Friday, April 04, 2014

The Victory of Clarence Thomas

This evening my wife and I attended the Waltham premiere of Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, a documentary about Anita Hill.  Anita Hill has been a professor of social policy (not of law) at Brandeis University for some time, and she attended the showing and spoke and answered questions from a moderator (but not from the audience) after the packed showing was over.  I will take this opportunity to raise the question I was dying to ask her, in a slightly different form.

As you will all recall,. during Clarence Thomas's confirmation process in 1991, Anita Hill came forward in response to a committee subpoena to testify that Thomas, while her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the Reagan Administration, had sexually harassed her. She did not accuse him of attempting to extort sexual favors, but rather of what is now called "creating an unfriendly environment" by engaging in blunt talk about pornographic movies and his own sexual equipment and performance and repeatedly asking her for a date.  A Senate committee composed entirely of GI and Silent white males varied from neutral to hostile in its response to her and did not reverse its recommendation to confirm Thomas.  The Senate--then Democratically controlled--did so, by a close vote.

I always had mixed feelings about the Hill-Thomas affair, not because I didn't believe her--I did--but because, frankly, I thought, first, that the accusations she made were not all that serious, and secondly, because I thought the controversy was a distraction from the issue. (I know many readers will strongly disagree about the accusations, but that is what I think.) Thomas, who is a year younger than I am, was a conservative Republican who had clearly gotten the appointment in large part because of his race, which would make it harder for Democrats to vote against him.  I was certain that he was going to vote for and hand down decisions that I would regard as catastrophic, and he has been worse, in fact, than I ever could have imagined.  That, not his unseemly behavior towards Hill and other women,. was the reason, in my opinion, that he should have been summarily rejected.

Now the film, as it happens, paid no attention, really, to Thomas's opinions or the rather important role he has played in subsequent American history. It was Hill's story, not Thomas's, and it detailed what happened to her as a result of the hearings--which was disgraceful--and what she has done since.  Essentially, she has become a full-time advocate for gender equality, especially in the workplace. That is what she teaches at Brandeis.  The film--and Hill in her appearance afterwards--took a very upbeat approach towards the succeeding 22 years, arguing that enormous progress had been made in the workplace, thanks in large part to Hill's courageous decision to come forward.

That is probably true, but it is the mistake of the academic left, it seems to me, to act as if these were the most important issues facing the nation, and to ignore other aspects of the story.  When Thomas joined the court in 1991 he, Anthony Scalia and William Rehnquist were  three most conservative justices.  Now he is one of a solid phalanx of four extreme conservatives (Scalia, John Roberts and Samuel Alito are the others), and with the help of Anthony Kennedy, they have steadily scaled back voting rights, done away with restrictions upon gun ownership, and progressively eliminated various restrictions on campaign contributions, making the United States government increasingly the creature of the rich and powerful.  All this has worked to the enormous disadvantage of men and women of all races and sexual preferences, with the exception of a favored few.  TI am certainly not suggesting that this is Anita Hill's fault.  Thomas would have been confirmed and American politics evidently would have moved rightward anyway.  But in the long run, it seems to me, the Thomas confirmation controversy looms as an important step on our drift rightward, not a triumph for liberal values.

That is not all.  One would have thought, from watching the film, that Clarence Thomas was the only political figure ever accused of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct.  There was no mention of the names Bill Clinton, Paul Jones, or Monica Lewinsky; no references to Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, David Vitter or Anthony Wiener; no discussion of whether turning the sex lives (or sexual conversation) of political figures into career-breaking issues has been a good thing. 

According to Nat Silver at fivethirtyeight.com, the Republicans now stand about an even chance of taking control of the Senate.  In my opinion there is very reason to think that they could defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016.  Republican control of the government will be a catastrophe for which advances in gender equality and sexual freedom will not, in my opinion, be sufficient compensation.  The Republicans are winning because of a single-minded focus on political power, one that has led them, among other things, to pack the court system with nominees far more extreme than any Barack Obama would dare to pick from the left.  Democrats think they can win national elections based upon racial, gender and sexual identity.  Even if they can,that will not fix the ills of the nation.