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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...

Friday, September 26, 2014

Truth, fiction, and Masters and Johnson

   For the past two years my wife and I have been watching the Showtime series Masters of Sex, which purports to portray the careers of Dr. William Masters and his research collaborator, and later wife, Virginia Johnson.  The series is set in the late 1950s and, like Mad Men, wants to take advantage of a kind of perverse, love-hate nostalgia for that bygone era.  It is highly entertaining and often, of course, titillating, but I felt from the beginning that, like Mad Men, it reflected far more of the present than it did the actual experience of the past.  I finally decided to find out, and got the original book, Masters of Sex, by Thomas Maier, out of the library.  It's a gripping, well-researched account, drawing on interviews with Johnson, with many people who knew one or both of them intimately, and on an unpublished memoir written by Masters.  It turns out that the show, from a historical point of view, is much worse than I thought.

    The first problem, I regret to say, is Michael Sheen, the fine British actor who has starred as Tony Blair and David Frost in very succcessful movies, and who is also an executive producer of the show.  It is abundantly clear that the real William Masters, while emotionally reserved, was a very verbal, physically impressive and charismatic man who impressed nearly everyone who came into contact with him.  Sheen, alas, has chosen to play him as a somewhat pathetic twit.  While his skill as a doctor and surgeon and his empathy for his patients showed through in some of the early episodes, he generally comes across as a person with no EQ whatever, to use another anachronistic term.  And this is important, because it also allows the show seriously to misrepresent the impact he had on his university and on his staff.

The problem with these retrospective dramas about the 1950s and early 1960s is that they focus upon characters with whom today's audiences can identify--usually women and minorities--to show how hard it was for such people to make their way in a white male-dominated world.  Masters qualifies as a sympathetic figure professionally, although not personally, within the show, because he's trying to explore the forbidden subject of sex.  Masters was indeed pursuing a forbidden subject, but many of the powerful men of the 1950s were smart enough and understanding enough to give him critical support.  The Catholic Archbishop of St. Louis, a liberal, joined the board of his research institute.  The head of Washington University Medical School knew about and approved his work.  But in the TV show, his administrative superior, played by Beau Bridges, is instead of closeted homosexual whom Masters blackmails into supporting his research, after he learns about the man's sexual orientation from a male prostitute.  That was not the only cooperation Masters got from the establishment.  The police commissioner of St. Louis declared a moratorium of arrests for prostitution while Masters was interviewing and filming local prostitutes, and police chiefs in other cities did the same.  Masters's initial presentation of his filmed results to his colleagues did disturb some of them, but they did not begin screaming at him during the talk, because educated people in those days simply didn't do that sort of thing.  His patron, the head of the Medical School, assured him there was nothing to worry about, since although he had heard some verbal complaints after the presentation, no one had submitted anything in writing.  The main reason Masters left the university and set up his own institute was that it refused to give a paid position as a researcher to Virginia Johnson, who never even earned a college degree. (Of this more in a moment.)

In the show, Masters is forced to leave the university hospital, joins another one but leaves it quickly after a fist fight with another doctor, and then finds a temporary home at a Negro hospital.  Then he finally sets up his own institute, conveniently located in a shabby building which is said to have housed the local Communist Party of the USA.  There is not a word of truth in any of this, nor in the episode in the show in which Master's wife, Libby, gives birth to her first child in the same Negro hospital.

The whole portrayal of Masters's personal life is full of inventions and inaccuracies.  By all accounts, he and his wife Libby had a thoroughly traditional 1950s marriage within which she played her role to perfection.  The show's writers decided to add some drama by moving the Masters's difficulty in conceiving a child--which was real enough--to the late 1950s, when the show is set.  In fact, one of Masters's own fertility treatments allowed Libby to conceive twice in the early 1950s and they had two children by the time the show took place.  The show has Libby stereotypically complaining that Masters's insistence on pursuing his sex research is ruining their lives after he is fired from one hospital after another--a total fantasy, of course, since the firings never happened.  It also clearly suggests that she conceived only because some one else's sperm was substituted for Masters's, which there does not seem to be any reason to believe.  (I think that the Masters's son Howie, who was a major source for Maier's book and treated his parents' marriage very even-handedly, must be rather angry about the portrayal of his parents.)  The show also invents a bitter conflict between Masters and his widowed mother that seems to have no basis in fact.

The show gives a tremendous role to Virginia Johnson in the design of their research, but it leaves out a crucial event, one that would have in my opinion made for great television.  Masters handled the early stages of his research himself, recruiting men and women who were willing to masturbate or have sex on camera. (The cameraman, by the way, was the permanent illustrator of the medical school, not the out-of-work aspiring filmmaker who was written into the script.)  One day Masters was having lunch with a female volunteer, a grad student, who introduced him to the idea that a woman might fake an orgasm.  She then said to him, bluntly, that if he was really going to make sense out of sex, he simply had to have a woman collaborating with him throughout his work.  Masters discreetly advertised for an assistant, and Virginia Johnson, a secretary in the medical school, was selected.  She was bright, curious, ambitious, and very sexual herself--the perfect collaborator, in short, for the study.

Now it is also true that at some point after they had begun working together, Masters suggested to Johnson that they begin having sex themselves.  The reason he gave, however, was not to gather more data, as the show seems to indicate, but in order to protect them both against the temptation to have sex with any of their subjects, and simply to provide an outlet for the sexual desire which watching their subjects inevitably aroused.  Interviewed decades later by Maier, Johnson acknowledged that this looked a lot like sexual harassment.  But she did not seem really to regret or resent it.  She did continue to see other men, but there is no evidence that Masters suffered a potency crisis or had impotent encounters with prostitutes as a result, as is portrayed on the show.  As a matter of fact, the reason Masters eventually left his wife and proposed marriage to Johnson was that she had fallen in love with a wealthy donor to their institute, and he realized she might marry him and bring their collaboration to an end. It was that that he could not face,and he persuaded Johnson to marry him.  Eventually, in a cruel act of betrayal, he dissolved their marriage and wed the love of his youth, who had become a widow.

The writers also introduced another fictional character, Dr. Lilian DePaul, a gynecologist who is dying of ovarian cancer and trying to study the disease.  Her complaints about her status as a woman and her treatment by other doctors come right out of the 1970s or later.  Now there were women M.D.s in the 1950s.  One of my own pediatricians was one, and an aunt by marriage was an anesthesiologist in a major metropolitan area.  My aunt was certainly not a stereotypical woman of her generation: she was tough, determined, and never afraid to express her opinion about anyone.  I'm sure she encountered sexism, but I never heard her discuss it, despite entire summers spent in her house.  I was told by a surgeon who was a mutual friend that when he, in the midst of an operation, would call her by her first name--as he surely called his male colleagues as well--she would answer calling him "doctor."  One can criticize the professional women of that era for failing to argue more about how they were treated, but it is a fantasy to assume that they felt exactly what women do today.

What disturbs me so much about Masters of Sex and Mad Men is that their insistence upon projecting contemporary issues and characters into the past obscures the positive aspects of the 1950s and 1960s.  It was an era in which women and men were accustomed to subordinating some of their individuality for the good of the institutions in which they lived and worked, including their families. That allowed those institutions to achieve a great deal.  Masters and Johnson, for instance, vastly expanded the frontiers of knowledge about a subject of critical importance to human happiness, and their clinical work (which has not yet figured on the show) transformed thousands of lives.  One can make the same point about Mad Men, which not once, as far as I can remember, showed its characters designing an ad campaign that was anywhere near as eye-catching or entertaining as the best work of the real ad men and women of the 1960s.  I am not denying that many women in particular had to endure a great deal in that era.  One can in fact see that much more clearly in the 1960 film, The Apartment, than in any contemporary tv show.  But the women mostly put up with it, and yes, hard as it may be to recognize today, that helped institutions function.  We have assumed since the 1970s that the cost wasn't worth it.  Eventually we may have to rethink even that, and we all may have to surrender more personal autonomy to make institutions work.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

By way of explanation, and a flashback

   As regular readers know, I make every effort to have a new post ready by the end of every week.  I am in the midst of a very hectic period, however, and on Friday, my 45th College Reunion, for which I am hosting two old friends, began.  I will make every effort to write something new tomorrow or Monday, but meanwhile, I will repeat perhaps the most important post I ever did here, on July 4, 2010.

The Regeneracy may not be televised

William Strauss and Neil Howe, the authors of Generations and The Fourth Turning, grew up, as I did, in the shadow of the Depression, the New Deal, and the Second World War. As they explained to a group of their acolytes in the late 1990s, they began early in that decade to write a book about American generations, focusing on what each of them had contributed to our national life. Both had been involved in government for about a decade, and both had lived through the cultural cataclsym of the 1960s and early 1970s. But their critical discovery, Bill explained, occurred when they were studying the first half of the nineteenth century, when control of national politics passed successively from the Republicans (Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Monroe) to the Compromisers (Jackson, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay), and hence to the Transcendentals (Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Sumner, John Brown, and the rest of the Southern fireasters) who brought about the Civil War. Suddenly they recognized the remarkable similarities between three pairs of generations: the Republicans and the GIs (the Presidents from Kennedy through Bush I), whose lives had been shaped by the previous crises; the Compromisers and the Silent Generation, who remembered those crises from their childhoods and sought to moderate emerging conflicts; and the Transcendentals and their own generation, the Boomers, all focused upon throwing out the old and bringing on the new. A new theory of history was born--and they began predicting a new crisis era, set to begin around 2010.

Crises of this type represent the death of the old order and the birth of a new one. The two most inspiring in American history were the late-eighteenth century crisis that gave us the Revolution and the Constitution, and the Depression and the New Deal, which culminated in the Second World War and the creation of the welfare state. The Civil War, as they recognized, had much less of a legacy, failing even to solve the racial problem that had brought it about. It is now clear that their prediction of a crisis was right on the money in both the economic and political spheres--but it seems increasingly likely, I am sorry to say, that we are not going to experience a rebirth or regeneracy comparable to that of the 1780s-90s or the 1930s-40s. The hopes that so many of us shared for a New Deal are retreating further every day, and while I am not yet entirely giving up, my head tells me that we are indeed headed for a new age of corporate supremacy parallel to the 1890s.

Today's New York Times gives a typical example of the reasons for my despair. Earmarks, we all know, are detested by all and sundry (except those who receive them), and the Congress has passed new regulations against them, specifically forbidding their award to private businesses. No sooner was this rule passed, however, than Congressmen and private companies found away around it. They are busily founding non-profits who will control the money and pass it on to the very same private firms that will do the work involved. Nothing, in short, is going to change. In the same way, the new financial reform bill, now nearing passage, will not substantially reduce trade in derivatives or force the big banks to stop trading on their own account. Even its consumer protection provisions contain loopholes. Reducing the influence of money on our politics seems as futile a task as civil service reform or railroad regulation in the 1870s--and that leads me to my next, even more controversial point.

Back in the 1990s Strauss and Howe made another prediction: a member of our own Boom generation would lead us in a new world, like the Transcendental Lincoln and the Missionary Franklin Roosevelt. When 9/11 occurred--only 72 years after the beginning the last crisis in 1929--we all held our breaths to see if it might indeed be the beginning of the crisis, or, as they called it, "Fourth Turning." When George W. Bush failed to unite the United States most of us concluded that it was not. But now, I am not so sure--because it seems that George Bush did far more to pout the United States on a different path, both at home and abroad, than Barack Obama will be able to do. Let us look, as Al Smith used to say, at the record.

Abroad, George W. Bush abandoned most of the principles that had governed our parents' foreign policies. He denounced a critical arms control treaty, the one that had banned ABMs, and began deploying missiles that still have not been proven to work. The Obama Administration has modified his plans, but it has not abandoned them. He invaded Afghanistan and Iraq on the grounds that we could not allow Al Queda to have safe havens, and we remain in Iraq while escalating our presence in Afghanistan, even though it is not clear that any of this has made us more secure. These wars have enormously raised the prestige of the military in American life for the first time since the early 1960s. In the Middle East Bush told Israel it could keep any territory it settled in a peace agreement, and the Obama Administration backed down from its first attempt to challenge that position. President Obama initially tried to recast our relations with the Muslim world but he has stuck, essentially, to the same policies, provoking individual Muslims (usually ones who had lived in the US and even become US citizens) to carry out terrorist attacks. Should one of those succeed on a fairly large scale we have no idea what the consequences might be.

At home, the reckless pursuit of deregulation by every Administration from Reagan through George W. Bush gave us the financial crisis of 2008--but before Bush left office, Henry Paulsen, it is now clear, had managed to make sure that all the banks' losses on derivatives would largely be made good through the huge bailout of AIG. Most importantly, the Bush tax cuts destroyed the surplus that Bush inherited and recreated the permanent deficit so dear to the heart of Ronald Reagan. That, combined with conservative fiscal orthodoxy which Obama seems reluctant to challenge, has crippled the government's response to the highest sustained unemployment since the 1930s. The Obama stimulus stopped the job loss but was not big enough to reverse it, and now it is coming to an end. The Republicans are fighting even modest moves like another extension of unemployment benefits--so far, at least, successfully. They seem certain to gain seats in both the House and Senate this fall, which will make any radical economic moves impossible.

Perhaps we were wrong; perhaps the crisis did begin with 9/11. Certainly George W. Bush took advantage of the shift in the national mood to move forward on a great many fronts, and his work has proven lasting. What is happening now is by no means all his fault. The Democratic Party effectively abandoned New Deal principles years ago--Bill Clinton, in fact, bragged about doing so. Now a Democratic Administration has very little to offer to the millions of new unemployed. They may not become enthusiastic Republicans, but they will not be enthusiastic Democrats, either--even though the younger voters among them are closer to the Democrats on social issues.

The politics of the Gilded Age were dominated by money. They were much more hotly contested than most people realize. U. S. Grant won two terms by huge majorities, but the next five elections--from 1876 through 1892--were all extremely close, all close enough to be decided by shifting a single state. The Democrats should have regained the White House in 1876 and did so in 1884 and 1892. Our politics may be similarly contested for the rest of my lifetime, since no government will be strong enough, it seems, to embark upon the kind of great crusade at home or abroad that will create a new consensus.

All this has enormous consequences for the Millennial generation (born 1982-2002?), whom Strauss and Howe expected to be the new GIs. Such, it seems, is not after all their destiny, since no Boomer leaderhip is going to enroll them either in massive public works programs or in a crusade abroad. Like the GIs in the 1930s, they will be preoccupied for a long time with finding work and setting up families. Their idealism and willingness to tackle problems may still do a lot of good, but mostly, it seems, at a local level and on a relatively small scale. In the same way that the GIs did so much to undo prejudice between religions and even between the races, the Millennials will finally break down prejudice based on sexual orientation, and they will probably begin a move away from strong religious belief. But for a variety of reasons, which I hope to explore in months and years to come, it seems that no one alive today is likely to see any kind of replay of New Deal America.

Friday, September 12, 2014

What the President Might have Said

My fellow Americans,

        In the past few weeks we have been shocked by the video-taped murders of American journalists by ISIL. We have also been concerned by ISIL's advance into Iraq.  While these events have not been as cataclysmic as the 9/11 attacks whose anniversary we shall celebrate tomorrow, they arouse us to the same emotions. They also tempt us to make similar mistakes.  Having come into office convinced that George W. Bush's responses to those events were mistaken, I am not going to follow in his footsteps and make the same mistakes again.

       Yes, it would be very easy to argue ISIL's fighters threaten our homeland--but such a threat is far off. In any case, we have largely been successful in stopping terrorist attacks in the United States, with the exception of the failed attack in Times Square and the successful one in Boston in 2013.  There will almost surely be other such attacks in the future, but we cannot assume that we can stop them by trying to conquer faraway parts of the world.  It has now become clear that Al Queda's real goals had very little do with the United States, and the same is probably true of ISIL.

       It would also be easy for me to argue, as George W. Bush often did, that terrorists like those of ISIL are not genuinely Islamic at all--that they are in fact betraying the religion of Islam.  That, however, is a question that must be answered by Muslims, not by a Christian President of the United States of America like myself.  We have tried telling the peoples of the Middle East what their religion compels them to do, and not do.  This tactic does not work.  It would also be easy for me to close this speech by once again asking God to bless the United States of America--but the Almighty, as Lincoln remarked at the moment of the greatest crisis in American history, has his own purposes.

      Since the controversy over the tragic deaths of American diplomats in Benghazi, a new doctrine has cropped up among us: the idea that we must use American military force to protect American diplomats abroad.  This novel doctrine is at odds with international law and international order.  The safety of American diplomats abroad is the responsibility of their host government.  If the government clearly cannot fulfill that responsibility, we have no option but to withdraw our personnel.

      Lastly, it would be easy to assume that a combination of American air strikes in Iraq and Syria and American money to train a friendly force can transform the balance of power on the ground.  Yet this is clearly a fantasy.  In Iraq, about 180,000 American troops managed to establish order for as long as they remained in the country, but despite billions of dollars and years of effort, they could not create a government or an Army that would command the support of Iraq's major ethnic groups or fight ISIL effectively.  They now have a new Prime Minister, whom we hope will do better, but he has been unable to fill the most critical positions in the government, the Ministers of the Interior and of Defense.  We hope that he will do so at once, but we cannot make political change happen in the Middle East.

       The situation in Syria is even more difficult, because we oppose not only ISIL, but President Assad, who has brutally tried to suppress a rebellion for three years.  The idea that the United States can create a "third force" of pro-American "moderate" rebels that can defeat both the main antagonists is, frankly,  preposterous.  To intervene on such a basis would be comparable to a French intervention in the American revolution against both the British and the American colonists on behalf of Indian tribes, or a foreign intervention in the ThirtyYears' War in Germany against both Catholics and Protestants, on behalf of German Jews.

        Indeed I have made a mistake to try to insist upon the deposition of President Assad, a step which may easily lead to ethnic cleansing, mass murder, and chaos such as we now see in Libya.  Tonight I am announcing that we would welcome any political settlement in Syria that would bring an end to the conflict, even if it left President Assad in power.  In any case a settlement must respect the rights of both the Sunni majority and the Shi'ite Alawite minority in Syria, in an attempt to halt the regional religious war which threatens to tear the Middle East apart for decades.

       Nor can we delude ourselves further about our ability to enlist local partners.  With few exceptions, the governments of the Middle East have not truly faced the danger of revolution and civil war which they face.  We too quickly assume, in defiance of the facts, that they share our objectives and endorse our strategies.  This is what happened under the Bush Administration with respect to Pakistan.  We gave Pakistan billions of dollars in aid to fight the Taliban and Al Queda, only to discover that the Pakistani government wanted the Taliban to return to power in Afghanistan and sheltered Osama Bin Laden for many years.  Meanwhile, our air strikes in Pakistan have inevitably caused civilian casualties and alienated thousands.   Many of the governments in the Middle East are not unsympathetic to ISIL or hope to use it as an ally, and air strikes in Syria are bound to kill innocent people and have negative consequences as well.

        I certainly cannot promise you that the restraint I intend to show in the face of this crisis will have rapid, beneficial results.  The political crisis that has engulfed the Middle East will last for many years.  It will not be solved without bloodshed, but it must be solved by the people of the region themselves.   All parties to the conflict will resent our intervention and our advice.  I call tonight for internal peace and peace among nations in the Middle East--a goal every nation should be able to endorse.  This is the only hope for the peoples of this troubled region. The United States has already done too much to increase disruption and chaos in that area.

         We like to think of ourselves as the world's policeman, or perhaps the world's doctor.  Yet as policemen, we have neither the authority nor the capability to make the peoples of the Middle East behave in any particular way.  And as doctors, we must return to the first rule of the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm.

          Thank you, and good night.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Ukraine and the Baltic

I am beginning to despair of our government ever thinking sensibly about foreign policy.

I was not especially in favor of NATO expansion in the 1990s.  NATO was a cold war artifact, and I didn't see why it should be extended into eastern Europe, whose future was surely somewhat uncertain.  Two War College colleagues of mine from opposite sides of the political fence wrote an effective op-ed opposing it, on the grounds that it would needlessly antagonize Russia.  I don't blame NATO expansion for what Putin is doing now.  Yes, he resents the US's pretensions, power and influence, but he simply wants to restore Russia to something closer to its former glory, just as Lenin and Trotsky and Stalin did after the peace of Brest-Litovsk.  It is not clear that he actually wants to annex more of Ukraine, and indeed, as I write, there are reports of a peace agreement with the Kiev government that will agree to decentralize the country further and presumably end any idea of its becoming a NATO member or a western bastion.  As I indicated months ago when the crisis began, I think that we can live with that and that we do not have much choice.

The Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, however, are another matter altogether.  As I learned writing my dissertation 40 years ago, they were one of the success stories of the interwar period, when they built thriving economies based upon dairy products.  They are culturally more part of Scandinavia than of Russia, and their democracies are working quite well.  Their Russian minorities realize how much better off they are under their current governments than they would be in Putin's Russia.  Whether or not they should have been invited into NATO, they are there now, and we have to take our alliance obligations seriously.

When the United States broke James Baker's promise not to expand NATO into the former Warsaw Pact or the former USSR, it stated that it would not station troops permanently in the new nations.  Even though Putin is now violating international law by sending Russian troops into Ukraine to help the rebels there, we apparently still feel compelled to stick to that pledge.   We are creating a rapid deployment force that could supposedly move into the Baltic states if they were threatened.  Putting on my military strategist's hat for a moment, let me say that I think this is a serious mistake.

A conflict over the Baltic states between NATO and Russia would be a limited war, a struggle for relatively small pieces of territory.  It would not involve the United States on a huge front.  Estonia is largely protected by large lakes on its eastern frontier.  Latvia and Lithuania are somewhat more threatened, but the terrain is difficult and an invasion could probably be blocked at key points.  In addition, NATO would have as a potential counterstroke the option of occupying Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave that used to be part of East Prussia and which is entirely cut off from Belarus by Poland and Lithuania.   The question, however, would be who got there first.  Putin knows how to pick the right moment for an adventure, and he could easily provoke or fake incidents in the Baltic and get troops into them within the 48 hours it would take for our force to deploy.  That is why, I think, NATO has to station substantial forces in those territories now--just as it had to field large armies along the NATO and Warsaw Pact border during the Cold War.

I still think we should also be making diplomatic proposals to try, in essence, to re-establish peace in Europe.  I do not think they will succeed, because I don't think Putin will accept the status quo any more formally than he already has--but he will not last forever.  We cannot however, as I argued last week, trust to some inevitable historical tide to keep the new nations free and democratic.  Rather than send more troops back into the Middle East and Central Asia where they can do nothing but harm, we should offer them to the Baltic states, who belong inside the ambit of western civilization.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Thank you, David Brooks

Last Friday I argued that our foreign policy is crippled by false assumptions about the course of history.  Today David Brooks of the NY Times confirmed exactly what I had said.