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...

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Why the Confederate Flag flew so long


 Most of the white southerners whom I have known well left their region as young men and women, at least in part because of its political values.   Several of them have talked very frankly about the psychology of their native region, and to them I owe some of the ideas behind this painful post. But meanwhile, other white southerners whom I never met have loomed large on my horizon for as long as I can remember: the barons of the House and Senate in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Senator Richard Russell of Georgia and House Rules Committee Chairman Howard Smith; the defiant governors, George Wallace and Ross Barnett, who rallied their white constituents behind segregation; and perhaps the most interesting of all, those like Senators Lister Hill and John Sparkman of Alabama, who were liberals on virtually every issue but race. Their fellow Alabamian Hugo Black had already been on the Supreme Court for twenty years when I became aware of him, and he had joined the civil rights coalition.  So did Ralph Yarborough of Texas and Estes Kefauver and Al Gore, Sr., of Tennessee.  I studied race relations in college with Thomas Pettigrew, a liberal white Virginian, and I have never lost interest in them.  And thus, although the evidence I want to present today is primarily circumstantial, I think I do understand why the Confederate flag is displayed even today on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol, and why it remains a potent symbol in white southern politics.  I do not think it is primarily a symbol of hate; rather, I see it as a sign of fear, which in turn is fueled by a very bad conscience over what white southerners have done to black ones for five centuries.

Because slavery explicitly denied the full humanity of the slaves, it also forced the masters to suppress many of their own human feelings.  Holding other men and women in bondage and forcing them to work, often with violence, is a brutal, degrading, and frightening affair.  That is why, as  I learned from Pettigrew, planters customarily delegated the dirty work to an overseer—a white without property, not infrequently from the North, like Simon Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, whom Harriet Beecher Stowe specifically identified as a Yankee from Vermont.  When feelings between the overseer and the slaves became too intense, he was fired and replaced.  But the real burden of slavery on the master lay in the fear it inspired, the belief, amounting to a certainty, that the slaves would gleefully take their revenge upon white men and women if ever given half a chance.  And what is more natural, after all, than a belief that one’s slaves would treat one’s self just as one had treated them—or worse—if given half a chance?  While some antebellum white southerners undoubtedly felt slavery had been a mistake to impose in the first place, nearly all agreed that to give it up would be madness.  But the more extreme, who became more and more influential in the decades before the civil war, argued that it was a positive good that not only had to be maintained, but expanded.  That was why they defied the will of the nation in 1860 and seceded rather than live peacefully under Abraham Lincoln, who was elected without any plans to free the slaves.

Four years later, when the Confederacy’s resistance finally collapsed and emancipation took place all over the South, the nightmare appeared to have come true.  In the next ten years, the radical Republicans insisted upon black suffrage, and black governments ruled a number of southern states.  They were not, as southerners claimed for a century, simply corrupt and inefficient: some of them were the first southern state governments to provide what even then were regarded as basic services.  But the white power structure re-asserted itself through a campaign of terror led by the Ku Klux Klan, and eventually wore out the North. After federal troops left, the white elite not only terrorized and disenfranchised the black population, but created a new myth of “redemption,” arguing that they had saved their people from the horror of a race dictatorship.  And until the 1950s, intimidation, including lynchings, kept the black citizenry subjugated.  Then, fueled in part by the votes of blacks who had moved north, the federal government began once again to take an interest in the fate of black citizens.

Once again, this meant, to white southerners, the terrifying prospect of black rage let loose.   In the 1950s reporters who went south to report on civil rights issues heard the same line from whites again and again: that they didn’t have any trouble with “our Negroes,” it was just the outside agitators from the North who were causing the trouble.   That is why it was in 1962 that the Confederate flag first began flying over the capitol in Columbia, South Carolina, and why it was then that it was revived in other states.  Once again the Yankees were threatening to unleash black rage upon white southerners, and symbols of resistance had to be revived.    And suddenly, in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement reached its climax, most white southerners once again forgot every other issue, quit the Democratic Party en masse, and became the backbone of the Republican coalition.  By the 1970s, a new rhetorical trick had emerged to conceal what was happening.  Since it had become impossible openly to defend racism or the “southern way of life” (segregation), some new buzzword was needed around which southern whites could rally.  Fundamentalist Christianity provided it, and “Christian values” became the glue that held southern whites together.  It had become unfashionable to vote in favor of racism, but who could vote against Christianity?  (This morning, Charles Blow of the New York Times noted that a couple of Fox News commentators actually tried to spin Dylan Roof’s crime as an attack on Christianity—even though Roof is a member of a Lutheran Church.)  Dylann Rooff was inspired by the website of a neo-Confederate group that keeps lists on black-on-white crimes.    When he told the parishioners that he had to kill them because “you are raping our women and taking over our country,” he expressed the white southern fears that have dominated southern politics for much of the last two centuries.  

What is so painfully, dreadfully sad about all this, is how unnecessary it all has been.  Slave rebellions in the antebellum South were extremely rare, and attacks upon whites after emancipation seem to have been even rarer.  Having been thoroughly intimidated by slavery, new black citizens would have been more than happy to exercise the benefits of citizenship peacefully—but this they were not allowed to do.  Black violence has always been more directed against other blacks than against whites.  Still, the election of Barack Obama still symbolized, for many southerners, their worst nightmare, and white southerners have become more solidly Republican than ever in the Deep South.  And so respectful are Republican politicians of white southern fears that not a single Republican presidential candidate dared suggest that the Confederate flat come down on the state capitol grounds.  

Since I first drafted this post, however, an extraordinary wind of change has blown around the South.  Governor Nikki Haley os South Carolina is to be commended for taking the lead.  It is interesting that when the South Carolina legislature decided to fly the flag at a Confederate memorial on the grounds, it specified that only a 2/3 vote of both houses could overturn their decision.  That, too, looks like an attempt to defend the views of white folks against a growing minority tide.  But the South Carolina legislature has quickly come around, and a vote to remove the flag seems certain.  Similar moves to take Confederate flags off of license plates and remove statues of prominent Confederates from state capitols are gaining ground, and white Mississippians are talking about removing the Confederate battle flag from their state flag.

Wednesday morning’s New York Times describes what is happening at length, and includes a remarkable quote from a South Carolina state legislator with a famous name. “Our ancestors were literally fighting to keep human beings as slaves, and to continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will,” said State Senator Paul Thurmond, a Republican, explaining that he would vote to remove the flag.  “I am not proud of this heritage,” said Mr. Thurmond, the son of Strom Thurmond, the former governor and United States senator who was a segregationist candidate for president in 1948.  To be quite frank, I had given up on ever hearing any white southern politician say words like those.  Senator Thurmond has used his family’s prestige to try finally to move his state and his region forward.  He is a great American.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Counterinsurgency and stabs in the back

Two years ago, a good friend and former colleague of mine, Douglas Porch, published an extraordinary book, Counterinsurgency.  Porch is a prolific historian and, frankly, one of the few in my generation whom I regard, at the very least, as a peer.  He has written numerous books on French colonial warfare and other military topics, and Counterinsurgency is not only his personal magnum opus, but one of the most important books to have appeared in years.  The point of it was to situate the U.S. experience in Iraq, in particular, within the whole history of French, British and American counterinsurgency since the nineteenth century.  I intend to devote at least one long post to the book in the next month or two to really do it justice, but I do not have time just now to prepare it. Instead, I am going to address one aspect of his argument--one that was perfectly exemplified in an article by a Marine officer, Owen West, in an op-ed in the New York Times predicting that President Obama's strategy in Iraq was going to fail, and blaming the last two Presidents for what has happened there since 2011.

In Counterinsurgency Porch showed how recurrent myths have dominated the discussion of colonial and neo-colonial war from the French in Algeria in the mid-19th century through the British in South Africa, the Middle East, and Malaya, and the Americans in Vietnam and Iraq.  He particularly addressed the myth of what might be called "good" counterinsurgency, which is supposed to consist of working closely with the local population, earning their trust by providing good governance, and isolating the guerrillas.  I shall return to a Vietnam-era example of this myth in just a moment.  He argued on the other hand that these kinds of supposedly "small wars" are inevitably brutal, involve the displacement of large percentages of the population, exploit local ethnic rivalries, and succeed or fail not because of the skill of certain key practitioners or the use of particular tactics, but because of broader strategic factors.  The French, for instance, failed in Algeria because their tactics were invariably brutal, alienating essentially the entire native population except for those directly in their pay, and because neither world opinion nor French public opinion would accept an endless war along those lines.  In Vietnam, he showed, the U.S. carried out some successful counterinsurgency experiments, but they could not make up for the endemic political weakness of the South Vietnamese government, the extraordinary organization of the Viet Cong, and the support available to the VC from North Vietnam, and to North Vietnam from the USSR and China.  But critically, Porch also showed a continuing tradition of stab in the back legends surrounding virtually every lost colonial war.  Thus David Gallula, a French veteran of the Algerian conflict, wrote a book in the mid-1960s arguing that the French Army's tactics in Algeria had won the war, but that the de Gaulle government had simply abandoned it for political reasons.  General Stanley McCrystal was relieved in Afghanistan largely because he was already beginning to sing a similar tune even before the war was over.  West's op-ed is, sadly, in exactly the same tradition.

West argues, to begin with, that the small training groups which the Obama Administration is now sending to Iraq will not be sufficient to strengthen the Iraqi army. He is right.  But he also argues vehemently that he and other advisers turned things around between Fallujah and Ramadi (now both securely in the hands of ISIS) in 2007-8 by insisting on daily combat patrols by the Iraqis, and by pairing Iraqi units with American ones.  That may be true, to quote a famous, anonymous North Vietnamese officer in 1975--but it is also irrelevant.  The American effort was doomed because there was no long-term political basis for creating the kind of Iraq we had in mind--a pluralistic democracy allied with the United States.

West is certainly intelligent, and at times he seems to understand this.  He knows that the Shi'ite-dominated, Iran-allied government that we helped to create hopelessly alienated the Sunnis after we left in 2011.  He also admits that it was originally George W. Bush who agreed to that deadline, but rather than simply acknowledge that the Iraqi government did not want a large, permanent American presence, he blames Barack Obama for not doing enough to get the decision reversed.  But what West can't do is to admit that the whole enterprise--which was not his fault, or primarily the fault of any military officers--was hopeless from the beginning, because we could not break the Sunni domination of Saddam and the Ba'ath party without setting up a Shi'ite-led Iranian ally in its place. Outside of Kurdistan, there were no other alternatives.  West really wraps himself around the axle in his piece when he admits this, in effect, by saying that we have to aid the Sunni areas directly, by-passing the Baghdad government, while re-entering the ground war ourselves.  Clearly he feels an emotional commitment to the people of those areas among whom he and his troops risked and sometimes gave their lives.  But the Iraqi government exists, and it would never agree to this.  We would be committing ourselves to an endless presence surrounded by hostile forces.  In any case, thanks to the Maliki government, ISIS seems to enjoy a solid base of support in those areas.

"West," I thought, when I saw the op-ed.  Another proud member of the COINdinista brigade, as Porch calls it (using the acronymn COIN for counterinsurgency), was Bing West, a Marine from the Vietnam era, who wrote The Village, a fascinating account of his service in a Marine Combined Action Platoon in a South Vietnamese hamlet.  He too suggested that he and his fellow Marines were pursuing the proper strategy and that it could have won the war. Sure enough, a quick search revealed that Owen West is Bing West's son, and that they have a joint web page dedicated to the glories of counterinsurgency.   Dynasties are in fashion in the United States today, and this is another one.  Nearly every generation produces a new war in remote lands.  Most of them fail, and all those, in turn, give rise to books by bitter military officers, who sadly cannot accept that all their dedication, skill and sacrifice could not overcome the lack of any political basis for what the United States wanted to achieve.

Friday, June 12, 2015

A Blow for Diplomacy

In a 6-3 decision last week, the Supreme Courtruled in favor of the Obama Administration in the case of Zivotofsky v. Kerry, which turned on the President's power to determine whether Jerusalem is, or is not, part of Israel.  The case was brought by the parents of Menachem Binyamin Zivotofsky, the child of two U.S. citizens whose mother gave birth to him in Jerusalem.  Those parents sued the government some years ago to force the State Department to list his country of birth as Israel on his passport, even though the United States has never acknowledged full Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.  The Congress, however, in 2002 passed a law specifically declaring that Americans born in Jerusalem should be able to claim Israel as their country of birth, and George W. Bush signing it, while declaring in a signing statement that U. S. policy towards Jerusalem "remains unchanged."  The law was one of many tributes to the power of AIPAC and the pro-Israel lobby.  It also represented a terrible trend in Congressional interference in foreign policy.

Not only AIPAC, but other lobbies working for or against governments such as those in Taiwan and Cuba, have managed to get Congress to pass laws reflecting their views.  The Taiwan Relations Act essentially demanded that the U.S. government maintain Taiwan as an independent nation, even though President Nixon had affirmed that it was part of China.  Several laws have been passed to try to make any reconcilization Castro impossible, as well.  Congress actually passed a law in the 1990s committing the United States to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and AIPAC is about to make an all-out effort to stop the nuclear deal with Iran by getting the Congress to maintain sanctions against that country.  In this case, five and a half Supreme Court Justices (the half being Clarence Thomas, who wrote a kind of half-concurrence in the opinion), went back to first principles and struck a blow for sanity in government.

Justice Kennedy's majority opinion is of a much higher standard than most of what comes out of today's court, a carefully reasoned summary of international law and history going back at least to the days of the Founding Fathers.  While the Constitution does not mention the power to recognize governments, it does give the President the power "to receive Ambassadors," which even then, Kennedy shows, was interpreted to mean the power to recognize the authority of a particular government over a particular territory.  The concept received a key early test when George Washington recognized the French revolutionary government.  The President, Kennedy notes, also has exclusive power to negotiate treaties and to send Ambassadors.  We have lost sight of the importance of all this today because of the facile assumption that the whole world must run on a single set of rules, rules developed in Washington think tanks and American universities. The Founding Fathers understood that their new government had to deal with dozens of other sovereign entities and gave the President the power to do so.  And the Supreme Court, as Kennedy shows, has reaffirmed that principle again and again in the last 200-plus years.  While he acknowledges that Congress must make numerous laws incident to the conduct of foreign policy, he emphasizes that recognition--in this case, determining who, if anyone, is currently sovereign over the city of Jerusalem--is the prerogative of the President alone.  He even shows that in the case of Taiwan, following President Carter's formal recognition of Communist China in 1979, the Congress, while passing the Taiwan Relations Act, never contested the President's power to recognize Chinese sovereignty over the island if he chose to do so.  And Kennedy proceeds to rule the 2002 law specifying that Americans born in Jerusalem have Israel listed as their country of birth on their passport unconstitutional.

What is rather astonishing is that Justices Roberts, Scalia (who wrote the principal dissent), and Alito, who have been zealous advocates of presidential power in cases involving the detention of suspects at Guantanamo under the Bush Administration, now stretch precedent and language to argue that Congress can indeed determine that an American born in Jerusalem has in fact been born in Israel.   I frankly find it hard to understand why they did this, unless it is for the simple,. partisan reason that Republicans now control the Congress while a Democrat sits in the White House. Meanwhile, Judge Thomas, in a lengthy and detailed concurrence, splits hairs very finely, arguing that Congress does not have the power to determine what should go on Zivotoksky's passport, but that it does have the power to make the State Department file a "consular report" stating that he was born in Israel.

I cannot help but note, also, that the three Jews on the Supreme Court--Justices Kagan, Ginsburg, and Breyer--all voted with the majority, joining three of the six Catholics.   In allowing their reading of the law to trump any ethnic loyalty the case might have triggered, they acted as good justices and good Americans.    They also gave the President the authority to exercise real leadership over a highly politicized issue.

The President, meanwhile, is failing to do just that on another issue relating to the Middle East, the continuing war in Iraq.  Barack Obama has some good instincts, and one of them led hm to reduce, if not eliminate, the presence of US ground forces in Muslim lands.  So far such forces have done far more harm than good and there is no reason to think that could change in the future.  The decision to leave Iraq some years ago was a good one, even if the United States could have chosen to remain, which I do not think that it could, since the Iraqi government would not extend the status of forces agreement.  Now, because the civil war between Shi'ites and Sunnis continued after our departure, ISIS controls much of Iraq.  And while the President still opposes US ground forces, he has also adopted the consensus view that we must eliminate ISIS--something we clearly do not have the power to do.  And thus, step by step, he inserting US forces back into Iraq.  Our new deployments have echoes of Vietnam in 1962:  while they are touted as advisory, most of the forces we are sending are not advisers at all, but will provide logistical support and protect the advisers.  Only time will tell whether they, like the forces that went to Vietnam in 1962, will also prepare the way for larger deployments.  Our tragic involvement in Iraq continues,. but that will be a subject for a later post.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Glass Ceilings

There are weeks like this one when I'm busy with other things and don't know what to write about, but I generally count on the morning papers to give me an idea.  Today is not exception. The op-ed page of the New York Times features a piece, "Our Problem with Powerful Women," by Bryce Covert, a journalist (and, if you're wondering, a woman), which exemplifies, for me, a huge problem with one strain of modern liberalism.  In case you can't access the piece or don't want to take the time to do so (although I wish you would), I'll summarize.

Covert begins by quoting Hillary Clinton's concession speech in 2008 (evidently a painful moment for both of them) to the effect that while the glass ceiling around the White House remained in place, it now had about 18 million cracks (presumably the number of votes she had received in primaries),. and the day when it would fall was coming nearer.  Covert notes that Congress is still only 20% female, which clearly troubles her, but spends most of her time talking about trends at the highest levels of the corporate world.  Progress getting women onto corporate boards, she notes, has been slow,and although women have been appointed as CEOs, this frequently happens only when a company is in serious trouble, not when times are flush.  She assumes, without any evidence that the reason for this is simple: America remains uncomfortable with powerful women.  I am not sure exactly how true that is, and much of the proportional disparity may have to do with other factors, but I will leave those issues to others, and focus on two broader points, one which her article suggests, and one which she, like so many proponents of affirmative action, completely ignores.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, white males, most, but not all, of them Protestants, made up all of our corporate leadership. But they did not enjoy that position because they were in league with one another to ensure all the greatest benefits of society for themselves--they found themselves there because of long-term developments in human society and human history going back Millennia, which had made the workplace largely the province of men.  More importantly for my purposes today, however, no one because a CEO because he was a white male, any more than today, anyone plays major league baseball because he was a man.  They became CEOs because of particular abilities and ambition that they had demonstrated during their careers.  No one thought about race and gender when selecting them--those were givens.  To demonstrate a related point in another way, in one of the greatest films of the 1950s, Twelve Angry Men, all the jurors are white males.  But some, clearly, are good guys and some are bad guys.  Goodness and badness, in short, has nothing to do with race or gender--but with the content of your character.

Covert, on the other hand, seems to assume that women must be entitled automatically to an equal share of corporate power and that only a conspiracy of some kind could be keeping them out of it.  This assumption has become orthodoxy in liberal circles over the last few decades, nowhere more than in the academy.  And that is why she regards the appointment of women as CEOs of companies in trouble not as an opportunity, but as a conspiracy to discredit women even more.  "Not all of us can engineer stunning turnarounds," she writes--but the only people who should take over a struggling country, whatever their gender,. race or sexual preference, should be people who welcome exactly that challenge.  Covert does not seem to regard high-level positions as things that men and women earn by their performance, but sees them more like medieval church livings which are handed out through networking.  There is of course some truth to that view too, but is it really one that we want to encourage?

This, however, is not my biggest objection to the piece.  I am reminded of a wonderful exchange, during the debate on the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, between a southern Senator who owned slaves and free soil advocate Ben Wade of Ohio.  The Senator spoke at length about his bond with hs "old black Mammy," and asked Wade, in heartfelt fashion, why he would want to prevent him from taking his "old black Mammy" to the Kansas or Nebraska territory with him.  "It is not that he cannot take the old black Mammy with him that troubles the mind of the Senator," Wade replied, "but that if we make the territories free, he cannot sell the old black Mammy when he gets her there."  And that is my real objection to Covert's piece: she wants more women on corporate boards, but she doesn't seem to care what they will do when they get there.

The United States is in serious trouble today because of excessive wealth and power in the corporate world.  In my not very humble opinion, we're not in trouble because there aren't enough women on the boards of Goldman Sachs, big Pharma, Exxon, and the food industry, we're in trouble because of what the people on those corporate boards are dong to us,  And if there is any evidence that women holding corporate power are doing anything different with it than men, I am quite unaware of it.  Forty years ago feminists made exactly this argument: that because women were less competitive, predatory,and cutthroat than men, their rise to power would change society for the better.  I would love to think that was true, but I can't see any evidence that it is.  Nor, on the whole, is there much evidence that women have changed politics.  Conservative Republican politicians are at least as visible and powerful as liberal Democratic ones, particularly among the younger generation.  The last woman on a national ticket was Sarah Palin.  In at least one key election in the last 20 years--in 2002, when the Republicans regained control of the Senate--female Republican candidates did much better than female Democratic ones.  Women play critical roles on both sides of the abortion debate. 

Last year, at my 45th college reunion, I had a conversation with a classmate who is concerned that there are still too few women in academia.  When I indicated that I was not so concerned, she said, "You don't think women should be in academia?" I assured her that that was not what I thought, but that I thought that a lack of women was not one of academia's major problems at the moment.  Of course I agree that women deserve an equal chance in the corporate world, but I'm much more concerned about the values of the corporate world.  And until we start focusing on what our institutions are doing, instead of the gender and race of the people in charge, neither the men, nor the women, nor the minorities and gays who are not lucky enough to reach corporate boards will be able significantly to improve their chances in life.