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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Cassius was right

Last week, I, along with some unknown number of my fellow Americans--I would guess less that 100,000--read the New Yorker  article by Jane Mayer about Tony Schwartz, Donald Trump's ghostwriter on The Art of the Deal, and his guilt over his role in creating the Trump phenomenon.  I found Schwartz's personal drama sad and a bit pathetic, but as so often happens, the story set me thinking about much broader issues.  Donald Trump is, even by American standards, a unique individual--yet he would never have gone as far as he has in business, entertainment, and politics if he had not tapped into some profound problems in contemporary American life.  That indeed may be his secret:  one by one, he tapped into critical trends in business, publishing, the entertainment world, and now, politics, bringing him to the threshold of the White House.  His story is also a parable of the dark side of his, and my, Boom generation (Trump as it happens is one year older than I am.)  These subjects could fill a whole book, and some day I hope some one writes it.  This week I can only make a few broad points.

Let us begin at the beginning: Trump, like so many well-known Boomers, was not only born into privilege but entered (and transformed) his successful father's profession.  His father was a very successful real estate developer who, typically for that bygone era, made his fortune building relatively small suburban homes for working Americans.  The suburbanization of America left empty pockets in our major cities, and Donald was one of the developers who stepped in to fill the vacuum with commercial buildings or luxury properties.  Trump's life in this respect is parallel to two of the previous three Republican Presidential candidates.  Mitt Romney's father built family cars; Mitt became a private equity magnate.  George W. Bush followed his father unsuccessfully into the oil business, and then made a fortune as an owner of the Texas Rangers by arranging for local authorities to build a new stadium.  On the Democratic side of the aisle this trend is noteworthy in politics. Al Gore Sr. was a Senator (and a far more liberal one than his son) whose connections obviously eased Al's way into politics.  Governors Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo both succeeded their own fathers.  The Presidents from the GI generation, from Kennedy through Bush I, included three truly self-made men: Nixon, Ford, and Carter.  By this time next year we will have had three Boomer Presidents, and the only one who rose from modest origins, interestingly enough, will be Bill Clinton.

Trump's economic rise, of course, represents all that is worst about our new economy. He rose by making deals, which involves using other peoples' money to acquire property and build things, taking quick profits off the top,. and letting his investors take any losses.  That is another form of the technique of private equity firms who buy existing enterprises, sell of their assets, and liquidate them.  I haven't seen anyone mention this, but The Art of the Deal came out almost at the same moment as Wall Street, Oliver Stone's extraordinarily generational film about the prototype of the new kind of tycoon, Gordon Gecko.  Trump probably recognized a kindred spirit.   The 1980s were the Reagan era, and for the first time since 1920s, great wealth and ostentation became something to be proud of, to study, and to dream of.  The hit dramas and comedies of the 1970s--All in the Family, Laverne and Shirley, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show--dealt with ordinary people or young professionals.  The hit shows of the 1980s, Dallas and Dynasty, focused on the super rich,. Eventually Trump became the star of his own show.

It was in the mid-1980s. before The Art of the Deal, that Trump began building Atlantic City casinos.  Now in his (and my) father's world, earlier generations had tried to make it difficult for businesses to profit from human addictions.  They had outlawed illegal drugs, pornography, gambling--and even, in a failed overreach, the consumption of alcohol.   The Boom generation, of course, rebelled against all such restraints, and corporate Boomers found ways to capitalize on addictive substances, including opioids. (The greed of big pharma is mainly responsible for the current opioid epidemic, which is taking thousands of lives a year.)  Most states now have lotteries, which prey on the poorest members of the population, and gambling is legal in quite a few, including New Jersey.  Trump climbed on that bandwagon, and although his casinos often went into bankruptcy, he managed to escape ahead.

And that leads me to perhaps my most important point: Trump's business success could only happen in a business environment in which most of the players had allowed their lust for ever-growing profits to overwhelm their rational faculties.  The inability of money managers to make realistic choices has been the great lesson of all our recent booms and busts, most notably, of course, with respect to the housing bubble.  Trump has earned his contempt for the rest of us, in a way, because he built his fortune on the gullibility of others.  Now he has won the Republican nomination the same way.

This brings us to the story of The Art of the Deal, the subject of the New Yorker article, which reads to me like a parable of the decline of modern publishing.  Half a century ago writing non-fiction books was an honorable profession out of which men and women (see Tuchman, Barbara) could make an excellent living.  The reading public, which had memories of one of the great heroic ages of western civilization (1933-45), had a taste for serious subjects.  In addition, because the higher education system was much more rigorous in the first half of the twentieth century, successful businessmen and political leaders could often write their own autobiographies.  By the 1980s, the era in which publishers no longer marketed books, but marketed names, had begun, and ghostwriting--while hardly a completely new phenomenon--was becoming more widespread.  That is why a publisher was willing to offer a $500,000 advance for The Art of the Deal in 1987--an investment which, as it turned out, paid off very handsomely.  But in fact, the problem was even deeper than that: according to Mayer's article, it was the owner of Random House, Si Newhouse, who had the idea for the book in the first place.  Neither Trump nor any nonfiction writer was interested in the project--but Newhouse, focused on the bottom line, recognized its possibilities.   The days in which publishers felt any obligation to market quality products widely were passing away, ushered out by the Boomer MBAs who were becoming so influential in all lines of work.

The story of how Schwartz became the ghostwriter for The Art of the Deal (a title he claims to have coined) is equally revealing. Schwartz, as it happened, had written an attack on Trump as a predatory landlord in New York magazine just a couple of years earlier--for which he presumably received a couple of thousand dollars.  To Schwartz's amazement, Trump made clear that he loved the article simply because it painted him as an outsize figure.  And here, a key paragraph of the story needs to be quoted in full.

 “I was shocked,” Schwartz told me. “Trump didn’t fit any model of human being I’d ever met. He was obsessed with publicity, and he didn’t care what you wrote.” He went on, “Trump only takes two positions. Either you’re a scummy loser, liar, whatever, or you’re the greatest. I became the greatest. He wanted to be seen as a tough guy, and he loved being on the cover.” Schwartz wrote him back, saying, “Of all the people I’ve written about over the years, you are certainly the best sport.”

Now unfortunately--as I know only too well myself--it is a human trait to be sensitive both to the feelings of people you have treated badly, or--worse--who have treated you badly.  In each case, they have a power to move you with kindness, precisely because it isn't what you expect.  And thus, when Trump turned around and offered Schwartz the deal of his life [sic!] to ghostwrite his autobiography, Schwartz said yes.  

Beginning the project, Schwartz immediately found that Trump was impossible to work with, and nearly gave it up.  (This was confirmed by his agent at the time.)  But for whatever reason--financial or other--he could not tear himself away.  Here again we encounter one of the dreadful facts of our age:  the extreme inequality of wealth in our society makes it very difficult for anyone in the lowest 90% to say no to some one at the top.  Writing the book, Schwartz realized that presenting the real Trump was not an option.  Trump had no attention span and couldn't talk about anything but himself for more than a minute or two.  He also constantly lied.  “'He lied strategically. He had a complete lack of conscience about it,'” Schwartz told Mayer.  "Since most people are constrained by the truth,' Trump’s indifference to it 'gave him a strange advantage.'"  To get this aspect of Trump into the book in some acceptable fashion, Schwartz invented the phrase "truthful hyperbole" and put it into Trump's mouth.

I encourage readers to follow the link and read the whole article, but I shall stop recapitulating it here to return to broader issues.  Newhouse's judgment was vindicated: the book was one of the great publishing success stories of the 1980s, parallel to Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (a throwback to the past) and Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (which business people bought because they thought it would enlighten them about the threat from Japan.)  Significantly, no book like those two could possibly become a best seller today, but celebrity authors (like Bill O'Reilly) still rise high on the best seller lists.  Tastes had changed.

I have not studied the question in detail, but it seems to me that what did the most to keep Trump high in the national consciousness in the early 1990s was his first divorce and his remarriage, which were huge in the tabloids and on tv.  That was apparently unplanned, but he still milked it for all it was worth.   Then in the next decade came the reality TV era and The Apprentice, which I have to admit I watched for two seasons.  He never impressed me, but I'm a sucker for any kind of competition (I haven't missed more than five episodes of Survivor in the whole history of the show), and I was curious about him.  Thankfully, I did not get hooked.

What Trump grasped some time ago, I think, was that our political world had become just as morally and intellectually bankrupt as the world of finance, and that he could achieve success within it by a mixture of bullying, self-promotion, and pandering to our worst instincts--hatred and fear in politics playing the role of greed in business.  But what also strikes me is that Trump is very obviously trading on his utter lack of self-restraint.  His calculated insults, his obvious lies, and his hateful rhetoric excite a substantial portion of our population, who have not been taught, as other generations really were, that they must keep certain feelings under control, or at least out of sight.

And here I come to the bottom line.  Trump's success in any field depended on the increasing corruption of the world he lived in.  He would never have gotten very far in a business environment in which investors had a sound sense of the worth of a project, or in a publishing world dedicated to bringing out quality work--or in a political system that still served the needs of the American people.  He is not the only candidate who is only intermittently constrained by the truth.  In nearly every speech, Hillary Clinton conflates two years with the Children's Defense Fund more than 40 years ago into a lifetime of struggle for the less fortunate.   In the same way, Hitler took advantage of the German elite's catastrophic plunge into the First World War, their decision to inflate Germany's currency out of existence rather than solve their budgetary problems, and their inability to ease the German people's distress during the great depression.  Hitler was more dangerous than Trump--but Trump has already been far more successful electorally than Hitler.  Before Hitler took power and controlled the machinery of terror, the Nazi vote peaked in July 1932 at 37% of the total. Trump will do much better than that in November whether he wins or loses.  In Germany in 1932 as in the United States today, the old order had fallen apart.   The country was vulnerable to a vision of a new order--whether it had the slightest basis in reality or not.

The question is not about Donald Trump, so much as it is about how we have become a society that about half its voters would support.  "Cassius was right," as Edward R. Murrow said at another moment of national crisis. "The fault, dear Brutus, was not in our stars, but in ourselves."

Thursday, July 14, 2016

On the verge of catastrophe

For the second time in its 218-year history as an independent nation under the Constitution, the United States is in grave danger of disintegrating.  While the line between two competing sides is not as easily drawn as it was in 1860, the gap between the two sides is nearly as wide and could erupt into widespread violence at almost any moment.  And just as the crisis that led to civil war in 1861 was based upon slavery, this one is based upon the relations between ethnic groups.  That division of course parallels the split between our major political parties, which have never before in our history been so sharply defined by demographics. And the political and intellectual leadership of both sides is still making things worse, because both have abandoned the traditional American principles that offer the only possible way out of this crisis, just as they ultimately prevented the breakup of the Union 150 years ago.

What has happened on the right among less well off white Americans is pathetic and appalling. While their economic grievances are very real, there is no excuse for the fantasy that Donald Trump is going to do any of them any good. He has never cared about working Americans and he never will.  I am not however going to spend any more time today talking about Trump and his voters--that is the easy way out.  The Democratic Party and its allies in the intellectual left, who are also strong in the mainstream media, are also responsible for what is happening are are doing their best to make it worse.  And since that is my side of the political fence, it is my duty as a citizen, in my opinion, to spend more time talking about the faults of my fellow Democrats, while hoping that responsible Republicans will do the same.

The country is threatened by a new racial crisis revolving around two separate issues.  The first issue is the shooting of black people by the police--now compounded by the shooting of four Dallas policemen by a black Army veteran who decided to retaliate.  The second is what black activists and their allies call "systemic racism,"  which in their opinion is what leads not only to the deaths of black people at the hands of the police and their disproportionate incarceration in their jails and prisons, but also to their generally lower economic status in American society.  Let me once again state my views about those issues here.

Without question, some appalling homicides involving police officers and black citizens have taken place during the last two years. I have no doubt that black people are more likely to be stopped by the police that white ones, and this has just been confirmed by a remarkable Senate speech by Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina, detailing his own experiences, which I highly recommend.   But a newly released study by a young black Harvard economist finds that while police are more likely to use non-lethal force in encounters with black suspects than with white ones, they are not more likely to shoot them.  Blacks are stopped and killed in disproportionate numbers based on their percentage of the population--but the largest number of civilians killed by the police are white.  Some Latino activists are now complaining that shootings of Latinos by police are not drawing the same attention as killings of blacks.  That, to me, is another indication of how far competitive victimhood has driven us off the rails.

What seems clear to me is that too many police officers have been convinced by their training and their environment that they can escalate a conflict all the way to lethal force any time some one they are questioning defies them in any way, including--or perhaps especially--by running away.  That is what we saw a Texas cop do when he stopped Sandra Bland on a very questionable charge of changing lanes without signalling, leading to her arrest and her death in her jail cell.  That is what has happened in several other cases as well.  But it is evidently happening to Americans of all races--which means, to me, that it isn't a race problem so much as a police problem.  Some police officers--not all--are much too quick to escalate to lethal force.  That problem disproportionately affects black Americans--but it affects us all.  And if we emphasized that, we would all have a much better chance of seeing it seriously addressed.  It is tragic, to me, that Black Lives Matter activists insist on proclaiming that racism is the cause of the problem, because it cuts them off from potential allies who are not black but whose own family members or acquaintances have suffered at the hands of the police.  But that it is entirely characteristic of black political strategies over the last half century, to which I now turn.

What does "systemic racism" mean?  Well, it is quite true that the condition of black Americans today is related to their original status within the United States, which was usually that of a slave.  When slavery was abolished after a war that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, constitutional amendments immediately proclaimed them to be full citizens, but many white Americans spent the next hundred years trying to stop that promise from being fulfilled.  Meanwhile, despite the creation of a black middle class, the great migration northward, and the expansion of opportunities in industrial work, black people remained much poorer than white ones.  The civil rights movement made great gains from the 1940s through the 1960s, ending legal segregation and discrimination, but that was followed by the "war on crime" and the "war on drugs," which led to the mass incarceration of black people (as well as the incarceration of a great many white ones.) Meanwhile, de-industrialization hurt everyone in the lower half of the economy very badly, including black Americans.

What this means to me, once again, is that while black Americans are suffering disproportionately from  broader economic changes, their sufferings are shared by millions of white people as well.   The terrible thing about our current predicament is that the combination of Republican racial appeals on the one hand--brought to a new level by Trump--and the black leadership's emphasis on racism on the other, has divided poor white Americans from poor minorities.  The only group that can benefit from this ghastly situation is richer Americans, who are disproportionately, although not exclusively white.  And one of them--Donald Trump--has emerged as the spokesmen for poor whites.  That is, in my opinion, in large part because the Democratic Party for decades has tended to define poverty as a race and gender issue--not a national one.  In that sense, the Democratic leadership is complicit with the Republicans in creating this new monster.

This morning's print edition of the New York Times led with an article by Nicholas Confessore arguing that the Trump campaign is fueled by the anger of white Americans who fear losing their preeminent place in American society to minorities and immigrants.  Like so many pieces in the mainstream media nowadays, it repeatedly stresses that white people will no longer be a majority in America in a few decades--and bizarrely implies that tha twill solve all our problems.  This reflects the kind of zero-sum thinking that has come to dominate discussion on the left as well as the right: history is simply a struggle among races (and genders, and those of different sexual orientations), and straight white males, who have caused most of the oppression and trouble in the world, are, thank heaven, losing their place of pride.  At times during the article Confessore and the "authorities" he quotes seem to be saying that Trump voters are angry that they are losing power and influence, and that they are right--they will lose out to other groups--but that's a good thing.  How it could escape anyone that this is bound to drive more and more of them into the Trump camp is beyond me.  But they don't care.  Decades of this cant, especially in universities, have persuaded our educated elite that straight white males are the problem and that anything that works against them must ultimately be good.

To this I would reply, first, that straight white males aren't the problem--our new economic system is.  It benefits a tiny group at the top at the expense of everyone else. Neither presidential candidate, sadly, seems likely to do much about that.  But secondly, I would suggest, the United States and its principles of equal rights and equal opportunity cannot survive if we are taught to identify with our group--or with oppressed groups only.  We will stand or fall together.  That eternal truth seems just as lost on those who cannot get beyond the trope of "systemic racism" as it is on the supporters of Donald Trump.

To my fellow Democrats I would return to a political question.  We face one of the critical elections in American history--and it well be quite close.  The emphasis on minority, female and gay grievances--however real they may be--has helped create the Trump phenomenon and make it grow.  In any case, the most important grievances in our society, involving economic opportunity, educational opportunity, and an oppressive criminal justice system, affect us all. That should make it easier to solve them. But when some groups claim a monopoly of victimhood, it benefits only the rich and powerful.  Nothing that deepens the racial divide can help us now.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Different views of the Fourth of July

On July 4 last, the New York Times featured an op-ed by a young historian named Robert G. Parkinson, headlined, "Did a Fear of Slave Revolts Drive American Independence?"  While I don't know Prof. Parkinson and have nothing against him personally,  his article is a fascinating example of the new orthodoxy in academia--and its appearance at this particular time and place shows how deeply that orthodoxy has now influenced our intellectual elite.  Like so much of modern historical writing, it begins with a grain of truth and spins it into a falsehood:  that the United States of America has always been a conspiracy of white males to exclude others from citizenship.  Let's see how Parkinson does this.

Parkinson's article claims to provide the real explanation for the Declaration of Independence, but what it is really about is one aspect of British attempts to put down the rebellion.  In November 1775--seven months after the outbreak of war, but another eight months before the Declaration of Independence--Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, had been driven from his position and his colony and had taken shelter on a British warship.  In order to avoid any accusation of doing what I am accusing Livingston of doing--slanting it--I'm going to quote it in full.

"Dunmore’s Proclamation, November 7, 1775
By His Excellency the Right Honorable JOHN Earl of DUNMORE, his Majesty's Lieutenant and
Governour-General of the Colony and Dominion of Virginia, and Vice-Admiral of the same:*
As I have ever entertained Hopes that an Accommodation might have taken Place between Great
Britain and this Colony, without being compelled, by my Duty, to this most disagreeable, but
now absolutely necessary Step, rendered so by a Body of armed Men, unlawfully assembled,
firing on his Majesty's Tenders, and the Formation of an Army, and that Army now on their
March to attack his Majesty's Troops, and destroy the well-disposed Subjects of this Colony: To
defeat such treasonable Purposes, and that all such Traitors, and their Abettors, may be brought
to Justice, and that the Peace and good Order of this Colony may be again restored, which the
ordinary Course of the civil Law is unable to effect, I have thought fit to issue this my
Proclamation, hereby declaring, that until the aforesaid good Purposes can be obtained, I do, in
Virtue of the Power and Authority to me given, by his Majesty, determine to execute martial
Law, and cause the same to be executed throughout this Colony; and to the End that Peace and
good Order may the sooner be restored, I do require every Person capable of bearing Arms to
resort to his Majesty's STANDARD, or be looked upon as Traitors to his Majesty's Crown and
Government, and thereby become liable to the Penalty the Law inflicts upon such Offences, such
as Forfeiture of Life, Confiscation of Lands, &c. &c. And I do hereby further declare all
indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels) free, that are able and willing to
bear Arms, they joining his Majesty's Troops, as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing
this Colony to a proper Sense of their Duty, to his Majesty's Crown and Dignity. I do further
order, and require, all his Majesty's liege Subjects to retain their Quitrents, or any other Taxes
due, or that may become due, in their own Custody, till such Time as Peace may again be
restored to this at present most unhappy Country, or demanded of them for their former salutary
Purposes, by Officers properly authorised to receive the same.
GIVEN under my Hand, on board the ship WILLIAM, off Norfolk, the 7th Day of November, in
the 16th Year of his Majesty's Reign.

Recognizing that the free population of Virginia had rebelled against royal authority, Dunmore declared martial law, ordered every citizen to rally to the King, threatened those who failed to do so with forfeiture of life and property, ordered everyone to put aside the tax payments they owed, and invited any indentured servant or slave capable of bearing arms to secure their freedom by joining his Majesty's troops.  Livingston actually refers to this as Dunmore's "Emancipation Proclamation," which it most certainly was not--even though he was using the same power, albeit in a much more limited fashion, that Lincoln called upon 87 years later to free slaves within the Confederacy.  The colonists were at war, and thus liable to have their prooperty confiscated--including their slaves. But Dunmore, unlike Lincoln, hadn't freed all their slaves, he had only promised freedom to adult males who would fight for His Majesty.  This was simply a tactical move to defeat the rebellion, not an attempt to abolish slavery in the colonies.  So were the alliances the British formed with certain Indian tribes--most notably the Iroquois during the Saratoga campaign in 1777--to fight the colonists.  Such alliances had been a regular feature of the wars with the French for well over a century.

By the time the Declaration of Independence was written, however, the idea that the British wanted to incite a slave rebellion and massacres by Indians had, not surprisingly, found its way into colonial propaganda--and it did find its way into the list of grievances against George III that Jefferson put into the Declaration of Independence.  Once again I think it would be best for me to reproduce that entire list, which Parkinson kindly linked.

 [King George] has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

The list, of course, summarizes what the colonies were fighting against, and, implicitly, what they were fighting for.  The King had rendered the colonies' own largely elected governments powerless and ineffective, and substituted arbitrary rule backed by military force, which by now included the Hessian units landing in the New York era.  He had crippled both their economic and political life.  Then, at the very end of the list, the Declaration refers implicitly to Dunmore's proclamation, claiming that it was an attempt to excite a "domestic insurrection," but leaning much more heavily on the King's planned alliances with Indian tribes.

This, incredibly, is how Parkinson ranks the items on the list.  " The very last one — the ultimate deal-breaker — was the most important for them, and it is for us: 'He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.' In the context of the 18th century, 'domestic insurrections' refers to rebellious slaves. 'Merciless Indian savages' doesn’t need much explanation."

I am dwelling on this at length because Parkinson's view is so characteristic of what passes for contemporary historical scholarship.  For the last forty years, three generations of American historians--with few exceptions--have shown a contempt for the constitutional freedoms and liberties upon which our country was founded.  Parkinson specifically denies that the colonists declared their independence because of the first 26 grievances--the "real deal-breaker" was the King's incitement to slave rebellions and massacres by Indians.  He is half right when he says the 27th item was "the most important for them, as it is for us."  It is the most important for "us"--for historians within today's academy--because it shows that, on racial issues, the views of the founding fathers were not those held by members of  contemporary academic departments.  That is the basis on which the whole history of the United States has been rewritten in recent decades.  He is right--the members if the Continental Congress did not favor the immediate abolition of slavery, or, for that matter, of identured servitude, and they felt they had to resist attacks by Indian tribes upon their settlements.    But the idea that this was the real reason for the whole Declaration is simply laughable.  It was simply the colonists' response to royal attempts to enlist slave and Indian allies to pout down the colonies.  To call this the critical provision of the Declaration is anachronistic and arbitrary.

What, in fact, was the impact of the Revolution on slavery in the colonies and the new nation?  We take the achievements of the revolution so entirely for granted that we forget that it was fought against age-old distinctions of rank and special privileges that went far beyond slavery, and affected the mass of white people very deeply.  The revolution was fought to end such distinctions, as in many ways it did, and that inevitably provoked further discussion of the morality of slavery and whether it should continue in the new republic.  In fact, even before the Constitution was adopted, the new Confederation, when it organized the Northwest territories--the vast region north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi--specifically banned slavery from the whole area.  Most of the northern states abolished slavery, and many hoped to see it decline in the South as well. The Constitution, while tolerating and implicitly recognizing slavery where it existed, took great care never to mention it or endorse it by name, and provided for the abolition of the slave trade in 20 years.   That abolition took place on schedule in 1807.  It was the invention of the cotton gin and the rise of a new, postwar generation of southerners who regarding slavery as a  positive good that halted the momentum away from slavery and made the civil war inevitable.

In language typical of today's historians, Parkinson says that because of the brief clause relating to insurrection and Indian war, "The Declaration could have been what we yearn for it to be, a statement of universal rights, but it wasn’t. What became the official version was one marked by division."  That is the new orthodoxy: that because the rights claimed by the declaration were not extended to every human being within the colonies on the spot, its universal language was a sham, one that has continued (as Livingston says) from that day to this.  What these historians seem to think is that their own guilt, which they feel they can impute to virtually every white American, can substitute for a genuine concept of equal rights, proclaimed and fought for by generations of Americans, as a guarantee of rights for minorities.  It cannot.  The universal principles of the Declaration are the only basis on which our society and government can continue to exist.  Our failure ever completely to live up to them is no excuse for proclaiming them a snare and a delusion, or for repudiating the most important parts of our legacy.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Jefferson and us

A few weeks before the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in the midst of the administration of John Quincy Adams, one Roger Weightman invited Thomas Jefferson, along with two other surviving signatories of the declaration, to attend a celebration in Washington.  Jefferson, now 83, was old, infirm, and possessed of one remaining ambition.  Like his old colleague, rival, and friend John Adams, he hoped only to live until the 50th anniversary, as both of them barely managed to do before passing away.  But Jefferson's mind was still sharp, and he took the opportunity of his reply to assess the significance of what he and his fellow signatories had done in 1776, fully conscious that they had taken a step forward for the whole world, and confident in the future.
A Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman
Monticello, June 24, 1826
      Respected Sir, -- The kind invitation I receive from you, on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of American Independence, as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day. But acquiescence is a duty, under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them. 

      I will ask permission here to express the pleasure with which I should have met my ancient neighbors of the city of Washington and its vicinities, with whom I passed so many years of a pleasing social intercourse; an intercourse which so much relieved the anxieties of the public cares, and left impressions so deeply engraved in my affections, as never to be forgotten. With my regret that ill health forbids me the gratification of an acceptance, be pleased to receive for yourself, and those for whom you write, the assurance of my highest respect and friendly attachments.
      Th. Jefferson 

Jefferson, who had given his own vast library to the government to help reconstitute the Library of Congress after the British had burned the capitol, reveals himself here as an archetypal man of his extraordinary times.  An architect, musician, and amateur scientist himself,  he specifically associated the doctrines of the equal rights of man and self-government with the advance of science.  Superstition, he thought, was the only foundation of hierarchical government.  Reason, science and democracy were bound to spread together.  And even though Europe had turned its back on democracy in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, he remained confident--perhaps in part because of the overthrow of Spanish rule in Latin America--that the growing United States would remain a model for the peoples of the entire world.  No racial or religious differences, he seemed to say, would stand in the way of progress indefinitely.

190 years have now passed, and for most of that long period, Jefferson's prophecies seemed to coming true.  The great crisis of the mid-19th century--whose American face he had glimpsed six years earlier, when he characterized the debate over slavery in Missouri as "the knell of the Union" and lamented that younger generations would throw away the achievement of his own--led not only to a reaffirmation and extension of democracy in the United States, but to huge advances for self government in Italy, Britain, Germany and France.  By 1910 or so there was not one nation in Europe that did not live under some kind of constitution.  In the next thirty years, however, new political phenomena transformed the world again.  Communism in the USSR and National Socialism in Germany both claimed to represent the highest expression of human reason, higher even than western democracy.  The rights of man (and woman) lost ground in Europe during the interwar period and in 1940 disappeared from the European continent almost entirely.  But in the United States, Franklin Roosevelt--who built the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin in Washington--turned the great crisis into an opportunity for a further extension of democracy and, like Jefferson, insisted that its principles should govern the whole world.  In the wake of the Second World War, those principles were indeed extended to nearly all the former colonial territories in Africa and Asia.  When the Europeans tried to hang on to their possessions with military force they were defeated.

I have written here and elsewhere many times about the changes that have undone much of the postwar order in the last 50 years, and will summarize them now.  To begin with, our own democracy is now probably threatened as much as it has ever been by plutocracy, the danger that Jefferson foresaw.  It is appropriate that the musical Hamilton should have been the theatrical event of our decade, since it is Hamilton's vision of a strong financial sector and a wealthy ruling class that seems for the moment to have triumphed over Jefferson's more egalitarian one.  But more importantly, it seems to me, the momentum of the progress of science and reason has been halted--and in some parts of the world it has been reversed.  As another great American thinker, Henry Adams, predicted at the turn of the last century, the world has rejected scientific conclusions contrary to established beliefs and interests.  Even as the evidence of an impending climate catastrophe becomes overwhelming, the response remains inadequate.  Thomas Piketty's great insight--that the natural outcome of capitalism is to promote inequality--has not really penetrated the mainstream.  Austerity in public finance, which has never benefited the mass of the people,. is back in fashion in Europe.  And the British public has just rejected one of the twentieth century's most striking expressions of the idea of reason in politics, the European Union.

Meanwhile, in much of the Muslim world, the idea of reason has been in full retreat for decades.  Western ideas inspired the original revolts against tradition and tyranny in the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and elsewhere, and they were the basis, in one way or another, of the Ataturk regime in Turkey and even the Ba'athist dictatorships in Syria and Iraq.  Now much of the Middle East is torn apart by a regional civil war between the Shi'ite and Sunni branches of Islam, and the United States government looks in vain for a significant faction that shares our values and interests.  The ideas of the twentieth century are in retreat elsewhere as well. Israel, founded as an expression of modern nationalism, is now much more based upon ancient religious belief.  The orthodox church is a pillar of Putin's rule in Russia.  And tens of millions of Americans regard revealed religion, not the enlightenment, as the source of the most important truths.  That above all, it seems to me, would make Jefferson shake his head in fear and disgust.

Jefferson made the classic mistake of so many of those who live through great historical change: he assumed that the beliefs of his age would simply continue to spread indefinitely.  But the Enlightenment principles in which he believed represent only one aspect of human nature, and not necessarily the most powerful.  Tocqueville, who was only a very young man in 1826, saw this far more clearly: he accepted democracy, by which he meant above all social and political equality, as the wave of the future, but he was as concerned by its weaknesses as he was inspired by its strengths.  There are natural rhythms in human affairs which prevent any set of beliefs and institutions from achieving eternal supremacy.  They include a tendency to oscillate between stronger and weaker forms of authority--as Roger Merriman, the historian who prepared young Americans for the Second World War at Harvard, taught his required history course--and the related tendency of generations of reject their parents' beliefs, regardless of their wisdom.  These tendencies do often move humanity backward, but they also provide new generations with the chance to do heroic things and leave monuments behind for centuries to come--as Jefferson did.