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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...

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A man of destiny?

This week, Senator David Perdue, spoke to a New York Times reporter about Donald Trump. “This guy got $2 billion of earned media in the primary, and he won an election that nobody thought he was going to win,” he said.  “This is a guy who is doing things that are totally unprecedented.  He’s nobody’s choir boy, but neither were people like Winston Churchill, for example.  This guy, I think, is a historic person of destiny at a time and place in America where we’ve got to make a right-hand turn here.”  Unfortunately, Perdue may be closer to the truth than the legions of liberal politicians, commentators and activists who continue to talk as if the Trump Administration simply can’t be happening.  The tide of history is running in the wrong direction, but it is Trump who is taking advantage of it.

It is now commonly accepted among the liberal political and media elite—and with good reason—that inequality is a pressing problem in America.  Yet the tax bill that the Senate is likely to pass in the next 48 hours has been designed to increase inequality, not to reduce it.  That is because it has evidently been written by the intellectual shock troops of the billionaire donors, led by the Koch brothers, who now own the Republican Party, and who have been waging a slow, steady campaign for 40 years to undo the achievements of the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the Great Society.  Intellectually Donald Trump has contributed nothing to this effort.  In no way can he be regarded as the architect of our new era, like Abraham Lincoln or Frankly Roosevelt.  Nor was he originally recruited by the Kochs.  Yet because he was a television celebrity, he managed, barely, to do what John McCain and Mitt Romney could not do: to defeat a liberal Democratic candidate by making inroads into the traditional Democratic base in industrial states.  Once in office, he filled the federal government with acolytes of the Kochs and is now poised to make some of their dreams come true.
The spirit of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century combined the principles of the Enlightenment—the idea that human reason could create a better and fairer world—with the healthy nationalism that played such a big role in the politics of all the major nations.  Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and even Richard Nixon believed that the government of the United States had a mission to create a fairer and more just society.  Meanwhile, the enormous international conflicts of that era—the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War—required enormous economic resources to fight, and the country expected its wealthiest citizens, the beneficiaries of the earlier Gilded Age, to make the largest contribution.  That is now the top marginal tax rate went to 91% during the Second World War and stayed there until 1964.  Meanwhile, the estate tax—introduced along with the income tax in 1916—reached 77% on the excess over $10 million. Those rates undoubtedly did more than any campaign finance legislation ever did to limit the influence of big money in politics.  

Over the past two years, two remarkable books have traced the growth of the political movement that undid our relatively healthy and equal political economy.  Dark Money by Jane Mayer focused on the Kochs and their allies—including the Scaife, Bradley, Olin and DeVos families—who built a network of foundations, other nonprofits, academic centers and donors that has now taken over the Republican Party.  Democracy in Chains, by Nancy MacLean, showed how an obscure economist named James Buchanan had managed, starting in the mid-1950, to develop a new, opposing ideology that combined the wealthiest Americans’ resentment of taxation and white southern resentment of integration.  That, of course, is the coalition that defines the Republican Party today.  

While much of the public now understands how much power the Koch brothers wield, the origins and nature of the new ideology developed over decades by Buchanan is much less understood—and that has made it much more influential.  Their main thrust—and a very successful one—has been to develop cynicism about institutions that claim to help large numbers of people, by arguing that everyone is in fact ruled by nothing but self-interest—including, or especially, bureaucrats who administer federal programs, politicians who create and defend them, and labor leaders.  In recent years this view has fueled campaigns against public employee unions, for instance, on the grounds that these employees have no right to health and pension benefits which ordinary workers do not enjoy.  Social security has long been a target of the extreme right, not because its burdens fall upon the wealthy—they don’t—but because it works, and thereby undermines their argument that federal programs cannot benefit a broad mass of people.  The strategy that developed over the years promised that today’s retirees and those close to retirement will get their promised benefits, but argued that the system was a bankrupt “Ponzi scheme” that would never be able to pay off younger people anyway, and therefore had to be altered.  That view, let it be remembered, had won over no less a figure than George W. Bush by 2005, although he was unable to get Congress interested in it.  Now, however, it is the view of Paul Ryan, and it may become the basis for the next big Republican offensive. Readers might ask themselves how often they have heard that Social Security is doomed to bankruptcy, and to what extent they themselves have come to believe that federal bureaucrats are self-interested tyrants with no concern for others.  The popularity of these views is a tribute to Buchanan, the donors who funded him, and the army of think tanks and journalists who have relentlessly spread these ideas.

Democrats, meanwhile, have paid the price of success. Because the world of the late twentieth century was built upon sound ideas, they assumed that no one would question them and that they no longer needed a vigilant and noisy defense.  They turned their attention largely to social issues. Now they watch, horrified, as their whole legacy is undone step by step, thanks to the election of a reality tv star with a very intermittent grasp on reality.  How much can be done at least to halt this process 
remains an open question. Pretending that it cannot be happening does not help.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

A forgotten leader from a different time

About two years ago I did long posts about the autobiographies of two civil rights leaders, Booker T. Washington and Walter White. Previously I had read the autobiographies of two of the other black political leaders of national stature, Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. DuBois.  This month I finally filled in the next, and in a sense, the last chapter of that story, reading Standing Firm, the autobiography of Roy Wilkins (1901-81), who succeeded White as Executive Secretary of the NAACP in 1955 and held that post for 22 years--the critical years of the civil rights movement. I was not disappointed.

A series of accidents before and during Wilkins's early life gave him the chance to become the man that he did.  His family, whom he had traced before he wrote the book, originally hailed from northern Mississippi.  Shortly after Roy's birth in 1901, his father's anger over the disrespect his white neighbors showed him boiled over, and he beat up a white farmer who had ordered him to move out of the way.  His father, a former slave, promptly got him and his whole family out of town and out of the state, and they took the train to St. Louis.  A few years later, Wilkins's mother died of tuberculosis.  His father clearly could not take care of him and his two siblings--he really never recovered from this blow--and they passed into the care of a maternal aunt who was married to a railroad worker in St. Paul, Minnesota.  St. Paul's black community was too small to make up a ghetto, and Wilkins grew up in a very stable home in an integrated neighborhood.  He excelled in school, where a junior high teacher urged him to become a writer, and Wilkins attended and graduated from the University of Minnesota.   Ability alone allowed him to do so because, as my own parents discovered in neighboring Wisconsin about a dozen years later, the great state universities of a century ago were almost free to anyone who attended.

Wilkins became involved in college journalism at Minnesota, and after graduating he landed his first and only full-time private sector job at a black newspaper, the Kansas City, Missouri Call.  The Jim Crow customs of this new city were a rude shock, although he had already been radicalized, to some extent, by a shocking lynching in Minnesota involving black roustabouts who worked for a circus.  He also became active in the local NAACP, and came to the attention of DuBois, then its national leader, and Walter White when they visited Kansas City.   In 1931 White asked him to come to New York to become his deputy, and after some negotiations about salary, Wilkins accepted. He and his wife Minnie, who came from the St. Louis Negro aristocracy, moved into a well-known Harlem apartment building where they appear to have remained for the rest of his life.

Wilkins' place within the civil rights movement is distinctive and very important.  Unlike DuBois, he, like White, always believed that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution offered American Negroes (as he preferred to call them) everything they needed to enjoy all the benefits of American life.  The problem--and a huge problem it was from the 1930s until the mid-1960s, and in many ways beyond--was to secure the rights those documents guaranteed them.  Wilkins also remained a lifelong believer in integration, largely, he says, because it had shaped him in his childhood.  And he held to those views even though, as the book makes clear, he met very few powerful white people in his long life whom he could unreservedly count on to help.  Those views made him a lifelong opponent of both separatists and Communists, from Marcus Garvey in the 1920s through DuBois in his separatist phase in the 1930s to the Black Muslims (whom he hardly mentions in the book) and younger black militants in the 1960s and 1970s.  He also opposed separate Black Studies departments in universities or anything else that explicitly favored segregation of the races.

Wilkins is very frank--much more than White--about arguments within the civil rights movement in general and the leadership of the NAACP in particular.  While he revered DuBois, he makes it clear that the great intellectual's enormous self-regard and sensitivity had become a trial for the younger generation by the 1930s.  He describes in detail how White, late in his life and his tenure, had caused a crisis inside and outside the organization by leaving his long-time wife to marry a thrice-divorced white woman who was also an NAACP activist.  This of course appeared to validate the worst fears of white racists, but Wilkins successfully insisted that the organization simply could not repudiate its leader on these grounds  without violating all its principles.  But beginning around the time of the Second World War, white politicians--and especially American Presidents--become major characters in the story as well.  Like White, Wilkins speaks very frankly about all of them, both positively and negatively.

Wilkins seems to me somewhat less favorable to Franklin Roosevelt than White was, perhaps in part because he had less contact with him.  He could not forgive Roosevelt for failing to push for anti-lynching legislation, the NAACP's main objective in the 1930s, or for refusing to take on the issue of segregation in the military during the Second World War.  But Truman won his support for coming out in favor a a strong civil rights program in 1947, for ordering the desegregation of the armed forces, and above all for favoring a strong civil rights plank at the 1948 Democratic Convention, knowing full well that the delegates from the Deep South would walk out and nominate their own candidate.  That was what Lyndon Johnson refused to do in 1964 when he blocked the seating of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at another Democratic convention.  Meanwhile, as Wilkins describes, the NAACP had been pursuing a long-term legal strategy to break down segregation in public education, one crafted and executed by Charles Hamilton Houston of Howard University and his student Thurgood Marshall.  That campaign began with successful attempts to get black students into southern law schools--on the grounds that they had to be trained in the state where they intended to practice--and culminated, of course, in Brown v. Board of Education and the Supreme Court's unanimous decision in favor of integrated schools in 1954.  But that turned out to be the beginning, not the end, of the most difficult period in the civil rights struggle.

In the wake of the Second World War, fought to assure the triumph of democracy against racist dictatorship, Chief Justice Earl Warren, a Californian, had managed to persuade a court that include three southerners and a Kentuckian that segregation belonged on the scrap heap of history.  The whites of the Deep South, however, had not gotten that message and were more determined than ever to preserve white supremacy, upon which, they had believed all their lives, their own peace and security depended.  During the 1950s, as Wilkins makes very clear, neither the executive under President Eisenhower nor the Congress, dominated by veteran southerners, had much interest in the kind of vigorous steps necessary to implement Brown v. Board of Education.   A relatively recent book by David Nichols presents a new and admiring role of Ike's contribution to civil rights, based on his role in the integration of Central High School in Little Rock.  It would come as a great surprise by Roy Wilkins, who was appalled--as were white liberals--by Ike's reputed refusal in press conferences to give a definite endorsement to Brown v. Board of Education.  In the summer of 1958--after a year of difficult integration at Central High, during which school authorities did nothing to stop a few white students from constantly harassing the handful of black ones--Eisenhower agreed to meet with civil rights leaders including Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  They asked Eisenhower to convene an interracial White House conference on civil rights; to have the Justice Department join in some school integration lawsuits in the South; to declare that he would withhold federal money from secgregated institutions, including schools; and to support legal changes that would allow the Justice Department to intervene in a variety of civil rights cases in the South. Eisenhower refused to comment specifically on any of their proposals, and denied that he had the moral authority to change the sitution.

This was, as it turns out, characteristic of the leadership of both parties during the 1950s.  Adlai Stevenson had impressed Wilkins when he first met him during the 1952 campaign, but by 1956 Stevenson was among those believing that progress had to be slow to avoid offending the sensibilities of the white South.  Lyndon Johnson in 1957 had helped put a new civil rights bill through Congress--largely to make himself a potential presidential candidate--but only after eviscerating it to the point that southern Senators did not find a filibuster necessary. Johnson repeated the same trick in 1960, meanwhile preventing any meaningful change in the Senate filibuster rule, which seemed to be a precondition for the passage of any serious civil rights bill.. Meanwhile, southern state governments were again on the offensive. At least three of them passed laws designed to make it impossible for the NAACP to operate within their borders.  Medgar Evers in `1963, it turns out, was not the first NAACP activist in Mississippi to be murdered for asserting his rights as a citizen.  The media in the 1950s wasn't much help either, and in 1959, Chet Huntley of NBC News blamed militant Negro leadership for racial problems on the air. To be fair, NBC gave Wilkins some time in which to reply.

During the 1950s, Wilkins had gotten to know Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts.  Like nearly everyone else who ever met Kennedy, Wilkins found him an excellent listener, sympathetic, and genuinely committed to real change. (One of the very rare exceptions, interestingly enough, was Jackie Robinson, who met Kennedy in 1960, reported that the Senator could not look him in the eye, and decided to endorse Richard Nixon instead.)  Kennedy displeased Wilkins in 1957 when he sided with Lyndon Johnson on one of the crucial votes to weaken the civil rights bill, but Wilkins was very encouraged by the Democratic platform.  Significantly, he was not one of the liberal, white and black, who tried to block the selection of LBJ as vice president at the Los Angeles convention.  While he did not yet regard Johnson as an ally on civil rights, he wanted the Democrats to win and he understood that Johnson's selection was crucial to winning some of the votes of southern states.  Wilkins, in short, thought like a political pro.  The black vote played a key role in that election--as it had in 1948--helping Kennedy take states like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.  This was still an era in which one party or the other could swing the black vote by taking strong positions or action on civil rights--a sharp contrast to the present day.

Yet as it turned out, Kennedy turned out to be nearly as disappointing as Eisenhower during the first two years of his term.  The filibuster rule survived the convening of the new Congress, and Kennedy declined to send up any civil rights legislation, fearing that such a move would block the rest of his legislative program--which, as it turned out, went nowhere anyway for those first two years.  But experience--especially the violent confrontation with the state of Mississippi over the admission of James Meredith to Ole Miss--radicalized the Kennedys somewhat.  In the spring of 1963, after the police violence in Birmingham against Martin Luther King's civil disobedience campaign, Kennedy sent up the most sweeping civil rights bill since Reconstruction, calling explicitly for free integrated access to stores, hotels, and restaurants.  The southerners deployed to block it, but it was moving through the House of Representatives at the time of JFK's death.

What happened between Lyndon Johnson and Wilkins then was truly extraordinary.   From their first meeting, Johnson treated Wilkins, literally, like one of his closest allies.  He asked for his help and his counsel in getting the entire civil rights bill passed. (Wilkins repeatedly gives special credit to Clarence Mitchell, for many years the NAACP's chief lobbyist in Washington, for making this happen.)  He telephoned Wilkins frequently and at one point asked Wilkins to start calling him whenever he wanted to.  Wilkins' calls always went through.  In one extraordinary moment during the drive to get the great 1964 Act through the Senate, Johnson reached Wilkins and Clarence Mitchell in the Capitol by having the White House operator dial the pay phone near where they were conferring.  This was a President who knew every trick of communicating with Congress.

What had happened?  Essentially, I would argue, in that spring of 1964, a series of events--including the assassination of JFK--had united nearly the entire GI generation in the cause of legal racial equality.  Twice in the last seven years Congress had passed only token legislation; now, in 1964, more than 2/3 of the Senate--a very bipartisan 2/3, at that--removed the remaining legal barriers to equality.  Then, less than a year later, the Voting Rights Act followed in response to King's Selma march.  Telling how he listened in person to Johnson's address to Congress calling for that act--which concluded with the words, "We shall overcome"--Wilkins confesses that at that moment, he loved LBJ.  Yet he makes clear that the romance was about to come to an end thanks to changes among both whites and blacks.

By 1965 the NAACP remained by far the preeminent civil rights organization in the country, but it had some serious rivals.  Wilkins's comments on the rise of direct action and civil disobedience are very interesting.  He points out that NAACP chapters had used civil disobedience and sit-ins as early as the 1940s, although the organization as a whole never adopted that tactic.  Discussing the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, he argues pointedly that it was the local NAACP (where Rosa Parks worked as a secretary) that had the idea, and that it was they who recruited Martin Luther King, Jr., to be the spokesman for the boycott.  The NAACP under his leadership stuck to lawsuits, lobbying in Washington, publicity, and an occasional mass demonstration, and Wilkins liked to think of King's SCLC as acting in a complementary rather than an opposing fashion, but by 1965, the NAACP's leadership was being questioned.

Two new developments now changed the racial climate and the nature of the civil rights movement.  The first was the outbreak of urban riots.  They had begun in Harlem, in Philadelphia, and elsewhere in the summer of 1964, and Wilkins explains that he did everything he could to try to stop the outbreak, fearing that it might swing the election to Barry Goldwater. But a year later, a much worse riot lasting the better part of a week broke out in Watts, shocking Lyndon Johnson and the white population.  Wilkins says  again and again that the frustrations of ghetto life simply had to burst forth at that moment but he clearly believes that the violence did his cause much more harm than good.  And at the same time, a new, much younger group of civil rights activists stepped forth, led by Stokely Carmaichel of SNCC, who rejected both the American political system as a source of strength and Wilkins's and the NAACP's longstanding alliance with white liberals and called instead for "black power."  Wilkins thought the real turning point came in June 1966, during James Meredith's march through Mississippi.  When Meredith was wounded by a shotgun blast, SNCC under Carmaichel and CORE under Floyd McKissick essentially took over the march and issued a manifesto attacking President Johnson on various fronts--a manifesto that Wilkins refused to sign.  Later that summer, their split broke into the open when Wilkins criticized SNCC for staging a protest of Luci Baines Johnson's wedding,  in part because of the war in Vietnam.  In the following year, 1967, H. Rap Brown took over from Carmaichel as chairman of SNCC, and huge riots devastated Newark and Detroit.  By this time, black activists from the Boom generation had adopted the notion that American democracy was a sham and that black Americans' real allies were in the Third World.  To these views Wilkins could never agree.

The riots also destroyed the alliance with LBJ.  Wilkins served on the commission he appointed to analyze their causes, and in early 1968 it produced a report declaring that white racism was responsible for the riots and that the US was moving towards two societies, separate and unequal.  Johnson, who reportedly had expected the commission to find that a militant conspiracy was responsible, refused to endorse their findings or even to meet with his commissioners after they issued their report. By then he had decided not to run again.  He had become a prisoner of the Vietnam war, which had cost him his coalition and cost the Democratic party the White House.  In 1969 he gave way to Richard Nixon and Wilkins suddenly felt himself back in the mid-1950s once again.  The White House was no longer a friendly place.

What Wilkins does not talk about is just as interesting, at times, as what he does.  While Wilkins avows that by the late 1940s he was convinced that Communist influence had to be eliminated from the NAACP, he says almost nothing about that organization's support for the foreign policies of the Cold War, or his own pro forma support of the Vietnam War under LBJ.  There is no mention of SNCC's Freedom Summer project in Mississippi in 1964 or of the murder of Michael Schwerner, James Cheney, and Andrew Goodman.  There is no mention of the Black Muslims as such and only a few references to Malcolm X--although Wilkins acknowledges that Malcolm was one of the two most effective debaters that black America ever produced. There is not a single mention of the Black Panther Party, even though Wilkins and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark co-authored a short book on the police shooting of Panther Fred Hampton in Chicago.  Wilkins declares his strong support for school busing to achieve integration--a step i supported at the time, but which does not seem to me now to have done much good--but he says nothing about affirmative action. (The nation, I am informed by people who know, has never solved the problem of educating its poor children, white, black, or brown.)  Last, but not hardly least, I waited in vain for Wilkins's opinion of the man who succeeded him as the recognized principal black civil rights leader in the United States, Jesse Jackson.  His name does not appear in the text.  I cannot believe that that was accidental.

Wilkins fought for his whole life for principles in which I too believe.  Since his death those principles have lost ground, I am afraid, on both sides of the political aisle.  But Wilkins and the organization he led were in other ways products of another era.  The NAACP had biracial leadership from its founding into the 1960s.  Two white brothers, Joel and Arthur Spingarn, served as its first Presidents, and Eleanor  Roosevelt and Walter Reuther of the UAW served on its Board of Directors during the 1950s. Today the NAACP board  appears to have a few token white members, for want of a better word, but they do not include anyone of national stature. Nor is the current chairman of the NAACP, Leon Russell, routinely quoted in the media on controversies involving race and civil rights, as black leaders were in the past.

Walter White and Roy Wilkins each led the NAACP for more than 20 years, during which their often-restive subordinates deferred to their authority and allowed them to act on their behalf and those of their black fellow citizens.  Today's activists distrust organization and have shown no talent for long term strategy.  (That was just as true of Occupy as of Black Lives Matter; these trends always cut across racial lines.)  The legacy of SNCC seems to have more resonance among today's activists than that of the SNCC, even though SNCC ceased to exist long ago.  Looking once again at our racial problems today, I see two kinds.  One involves poverty and its consequences, especially in urban areas--and that problem, I think, is definitely an interracial one now, affecting perhaps as many white Trump voters as black Americans.  The second involves the police and the criminal justice system, and that one requires legislative changes at the state and federal level, and a long-term, concerted attempt to change police techniques and attitudes to reduce the number of traffic stops that end in needless, senseless fatalities.  Neither problem will be solved by a quick series of demonstrations or riots; both require organizations that can investigate, develop solutions, and exert pressure for decades--organizations reminiscent of the NAACP in the first half of the twentieth century. I hope they can arise.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Sex and politics

Lying in bed last night, I began running through the list of 20th and 21st century Presidents and comparing their sexual behavior.  Here, divided by party, are the results of my survey.

                President                                             Known misbehavior
           Teddy Roosevelt                                             None
           William Howard Taft                                     None
           Warren Harding                                             Extramarital affairs, love child
           Calvin Coolidge                                            None
           Herbert Hoover                                             None
           Dwight Eisenhower                                      Wartime affair
           Richard Nixon                                              None
           Gerald R. Ford                                              None
           Ronald Reagan                                             Nothing alleged after 2nd marriage
           George H. W. Bush                                      Extramarital affair alleged
          George W. Bush                                            None
          Donald Trump                                              Two divorces, extramarital affairs, groping

          Woodrow Wilson                                         Extramarital affair during first marriage
          Franklin Roosevelt                                      Extramarital affairs
          Harry Truman                                              None
         John F. Kennedy                                           Extramarital affairs
         Lyndon Johnson                                            Extramarital affairs
         Jimmy Carter                                                None
         Bill Clinton                                                  Extramarital affairs, unwanted physical advances
         Barack Obama                                             None
Summarizing, we find that out of 12 Republican Presidents, seven, as far as we know, would not have been vulnerable to accusations of scandal.  Of the other five, four of them--Harding, Eisenhower, Bush I and Trump--were elected, two of them by landslides, despite widespread rumors (or, in Trump's case, multiple accusations) of misbehavior.  Eisenhower's case is more interesting than I realized.  Kay Summersby, his wartime driver, had actually written a book in the 1940s detailing their association, albeit without any reference to sex, and reviewers did not shrink from using the word "intimate" to describe it.  Yet this had no impact on his candidacy.

Of the 8 Democrats, only three led blameless personal lives in this respect.  Overall, we see 20 Presidents, exactly half of whom did not, apparently, lead strictly monogamous lives after marriage.That, interestingly enough, exactly matches the figure for male marital infidelity published by Alfred Kinsey, based on a very respected survey, in the middle of the last century.

Looking at these lists, I personally can't see any correlation between personal behavior on the one hand and performance in office on the other.  Franklin Roosevelt was a far greater President than Herbert Hoover; Barack Obama was certainly superior to Warren Harding; etc.  Bill Clinton occupies an interesting historical niche within this list: he was the last Presidential philanderer, it seems, who (barely) got away it.   There is general agreement, in the wake of the controversies over non-politicians Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein and political figures Ray Moore and Al Franken, that Clinton would never have survived in office today.  Yet the fact remains that Donald Trump was elected President after he bragged about serially abusing woman on tape, suggesting--as does the attitudes of Alabama Republicans--that Republicans may take such behavior less seriously than Democrats.

Why was it, then, that so many Presidents were elected and remained in office despite personal sexual misbehavior?  In part, of course, this was the result of a kind of gentleman's agreement that such matters were private and not a fit topic for discussion in major media.  Today many people would regard that as an all-male conspiracy designed to protect men, while others might still see it as a sensible custom that allowed our government to function, often very effectively.  In any case, those days appear to be gone.

It is heartening, in a way, that none of the contemporary controversies involves a consensual affair between adults.  I still believe that thsoe episodes are no one else's business, but we are dealing today with something else altogether, allegations of actual physical abuse or attempts to exploit power to secure sexual favors.  Few people, if any, will defend behavior like that.  Yet we don't have a clear standard for what level of bad behavior constitutes disqualification from public office.  At the moment, Al Franken's career is threatened by one clear instance of an unwanted advance and groping. Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times has already called for his resignation and asked the Governor of Minnesota to appoint a woman to succeed him, not because she thinks he deserves to go--she doesn't--but because only this will sustain the current momentum to do something about sexual harassment.  With that I cannot agree, but many will.  (If more women come forward to accuse Franken, the situation, of course, will change very rapidly.  In addition, if Ray Moore wins his election in Alabama, Mitch McConnell will undoubtedly push to have both of them expelled from the Senate.)

I think, as I tried to indicate last week, that we are having trouble keeping various issues in perspective; but that is largely the fault of the politicians themselves. Everyone (including myself) agrees that sexual harassment is a serious problem and that sanctions against it have heretofore been inadequate.  And many of us have almost no respect for any sitting politician, and therefore see no reason not to sacrifice any of them to our current crusade or even to allow them ordinary privacy in their personal life.  There is, however, one enormous exception.  Donald Trump's supporters did not care about the revelations about his behavior during the 2016 campaign, and apparently they still don't.  It will, I think, inevitably occur to many politicians and commentators that if in fact Franken deserves to be driven out of the Senate, Trump should not remain in the White House.  Yet remain he probably will, and this will raise new questions about the attempt to discipline powerful and abusive men, what impact it will have, and whom it will benefit.                         

Friday, November 10, 2017

News content, 1937 and 2017

Today, the world is sinking into crisis--really, into a whole series of crises--just as it was 80 years ago.  In Europe Britain is leaving the European Union and Spain is threatened by civil war.  The Middle East is riven by a new Thirty Years' War between Shi'ite and Sunni powers, which has brought Saudi Arabia and Iran to the brink of war over Yemen and destroyed the nations of Iraq and Syria.  The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has just begun a massive purge of the royal family, the government, and Saudi society as a whole.  Turkey, for more than 80 years a westernized democracy, has become a dictatorship and the government has locked up tens of thousands of citizens. The Philippine government is murdering thousands of citizens as part of a drug war.  Tens of thousands refugees have fled Burma for Bangladesh.  War threatens on the Korean peninsula.  The Chinese government wants recognition as one of the world's great powers, a status that the United States sill disputes.  War over nuclear weapons threatens the Korean peninsula.   Separatist movements threaten several major African states.  Socialist Venezuela is in a state of economic collapse, and dictatorship threatens there.  And in the United States, the ruling Republican party, dominated by megarich energy producers, is trying to undo the political achievements of the last century to remove obstacles to the accumulation of wealth.

The situation was equally serious, if not more so, exactly 80 years ago. Civil war was raging in Spain, where General Franco was using the Spanish colonial army to try to subdue the elected government and the workers, while Italy, Germany and the USSR intervened on behalf of their preferred sides.  The brutal, bloody Sino-Japanese War was sweeping down the Chinese coast and into the interior.  The recovery of 1933-36 had been interrupted by a new, severe worldwide recession.  Hitler had consolidated power in Germany, although his great political offensive of 1938 lay a few months away.  The USSR was in the midst of Stalin's great purge.

To show how our world differs from theirs, I am going to compare the front pages of the New York Times from today and from November 10, 1937, exactly 80 years ago.  What will readers find there today, and what did they learn then?

Reading from the left hand side of the front page of the 1937 paper, we find three stories dealing with the war in China.  One details the day's fighting, the second reports a speech by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain expressing the hope that the UK and the US might reach a "closer understanding" on the crisis in the Far East, and a third reports that the Japanese government wants the German government (which had ties to both sides) to mediate the crisis.  Next comes an obituary for the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, J. Ramsay MacDonald, who had died at sea.  (I do not think any retired British PM's death would rate a headline above the fold today.)  Then comes a local story, about a dispute over the presence of police officers at the count of ballots in the recent New York city elections.  And on the far right of the top of p. 1 are two stories on federal economic policy.  In one, which is quite technical, President Roosevelt asks the nation's utility companies to change the way they value their assets, which will in turn lower their rates, and the very last story,. in column 8, reports various Administration ideas to use federal funds to ease credit, stimulate enterprise, and get the nation out of the recession without returning to the deficit spending of FDR's first term.  

Moving down the page, we learn that the government of Quebec has invoked a new law to ban a Communist newspaper.  In New Jersey, the CIO--the more left wing of the nation's two national labor blocs--announces a plan to form a new party to challenge the state's Democratic machine.  Joseph P. Kennedy, the Chairman of FDR's maritime commission, proposes an increase in subsidies for the construction of merchant ships.  And at the bottom of the page, Mayor LaGuardia, fresh from re-election, announces that he will demand the end of a Transit Board. That makes a total of eleven front page stories, divided among foreign, national and local news.

Today's front page, by contrast, has only six columns instead of eight (a change that dates, I believe, to the 1970s), and only six stories instead of eleven.  Only one of them is foreign, dealing with President Trump's surprisingly friendly speech in Beijing, in which he blamed his predecessors, not the Chinese, for our trade imbalance, and sought cooperation dealing with North Korea.  Two other stories deal with the Republican tax cut proposals, the first detailing the Senate plan and how it differs from the House version, and the second arguing (under the heading "News Analysis") that the middle class is unlikely to reap much of a benefit from the plan.  The last three stories are the most characteristic of our time.  In column 1, we read of a debate in Texas over whether video of the church shooting in Sutherland, Texas, should be released to the public.  Next, five women accuse the comedian Louis C. K. of exposing himself to them.  And last but not least, the Times tries to catch up with its rival the Washington Post, reporting that Judge Roy Moore, who is on the verge of election to the U.S. Senate, dated, or tried to date, four teenage girls nearly 40 years ago, and did some largely (but not completely) unclothed petting with one of them, then aged 14.  The other three women  interviewed by the Post were between 16 and 18, admit that they were not bothered by Moore's attentions at the time (when he was in his early 30s), and do not allege any sexual relations with him, consensual or otherwise.

How has this happened, and what does it mean?

Clearly, both the Times and its readers--as well as dozens of other newspapers around the country--took their obligation to stay informed about world, national and local affairs much more seriously in 1937 than they do today.  In addition, as I discovered while writing No End Save Victory, the Roosevelt Administration had focused the nation on its attempts to create more employment, regulate economic enterprise, promote the rights of labor, and make better use of our national resources, whether individual Americans or newspapers agreed with those efforts or not.  Since the Progressive Era, government at all levels had enjoyed a very creative period in which the nation was taking a great interest.  Today, our ruling party is trying to finish undoing nearly everything they did--a process that began in the 1980s, if not earlier, and has continued apace under both Republican and Democratic administrations.  On the foreign front, this was (although no one knew this for sure in 1937) late in the era of two world wars, and Americans were accustomed to the idea that events in faraway plans could affect them as well.  Just two months earlier, FDR had shocked the nation by declaring that the "contagion" of war would reach the United States if it could not be halted.  Americans still took world events very seriously all the way through the Cold War, but their interest has ebbed since then.

And what about the three stories with no counterpart in 1937?

Semi-automatic weapons were not readily available to citizens in the 1930s, and while mass shootings took place, they took the lives of only a few people at a time, not a few dozen, as they do from time to time today.  No national, politically powerful organization frightened our politicians away from imposing restrictions on gun ownership.  More importantly, perhaps, newspapers regarded themselves as the primary source of the news, of telling the public what had happened, instead of commentators on videos generated by the citizenry with their smart phones.  As the news has become more visual, beginning with the advent of television, it has become more emotional and much less verbal.  The Times story on the fate of the Sutherland videos illustrates these trends.

And meanwhile, the educated elite of the United States has become extremely concerned--or obsessed--with sexual misbehavior by well-off and powerful men.  We have had so many court cases and news stories about Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Dennis Hastert, Newt Gingrich, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and many more, that any new story--for instance, about Louis C. K.--is instantly newsworthy.  So is any story, even a 35-year old one, involving a political figure's sexual behavior.  The kind of behavior detailed in those stories today undoubtedly was taking place in 1937 and possibly on a larger scale than it is today, but it didn't make the news.  Most would say that was because of deference towards white males.  I think that is partly true, but I think it also reflected a different sense of what serious newspapers were for.

I am depressed that forty years after the first breakthroughs by the modern woman's movement, problems in the workplace do not seem to have gotten a great deal better.  I reject most of the easy answers as to why this is so but I have no better ones to offer.  My question for my readers today is different.  Could the citizenry and the leadership of the 1930s have coped with the enormous domestic and foreign problems they faced if all their newspapers had been been just as full of such stories as ours are now?  And will we be able to give sufficient attention to the parallel problems that we face if we spend so much time illuminating the misbehavior of the rich and powerful--and continually expanding the definition of newsworthy misbehavior, as the Washington Post story about Moore certainly did?

We shall  not be returning to the political and news culture of the 1930s any time soon.  The question is whether we want to continue down the path we have been on for the last few decades, or to shift our focus back a bit towards the actual business of politics and government.  To the extent that the public is distracted by personal misbehavior, I expect that the rich and powerful will continue to thrive.  The Cosbys and Weinsteins among them may be disgraced, but in a sense, they will be battlefield casualties in our new class war, one which the 1% will easily be able to absorb.  We clearly need a new set of rules and procedures for relations between the sexes, especially in the workplace, and I hope they can evolve relatively quickly so that our attention can shift once again to other matters of concern to every citizen.