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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...

Saturday, April 27, 2019

A Remarkable Book

I recently re-connected with a sociologist whom I had met many years ago, Liah Greenfeld, who has been a university professor at Boston University for many years.  I had met her in the early 1990s after discussing her first big book, on nationalism, at a conference, and stayed in touch for a while, but had not kept up.  In the course of a long conversation, she mentioned her most recent book, Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience.  I have since read it.  It's a remarkable work.

Greenfeld writes unique books, partly because she has a unique background.  Her parents, two physicians,  were Soviet Jews who emigrated to Israel in 1972, and she earned her doctorate at the Hebrew University. Coming to the United States in 1982, she spent 9 years as an assistant professor at Harvard (she had recently been denied tenure when I first met her), and then moved to BU.  (For additional information, see her wikipedia entry.) Her work as clearly been inspired by the founders of her discipline, and particularly by Emile Durkheim, whose ideas heavily influenced Mind, Modernity, and Madness.  She also works easily in all the major European languages and moves quickly from one discipline to another. She takes almost nothing on faith and readily attacks conventional wisdom of many different kinds. In short, she is a late-nineteenth century intellectual in a 20th-21st century body, which allows her, like me, to write books that literally no one else today would ever undertake.

By "madness," Greenfeld means the three most common major mental illnesses in the modern world: schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorder, and severe depression.  In one of her many ambitious claims, she argues that these are really only two different illnesses, not three, because the first two are really the same illness.  She has plenty of evidence for this--it has been shown, for instance, that people diagnosed with schizophrenia in the US are likely to be diagnosed as manic-depressives in Britain, and vice versa--and I have learned talking to a research psychiatrist that other authorities share this view.  More controversially, she argues that these are diseases of the modern world that had not been observed or identified before the 16th century, when they appeared in Britain as a result of the development of a new idea of nationalism.  By nationalism she means a society of equal rights, a shared political community, and elected government--all of which, to be sure, were only embryonic at best in 16th century Britain.  Those ideas, of course, spread through the western world (and even into Russia) in succeeding centuries, and she makes  a convincing case that modern forms of madness spread with them.  Her most fascinating evidence, for me, came from the United States, the real pioneer of nationalism as she describes it, and specifically from several 19th-century scientists who helped found our first mental institutions and wrote at length about their patients.  They understood that they were seeing new disorders, and some of them saw how the difficulties of coping with the newly modern world were making their patients crazy.  And because they had no formal training such as therapists and psychologists must undergo today, nothing stood in the way of their observation and record of what they saw before their own eyes.

Culture, Greenfield argues, is a system of ideas an symbols within which we place ourselves to form an identity.   Because for the last few centuries anyone can, in theory, be anything, this has become a burden for us all, and for a certain percentage of us, she argues, the burden is too much and leads to madness.  This is the hardest part of the argument to document systematically.  To illustrate what schizophrenia and manic-depression are, Greenfeld discussed at length the cases of the mathematician John Nash, who has been the subject of a biography and a not-very-accurate film, and a therapist, Kay Jamison--nearly an exact contemporary of my own, who turns out to be just two degrees of separation away--who became a therapist and has described her own struggles in a book.  Both of them had family backgrounds that made it harder for them to figure out exactly where they fit into American society, but I couldn't help feeling that millions of other people whose backgrounds were equally or more problematic had not gone mad.  Some other factors must be at work--but one such might be another common trait, their extraordinary intelligence.  Another might be the specific dynamics of their families.  In short, while Greenfeld makes a persuasive case, bolstered by additional data I shall discuss below, that madness is a modern disease, she hasn't in my opinion be able to explain exactly why some people get it and others don't.

I could not help thinking, as I read the book, of what I had learned from a 19th-century giant, Tocqueville, when I read him in college--particularly The Old Regime and the French Revoluion, which is at least as important a book as Democracy in America.  Tocqueville understood that the society of orders and privleges from which he came was dying all over the world and could not survive, but he also appreciated its strengths.  Belonging to a particular order in society gave one a certain security that the new social equality could not offer.  I remember thinking 50 years ago that peasants and artisans in traditional society could blame their fate on a higher power, while we twentieth century men and women could only blame ours on ourselves.  That makes modern life a terrible burden, and a growing one, now, as we cast aside the policies that the US and other advanced countries adopted in the mid-twentieth century to try to assure a decent life for everyone.  The burden has also grown because everyone--women a well as men, all racial and ethnic groups, and people of all sexual orientations--also have total responsibility for their own future--the flip side of our social equality. In my opinion--and Greenfeld does not explore this point--the explosion of tribalism among those groups is in fact a response to the terror of facing the world alone.

And this leads us to Greenfeld's bottom line: that madness is increasing, not declining, all over the modern world.  (She seems to think, by the way, that the modern forms of madness that she is focusing on are much less common in Asia than here.  I could cite some anecdotal evidence from South Korea suggesting that that is not true, and in any case, I suspect that if it is, it won't stay true for much longer in the more advanced countries of Asia.)  A lot of statistical evidence supports her.  The problem is complicated in the US, too, by the decision we reached several decades ago, to stop institutionalizing hundreds of thousands of people (perhaps as many as one million in 1960) in mental hospitals. (Many such people, of course, are now in prison.)  One reason Greenfeld wrote the book, she informs us, was the prevalence of depression among her own students at BU.  Suicide, the  ultimate symptom of madness, has been increasing in the US, especially among young people, with enormous costs to the living as well as the dead.

As I read the book I also began to think about the role of madness in our current political life.  Two key symptoms of schizophrenia are paranoia and megalomania.  Paranoia dominates the thinking of both the left and the right today; both see their world at risk from vast conspiracies. Madness is the enemy of rationality, and we all see how the role of rational thought has declined in our public life.  We now have  President who sees himself beset by enemies on all sides, and who has told us, repeatedly, that he, the greatest man who ever lived, is the only person who can solve all our problems.  More significantly, 40% of the population has hitched their wagon to his star.  All this, obviously, is food for thought in the years to come.

This book, whether one accepts all its conclusions or not, should have had great interest not only for sociologists, but quite obviously for psychologists and for historians like myself.  In that way it also resembles some of the great works of the 19th century.  But it is not surprising, it turns out, that I had never heard of it--it was not even reviewed in either the New York Times or the New York Review of Books.  I too have found that works of unusual ambition tend nowadays to fall through the cracks.  They remain tributes to the western intellectual tradition, however, and those fortunate enough to discover them will still find that they make us think.

Friday, April 19, 2019

What the Mueller Report means, Part I

The very narrow election of Donald Trump as President of the United States represented a collapse of our political system and a catastrophe for the nation that has few precedents.  A political neophyte who had made his reputation as a developer--despite numerous bankruptcies--and a television star wiped the floor with a gaggle of traditional Republican candidates and defeated a quintessential establishment Democrat.  Trump lacks all the intellectual and personal qualities that a President (or, for that matter, the leader of any other large organization) requires. He is almost impossible to work with, making his administration one big revolving door.  He is a paranoid and a megalomaniac, who believes that only he can solve the nation's problems--yet he lacks the concentration to understand what those problems are, what might solve them, and what might make them worse.  That is why the deficit, the trade deficit, and the rate of illegal immigration--three of his signature issues--are all getting worse on his watch.  He also lacks any understanding of how the US government is supposed to function and doesn't really understand American legal traditions.  In foreign policy, he has no use for our traditional allies and admires a string of dictators.  Meanwhile, he enjoys flaunting liberal convention wisdom and race, gender, and just about everything else.

For all these reasons, most liberals, including the liberal media elite (yes, it exists), have not accepted the idea that he could be President and have assumed, really, that he must somehow be forced to leave office before his term is  up.  They have counted, essentially, on the federal bureaucracy, as represented by Robert Mueller and the FBI, to make this happen--a fantasy oddly parallel to the Trump partisans' view of the Deep State.  They are now furious that Mueller did not recommend that the President be indicted and even more furious at William Barr for claiming that Mueller exonerated him.  I intend to use Mueller's report to examine these questions in two posts, following the report's organization.  The first volume of the report deals with Russian interference in our election and the publication by wikileaks and elsewhere of emails hacked from Clinton campaign aids and the Democratic National Committee.  The second volume examines the question of obstruction of justice, and I will leave it for next week.

The first volume begins with a long account of the Russian government's intervention in the US election, involving two Russian agencies, the IRA (which seems to specialize in computer crime of all kinds) and the GRU.  Their activities included hacking into the DNC and various Democratic Party officials, trips by IRA officials into the US to gather intelligence, a massive, multifaceted social media campaign, especially on Twitter, both to support Trump and disrupt Demoratic campaigns, the active recruitment on social media of pro-Trump Americans to help in their activities, and attempts to organize or affect campaign rallies.  Mueller's very thorough investigation discovered links between this effort and the Trump campaign.  First, Trump campaign workers such as Michael Flynn, Kellyanne Conway, and Trump's two sons Eric and Donald Jr. linked and retweeted numerous posts that the IRA made surreptitiously on social media.  Secondly, "starting in June 2016, the IRA contacted different U.S. persons affiliated with the Trump Campaign in an effort to coordinate pro-Trump IRA-organized rallies inside the United States." and those persons worked with them.  However, in neither case did Mueller's investigation find any evidence that these Trump officials knew that they were retweeting material produced by the Russians or dealing with Russian agents.  That left them without any basis even to consider charges against them on this point.

A second possible source of criminal charges involved the famous June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower involving Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and two Russians, one a woman visiting from Russia who had promised significant dirt about Hillary Rodham Clinton.  It turns out, based on testimony from various participants, that we have tended to exaggerate the significance of what went on there.  The dirt had nothing to do with hacked emails. The woman claimed that three prominent anti-Russian Americans--led by William Browder, a businessman who is more or less responsible for the Magnitsky Act, named after a business associate of his--had stolen money in Russia and given it to the Clinton campaign.  She could not however back up those charges, and no evidence appears to have changed hands, nor did the Trump campaign ever make such charges.  The Special Counsel's team looked carefully at campaign finance statutes and concluded that although Donald Trump Jr. might have illegally accepted a foreign contribution by agreeing to take the meeting so as to receive such information, he should not be indicted because he evidently did not understand that this might be illegal, and thus had not "willfully" violated the law.  That position has rightly drawn some criticism, since Americans generally learn that ignorance of the law is no excuse. I on the hand would have to conclude that since the woman did not produce any valuable information and the campaign got nothing out of the meeting, a prosecution would have been gratuitous.

Proceeding chronologically, we now come to the role of Trump campaign associates--specifically Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi--in working with Wikileaks during the summer of 2016 to encourge the release of more stolen emails.  Here I appear to have been under a misapprehension regarding the law.  I thought that I had researched this issue last year and discovered that publishing stolen computer material such as emails was in itself a crime.  Clear evidence had emerged to show that Stone, and probably Corsi as well, had been talking to Wikileaks about publication of what they had, which would have made them co-conspirators in that particular crime even if they hadn't hacked the material.  But it seems now that mere publication is NOT a federal crime, although it's a state crime in some jurisdictions.  We don't know what Mueller's team decided about all this, however, because most of the discussion of Stone, Corsi and Wikileaks, beginning on p. 51 of volume 1 of the report, is blacked out, under the heading, "Harm to Ongoing Matter."  That suggests that the investigation of these issues is continuing and that other prosecutors may bring more charges.  We don't know that either, because a parallel section of the report in the midst of a later portion of it that deals with decisions to bring, or not to bring, cases, is also blacked out.  The failure to make these portions public seems to me to be the biggest weakness in the report, and I hope Congress will be able to clear it up.

Other apparently serious matters turn out to be illusory.  Jeff Sessions did lie when he told a Senate Committee that he had no Russian contacts during 2016, but it turns out that the contacts he had with Ambassador Kislyak were brief and almost surely inconsequential.  Jared Kushner's post-election suggestion to Kislyak that the President-elect's team might communicate with Moscow through Russian channels related to one very specific issue and does not seem very sinister.  Michael Flynn did ask the Russians not to retaliate against sanctions the Obama Administration imposed on Russia after the election, and Putin in fact did not do so--but that would at worst constitute the very technical, almost never prosecuted crime of violating the Logan Act, which forbids private citizens from conducting diplomacy.  What remains rather interesting is that Flynn would ruin his life by lying about this.

We already knew that Trump campaign officials including Manfort, Carter Page, and various others had extensive contacts with Russians, many of them linked or even in the government, during the campaign.  We also know that the Russians obviously wanted Trump to win and looked forward to doing business with him in the future.  All of that, like so much else about Trump, should have raised serious questions about his candidacy--but it didn't.

Oddly enough--and I haven't seen anyone else mention this--the decision not to seek prosecution on any of these grounds strikes me as somewhat similar to James Comey's decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton for using a private email server.  Both cases arguably involve technical violations of the law, but in neither case can anyone claim that a serious crime was committed.  We shall see next week that parallel questions surround the vexing issue of obstruction of justice by the President.  I shall wait until then to summarize my thoughts about the whole episode and its significance for the future.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Turning points

For 250 years or more, a particular model of human political development has led the way towards a new future, first in Europe and the Americas, and then, in the twentieth century, in the rest of the world.  Democracy--the election of political leadership--emerged as one part of that model in the wake of the American Revolution, but it was only one aspect of it.  A second aspect was the idea of equal citizenship under the law, societies without legal privileges for particular classes---which was what Tocqueville, among others, meant by the democracy which he saw spreading over the whole world.  And the third, which was to some extent independent of the first two, was the idea of government operating according to science and reason, respecting established procedures, and promoting the health, economic progress, and general happiness of the whole population.  One could argue that the third was the most important of all, since it could govern the actions of an enlightened monarchy or even a totalitarian dictatorship as well as those of a democratically elected government.  All these ideas are in retreat in much of the world, as three news items show.

The first of these, closest to home, is a story in the New York Times about President Trump's new chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.  Trump came into office railing against the Washington establishment and the "Deep State", the mostly liberal bureaucrats and national security bureaucracy that have been trying to implement the Enlightenment model of government since the founding of the Republic, and more actively since the progressive era.  In so doing, he spoke for the Republican base in the heartland, who had railed against that group since the New Deal, and who, as the 2016 primaries showed, had lost all confidence in the Republican establishment, which had reached at least a truce with that class a long time ago.  Trump's first two chiefs of staff--and particularly John Kelley, who held the position for well over a year--saw their role as negotiating between the President on the one hand and the establishment on the other, especially on national security issues.  Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican who won election to the House of Representatives in the 2010 Tea Party wave, appears to have as little sympathy for the bureaucracy as his boss, and as a New York Times story today reports, he is "letting Trump be Trump," making no effort either to control access to the mercurial President or to moderate his views.  He and Trump decided on their own to join the lawsuit attempting to overturn the Affordable Care Act, they agreed on the firing of  Homeland Security Secretary Kirsten Nielsen and some of her leading subordinates, and Mulvaney did not attempt to restrain the President's threats to close the border.  No modern president has tried to govern from the White House in defiance of the bureaucracy in this way.   Trump and Steven Miller seem to want to transform DHS and ICE into bureaucracies that will do their bidding, and if they can do so, that will take a big step towards a different kind of presidential government.

The second step away from the principles of the 19th and 20th centuries, I would argue, is Benjamin Netanyahu's apparent victory in the Israeli elections, after he had promised to begin annexing parts of the West Bank.  The founders of the state of Israel in 1948 took care to put it firmly within the mainstream political thinking of the twentieth century, even as they also called upon Old Testament precedents to justify their claim to the land.  Not only had they secured the approval of both the League of Nations and the UN for some form of the Zionist project, but they also founded a state based on democratic principles and equal rights, even for the non-Jews who remained inside Israel after the formation of the state.  52 years ago, the 1967 war vastly increased the Arab population under their control, and that population--within all the territory west of the Jordan River, and in Gaza--is now about equal to the Jewish population of Israel, and is still increasing more rapidly.  Since the aftermath of the 1967 war, the rest of the world, including the government of the United States, has stood for a two-state solution that will give Palestinians equal rights, and some Israeli governments have endorsed it in principle.  Now Netanyahu and his allies have apparently become weary of this endless disconnect between theory and practice and want to move towards annexation.  That will leave millions of Palestinians without political rights, living in tightly controlled and segregated communities in a condition which certainly walks and quacks like apartheid.  Every sign suggests that President Trump will enthusiastically endorse any steps in this direction that Netanyahu chooses to take.  Netanyahu's victory also showed that the Arab citizens of Israel (who were recently reduced to second-class citizenship as well by a new law proclaiming Israel to be a state of the Jews alone) had lost faith in modern democracy.  Their very low turnout--which the government took steps to encourage--was key to the right wing coalition's apparent victory.

Even closer to home, the measles crisis in Queens and Brooklyn shows that another fundamental principle of modern life has now eroded.  We take public health for granted nowadays, but it was a critical feature of the growth of the modern state, which asserted the right to take various coercive steps against disease, such as quarantining and contact tracing to halt the spread of infections.  Vaccination, which by their very nature often had to be universal to be effective, also became a kind of government measure.  Now we have an outbreak of measles, which could have been completely eradicated by now, because Americans of various political and religious persuasions refuse to be vaccinated.  The mayor of New York is trying to reassert a fundamental feature of modern government authority, and I hope that he succeeds--but the problem itself shows how we are leaving the Enlightenment behind.

The rhythm of history decrees that new generations will challenge any consensus, mobilizng the ambient anger that ebbs and flows under the surface.  That is why previous high points of civilization in various ancient empires did not survive, and gave way instead to centuries of anarchy and intellectual regression.  I feel very fortunate now, having written my autobiography, to have been born into a world dominated by Enlightenment thought, and to have tried to use some of its principles myself in my work as an historian. That I shall continue to do for as long as I can.   We must however recognize that the era of the mid-20th century is over and that the achievements of that period are under grave threat--especially in the political sphere.  They were, like all living human achievements, provisional.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Our out of touch elites

Not long ago, I attended a joint presentation by two former public servants at one of our local universities.  Although the presentation was open to the public, it was technically off the record, and I will not identify them by name.  Together they combined service in a White House, as an elected representative, and in a prominent bank.  One is a Democrat and the other a Republican and I shall so identify them.

The subject of their presentation, in which the Republican took the lead, was international trade and President Trump's tariff policy.  They both explained patiently and confidently that Trump's notions of international trade are obsolete and bear no relation to the realities of our place in the world economy.  Trade deficits with individual countries, they argued, simply did not matter.  Nor was trade the main cause of our de-industrialization: automation was.  Neither one of them mentioned the intimate connection between trade deficits and domestic borrowing, which remains the only way to pay for them.  The Republican did say a good deal about Chinese thefts of intellectual property and hoped that President Trump could persuade them to stop.  They did make some good points.  A real trade war with China (which they insisted, correctly I think, that we are not having now) would make life in these United States extremely difficult.  The products we now buy from China include much of our prescription drugs, including penicillin and other antibiotics, which we obviously could not do without.  Both of them, but the Republican in particular, stressed the rapid job growth we are now experiencing, and the Republican said at one point that no one should be concerned about the factory across the street closing if they could go to work in an Amazon warehouse instead.  I don't think either one of them said anything about union rights or minimum wages.  At one interesting moment, the Democrat said that the Republicans had traditionally been the free trade party while the Democrats had expressed more reservations.  That is very dubious.  Republicans were the high tariff party from the Civil War until at least the 1930s, and Democrats in the 1990s were fully on board with NAFTA and other free trade agreements. 

The two presenters spent more than half an hour taking questions, and I finally manged to get recognized just before the end.

"What you have given us, it seems to me," I said, "is the conventional wisdom that we have been hearing from both parties for some decades now.  I am not saying that it is wrong.  However, Donald Trump is in the White House--which I regard as a very serious matter--because he defied the conventional wisdom on this subject, as well as on others.  That allowed him to defeat a slew of traditional Republican candidates and to win the general election narrowly.  That tells me that a large number of our fellow citizens simply aren't buying this piece of conventional wisdom, and I wonder how you both see that particular problem."

The Republican, who had been skeptical about Trump all along, immediately replied, "It's still working for him!" and speculated (as most Wall Streeters do these days, it seems) that he would be re-elected.  The Democrat said that our rhetoric had to be less divisive and "more aspirational," but added that we simply couldn't be too disturbed by people who say their ambition is to be coal miners.  That didn't strike me as a particularly critical group of voters.  Like nearly all of our politicians--including Donald Trump--these two evidently represented our elite, and have lost touch with millions of their fellow Americans.  The same can probably said of the Democrats who spend their time obsessing about the Mueller report and other transgressions, and about issues of race, gender and sexual orientation.  They too are living within a particular part of our population and simply assuming that everyone shares their concerns.  The question of how, and whether, we can bridge this gulf in the immediate future seems to me critical.