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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Goodbye, Afghanistan

 I am glad that President Biden has announced that all American troops will leave Afghanistan within four months, but I was astounded that he publicly and explicitly linked the final withdrawal date to the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. The response to that event of the American political elite--of which Biden himself was already a member in very good standing--may have been the worst foreign policy blunder in American history.  It also destroyed much of the peoples' confidence in our leadership.  Biden seems quite willing to emphasize what a failure it all was.  That suggests to me that the gulf between the foreign policy establishment and the people still exists.

It was quite possible to see even in the immediate wake of 9/11 that the invasion of Afghanistan might turn out very badly.  I know, because I said so at the time in this piece, which must have been written before the invasion began. We did not trap Osama Bin Laden there, and it took ten years to find him and kill him living safely in a garrison town inside our "ally" Pakistan.  We got the Taliban out of power, but it has used sanctuary in Pakistan--and active support from important institutions in that country--to rebuild, and it now controls much of the country and some of the urban areas as well, and may well be back in power in Kabul within a couple of years.   The Afghanistan war became the prelude to the even more disastrous war in Iraq, which has still not achieved stability while falling into the orbit of Iran, another regime that Bush II hoped to topple   The democracy project in the Middle East seemed to be succeeding in 2011 at the time of the Arab Spring, but only in Tunisia has it had a good medium-term result.  Egypt lapsed into despotism, the Syrian regime defeated the rebellion against it, and Libya remains in a 10-year civil war. 

The experience of the Vietnam war changed me from a run-of-the-mill liberal cold warrior into a determined skeptic about intervention.  It did not have that effect on my contemporaries who sought power and glory as foreign policy bureaucrats or politicians elected to office.  Republicans, led by neoconservatives, blamed liberals for the defeat in Vietnam and looked for new dragons to slay in the Middle East and elsewhere.  Leading Democrats such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden,  and even Barack Obama (after he became President anyway) decided that they could not risk looking soft on national security, and undertook or endorsed a series of interventions of their own.  Women's rights have become another excuse for US intervention in distant lands.  In Fear, Bob Woodward quoted Lindsay Graham telling Donald Trump that there would always be evil abroad in the world and that the US had a destiny to fight it.  Trump, to his credit, was not impressed.  Biden has endorsed Trump's withdrawal policy for now, but he has also appointed a completely traditional foreign policy team.  Meanwhile, through all this, the defense budget has continued to grow. 

Several leading Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, have attacked Biden's decision.  (To be fair, McConnell attacked the withdrawal policy when Trump announced it, as well.)  Many however have not.  For all his greed, mendacity and incompetence, Donald Trump realized that much of the American people no longer accepted the mainstream thinking of the elite on many issues, including foreign policy.  He has left a big legacy within the Republican Party and in the nation at large.  The Boom generation is falling out of power.  The question now is whether new generations can adopt genuinely new principles in foreign policy.  With real trouble brewing in both Russia and China, I suspect the answer is no.

Friday, April 09, 2021

Bitter equilibrium

 Two days ago, Senator Joe Manchin published a revealing op-ed in the Washington Post, explaining why he would never vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster and why he does not favor additional use of hte reconciliation process to pass legislation with a simple majority vote. The piece fails as a work either of history of of constitutional theory.  Manchin begins by pointing out correctly that the Founders created the Senate to protect the rights of small states like West Virginia, to make sure that they "would always have a seat at the table."  "The filibuster," he continues, "is a critical tool to protecting that input and our democratic form of government."  That makes no sense.  The equal representation in the Senate alone  gives small states ample protection against majority rule.  The smallest 26 states send a majority of the Senate today, even though they send only 84 out of the 435 members of the House of Representatives to Washington.  But with the filibuster, the smallest 21 states can block any legislation--and they send only 57 members of the House to Washington.  In the very first Congress, the seven smallest states (out of thirteen total) sent 22 out of 65 total seats to Washington--a full third of the total.  There is no evidence that the Founders had any intention of giving a legislative veto to as little as 20 per cent of the population, must less 13%.  In addition, the Constitution, by requiring a 2/3 vote for the ratification of treaties in the Senate, clearly indicates that a simple majority should suffice for any other legislative purpose.  Manchin clearly wants, and intends, to paralyze our democracy to an extent that the Founders never contemplated.

Manchin, however, is likely to make his position stick, with enormous consequences for the country.  As his article goes on, he suggests that no major legislation--no "sweeping, partisan legislation"--should pass without substantial support from both parties.  I can't help but wonder why he didn't write a comparable op-ed in 2017, when he and every other Democrat opposed the enormous Republican tax cut that passed on a 51-48 party line vote under the reconciliation process. That, however, is a secondary issue.  What Manchin is arguing, in effect, is that the nation is so evenly divided that we must emasculate the federal government and make it impossible for it to take effective, positive action to resolve our problems. And given the extraordinary power that he and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona hold in the 50-50 Senate, there is an excellent chance that he will get his way. 

Thanks to the research I've been doing over the last 18 months or so, I can say that the situation which Manchin as frankly advocated, and in which we have been stuck since 2011 in any case, has a great deal in common with US history roughly from 1865 to 1896, in the wake of the Civil War.  The country was equally evenly divided between the victorious Republicans and the Democrats, who included all the ex-Confederates and who had opposed some of the key results of the war, such as the enfranchisement of former slaves, even if they had supported war for the Union.  In the immediate wake of the war, the Republicans didn't have to cope with Democratic filibusters, but they faced a hostile President, the Democrat Andrew Johnson, whom they had picked as Vice Presidential candidate in 1864 to to broaden their support.  They passed the key Reconstruction acts that allowed them to set up Republican governments in the southern states only after securing veto-proof majorities in the 1866 Congressional elections, and by keeping the South out of Congress until those governments had been established.  But because the Republican governments in most of the southern states did not enjoy majority voter support, they lasted only a few years.  Meanwhile, the panic of 1873 allowed the Democrats to regain control of the House of Representatives in 1874.  The Democrats actually won a narrow victory in the disputed 1876 election, but Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican candidate, took office as part of a compromise that ended Reconstruction in the last three states where it still continued, as well.  The partisanship of the era had led to many of the tactics we have become familiar with today, including fiddling with the number of Supreme Court justices to secure favorable outcomes; suppressing hostile voters (ex-Confederates in the early years of Reconstruction, black voters after that); and threatening to shut down the government to get Congress's way on particular issues, as the Democrats did under Hayes. 

Then as now, the Republicans were the preferred party of big business, although the Democrats were hardly economic revolutionaries.  The tariff was the main source of revenue, and the Republicans kept it high throughout this period.  It was their main issue the way low taxes are today.  The rival administrations of Grover Cleveland (1885-89, 1893-97) and Benjamin Harrison fought a tug-of-war over the tariff comparable to that between Bush II, Obama, Trump, and now Biden over taxes, abortion rights, and many other issues.  Cleveland definitely came out for much lower tariffs late in his first term, but could not get them through Congress.  Harrison promptly raised them again in 1890, and used the money to make a huge giveaway to a key Republican constituency, Civil War veterans.  That proved unpopular, and the Democrats (as in 2006 and 2018) won a sweeping victory in the Congressional elections of 1890, and returned Cleveland to power two years later.  Then the panic of 1893 and the subsequent Depression led to a Republican sweep in 1894.  The radical, free silver wing of the Democratic Party selected William Jennings Bryan--only 36 years old, the AOC of his time--as its candidate in 1896. William McKinley defeated him soundly, beginning 16 years of continuous Republican rule, and even higher tariffs. A new era did not begin until 1912, when, significantly, new progressive ideas had become very strong in both parties and had adherents in all sections. 

President Biden has already put a transformative agenda on the table. I cannot rule out the possibility that he will work a miracle and pass most of it, but the odds seem to me against it.  If he cannot--and especially if the Democrats cannot maintain their razor-thin majority in the House in 2022--that will finally confirm the view that I first posited here in July 2010, when I realized that the last Democratic president was not going to be transformative.  That would tend to confirm that the truly transformative moment in American politics was the Bush II administration and Obama's first term..  It would even suggest that our crisis--in the sense of a turning point in American politics--has been over for some time.


Saturday, April 03, 2021

Voting again

The nation faces yet another round in its intermittent, historic split over voting rights.  Having lost a pretty close election in the electoral college because of high turnout and close counts in Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, the Republicans who control the state legislatures in all those states--and those in a good many other states besides--are trying to make sure that the same thing does not happen again.  Let us be frank: in no state, including Georgia, do new laws make it impossible for anyone to vote.  They do make it more difficult,. which is wrong, but there is nothing in them, in my opinion, which a determined, well-organized campaign could not overcome.  They still represent a big step backward for our democracy and another desperate attempt by the minority Republican Party to cling to power.  President Biden and the Democratic Party in Washington have declared war on these new laws and are trying to pass a new federal law that would in effect invalidate a great many of them.  Let me put one thing on the table right away:  such a law is clearly constitutional.  The Constitution states, "The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations."  That is what they are trying to do. They are also enlisting the support of corporate America, led so far by Major League Baseball, to pressure Georgia and other states to abandon these laws.  I think this may lead to a larger secession movement in some red states.  The nation is ripe for it, and it would provide an appropriate climax, perhaps, to our fourth great political crisis.

Meanwhile, however, I would like once again to offer something different to the whole historical question rights in the United States.  Every commentator presents it as exclusively a racial question, involving the preservation of white supremacy.  That it undoubtedly was, from the time of Reconstruction until at least 1965, and I certainly agree that there is a racial aspect to what is going on around the country today.  But that was not all it was, and I have finally taken the trouble to put together the data necessary to prove that.

Voting since Reconstruction has been a battleground.  While Andrew Johnson wanted to allow states to disenfranchise black people, the Republicans who controlled Congress wanted to elect Republican governments in the southern states.  They could not do that simply by guaranteeing the vote to freed slaves, because only in Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina were blacks a majority of the population.  They thus arranged for the initial Reconstruction governments to have the right to disenfranchise white voters who had supported the great rebellion and refused to swear a new oath of allegiance.  That allowed them to elect Republican state governments almost all over the South and i the border states, but they did not last more than a few years, as the restrictions on white voting were overturned.  They lasted the longest, for obvious reasons, in Louisiana and South Carolina, but there, as in Mississippi, the terror of the KKK began to keep black voters away from the polls. The Democratic Party was fully in control of the southern state governments, with very rare exceptions--and also in the border states--by 1884 or so, without major legal restrictions on voting.  

The Populist movement in the South, which brought together poor white and black voters for a while, frightened the white South into stronger action.  Grandfather clauses and literacy tests disenfranchised nearly all black voters in most of the South beginning in the 1890s.  That, however, was not all.  Those laws evidently were also applied fairly strictly against many poor and uneducated whites as well.  The white turnout, as well as the black one, remained very low in most of the South through the first 2/3 of the twentieth century.  I first noticed this studying election results in the World Almanac in the 1960s. Now I have been able to put together the data to prove it--and it will open quite a few eyes.

Using Wikipedia's excellent articles on presidential elections and combining it with census data, I have computed turnout, as a function of the whole population, in every one of the 50 states in 1960.  It would be possible to get comparable data merely for the voting age population but that would require far more time than I can allot to this project now, and I don't think it would be significantly more accurate for my purposes today, since the whole country in 1960 was awash in children.  The results are astonishing. With the interesting exceptions of Alaska and Hawaii (who were voting for president for the first time, Arizona and New Mexico, and Oklahoma, every state that was not a slave state in 1860 had a turn out of from 42 per cent to 49 per cent of its total population.  (New Hampshire led the way with 49 per cent, with Massachusetts close behind.)  Doing a quick calculation that may come in handy later, I find that nationwide, 61% of the over-19 population--the best approximation I can get to the voting age of 21--cast ballots in 1960. 

The former slave states lived in a different world.  25 percent of Alabama's total population cast votes in 1960; 24 per cent of Arkansas; per cent of Florida's; just 19 per cent of Georgia's; 37 per cent of Louisiana's; 14 per cent of Mississippi's, the lowest figure in the nation; 30 per cent of North Carolina's; 16 per cent of South Carolina's; 29 per cent in Tennessee, 24 per cent in Texas, and just 19% in Virginia.  In neither Maryland nor Kentucky did 40 per cent of the population cast votes either.  

Now on the one hand, almost none of the black population could vote in states like Mississippi, South Carolina, and Alabama, and large portions of blacks could not vote in other states.  Yet disenfranchisement severely affected many white populations as well.  Let us recall once again that in most of the country, about 45 per cent of the whole population cast votes.  Let's look now at the percentage of the white population that cast votes in the old Confederacy.  Florida, remarkably, had what seems to be a higher-than-average turnout among whites, at 55 per cent of their total population--perhaps in part because that population was unusually old.  But the total vote as a percentage of the white population was 25 per cent in Alabama, 26 per cent in Georgia, 37 per cent in Louisiana, 24 per cent in Mississippi, a full 40 per cent in North Carolina, just 25 per cent in South Carolina, 29 per cent in Texas, and 25 per cent in Virginia.  In other words, while 480,000 out of every million white people in Massachusetts cast votes, less than 260,000 of every million white people in Georgia did (allowing for a significant black vote in Atlanta, even then.) 

Sitting in on hearings on the great Kennedy civil rights bill in the summer of 1963, I more than one white southern witness explain that back home, they didn't regard voting as a right, but as a privilege.  I don't know exactly how so many whites were kept away from the polls as late as 1960, but the figures show that many thousands of them didn't enjoy that privilege either.  Class obviously played a huge role in who voted, as well as race.  And it may still.  The turnout as a percentage of voting age population in the various states for 2020 also showed important regional variations. The national average for the whole country was exactly 66.7%.  The top ten states were Minnesota (80 per cent), Colorado, Maine, Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont and Michigan (73.9 percent.)  Every one of them voted for Biden. The bottom ten were Alabama (63.1 per cent), Indiana, New Mexico, Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, West Virginia, Hawaii, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.  All but two of them voted for Trump, most of them by huge margins.

Even if the new Republican regulations survive, they will not restore the situation of 1960.  I often wonder, as I mentioned here many years ago, whether some Republican legislature will introduce a property qualification for voting--something which is in no way forbidden by the original constitution or any subsequent amendment.  Perhaps we can do more to preserve voting rights if we recognize that this problem--like so many others we face--has never been simply a matter of race.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

America in 1948 and 2020

     Last week in my local library--which has been open to patrons for at least six months now--I picked up a new book by the journalist A. J. Baine, Dewey Defeats Truman, about the 1948 Presidential election.  It turned out to be a well-researched piece of history, drawing on the papers of both Truman and Dewey, and many other sources.  It's a thrilling story of an almost entirely personal triumph.  Harry Truman as 1948 began appeared to have lost the confidence of the American people.  For a year and a half he had struggled with the 80th Congress, the Republican-dominated body that had come into power in the 1948 election and tried to undo some of the New Deal. Two wings of the Democratic Party, as we shall see, defected from him and ran candidates of their own.  Truman didn't face any opposition for the nomination during the short primary season, but on the eve of the Democratic convention, FDR's son James Roosevelt, liberal Senator Claude Pepper of Florida, former Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, and the machine bosses of Chicago and Jersey City all called for the convention to dump Truman and draft General Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Truman in the early part of the year seemed to have almost no campaign funds at his disposal--although his decision to extend de facto recognition to the new State of Israel opened up one important source of funds.  Polls showed him way behind Dewey up until the eve of the election.  Truman had an extraordinary self-confidence without a shred of grandiosity, and he believed, almost by himself, from the beginning of the campaign to the end, that he was going to win. And in the end, he did.  73 years later, however, I am more interested in what the events of that campaign tell us about the difference between that America and this one, than about the pure drama of the story, even though that drama stirred some very powerful emotions in me as I read through the book.

Both the major parties had emerged from the Roosevelt era in a divided state. The Democrats' divisions burst into the open during 1948.  First, former Secretary of Agriculture (1933-41), Vice President (1941-5) and Secretary of Commerce (1945-46) Henry Wallace, the darling of left wing Democrats, became a candidate of the new Progressive Party.  FDR had selected Wallace, a staunch New Dealer, to appeal to farmers and labor in 1940, but he had allowed the party to drop him in favor of Truman in 1944, when, as I have learned, everyone at the convention--and probably FDR himself--knew that the vice-presidential pick was almost certain to succeed to the presidency.  Wallace wanted the wartime alliance with the USSR to continue, and he had opposed some of Truman's early steps in the Cold War, such as the Truman Doctrine.  The Progressive Party, however, had fallen under the control of the Communist Party of the USA, and Wallace in 1948 was now parroting the party line in foreign affairs, arguing that Truman sought war with the Soviet Union.  Wallace could never have believed that he would be elected, but he wanted to discredit Truman and pave the way for a more leftwing leadersip of the Democratic Party.  

The second splinter from the Democratic Party was the Dixiecrats from the Deep South, led by the Governor of South Carolina, J. Strom Thurmond.  As William Leuchtenberg detailed more than a decade ago on racial politics, Harry Truman had emerged in 1945-8 as the most effective civil rights advocate ever to occupy the White House. There were several reasons for this.  First, Truman came from Missouri, where significant numbers of black citizens could vote. Secondly, Truman was appalled by acts of violence, including several lynchings against black veterans, and he spoke out against them, and formed a commission to make recommendations for assuring all Americans their rights.  That sparked some bitter personal attacks from white southern politicians, and Truman, when faced attacks, doubled down on his positions. In early 1948 he sent Congress a program including an anti-lynching law, new protections for voting rights, and a permanent commission to fight employment discrimination.  Then, in June of that year, he ordered the desegregation of the armed forces.  When the Democratic convention adopted a platform embodying these proposals,  a number of southern delegates walked out, formed the States Rights Party, and nominated Thurmond for President.  Thurmond ran on an avowed white supremacist platform.

One could argue, then, that extremism on the left and right was more vocal and better organized in 1948, when extreme parties fielded two presidential candidates who each won about 2% of the total vote, than it was today.  Both Wallace and Thurmond took positions that no major politician would take in public today.  Yet that picture turned out to be misleading, for two reasons.  First of all, neither of those candidates managed to do what they had hoped to do--to deny Truman election in his own right.  More importantly, the major party candidates both occupied a left of center position on major issues, and supported the basic principles of the New Deal.

The Republican Party was also split, as it had been to varying degrees at least since 1912.  The bulk of the Congressional Republicans, such as Speaker of the House Joe Martin and Senate Majority leader Robert Taft, had opposed the New Deal from the beginning and still favored free enterprise above all.  Yet Taft's own campaign for president had never gotten off the ground in 1948 against two relatively liberal Republican governors, Harold Stassen of Minnesota and Dewey of New York--who had already been the party's candidate in 1944.  Dewey, like Truman, favored expanded social security, the rights of labor, and big federal housing programs.  He also supported mainstream Cold War foreign policy.  Truman in fact kicked off his campaign by calling Congress back into session to consider a number of bills that both he and Dewey seemed to favor, to show the nation that the Republican Congress would not pass them.  After his defeat Dewey himself talked openly about the split in the Republican Party and looked down upon those who clearly wanted to return to the ethos and the economic policies of the late 19th century.  And in 1952, although Dewey did not try to run again, he anointed Eisenhower as the heir to his brand of Republicanism, and when Ike was elected he never challenged the most important achievements of the New Deal. 

Truman, as it turned out, won election with a popular vote plurality of several million votes over Dewey, and 303 electoral votes to Dewey's 189.  He demonstrated an extraordinary personal connection to the American people, illustrated, as Baime documents at length, by the huge crowds that greeted him at whistle-stop after whistle-stop as his campaign train traveled around the country. Wallace won enough votes in New York to swing that state--then the nation's largest--over to Dewey, and Massachusetts was the only northeastern state to vote for Truman.  Truman, however, won Ohio, Illinois, and California--all by very close margins--most of the farm belt, and every western state except Oregon.  The Democratic vote in those states came mostly from organized labor--a much larger share of the electorate then than now--from the black vote, and from many farmers, also a larger share of the electorate, whose federal support Republicans had managed to cut.  Thurmond, meanwhile, took only four southern states--South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, the biggest bastions of white supremacy.  But the New Deal had had an enormous positive impact on the South, and Truman carried every other southern state, even beating Thurmond by a 3-1 margin in Georgia and a larger margin in Virginia.  Evidently Truman's civil rights program was not a deal breaker for most of the white Democrats of the South--whom Roosevelt had benefited in so many other ways.  Even Alabama had two New Deal Senators, and Truman might have beaten Thurmond there had not state authorities kept him off the ballot entirely. 

Throughout the campaign, Truman cleverly argued that the 80th Congress, not Dewey, represented the real Republican Party, and that the economic future of the average voter was at stake.  It probably wasn't.  Even though the Democrats also regained control of Congress in 1948, Truman failed to get any civil rights legislation through, or to repeal the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Law or pass a national health insurance program.  It is hard to see how things would be much different today if Dewey had won--although it is interesting to ask how Dewey would have done in 1952, if he had had to bear the political burden of the Korean War. In the long run Truman's biggest contribution was to make civil rights and national health programs part of the standard Democratic litany, even though it took another 20 years or so for them to bear fruit.

Today, on the other hand, the Republican Party rejects two of the fundamental principles of American democracy: the Enlightenment idea that rational investigation can design effective policy--for instance, to fight an epidemic--and the democratic process itself, which Republican legislatures around the country are working to undermine.  The Democratic Party, on the other hand, collaborated in the economic policies that largely wiped out the independent farmers and industrial workers that were its greatest sources of strength  The Democrats are now the party of the highly educated, and education has become a critical dividing line between the two parties.  Race, for both whites and minorities, appears to be a much larger factor in voting behavior than it was then.  President Biden, unlike President Obama, appears to understand that he has to prove to the mass of American voters than he can dramatically improve their lot in the next two years.  If he can, he will have taken a big first step towards restoring some of the civic virtue and civic engagement that the country enjoyed in 1948.


Friday, March 19, 2021

A Sea Change in our Civilization

 The current March 22 issue of The New Yorker is unusually rich.  It includes an article by Jane Mayer on Cyrus Vance Jr.'s legal pursuit of Donald Trump and and article that I haven't read yet by Louis Menand about the influence of student radicals on the 1960s.  (I suspect that one may be the basis for my next post.)  The longest article, "The Shape of Love," by Andrew Solomon (not to be confused with Andrew Sullivan), is subtitled, "From opposite sides of the culture, polyamorists and polygamists are challenging family norms," strikes me as a major cultural milestone, not least because it illustrates how broad the influence of postmodernism has become.  

The subject of the article is quite explicit.  The author himself is married to another man, and the article includes some accounts of the establishment of the legal right to gay marriage (which, for the record, I most definitely support.)  Yet it treats that legal change simply as the first big step in a broader process that might recognize and legitimize both polygamy and polyamory.  (For those of you unfamiliar with polyamory, it refers to any kind of open consensual relationship among three or more people, regardless of their biological sex, claimed gender, or sexual orientation.)   The discussion of polygamy begins, logically enough, with Utah.

I am currently working on a concise political history of the United States, based almost entirely on presidential addresses.  I have discovered that polygamy in Utah (and later in Arizona and Idaho) was attacked by a series of presidents from U.S. Grant through the second term of Grover Cleveland.  All of them regarded it as a barbaric practice incompatible with modern civilization, and tried to find ways to bring an end to it despite the theocratic nature of Utah territory, completely dominated by the polygamous Mormon Church.  Eventually the Mormon leadership apparently realized that they would have to renounce the practice before Utah could become a state, and in 1890 they did so.  In response, President Benjamin Harrison issued a general pardon to all Utahans who had ceased to practice polygamy since that time, a step Cleveland reaffirmed a few years later.  Some Mormons certainly continued the practice, and some, including Mitt Romney's grandfather, fled to Mexico with their plural wives and many children--the reason that Mitt's father George, at one time a presidential candidate, was born in Mexico.  Polygamists have formed an alternative Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, and one polygamous settlement led by Warren Jeffs got into serious legal trouble because of arranged, forced marriages between older men and young girls.  In the 2000s the HBO series Big Love, which I became addicted to, portrayed both an upper-middle class businessman with three wives, and the Jeffs-style compound from which he had emerged. What I did not know was that Utah has recently decriminalized polygamy.  The article describes one or two polygamous Mormon families in some detail, but also discusses some other polygamous arrangements in other parts of the country that have nothing to do with Mormonism or any other religion.  

Solomon seems more interested, however, in the looser concept of polyamory, which means quite explicitly that love and sex will not be confined to a couple.  Polyamory is quite simply the opposite of monogamy.  Now our civil law has treated monogamy as the only fully legal kind of relationship for centuries, although we have always known that the principle has frequently been honored in the breech.  What distinguished the 1970s from earlier periods was the movement to legitimize and openly practice things that until then had traditionally been secret, led by adultery, as in "open marriages." Solomon's article shows that that movement is on the rise again.  

I was most struck reading the article by Solomon's tone, which is almost entirely supportive of the practices he describes, with the sole exception of the kind of forced polygamy practiced in the Jeff compound.  He is intolerant on the other hand of more traditional views which he evidently regards as oppressive.  Here is a key passage, in which Solomon takes off from a remark by a polygamous wife named Alina.

 "Alina said, 'Why is it that we’re always ‘brainwashed’ unless we’re choosing the way they think?' It’s true that how we grow up influences what we eat, where we live, whom we socialize with or marry. It determines our taste in clothing, our sense of humor, the value we place on formal education. Freud wrote about the “repetition compulsion,” which drives us continually to re-create our own past, whether we were happy in it or not. Do people in the mainstream argue that polygamists have been brainwashed because mainstream values are alien to polygamous ones? If so, were most people brainwashed to idealize monogamous marriage? Animal models suggest that monogamy is less natural than nonmonogamy. Yet violations of it serve as the basis for terminating otherwise healthy relationships. We are brainwashed into keeping pets, taking daily showers, thinking that it makes sense for nations to have inviolable borders; brainwashed about the morality of abortion, the necessity of medical marijuana. People are brainwashed into Jewish culture or Black culture or French culture."

Solomon is right, of course:  we all learn our values originally from the culture in which we grow up. He is not necessarily right to assume that biology or our inherent emotional makeup plays as great a role in our behavior as cultural onditioning, however.  The postmodernists have argued for half a century that culture represents domination by powerful groups, imposed through language, and they have championed linguistic and behavioral resistance to it.  In so doing, I am convinced, they took advantage of an important element in human nature: the tendency of young adults to rebel against whatever their parents and society tells them.  Society's demands did become stricter and more universal from the seventeenth century through the twentieth, leading, I know think, to the beginnings of a gigantic rebellion in the second half of the twentieth century.   That rebellion has now created a new orthodoxy that celebrates all marginalized communities, defined by gender, race, sexual orientation, and--in this case--behavior.  The values of stable bourgeois society have become so suspect that a professor at an Ivy League law school can be shunned simply for co-authoring an op-ed standing up for them.

On the one hand, I accept that it's very hard to prevent consenting adults from living in whatever way they choose, and I do not want to persecute them for doing so.  But on the other,  I have to ask the question that Solomon completely ignores.  Was there a connection between, on the one hand, the relatively strict social mores of western bourgeois society, and on the other hand, its political, economic and cultural achievements?  To that question the citizens of the early American Republic would have answered with a resounding yes.  Like Tocqueville, they believed that the relatively restrained sexual behavior and strong families of the Americans (especially outside the aristocratic South) helped make democracy work.  Social consensus on these issues, I think, also made it easier to find social consensus on questions like economic equality or inequality, and even the need to resist foreign military threats.  Social consensus was part of the common identity that bound us together as citizens.  During the last fifty years, however, increasing numbers of  Americans have decided that their particular identity, based upon their gender, race, sexual orientation, or, for want of a better word, their lifestyle, is more important than their identity as citizens, and is indeed what they want to be known for.  

Solomon's evident belief that we are all masters both our identity and our experience becomes clearer when he starts talking about the origins of Mormon polygamy. "The practice began around 1835," he writes, "when Joseph Smith, the Church’s founder, took a second wife after receiving a revelation about polygamy; he eventually had more than thirty."  Not "after claiming to receive" a revelation; after "receiving" one.  "In 1890," he continues with the same straight face, "the Church’s president, Wilford Woodruff, also prompted by a revelation, issued a manifesto renouncing polygamy—a decision that fundamentalist Mormons dismiss as political expediency."  It's not only fundamentalist Mormons who might reach that conclusion--Enlightenment skeptics like myself could easily reach it too.  Yet just as we are no longer allowed to question other peoples' definitions of "man" and "woman," we apparently aren't supposed to question their claim of communication with a supreme being.  Our founding fathers realized that we could not allow such revelations to interfere with political decisions.

Obviously people on the other side of the political fence will quickly accuse me, a straight white male, of simply idealizing a culture that favored me and disfavored others.  As it happens, I don't think that western bourgeois culture was inherently racist, sexist, or homophobic, as the legal victories of nonwhites, women and gays in the last few decades prove. The key question for me is one of alternatives.   Is the new wide-open cultural view simply leading to a more tolerant society in which we can all thrive?  In my opinion, it is not.  In universities, where it is strongest, it has created a less tolerant and diverse intellectual atmosphere, and the same thing has happened in the elite press.  The broader question is:  what degree of consensus is necessary for a complex modern society to function effectively?  To judge from the American response to the pandemic, I would have to reply: more than we have now.  It is Solomon's failure even to ask that question that troubles me.  Apparently we shall continue to find the answer experimentally.

"

Sunday, March 14, 2021

A Question of Authority

 It has been quite a while since I have featured a guest contribution, but this interview really caught my eye. 

Matt Taibbi is a dissident liberal journalist whose work is available by subscription, but he routinely authorizes subscribers like myself to share it once in a whle  Martin Gurri appears to be a Boomer, At the CIA he worked at a branch that analyzes open source materials, which some intelligence specialists regard as the best kind of source there is.  He has a very acute sense, which overlaps my own, of what is wrong with our world, both in our leadership and among political activists.  We have lost the habit of respect for authority of all kinds--intellectual authority, governmental authority, and authority within dissident movements.  He apparently elaborated his views some years ago in his book, The Revolt of the Public.  I was shocked to find that not one library in the whole Minuteman system, which includes all the highly educted suburbs of Boston from Cambridge to Concord and beyond, has a copy.  So I broke down and bought it.  Meanwhile, here is a summary.

Interview with Martin Gurri, "A Short-Term Pessimist and Long-Term Optimist"

Q&A with the author of "Revolt of the Public"

Matt Taibbi

Mar 8

Few authors in recent times have resonated with reviewers across the political spectrum in the same way as Martin Gurri. The Intercept said of the former CIA analyst’s 2014 work, The Revolt of the Public: “Trump and Brexit Made This Book Look Prophetic.” The Washington Examiner, in a piece called, “The best analysis of 2021 is from 2014,” just wrote this a few days ago:

Gurri identified the underlying dynamics that explain why the Department of Justice is punishing an American citizen for making memes, shaman barbarians stand in the speaker’s chair, and sports fans bully hedge fund managers. The GameStop short squeeze in particular unfolded like a chapter in the book…

Gurri’s book, which outlines the inherent contradictions between traditional hierarchies of power and the demystifying power of the Internet, is compellingly predictive on a number of levels, but it’s easy to see why some mainstream thinkers might look askance. He says things that are obviously true, but that no one wants to hear, the worst possible combination.

Ask any mainstream media critic — say, Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post — what needs to be done to rebuild trust in news organizations, and the answer might be a combination of, “We need to do ideological litmus tests before conducting interviews” and “We need to boycott Fox News,” without so much as a nod to, “We maybe have to stop screwing up, too.”

In politics, media, financial services, medicine even, there’s an institutional unwillingness to admit that their trust problem might in any way be self-inflicted. A central premise of Gurri’s book is that the public, around the world, is reacting to real institutional shortcomings. He even has a chapter called, “The Failure of Government.” At the same time, he finds some of that failure in the habit of setting expectations too high, deceiving the public into misunderstanding “the reality of what democratic governments can achieve.”

In other words, Gurri’s book doesn’t just point and blame, in the manner of most recent political non-fiction. He asks both the justifiably angry public and those working in hated elite institutions to look inward. Voters, while they should demand fairness and strike out against corruption, may also need to readjust expectations for government, and resist nihilistic solutions. Meanwhile, institutions like the news media need to recognize that a recent history of blunders — not just whoppers like the WMD mess, but constant worship at the altar of “experts” like Alan Greenspan, who in crises later prove to be clueless — have cost them dearly.

These problems need to be faced, but Gurri believes they can be fixed. The author on trust, positive change, and optimism:

TK: Can any informational institution be authoritative in the Internet age? Put another way, is the Internet-based media system — which can elevate anyone from Joe Rogan to Alex Jones to network-sized audiences almost overnight — inherently destabilizing?

Gurri: There are no logical or structural reasons why authority could not be earned in a time of information overabundance. The process would necessarily be different from the past, when authority was conferred from above and entailed, as a personal reward, rising a great distance above the public. That world is gone with the wind.  No agreement exists about what should replace it.

We are in the earliest stages of a very messy transformation, but in time, I suspect, the institutions of democratic politics and government will learn to engender trust on a transactional basis within the crowded immediacy of the web. I’m not a particularly imaginative person, but I can easily imagine political parties relying on some combination of Wikipedia and subreddit-style sites, in which ideas and energy from below receive a minimum of governance from above.

Joe Rogan and Alex Jones are surface symptoms of this transitional moment. Their success and destabilizing power have come at the expense of the old hierarchical institutions, managed by elites who simply refuse to accept that the world has changed forever and who insist that legitimacy can only be bestowed from above. When the center grows dotty and delusional, marginal actors with strange ideas will move in and carve off slices of the public’s attention.

TK: Do you think the fears of those “old hierarchical institutions” might be part of the thinking behind the content moderation movement, which seems designed to a) put the "network" under more centralized control, and b) narrow the informational options for the typical news consumer?

Gurri: Content moderation, in my opinion, isn’t really a movement but part of this delusional thinking. The idea is to make the great digital platforms look like the front page of the New York Times circa 1980. It won’t happen. The digital realm is too vast.  There can be no question that, with Joe Biden as president, we have entered a moment of reaction — a revolt against the revolt.  But all the techniques of control wielded by the elites are, like their dreams, stuck in the 20th century and ineffective in the current information landscape.

To take down an opinion, or an author, or a small platform like Parler would have had a shocking impact in 1980, but today is simply swarmed over by similar opinions, authors, and platforms. This is truly a Marshall McLuhan moment, in which the message is the medium, rather than little threads of contested content.

TK: You write that the Border can neutralize, but not replace, the Center. Is this absolute? In other words, has the network you describe permanently undermined the whole concept of centralized authority, or just a particular set of institutional authorities - banks like Goldman, Sachs, the Democratic and Republican Parties, CBA/ABC/NBC, etc?

Gurri: That’s a good question. I don’t believe the paralysis caused by the collision between network and hierarchy is absolute. I think it’s contingent on the structure of the institutions and the behavior of the actors on the political stage. Government can be reconfigured, elites can be replaced by others who behave differently, and the public’s behavior, one hopes, is under our own control. Positive change is perfectly possible.

I have often said that hierarchy is both inescapable — baked into our DNA – and indispensable to getting things done. The sectarian dream of perfect equality in every interaction is a formula for endless argument without final action. But hierarchy can be of various shapes and sizes, and it can be open or closed. We have inherited from the 20th century institutional pyramids that are steep, ponderous, and closed to all who don’t know the secret code. Digital life, which is what most of the public experiences, is flat, fast, and accessible to everyone. Part of the reconfiguration I mentioned before will be to bring the old hierarchies closer in line with the public’s expectations: government will have to be flatter, faster, and more interactive.

TK: You referenced the repeat appearance in protest movements of imagery from "V for Vendetta,” a movie that ends with the destruction of the old regime, and everything else will “take care of itself.” Do you think there's disinterest in the form of future governance among political activists because they're pessimistic about actually taking power? Or is it optimism: if they overthrow established authority, problems will vanish? Or is it the quasi-ironic/nihilistic spirit of these times, where even the most capable people don't like to imagine themselves as power-holders? Where in our society are people trained for actual governance?

Gurri: The posture of negation that edges into nihilism is a function of the structure of the public itself. The public in the digital age is many, not one. It’s fractured into mutually hostile war-bands. The only way to unify and mobilize these groups is to emphasize what they stand against: the system, the elites, the established order.  Governance would require organization, leadership, programs — but all those things would once again divide the public into its component parts. So the posture remains eternally against. Even when protesters win concessions — as in France with the Yellow Vests, for example — they will not take yes for an answer.

Your last question is a very interesting and troubling one. In the digital age, people are trained to express themselves, to perform in a way that will grow their following, rather than to govern. (Think Donald Trump.) Yuval Levin has written that our institutions were once formative — they shaped the character and discipline of those who joined them — but are now performative, mere platforms for elite self-expression and personal branding.  I completely agree. Outside of the military, which still demands a code of conduct from its members, I don’t see where people are trained to govern today.

TK: If so many of the questions in your book are tied to the problem of information and how it's delivered, how big of a role will the news media have in determining our future? A common reaction to criticisms of media within the media business is that we're just not that important, in the scheme of things, at least not compared to banking, medicine, etc. How big of a deal is the loss of trust in the news media?

Gurri: Well, the future is opaque, and I haven’t been granted a prophetic vision, but here’s my take on your question.  The news business was adapted to 20th-century conditions and is an endangered species in the present information environment.  I think many of the pathologies you yourself have documented are desperate attempts to survive in the digital storm.  In the old analog life, the media was important to the elites, and the elites were important to the public.  Neither of those conditions apply today.

TK: You speak in the book of being worried for the future of representative democracy. How much more or less bleak does the picture look now, after four years of Donald Trump? It looks possible that his legacy will be the delegitimization of electoral politics, as traditional hierarchies have almost rallied to something like an authoritarian counterrevolution in response to him. If people have lost faith in authority, have elites also lost faith in the ability of populations to hold up their end of the bargain in democracies?

Gurri: First, I hold that Trump was a symptom — an effect rather than a cause.  He possessed an outlandish personality, and that brought its own effects, but one can easily find Trump-like populists all over the world. Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, for example, makes Trump seem like an etiquette book by comparison. Globally, the public is looking for alternatives to the ruling elites, and these populists, by their very outrageousness, are signaling that they are not them.

Second, the elites, as I said before, are stuck in a sterile nostalgia for the 20th century.  They are at war with the world as it actually is today, and I imagine they would love to disband the public and summon a more obedient version. Hence the panic about fake news and the tinkering with control over content.

When Trump won in 2016, the elites refused to accept his legitimacy.  He was said to be the tool of Vladimir Putin and an aspiring tyrant. When Trump lost in 2020, he and many of his followers refused to accept the legitimacy of that election. A Trumpist mob sacked the Capitol building to demonstrate its rage. None of this is good for democracy or the legitimacy of our political institutions.

But let’s look at the big picture. Trump won in 2016, and, in his inimitable style, ran the US government for four years. He lost in 2020 and moved out of the White House to make room for Joe Biden, just as he was supposed to do. Now Biden is in charge.  He gets to run the government. The drama of democracy has generated lots of turbulence but remarkably little violence. The old institutions are battered and maladapted but they have deep roots. The American people may be undergoing a psychotic episode, but they are fundamentally sensible.

With regards to democracy, I’m a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist. Not sure whether that’s an analytical judgment, or just an act of faith…


 

Saturday, March 06, 2021

What is possible now?

 Anyone who takes the time to peruse the archives here for late and early 2009 will find that I was much too optimistic about the future then.  The Democrats had 60 votes in the Senate and a substantial majority in the House, and that looked like enough for Barack Obama to reverse the direction that the country had been going in, just as Franklin Roosevelt had done 76 years earlier.  I turned out to be wrong.  While the New Deal passed at least a dozen pieces of major legislation in its first two years--many of them providing immediate relief to desperate Americans--Obama managed to pass only two, the stimulus program and the Affordable Care Act.  His economic advisers--Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, and William Bernanke--concentrated on putting the new, finance-dominated economy back together as soon as possible, instead of using the crisis to change our economic power structure. None of these policies brought immediate relief to large numbers of Americans, and by the middle of 2010, the Republicans seemed certain to regain control of the House--as indeed they did, for the next eight  years.  In 2016 they regained control of the Senate.  Now the Democrats control both chambers by very narrow margins.

Biden will, it seems, manage to provide more of the immediate relief that the nation once again desperately needs.  Even before the new stimulus passes, the economy is moving in the right direction and unemployment is now under 7%--much lower than its peak about a year into the Obama administration.  With vaccinations growing in number, the pandemic seems likely to recede by the end of the year.   But what more will he be able to accomplish after the stimulus passes through reconciliation, without a dramatic increase in the minimum wage?  And what are the chances that the Republicans will not manage to pick up the five seats that they need to control the House after 2022?

In the last few weeks I have listened to two interviews (readily accessible on youtube), and read one, with the Democratic political analyst David Shor.  He is the man who lost his job last summer with one Democratic political data firm because he retweeted an article arguing that violent protests over the death of George Floyd would cost the Democrats votes.  Fortunately he has found another one.  His extraordinarily even emotional keel, his dedication to data, and his non-confrontational style represent the best of his Millennial generation.  He sees things that most of us have not seen, and they do not bode particularly well for Biden and the Democrats.  I shall summarize some of his most important points.

Shor believes that the biggest dividing line in American politics today is not race, but education.  College graduates have been trending Democratic for years, and Trump accelerated that trend.  He lost substantial numbers of college-educated white voters--most, obviously, in the suburbs--last November.  He already had a large majority of non-college whites behind him, and he gained votes slightly among non-college black voters, and more significantly among Hispanics.  In a chilling moment in one of his recorded interviews, Shor discussed the evolution of Florida in the last twenty years.  In 2000 it was evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.  In the intervening years it has become larger, much more diverse thanks to more Hispanic immigration--and pretty solidly Republican. Like their Cuban counterparts, immigrants from Venezuela and Colombia, it seems, vote in large part out of hostility towards socialism.  Checking, I find that Donald Trump in Texas did 1% better against Joe Biden in 2020 than Ted Cruz did against Beto O'Rourke in 2019.  That shift also seems to have reflected a better performance among Hispanics.

Democrats do better, Shor argues, when they stick to bread and butter issues (like the stimulus and minimum wage) that appeal to uneducated voters.  Unfortunately, their party activists are generally highly educated, and prone to focus on social issues and even to use language which does not resonate with the uneducated voters who have become swing voters.  Shor reports that the political ads that appealed the most to himself and his co-workers, such as a notorious one (that I cannot find on youtube) that showed a little girl crying in response to some of Donald Trump's most vicious remarks, did the worst among potential voters.  He might have added that because Democratic candidates surround themselves with activists (their campaign workers) and with wealthy donors (also highly educated and liberal), they easily let those groups' language burst out in public or semi-public gatherings.  Barack Obama talked about white voters clinging to guns and religion, and Hillary Clinton referred to Trump's "basket of deplorables."  Biden, I think, in one of his rare public statements to date, did something similar when he referred to "Neanderthal thinking" behind the premature lifting of mask mandates.  He might better have simply criticized the policy, rather than labelling everyone who supports it as less than fully human.  Biden also seems to be going along with liberal activism on another hot-button issue, immigration.  The Washington Post reports today that large numbers of Mexicans and Central Americans are on their way to the border, and the Biden administration is apparently preapring to let them in.  Already it has allowed unaccompanied minors to cross the border and go into detention facilities for the first time in a  year, and revoked the Trump regulation that such people must stay in Mexico while their asylum claims are heard.  The Democrats may well emerge as the party of open borders.

An important recent article at fivethirtyeight.com described three options for Democrats, each favored by a certain faction of the party.  The first wants immediately to do away with the filibuster not only to pass the minimum wage, but to admit the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico to the union and expand the size of the Supreme Court in an attempt to create Democratic majorities in those two branches of government.  A second group also favors getting rid of the filibuster, but only to pass bills such as the new minimum wage and a new voting rights act that will perhaps outlaw gerrymandering and mandate mail-in voting in Congressional elections.  The third group, to which the President seems at this point to belong, favors doing only what can be done with the help of Senator Manchin, if not with any bipartisan support.  The second group's ideas make the most sense to me.  They are designed to undo at least some of the advantage Republicans now enjoy through ruthless gerrymandering and which they are now trying to increase with numerous measures designed to reduce total votes.  If the filibuster is eliminated, however, the Democrats will have to deal with a lot of intraparty fights over more radical legislation.  

The Republican Party now essentially opposes democracy because it rejects what effective democracy brought about in the middle third of the twentieth century: high taxes, effective economic regulation, and civil rights bills, especially the Voting Rights Act. Three decades of packing the courts have   left the Republicans in an excellent position to block major economic legislation.  Biden may still have a chance to reverse the trends of the last 40 years.  He can improve his chances by taking positions on social issues and using language which the vast majority of voters can understand and approve.



Sunday, February 28, 2021

Changing Culture and its Consequences

 In a number of posts over the years, I have tried to analyze the new views of history, culture and morality that have been emerging during the last few days--most recently in my post on the renaming of San Francisco schools.  Others, I am discovering, have been doing the same thing more systematically and at greater length, although major media outlets have paid them very little attention.  I recently read Cynical Theories by Helen Plumrose and James Lindsay, a very detailed, solid piece of intellectual history detailing the rise of postmodernism and five of its major offshoots: postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory, feminism and gender studies, and disability and fat studies.  Neither Plumrose nor Lindsay is a professional academic. They in turn led my to another book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, two professional sociologists. That book includes an extremely concise history of western civilization, in effect, which dovetails with some writing that I did more than three decades ago, but also explains why the foundations of the society I and other Boomers grew up in appear to be crumbling.

Campbell and Manning define societies based upon a certain kind of culture relating to how people--especially strangers--treat one another, and how they resolve disputes. They begin with honor culture, which dominated western society during the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, and which is still strong in certain parts of the world (such as the Middle East) and in certain corners of American society (such as urban gangs or in Appalachia.)  Within honor culture, people--especially, but not exclusively men--customarily respond violently to insults, and demonstrate their worth through a willingness to engage in mortal combat.  Such insults can be verbal, but they can also consist merely in failing to receive some payment, preferment or show of respect which one feels to be his due.  They might also include an unwanted advance towards a wife, daughter, or sister.  I explored in Politics and War how European politics from 1559 through 1659 were dominated by the aristocracy and its values, which monarchs in various states successively tried and failed to bring under control.  The great aristocrats routinely resorted to violence to press claims of all kinds, and walked around with armed retainers to emphasize this point.  They recognized no legal higher authority, and foreign monarchs often dealt with them as allies and equals.

Aristocracy and the honor culture began to lose ground in the late seventeenth century, I would argue, and were no longer supreme in most of Western Europe and the United States by the end of the 18th.  What Campbell and Manning call Dignity Culture--which was definitely associated with the rising middle class--replaced them.  Self-control emerged as a critical part of Dignity Culture, and middle-class people in particular (including members of racial and ethnic minorities) now made it a point of pride to ignore verbal slights.  More importantly, the legal process replaced violence as the approved means of settling disputes, and in a related development, elections replaced heredity (and periodic civil wars) as the means of distributing political power.  The American Civil War was among other things a battle between honor culture, represented by the white south, and dignity culture, represented by the North--and the North's victory gave dignity culture a boost all over the country for a long time.  Dignity culture makes particular demands upon people living within it.  They must try to show respect for strangers, and they must downplay various aspects of their identity, including their ethnic or racial origin and their religion, in favor of citizenship, which unites us all and provides us with relatively safe and legal means to resolve disputes.  On the other hand, dignity culture promises equality to anyone willing to obey its rules. The civil rights movement as it developed from 1909 until about 1967 essentially claimed the benefits of dignity culture for black Americans who were trying to play by its rules, and the passage of the civil rights acts of 1964-5 suggested that they had won that battle.  As it turned out, however, that moment coincided with the beginning of a long-term move against dignity culture throughout western society.

Dignity culture and the modern state both also claimed to value the supremacy of reason, which had explicitly been the foundation of the new American state in 1789.  The 1960s rebellion struck at the supremacy of reason, and it began among young people at the University of California at Berkeley, as I have often noted, and in other universities around the country.  The Berkeley students had gotten where they were--an amazingly favored position, as I have pointed out here many times--by obeying the rules, but many of them were evidently sick of doing so.  They resorted almost at once to illegal building occupations and later to various forms of violent protests.  Meanwhile, powerful economic interests also resented the tyranny of reason, which had forced them to give much of their income to the government to buy public goods.  It did not help matters that faulty reasoning had led the US government into the Vietnam War.  A long, steady decline of respect for both political and intellectual authority had begun.

Victimhood culture, the authors argue, emerged quite suddenly on college campuses in 2013--a point that a number of other observers have made as well.  (I saw evidence of its emergence in 2012-13, at Williams College, my last year in a formal academic position.  I had not seen it on the same campus i 2007-8.)  They associate it with the concept of "microaggression," verbal slights based on gender, race, or sexual orientation, which many now argue are equivalent to actual violence.  Once again, as in the 1960s, students have resorted to violent demonstrations on some campuses to stop speakers they regard as hurtful from making appearances.  Violence is not, however, the approved response of victimhood culture, which prefers either to "cancel" or shun offenders, or to subject them to some re-education in the form of diversity training.  Microaggression is not the only crime under the new victimhood culture.  Others include "cultural appropriation," "slut shaming," and any unwanted touching.  

Campbell and Manning acknowledge some similarities between victimhood culture and honor culture. I think they could have gone much further down this path.  Victimhood culture resembles honor culture insofar as it is based upon membership in a group.   In honor culture aristocrats (or Crips and Bloods, or Hatfields and McCoys) respond violently to any slight that does not show them the respect to which they are due.  In the same way, activists among minorities, women, LGBTs and a few other groups respond with emotional violence to anything they perceive as disrespectful of their group.  A claim of sexual assault on campus has become a protest against a whole "rape culture" claimed to prevail there, and some activists do not want to submit such claims to the established legal process--an artifact of dignity culture--because they cannot trust it to vindicate their honor.  Meanwhile, academics from these groups (as Plumrose and Lindsay show) have come to treat the whole enterprise of western civilization as an insult to their group, because they see it as a claim to the superiority of straight white males.  Questions of social policy, they claim, cannot be solved through the exercise of impartial reason, which they regard as a sham.  They must be solved so as to vindicate the honor of the affected group.  

Another attack on dignity culture is coming from the right.  It is inherent in the whole gun rights movement, a demand to reserve the right to settle even lethal disputes on one's own, without the help of higher authority.  Narcissism can be interpreted as an obsessive sense of honor, and Donald Trump's insistence that everything he ever said or did receive endless praise was another assault on dignity culture.  Such a sense of honor might even lie beyond the widespread refusal to accept the results of the election.  Dignity culture is, one might argue, the culture of centrism, and like centrism, it is under attack. 

I intend to explore these questions further in other posts, though certainly not necessarily next week. Meanwhile I will close on a very broad historical point.  Just as the supremacy of dignity culture played a key role in the construction of the society into which I was born, the undermining of dignity culture will have profound consequences as well, which could even include the collapse of our political order. All three of the cultures Campbell and Manning identified represent powerful aspects of human nature.  Their balance is critical to humanity's future.


Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Primary Comes Home to Roost

The New York Times reports this morning that leading elements of t he Virginia Republican party are fighting to replace their gubernatorial primary with a convention this year, because a rabid Trump supporter named Amanda Chase might win that party with as little as 30% of the vote. The institution of primaries has had its ups and downs over the last 120 years or so, particularly at the presidential level.  Not until the 1970s did they become the norm, and at that time, many political professionals worried that they might favor extreme candidates backed by activists.  The parties found ways to keep that tendency in check, especially at the presidential level, until 2016, but in the era of Donald Trump, who enjoys a broader and more dedicated personal following than any president since Ronald Reagan, it is overwhelming the Republican party.  The Virginia controversy suggests that the institution itself might possibly be in some danger.

The Progressive era invented primaries--originally in Wisconsin, the home of Robert LaFollette, to take party nominations away from corrupt party bosses and put them in the hands of the people.  California, another progressive state, went even further, and eventually instituted open primaries, in which Democrats could if they chose vote for a Republican candidate, and vice versa.  The primary also became popular in the South, where the Democrats were the only party that could win elections, and where white supremacists could legally ban black citizens from voting in party primaries--until the Supreme Court outlawed white primaries in 1944.  Many Americans do not realize how common presidential primaries had become by 1932.  In that year, Franklin Roosevelt and his two leading opponents, Al Smith and John Nance Garner, contested primaries in New Hampshire, North Dakota, West Virginia, Florida, California, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.   Some states appear to have given presidential primaries up in the next 20 years, however. In 1952, the relatively young Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, whose televised hearings on organized crime had made him a national figure, became the first candidate to try to win the nomination against a sitting President, Harry Truman.  His primary victory in New Hampshire helped induce Truman to quit the race, but he lost the nomination to Adlai Stevenson, who had not run in any primaries, after several ballots.

John F. Kennedy succeeded where Kefauver had failed in 1960, when primary victories in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and above all West Virginia made him the front runner and carried him to victory at the convention against Stevenson and Lyndon Johnson, who had both skipped primaries altogether.  On the Republican side, another insurgent candidate, Barry Goldwater, won the nomination in 1964 largely because of his strength in state party organizations in the heartland, but his victory over Nelson Rockefeller in the California primary also played an important role. The Democratic nomination battle of 1968 was a turning point.  Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire repeated the feat of Kefauver in 1952, when he nearly beat the stand-in candidate for President Johnson and induced him to withdraw.  Robert Kennedy also sought the nomination by the primary route, but he was expected to lose the nomination to Hubert Humphrey, Johnson's successor as the establishment candidate, before his death, simply because primaries still chose so few delegates--almost none in the South, or in large states like Pennsylvania, New York, and Illinois. Humphrey won the nomination handily over McCarthy, but the 1968 convention also created a convention led by Senator George McGovern to rewrite party rules to make them more Democratic. Many more states adopted primaries, and McGovern, the most left wing candidate in the race, won against Edmund Muskie and Humphrey, pushed over the top by a victory in the California primary--only to lose disastrously to Nixon in the fall.

Jimmy Carter, an outsider from Georgia, also used primaries to become the front runner over a large field of establishment Democratic candidates in 1976--while Ronald Reagan nearly took the nomination away from incumbent Gerald Ford with the help of primary victories in 1976.  Reagan easily won the nomination in 1980.  The Democratic Party establishment learned to live with the primary system.  Establishment candidates prevailed over insurgents or relative unknowns in 1984 (Mondale over Hart), 2000 (Gore over Bradley), 2004 (Kerry over Dean), 2016 (Hillary Clinton over Sanders), and 2020 (Biden over Sanders and Warren.) Bill Clinton used primaries to win in 1992 against some weak establishment figures, and Barack Obama did the same in 2008 against the overwhelming favorite, Hillary Clinton.  The Republican Party, meanwhile, nominated the party establishment's choice consistently--George H. W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000, John McCain in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2012.  Then came the catastrophe of 2016.

Primary victories by extreme Republicans in Senate and House elections foreshadowed Trump's win.  The rise of the Tea Party spawned a number of successful Republican primary challenges in the House, culminating in 2014 in the defeat of Eric Cantor, the House Republican whip. In Tea Party year of 2010, extreme Republican candidates won Senatorial primaries in Nevada and Delaware, only to lose the general election.  Something similar happened in Alabama in 2019, when Roy Moore won the Republican nomination to replace Jeff Sessions, only to lose to Democrat Doug Jones--who in turn lost badly to a more acceptable Republican last year.  In 2012, Richaard Mourdock defeated long-time centrist Republican Senator Richard Lugar in an Indiana primary, only to lose the general election.  The same year however witnessed the victory of the equally conservative Jodi Ernst in purple Iowa, and she won re-election lats year.  Something similar struck the Democratic Party in urban areas in 2018, when Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in New York defeated long-time Democratic incumbents in primaries.  No comparable Democrat, however, has yet won nomination and election to the Senate.

 The rise of anti-establishment candidates in both parties--but especially among Republicans--sowed that party establishments had lost the support of substantial segments of the electorate, and Pressley's and Ocasio-Cortez's wins sent the same message.  Joe Biden's nomination and comfortable election showed that the Democratic establishment remains in charge at the national level, and gave that establishment another chance to reconnect with a broad mass of voters.  In Virginia, Republican politicians--who in so many states have been using various strategies to reduce the influence of Democratic voters--are now trying to reduce the influence of their own.  Given Donald Trump's continuing popularity among Republican voters--which inhibited Republican Senators from convicting him and disqualifying him from a future run--that tactic is likely to backfire.  It's up to the Democratic Party to show that rational, effective political leadership in a moment of crisis is still possible.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Where have we gone wrong?

Yesterday, only seven Republicans voted to convict Donald Trump, and the 57-43 vote fell well short of the necessary two-thirds majority to end his national political career. That represented significant progress over the last thirteen months, since only one Republican, Mitt Romney, voted to convict him the first time, when the evidence of his guilt was just as overwhelming, and the offense was essentially the same one, illegally attempting to change the result of an election.  The nation and the Republican Party may pay a heavy price for the failure to convict in the next four years.

That failure, of course, owed a lot to the erosion of truth as a principle of our public life.  Feelings now trump truth on both sides of the political fence, but the problem is worse among the Republicans, who  have had to sacrifice any respect for truth to maintain support for Trump and the affection of his hard-core followers.  That emerged from a remarkable exchange between George Stephanopoulos and Rand Paul about whether the election had been stolen, which is the subject today of an article in the New York Times Magazine.  Stephanopoulos repeatedly pressed Paul to acknowledge that Biden had won the election fairly, and this Paul refused to do.  Paul also accused Stephanopolous of making himself part of the story by flatly stating his own opinion that Biden clearly had won, instead of simply balancing Paul's own opinion with that of another guest who would have said the same thing.  (As a matter of fact, based on the youtube clip of the exchange, which you can easily find, that had been Stephanopolous's plan, but something went wrong and he was unable to get his Democratic guest on the air.)  Paul claimed falsely that the more than 60 judges who had dismissed Trump's lawsuits against election results had done so on grounds of lack of standing, rather than on grounds of lack of evidence.  He also claimed, tellingly, that we could not ignore the claim that the election was stolen simply because tens of millions of Republicans thought that it was.  The author of the article, Jason Zengerle, seems perplexed by the situation himself. If the Sunday morning shows refuse to talk to Republicans who will tell lies, he says, they will become indistinguishable from shows on MSNBC.

I don't think there is any simple institutional or procedural solution to this problem.  The political leaders of the early Republic--children of the Enlightenment that they were--frequently remarked that democracy could only work if the citizenry were enlightened and valued reason over partisan passion.  As early as 1801, in his first inaugural address, Jefferson worried about the violent partisanship that had emerged during his election, and tried to dampen it--successfully as it turned out--by declaring, "We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans."  Passion--including racial and ethnic prejudice, greed, and envy--has of course always played some role in American politics, but for a long time, I have come to believe, rhetorical traditions kept it in check.   Our sound bite culture came along relatively recently, and American voters spent much more time reading or listening to their political leaders' long speeches even half a century ago than they do now.  Reading as an avocation has lost enormous ground just in the last two decades or so, and newspapers have gotten less and less popular. They too have responded by emphasizing emotion over reason and facts, expanding their opinion pages and highlighting them much more as a part of their marketing, and selecting news stories that will tweak their readers' deepest feelings.  That is as true of the Washington Post and the New York Times as it is of Fox News--even though I would agree that the Post and Times readers have somewhat better judgment.   Last. but hardly least, powerful economic interests have waged endless campaigns against truths that are dangerous to their interests.  They have persuaded most of our elites that our new, finance-based economy actually serves all our interests (it doesn't), and so far they have managed to stop serious government action against climate change.  Henry Adams warned in his presidential address to the American Historical Association that any truth that historical science uncovered would make large and important constituencies very angry.  He was right.  Meanwhile, as I have mentioned many times, truth, data, and objectivity have also fallen out of fashion in our universities, where the Enlightenment is now far more likely to be "problematized" than celebrated or emulated.

It is very easy for liberals to turn out hundreds of words lamenting the state of the Republican Party and listing its various errors and untruths.  I do that relatively little largely because I know it won't change any Republican minds, and because it diverts Democrats from focusing on the serious problems within their own party.  Patriotism, to me, means, among other things, holding your own nation to a higher standard, and I see party loyalty the same way.  I am disgusted beyond measure by Mitch McConnell, who yesterday followed up on his vote for acquittal with a speech explaining why Trump was guilty as charged.  But I am also appalled by this Washington Post op-ed by Vice President Kamala Harris, which discusses the economic impact of the pandemic entirely from the perspective of the 5.1 million women who have lost their jobs, without the slightest acknowledgement that exactly the same fate has befallen 4.1 million men.  FDR in his first inaugural address declared, "Our greatest task is to put people to work." Not men. Not women. People.  Perhaps he understood that male and female votes counted equally--and that any effective solution would help both.

Most of our leading institutions now run on a mixture of self-interest and ideology, and visible independent voices are very rare.  I write these posts for the benefit of readers who want something different, and who are trying, like myself, to keep their heads while many around us are losing theirs.  I hope that the younger ones among us, at least, will see the pendulum swing back towards calm and reason  Meanwhile, we can all try to keep those qualities alive.


Sunday, February 07, 2021

Enemies, enemies everywhere

 Every Fourth Turning or great crisis identifies enemies--foreign, domestic, or both--and persecutes them. That spirit usually persists into the subsequent High for a few years before giving way to renewed consensus.   In the Revolutionary War the enemies were Tories, many of whom lost their property after the war and had to flee to Canada, and at the end of the 1774-1794 crisis, the emerging Federalist and Republican parties began to treat one another as deadly enemies linked to foreign powers--the Federalists to Britain, the Republicans to revolutionary France. In the Civil War the internal enemies were unionists in the South and southern sympathizers or Copperheads in the North, and animosities persisted through Reconstruction.  In the 1929-45 crisis the chosen enemies included "economic royalists," the Nazi and the Japanese governments (and by extension, Germans and Japanese-Americans within the US), and then, from 1946 or so until 1954, Communists and other left-wingers. We are watching the same pattern in this Crisis, but we have failed to agree on enemies, and still lackl the consensus that could bring this pattern to an end. 

If one believes, as I do, that the crisis began in 2001, then the first enemy, obviously, became foreign terrorists. The Bush II administration created whole new bureaucracies and legions of private contractors to fight them at home, while going to war against them abroad. The FBI tried to infiltrate them at home and sent a number of people to jail who had done nothing but discuss possible terrorist acts with FBI informers.   The FBI meanwhile cut back its efforts on a number of other crime fronts, including domestic terrorism and white collar crime.  A few individual terrorists did perpetrate attacks in the Bush II and Obama years--the killing of federal employees in San Bernardino and of soldiers in  San Antonio; a failed bomb in Times Square; and the Marathon bombings in Boston in 2013.  Islamic terrorism within the US has faded as a threat, however, while our attempts to defeat it overseas, while changing regimes we claimed had supported it, have led to endless wars and foreign catastrophes.

Oddly, when Donald J. Trump came into office in 2017 with a new enemy in view--illegal immigrants--that population had already become the federal government's number 1 enemy under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  Such deportations climbed steadily from about 180,000 in 2002 to a peak of 432,000 in 2012, before falling quite steeply to about 300,000 in 2017.  They increased again under Donald Trump, but have not reached the 2012 peak.  Meanwhile, the Trump administration also made it much harder for potential immigrants to come into the United States and seek asylum.  The Biden Administration now wants to pass a law granting a path to citizenship to illegal immigrants within the US--that is, to potential deportees--but we do not know whether such a law has any chance of passing, or how much the new administration will change the asylum rules again.  Trump also tried to turn ANTIFA into a prime domestic enemy in the eyes of the public, but apparently without success.

Now, because of the attack on the US Capitol, a new enemy, right-wing domestic terrorists, have taken center stage.  Hundreds of them will rightly be indicted and prosecuted for entering the building, and the FBI is reportedly focusing more on their networks.  The assault upon them has extended to a sympathizer in Congress, Marjorie Taylor Green, who has been stripped of her committee assignments by the Democrats in the House (with a few Republicans joining in.)  Interestingly enough, this never happened to any of the few pro-Communist legislators in the Congress during the late 1940s, such as Vito Marcantonio of New York.  The spirit of proscription lives today, just as it did in earlier crises and their aftermath.

Unfortunately, in one key respect, this crisis is different.  Most of the earlier enemies--Tories, Copperheads, and postwar Communists---represented genuine enemies of the United States whose defeat became apparent to all, or nearly all, of us. The internment of Japanese-Americans who had done nothing wrong was a terrible mistake, but when Japan was defeated it was logical to release them and they resumed their lives as citizens.  But so far, none of the enemies upon which we have turned the federal government in the last twenty years really represented a deadly threat that was overcome in a clear American triumph.  Such triumphs in earlier eras created some kind of new national consensus and reaffirmed national unity.  That is still lacking today.  We must hope that the COVID-19 virus might play the role of a truly serious enemy that a determined government and public managed to defeat.  


Saturday, January 30, 2021

The new ideology

For many years now, I have watched the growth of a new revolutionary ideology based upon identity politics.  I have sometimes referred to it as postmodernism, the academic theory from which it draws a lot of its inspiration, and it now also goes under the name of "wokeness."  In the last decade that ideology has become mainstream, and it dominates the academia, the mainstream media, and much of the Democratic Party.  With respect to race, its buzzwords--diversity, equity, and inclusion--are now very common currency. It has just burst into the news again because the San Francisco School Board has decided to rename more than forty schools, stripping away the names of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Herbert Hoover, Theodore and/or Franklin Roosevelt (no one seems to know which president this particular school was named after), James Monroe, William McKinley, Francis Scott Key, Daniel Webster, James A. Garfield, Paul Revere, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Muir, Generals William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan, Diane Feinstein, about half a dozen early Spanish settlers, and some prominent local figures.  One cannot understand this decision without understanding the ideology behind it--and this is all the more important because many people who now embrace it do not really understand it or where it came from.

I would like to stress before I begin that while my own views are unfashionable, they are far from unique, or unique to older white males ike myself.  Just as many women have never accepted many of the more extreme tenets of contemporary feminism, a number of black thinkers reject the critical race theory which is one aspect of wokeness and which evidently has played a major role in the San Francisco decision.  Youtube is full of fascinating and stimulating interviews with people like Glenn Loury (a Boomer), John McWhorter (an Xer), and Coleman Hughes (a Millennial) who completely reject the new ideology.  The comments on their youtube entries show that there are thousands of Americans of all races who reject them as well.  Plenty of evidence suggests that a majority of voters reject them--such as the recent referendum in California, the most diverse state in the nation, that refused to reinstate affirmtive action in university admissions by a wide margin.  None of this, howevr, has stopped the inexorable march forward of the new ideology. 

What is it and where did it come from?

Most fundamental to it, perhaps, is the idea that there is not, and cannot be, one single human reality with respect to political and social questions.  Postmodernism holds that one's view of such questions is inevitably colored by one's race, gender, and sexual orientation, and that these characteristics are more important than any common humanity that we all share in shaping our views and interests.  Academics have argued for decades that no particular views an be "privileged" over others, even if--or perhaps I should say, especially if--those views are held by a large racial majority of the population, or by most of its leadership class (and every society has a leadership class.)  This view led decades ago to the foundation of gender and ethnic studies departments, on the grounds that only members of a particular gender or race could contribute critically important views to the academy.  An alternative view, such as my own, might argue, first of all, that all our brains are sufficiently similar for us to reach a substantial measure of agreement on critical questions provided that we recognize our common humanity.  It might also argue that a cross-gender, cross-racial consensus on many issues is necessary for society to function, rather than to descend into a war of tribes.  Such views are increasingly unfashionable.

A second, closely related tenet of the new ideology holds that one's racial and gender identity defines one's life experience in almost every way.  In particular, it marks one either as an oppressor (white people in general, but especially white males), or one who is oppressed (everyone else.)  The whole diversity industry, including thousands of consultants, dedicates itself to propagating that view, and best sellers such as White Fragility implore, or try to shame, white people into acknowledging this crucial aspect of their identity, and to recognize themselves as privileged oppressors no matter what their actual feelings towards other races might be. This view also implies that oppressed groups must not be forced to submit to the leadership of members of oppressor groups, or forced to accept a culture that does not come from their own group.  I have seen this view emerge in many ways.  I have heard interviews about the Boston school district arguing that nonwhite students cannot get the education they need as long as their teachers are largely white.  Last spring, after George Floyd's killing, black reporters at the Washington Post submitted a letter to their superiors complaining that the idea of "objectivity" was simply an aspect of "elite whiteness."  That was one example of a tendency to attach racial labels to cultural characteristics.  A poster, "Aspects and Assumptions of White Culture in the United States," at the national Museum of African-American History--now removed--listed self-reliance, the nuclear family, an "emphasis on the scientific method," the "Protestant work ethic," and many other traits--some of them hopelessly dated and stereotypical--as specifically white characteristics.

Connected to these views is the view of American history embodied in the New York Times's 1619 project.  In this view, slavery was, and racism still is, "central" to American history.  Now I believe that slavery was the original sin of the American colonies and the young American Republic, and that its impact persists in many ways to this day.  I also agree that slavery was "central" to two important groups: slaves and slaveowners.  I know, however, that those two groups represented a pretty small percentage of the whole population, that they were confined to one part of the country after the American Revolution, and that a huge war eventually put an end to the status of slaves and slaveholders--though not, of course, to racism.  If, however, black people decide that one must view history only through the ideas of people who "look like me," and that their perspective is at least as valid as anyone else's, the conclusion that slavery was "central" to American history becomes inevitable.   Interestingly enough, this was not always the view of black activists.  In the 1850s, it was the white supremacist judge Roger Taney who argued that the Constitution protected slavery throughout the United States and that black people could not be citizens, while Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist and ex-slave, argued that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document.  The 1619 project went even beyond Taney, and continues to argue, without any evidence, that many white Americans fought the American revolution to preserve slavery.

The emphasis on race as a critical cultural and political factor has changed our use of language and, critically, our view of history, in ways that are largely unconscious.  The terms "African-American," "Native American," "Asian-American," and the less common "European-American" imply that we are all defined by where our ancestors were living in 1492.  This may never have occurred to you, but a moment's reflection, I think, will convince you that it is true.  (Certainly a letter to the editor I read decades ago made this point effectively: "The term 'Native American' is deeply offensive to native Americans of African, Asian, and European descent.")  More importantly, when one combines this view with the idea of white people primarily as oppressors of everyone else, the whole of US history becomes a crime and a tragic mistake.   That idea comes out in the San Francisco boards list of proscriobed names, which incude anyone who ever had any involvement in wars with Indians.  Closely related to this view is another one that I talked about in a much earlier post: the idea that virtue resides only among the oppressed.  Last but hardly least, pre-Columbian America has taken on the aura of a mythical golden age, a paradise of unspoiled humanity living in harmony with nature, which European civilization unfortunately destroyed.  

A broader perspective yields very different conclusions.  During the last few centuries of human history, agricultural societies replaced hunter-gatherer societies nearly everywhere in the world, and everywhere in temperate regions.  This must often have been a cruel process but it seems to have been an inevitable one.  Certainly it allowed humanity to multiply its population many times over, and to enjoy a much higher standard of living.  Even within hunter-gatherer societies, moreover, life was often a brutal, and sometimes genocidal, struggle among different tribes.  In what is now the US the Mound Builders once built an extensive civilization but it had disappeared before Europeans ever arrived. No group was ever more brutal than some of the nomadic tribes of Asia. When one judges the American experiment within a broader historical perspective, things look completely different.  What distinguishes it is the idea of human political equality, revolutionary in its day.  While that idea was not immediately applied to all inhabitants of the country in 1776 or 1787, it inevitably spread to them all within the relatively short time--in the whole scheme of history--of a century and a half or so.  

Taken together, these views explain why the San Francisco school board took the action it took.  They have explicitly stated that Washington and Jefferson had their names stripped from schools because they owned slaves.  If one believes that racial oppression has always been the "central" fact of American life, that does indeed become more important than leading the continental army to victory in the revolution, serving as the first President, writing the Declaration of  Independence, making the Louisiana Purchase, or anything else. Lincoln's proscription stems from the Dakota War in Minnesota in 1862.  In August of that year, starving Dakota (Sioux) Indians, suffering from the loss of hunting grounds and the failure of the white authorities to provide food under treaties, went to war with the whites.   They initially won many battles, burned a number of white settlements, and killed an estimated 600 or more whites.  The federal government sent reinforcements, the Dakota eventually surrendered, and military courts eventually sentenced 300 of them to death. Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 38, said to have been responsible for about 100 murders. Lincoln's name is presumably being stripped because he played a part in this episode in the long, sad struggle between whites and Indians whose hunter-gatherer  societies disappeared.  A single racial offense now qualifies one for unpersonhood, and in this case outweighs Lincoln's unique role in ending the institution of slavery within the United States.

The board could at least point to specific acts of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln to justify their proscription, and Sherman and Sheridan also commanded US troops in wars against the plains Indians.  But what about Paul Revere, who had no connection to slavery, or James A. Garfield, a convinced abolitionist, or Daniel Webster, who opposed the spread of slavery? A spreadsheet issued by the board answers these questions. It damns Garfield for having stated that Indian societies were destined to disappear, and Revere for having commanded an expedition to Maine during the Revolutionary War which was somehow "connected" to the "colonization" of the Penobscot Indians, What about James Wilson Marshall, listed merely as a sawmill worker at Sutter's Mill?  Why the naturalist John Muir?  The spreadsheet indicates that many of these people simply said things that would ban them from polite society today.  In one of its most bizarre entries, a school named after the Battle of Argonne Forest in the First World War is renamed because the battle was fought by segregated American units.  Most ironically, Daniel Webster is proscribed because he supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  So he did--as part of the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California to the Union as a free state.

White people did, indeed, define most of the principles upon which our institutions are based.  They did not however define those principles to use against nonwhites---they were weapons against other whites, specifically, the British monarchy and aristocracy that claimed superiority by birth. Because those principles as stated are race- and gender-neutral, they have spread around the globe to varying degrees, just as Jefferson, in his last letter, hoped that they might.  Most importantly, those principles of equality, equal rights, and majority rule, remain the only possible basis for the survival and prosperity of our nation.  Tribalism will only breed more tribalism  If this post leads anyone to think a little harder about where we are and where we are going, it will have been worthwhile.