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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Lying and Liars

 I have just finished a short, provocative book by a very good friend of mine, the law professor Catherine Ross.  Entitled A Right to Lie? Presidents, Other Liars, and the First Amendment, it surveys the law of lying in the United States with particular attention to several interesting court cases, and then asks what might have been done to deal effectively with our once and possibly future liar-in-chief, Donald J. Trump.  It is a very readable work of detailed legal scholarship and lay person will learn a lot from it.  While I would not have been able to accept a formal reviewing assignment because of our friendship, I see no reason not to explore the issues that it raises here.

The first part of the book explains carefully, first, that lying is generally protected by the First Amendment, and second, that as a result, recent states' attempts to ban lying during campaigns have generally been thrown out by federal courts.  Lying is of course illegal in certain contexts:  in legal proceedings, in filling out government forms, and if it is undertaken to secure monetary gain via fraud.  We also still have state laws against defamation--that is, slander or libel--but under New York Times vs. Sullivan (1964), which Ross discusses relatively briefly, it has become almost impossible for public figures to win defamation cases, since they must show willful, reckless disregard of the truth, motivated by "actual malice," on the part of the offender.  In 2005, the federal government tried to ban one form of lying in the Stolen Valor Act, which criminalized false claims of having been awarded certain military decorations.  When the case of Xavier Alvarez, a local elected official and compulsive liar, reached the Supreme Court, however, the court decided, in a split opinion, that the law was unconstitutional because it banned falsehood for its own sake, whether the speaker uttered it for a separate nefarious motive or not.  While banning falsehoods to serve a compelling interest might be legal were it done narrowly enough, any blanket prohibition against lies would violate the speech clause of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court held, in short, that the government cannot restrict speech under the First Amendment without some clearly compelling interest to do so that would not, in turn, lead to further indefensible prohibitions  Ross clearly agrees with that holding, and so do I.  The courts have also protected satirical falsehoods, creating a potentially dangerous doctrine that one is not liable for falsehoods that listeners could not be expected to believe--a sound doctrine, perhaps, in quieter times, but a slippery one in the climate of the 2020s. 

Political campaigns in the United States have featured outrageous lies both by candidates and their supporters since the first truly contested presidential election of 1796, and our greatest presidents, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, probably faced more of them than anyone.  Ross cites the infamous Willie Horton ad of 1988, in which the George H. W. Bush campaign falsely claimed that Michael Dukakis was personally responsible for the furlough policy that had enabled a convicted murderer to commit a rape, as a particularly influential case.  However, in a long, controversial case involving a Wisconsin campaign for a seat on the state supreme court, Judge Michael Gableman eventually got away with a very similar and even more misleading claim against his opponent, even though he was bound by a judicial code of ethics that specifically banned campaign misstatements of fact. The case eventually reached the state supreme court--he recused himself--and Republican justices found ways to claim that the ad was not a lie, because its individual statements, while arranged in an utterly misleading sequence, were each true.  The court split 3-3 and dismissed the complaint against Gableman.  More generally, Ross tells us, federal courts have thrown out every state statute that has come before them since 2012 that tried to regulate campaign speech, except some relating to judicial elections where different rules often apply.  Various federal Courts of Appeals have agreed that such laws have to pass a strict scrutiny test, meaning that they would have to serve a "compelling interest," that they would truly solve the problem, and that they would not unnecessarily restrict other speech.  Opposing speech, in short, remains the only legal remedy against false campaign speech--but any serious historians knows that that has been the effective rule for the whole of our history, and we have so far survived.  Ross also makes clear that she believes this is how things should be.

In its last section, the book turns to the falsehoods of Donald Trump, who appears to have been a compulsive liar for the whole of his adult life.  She focuses on two sets of lies.  First, starting in early 2020, Trump's false statements about COVID, masking, and potential treatments obviously hampered a proper response to the pandemic and cost the nation an untold number of lives--in  my personal opinion, tens of thousands at least.  Second, of course, his refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election before, during and after it took place undermined faith in democracy and led to the January 6 insurrection.  In order to propose a remedy for these and similar lies, Ross begins with another provision of federal law.  The President is undeniably a government employee, and the political speech of government employees is in fact severely restricted.  Ross mentions that under the law, government employees' speech is only protected if they are speaking as private citizens on a matter of public interest.  I might add that federal employees in recent decades have been severely disciplined for circulating articles endorsing or criticizing candidates via email at work.  Such laws open the door, she argues, to legislation or other Congressional action--including warnings, censure, or impeachment--in response to presidential lies.   While she recognizes how unlikely such legislation is in the current climate, she wants us all to start thinking about it.

It is here that I personally have a different view.  I share the concern about the impact of presidential lies, but I think the remedy is already in the Constitution in the impeachment clause, which provides for the removal of the president upon conviction of "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."  While lying in itself does not fall under those words, Trump's lies about COVID--and many other things as well--formed part of a pattern, for me, that would have fully justified his impeachment and conviction.  Here I am relying on my reading of another work of legal scholarship, Impeachment, the Constitutional Problems, by Raoul Berger, which appeared (fortuitously) in 1973.  The phrase "high crimes and misdemeanors," he showed, came from British precedents having to do with the impeachment and conviction of high officials (the monarch, unlike the president, being legally invulnerable in Britain.) It clearly did not refer to ordinary violations of laws, and an eminent 18th-century commentator, Richard Wooddeson, listed among precedents various kinds of malfeasance in office: "a lord admiral to have neglected the safeguard of the sea," "a privy councilor to have propounded or supported pernicious or dishonorable measures," and "an ambassador to have betrayed his trust," among other measures.  It is true, as Ross mentions, that in the debates in the constitutional convention, James Madison rejected "maladministration" as one specific grounds for impeachment because the word was too broad.  Yet in my opinion, those precedents show that truly disastrous performance of one's duties in office is indeed grounds for impeachment.  If a failure to "safeguard the sea" is sufficient grounds, then surely a failure to safeguard the whole people of the United States against an epidemic and instead repeatedly make statements that put that people risk must surely be grounds as well, in my opinion.

Although President Nixon resigned before he could even be impeached, he would not only have been impeached but convicted--as no other president has been--had he tried to remain in office. Lying, as Ross points out, was one of the reason--but his lies were a critical part of an attempt to cover up a serious crime, the Watergate burglary.   We agree that subverting our laws is proper grounds for impeachment.  I think that the nation now fails to recognize that disastrous performance in office should--indeed, in my opinion, must--be grounds as well because we take our government's functions for granted and tend to regard the presidency as something we bestow upon people we like.  Thus the Republican Party was willing to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about an extramarital sexual encounter, but turned a blind eye to Trump's four years of disastrous government.  Indeed, most of that party has now chosen to embrace his lies about COVID implicitly (by opposing various kinds of mandates) or explicitly (by endorsing the idea that the election was stolen.)

And on this point Ross and I agree: the current state of the Republican Party makes any remedy for these very serious ills impossible.  On the one hand, the Republic has ever been entirely healthy in this respect--we have heard many campaign lies and some presidential lies for the whole or our history.  It is only in the 21st century, however, that a major party nominated and the country elected a hopelessly compulsive liar to office, whose party subsequently became entirely loyal to him and reluctant to disagree with anything that he said. Meanwhile, I would add, distrust in government has grown so far that another large segment of the population no longer has any real expectations of it. The founders understood that our republican experiment depended upon an informed electorate and a responsible leadership class, and both of those, now, are lacking.   There may be no legal remedy for such ills.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

What makes a nation?

 A few weeks ago, browsing through the left wing Israeli daily Ha'aretz--whose opinion pages I prefer to those of any US newspaper--I came across an interview with a very iconoclastic Israeli academic named Shlomo Sand.  Sand, now 75, has been a leftist all his life and was once a Communist, and the interview dealt with his latest book, A Brief History of the Left, which is not yet available in English.  I did not agree with everything he said in a wide-ranging metahistorical discussion, but I liked his frankness about the collapse of the traditional left in the west, owing to the new disconnect between the old working class and the intellectual elite.   Sand understands "the left" to be focused on greater equality, whether obtained through democracy or by force.  He actually argues that capitalism is decreasing inequality in the poorer parts of the world today--a point which I would question, even though I agree that the standard of living in the lower classes in Asia and Africa has been rising--but he recognizes how much inequality has been increasing in the developed world in the last half century or so.  He has lived through the almost complete disappearance of a social democratic ideal in Israel and he sees it vanishing in countries like France and Germany as well.

The interview also mentioned that Sand had published a controversial book in 2008 entitled The Invention of the Jewish People (he is not a man to mince words), and I was moved to get it out of my local library system and read it.  It's a remarkable study of about three millennia of Jewish history, based on a very wide reading of secondary sources about the history of the Jews, the Mediterranean and the Near East in general, and Central Asia--including a great many archeological finds in various places.  It's a highly political document, among other things, aiming to undermine the central myth (I'm using that word in its broadest sense, without reference to truth or falsehood) of the Zionist state of Israel.  That myth holds that the Jewish people are a homogenous ethnic group descended originally from Abraham and Isaac that was scattered twice, first by the Babylonians and then in the first century A. D. by the Romans.  Exiles, it holds founded all the large Jewish communities around the Mediterranean, in the Middle East, and in Central Asia, some of whom eventually migrated to Eastern Europe, where the vast majority of Jews lived by around 1900 or so. The late-19th century Zionist movement in Eastern Europe began their return to the Holy Land, and the creation of Israel in 1948 consummated that process. Meanwhile, in an effort to lay an historical foundation for their new state, Sand argues, a number of Zionist historians began to accept the Old Testament as a reliable historical document detailing the rise and fall of the original Kingdom of Israel.  

Step by step, Sand uses other histories and sources to explode these myths.  He draws on the much-neglected Bible criticism of 19th-century Germany, which used linguistic analysis, among other things, to conclude that the first five books of the Bible were not in fact written by Moses, but were written many centuries after his death--somewhere between the 6th and 3rd century B. C.E.--if indeed Moses ever existed at all.  (I was quite surprised that Sand never mentioned another favorite book of mine, Freud's Moses and Monotheism, which used the same sources to make a similar argument, concluding that Moses was in fact a rebel member of the Egyptian royal family.)  It turns out, Sand shows, that the Egyptians left behind considerable written records of their early history, and they say nothing about Jews or the events surrounding the exodus at all.  More importantly, he argues convincingly that there was no mass expulsion of Jews from Israel under the Roman Empire, and that the "exile" Jewish writers made so much of was metaphorical, referring to their evident loss of God's favor.  Judaism, he argues based on other scholarly works, was a proselytizing religion in the first centuries of the Christian era, creating large new Jewish communities in what is now Yemen, all along the North African Coast (from which they later moved into Spain), and a bit later, in Central Asia, where the Khazar tribe adopted Judaism.  The rise of Islam beginning in the 8th century converted many (but never all) of these new Jews to Islam, and the Mongol invasions centuries later destroyed the Khazar kingdom.  Following Arthur Koestler's book The Thirteenth Tribe, which I read when it appeared in 1976, Sand argues that the great Jewish communities of Russia and Poland began as Khazar refugees from the Mongols.  This remains a very strong argument, since there really has never been another convincing explanation of how those very large groups could have come from Germany (where the Jewish population was very small) or the Mediterranean.  These communities did eventually adopt Yiddish, mainly a German dialect, as their language, but that, he thinks, was because of the large Christian German immigration into the same regions during the Middle Ages. 

Sand argues, in short, that there is no genetically homogeneous  Jewish people with a common ancestry and more than there is a Catholic one, and that proselytizing created both.  (The  Catholic analogy is mine, not his, but I don't think he would object to it.)  Since the discovery of DNA there have been attempts in Israel to prove common ancestry, but Sand argues based on various studies that their claims to do so have not been validated. The real basis for Israeli citizenship, he says, is not race but religion, and a quite orthodox brand of Judaism at that, one that emphasizes the need to maintain the exclusivity of the Jewish community--the reason that there has never been a legal way for a Jew in Israel to marry a non-Jew, since there is no such thing there as civil marriage. Sand, like me, has obviously never been religious--his parents were left wing as well as himself--and he obviously bitterly resents that particular restriction upon Israeli citizens' personal freedom very much.  It offends me at least as much because I happen to be a child of the kind of marriage that can't take place in Israel, and I obviously can't accept any belief system that argues that I should never have been born.  The last part of his book is an extended argument--delivered as much in sorrow than in anger--that Israel should adopt a new definition of citizenship based simply on residence, not religion, and that it abandon the idea that it can proclaim itself a "Jewish state" and provide equal justice to its 20 percent non-Jewish minority (I am referring their to the population of pre-1967 Israel, not to the occupied territories, which present even more serious problems.)  From what I can see, Israel has in fact moved further in the opposite direction since the publication of his book.  He predicted that current policies might eventually lead to violent uprisings among the Arab population of Israel proper, and such uprisings indeed took place during the last year.  On the other hand, the current Israeli government includes some Arab representation.

I should certainly add, by the way, that Sand notes that the trend towards tribalism and away from universal values is a worldwide one, and he is right about that.  

Since I am not and could not be an Israeli, it is not my place to take sides in the arguments about the ruling ideology and the future of Israel.  Sand did set me thinking, however, about what has traditionally held the United States together.  Clearly that has never been either a common religion or a belief in descent from a common gene pool--even if some of the original immigrants from Britain have felt some superiority to the rest of the citizenry during various periods.  Justice Taney in the Dred Scott decision argued that only white people could be citizens, but the two dissents from his decision, as I showed years ago, left no doubt that he was wrong as a matter of law and of history.    The Civil War and the Reconstruction amendments put an end to that controversy for all time.  What occurred to me as I read Sand was this: what really makes a nation is adherence to a common set of laws.  That is why law is, or should be, so important to history.  And in the United States this principle has another dimension.  We do commit merely to obey the law for its own sake, but because our laws are founded on a novel set of principles embodied in the Constitution--one based upon the legal equality of all persons residing within the country, and upon the use of democratic procedures--voting--to select our leaders.  The founding generation purposely created the nation based upon those principles and millions of immigrants came to this country because they wanted to live under them.

Of course, we did not initially apply those principles universally.  They did not apply in some respects to women, whom the law treated unequally, to slaves, or in some instances to free black people.  Yet as I have pointed out so many times, those exceptions were not demanded, or even specifically recognized, by the Constitution, which used the universal term "persons" throughout.  The question of who could vote--including women--was left entirely to the individual states, some of whom indeed did begin to grant women the vote well before the passage of the 19th amendment.  The common law did not protect slavery--it could exist only in states that specifically sanctioned it, and before Taney's decision in Dred Scott, dozens of slaves had in fact won their freedom in court after their masters had taken them into a free state.  That is why Frederick Douglass in 1860 could argue at length, and very effectively, that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document.  It is also why women and their allies could argue effectively that the restriction of the suffrage to men contradicted the spirit of the founding document.

We now face a serious threat to our nation and its principles--not as serious as in the late 1850s, in my opinion, at least not yet, but serious enough.  That threat comes in the first instance from the Republican Party which is threatening to use a gap in the Constitution to overturn the will of the electorate in the next election.  In creating the electoral college the founders left the manner of the choice of electors to the states.   Nearly all of them  rapidly gave the choice to all qualified voters, but even today, nothing requires that they do so.  Several presidents, led by Andrew Jackson, called for the abolition of the electoral college and a system of direct presidential election, but this has never been adopted.  Republicans in various states are trying to undermine popular election by giving their legislatures the power to certify the vote.  I still do not believe that voting rights are seriously threatened, as they were for much of our history.  The new laws Republicans are passing are taking away relatively new ways to vote conveniently, such as by mail or in drop boxes, but they have done nothing, in my opinion, that would keep a determined voter from casting a ballot.  Democrats should use them to mobilize and organize, not to claim that the election has already been lost.  They should also use them as issues in the next round of state legislative elections to try to change the balance of power in some states and perhaps get the laws repealed.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the political fence, critical race theory and its offshoots argue that the principles and guarantees of the Constitution have never really been worth anything, and one prominent academic argues that we need a new institution, an unelected Department of Antiracism with virtually totalitarian powers, to restructure our society.  

Both these attacks on our traditions and principles threaten to destroy the American experiment--the most thoroughgoing attempt to implement the principles of the Enlightenment for the benefit of all. Both Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt recognized that those principles had to succeed here to have any chance of success in the rest of the world.  We still bear that responsibility.  We can restore those principles both for ourselves and the rest of the world by returning to our best traditions.  If we do abandon them, the whole world will suffer in ways we cannot foresee. 

Sunday, December 12, 2021

A great film and a parable

 Last Wednesday my 12-week course on Generations in Film, 1938-2021, came to an end  I gave it via zoom (alas) for the Harvard Institute for Learning and Retirement, where all sorts of retired professionals can teach whatever they are interested in.  Very few of us are academics and I only heard about it through a friend I met in a film group.  I had taught the course to Boomers and Xers at the Naval War College and to Millennials (once) at Williams College.  This time the 18 students were Boomers and Silents, including several old enough to have clear memories of V-J Day. It went very well.  None of us, alas, could find much cause for optimism as we contemplated the immediate future of our country as it tries to emerge from the crisis which, in my opinion, is now two decades old.

As I have have, I chose to end the course by returning to the beginning--the last crisis--with the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.   I have always loved using this film because its three main characters, played by Walter Huston, Humphrey Bogart, and Tim Holt, beautifully represent three different generations.  The film dates from 1948 but the novel that inspired it is 21 years older.  Huston represents the post-civil war Missionary generation, Bogart the Lost generation, and Holt the GIs.  They are the counterparts of today's Boomers, Xers, and Millennials. Huston--the elderly, experienced prosecutor Howard--blew me away the first time I saw the film on a dark January night 55 years ago at the Brattle theater--the first Bogart movie I ever saw. He has tremendous energy, enthusiasm, and understanding.  He is always doing, but also commenting on what happens, and he knows what to look for.  Not until Strauss and Howe's books came out did I realize why the impact was so great--I had never seen a fully adult example of my own Prophet archetype (which includes both Missionaries and Boomers) before.  

Midway through the movie, when the three prospectors have struck gold in the wilds of Mexico, is a scene that captures the three generational types perfectly.  I used it in this 30-minute summary of the 1929-45 crisis.  Each of them, in succession, talks about what they plan to do when they get back to civilization.  The Missionary wants to sit back and enjoy his last few years; the Lost is totally focused on his appetites; and the GI wants of make things grow.  

Yet it occurred to me as I prepared for this year's final class that it fit the mood of the moment for another reason.  Here I must post a spoiler alert: I'm going to have to give away the plot of this masterpiece. If you haven't seen it, you might want to find it streaming for a couple of dollars and enjoy it first.

Howard, the missionary, warns the other two early on that the "noble brotherhood" among prospectors only lasts until they find gold.  After that they fall out over the division of the spoils.  This plays out, of course, after they start heading back to civilization with $105,000 in depression among them.  They encounter some local Indians who need assistance, and Huston manages to revive the chief's child, who has nearly drowned. The Indians insist that he (but not the others) accept their hospitality for a few days, and Bogart and Holt set off with all the gold on their burros, promising to wait for Huston when they reach town.  Bogart almost immediately suggests that they cut Huston out entirely, and Holt, always loyal to the group in good GI fashion, refuses.  They immediately become enemies and Bogart tries to kill Holt.   He succeeds only in wounding him, although he does not know it, and Holt makes it back to the Indian camp while Bogart goes on alone.  Holt and Huston set off in pursuit, but before they can catch up, Bogart is killed by bandits just a few miles from the town he is trying to reach.  The bandits don't understand what the sacks of gold dust on the burros are, and they cut them open with their cutlasses for spite.  The gold dust blows back to the mountains, and Huston and Holt discover the ruin of their dreams a few hours later. 

What hit me with the force of revelation this time was that the whole story was a parable of the last 90 years of American history.  Down and out in 1931 like the three prospectors, the American nation went in search of great things, first by trying to rebuild society under the New Deal, then to defend and extend democracy in the Second World War.  We struck it rich not only economically but politically and socially, achieving between 1945 and 1980 or so the most egalitarian society in modern history.  But our unity began to break apart in the late 1960s and we have never regained it.  As the GI generation died off, our economics and politics degenerated into a struggle for our parents' legacy, the gold strike that we inherited and have now squandered.  The prospectors went to war with one another when there were only two of them left--a nice symbol of the polarization that has destroyed our politics.  

At the end of the movie, Huston and Holt have hit bottom once again, but Huston, as always, immediately puts things in perspective.  He doesn't have to return to civilization at all--he can live out his days as the guest of the Indians, who idolize him.  And Holt? "You're young!" says Huston.  "You've got time to make three or four more fortunes."  I keep hoping that the United States has hit bottom, but I have been disappointed again and again.  We remain addicted to money, to resentment, and to conflict.  Eventually we shall have to turn the corner and start moving towards real regeneracy.  I hope we will still be the same nation, territorially, when we do.

Saturday, December 04, 2021

The 1619 Project: Whence it came

 About four weeks ago, Jake Silverstein of the New York Times, who oversaw the original 1619 Project two years ago and subsequently defended it against an opening round of criticism from accomplished historians, wrote another long piece to commemorate the publication of an expanded version as a book.  He coupled a renewed defense of its main arguments--including the completely discredited claim that substantial numbers of Americans joined the American revolution to defend slavery against the British--while trying to put the project and the reaction to it in a broader historical and academic context.  Although Silverstein himself is only 46, he stated the bare facts of what has happened to history over the last 55 years or so pretty accurately, but from a very particular standpoint.  For reasons that I hope to make clear, I regard these developments as a catastrophe. He regards them as a triumph.

Silverstein begins this part of his long essay with a threadbare survey of American historians from the 19th century to the 1960s.  Only two are mentioned by name.  Silverstein describes the 10-volume history of George Bancroft as "generally seen as the first comprehensive history of the country," having an "incalculable influence.  He could not have actually looked at those ten volumes:  they tell only the history of the country from the first European landings in North America to the  adoption of the Constitution,   Bancroft did, as he says, regard the new country as an expression of the most advanced ideas of the age--and Bancroft was right.  His work was however anything but a simple hagiography.  He used extensive multi-archival research to write as good a history of the diplomacy surrounding the American Revolution as has ever been written.  From there Silverstein jumps about half a century to the progressive historian Charles A. Beard, who argued early in the 20th century that the Constitution might simply have reflected "a group of economic interests which must have expected beneficial results from its adoption."  I happen to admire Beard myself for many reasons, but Silverstein states falsely that he fell out of favor because his views "could not provide the necessary inspiration for the America that envisioned itself a defender of global freedom and democracy" during the Cold War.  This is an oversimplification in at least two ways. First, although Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution created a sensation when it was published in 1913, his greatest influence came later with his textbook, The Rise of American Civilization--co-authored with his wife--which sold hundreds of thousands of copies beginning in 1927 and undoubtedly helped many Americans warm to FDR's New Deal.  Secondly, the turn against Beard's interpretation of the Constitution came after critics showed very clearly that he had oversimplified the economic interests that helped shape the Constitution and had read issues from his own time back into the Constitutional period--not coincidentally, exactly what so many historians are doing today.  Silverstein's historical views lack the subtlety to understand any of this.  He is simply inviting his readers--as many professional historians do as well--to ignore anything written before 1968 or so.

Silverstein then makes the argument, very familiar to historians, that new generations, starting in the 1960s, transformed history by paying more attention to the common people and less to elites. “From the perspective supplied by the new history," he quotes a 1975 article, "it has become clear that the experience of women, children, servants, slaves and other neglected groups are quite as integral to a comprehensive understanding of the past as that of lawyers, lords and ministers of state.”  He then precedes to argue, in effect, that historians before the 1960s had only paid attention to slavery in order to whitewash it.  There was in fact a prominent historical school in the early 20th century led by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips that tried to do just that, but it was never the only game in town, and the slavery issue was the subject of much of the best American history written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  It was at the heart of what remains perhaps the greatest single work of American history ever written, Allen Nevins's The Ordeal of the Union, on the immediate origins of the Civil War.  Only the emergence of black historians, he argues, allowed a more enlightened view to emerge--a view which would come as a great surprise to white historians such as Eugene Genovese, whose Roll, Jordan Roll remains the single best work on American slavery.  

It is here that we come to the heart of the matter: the idea that we have improved American history because, and only because, it is now written by many people who do not happen to be straight white males, and who therefore see truths that make white males uncomfortable.  In fact, good and bad historians come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and the emphasis on identity as a source of truth is behind the central flaw of the 1619 project and a great deal more of recent writing about American history.  Typically, Silverstein implies that the black historian Annette Gordon-Reid was the first to confirm that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by Sally Hemmings.  In fact, a white woman, Fawn Brodie, had argued this at length about thirty years earlier.  A broader, critical example of this way of thinking is a key point of the project, the "centrality" of slavery in American history.  To be sure, to two groups of Americans before 1861--slaves and slaveholders--slavery was the central fact of their lives and inevitably shaped their political outlook.  To the much larger number of Americans who fell into neither of those categories, it was not.  And not only was slavery not the central fact of life within the early American republic, it was not the unique fact about it either. Slavery in 1789 existed in much of the western hemisphere.  What was unique about the United States was its experiment in republican, elected government based on a universal idea of human nature--even if that idea was not originally applied in practice to anyone but white males. Thus, the traditional focus on political conflict in histories of the United States was entirely appropriate--all the more so since the country's political principles were bound to conflict with slavery, and eventually, to bring it down after a bloody war. Silverstein, on the other hand, claims that the United States was never really a democracy until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and that slavery and racism, in many forms, are still the basis for the organization of our society.  That is how today's historians, trained to focus on people who "looked like them," think, but many Americans of all races justifiably reject those claims.  To accept them simply writes off decades of extraordinary political and economic progress for all Americans, black as well as white, in order to make today's activists feel like the most important actors in American history.  

The changes in the historical profession Silverstein discusses came out of the general rejection of our parents' world by so many vocal members of my generation in the mid-1960s--largely, but not entirely, because of the Vietnam War.  At the height of that conflict in the late 1960s radical activists proclaimed, in essence, that everything our parents and teachers had ever told us was a lie, and that their vaunted democracy oppressed almost everyone.  Thanks to the gradual dissemination of those ideas over subsequent decades--largely through higher education--many younger people, like Silverstein, now seem to accept the idea that American society and American history before 1968 or so were simply a vast conspiracy of oppression by rich white males of everyone else, and that things have only begun to improve since. The opposite is true.  The years 1940-1980, statistics show, were the years of most rapid economic progress for black Americans.  That is because they were the years of the most rapid economic progress, and the greatest economic equality, for all Americans. It is since 1980 that the favorable mid-century trends have been reversed, and the Boom generation did less than nothing to stop that.  What I am suggesting is that their view of history--which the younger people who have written the 1619 project share--has been no better for the country than the economic policies of the three Boomer presidents, Clinton, Bush II, and Trump, and the other Boomers who have dominated finance and industry over that time.  

Near the conclusion of his article, Silverstein actually concludes, first, that history has some obligation to provide sustaining myths to the nation as a whole, and secondly, that it can only do so by falsifying the past.  "Democracy, we are often told," he writes, "requires a free press, one that will hold power to account. Does it also require a robust historical profession, free to ramify in a hundred directions at once, not all of them inspiring? Or in this regard do journalism and history differ, with journalism providing democracy its greatest service when most unshackled and critical, while history operates best with the sense of decorum and tradition that foments civic pride?" "You could see the pitched battles over public memory that have occurred since then as a product of the new history’s corrosive effect on national unity," he says,  "or you could conclude that a republic founded on an irresolvable contradiction — freedom and slavery — was always going to wind up in an irresolvable argument over how to tell its story, that this contentiousness is American democracy, that the loss of consensus means we’ve finally arrived."  I see them the first way--while not ignoring the problems that the ahistorical right is creating, too--and I'm not ashamed to say so.  Silverstein bluntly says at one point that history is inherently political.  He evidently thinks that his own profession should be as well.  That is why both history and journalism today are--to borrow another phrase from the late 1960s--part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Two Views of Higher Ed

 I have been looking at two relatively recent books about higher education, both by successful academics.  The first, The Breakdown of Higher Education, came out quite recently.  Its author John Ellis, a scholar of literature, has been a vocal and trenchant critic of trends in higher ed in general and the humanities in particular for at least thirty years, contributing frequently to Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars.  The second, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, comes from Lani Guinier, a professor at Harvard Law School.  Both of them argue that higher ed is on the wrong track, but for completely different reasons.  Both also propose some solutions.  Combined with certain other recent indications, they leave me with a strong sense of where my old profession is going.

Ellis began teaching at UC Santa Cruz early in the revolution, in 1966.  Although I think he oversimplifies academia's problems just a bit, I have come to agree with him on the essentials.  A left wing ideology, one that I have discussed many times here, now dominates nearly every college and university in the country.  It is obsessed with real or imagined power differentials between men and women, whites and nonwhites, straights and gays, and so forth.  That intellectual approach--or, as Ellis and I would agree, anti-intellectual approach--not only dominates the humanities and social sciences, but has also spawned a huge bureaucracy of administrators designed to encourage and enforce it.  Most important of all, colleges and universities now regard advancing a "social justice" agenda as their primary mission--not studying and trying to add to the intellectual heritage of the past.  Ellis also shows that this approach is making inroads into STEM fields as well.  

I differ somewhat from Ellis as to exactly why this has happened.  He sees it, really, as a vast conspiracy of leftwing scholars trying to transform not only academia, but society at large.  In support of his position, he quotes effectively from the founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the 1962 Port Huron statement, which stressed the university's role in spreading values, good or bad.  Here is some of what that document said:

 "These, at least, are facts, no matter how dull the teaching, how paternalistic the rules, how irrelevant the research that goes on. Social relevance, the accessibility to knowledge, and internal openness, these together make the university a potential base and agency in a movement of social change.

"1. Any new left in America must be, in large measure, a left with real intellectual skills, committed to deliberativeness, honesty, reflection as working tools. The university permits the political life to be an adjunct to the academic one, and action to be informed by reason.

"2. A new left must be distributed in significant social roles throughout the country. The universities are distributed in such a manner.

"3. A new left must consist of younger people who matured in the postwar world, and partially be directed to the recruitment of younger people. The university is an obvious beginning point.

"4. A new left must include liberals and socialists, the former for their relevance, the latter for their sense of thoroughgoing reforms in the system. The university is a more sensible place than a political party for these two traditions to begin to discuss their differences and look for political synthesis.

"5. A new left must start controversy across the land, if national policies and national apathy are to be reversed. The ideal university is a community of controversy, within itself and in its effects on communities beyond.

"6. A new left must transform modern complexity into issues that can be understood and felt close-up by every human being. It must give form to the feelings of helplessness and indifference, so that people may see the political, social and economic sources of their private troubles and organize to change society. In a time of supposed prosperity, moral complacency and political manipulation, a new left cannot rely on only aching stomachs to be the engine force of social reform. The case for change, for alternatives that will involve uncomfortable personal efforts, must be argued as never before. The university is a relevant place for all of these activities."

Fueled by the Vietnam War and the advent of the younger Boom generation, this document became extraordinarily influential over the rest of the decade, beginning with Mario Savio's speeches at Berkeley in late 1964,  which I have often quoted, referring to Berkeley students ruled just as severely by college bureaucracy as the black people of Mississippi were by white supremacy.  Activism on campus faded in the 1970s and particularly the 1980s, but it has returned over the last decade in particular, and I have to agree Ellis that these paragraphs now resemble the mission statements of many schools. I cannot agree however that all this adds up to a well-organized revolutionary conspiracy like Lenin's Bolsheviks (to be fair, I don't think Ellis actually makes that analogy).  Because the new left dedicated itself to self-expression, it repeatedly failed at organization--a tradition continued by its grandchildren in Occupy and BLM.  In my opinion, legions of mediocre academics--and the vast majority of today's academics are mediocre--have adopted social justice as a substitute for real intellectual achievement.  The most mediocre academics become administrators, and administrators have done this on behalf of their whole institution.  Hardly any college or university cares any more about offering a distinctive educational product, but they are all obsessed with diversity, equity and inclusion.  I have to agree, however, that the impact of the new academic ideology has now spread into the larger society, since it dominates the elite media, the entertainment industry, and, increasingly, the Democratic Party.  

Late in the book, Ellis talks revealingly about his attempts to get both his own university and the UC system as a whole to acknowledge the ubiquity of political indoctrination in the classroom, which violates long-standing regulations. The story he tells parallels many recent incidents of free speech controversies on campus.  On the one hand, faculty and administrators try to deny free speech to unfriendly ideas, or propagate specific political stances.  On the other hand, senior administrators insist on the record that their devotion to academic freedom remains unshaken and that they oppose politicizing the classroom.  That has in fact become their role: to stand between the ideologues on their faculty and in their administration on one side, and the broader public, including their trustees and major donors, on the other.  

What is to be done?  Ellis hopes that the legislatures of some states--presumably Republican ones--will use the power of the purse to defund politicized administrators and impose some requirements for intellectual diversity on faculties, where Republicans have nearly ceased to exist.  Once they have become more traditional and serious institutions of higher learning, he hopes, they can become a model for others.  Much as I have always admired Ellis, I can't share his optimism about this course of action.  Unfortunately we no longer have a cadre of young academics who could help restore the best intellectual and educational traditions of the west.   I was in the last generation of students trained to do this, and the most accomplished of us had little or no impact on the trends of the last 50 years. Instead, I think we should be focusing upon how to preserve the western tradition outside academia--but that is a subject for another day.

Professor Lani Guinier of Harvard Law became known to the nation in 1993, when President Clinton tried and failed to make her the head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.  Her views on how to increase black representation in government were too controversial for those days even for leading Democrats to push her nomination--although today I doubt they would raise an eyebrow.  Her book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America is equally critical of institutions of higher learning, led by her own, but for different reasons, and her solutions are very different as well.

Guinier argues that the SATs, in particular, have created a "testocracy," rule by those who perform best on the SATs.  She also claims that the testocracy is the new means of maintaining an oligarchy of the wealthy.  That was certainly not the role that the SATs originally played.  When they became common in the 1950s they helped democratize higher education, although administrators, fearing that their campuses would be dominated by bright Jewish applicants who in those days were the top performers on them, balanced their impact with quotas and new emphases on "geographical distribution."  Guinier doesn't mention that today, Asian students are the top SAT performers--including many who are not from well-off families at all--and that their numbers are now restricted in the same way that the Jews' numbers were.  She does have a point that test preparation, which didn't exist when I took them in 1964-5, has given wealthier kids an edge.  That  problem could largely be solved, I think, by forcing the College Board to put together about half a dozen very different kinds of SAT tests, each using a different approach, so that students wouldn't know which test they would face until D-Day.  Few indeed would take the time and money to prepare for every one.  But Guinier isn't interested in improving the tests, only in doing away with them.  She would put admissions on a completely different basis.

Guinier argues that institutions like her own are wasting the education they can offer on rich, pampered kids who don't really need it because they have already learned so much.  They should instead focus on less well off students, many of them nonwhite, who could benefit more.  She even criticizes Harvard's affirmative action policies for admitting too many middle-class, biracial, and immigrant black students who do not reflect in her view the average black experience.   (I can't help pointing out that Guinier, who was two years behind me at Harvard, was that kind of admit herself--her father became the chairman of the African-American Studies department while she was there.) She also wants to transform how American education takes place by insisting on collaborative work among students, which she says has been extraordinarily successful in certain experimental high schools and individual college classrooms. She uses it herself, allowing her law students to collaborate on final exams.  This is the way, she argues, to allow students who do not do well on standardized tests to excel.  Finding opportunities for those students, she argues, is crucial for our democracy.  She also expects the cooperative approach to transform the way our society grapples with its biggest problems.  

Since 1950 or so, several new developments have transformed higher education in the United States.  First of all, the student population expanded several times over--and the faculty and administration expanded much faster than the student population.   Secondly, television, and now computers, replaced books as sources of leisure.   Thirdly, as Ellis points out, higher education became more politicized (and this has happened now in K-12 as well, particularly in elite high schools.)  All this has reduced the amount of time that students spend studying considerably.  Ellis cites a study finding that students spent about 21 hours a week studying in 1961, but only 12 or 14 hours per week studying in 2010.  Course workloads have fallen way down as well.  In my opinion, society would have been much better served by holding back the growth of higher education, while continuing the trend of 1933-71 that opened up better opportunities for a decent life for people who had not had it.  It also should never have allowed the continuing growth in faculty and administration that has more than tripled the real cost of college since the mid-1960s.  

I think that in the current context, the changes Guinier proposes are more mainstream than those put forward by Ellis.  The Chronicle of Higher Education is filled with articles on how to throw out more elements of our educational tradition, including one I just read explaining how the author grades students by offering them several options for how much work they want to do, and simply giving the As to those who perform the largest assignments in a satisfactory manner.  Higher education, I think, must provide means to identify and nurture the tiny minority of truly gifted intellectuals who can make unique contributions for us all.  A lifetime in education has taught me that those individuals come from every economic class, both sexes, and every race--that they are in fact scattered pretty much at random throughout the population.  Higher education must also train professionals, including K-12 teachers, and help everyone share in our cultural heritage.  Meanwhile, we must make a better life more accessible, once again, to those who do not need four-year college.  The current system is now fueled by debt that many students will never be able to pay, and shows signs of collapsing under its own weight.  That, rather than conservative legislators, might give a few creative leaders the chance to make higher education more effective again.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

An American Hero

 Today's New York Times features a long account of how Nancy Pelosi shepherded the current version of the Build Back Better bill through the House of Representatives.  Working with younger progressives and older moderates, and talking one-on-one with Senate roadblock Joe Manchin, she managed first to get the infrastructure bill through, and then to pass a version of the second, larger bill that may well survive the Senate after a couple of changes.  That got me thinking about Pelosi's historical significance and that of her whole generation.

Pelosi, now 81, came--like quite a few prominent Democratic politicians today, and some Republicans--from a political dynasty.  Her father was Thomas d'Alessandro, a long-time mayor of Baltimore, who in the late 1950s had the honor (as I remember) of escorting Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth to a Naval Academy football game during a state visit to the US.  (With a little more research into the Queen's sporting interests, he might have taken her to Pimlico instead!)  Pelosi has been in and around politics all her life.  Like so many women of the Silent generation, she married right out of college and began having children, five in all.  Her family had moved to San Francisco, where she became a leader in Democratic Party politics without running for office.  She was very close to Congressman Phil Burton and Burton's wife Sala, who succeeded Burton after he died in 1982, and Sala Burton annointed Pelosi as her chosen successor to her very safe San Francisco seat when she herself was dying of cancer in 1987. Pelosi won a special election and has held the seat every since, for 34 years.  She became the House minority whip in 2001 after 14 years there, and the minority leader the following year.  It comes as rather a shock to realize that she has been Speaker of the House for only seven years--from 2007 through 2011, and from 2019 until now.  The Republicans have controlled the House for 19 of the 34 years she has served.  She seems likely to step down in another year whether they regain control next November or not.

Amazon.com shows a couple of short biographies of Pelosi and several collections of articles about her, but nothing close to a definitive biography appears to have been written  This is too bad.  No woman has yet held a more powerful position than Speaker of the House, and she must have been an extraordinary politician to reach the party leadership.  The Democratic class of 1974 was one of the largst and ost influential in House history, but she leapt over them all to become the party leader.  More astonishingly, the whole Boom generation never produced a significant member of the House leadership, and the other two top Democrats today, James Clyburn and Steny Hoyer, are also Silents. (Republican House leaders Newt Gingrich and John Boehner, on the other hand, were Boomers, and Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy are from Gen X.) Joe Biden climbed to the top of generational political heap last fall when he became the first Silent to reach the White House, but he is still quite obviously depending on Pelosi to get anything done.  Therein lies a broader historical tale.

The Silent generation (b. 1925-46)--children during the Depression and the Second World War--belong to what Strauss and Howe called the Artist archetype.  Their counterparts from earlier eras were the Compromise generation (including Daniel Webster and especially Henry Clay) from the early Republic and pre-civil war era, and the Progressive generation (b. 1843-1862 or so), which produced Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.  After living through violent times in their childhood, these generations tend to become accommodators and conciliators, wary of the ideologues coming from the next-younger Prophet generation.  The Compromisers prevented the Civil War from breaking out until after their leading figures had passed from the scene, and the Progressives, who dreamed of universal peace during and after the First World War, gave way to the Missionaries who led the nation through the greatest war of all time.  The Silent generation--which also includes Mitch McConnell--have lasted so long at the highest levels of political power partly because they learned their trade when our politics still worked.  The Democratic ones in particular do not let ideology stand in the way of getting something done.  

Pelosi has already been credited by some with the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Barack Obama was reportedly ready to give up on it after Scott Brown's Senate victory in Massachusetts took away the Democrats' supermajority in early 2010, but she insisted on trying to get it through via reconciliation, which worked.  She has now managed a very demanding year of negotiations within her own party to get the Infrastructure and Build Back Better bills through a fractious House.  First she persuaded the Democratic left to allow the infrastructure bill to pass (even though some of its most fervent members insisted on voting against it.)  Now she got enough moderates on board for Build Back Better, and the Times story suggests that she has reached some kind of deal with Manchin as well. (It is not clear, however, that she has been in touch with Kristin Sinema.)  All this amounts to a replay, 171 years later, of Clay's Compromise of 1850.  Sadly, these compromise measures--like that one--will not put an end to the controversies that were, and are, fracturing the nation--but that was not Clay or Pelosi's fault.  It will soon be up to the Boom and Xer generations to show that they can do better than the Transcendentals like Davis and Lincoln and find a way to avoid a new breakup of the country or civil war. 

Pelosi's career has another interesting feature.  She has been subject to sexist attacks for the last 20 years.  Searching amazon for books about her, I also found on the same page ads for a Nancy Pelosi urinal target, a Fuck Nancy Pelosi daily planner, and Nancy Pelosi toilet paper.  Amazon shows no similar products for Donald Trump.  I am sure that Pelosi, like professional women of the GI generation (and yes, there were significant numbers of them), encountered plenty of sexism among fellow Democrats too--but she never makes much of a public issue of it.  This was also the attitude of many successful people from earlier generations about racial and ethnic prejudice: yes, it was there, yes, it was infuriating, but it seemed better not to dignify it by reacting and save one's energy for getting things done.  That has become a most unfashionable attitude in the age of microaggressions, and I hope some younger generation will revive it.

Monday, November 15, 2021

The Fall of the American Empire?

 Six years ago, in a post entitled "The Fourth Great Crisis in American National Life," I argued that the crisis in our civilization was ending in a new Gilded Age of personal individual freedom and massive corporate power and economic inequality.  I am now wondering whether I was too optimistic.  I did not foresee, at that moment in December 2015, the nomination and election of Donald Trump and his effective takeover of the Republican Party.  Corporate power was continually expanding regardless of which party held the White House, and had no need to rig elections.  I had already recognized the judicial coup d'├ętat that had given George W Bush the presidency in 2000, but I couldn't envision a sitting president inciting a riot to try to overturn clear results in four different states, or the amendment of state laws to allow gerrymandered legislatures to overturn the popular vote.  Nor did I imagine a great pandemic and what it would reveal about the United States in the 21st century.

Our nation, as I have seen clearly reading early presidential addresses, was founded on the principle that human reason could promote the greatest good for the greatest number, and that elected governments could work.  Lincoln explicitly began the war to suppress the confederate rebellion to prove that democratic government could survive.  Franklin Roosevelt justified his policies, both domestic and foreign, on the same grounds.  In the last two years, a new crisis--the pandemic--has split the nation over the question of the authority of science, with whole sections of the country defying it at the cost of the lives of tens of thousands of their citizens.  So hostile to our central government has the Republican party become that it now wants to strip it of perhaps the most fundamental attribute of a modern state, a monopoly of legitimate force.   And activists and bureaucrats on the other, Democratic side of the political fence have adopted a world view based upon identity instead of universal human reason.  People, and their ideas, are bad or good based upon the racial and gender characteristics of those who hold them, and many of them, implicitly or explicitly, also condemn the whole enterprise of western civilization as nothing more than a scheme for straight white male dominance.  And while Republicans reject all restrictions on private firearms, leftist legal reformers have decided that punishment is more of a problem than crime.  They also stand in the way of a consensus based upon data and reason that might restore faith in our institutions across party lines.

In the spring of 1969 I took the second half of a course on modern France taught by Stanley Hoffmann, who later became a good friend of mine.  That course began around 1890, when a new generation of intellectuals-- both left and right--rebelled against the highly bureaucratic and uninspiring Third Republic.  The same thing was already happening in Hoffmann's other ancestral home, the United States--I learned only much later that his father was American--but oddly, I do not remember him mentioning that, even when leftist revolution brought classes to a halt for about a week that April.  I had grown up believing in the New Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society, and for the most part I still do, but I have now concluded that there is something about a bureaucratic state based upon reason that repels significant elements of human nature.  The impulse towards nationalism and national pride that dominated western nations from the 18th century until the last third of the twentieth also seems to have proven to be just one historical phase.  One reason, ironically, has been the invention of nuclear weapons.  They have as it turned out eliminated war among the great powers, vastly reducing the size of national armies and removing another element of the glue that formerly held nations together.  Thus, even if war were to break out between China and the United States over Taiwan--which is quite possible--it might just as easily divide the US further as unite us, especially since we would probably fail to keep Taiwan out of Chinese hands.

Lastly, while so many millions of ordinary people have lost faith in our intellectual class, that class is more confident than ever of its right to rule based on its own beliefs.  That may be why the Democratic Party no longer bothers to make national effort to sell policies like Obamacare or the bills that Biden is now trying to get through Congress.  Their righteousness is supposed to be self-justifying.  Our foreign policy elite, despite the catastrophes into which both parties have led us in the last twenty years, still sets goals for all the world and zealously sanctions anyone who stands in their way.  

Where will all this end?  The Supreme Court may very well overturn Roe v. Wade by next spring, and the Republicans seem likely to win back control of at least the House, and possibly the Senate, next fall.  Those developments will, I suspect, accelerate demands to break up the country.  Faith in our institutions held us together for more than 200 years, but that faith is gone.  Prominent academics such as Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman are rewriting our history to undermine it.  Summarizing his new book, Feldman  two weeks ago in the New York Times argued in effect that Lincoln's decision to put down the rebellion in 1861 was unconstitutional and that the Emancipation Proclamation had no proper legal foundation.  Yesterday Professor Sean Wilentz, to his great credit, showed clearly how wrong Feldman's historical interpretation is, but he is one of the rare academics who has not repudiated the early American experiment. Feldman's view is mainstream.  Without a critical mass of Americans devoted to our best traditions, we cannot maintain them.  I do not see that critical mass today.

Saturday, November 06, 2021

Tuesday's elections--an analysis

[The last two paragraphs of this post have been updated.]

On Wednesday I posted in a facebook group about the elections in Virginia, where the Democrats lost the governorship, and in New Jersey, where it turns out that they won a close race.  I said at that time that those elections showed that large numbers of Republicans who had refused to vote for Donald Trump--including many who had voted Democratic--had returned to the Republican fold.  I have now looked at figures for the last three elections in each of those states--2017 (governor), 2020 (president), and 2021 (governor.)  It turns out that I was wrong.

Let's look at New Jersey first.  In 2017, the Democratic candidate for governor, Phil Murphy, won over Carlos Rendo, with 1.2 million votes to 900,000. a 56-42 per cent margin.  In the 2020 presidential election, the total vote more than doubled, and Joe Biden beat Donald Trump, 2.6 million votes to 1.9 million, a 57-41 per cent margin.    The turnout of 4.5 million represented a very substantial increase from the 3.9 million turnout in 2016, and Donald Trump increased his vote by nearly 300,000 votes.  What happened in this year's election is quite astonishing.  The Republican vote dropped from 1.9 million for Trump last year to 1.2 million for the Republican gubernatorial candidate.   The Democratic vote dropped from 2.6 million for Biden to just 1.3 million for Governor Murphy--a drop of more than 50%.  Republicans felt much more motivated to vote than Democrats.   The comparison with the 2017 gubernatorial election is even more striking. Murphy polled less than 100,000 votes more in 2021 than in 2017, while the Republican vote increased by about 320,000 votes. 

The Virginia results are similar, but even more striking.  In 2017 Ralph Northen (D) received 1.4 million votes against Ed Gillespie's 1.2 million, winning by 54-45 per cent.  Last year, turnout was up about 10% from the 2016 presidential election in Virginia, and Biden totaled 2.4 million votes to Trump's 2 million, winning 54-44 per cent--the same margin as in the governor's race.  This year, the Democratic vote for Terry McAuliffe increased by 180,000 votes from four years ago, reaching 1.6 million.   The Republican vote grew by almost half a million votes in four years, and Glenn Youngkin beat Terry McAuliffe by 1.7 million to 1.6 million votes.   Comparing the vote to last year's, we find that that the Republican vote declined only 300,000 votes--while the Democratic vote fell by 825,000 votes.  One in every three Democratic votes for Biden either failed to show up at the polls or voted Republican. Think about that.

 The CNN exit polls for 2020 and 2021 in Virginia show another interesting story.  In 2020, the voters they polled--presumably reflecting an attempt to get a representative sample--were 67 per cent white, 18 per cent black, 7 per cent Hispanic, and  4 per cent Asian.  This year those figures read 73 per cent white, 16 per cent black, 5 per cent Hispanic, and 3 per cent Asian.  The Republican share of the white vote rose from 53% for Trump to 62% for Youngkin, while Youngkin's percentage among the minority groups actually increased.  

Both county-by-county data from Virginia and a CNN exit poll that I had not noticed confirm my essential conclusion: Republicans crushed \Democrats in turn-out.  In Bath County, a white, rural area featured in a New York Times story on Sunday, November 7, Trump beat Biden by 1834 votes to 646.  Youngkin beat McAuliffe by 1534 to 395.  The Republican vote fell by 1/6, the Democratic vote by more than 1/3.  In Chesterfield county, a Richmond suburb that showed the biggest swing in its vote in the state, Biden won by 107,000 to 93,000, and Youngkin won by 82,000 to 74,000.  The Republican vote fell by a little more than 1/8; the Democratic vote fell by more than 1/4.  And in largely black Richmond, the Democratic vote fell from  92,000  to 60,000--essentially the same percentage as the Democratic vote in the state as a whole--while the Republican vote fell from 17,000 to 15,000.  Last but not least, the CNN poll asked voters not only for their vote this year, but last. 95% of Biden voters voted for McAuliffe; 98% of Trump voters voted for Youngkin. That, I believe, amounts to a net shift of about 1.5% from Democrats to Republicans, within an overall shift of 6% statewide. 

     This data suggests that Donald Trump may have left behind a far more united and determined Republican Party, one whose voters will turn out in much higher percentages than Democratic ones this fall, even in blue and purple states.  Barring unforeseen events--of which there is rarely a shortage these days--the Democrats, who look more divided than ever this week in Congress, do seem likely to lose both houses of Congress in November, putting an end to any hopes of new legislative achievements and setting the stage for two years of gridlock.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

A COVID update

 Last Thursday afternoon, I received my Moderna booster and a flu shot.  I experienced a much more severe reaction than I had for either of my original shots, and was laid pretty low for a full 48 hours.  Thus I am taking a relatively easy way out this morning and will content myself with an update on COVID data from around the country for the last week, and how it compares to previous weeks.

The news, basically, is good, suggesting that the delta variant surge has definitely passed its peak.  On August 20, nationwide new deaths per million for the previous week were at 23.  Two weeks later, on September 3, new deaths per million for the past week were up to 35, and on September 17 that figure was 41.  It appears to have peaked one week later on September 24 at 44, and on October 8 it was down to 41.  The average figure for the next two weeks was 35, and for the week ending last Friday it was just 30.  In short, weekly deaths nationwide nearly doubled between August 20 and September 24, and if present trends continue we will be down to the August 20 level within two more weeks.

Meanwhile, however, we remain two completely different countries with respect to the pandemic.  19 of the top 20 most seriously hit states last week were red or purple. The full list includes Montana, West Virginia, Idaho, Kansas, North Dakota, Georgia, Ohio, South Carolina, Kentucky, Delaware (blue), Wyoming, Oklahoma, Florida, Arizona, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Texas, Maine, Alaska, and Michigan.  They averaged 43 deaths per million people for the week.  The best-off 20 states, on the other hand, averaged just 16 deaths per million, and 15 of them are blue.  The full list: Colorado, Utah, Washington, Minnesota, Oregon, Vermont, South Dakota, Louisiana, California, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Connecticut, Nebraska, D.C., Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.  There are 216 million people in those 20 worst-hit states, and 5832 people died there last week who would not have if their death rates had matched that of the 20 best off states.  These figures also explain why we are losing people more quickly than the major European states now.  

The refusal of the political authorities in the red states--who presumably speak for the majority of their populations--illustrates the attack on enlightenment principles coming from the right.  Another attack, based on identity as the source of all knowledge, is coming from the left.  I do not think there is any alternative to enlightenment principles to hold a modern nation together.


Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Republicans Struggle On

It was about nine and a half years ago that I wrote the post reproduced below, about half way through the Obama Administration.  Thanks to important reading about Communist strategy during the Vietnam War, I realized that the Republican Party was pursuing a long-term strategy of making it impossible for the federal government--their enemy--to function.  I was reminded of it and moved to repost it by reports that two Republican Senators, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, are pushing the strategy to new heights--or rather, depths--in the Senate.  Cruz is putting a "hold" on every Biden ambassadorial appointment to pressure the Administration to impose sanctions on European nations who have agreed on a new natural gas pipeline from Russia.  Hawley is doing the same for every confirmable appointment to both the State and Defense Departments in an obviously vain attempt to get Secretary of State Blinken, Secretary of Defense Austin, and National Security Adviser Sullivan to resign because of the results of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.  As a result, only one ambassador as been confirmed, nine full months into the Biden administration.  Only 21% of State Department positions in Washington requiring confirmation have been confirmed.  

68 years ago, Republican Senator Joe McCarthy tried to block President Eisenhower's selection of Charles Bohlen, one of our leading Soviet experts at the time, as Ambassador to the USSR. Bohlen had served in the American delegation at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, and Republicans had branded that meeting as a treacherous betrayal of the United States.  President Eisenhower refused to be intimidated, however, and Bohlen was confirmed.  McCarthy at that point was almost unique in his demagoguery, but Cruz and Hawley are Republican stars, past and future presidential hopefuls.  I remember the day in the spring of 1961 when my father appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after JFK had appointed him Ambassador to Senegal.  Also present was a black academic, a Howard University professor of romance languages named Mercer Cook, who had been chosen as Ambassador to Niger.  The committee approved both of them quickly.  They had not had to fill out endless questionnaires about their financial situations in those distant days, and when the Senator chairing the hearing--Frank Lausche of Ohio, I believe--asked a single standard question as to whether they had any holdings that would create a conflict of interest, Cook replied, "Sir, I'm a schoolteacher," to general laughter.  My father and Cook were typical of an almost new kind of ambassadorial appointment of which JFK made a couple of dozen--neither foreign service officers nor major campaign contributors, but simply Americans who had distinguished themselves in government, journalism, or academia, who knew foreign languages and history, and whom the new administration thought would be good advertisements for the country.  They also included Edwin Reichsauer and John Kenneth Galbraith of Harvard, whom he appointed to Japan and India; William Attwood in Guinea; and General James Gavin in France.  

No Republican sought to hold any of those choices up, because everyone agreed that the United States was engaged in a continuing struggle to preserve and extend our values around the world.   No, we did not always wage it wisely, but it held us together and encouraged us to try to live up to our ideals, most notably with respect to civil rights.  We have lost the sense of our nation as a common enterprise, the view that presidents from one Roosevelt to the next managed to develop, and another few decades of presidents managed to maintain.  The same feeling enabled us to pass a series of lasting and effective domestic reforms, and to get rich Americans to pay their full share of the price of civilization.  I hope that somehow we can recover some of that.

The extent of Republican success became even more apparent earlier this week in a New York Times story about a nationwide attack on the authority of public health agencies, a result of the COVID epidemic.  These agencies were already underfunded when the epidemic began, and now threats have driven many of their leaders to resign, while Republican state and local governments cut back their authority.  Like the Republican gun mania, this attacks one of the fundamental functions of the modern state.  Quarantines and vaccines emerged centuries ago as essential weapons against disease, and now Republicans are taking them away where they can. 

Here is the original 2012 post.


One of the most important readings about the Vietnam War that I have ever encountered is a chapter by the late Douglas Pike, a real authority on the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, about dau tranh, or struggle, the philosophy behind the Vietnamese Communist revolution. Dau tranh, Pike explains, had two forms: military and political. Of the two, the political was far more important, and indeed, the Viet Cong always had several times as many active political workers as soldiers during the Vietnam War. Their mission was to rally their own troops and sow confusion among the enemy, doing whatever they could, in particular, to make the South Vietnamese government unable to function effectively. They also infiltrated that government at every level and tried to influence the views of enemy forces. Their goal, essentially, was to reduce society to chaos and allow the well-organized Communist Party to take over. The other day I raised some eyebrows in a small group setting by suggesting that the Republican Party has been practicing dau tranh for more than twenty years. It has now crippled government at all levels and has a good chance of reducing much of the United States to chaos in the next ten years.

Dau transh in its current form started with Newt Gingrich's all-out assault on the Democrats in the House of Representatives, whom he was determined to demonize in order to take away their majority. Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge, now signed by almost every Republican in Congress and thousands more in state legislatures around the country, is another form of dau tranh. So, of course, is the ceaseless drumbeat of propaganda day after day, week after week, year after year, on Limbaugh, Hannity and the rest. So is the attack on the authority of the mainstream media, universities and scientists. Oddly, while this attack on government probably did more than anything to land us in our current economic mess, the mess also makes dau tranh more effective, because it undermines confidence in the government. Conservative Republicans have also waged long-term dau tranh within our legal system, using the Federalist society to develop a network of conservative lawyers and judges and packing the courts whenever they can. Jeffrey Toobin has analyzed the increasingly significant results of that effort in a series of articles in the New Yorker.

I was moved to write this post because I have to deal with dau tranh almost daily myself in managing this blog. One of my regular readers is a fanatical right-winger who probably posts 50 comments a week here, week in and week out. They are not really comments, for the most part--they are links to some piece of right-wing propaganda, often accompanied with personal abuse towards myself. I think I know who he is, although we have never met face to face, and I also regard him as the prime suspect for having put my name on the Obama=Hitler email which is still circulating, even though he denied it when we were both still on the same discussion forum. (He was kicked off the forum when his dau tranh and personal abuse went too far.) I warn, of course, on the blog, that abusive anonymous comments will be deleted, but he berates me for doing so nonetheless. The attempt to keep the extreme Republican view of the world in the foreground is a key element of Republican dau tranh, just as it was for Nazis and Communists.

The Republicans' real target is the idea that dominated the last century--the idea that human reason can design, and create, a better world. That is why Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson have been given places in their Pantheon of villains. I'm afraid they have sufficiently discredited that idea that it no longer dominates our political life, and might be disappearing altogether. Their lust for power is much, much greater than their respect for the truth. This is the threat the nation faces. Pike also argued provocatively in one of his books that there was no known counter-strategy to dau tranh, and I'm afraid he may have been right.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Does Democracy Depend on Literacy?

 My new book in progress, States of the Union, 1789-2021--a concise political history of the US based on presidential addresses--is now complete in draft form through Herbert Hoover, and I am working on the research for FDR, focusing so far on the New Deal and his various attempts to reshape the economy before 1940.  Coincidentally, President Biden and the Democrats are trying to push a kind of new New Deal through Congress, including both an infrastructure package and redistributive measures dealing with health care, child care, and the tax code.  FDR had the advantage of huge Congressional majorities.  1930 through 1936 represent the only time in American history when the same party--the Democrats--gained strength in four consecutive presidential elections--although their greatest majority, the 1936 one, suddenly proved elusive during 1937.  He also enjoyed the support of some very liberal Republicans such as George Norris of Nebraska and Robert Lafollette of Wisconsin.  I am struck, however, by the difference in the kind of debate the country was having then and what we are having now.  The country debated many complex issues in a very sophisticated way in the 1930s--and we don't seem to be able to do that anymore.

For at least the first 160 years of our history, our leaders spoke frequently about the great democratic experiment that we had undertaken, and what it would take to make it succeed.  They took their mission very seriously--and so did the country.  Every significant newspaper (and some insignificant ones) printed major presidential addresses in full, and without radio, the movies, or television before 1920, the people had little choice but to read them, and they did.  The length of the State of the Union message grew steadily during the 19th century, partly because presidents didn't deliver it in person, and it peaked with Theodore Roosevelt, who annually sent messages of 20-25,000 words.  Woodrow Wilson brought the annual address into the modern era by drastically reducing its size and delivering it in person, and that has been the norm ever since.  FDR, despite the extraordinary breadth of his program, also kept his addresses relatively short, and he supplemented them with one or two radio Fireside Chats lasting 30-60 minutes each year, which also explained how he saw the nation's problems and what his administration and the Congress were trying to do about them in some detail.  In my earlier book on 1940-1, I found that evening radio addresses by major political figures had been another key forum for political debates.

By contrast, it seems to me that neither President Biden nor any other leading Democrats are making a sustained, detailed effort to explain what they are trying to do, what it will cost, and what effects they expect it to have to the American people.  If we read the newspapers and listen to a little cable news we know that a $550 billion infrastructure bill has already passed the Senate, and that the Democrats have an addition $2.5 trillion bill for child care, medicare expansion, and environmental measures under consideration, whose cost is likely to shrink to $1.5 trillion or less to get Senators Manchin and Sinema on board.  Checking, I find that the $550 billion infrastructure bill is for five years--$110 billion a year--whereas the $2.5 trillion infrastructure bill is for ten, another $250 billion a year.  Federal expenditures currently are about $6.6 trillion annually.  While I am not a domestic policy wonk, I think I'm better informed than average, and I have very little understanding of the details of either bill, how they will change the US, and what economic effects they are expected to have.  No one seems to be making much of an effort to let us know.

This must in part be the fault of our politicians.  Given that they are more or less required to spend several hours a day fundraising with wealthy donors and institutions, they don't have that much time for communicating with the public at large.  But it is also the fault of the media, which have transformed our political landscape.  I can't remember the last time that a Senator, a Congressman or a cabinet member made a major impression on the country with an hour long speech on some policy--perhaps because they do not think that significant numbers of Americans would watch or read such a speech.   The media runs on sound bites.  And broadcast media--television and talk radio--no longer sees its role as the vehicle for politicians to reach the country.  Rather than market our political leaders or our political process, the TV networks market themselves.  Even on NPR's News Hour--easily the most serious tv news broadcast available now--one sees many times as much of Yamiche Alcindor and Lisa Desjardins than one does of any political figure from Joe Biden on down.  That  problem is even bigger on the private cable networks.  The consequences of this trend emerged in dramatic, horrifying fashion in 2016, when a reality TV star defeated the leading candidates of both parties in the presidential election.  Our political leaders still hold our destiny in their hands, but we no longer pay them nearly as much attention as we did in the first two-thirds of our history.  The media used to tell us what politicians said and what they were doing--leaving the citizenry to decide how they felt about it.  Now they spend most of their time telling us what to feel about it.  

Democracy, the founders understood, required an informed citizenry.  That is why several early presidents, from Washington to John Quincy Adams, called frequently for a national university in Washington--a proposal Congress never adopted.  Perhaps American democracy grew and thrived largely because of a nationwide thirst for the printed word, then almost  the only form of entertainment.  Now books play much less of a role in our lives, the newspaper audience has shrunk, and the newspapers have cut way back on conveying complex information in favor of fanning approved emotion.  That is why even I had to look up the total of federal revenues (about $3.6 trillion) and expenditures (about $6.6 trillion) lately.  The cyberworld has been a godsend for me because it makes so much information instantly available--but one has to have the curiosity to find that information, and the framework in which to integrate it.  We don't teach those things anymore, and we are suffering for it.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

A Brief History of the Nobel Peace Prize

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to journalists from the Philippines and Russia this past week piqued my curiosity about what sort of person has generally received it in different eras.  With help from Wikipedia, I found that the answer was in some ways more interesting than I had expected.

Great wars, of course, mark appropriate dividing lines for a history of a prize devoted to peace.  The first thirteen years of the prize (1901-13) set the pattern for the future. Of the 18 persons or organizations awarded the prize during those years--multiple awards have always been common--15 of them had worked in  some national or international organization working for peace, such as the Interparliamentary Union or the International Peace Bureau.  Of the remaining three, two were American statesmen--President Theodore Roosevelt, recognized for mediating the peace negotiations between Russia and Japan in 1905, and former Secretary of State Elihu Root, who had worked for international arbitration.  The third was a German novelist, Bertha von Suttner, recognized for her pacifist and feminist novel Lay Down Your Arms. These three categories--individuals or organizations working for peace, statesmen who have done much to bring it about, and authors with a political bent--have remained the most popular kinds of selections ever since.

Only once during the First World War in 1914-18 was the prize awarded, to the International Red Cross-which has won three times--in 1917.  Peacemaking became the leading task of statesmen after that war, No less than ten leading politicians or diplomats won between 1919 and 1939, beginning with President Woodrow Wilson, justly regarded as the founder of the League of Nations.  Others in this group included the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany in 1924-5--Sir Austen Chamberlain, Aristide Briand, and Gustav Stresemann--and the American diplomat and soon-to-be Vice President Charles Dawes, who concluded the Locarno Treaties and reached a settlement of the reparations question during those years.  In 1936 the Argentinian foreign Minister Carlos Saavedra Lamas won for mediating a war between Paraguay and Bolivia. A new kind of winner, the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, won in 1922 for work among refugees, and the organization bearing his name won again for similar work in 1938.  Six individual activists for various causes related to peace won in this period, including the American social worker Jane Addams and a German journalist, Carl von Ossietzky, who had exposed Germany's secret rearmament.  The winners also included the British author Norman Angell, who had correctly predicted in his 1913 book The Great Illusion that great power war would be economically disastrous, falsely trusting that this would prevent the powers from embarking upon it.

The prize was not awarded from 1939 until 1944, when the International Red Cross won for the second time.  Long-time Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who won in late 1945 for helping to bring about the United Nations, was I suspect a stand-in for Franklin Roosevelt, who had died in April of that year (the prize has only once been given posthumously.)  In the years 1946-89--the era of the Cold War--23 activist individuals or organizations have won, including two Quaker organizations, the missionary Albert Schweitzer, Dr. Linus Pauling for his campaign against nuclear testing, Martin Luther King, Jr. , Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, the Polish labor leader Lech Walesa,  the Dalai Lama, and the South Amnesty International, Africans Albert Luthuli and Desmond Tutu.  The ten statesmen or diplomats who won during this turbulent era included Secretary of State George Marshall (for the plan that bore his name); the American Ralph Bunche and the Canadian Lester Pearson for stopping wars in the Middle East in 1948 and 1957;  German Chancellor Willy Brandt, for the agreements with Poland and East Germany that ended the critical period of the Cold War in Europe; Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (who declined the award) for negotiating the 1973 Vietnam agreement; UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjold, awarded the prize posthumously in 1961; Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat (but not Jimmy Carter) for the Camp David agreements of 1979; Prime Minister Eisaku Sato of Japan, who renounced nuclear weapons for his country; and Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, for attempts to bring peace to Central America, in 1987. They also included Mikhail Gorbachev, who did the most to bring the Cold War to an end.  

The post-Cold War period is now about thirty years old.  Initially, the end of that long conflict led to determined and sometimes successful attempts to settle longstanding conflicts.  Frederick Willem de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shared the prize for ending apartheid in South Afirca in 1993, and Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres won for the first major Israeli-Palestinian agreement in 1994.  Like Answar Sadat, Rabin also paid for his peacemaker's role with his life. Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta shared the prize for work to free their native East Timor in 1996, and South Korean President Kim Jae-Dung won for ultimately unsuccessful efforts to reconcile with North Korea in 2000.  John Hume and David Trimble, two Northern Irish politicians, won for helping to pacify their country in 1998.  Kofi Annan won for his work as UN Secretary General in 2001, and former President Carter won for numerous diplomatic efforts in 2002. Since then, however, the only two heads of government to win have been Juan Manuel Santos of Columbia, for helping to end his country's long civil war, and  Barack Obama, who received the award within months of taking office and did very little to justify it in his eight years as President.  His only major diplomatic achievement, the Iran nuclear agreement, did not survive the change of administration.  25 activist individuals and groups have won since 1991, including Al Gore for his work on global warming, three separate groups of women's rights activists in the Third World in 2011 (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leyman Gbowee, and Tawakkul Karman), 2014 (Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai), and 2016 (Nadia Mursa and Denis Mukwege), four Tunisians who helped set up a democratic government in their country after 2011, and this year's two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov.

Nine years ago, I concluded my last lecture at the Naval War College with the following quote from Clausewitz.

"“In war, as in life generally, all parts of a whole are interconnected and thus the effects produced, however small their cause, must influence all subsequent military operations. . .In the same way, every means must influence even the ultimate purpose. . .thus we can follow a chain of sequential objectives until we reach one that requires no justification, because its necessity is self-evident.  In many cases, particularly those involving great and decisive actions, the analysis must extend to the ultimate objective, which is to bring about peace.”

Rabin, Arafat and Peres won the Nobel for the Oslo Accords in 1994.  Those accords did not ultimately bear fruit, and since then, no head of state, head of government or foreign minster has won the Nobel Prize for actually settling an international conflict, and only one, in Colombia, has won for settling a civil war.  The major nations of the world--including, I regret to say, my own--have evidently forgotten that the task of statesmanship is to bring about peace.  Despite--and in some ways, because of--the two world wars, the dream of world peace dominated the 20th century.  We need to revive it in the 21st.