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Saturday, September 18, 2021

What General Milley did

 During the more than twenty years that I taught strategy and policy at the Naval War College, I had many occasions to think about the military plot that attempted to assassinate and overthrow Adolf Hitler in July 1944.  That plot actually went back at least until 1938, when some high-ranking officers discussed overthrowing Hitler to prevent a disastrous war with Britain and France. The plot revived again after that war broke out in the fall of 1939, but it collapsed completely after Germany defeated France.  It revived in 1943-4 when the war against the USSR began to go badly and the British and Americans had landed, first in Italy and then in France.  While the most senior officers involved had already lost their commands, many others were still active.  They paid for their complicity with their lives.  The question I wondered about from time to time--but never, I think, raised in class--was, if the American presidency had fallen into comparably evil hands, would senior American officers be willing to do something similar?  I was not confident that they would, because of the respect for civilian authority that is so much a part of their outlook.

Things never got anywhere near that far under Donald Trump, partly because he is clearly a coward who would shy away from actual military action or even a declaration of martial law.  He did however exercise disastrous leadership on a variety of fronts.  It now turns out that at the turn of the year 2020-2021, after Trump had lost the election, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, worried that Trump might begin war with China to try to save his presidency.  Bob Woodward has now reported--and Milley has not denied--that Milley made two calls to a senior Chinese general to try to avoid a Chinese reaction to a possible US attack. In the first call, he assured the general that no attack would take place.  In the second he assured him that if an attack was imminent, he, Milley, would let the Chinese general know in advance.  We shall see that Milley was not simply worried that the Chinese might falsely believe that war might be imminent, and that he took the possibility of American military action seriousy.  I do not agree with Republicans who suggested that these calls were treasonous.  The Constitution defines treason as giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States, and I interpret enemies to mean nations with whom the US is at war. We were not at war with China.  I am very curious to know exactly why Milley was worried about what Trump might do, and I hope that Senators will ask him that in detail when he testifies before them later this month. I do not think, though, that he found the appropriate means to  try to head off a possible war waged for political purposes.

A little less than two years ago, I discussed the issue of how senior military officers should have responded to the Trump presidency here, describing a public exchange I had at the JFK School of Government at Harvard with General James Mattis (retired), who at that time had just stepped down as Secretary of Defense.  I argued that I had been taught both during my own military service in the 1970s and again at the War College that if a soldier is serving under a commanding officer who is behaving in an illegal or disastrous manner, that soldier has not only a right but a duty to let higher authority know about what is happening. I had confirmed that belief with some of my old colleagues who were still serving officers.  If the commanding officer were the president of the United States, the higher authority would be either the Congress--which retains the power to remove him--or, in an election year, the American people.   Mattis made clear that he did not agree with me, but this is still what I think.  Donald Trump was trying to stage a coup in late December and early January, and Milley feared that he might use war to help make it happen.  He owed it to his countrymen to let us know. Had he done so, it might even have persuaded Mitch McConnell to vote for conviction in the subsequent impeachment trial, thus relieving the nation of the nightmare of Trump's threatened return to office.  But he didn't.

It seems that Milley genuinely worried that Trump might initiate war, including nuclear war.   According to an AP story, "Milley, according to the book, called the admiral overseeing the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the military unit responsible for Asia and the Pacific region, and recommended postponing upcoming military exercises. He also asked senior officers to swear an “oath” that Milley had to be involved if Trump gave an order to launch nuclear weapons, according to the book."  That was important because Milley himself had no authority to stop anything that Trump ordered.  None of the press accounts of this incident that I have seen have mentioned this, but under the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, while designated the president's senior military adviser, is not in the chain of command.  The chain of command runs directly from the President to the Secretary of Defense, and then to the local theater commander--in this case, the commander of what is now the Indo-Pacific Command (formerly CINCPAC), headquartered in Honolulu.  That was Admiral Philip S. Davidson, who should also appear before the Senate to give his perspective. 

Milley did apparently discuss Trump's deteriorating mental state with Speaker Pelosi, although it's not clear that he mentioned his fear of war.  The AP story also suggests that one US military exercise in the Far East was canceled.  But like General Mattis as Secretary of Defense, or one-time White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly, or National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, he did not share his concerns about Trump's leadership with the American people, and preferred to try to avert disaster behind the scenes, both within the miltiary chain of command and in conversations with a foreign general.  In so doing, I think, he contributed to the catastrophic decline of American democracy, which still threatens us with authoritarian rule in another few years.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

The anniversary

Lexington and Concord, the firing on Fort Sumter, and Pearl Harbor  were the catalytic violent events in the first three great crises in American national life.  September 11, 2001 played the same role in the fourth.  It's impact has been the opposite of the first three.  Lexington and Concord led to the Declaration of Independence, the victory over the British, and the writing of the Constitution.  Fort Sumter led to the northern victory four years later and the end of slavery.  Pearl Harbor led to the victory in the Second World War and the establishment of the United States as the leading power in the world.  9/11 led to the collapse of American politics, because our leadership responded to it in disastrous ways.  

We have forgotten the overwhelming national response to 9/11.  Overnight George W. Bush, previously a minority president of dubious legitimacy, turned into the symbol of national resolve.  Congress almost unanimously passed an open-ended resolution to fight a "war on terror," and, a year later, voted 296-133 in the House and 77-23 in the Senate (29-21 among the Democrats) to authorize the war in Iraq.  The mainstream media supported the two wars as well.  The chorus included a lot of people who should have known better.  One of my colleagues at the time in the Strategy and Policy Department of the Naval War College remembers a department meeting in which only three of us--including himself and myself--expressed reservations about the Iraq war, even though we had all been teaching for years about the Athenian expedition to Sicily and our parents' generation's adventure in Vietnam.  Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Douglas Feith, George Tenet and the rest of them had lived through Vietnam but had evidently convinced themselves that our defeat there was unnecessary, and that they could do better. They couldn't.  They embarked upon two bigger ventures--defined by the size and population of the territories we aimed to control--with far fewer men.  Failure was inevitable.  Yet the counterterror effort and the attempt to bring democracy to the Middle East by force persisted through the Obama administration in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, with more disastrous results.  It took Donald Trump to reverse it, and we shall have to wait and see whether Joe Biden finds it necessary, as Barack Obama did, to act boldly somewhere else to make up for the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

These new wars, as various opinion pieces have made clear in recent days, had an extraordinary impact on the US government and American society.  Military spending had fallen to a post-1949 low in 2001 in the wake of the end of the Cold War, but it doubled in absolute terms during the next ten years, reaching 4.6% of GDP and 19.6% of total federal outlays by 2011.  Previous military buildups after 1940, 1950, and 1965 had fueled our industrial economy, but this one did not.  The bulk of the new money went to private contractors focusing on intelligence, as the US government searched frantically for new terrorists all over the globe. In the same decade payments to private contractors doubled from $181 billion to $375 billion, creating a new military-intelligence complex centered in Northern Virginia.  It is not clear that this complex contributed anything significant to US security.  That was not all.  The FBI went with the flow as well and turned domestic counterterrorism into its top priority, eclipsing white collar crime and other priorities.  A recent New York Times Magazine article on an FBI agent who leaked documents on the antiterrorism campaign to the press and served severael years in prison for it details at length how useless most of this effort was--a matter of blackmailing immigrants into becoming informants, even though they had almost no real intelligence to provide.  Several sting operations in which bureau informants created fraudulent terror networks out of nothing, leading to lengthy prison terms for men who would never have done anything on their own, have been the subject of television documentaries. 

The Bush II administration, meanwhile, took advantage of the national mood to push through two rounds of tax cuts, re-creating the permanent federal deficit that the Clinton administration had eliminated.  It also embarked behind the scenes on a program of energy independence that has transformed the United States.  It did nothing about the housing bubble, leading to the crash of 2008.  And by that time, our new financial sector was strong enough to define the Bush and Obama administrations' responses to the crisis, leaving them even more powerful than ever now.

None of this, sadly, bothered our political establishments--Republican and Democratic alike--until 2016.  In that year they both discovered that these disastrous policies had broken their bonds with the American people.  Neither party establishment could field a candidate who could defeat Donald Trump.  Trump lost his re-election bid convincingly, but in four years he created a new politics of personal loyalty without precedent in American history.  The 2024 Republican  nomination appears to be his for the asking, and it is certainly not impossible that the normal rhythm of American politics might return him to office, especially since Biden is most unlikely to begin a new campaign at the age of 81.  And if Trump does not run, the nomination seems very likely to go to the most convincing claimant of his legacy.   

In 1775, in 1860, and in 1932, the authority of the federal government had fallen to a low point.  Success in war did a great deal to restore it.  Failure in war, this time, has helped discredit it.  The Republican Party has been working towards that same goal for decades.  President Biden is trying to re-establish the government's prestige with new infrastructure, more egalitarian economic policies, and an attack on climate change--but even his attempts to mount a serious response to the pandemic are provoking bitter resistance.  As in 1776, 1861, and 1932, our democratic experiment is threatened.  The foreign policy failure of the last twenty years contributed mightily to its critical illness.

Monday, September 06, 2021

Political Life Then and Now

 Many of us have books on our shelves that we have been intending to read for decades.  I got two French novels of that list during and after my recent trip to Paris, and that inspired me to take a very different one down: Albert Beveridge and the Progressive Era, written in the 1920s by the historian Claude Bowers, who also wrote a three-volume set on the life and times of Jefferson.  This book was called to my attention, oddly enough, by Richard Nixon, who in an interview with Gary Wills in 1968 had described it as one of the most interesting books he had ever read.  I apparently bought it at a library sale in the 1980s.  Later, I read Charles A. Beard's argument for isolationism, The Open Door at Home, in which he quoted a Beveridge speech to illustrate his idea of "industrialist statecraft," a form of American imperialism.  The book was neither quite as interesting or inspiring as I had hoped, but it held my interest for more than 500 pages and I learned a lot, in particular, about struggles over progressivism within the Republican Party in the first 15 years or so of the twentieth century.  Beveridge in any case represents a fascinating kind of politician, one which it is fair to say we no longer have in this country, and his career inevitably raises questions about how the nation has changed.

Beveridge was born in 1862 to an Ohio farmer and his wife.  His father lost his farm in the agricultural depression that followed the Civil War, and never regained any substantial means. He continued trying many enterprises, and his son ran a logging camp for him when he was only in his mid-teens. Like so many in 19th century America, he got, or gave himself, an education in high school which no one gets today. "It was during his high-school days," Bowers wrote, "that he read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," and the novels of Scott, Dickens, George Eliot and William Black." (I don't recognize William Black either.)  So it was before radio, television, smart phones and the internet.  The post-civil war atmosphere--like the post-Second World War atmosphere for me, I suppose--gave him a consuming interest in politics, and he attended every political meeting he could--something that now seems to be impossible even on line.  Desperate to go to college, but without funds, he tried and failed to get an appointment to West Point.  Then he wrote a number of colleges asking how he might attend without money, and received a letter from DePauw University--later the alma mater of Dan Quayle--stating that he would need $50 to do so.  That would amount to between $500 and $1000 in 2021 dollars, I believe, and a lumberman whom Beveridge had worked for staked him the money.  No one can go to college that way today, because its cost has gotten so much higher.  In that way the nation wqas more democratic in the late 19th century than it is now, and it so remained until the last third of the twentieth century.

Once in college, he worked his way through it in large part by entering and winning oratorical contests.  Lectures, political speeches and debates were a prime form of entertainment in late nineteenth century America, and the agnostic Robert Ingersoll became a national celebrity by trumpeting his controversial views around the country.  I suppose the internet might provide the same kind of opportunity for an ambitious twenty-something today but I am not yet aware of any who have turned a podcast into a political career.  Then he apprenticed himself to a prominent lawyer to prepare for the bar--another vanished opportunity for an ambitious youth seeking to become a professional.  By the late 1880s he was practicing law and participating very actively in Indiana politics, and by his 30th birthday he was much in demand all over the state.    He retained very wide intellectual interests, and he once gave a talk to a local literary society arguing in quite compelling fashion (Bowers quotes it in full) that Sir Walter Raleigh was the real author of Shakespeare's plays.  His fame spread and he gave well-attended lectures in New York and elsewhere, often arguing for a strong, centralized federal government such as the new century was destined to create. In 1898 came the Spanish-American War, and Beveridge began making his name as an advocate for a new imperialistic America that would spread its rule to new domains--starting with Puerto Rico and the Philippines--to provide markets for his abundant agriculture and growing industry.  Later in that year the Indiana legislature elected him to the Senate.  

Before taking his seat in December 1897, however, Beveridge took passage to the Far East to see the Philippines and the American attempt to bring them under control first hand. During the same trip he visited Japan and had a remarkable interview with the Prime Minister, Ito, who advised the United States to keep the Philippines in the same way that Japan was keeping Formosa.  This was the first of several ambitious foreign trips that he took.  The next one took him to the Russian Far East, and he wrote a book predicting the imminent war between Russia and Japan.  After the First World War broke out he went to Europe on a newspaper contract and interviewed every leading man he could in Germany, France, and Great Britain.  He had a long interview with the Emperor William II, who made a terrific personal impression on him, but he unfortunately kept a promise never to reveal the substance of their discussion until his own death.  

Beveridge emerged as a leading domestic progressive during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, whose own progressivism, as I have discovered myself, was more rhetorical than real.  Beveridge pushed without success of stricter meat inspection laws, including a label on all canned meats indicating when they had been canned.  He also pushed for a national ban on child labor, arguing that the power to regulate interstate commerce included the power to specify how articles produced for such commerce might be made.  He was not hostile to trusts as such--neither was TR--but he favored stronger regulation.  Beveridge lost his bid for a third Senate term in 1910, but became a leader in Roosevelt's Progressive Party two years later, after Taft had defeated TR for the Republican nomination.  He dreamed of turning that party into a major party, and suffered perhaps the biggest disappointment of his life as it became clear during the next two years that Roosevelt himself had no such plans and was ready to come back into the Republican fold with his tail between his legs if the party would take him.  That they absolutely refused to do in 1916, and TR's death in 1919 from a disease he caught on the Amazon ended any chance of a 1920 run.  

Beveridge meanwhile emerged as a serious historian.  He wrote a four-volume biography of Chief Justice John Marshall during the First World War, and he wrote two volumes on the early life of Abraham Lincoln during the 1920s.  Alas, he died, apparently of heart disease, in 1927 when he was only 64, perhaps a victim, like so many, of the nicotine and high-fat diet of the era.  

While there were some issues I would have agreed with Beveridge on, such as economic regulation, and others where I would not have, such as imperialism, I regret that our society and our educational sytem no longer produces politicians of this type.   They were largely self-educated and rose through society with the help of a nearly free educational system, as my own father did in the 1930s.   They read widely all their lives. They traveled to see the key developments of a rapidly changing world first hand.  And their job was to make sense of both the American present and the American past, relating their own time to those that had gone before and those that would come in the future. Today's politicians, exhorted by their party leadership to raise money four hours ever day, have ceded that function to academics and journalists.  We live now in a world of memes, video clips, sound bites and twitter posts, but we can still retreat into another one at our leisure.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

How bad is the Delta variant surge?

From the spring of 2020 until last March or so, I kept weekly data on the COVID situation, focusing on weekly deaths from COVID--the only reliable measurement, it seemed to me, of how serious it was.  Then I ran into some software problems, and in the midst of them deaths began to drop, and vaccines became available.  Just yesterday I finished collecting data for the last two weeks, and that allows me to make clear--clearer than the news usually does--what is happening right now. It's quite a story.

The epidemic was peaking last January, and the nation as a whole registered 71 deaths per million--23,616 recorded deaths total--from COVID in the week ending January 27.  The situation was most serious in Alabama (181 deaths per million in the previous week), Arizona (153), Tennessee (111), Montana and Arkansas (100 each.)  But Pennsylvania, Mississippi, California and New Mexico ranged from 94 to 90; Nevada, Texas, Georgia and South Dakota from 88 to 81; Wyoming, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Connecticut from 79 to 70, and New York and Massachusetts at 69.  Doing the best were Minnesota, Maine, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont and Alaska, with 26 to 11 deaths per million that week.  Things are very different right now.

The death total for the week ending last Friday was 7,659, about one third of what it was last January for a week--23 deaths per million compared to 71.  Daily deaths in the US have tripled from 290 in July, the bottom, to more than 900, but they are still quite low.  Yet four states--Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Florida--registered from 86 to 67 deaths per million last week, numbers that would have ranked them 10th to 13th in the country last January at the height of the epidemic.  Next come Alabama, Nevada, Kansas, Texas, and South Carolina, from 48 to 34.  17 states last week were in single digits for deaths per million, including Colorado, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New York, Wisconsin, North Dakota, New Jersey, Nebraska, DC, South Dakota, Connecticut, Ohio, Minnesota, Iowa, Massachusetts(5), and New Hampshire (1). As you may recall, the US epidemic really started in the Northeast and particularly around New York city, and states in that region led the field for several months. Now, thanks to vaccination, they are at the bottom. It can be done.

It has not been done in some of the red states, particularly in the old confederacy, which have always had the worst public services in the country.  The anti-vaccine and anti-mask feelings are strong there. Texas's and Florida's ballooning death rates, if they continue, might actually turn the state blue, it seems to me, if enough Texans and Floridians realize that the increasingly extreme Republican policies will cost thousands of lives. If Texas had the same death rate as New York, it would have saved 812 lives last week; Florida with New York's death rate would have saved 1239.  So polarized are these states, however, that even that evidence might not convince them that they have been poorly governed.

COVID has been hard to predict. In the late summer of 2020 I was saying that death rates would not return to the highs of the spring, but they surpassed them by a wide margin during the winter.  We are at a much lower point now than we were a year ago but we are trending sharply upward.  Given the rarity of deaths among vaccinated people, however, it seems very unlikely that this winter could be as severe as last, unless a far more dangerous variant emerges. Fatal COVID seems to be a disease of the unvaccinated, and thus, is pretty much confined to those states that have turned their backs on the western tradition of public health.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

How Times Have Changed

 It has been some time since I have compared the day's news to the news of 80 years previously in an attempt to show how much we have changed.  This post will  compare last Sunday's New York Times Sunday Review Section (August 8), to the Times News of the Week in Review from August 9, 1942.  I could have compared that piece to those found on the nearest Sunday to August 8 in 1941, but I have chosen 1942 instead because by then we were in the midst of active participation in the Second World War, that decade's equivalent of the COVID epidemic. It was the lead article in last week's Sunday Review that set off this train of thought.

Today's Sunday Review is the descendant of the Times's News of the Week in Review, which my father spent much of Sunday reading 70 years ago and which I too went through eagerly for decades after that.  That section on August 9, 1942 began with a full-page survey of the world situation, "Global Prospect," which minced no words.  It quoted Elmer Davis--the Walter Cronkite of his time, whose sharp commentaries may be sampled on youtube--who was now working for the federal Office of War Information.  Our efforts, he said, were so far inadequate to produce a decisive result.  "Our allies have carried most of the load," he wrote, referring to the British and the USSR, "and we have not given them as much help as we had led them to expect. . . .We have not been producing war material in the maximum of available capacity, and we have not been getting that material to the fighting fronts int he time and in the volume that will be needed to win.  As a nation we are not yet more than ankle deep in the war."  The greatest peril, the article continued, was the German drive southeast into the Caucasus and toward the Volga River.  Meanwhile,  much talk, but no action, related to a possible allied second front in Western Europe.  Several columns related to British India, where Mahatma Gandhi has just called for a non-violent rebellion against British rule with Japanese armies on the eastern border. The survey of the war situation took up the entire eight columns of the section's first page.

The following page, The Nation, led with the execution of six of eight German saboteurs who had been landed from submarines to bomb some critical industrial and transportation sites.  The two whose lives were spared had turned themselves and their comrades in spontaneously upon landing, but that did not spare them from very long prison sentences, which Harry Truman eventually commuted, deporting them to the American occupation zone in Germany.  Several other men around the country, the paper reported, were on trial for treason or sedition as well.  Next, President Roosevelt had vetoed a bill to establish an independent rubber supply agency to increase production of that vital commodity on the grounds that it would make the situation work, and appointed his own commission to look into the situation. It would take two years, this item concluded, before synthetic rubber production could match prewar supplies, now largely cut off by the war.  Next the paper reported a large seaplane contract for Henry J. Kaiser (no relation), the prominent industrialist who had already turned from dams to shipbuilding, and whose medical plan for his employees was one of the first HMOs. The nation's two umbrella labor organizations, the A.F. of L. and the CIO, were both meeting in convention in Chicago and discussing a possible merger, which did not take place until 1955. Then the section turned to nonmilitary developments abroad, in Britain and neutral Argentina.

The third page of the section included three by-lined news stories on related developments.  In an interesting article, Arthur Krock, whose career continued for another 20 years, argued in effect that President Roosevelt, like Lincoln in the previous great crisis, had too much power over strategy, and that he needed to turn the major decisions over to a single commander, as Lincoln finally did with Grant in 1864. A second article datelined London explained that the Churchill government was determined to hold on to India, and a third explored the great German offensive in the USSR at length, including some discussion of German vulnerabilities, which led to the great Soviet victory at Stalingrad just a few months later.  The next page continued with more broad news stories related to the war: another on the implications of Hitler's big Russian offensive for Europe as a whole, a London report that the British would like a unified command for the British and American armies, featuring a snapshot of Lt. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, already the commander of U.S. forces in Europe--even though the forces that he would lead into North Africa three months later would sail directly from the US.  A third article discussed the situation in Palestine, governed by the British, and its contribution to the war effort. Three long foreign stories followed on p. E4, one of the massive use of slave labor by the Nazis in Europe, one of what Tokyo radio was telling the Japanese people about the war, and one about neutral Sweden. 

After a full-page ad for the steel industry, the section resumed with four domestic stories on p. E7.  Two dealt with labor--attempts by FDR to bring the A.F. of L. and CIO together, and demands by the musicians union for more money from radio stations and jukeboxes--and two with industry, one on a looming shortage of heating oil and one on increased production of cargo planes.  The last page featured four editorials.  The first praised the allies' decision to undo the Munich agreement and pledge to restore Czechoslovakia.  The second criticized the British economist Harold Laski and other leftwingers for arguing that the allies could only win the war by turning to socialism. The third suggested that British soldiers in their tanks now viewed them the way cavalrymen used to view their horses, and the fourth pointed out that American films were now banned all over Nazi-occupied Europe, and in Vichy France as well.  The op-ed columnist had not yet been invented.

Now let us turn to last week's Sunday Review in general, and its lead article in particular. We are in another world crisis today, to be sure, but it is so far mainly a crisis of disintegration rather than a world war in which most of the world is fighting within one of two coalitions.  Only three articles in the review dealt with overseas developments, however, one about Hungary and how Americans see it, and one about the aspirations of the rebellious Cuban people.  The third explores the danger posed by tens of thousands of Colombian mercenary troops, some trained by the US, who are offering their services around the world, and, according to the author, helped in the assassination of the President of Haiti. Two articles deal with the fall of Andrew Cuomo.  Another op-ed discusses the problems of Olympic athletes who have given birth to children and what they say about society, and another, by Jamie Dimon of Goldman Sachs, argues for more economic opportunity for Americans who have been convicted of crimes--a very real problem from which his colleagues in the financial industry are almost exempt. The only editorial calls upon Americans to get vaccinated and continue to wear masks where appropriate.

I turn now to the lead article, an extraordinarily revealing commentary on what has happened to the United States in the last 50 years or so.  Written by a midwesterner named Sarah Smarsh, author of a memoir called Heartland about poor farm folk, it is entitled, "What to Do with our Covid Rage."  Vaccinated people, she uses anecdotes to show, are incensed that about 1/3 of eligible people have refused to get the vaccine, and have thereby fueled the new outbreak of the Delta variant. Liberals (as I can confirm from my own facebook feed) welcome the death of unvaccinated conservatives, calling it their own fault. Smarsh has shared that fury, which she compares to the fury she felt in the 1980s when government policies helped destroy the family farm economy.  She resents that popular images of the unvaccinated focus on people like her white rural neighbors, even though they do not outnumber the urban unvaccinated.  She wants to channel that anger into something good. What? 

Class, she argues, is the real villain.  Among Americans the least vaccinated group documented by the Kaiser foundation (a link to 1942!) are the uninsured.  Systemic racism, she says, is also to blame.  Yes, I certainly agree, health insurance is still much too hard to get in the United States--but no one, to my knowledge, has yet had to pay a penny to get vaccinated for COVID-19.  The federal government has funded the entire effort.  It is, in short, an example of socialized medicine--as I think the mass polio innoculations of the 1950s must have been as well.  "Most importantly," she concludes, "we can direct our rage not at lost individuals but at systems of power that made our grim national death count the only plausible outcome. Is it so shocking that a caste-based society that exalts individualism and prioritizes profit above wellness — one of the only industrialized nations without universal health care — would fail to rise to the challenges of a collective health crisis?"

There are two comparisons to 1942, it seems to me, that emerge at once from this piece.  To begin with, the items from our 1942 text dealing with opposition to the war effort related to a few saboteurs and accused traitors--and, though I did not mention it, several thousand interned aliens--while the opposition to the vaccination effort includes tens of millions of adult Americans.  That is the real measure of our national decline.  We could band together and make enormous sacrifices to win a world war then; we can't reach a real national consensus on the simplest steps to fight a national pandemic now.  Such a change obviously has very profound causes, and I have tried to explore them here many times, going all the way back to 2004 when I created this blog.

The second parallel is equally interesting:  Smarsh really sounds like Harold Laski, the British economist whom the Times editorial board attacked for suggesting that Britain and the United States had to turn to socialism to win the war. Both nations, in fact, outperformed the Axis in production without turning to socialism (although Britain did for three or four decades after the war was over.)  To claim that our elites--corrupt though they are--have done so much harm that we cannot expect to pull together to meet a crisis is a somewhat narcissistic counsel of despair.  The covid crisis could instead be the beginning of a different national feel.

We did have to ask what to do about our rage about the war in 1942--with very rare exceptions, we used it, first and foremost, to win the war.  That does not mean that other Americans, such as black soldiers in segregated units, did not have other very legitimate grievances; it meant that most understood that for the moment, something else was more important.  That is the feeling we may need to restore to survive as a nation, and writing off our system as hopeless will not help.

Saturday, August 07, 2021

A change of pace

 Well, it's summer, and I've always loved the Olympics and have spent a lot of time in the mornings this week watching the track and field.  In lieu of a post, here is a link to an interview I did with a college classmate, Terrence McNally, for his very interesting podcast last week.  I hope you will enjoy it.

Sunday, August 01, 2021

The Crisis in Academia

 A few days ago the New Yorker posted on its website a long article about Harvard's decision to deny a Dominican immigrant, Lorgia García Peña, tenure in Romance Languages and Literatures two years ago.  This particular decision, the article explains, is related to broader controversies at Harvard and elsewhere about creating ethnic studies programs, debates which are now more than fifty years old but which have assumed a new urgency and a new saliency in the last few years.  Like most New Yorker articles on gender and race, this one is 95% woke with a few dismissive sentences about those who apparently raised questions about García Peña's appointment. I don't know if non-subscribers can read the article--which I expect to appear in print in a forthcoming issue--but I'm not going to spend time rehashing the controversy today. Instead I'm going to focus on an interview that García Peña gave two years ago to the Boston Review, which the New Yorker article linked, because García Peña in that interview so frankly stated what ethnic studies is in today's world and what it has meant for the present and means for the future of American universities.   Ethnic studies--and, for that matter, gender and sexuality studies--are not attempts to integrate previously neglected groups into the curriculum.   They are attempts to universities from western intellectual traditions and use them to create a revolutionary alternative tradition.  

Here, to begin with, is how García Peña defines ethnic studies.

"Ethnic studies is a critical, anticolonial site of knowledge production, learning, and teaching. It includes Black, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Native Studies, centering the experiences and histories of minoritized, racialized subjects. Given the state of our nation and our world, I cannot think of a more urgent area of study at any institution of learning, from elementary schools up to college.

"What we teach at every school right now—what we consider to be the standard humanities and social science curriculum—is actually grounded in white supremacy, but is masked as objectivity. Ethnic studies is charged with filling in the immense gap left by our Eurocentric education systems."

What this means to me is that the entire intellectual history of the world must be racialized: that the key fact about any intellectual tradition is the skin color of the men and women who created it and propagated it.  That is a remarkably false reading of history.  The ideas of rationality, the rule of written law, bureaucracy, and equal rights originated mostly among white people--but they originated among a very small group of white people, originally in Greece and Rome, and they were spread--often forcibly--among other white people over a period of many centuries.  Later a mixture of political and intellectual influence and force spread them over the rest of the world as well, whether or not Europeans settled those parts of the world.  To García Peña--and thousands of other academics, including many white ones--all this is just the story of the dominance of one race: 

"From the moment our children go to kindergarten, they are educated about the world of a very small subset of humanity: namely, those who have dominated, oppressed, and colonized the rest of us. What we teach, what we think of as legitimate knowledge, what we uphold as having value, our sacred canons, are grounded in the dominance of whiteness."

And indeed, as she explains, in her teaching, she encourages her students to "imagine"--or fantasize--about a whole different view of modern history:

"I regularly teach a humanities class called Tropical Fantasies. The premise of the class is a question: What happens if instead of thinking of the French Revolution as the birth of the modern nation, we instead argue that it was the Haitian Revolution? Initially students are so confused and hesitant, but when they start reading and thinking about it through that lens, and asking questions, it creates this really beautiful dialogue that allows people to think about race, to think about economy, to think about globalization from a different perspective."

Well, actually if by "the modern nation" we mean a nation founded on equal political rights and some form of self-government, we should begin with the American Revolution, which had just finished when the French Revolution began, and which inspired many French revolutionaries.  But we think of those revolutions as marking the birth of modern nations because they did indeed provide the models that spread first through the north Atlantic world and eventually to much of the rest of the world.  The Haitian revolution, which began as a slave revolt, did not do that.  Here are some parapgraphs from the Wikipedia entry on the Haitian revolution about what happened after the Haitians won their independence in 1804 under Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who succeeded the late Toussaint L'Ouverture as the leader of the revolution.

"On 1 January 1804, Dessalines, the new leader under the dictatorial 1805 constitution, declared Haiti a free republic in the name of the Haitian people,[121] which was followed by the massacre of the remaining whites.[122] His secretary Boisrond-Tonnerre stated, "For our declaration of independence, we should have the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull for an inkwell, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for a pen!"[123] Haiti was the first independent nation in Latin America, the first post-colonial independent black-led nation in the world, and the only nation whose independence was gained as part of a successful slave rebellion.

"The country was damaged from years of war, its agriculture devastated, its formal commerce nonexistent.[124][125] The country, therefore, had to be rebuilt. To realise this goal, Dessalines adopted the economic organisation of serfdom.[126] He proclaimed that every citizen would belong to one of two categories, laborer or soldier.[126] Furthermore, he proclaimed the mastery of the state over the individual and consequently ordered that all laborers would be bound to a plantation.[126] Those that possessed skills outside of plantation work, like craftsmanship and artisans, were exempt from this ordinance. To avoid the appearance of slavery, however, Dessalines abolished the ultimate symbol of slavery, the whip.[126] Likewise, the working day was shortened by a third.[126] His chief motivator nonetheless was production, and to this aim he granted much freedom to the plantations' overseers. Barred from using the whip, many instead turned to lianes, which were thick vines abundant throughout the island, to persuade the laborers to keep working.[126] Many of the workers likened the new labor system to slavery, much like Toussaint L'Ouverture's system, which caused resentment between Dessalines and his people. Workers were given a fourth of all wealth produced from their labor. Nevertheless, he succeeded in rebuilding much of the country and in raising production levels, thus slowly rebuilding the economy.[126] . . .

"1804 massacre of the French

"The 1804 massacre was carried out against the remaining white population of French colonists[128] and loyalists,[129] both enemies and traitors of the revolution,[130] by the black population of Haiti on the order of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who declared the French as barbarians, demanding their expulsion and vengeance for their crimes.[131][132] The massacre—which took place in the entire territory of Haiti—was carried out from early February 1804 until 22 April 1804. During February and March, Dessalines traveled among the cities of Haiti to assure himself that his orders were carried out. Despite his orders, the massacres were often not carried out until he personally visited the cities.[133]

"The course of the massacre showed an almost identical pattern in every city he visited. Before his arrival, there were only a few killings, despite his orders.[134] When Dessalines arrived, he first spoke about the atrocities committed by former French authorities, such as Rochambeau and Leclerc, after which he demanded that his orders about mass killings of the area's French population be carried out. Reportedly, he also ordered the unwilling to take part in the killings, especially men of mixed race, so that blame would not rest solely on the black population.[115] Mass killings then took place on the streets and on places outside the cities. In parallel to the killings, plundering and rape also occurred.[115]

"Women and children were generally killed last. White women were "often raped or pushed into forced marriages under threat of death".[115]

"By the end of April 1804, some 3,000 to 5,000 people had been killed[135] practically eradicating the country's white population. Dessalines had specifically stated that France is "the real enemy of the new nation." This allowed certain categories of whites to be excluded from massacre who had to pledge their rejection to France: the Polish soldiers who deserted from the French army; the group of German colonists of Nord-Ouest who were inhabitants before the revolution; French widows who were allowed to keep their property;[132] select male Frenchmen;[136] and a group of medical doctors and professionals.[133] Reportedly, also people with connections to Haitian notables were spared,[115] as well as the women who agreed to marry non-white men.[135] In the 1805 constitution that declared all its citizens as black,[136] it specifically mentions the naturalizations of German and Polish peoples enacted by the government, as being exempt from Article XII that prohibited whites ("non-Haitians;" foreigners) from owning land.[128][135][131]"

Is this really how  García Peña wants her students to imagine the first modern nation?

Later in the interview she specifically traces today's academic and social controversies to the late 1960s--and she is right about that--and makes clear that for her, all knowledge is about politics and part of a would-be revolution.

"So little is different [from 1968--to which the interviewer explicitly referred.]. We are still experiencing the afterlife of slavery and colonialism. We are still dealing with systemic violence against black people, against immigrants of color. We are still dealing with the exclusion of minority voices, with economic disparity, with environmental injustice. Take this pandemic: black and Latinx people are dying at a higher rate, and are at a higher risk of being infected. People are tired of waiting for justice and people have become more and more aware that justice cannot be served by jailing one racist policeman. It is not sufficient. It does not do anything to end the systemic violence, the death of our people, the inequality that persistently puts black lives in precarious conditions, the violence that separates Latinx families at the border. People are aware now, as they were in 1968, that protesting is not enough, that we no longer need for those in power to pretend to listen, what we actually need is different structures, we need to change the power structure and restore a balance that would guarantee that no more black lives are destroyed. That is the moment in which we find ourselves in both the streets and inside the university."

And what does she want for universities?

"[Interviewer] What would an ethnic studies department look like if it were unencumbered by institutionalized white supremacy?

LGP: "It would look like a group of scholars of all races and ethnicities centering the work, the histories, the artistic production of marginalized, minoritized, colonized, and racialized people: black, Latinx, Asian, indigenous, Arab, immigrant, disabled, and queer. And not just thinking of these people as the objects of study but making their knowledge central to the conversation.

"If you ask me, I think that is the work not just of ethnic studies; that should be the work of the universities at large. What we should be thinking about is not the creation of ethnic studies departments, but the dismantling of white supremacy in our institutions, and the centering of subjugated knowledge everywhere, in every department. Or maybe get rid of the departments, just scratch the idea of disciplines and instead think ad hoc about the kinds of knowledge needed to answer each question—look for solutions in other knowledges, other literatures, and see where that gets us. [García Peña, interestingly enough, was hired by the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures even though she has not written about them.  This explains why she does not regard that as an issue.] 

"As practical stopgap measures, though, universities should be hiring faculty of color who come from communities that have been oppressed. And then taking the research of said faculty of color seriously, valuing it and amplifying it. That means not exploiting faculty of color by demanding unbearable amounts of service. That means tenuring and promoting faculty of color, retaining them, rewarding them for the extra labor they have produced. That would be a start."

Conservatives often compare wokeness to Marxism.  In one important sense the comparison misses the mark.  Marxism saw itself as the vanguard of western civilization and Marx himself praised the spread of the western economy and western politics around the world as an indispensable step towards socialism. In another sense, however, the comparison is valid.  Just as Stalinism and Maoism demanded the supremacy of the working class and the rejection of bourgeois values throughout society, wokeness demands the replacement of straight white men in all positions of power and the discrediting of all their ideas.  Unfortunately, today's universities have put their intellectual mission on the back burner, and their leaders focus their role in creating our economic and political elite--which they want to diversify--and on their reputation for social justice.  That is why virtually no university has taken a blunt stand on behalf of the values that created the modern university and modern political systems--the values which García Peña and her many allies bluntly and openly reject.


Monday, July 26, 2021

Back to France

 About six weeks ago, I screwed up my courage and talked my wife into making reservations for 10 days in Pairs, which we have visited more than once every two years since 2001. Blessed with perfect weather, we spent ten days there before returning yesterday, staying in a hotel in the heart of the Left Bank, just a few hundred yards from the Sorbonne.  (I watched a little of the movie Before Sunset on the plane coming home yesterday and the two main characters walk through the neighborhood in the first 15 minutes of the film or so.)  It was a remarkable experience as always and a reminder of the growing differences in our two civilizations.

Some years ago, after another such trip that took me well beyond Paris as well, I wrote here about some of the advantages the French enjoyed over  us.  Their public transportation systems are superior in every way to ours, and when you take one of their TGV high speed trains, signs on the platform tell you exactly where to wait for your own car.  Their educational system is far superior, especially in the humanities.  They take food and drink much more seriously without posing dangers to their health.  They have a much stronger tradition of state authority dating back at least to Louis XIV, and a much stronger and more respected public sector.  This time, however, I was struck by the intellectual difference between the two countries, which has widened enormously in the last half century or so.

I spent the happiest decade of my life in the 1970s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, partly for personal and educational reasons, but also because the town was built around my own interests.  It had at least twenty remarkable new and used bookstores in those days, including one specializing in foreign books, all continually fed by new generations of students.  I built my own library in those bookstores.  The vinyl records section of the Harvard Coop occupied a whole floor of that building.  And by the mid-1970s there were four movie theaters with seven screens within walking distance of Harvard Square, most of them specializing in older films and foreign films.   They provided another critical part of my education.  Meanwhile, although the cuisine was rather limited in scope, Cambridge was full of cheap restaurants catering to a student population drawn largely from the middle class. 

There are now only two significant bookstores in Harvard Square, the Harvard Book Store and the Coop.  The latter just underwent a major renovation during the pandemic, and it has cut way back on its collection of serious non-fiction, filling many prime spaces instead with t-shirts and sweatshirts marketing the Harvard logo at outrageous prices.  The Harvard Square theater died in 2012 the month that I moved back into town, and only the Brattle now survives with a mixed repertoire of old classics and new independents.  The last two generations have very little exposure to classic films.  It is easy to chalk all these changes up to technological changes (video tapes, DVDs, and streaming) and to amazon--until one visits the 5th Arondissement in Paris, where the mid-century Cambridge world is still very much alive.

The French, to begin with, have managed to prevent Amazon from taking over their book trade. Paris has hundreds if not thousands of small bookstores, many of them specializing in second hand books.  Meanwhile, the French still view their classic literature the way the Germans view their classical music, and Balzac, Zola, Camus and the rest are featured in their stores in ways that Hemingway and Faulkner nad Melville no longer are.  I also saw a lot of used copies of major historical works from the 1960s-80s there, books I read in grad school and after, that American academia no longer pays any attention to.  The French take all their history very seriously in ways that we no longer do.  

Meanwhile, the 5th also features at least ten differnet small cinemas, each with two or three scenes, running a mix of new independent movies and repertory series built around great directors.  Even with the help of a new web site, it's not easy to figure out exactly what movies are available on any given day, but it is still possible.  And so it was that during a visit of nine full days, I saw different movies.  They included new French films Les Hommes (which I saw on the plane coming over) and Slalom, the new musical Annette (which I detested, by the way), Roberto Rosselini's Paisa about the war in Italy from 1943 to 1945, and the older American films  Basic Instinct, Charade, Shampoo, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and a 1956 B picture called The Killer's Kiss directed by Stanley Kubrick.  They also included an excellent British Cold War thriller, The Courier,  based on the real-life story of the Soviet spy Oleg Penkovsky, who told his handlers that the Soviets had no real nuclear deterrent in the early 1960s before he was caught and executed. That movie, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch, would have earned a major release in the US even 20 or 30 years ago, but it grossed a mere $6 million in the US and Canada after being released into a COVID-dominated world this past March--1/3 of its gross worldwide.  Yet it is playing in several major Paris theaters.  I have seen at least half a dozen excellent English-language films in Paris over the last twenty years that got little or no American release at all. 

The intellectual and cultural paradise of my youth, in short, still lives in Paris--even though the audiences in the French repertory cinemas now tend to be quite old.  The influence of our business schools meanwhile has wrecked American film and American publishing.  After a week in Paris I was wondering how I might arrange to spend a much longer period of time there sometime in the next few years.  In the middle decades of the twentieth century American intellectual and cultural life was every bit as exciting  as European.  Now, it seems, others will have to keep the best of those traditions alive, at least for some time.


Saturday, July 24, 2021


 The next history unfolding post will appear on Monday or perhaps Tuesday, July 26-7.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Afghanistan and the Boom Generation

 According to the more sophisticated definition of Baby Boomers--those born from 1943 through 1960--the youngest of them are turning 61 this year.  They make up a substantial portion of the Biden cabinet, but unless Donald Trump wins another term in 2024, their time in the White House itself appears to be over.  In a situation without precedent, three of the most powerful people in Washington--President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, and Minority leader McConnell--belong to the even older Silent generation.  John Boehner will almost surely be the last Boomer Speaker of the House.  Boomer influence on our politics peaked, I would argue, under George W. Bush, and I still think he did more than any other president to create the unfortunate world in which we live now.   The war in Afghanistan, now near its end, exemplifies his legacy and its catastrophic effect.

I doubt that George W. Bush ever read The Fourth Turning, but I would be very surprised if Karl Rove did not. Some years ago, writing a long post about our great crisis, I called Rove's office to ask them about this, but they declined to answer.  Rove clearly wanted to transform American politics and create a lasting Republican majority.  He and Bush seized upon 9/11 to unite the country behind them, and they were spectacularly successful initially.  The whole country supported the invasion of Afghanistan, and I was one of very few people publicly to express reservations about the project. The country, including nearly all of the prominent politicians of the Boom generation such as Hillary Clinton, also fell behind the invasion of Iraq about 18 months later.  By the time Barack Obama took office in 2009 Afghanistan had become the new "good war," in contrast to the bad one in Iraq, and Obama re-escalated the former while getting out of the latter.  Donald Trump emerged as the first opponent of the Afghanistan war in the White House, and Joe Biden has decided to follow in Trump's footsteps.

The Afghan war is now ending as the Vietnam War did in 1974-5.  It seems almost certain that the Taliban will take over the country within months after the US departure is complete, rather than the two-plus years it took for South Vietnam to collapse.  How did leadership from the Boom generation--supposedly shaped by Vietnam--manage to repeat their elders' greatest mistake?  Well, to begin with, the neoconservatives who dominated foreign policy under Bush thought that Vietnam was not a mistake, but that we had not fought hard or long enough.  Defense intellectuals had also convinced themselves that new technologies could allow us to fight any war cheaply, and thus did not care that Afghanistan had three or four times as many people in it, spread over an enormously larger territory, than South Vietnam did.  It took us many  years to acknowledge a fundamental strategic fact in Afghanistan: that the Taliban enjoyed sanctuary in, and support from, our supposed ally Pakistan, which wanted to keep Afghanistan in friendly hands. We tried to avoid one supposed mistake in Vietnam, our decision to bless a coup against Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.  Hamid Karzai, our first chosen leader, obviously had problems but we were determined to back him until the end.  Like Diem, he also had a very unpopular and troublesome brother, Walid Karzai.  Americans like Edward Lansdale had persuaded themselves that Diem would do just fine if he could dispense with Ngo Dinh Nhu, his brother, but Diem would never do this.  In Afghanistan we got to rerun this experiment when Walid Karzai was assassinated, but that did not help.  Hamid Karzai eventually left office anyway.  Despite tens of thousands of training troops and billions of dollars, we never built up a reliable Afghan army, much less one that could hold its own without American air support. Now that we are not coming to their rescue, the Afghan forces are melting away.

In retrospect, the committed or ambitious members of the Boom generation took one of two paths.  One large cohort, influenced by the late 1960s, renounced traditional avenues to power and became activists of one kind or another, or went into academia.  Those have now succeeded in transforming many values of our society, first within academia and now in major institutions.  The second type, including leading political figures and defense intellectuals, went into government or business and transformed existing institutions to suit their own ambitions.  That is what Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, Douglas Feith and the rest were doing in their plans to use military force to transform the Middle East, and that is what their contemporaries did on Wall Street. They took advantage of the dominating military establishment that earlier generations had built up during the Cold War, and of the post-Cold War environment in which the United States did not as yet have a real peer competitor.  Wolfowitz, apparently, said frankly that the US had only a relatively brief time to eliminate hostile regimes like those in Iran, Iraq and North Korea before a peer competitor emerged.  He had failed to push this view through during the Bush I administration, but by 2001 it reigned supreme.

In Afghanistan and most of the rest of the Middle East the Bush II policy--continued, in Egypt and Libya, by his successor--has been a disaster.  Democracy has not caught on, except perhaps in Tunisia, and it is now threatened even there.  Iraq and Libya are riven by civil war. Iran is at least the equal of Saudi Arabia as a regional power. But that is not all.  The utter, undeniable failure of this initiative has destroyed the link between our elites and our people on foreign policy.  Donald Trump realized that, and it helped him reach the White House.   

In 1774-1794, 1861-65, and 1929-45, the US government demonstrated its ability to undertake and complete great tasks that required the mobilization of much of the population, economic sacrifice, and a disciplined population.  In the crisis that began in 2001 we have failed to do any of that repeatedly, most recently during the ongoing pandemic, in which our contempt for authority has cost us many tens of thousands of lives. Not only have we failed to solve great problems, but we have also lost the common identity that came from belonging to one strong and effective nation--an identity which in early periods extended even to what we now call marginalized groups.  The whole basis of our government is now threatened in many ways. On the right, the gun rights movement denies the government the power that Max Weber defined as the essence of the modern state: the monopoly on the legitimate use of force.  On the left, various movements argue that our founding principle have never been anything but a sham.  Effective use of government power, at home or abroad, may be the only antidote to diseases like these.  We have missed it for too long.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

The Woke Rule the Media

 When the words "woke" or "wokeness" come up on facebook, many people immediately declare them meaningless, simply right wing epithets designed to discredit leftists.  Liberals who are not woke, however, such as myself, are reminded every morning that wokeness rules our major urban newspapers and most of the television news operations, as well as academia.  Yesterday the New York Times provided an excellent concise example of wokeness in a column by op-ed regular Gail Collins about presidential rankings.  Historians have just generated a new set--because I have never been designated a "presidential historian," I was not consulted.  Collins commented on the list from her perspective, and I am going to quote some of her comments in detail for non-commercial use only.

Here is her first substantive paragraph.  

 "Of course, Abraham Lincoln came in first. Lincoln almost always wins. After that, reservations begin to rise. George Washington came next, as usual, but you can’t ignore the slave-owning. Then it’s Franklin Roosevelt (depends on how much you like the federal government) and Theodore Roosevelt (depends on how much you like imperialism)."

Now as it happens, I do think that ranking Theodore Roosevelt fourth is much too high.  Having researched his presidency myself now, I think his primary contribution had to do with how he taught Americans to think about the great issues of the twentieth century.  He recognized excessive corporate power as a serious danger, although he proposed rather tentative solutions and had relatively little impact on our economic structure.  He correctly identified the US as a great power in a world of great powers that might have to fight in a great intercontinental war at some point in the future. He pursued various forms of imperialism in Latin America, although he didn't annex any new territory and regarded our possession of the Philippines as temporary.  As for Franklin Roosevelt, he not only vastly expanded the federal government, but also did more than any other President to reduce economic inequality and created the postwar world as Collins (born 1945) and I have known it all our lives.  Given that our own generation has undone most of his legacy, it is not too surprising that she doesn't value it any more. 

Collins then says that she has "always really disliked Thomas Jefferson.  (Yeah, yeah, I know, the Declaration of Independence.)" The first reason she cites is a pair of very sexist comments in letters to two different women, one of them his own daughter.  The second involves Sally Hemmings and I'll take that one up in a moment.

This is a fine example of a woke feminist perspective.  Collins doesn't care that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence (which, of course, he did not do as President).  She also doesn't care--and may not even know--that Jefferson brought to an end our first era of truly bitter partisan political conflict, one perhaps as bad as the one we are in now.  Nor does she care, apparently, about the Louisiana Purchase, or Jefferson's attempts to find a way to protect America's interests during a world war without going to war, or that he signed the law outlawing the importation of slaves from Africa that Congress passed just as soon as the Constitution allowed it to do so.  Because Collins is a woman, apparently, she thinks she has a right--if not a duty--to judge Jefferson mainly on his attitudes towards women--even if those attitudes were anything but unusual in his time.   Jefferson remains a key historical figure because his ideas on other topics--such as how societies should be governed--were unusual.  Nor is it far to say that he contributed nothing to women's rights. The idea of equal rights between women and men, I would suggest, was inconceivable so long as society was divided into different orders with different rights.  That was the idea that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution struck down.  And contrary to what many wokesters will tell you, as soon as they did so, both women and others who did not yet enjoy those writes began pointing to the language of those documents to argue that they should be included, and within another 142 years, they were.  None of that could have happened if Jefferson and the other founding fathers had not taken the crucial first step.

Collins continues as follows: "Take that, Thomas Jefferson. And, of course, I haven’t even gotten around to the part about fathering at least six children with Sally Hemmings, a woman he had enslaved."

The substitution of "enslaved persons" for "slaves" had become fashionable by 2015, although it was still controversial then.  It is now mainstream, justified on the grounds that it gives slaves more dignity.  The use of "enslaver," or phrases like "a woman he had enslaved," goes further, and seriously distorts history.  To say that Thomas Jefferson "enslaved" Sally Hemmings would imply, to me, that she was originally a free person whom he personally turned into a slave.  Of course he did not.  She was the daughter of a slave (and, as it happens, of Jefferson's father-in-law), and thus, under the laws of Virginia at that time, she was born a slave.  No one in colonial America had the right to turn a free person into a slave.  Collins herself refers correctly to Washington as "slave-owning" rather than "enslaving," but Jefferson doesn't get the same courtesy.

 The old phraseology--that men including Washington, Jefferson and James Madison owned slaves--remains more accurate because it describes legal reality, however repugnant we find that legal reality today.   Wokeness, however, has no respect for law as such, only for morality as it is now understood.  Laws contradicting that morality are unworthy of mention, much less obedience. And if men violated present-day morality--e.g., by owning slaves--nothing else they did can be very significant.

Collins concludes by comparing John Quincy Adams to Joe Biden.  "John Quincy Adams was our sixth president, who came into the job with a strong history in foreign affairs and diplomacy. He won an election that left the opposition irate — Andrew Jackson’s fans never quit complaining about the 'corrupt bargain.'”  Well--not exactly.  Adams lost the popular vote to Jackson, failed to win an electoral college majority, and was chosen by the House of Representatives after Henry Clay swung his supporters to Adams. Adams then made Clay Secretary of State, and his popularity never recovered. And after Jackson defeated Adams in 1828, he immediately asked Congress to abolish the electoral college!  Adams was the first of five presidents--Trump was the last--to win election while losing the popular vote. It would be foolish, however, to expect an editor at today's New York Times to know anything about this--facts are quite passé. 

The essence of wokeness is self-centeredness based on race, gender, and sexual orientation.  It stems from the postmodern idea that those attributes determine everyone's perspective. Originally it held that every perspective is equally valid, but now it privileges [sic] the perspectives of oppressed groups, since oppressors--straight white males--supposedly never think about anything but maintaining themselves in power.   It thus denies the very idea of universal principles such as those reflected in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  It also denies the relevance, really of any history before the great awakening of the late 1960s, except as a record of what we should not be. In so doing, it threatens to sweep away the whole legal and political basis on which modern society--including the idea of equality--was built.  This is a huge risk for all of us, and particularly for the less powerful.  All our major intellectual and artistic institutions are now contributing to that risk.

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Blunt talk about voting rights

 I suspect that some readers will disllike this post, but in the midst of a crisis over democracy, we all need to speak our minds. That is especially true for  those of us who reject most of the propaganda now emanating from both sides of the political fence--and if you've been here long, you know that I count myself among those.

On the last day of its session, the Supreme Court upheld Arizona laws requiring particular procedures to vote.  One threw out votes cast at the wrong precinct; another bans the collection of large numbers of mail in ballots by private parties.  Virtually every red state is now passing such laws in response to controversies about the 2020 election, and the court system is evidently not going to overturn them.  It was thirteen years ago that the court upheld voter ID requirements at the polls.  Democrats up to and including President Biden call these laws "voter suppression" and compare them to other measures in effect during the Jim Crow era.  

Let me say before going any further that Republican legislatures are also passing another kind of election law that does represent a serious and unprecedented threat to our democracy.  These laws authorize state legislatures, most of which are now dominated by Republicans, to resolve disputes over election results, and thus, potentially, to declare Republicans winners on very dubious grounds.  They are a real danger in purple states and must be fought in purple states.  On the other hand, I simply do not believe that laws like the Arizona ones that the court just sustained really fit the definition of "voter suppression," and I think that the Democratic Party, rather than wring its collective hands and declare the death of democracy, should simply get to work on readily available means of counteracting them.

To Republicans, I suspect, the Democratic attitude seems to be that giving everyone the same right to vote, and the same access, is not enough: states must take affirmative action to make it easier for people to vote.  That is what mail-in voting--a target of many of the new laws--does.  It certainly seems to have worked very well last fall, and states seemed, in fact, to have devised excellent procedures to make sure that only valid votes were cast.  Yet mass mail in voting--as opposed to absentee ballots for people who literally cannot be at the polls on election day--is a very recent innovation, one which we managed without for centuries.  It did create significant vote-counting problems, since counting mail-ins didn't begin until the polls closed, delaying a final count in key states for many days.  And whether or not mail-in voting and the private collection of votes actually led to fraud last year, it doesn't seem unreasonable to me, in these polarized times, to think that they might--on the Republican side, if not the Democratic.  To put it another way, mass mail-in voting will inevitably create huge controversies and problems for as long as the nation remains as divided as it is today.

Among Democrats, I think, we are seeing the results of a strategy that they have pursued for about 70 years: the use of the federal court system to secure their objectives.  The Supreme Court from the 1950s through the 1970s outlawed school segregation, banned school prayer, expanded the rights of defendants, legalized birth control and abortion, ordered all states to create legislative districts of equal populations, blessed affirmative action in college admissions, and legalized school busing for integration.    More recently it legalized gay sex and gay marriage.  Some of these decisions enjoyed majority support among the electorate, others did not.  Many involved new interpretations of various parts of the Constitution, some more obvious than others. They had two unintended effects.  First of all, these decisions mobilized certain constituencies such as white southerners and religious conservatives for the Republican Party.  Secondly, they inspired a Republican counter-offensive designed to reverse many of these decisions by filling the Supreme Court and the other federal courts with conservative justices.  What nine men and women could decide, another nine justices could overturn.  We have now seen that happen with respect to gun rights, the Voting Rights Act, and many economic issues, and it may not be long before it happens with respect to abortion rights.  The enormous power of the Supreme Court on highly sensitive political issues, in fact, has made judicial appointments the most important domestic presidential power, and a completely partisan issue.

One op-ed after another is now declaring that the Democrats have lost the Supreme Court as a means of "protecting" voting rights and stopping "voter suppression."  I would argue, however, that the only votes that the Arizona laws "suppress" are those of people who couldn't be troubled to find out where their proper polling place was--not an unreasonable obligation, it seems to me, to place on adult citizens of a democracy.  Truly disabled people, as far as I know, still have the right to vote from home.  In short, the Democratic Party could respond to the curtailment of mail-in voting simply by making a more determined, well-organized effort to get its voters physically to the polls and procure them whatever identification they need.  They should begin that effort now, in preparation for the 2022 elections, and if those elections reveal that some areas don't have enough polling places to accommodate their voters, there will be time to exert effective pressure to correct that before the critical year of 2024.  Democrats must recognize that they will not be able to count on the Supreme Court to enact their agenda for the foreseeable future.  That means they have to use other, more fundamental democratic tools, led by getting voters to the polls.   That is not a challenge that any serious political party should be afraid to accept.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

A New Take on a Classic Movie

N.B. The original post had a serious mistake which has been fixed.

 Last week, a film group I belong to watched the Akira Kurosawa classic, Rashomon.  It concerns the apparent murder of a samurai and rape of his beautiful young wife by a bandit.  In  a trial, both the bandit and the wife tell the story of what happened, and the samurai does as well, speaking through a medium.  Meanwhile, an old woodcutter, who found the body, watches in horror.  As he explains to a priest and another man a day later, in a pouring rain under Rashomon Gate, he saw the whole thing, and his version is very different as well.  Critics usually cite the film as a meditation on the relativity of truth.  I had seen it only once before, sometime in the 1970s, and that was all I had seen in it then. This time I saw something completely different.

The film opens with an extraordinarily bleak shot of the rain and the gate, and the credits mentioned that it dated from 1950.  That was about five years earlier than I thought it was, and it set me thinking.  1950 was only five years after the end of the Second World War, and the American occupation was continuing as it was shot.  Although the plot appears to be set centuries earlier, the sense of devastation in the opening shot could not help but evoke the devastation wrought by the war all over Japan.  I began to think that the plot might be an allegory for the war, its aftermath, and the Japanese peoples' inevitable tortured confusion over who was to blame, and where their allegiances lay now.

I must first summarize the stories the four witnesses told.  The bandit explained that he had seen the samurai and his wife passing by, and had been excited by her beauty.  He lured the samurai deeper into the forest with a tale of buried valuables, and then fell upon him, overcame him, brought him back to his wife, and tied him up.  Then he began to rape the wife, but, as he told the story, she suddenly was seduced by him and welcomed him.  Afterwards, she was filled with shame, and demanded that the bandit untie her husband and fight him to the death to determine which would keep her. He does so, and after a long sword fight, he kills the samurai, only to find that she has run away.

The wife, who testified next, said that the bandit had raped her and then left.  She begged her husband's forgiveness but he looked at her coldly.  Filled with shame, she begged him to kill her, but he merely looked at her with contempt, and she fainted, holding a dagger in her hand.  When she awoke, he was dead with the dagger in his chest.  She then tried and failed to kill herself.  

The samurai's testimony, delivered through a female medium, is a dramatic highlight of the film.  After he had been tied up and the bandit had raped his wife, he says, the bandit asked her to travel with him (promising even to stop being a bandit.) She agreed, and then asked the bandit to kill her husband since she could not belong to two men.  Instead, the bandit offered the samurai either to kill the woman or to let her go.  The samurai told the court that he had been willing to pardon the bandit for what he had done.  But the woman fled, the bandit set the samurai free, and the samurai killed himself with his wife's dagger.

The woodcutter then announces to the priest and the third man that he has lost all faith in humanity because everyone had lied.  He had not merely found the body, he had seen the whole incident. He said that after the rape, the bandit had begged the woman to marry him, but she freed her husband instead.  He did not want to fight for the honor of a despoiled woman, but she taunted him into doing so.  The fight in this version is very tentative and both men seem terrified, but the bandit eventually won and killed the ceremony.  Again the woman fled.

It occurred to me that from the Japanese perspective, the bandit might represent the United States and the samurai the government of imperial Japan.  The wife and the woodcutter might represent the people of Japan, both as victims of the war (the wife) and observers (the woodcutter.)  The wife's equivocal behavior towards the bandit represents the equivocal feelings of the Japanese (including Japanese women) towards the American occupation.  The question of whether there was more shame in surviving than dying in battle for the samurai--that is, whether the imperial government should have surrendered at all--comes up repeatedly.  Whose fault, ultimately, was the death of the samurai and the rape of the woman?  How should she have lived the rest of her life?  These stand for the bigger questions of who was really to blame for the war--imperialist Americans or a rogue Japanese government?  And to whom, now, should the ordinary Japanese took for guidance and inspiration?  All these were very much unanswered questions in the Japan of 1950.  And that is not all.  Responding to the woodcutter's tale, the priest beneath the gate talks about the state of his country. "War, earthquake, winds, fire, famine, the plague, year after year it’s been nothing but disasters. And bandits descend upon us every night. I’ve seen so many men getting killed like insects, but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this … This time I may finally lose my faith in the human soul."  No Japanese in 1950 could hear those words without thinking of the world around them.

It turns out that at least two Americans deeply familiar with Japan, a State Department official and an academic, recognized the postwar implications of the movie at once. They however seem to have focused on one specific postwar episode, the American war crimes trials of Japanese leaders for specific atrocities.  A Japanese critic noted that the judges in the court are never shown in the film.  That is a telling point, but I still prefer to focus on the overall responsibility for the war and the predicament of the helpless Japanese people in its wake.  In another telling incident, it turns out that the valuable dagger that plays such a big role in the story has disappeared.  One cannot help but think that the woodcutter stole it and sold it--a metaphor for the ways in which some Japanese benefited from the occupation.  And in the very last scene, the woodcutter, claiming to have six children of his own, takes a baby abandoned at the gate home with him--a symbol of hope for the future in a devastated land.  Rashomon is surely a profound historical work.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Whither western civilization?

 I thought about giving myself the weekend off for Father's Day, but as so often happens, some current journalism provided the texts for this morning's sermon, in the form of two book review essays.  The first, by a Princeton historian named Fara Dabhoiwala, from a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, deals with three books on the history of colonialism and decolonization: Time’s Monster: How History Makes Historyby Priya Satia; Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities by Mahmood Mamdani; and Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination by Adom Getachew.  Unfortunately only subscribers can follow the link.  The second, by the  journalist and Yale Law lecturer Emily Bazelon in today's New York Times, reviews recent books on the state of American politics and thought by George Packer (The Last Best Hope) and Jonathan Rauch (The Constitution of Knowledge.)  The first review illustrates, and the second one directly addresses, the profound changes in western intellectual life over the last five or six decades, which now amount to a repudiation of the western political and intellectual tradition, and raise the question of whether we are on the verge of an historical turning point comparable to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Dabhoisala's review begins with a lengthy discussion of British justfications for imperial rule, especially at Oxford University.  He does not attribute either to any of the books he is reviewing or to any other text. although it may come from his third book.  His many quotes show that much the British establishment devoutly believed in its civilizing mission in India, Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, as indeed they did. Time's Monster, the first book under review, apparently echoes these themes, and points out that figures as influential as Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill also came to believe that only British rule saved territories like India from endless internecine warfare and bloodshed.  (I have known that, for the record, since I read Churchill's own memoirs in 1966.)  Instead, Satia, the author, seems to argue that British rule was responsible for heightening divisions between Muslims and Hindus (who had contended for the rule of India in previous centuries), and thus was responsible for the enormous post-independence violence that generated millions of deaths and refugees in Pakistan and independent India.  This argument, we shall find, is becoming popular.

The next book, Mahmood Mamdami's Neither Settler nor Native, apparently argues that the west's concept of the ethnically and religiously homogeneous nation-state is responsible for enormous violence not only in the west but all over the world.  "The pathologies of postcolonial civil wars and genocide," Dabhoisala paraphrases, "are directly connected to the history of what 'civilized' nations have long done at home."  Mandami cites at least two examples: the treatment of the Indians by colonists in what became the United States, which Dabhoisala calls "willful extermination," and the decision at the end of the Second World War to move millions of ethnic Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe into Germany proper, to eliminate sources of political conflict.  Like virtually everyone who writes about American Indians today, Mandami apparently fails to put their history in a broader metahistorical context, which would show that no hunter-gatherer society has ever survived in direct contact with an agricultural or industrial one.  As for the European example, I wrote at great length about that episode in my own book Politics and War more than thirty years ago, noting, tragically, that the Europeans had found no other solution to longstanding ethnic conflicts in Eastern Europe, in particular, except population transfer and mass murder.  When I completed that book, three multinational states--the USSR, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia--were also about to disintegrate amidst more violence, suggesting that the problem has not yet been solved.  That hardly means, however, that such ethnic or racial conflicts only existed in Europe, or that, as Mandami apparently argues, the west taught the rest of the world about them.

The third book, Adom Getachev's Worldmaking after Empire, performs an even more striking historical gymnastic, arguing that 20th century anti-colonialism in the west was really disguised imperialism.  "Woodrow Wilson, the reviewer paraphrases, "the great champion of the new League of Nations after World War I, is often portrayed as having been motivated by an egalitarian, essentially anti-imperial conception of national self-determination. But as Adom Getachew argues in her astute and incisive first book, Worldmaking After Empire, that is pretty much the opposite of the truth.  In Wilson’s eyes, preserving 'white supremacy on this planet' was the ultimate postwar goal. Just as African-Americans were unworthy of national citizenship, so, too, for colonized and other lesser peoples across the world self-government was not a right but a stage of development for which they were inherently unfit or, at best, woefully underprepared."  Having been reading Wilson's speeches on this subject recently myself, I must say that this is a critical distortion.  Wilson certainly believed (and helped impose) racial segregation in the US, and also believed that nonwhite peoples were at that time at an earlier stage of development than the Europeans.  Yet he believed that the only justification for colonialism was to educate and prepare other people for independence.  It is possible, although I do not know, that Getachew regards teaching western forms of self-governance to non-western peoples itself constitutes "preserving white supremacy on this planet."  That's a popular view nowadays in many contexts. Many colonized peoples, however, eagerly adopted western ideas of democracy and human rights, and welcomed Wilson's initiative.  Wilson also, it might be noted, advocated the earliest possible independence for the Philippines, which the United States had acquired in 1898, and because of other Americans like him, Congress in 1932 established 1946 as the date for independence, and the United States in 1946 carried that plan out.

And the independence of the Philippines is just one episode in a much bigger story that both Getachev and Dabhoisala seem determined, bizarrely, to ignore.  "A project of anticolonial worldmaking," Dabhoisala writes, overcame colonial "structures of domination. . .  In 1960, despite the resistance of the United States, Britain, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, and South Africa, UN Resolution 1514, “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples,” established that “the subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights” and was contrary to the UN Charter. Despite its specification of “alien” rule, which seemed to exculpate settler colonialism, this was a legal watershed."  I don't know why the representatives of all those nations opposed that General Assembly resolution, but I do know that by 1960 Britain had given up India and its Middle Eastern Empire, de Gaulle was on the point of liquidating the last major French imperial territory in Algeria--having already pulled out of the rest of Africa--and Belgium had pulled out of the Congo.  All that took place partly because of revolution and resistance in the colonies, but also because of the triumph of anti-colonialist forces in the European states, except in Portugal, where that did not occur until 1975.  Like the authors of the 1619 project, however, Getachev appears determined to deny that white people have every willingly done anything to benefit nonwhites, and to claim that their ideas of equality have never been anything but a mask for their own supremacy.

These books, in short, try to refute the whole idea that western civilization represented a step forward for humanity and that many aspects of it spread around the world for that very reason.  To make this argument, it seems, they find it convenient to ignore any serious discussion of violence in colonized territories before the West arrived, just as woke activists in the US never mention that slavery was flourishing in Africa long after it had been abolished in Europe.  It is quite clear, however, that violence was endemic and often cruel among different tribes in the Americas before the Europeans arrived, and that India was the scene of huge wars for empire long before the British became a political factor.  The idea that ethnic conflict is a western invention imposed by westerners on the third world is, in my opinion, without foundation, but such is the general skepticism about western civilization in the academy that these books are now mainstream.  I do not know if the fall of the Roman Empire was preceded by the publication of books in Rome claiming that Roman expansion had been a horrible catastrophe for the peoples of the Mediterranean world, although I know at least one scholar has interpreted Tacitus's Germania as an early piece of political correctness.  The greater irony, I think, is that all the ideas that books like these are using to undermine our view of western civilization came from the western academy--from angry younger generations, originally--and have essentially tried to overthrow western political thought from within.

 Emily Bazelon's review spends most of its time on George Packer's book, which has been excerpted at length in a freely available article in The Atlantic. Packer identifies four different Americas--or four concepts of America--two each on either side of the political spectrum.  The Republicans combine Free America, based on the libertarian fantasies of men like Newt Gingrich and Paul Ryan and Alan Greenspan, with Real America, the constituency of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.  The Democrats combine Smart America--the second- or third-generation meritocrats who have become an educational and cultural elite--with Just America, the new activists who have abandoned "the universal values of the Enlightenment: objectivity, rationality, science, equality and freedom of the individual."  They argue that "“all disparities between groups result from systems of oppression and demand collective action for redress, often amounting to new forms of discrimination — in other words, equity. In practice, identity politics inverts the old hierarchy of power into a new one: bottom rail on top.” None of these groups, he argues, focus primarily on our most serious problem, increasing economic inequality--and I agree.   Packer does not point out, at least in the Atlantic article, that while the Republican split is mainly an economic and cultural one, the Democratic split is mainly generational.

Bazelon notes that Packer, like myself, is particularly concerned with Just America's dominance of academia and major media outlets, who emphasize the impact of emotional trauma inflicted on minorities by speech and texts, and shame and ostracize colleagues who do not toe the line.  As recenty as last September, Bazelon herself wrote another long New York Times article questioning our traditional devotion to free speech, lamenting that the best ideas do not always prevail in a marketplace of ideas.  Now she is having some second thoughts. "As a journalist and a part-time lecturer at a university," she writes, "I would have shrugged off these claims a few years ago. I still think a minority of academics and journalists are driving the shift Packer is talking about. But they have real influence."

Their influence, she continues, is the subject of Jonathan Rauch's book, which deals with the attack upon traditional western intellectual values head on.  She quotes him about the novel features of cancel culture: "“Criticism seeks to engage in conversations and identify error; canceling seeks to stigmatize conversations and punish the errant. Criticism cares whether statements are true; canceling cares about their social effects.”  Given the power of the new ideologues in universities and newspapers--where they are bureaucratically entrenched now--few people dare to challenge them.  Rauch, who has been a gay activist, also has contempt for leftists who refuse to recognize opponents as worthy of debate. “Every time I hear a minority-rights advocate say that she should not have to debate haters who question her very right to exist," he writes, "I say: On the contrary, that is exactly who you need to debate.” Yet Bazelon, like the vast majority of journalists and academics to whom Rauch refers, will not abandon the new orthodoxy.  "I also wanted both Rauch and Packer to consider why the Enlightenment figures and values they love don’t speak to everyone," she writes. "They are sensitive to the concerns of people who have lacked power in American society, but they don’t engage with the full scope of their critiques and frustrations. These books are a launching pad for debate, not the last word."

I don't know Packer or Rauch and I haven't read all of either book, but I suspect they might agree with me that critical theory's approach to the problems of women, minorities and gays is both inaccurate and harmful--because the ideals of the Enlightenment, even if they have never been perfectly applied, are the only really effective weapon those groups have ever had.  The increasing contempt for those ideals holds these two reviews together.  If you believe that the violent and non-violent spread of western ideas around the world caused far more harm than good, then you will see no reason to defend western ideas of equality and free speech.  Those are dominant intellectual trends of our time.  They could lead us into a new dark age.