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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.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Living Through Metahistory

 My work on my new book--a concise political history of the US, based upon presidential addresses--has now reached the 1920s.  The last two chapters, covering the years 1897-1921, have been very rich ones, marking a great turning point in American history.  I am convinced that a comparable turning point occurred around 1981, after about 15 years of preparation, and that we have been living through its consequences ever since.  Our response to the COVID pandemic showed how far things had gone.

In the years around the turn from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, the US view of our domestic politics and of our place in the world changed.  Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to talk at length about the need for fairness in our new industrial economy, and so far in my researches I have found that every one of his successors--through Warren Harding at least--addressed that issue as well.   He was also the first president to characterize the United States as a great world power among other world powers, one that was playing its role in the spread of western civilization around the globe, and that might have to defend its interests and values in a great war.  It fell to Woodrow Wilson to put those ideas into practice for the first time, and although his handling of the First World War had decidedly mixed results, the same set of problems returned with a vengeance in the 1930s and led to the Second World War and the Cold War. And at least until the 1960s, the nation's leaders argued that we had to secure various kinds of justice at home--including civil rights for all--in order to make our values credible abroad. Wilson specifically asked Congress to pass the women's suffrage amendment to help the war effort in the fall of 1918, and Presidents Truman, Kennedy and Johnson all argued that we had to pass civil rights legislation to play our role as world leaders.  Meanwhile, the enormous military efforts of the two world wars and the cold war led to marginal tax rates as high as 90%, and a great increase in economic equality from the 1930s through the 1970s.  With rare exceptions, Americans accepted the nation's new role, trusted their leadership, and willingly made sacrifices for the greater good. They also began removing traditional inequalities based on race and gender--although the nation remained quite socially conservative.

The great backlash against the mid-century world began in 1964, on both the right and the left.  First, the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater, who entirely rejected the New Deal and the changes that it had wrought and much of the international order (such as the United Nations) that had grown out of the world wars. Goldwater went down to a crushing defeat, but as the journalist Theodore White suggested at the end of The Making of the President 1964, he turned out to be a prophet of a new era. And in that same fall, the most privileged young people on the planet--the students at the University of California at Berkeley--rebelled against the stifling authoritarianism, as they saw it, of their university, which was giving them a great education without any tuition at all.  Their leader Mario Savio explicitly compared the predicament of Berkeley undergraduates to that of black citizens in segregated Mississippi--and that comparison apparently resonated.  The Boomer undergraduates he was addressing did not remember the Depression or the Second World War and had had enough, apparently, of the discipline and social conservatism that had gotten us through them.  By the fall of 1965, the Vietnam War was escalating, and more and more students around the country were rejecting mainstream values.  By 1970 hundreds of campuses were revolting against imperialism, racism, and sexism, and university administrations were slowly beginning to adopt the students' values--notably by canceling exams in the spring of 1970 to allow students to protest against the invasion of Cambodia. Now, a half century later, much more extreme versions of those values have completely taken over higher education--enforced by bureaucracies that did not exist in mid-century.

In 1980 Ronald Reagan succeeded where Barry Goldwater had failed, winning the presidency in a landslide and moving actively to slash top tax rates, roll back the rights of labor, and demonize government.  Then in 1989 came the end of the Cold War, which liberated the nation from its fear of a worldwide enemy--a fear which, while doing considerable harm, had also kept us together in a common enterprise for several critical decades.  By the 1990s a new, much younger Republican leader, Newt Gingrich, felt free to demonize the entire Democratic Party, and Republicans did anything they could to delegitimize the very moderate Bill Clinton, just as they later did with Barack Obama.  In 2001, in the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush tried to revive a sense of great national purpose as he embarked upon a military crusade to bring democracy to the Arab world.  He severely weakened that effort, however, by cutting taxes further instead of raising them--recreating the permanent deficit that Clinton had eliminated--and he discredited entirely by adopting impossible objectives like bringing western-allied democracy to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the rest of the Middle East.  His successor Barack Obama stuck to that broad objective despite further failures.

The election of Donald Trump, I have said many times, showed that about half of the American people had lost all faith in our political leadership.  The response to the pandemic showed an even more extraordinary contempt for authority among a whole political party--not merely political authority, but medical and scientific authority.  In fact, our most politically active citizens, on both sides, view each other, not any specific domestic problem or foreign rival, as their major enemy and the major problem that has to be overcome.  While Republican activists and politicians regard the pandemic as a Democratic conspiracy to defeat Donald Trump and enforce the supremacy of an intellectual elite, Democratic activists view Republicans as racist, sexist and homophobic oppressors. We are locked in a series of internal political civil wars for power between two sides largely defined by race, gender, and social attitudes. The situation is quite parallel to the civil era, but we can't have a civil war this time to resolve it.  

President Biden's focus on infrastructure draws on an earlier tradition, the tradition of his youth that built the interstate highway system and thousands of new schools and universities.  The Republican Party however is refusing to authorize even $1 more in taxes to pay for his proposals and will try to limit them as much as possible.  Meanwhile, the rhetoric of both sides is fueling racial divisions and obscuring the common problems that Americans of all races and genders face.  Our major media outlets have all lined up on one side or the other as well.  I have seen in my researches (and in a lot of other reading as well) that earlier generations of Americans believed that democracy would only work if reason dominated over emotion and if citizens exercised their freedoms--including freedom of speech--with critical self-restraint.  I am afraid we are discovering how right they were.

Saturday, June 05, 2021

The State of Our Government

 President Biden wants to put a big, transformative program through Congress.  It would revitalize our infrastructure (he originally wanted to spend several trillion dollars on this, but has already scaled his plans back); expand direct payments to less well off Americans through tax credits; exert far more federal control over national election procedures to make it easier to vote and end gerrymandering; and provide more child care to working parents. He would also like to raise taxes somewhat--though hardly dramatically--to pay for all this, and he wants to do much more about climate change.  The chances that he can do much of this do not look good.

The House Democratic leadership exercises enough discipline nowadays to get all of this through the House, even though their majority is now quite narrow.  The evenly divided Senate, of course, presents a completely different picture. A simple majority requires every Democratic Senator, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.  A majority, however, is nowhere near enough to pass legislation unless it is done through the reconciliation process, because of filibusters.  Manchin in particular seems unalterably opposed to ending the filibuster, even though his constitutional and historical arguments, as I have pointed out, are specious.  As a matter of fact, however, no majorities as narrow as the Democrats' ones are today has ever passed a sweeping legislative program in the whole history of the republic.  The Republicans during the Civil War, Wilson in 1913-14, FDR in 1933-36, the Republicans in 1947-8, and LBJ in 1965 all enjoyed very large majorities in both Houses, and most had considerable bipartisan support as well.  Mitch McConnell and the Republicans have reverted to total obstructionism, their policy under Barack Obama--and they are much closer to winning back the Congress now than they were in 2009.  Obama passed a stimulus measure and one major piece of legislation, the ACA.  Biden has also passed a big stimulus through reconciliation, and I expect him to get some infrastructure bill through, but I don't know how much more he can manage.  Our conservative Supreme Court also poses a new long-term threat to liberal legislation, just as it did from 1869 or so until 1937.  And meanwhile, red states are passing more and more conservative legislation on several fronts--voting rights, gun rights, anti-abortion measures, etc. 

Trump, of course, didn't have many legislative successes either--the tax cut was the only big one.  Both sides, instead, now tend to use executive powers to implement ideological agendas or please particular constituencies.  Trump tried to restrict some transgender rights, Biden is trying to expand them again.  Trump restricted immigration as much as he could, Biden is loosening it up again.  Trump banned diversity training in the federal government, Biden has restored it.  Biden has also created a farm loan relief program targeted explicitly at black farmers, an unprecedented step in our history.  It looks to me like a centrist party or candidate might have a very broad appeal, but neither party is going to field anyone more centrist than Biden, who is not turning out to be especially centrist on any hot-button issues at all.

Both of our parties rely heavily on corporate money.  Both of them have networks of intellectuals who supply their ideas.  Both of them have large constituencies motivated mainly by identity, and both of them have absolutist views on issues like taxes, gun rights, abortion rights, and now, critical race theory, which is rightly becoming a major political issue, since its acceptance or rejection implies entirely different views about where the United States is, how it got there, and where it should go from here.  As I have said before, I do not think that our divisions are without precedent.  The situation in the post-Civil War era was quite similar, and it halted the drive toward legal racial equality far short of its goal.   The example of that era also suggests that any period of partisan division based on identity tends to be a very good period for large corporations.  We may not see any really transformative change for a long time.