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New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History
Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian, A Life in History. Long-time readers who want to find out how th...
Friday, August 27, 2021
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, which was followed by the massacre of the remaining whites. 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!" 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. The country, therefore, had to be rebuilt. To realise this goal, Dessalines adopted the economic organisation of serfdom. He proclaimed that every citizen would belong to one of two categories, laborer or soldier. Furthermore, he proclaimed the mastery of the state over the individual and consequently ordered that all laborers would be bound to a plantation. 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. Likewise, the working day was shortened by a third. 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. 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. . . .
"1804 massacre of the French
"The 1804 massacre was carried out against the remaining white population of French colonists and loyalists, both enemies and traitors of the revolution, 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. 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.
"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. 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. Mass killings then took place on the streets and on places outside the cities. In parallel to the killings, plundering and rape also occurred.
"Women and children were generally killed last. White women were "often raped or pushed into forced marriages under threat of death".
"By the end of April 1804, some 3,000 to 5,000 people had been killed 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; select male Frenchmen; and a group of medical doctors and professionals. Reportedly, also people with connections to Haitian notables were spared, as well as the women who agreed to marry non-white men. In the 1805 constitution that declared all its citizens as black, 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."
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.