Featured Post

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...

Sunday, July 03, 2022

A July 4th like no other

Dozens of commentators have awakened to the disastrous state of American politics and society and the apparent impossibility of unity in a common cause.  We can find plenty of milestones down this road in recent history, starting with the election of Donald Trump and continuing with the Supreme Court's revolutionary decisions and the repudiation American traditions on the left, but longer-term causes have made much more difference.  To understand how low we have sunk we need to go back to the beginning.

Some quotes, for me, never get old.  I customarily mark the Fourth of July with Thomas Jefferson's very last letter, written in the spring of 1826, when both he and John Adams were clinging desperately to life in an effort to see the 50th anniversary of the signing of the declaration that they had both helped to draft.  Three signatories then survived, and a committee in Washington invited them to participate in a commemorative ceremony on the Fourth.  Jefferson wrote a reply for the ages.

"MONTICELLO, June 24, 1826.

"Respected Sir —The kind invitation I received from you on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of American Independence, as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day, but acquiescence is a duty, under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally, with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us, on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission and the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. The form which we have substituted restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason, and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the lights of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others—for ourselves let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

"I will ask permission here to express the pleasure with which I should have met my ancient neighbors of the city of Washington and its vicinities, with whom I passed so many years of a pleasing social intercourse; an intercourse which so much relieved the anxieties of the public cares, and left impressions so deeply engraved in my affections, as never to be forgotten. With my regret that ill health forbids me the gratification of an acceptance, be pleased to receive for yourself, and those for whom you write, the assurance of my highest respect and friendly attachment.

"TH: JEFFERSON."

These words, to begin with, rebut the now-fashionable accusation that Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers were white supremacists who never dreamed that the rights they proclaimed could extend either to nonwhites or women.  They used universal language in the founding documents because they believed in universal principles, however long it might take for those principles to take effect around the globe.  The black Americans who angrily claim that the Fourth of July has nothing to do with them are wrong, as Frederick Douglas confirmed in his famous address on July 4, 1852, "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro."  While he told his Rochester, New York audience that he was "not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary," he recognized it as a world-altering event nonetheless, he also railed against the myth (popular once again today) that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document. "In that instrument," he said, "I hold there is neither warrant, license or sanction of the hateful thing [slavery]; but interpreted, as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document." Jefferson had already told his old friend Lafayette a year or two earlier that he expected the slaves someday to gain freedom.  In this last letter he confidently predicted that the whole world would eventually secure the blessings of liberty as well.

While I do not believe that liberty today is threatened with disappearance around the world, no one can deny that the tide is running against it.  The dream of 1989 is essentially dead and autocracy and oligarchy rule Russia and China.  Authoritarian leaders rule important nations like Turkey and Brazil, and nationalist authoritarian movements have gained strength in Europe and North America.  As I write, the president of Tunisia--the only nation that seemed to have derived genuine political benefit from the Arab Spring--is pushing through constitutional changes that will make him almost all-powerful.  Here in the United States, Jefferson's letter hints at the problems that are crippling our democracy. "The form which we have substituted restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason, and freedom of opinion. . . . The general spread of the lights of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God."  196 years later, the "unbounded exercise of reason" has become less and less fashionable, superseded by tribal and other emotional commitments, or by powerful economic interests who refuse to admit, for instance, that climate change is a serious threat to humanity.  The printed word plays much less of a role in American life today than it did then, and books, while much more numerous, present far lesser intellectual challenges and do much less to develop general knowledge or a sense of our place in the history of the world.  The moving images of television and computer screens do more to excite the senses but much less to instruct the mind.  And our appetite for novelty seems so insatiable that even the war in Ukraine has faded from the front pages and the public consciousness.  

In the twentieth century, the idea of democracy expanded to give the government a critical role in promoting economic prosperity and coping with economic crisis.  The government's economic role dominated public discussion from 1933 until 1981, and presidents accept the role of steward of the economy.  Then Ronald Reagan announced that government was the problem, not the solution, and by 1996 Democrat Bill Clinton was publicly agreeing with him that "the era of big government is over."  In the great crisis of 2008-9 the elected leadership left the heavy lifting to the Federal Reserve Board, which provided trillions in new liquidity to save major financial institutions as millions of Americans lost their homes.  Something similar, it is emerging, happened in the last two years of the pandemic.  And today, a Democratic administration obviously has no idea how to cope with a very big new round of inflation and a threatened recession, because both parties have adopted the idea that the economy will take care of itself.  Unlike FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and even Reagan, President Biden has not devoted a single major address to our economic problems and what we might do about them--even though they seem likely to cost him the control of at least one house of Congress.  All over the first world, governments have ceded effective economic power and the political power that goes with it to financial institutions and new economic aristocracies.  Russia and China appear to be exceptions, insofar as their governments sometimes use political power to keep economic oligarchs in line.  That may give them an edge in international competition.

To use reason to solve society's problems, we need faith in reason and training in how to apply it.  From Jefferson's time until our parents, we had that faith, and such training became more and more available.  Now, with universities repudiating their enlightenment heritage in many ways, we are going backwards, just as the late Roman empire did under the influence of Christianity.  Here is these posts, and in occasional Facebook comments, I am now simply trying to keep my head while so many around me are losing theirs.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Judicial activism, left and right

 On Thursday and Friday the Supreme Court handed down two momentous decisions by 6-3 majorities, overturning New York state's venerable Sullivan Law (referred to by name in the film On the Waterfront) and then Roe V. Wade.  Clarence Thomas wrote the gun law majority decision and concurred, adding some broader remarks about "substantive due process," in the second.  I made clear months ago when the Alito opinion leaked that I do not think that his position--that the Constitution cannot be read as conferring a right to abortion--is without merit, and that the nation would be better off if abortion issues had been left to the political process within states, where it has now landed once again after 50 years of continuous organization and agitation.  I also believe that if in fact the right to abortion (which I support) is an overwhelmingly obvious necessity, as so many on the left believe, that the political process will ultimately protect it now.  Opinion may shift in red states when the decision's consequences become clear.  Yet I was preparing to write about the first decision--and Justice Thomas's opinion, like the Scalia opinion in Heller upon which it is based, is at least as flagrant a case of judicial overreach as Roe v. Wade is held to have been.  It reveals the doctrine of "originalism" as a total fraud.

I blogged about Heller fourteen years ago here.  I will begin today where I began then. Anyone who takes the few seconds necessary to read the Second Amendment--"A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed"--has to concede, it seems to me, that that amendment as written has been a dead letter for many decades.  The founders opposed standing armies and therefore limited federal appropriations for military forces to two years, and the colonies had always relied on militias to deal with hostile Indians and outbreaks of lawlessness. They also viewed them as guarantees against a tyrannical government.  While the militia tradition survives in our National Guard, we do not rely upon it for the same purposes, and it does not ask its members to provide their own weapons.  We rely on permanent forces to defend against invasion and police forces to stop crime.  Even Justice Scalia had to admit in his Heller opinion that no one kept up-to-date military weapons in their home.  Such weapons, by the way, play no role at all in the New York state case, which involved handguns.

Essentially, and for reasons known only to himself, Justice Scalia decided to find a right to personal self-defense in the Constitution, one that would allow citizens to keep handguns in their homes.  As I pointed out at the time,  he could not find a sufficient precedent to make his case.  He found that some states in the early Republic recognized a right to personal self-defense, but others did not.  In the same way that I would argue that the Constitution itself did not establish a personal right to own slaves--since many new states were abolishing slavery--it seems clear that the Constitution did not enshrine a self-defense right that some states refused to recognize either.  Each state had the right to make this decision for itself.  As I wrote in 2008, he reached the bizarre conclusion that since some states recognized this right, all of them must have believed in it.  The original blog explores this points at much greater length, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested.  Such an argument exposes conservative originalism as a fraud.  Scalia didn't base his argument on the language of the Second Amendment (he obviously couldn't) or on a fair reading of other evidence: he based it on faith in what the founders must have believed.  That is no more of a stretch than the discovery of a right to privacy in the Constitution.

Thomas's majority opinion in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association et al vs. Bruen retrace's Scalia's steps without paying any attention to the weaknesses of his argument.  He simply accepts Heller--a 5-4 decision by the way--as gospel.  The Sullivan Law required those wishing to carry guns to demonstrate a valid, specific risk that required them to do so, not simply a general need for self-defense.  The New York legislature in the early twentieth century apparently accepted the idea that law enforcement was the business of professionals. Thomas denies its right to take away the supposed "right" of all citizens to bear arms to defend themselves.  

In a very lengthy historical survey, Thomas has to admit that many states, in different eras, have imposed restrictions on the carrying of weapons, and especially on the carrying of concealed weapons. He also has to admit that both Texas and West Virginia passed laws very similar to the Sullivan Law in the late nineteenth century, requiring that anyone who wanted to go about armed have an important particular reason for doing so. He also admits that, as I mentioned recently, various western jurisdictions banned all firearms from towns in the same era.  But he insists on regarding all these laws as "outliers," rather than as reasonable attempts to maintain law and order, and thus without any value as precedents.   And he makes no attempt to compile a list of similar laws in the early twentieth century when the Sullivan law itself was passed.

Obviously many states at different times in our history believed that that law allowed them to ban the carrying of guns, and that the Constitution allowed them to do so.  It is not the language of the Second Amendment that leads Thomas to disregard them as precedents, but rather his and Scalia's determination to find a right in the Constitution that was never stated--exactly what he faults Justice Blackmun for doing in Roe v. Wade.   Of the two decisions, I am actually more disturbed by the New York one.  Dobbs leaves it to the states to decide whether to allow abortions, while the gun case takes the freedom to decide whether to allow the carrying of handguns in public away from the states.  Unlike Dobbs, it lays down a new law--and in my opinion a disastrous one--which we must all obey.  Justice Thomas has given up any right to complain about judicial overreach on the other side of the constitutional aisle.


Sunday, June 19, 2022

Do we still have a modern state?

 I had planned to take the weekend off because I became mildly ill Friday night and I'm not quite over it yet--don't worry, not COVID, I checked!--but the morning's New York Times changed my  mind.  A well-researched lobby details how gun manufacturers changed the marketing of the products over the last 20-30 years (while the crime rate was, until recently, falling) from an emphasis on hunting to an emphasis on self-defense.  The story emphasizes the use of masculine imagery to sell weapons but has to add that female purchasers are increasing more quickly than male ones.  The manufacturers take advantage of every mass shooting to increase their sales of semi-automatic rifles and pistols just in case they are banned again.  I was more interested in the theoretical implications of all this.

More than a century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber defined the state as an entity exercising a monopoly of the legitimate use of force.  Half a century ago I think a large majority of Americans accepted that definition whether they could recite it or not, and it was reflected in my own life.  Nearly the only time I ever fired a gun was during basic training for the Army Reserve in 1971--and my superiors treated it as a very serious business.  Every magazine (and they were relatively small magazines) of ammunition was loaded and every single bullet was fired on command.  The end of every day's training featured a ritual to insure that no had taken either empty or full cartridges away from the range.  Our sergeants, in short, kept our use of potentially lethal force firmly under the control of competent authority.

Earlier than that, as a child, I had read a number of children's or young-adult books about the United States, including a biography of Wyatt Earp.  Long before the gunfight at the OK corral he had made his name by restoring some order to frontier cow towns like Dodge City--by making the cowboys check their guns when they came into town.  That marked, quite simply, the advance of civilization.  Yet incredibly, 150 years later, state after state is allowing any adult to purchase a weapon and carry it wherever they wish, concealed.  

Gun manufacturers and the NRA are not the only groups trying to take legal authority away from elected officials and bureaucrats.  The "restorative justice" movement in urban America wants to replace arrest, trial and incarceration with negotiations between the perpetrator and the victim or the victim's family to agree on proper restitution.  That reminds me of what I learned about medieval England, where everyone's life had a fixed value depending on their station in life and a murderer owed that value to the family.  It's another regression away from the ways of modernity.

I am not detailing these changes to insist that something must be done about them.  They seem to me to be part of a profound historical rhythm.  It took a long time to bring pre-modern ways of resolving conflicts under control,and the ebbing away of modern ways will take a long time as well.  It is probalby connected to the rise of our new aristocracy, although so far that aristocracy depends on metaphorical hired guns--attorneys--rather than real ones, to protect its interests.  It also generally settles government claims against itself for wrongdoing in a good medieval manner--by paying seemingly large but quite affordable fines, rather than surrendering its personal liberty.  I am merely identifying these trends, which I obviously dislike, but which I am not sure that any of us can stop.


Sunday, June 12, 2022

Watergate and its consequences

 Late last week I participated in this two-day conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, organized by historian and documentary filmmaker Shane O'Sullivan,  who had previously interviewed me at great length for this documentary on the JFK assassination.  Shane kindly put me on the program even though I had never published anything about Watergate before, and it gave me an opportunity to re-examine some questions that had bothered me since the Watergate era and which I felt had never gotten enough attention.  My presentation is in the last session of the conference, "The Legacy of Watergate," and although I now realize that I left out a key piece of evidence that surfaced twenty years ago.  I am not going to go into the content of my presentation here, although I'll be glad to take questions about it in the comments. Instead I want to take up another issue:  the way that Watergate changed the role of the press, and contributed to related changes in the intellectual world.

The late Bill Strauss liked to point out that Watergate was very much a generational event.  In a different era, two reporters in their late twenties would probably not have been able to sell their editors on a sensational story implicating the White House in criminal activity.  Woodward and Bernstein were in fact on the leading edge of the Boom generation, born in 1943 and 1944 (although Bernstein is much more of a Boomer in his personality and Woodward more of a Silent.)  The Vietnam War had already largely discredited the older GI generation's leadership, and their GI editor Ben Bradlee, while trying to hold his young reporters to high journalistic standards, was more than happy to go with the flow.  Sam Ervin, another key figure, showed the strength of character and the independence of mind characteristic of the Lost generation (see also Truman, Harry).  Unfortunately, Watergate became a template, politically, journalistically, and legally, which had a very unfortunate influence on American life for the next few decades. 

Too many reporters and editors, apparently, spent the rest of their careers looking for the next Watergate, and often settled for ersatz substitutes.  More importantly, the mainstream media gradually arrogated to itself the role of the nation's moral arbiter, not only identifying evil, but trying to mete out appropriate punishment.  Gary Hart, as many have pointed out, was the first political figure to crash and burn over misdeeds that earlier generations would have ignored.  One unfortunate legacy of the scandal was the special counsel law, which cost many innocent men hundreds of thousands of dollars defending themselves against very weak charges, and allowed Kenneth Starr to carry out a legal vendetta against Bill Clinton.  Cases like Watergate or Iran-Contra did require special prosecutors, but Congress should have authorized them on a case-by-case basis to ensure that the charges were sufficiently serious.  Presidents like Reagan and Clinton did find strategies to survive, and often protect their surrogates, nonetheless.  Court challenges and classification kept Lawrence Walsh from pursuing many of the most serious charges surrounding Iran-Contra, and President George H. W. Bush--himself implicated in the scandal--pardoned most of the men who had been convicted of anything.  Clinton survived his impeachment.    It took a very long time for many of the worst episodes of the George W. Bush administration to be investigated at all, and by the time a Senate committee released a powerful torture report, the country had lost interest.  Robert Mueller was a failed special prosecutor under Donald Trump, in my opinion, and Trump survived two impeachments thanks to partisanship with his base of support intact.  He remains a serious threat to get back into the White House.

The new journalism has found its real home, as I have pointed out before, on the nation's op-ed pages. A few dozen pundits, almost completely unconstrained, explain to us two or three times a week what is wrong with the United States--whether the government or the majority of the American people agree with them or not.  Many on the left come from the tradition that was born around the time of Watergate, that holds both American government and American society to be irredeemably evil, dominated by racism and patriarchy.  The enormous progress of both minorities and women in the last 50 years only seems to have made them much more shrill, for reasons that I will try to address.  Many of their columns don't even propose remedies for the evils that they identify, but content themselves with jeremiads.   Many academics, especially in the humanities, take a similar view.  And meanwhile, it seems to me, our political leadership has largely given up the task of defining what the nation's problems are and how we can meet them.  Republicans generally argue that we have too much government while Democrats focus on the wishes of certain political constituencies. At the same time, the country has lost much of its interest in what the government is doing. Last week Joe Biden suffered what really should have been a severe setback, when the most important Central American governments boycotted his international summit because he--copying his last few Republican presidents--refused to invite the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.  But this did not provoke any political debate to speak of.  Democrats are once again focusing on the sins of Donald Trump, while Republicans emphasize inflation and culture war issues on which Democratic constituencies are out of touch with much of the population.  Watergate occurred in part because many Americans trusted the government too much, but we now see what happens when we all trust it much too little. 

On another front, inflation is on my mind because my new history of the US has now reached 1981, and I have been reminded of the astonishing toll inflation took on our politics from 1965 until that year. After eight years of extraordinary price stability from 1958 through 1965, inflation was never below 3 percent from then until 1996, and it topped 10% three times from 1974 through 1980.  It dominated domestic politics under Nixon, Ford, and Carter, and played a huge role in Ford's defeat in 1976 and Carter's in 1980.  All through that era, those three presidents frequently suggested that a severe recession might stop inflation but refused to select that alternative. In 1981 Paul Volcker and Ronald Reagan did select it. Unemployment remained over 5 percent until 1987, but inflation did drop and Reagan somehow convinced the country that he had worked a miracle.   Now, faced with a new upward spike, the Biden administration appears to have no idea of what to do.  One thing that has not changed over the last half century is the normal rhythm of American electoral politics.  Midterm elections have been devastating to sitting presidents in 1994, 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2018.  Even though loyalty to a demagogue who tried to overthrow the constitution now dominates one party, that party seems almost certain to benefit from that same rhythm this fall.


Saturday, June 04, 2022

The Frontline series on big oil and climate change

My dvr is set to tape all Frontline episodes, although I haven't been watching them religiously lately.  This week however I did watch a 3-part series on the energy industry and climate change--an excellent piece of history of the last 30 years or so, and a very depressing one.  It casts grave doubts both on our democracy's ability to function, and on the significance of real information in today's world. You can stream it here.

The great irony with which the series begins is this:  as early as the 1970s, Exxon, our leading energy firm, began studying the impact of greenhouse gases on climate in some detail, and realized that the problem was a serious one.  At one time they even made significant investments in the development of alternative energy sources.  These conclusions have come to light in recent years, but by then, Exxon and the whole energy industry had begun moving in a completely different direction.  Rather than join the emerging scientific consensus about the sources of the gravity of climate change, they have spent many millions on disinformation campaigns designed to stop a popular or political consensus from emerging.  Their first strategy, which in effect they borrowed from the tobacco industry, was to argue that scientists did not agree on the causes and impacts of global warming, and that major attempts to combat it had to await better data.  The Koch brothers, Exxon, the American Petroleum Institute and other key players have created a whole network of "researchers" whose job was to popularize this campaign.  They evidently enlisted the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal in their crusade, and spent many millions on "advertorials"--ads masquerading as editorials--in other major publications. Apparently, this has worked.

In 1992, when Bill Clinton and Al Gore won the presidential election, a new era of environmental regulation seemed possible. Climate change was already Gore's signature issue, and Clinton seemed to be on board.  During his first year Clinton spent most of his political capital on his economic program--including an unpopular tax increase--and threw a controversial health care plan into the mix for good measure. He also called for a BTU tax--a tax on thermal units of energy--to be levied on all forms of energy except solar, wind, and geothermal.  That proposal passed the House, but even a watered-down version failed in the Senate after a tremendous lobbying campaign against it and the costs it was supposed to impose on the economy.  Then, in November, the Republicans won their biggest midterm victory since 1946, taking control of both chambers.  Any chance of significant environmental legislation or of health care reform disappeared, and Clinton governed from the center for the rest of his term.  His administration signed the Kyoto Protocol committing the US to action to reduce emissions in 1997, but times had changed by 2005 when the protocol theoretically took effect. 

As I have noted a number of times over the last 22 years, a post-2000 investigation by journalists suggested that a full recount of Florida in November of that year--which Al Gore never had the temerity to ask for--would have given Gore the presidency.  No such recount occurred and we will never know if Gore might have reacted to 9/11, not be embarking on a series of new wars, but by proclaiming the necessity of weaning the nation from fossil fuels. We also do not know if he could have sold the Congress on such a policy.  George W. Bush and Dick Cheney went in a completely opposite direction.  The documentary disappointed me when it failed to discuss Cheney's energy task force, which operated largely in secrecy, and which I believe laid out the groundwork for seeking US energy independence by fracking for natural gas.  They do mention that Hurricane Katrina, which disrupted oil drilling in the Gulf, became an excuse for developing new fossil fuel sources.  In any event, by the time Bush left office in 2009, the fracking revolution was underway.

The campaign of 2008 was another bad moment for the energy industry because both candidates--Barack Obama and John McCain--supported some kind of energy tax and recognized climate change as a major problem.  After his smashing victory, Obama asked Congress for a cap-and-trade measure that would have forced energy consumers to bid for the right to use allocations from a defined total of energy.  The Democratic House of Representatives passed it, but another huge lobbing campaign managed to keep it from coming to a vote in the Senate, which meanwhile lost its filibuster-proof majority after Ted Kennedy's death.  Right-wing lobbying groups led by the Koch brothers argued that its costs would cripple the American economy, and like Clinton's BTU proposal in 1993, the cap-and-trade proposal became one of several factors in a huge Republican victory in the 2010 midterms. Bob Inglis, a courageous Republican Congressman from South Carolina, suffered a humiliating primary loss after he came out in favor of it, winning less than 30 percent of the vote.  Obama, like Clinton before him, had to move to the center, and he also adopted a key piece of oil industry propaganda himself.  Boasting that the United States now had enough natural gas available to last a century, he adopted the industry line that natural gas was a clean fuel because it resulted in half the carbon dioxide emissions of oil or coal.  That turns out to be a half-truth at best, because the mining of natural gas also leads to huge leaks of methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO 2. The energy industry was itself pushing natural gas as an alternative to coal, the worst greenhouse gas source, but Republicans seem to have done quite well by blaming a "war on coal" on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.  Like Bill Clinton, Obama balanced inaction at home with international agreement abroad, making new commitments to the Paris accord--but those commitments, like Clinton's, fell victim to the US electoral process.  Trump backed out of the accord, claiming that it was unfair to the US.

Throughout this long story--and now, into the Biden administration as well--the fossil fuel industry has benefited from its entrenched, enormous role in our economy.  Any time we encounter a new economic setback, we hear that we cannot afford expensive transitions to new energy sources. Now, with the price of oil soaring because of the Ukraine war, Biden is off to the Middle East to beg for higher production.  He meanwhile had to abandon the climate provision of the Build Back Better act.

Two kinds of interviewees dominate the documentary. On the one hand, there are calm, measured scientists, some of whom have worked in the energy industry, who explain the dangers of emissions and the failure to do anything about them.  On the other, there are former industry lobbyists who boast about stopping any measures that would really hurt their employers, and stick avidly to the fictions that they have developed. Meanwhile, nearly every actual energy producer or active lobbying group refused to be interviewed at all or to provide meaningful written answers to questions.  That is how entrenched interests now treat the mainstream media, of which PBS obviously is a part. Most viewers would prefer to share a meal with one of the scientists, but there are few of them I would bet on in a fight with one of the flacks.  The production of information is a major industry in the United States today, but it serves entrenched interests.  High-quality information--which has also become very hard to market to publishers--has to face torrents of opposing misinformation any time that it threatens established interests. Neither Obama nor Biden has made a real effort to educate the American people on any critical issue.  The great enlightenment experiment may be over. 



  


Saturday, May 28, 2022

Those benighted 1950s

 Some weeks ago, I read an excellent biography, Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, by one James S. Hirsch.  Published in 2010, it relied on lengthy interviews with Mays himself and with people who had known him at many stages of his life.  And it pointed me to an interesting illustration of race relations in the 1950s--a far more complicated story than many today would have us believe.

Willie Mays became a national celebrity in 1954, his second full year in the majors, when the New York Giants won the pennant and the World Series, highlighted by his extraordinary gave-saving catch in its first game.  (Fans today will never see a catch like that, because we have no ball park in which a center fielder could run that far to make it.)  In recognition of this, the new magazine Sports Illustrated--which had debuted during the 1954 season--featured Mays, his manager Leo Durocher, and Durocher's wife, the actress Laraine Day, on the cover of its April 11, 1955 issue.  I am reproducing that cover below.  Please look carefully at the right and left shoulders of Mays and Durocher, respectively.




Two weeks later, SI printed the following letters which I reproduce verbatim.

Sirs:

   . . . Up until now I have not found anything in particularly bad taste in SI, but by golly, when you print a picture on the cover (SI, April 11) in full color, of a white woman embracing a negro (with a small letter) man, you make it evident that even in a magazine supposedly devoted to healthful and innocent sports you have to engage in South-baiting.

         I care nothing about those three people as individuals, but I care a heck of a lot about the proof the picture gives that SI is part of the giant plan to flaunt all decency, so long as the conquered of 1865 can be reminded of their eternal defeat. This is the kind of sporting instinct SI has! . . .  F. M. Odom, Shreveport, La.


Sirs:           

       . . . To tell you that I was shocked at SI's cover would be putting it mildly. . . .The informative note inside the magazine tells me that this is Mrs. Leo Durocher, a white woman, with her arm affectionately around the neck of Willie Mays, a Negro ballplayer. . . . 

         Let me say to you, Sir, the most appalling blow ever struck at this country, the most disastrous thing that ever happened to the people of America, was the recent decision of the Supreme Court declaring segregation unconstitutional. . . .  Edward F. Webb, Nashville, Tennessee

Sirs:  

            Please cancel my subscription to SI immediately. . . .This is an insult to every decent white woman everywhere. T. B. Kelso, Fort Worth, Texas

Sirs: 

           . . . .Such disgusting racial propaganda is not fit for people who are trying to build a stronger nation based on racial integrity.  A. C. Dunn, New Orleans

Sirs:

           In regard to your April 11 cover, it is the best yet.  Albert L. Taborn, Cleveland.

                                    [end letters]

Some of you may be wishing that SI had chosen not to print these letters--but I think that would have been a dreadful mistake.  Had they done so, no one would have seen the letters that appeared in the following week, on May 2.

Sirs:

   Believe me when I say that the three Southern gentlemen who spoke their piece on your April 11 cover are not typical of our attitude toward the colored race or our opinions on sports. The flavor of their thoughts is reminiscent of electioneering in Mississippi hamlets. You may have offended custom, such as it is, but you're right on the winning side again--this time the right one!  Joe Attlees, Birmingham, Ala. [Willie Mays's home area, by the way.)

Sirs:

    I am embarrassed beyond words and infuriated to the point of battle, concerning those letters from the good Americans in Tennessee, Louisiana and Texas who thought your cover was "racial propaganda" and "an insult to white women."

    As background, allow me to state that I am a native North Carolinian.  I lived for 21 years in the same South as these caustic readers, attended an all-white school, rode int he front of the buses, ate and went where I pleased. My ancestors fought on the same side in the Civil War as did theirs, and they got the same tar beat out of them just like all the rest. I, a true Southerner who have lived in New York less than two years, am still admiring what I think is one of the most democratic typcially sportsmanlike covers ever printed.

Willie Mays is an American baseball player first, last and always. He waves no flags, he stirs no trouble, his teammates like him, he has no axes to grind. he is the personification of liberty, initiative, democracy and fair play. Willie is a top-notch baseball player; his only discriminations are against opposing pitchers, his only philosophy is to play good, clean baseball.  Norwood W. Pope, Jackson Heights, N.Y.

 Sirs: 

    After reading the letters of Messrs. F. M. Odom, E. F. Webb, T. B. kelso and A. C. Dunn in THE 19TH HOLE (SI, April 25), I was shocked to see that such strong negative reactions to SI's April 11 cover should prevail in this great democratic country of ours. I would like to point out to the authors how warmly the essence of their letters would be received in Moscow, Russia.

I am quite sure that when SI printed the cover there was no intention of South-baiting, recollecting the Civil War, insulting any women or spreading racial propaganda on the part of the editors, as these gentlemen claimed. As a matter of fact, the sooner the authors of these letters and people with similar feelings realize that they are wrong the better off the United States will be in the eyes of the peoples of the world who we are tring to win over to our side in the battle against Communism. A.P.L. Knott Jr., New Haven.

Sirs:

I have never written to a magazine before, but I consider it my duty to do so at this time.  I was disgusted at the letters concerning the cover of Willie Mays and Mrs. Leo Durocher. I may b only 15 years old but I have more common sense than any adult with those ideas. Steve Kraisler, Long Beach, N. Y.

Sirs:

Referring to the letters to the editor from Messrs. Odom, Webb, and Kelso and Dunn, concerning your cover of Willie Mays, Leo Durocher and Laraine Day.

To be putting it mildly, the aforementioned people are narrow-minded and absolutely poor sports on their criticism of that particular cover. I come from the South myself, and where i come from that sort of letter would be considered completely unfair. I doubt if any one of these people are more odel citizens than Willie Mays and they'll have to come a long way to be as successful as he has been under the odds that he's had to face. I think that those people could do well to apologize if they are any kind of sports at all.  Robert M. Young, Putnam, Conn.

Sirs:

I wish the postal regulations would permit me to address a few words to Messrs. Webb, odom and Kelson; however, the issue on which they saw fit to deliver their little verbal convulsions won't be an issue too much longer, and thus is nothing on which to waste my deathless prose. Betsy Wright, Muncie, Ind.


One week later the May 9 issue featured two more letters and an editorial note.

Sirs:

          In keeping with the rest of the human race, I am often disturbed when someone says something that doesn't agree with my way of thinking.  Too often I just quietly sit down and fume.  It has happened when I've come across certain opinions expressed in the 19TH HOLE [the SI letters column.] It is rare indeed, however, that I become furious enough to writ a letter. But the time has come: I am now completely furious.

          I see in your April 25 issue that four folks from our Southern states were shocked when they saw a picture of Mrs. Leo Durocher, a human being and a United States citizen, with her hand on the shoulder of Willie Mays, another human being and likewise a citizen of this democratic country.

          Now I don't want to get into racial controversy with these folks. No doubt their ideas are, unfortunately, far too imbedded in their minds to be pried loose by me or anyone else.  But I would like to say this: surely, if our own great world of sport is to be subjected to the tumult and the shouting of prejudiced fools, we have a truly fearful problem in trying to have the rest of the world play fair with us and with one another.  I would like to know what other readers think on this issue. Doug McKay, Salt Lake City.

[Editorial note]:  As we go to press, 178 citizens from parts of the country, including the South, have joined Mr. McKay in protest against the letters of Messrs. Odom, Webb, Dunn and Mrs. Kelso. Twenty-one readers followed the latter in objecting to SI's April 11 cover of Willie Mays and the Durochers. A Californian, protesting the original letters of condemnation, took a mock-serious stand on yet another cover: 

Sirs:

        To paraphrase the delightful emanations from the deep South that appeared in SI, April 25:

        Up until now I have not found anything in particularly bad taste in your magazine, but, by dern, when you print the picture of a Sherpa tribesman on the cover of an American magazine (SI, April 25), it's shocking, positively shocking! Sir, the greatest blow ever struck at this country was the conquest of  Everest by an indian (with a small letter) native villager. Your cover was an insult to decent white mountain climbers everywhere.  It makes SI part of a monstrous conspiracy to undermine the mountaineering sport in this country. Sir, Examine your position!   Rich Reid, San Fernando, Calif. [end letters.]

The racial issue in 1955 was just what it had been at least since the Revolutionary War in these United States, the subject of a great political battle, with millions of white and black people on both sides. The distribution of the letters to the editor give a reasonably good idea of the balance of opinion in the nation on the question of segregation and equal treatment at that time. I do not think that today's controversies on social media show us to be a more intelligent and enlightened citizenry, on the whole, than we were then.  The letters show the same spirit that one can find today in the film 12 Angry Men or the broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow, such as Harvest of Shame, available on youtube. This was the country I grew up in, and it made me what I am.  I am thankful for that.

         

                         


Sunday, May 22, 2022

A touch of class

This has been a very busy weekend, and during the week increasing amounts of my time and nervous energy have gone into a zoning battle with my home town that I am fighting along with the co-owner of our condo.  The issue is parking, and town officials are attempting to exercise extraordinary arbitrary power to take some of ours away--why I do not know.  I also participated in a conference in Dallas, about which more later, and I'm preparing to join in an online conference on Watergate early next month.  On top of all that, I started a piece here this morning, wrote a few paragraphs, and decided that I didn't like it.  So I'm going to let someone else do most of the work this week.

That someone is Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.  He has done a lot to make partisanship worse in this country and has shown very little respect for the last two Democratic presidents.  He also made a very historic mistake last January when he decided not to round up enough Republican votes to convict Donald Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors and eliminate the possibility of his making another presidential run.  Yet last week, he suddenly decided to step into the shoes of Arthur Vandenberg, the conservative Republican Senate heavyweight of the late 1940s who cast key votes for the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall plan.  McConnell gave an interview to a New York Times reporter which I actually enjoyed reading, and I am going to share it for non-commercial use only.  The reporter begins by asking about the trip that McConnell and several other senators made to Europe.

Why did you decide to make the trip to Europe last weekend?

One was to try to convey to the Europeans that skepticism about NATO itself, expressed by the previous president, was not the view of Republicans in the Senate. And I also was trying to minimize the vote against the package in my own party.

We have sort of an isolationist wing, and I think some of the Trump supporters are sort of linked up with the isolationists — a lot of talk out in the primaries about this sort of thing. And I felt this would help diminish the number of votes against the package. I think that worked out well.

I’d had a private dinner with the president of Finland back in March, right after the invasion, so we’d sort of developed a relationship. So we decided to head up to Stockholm and Helsinki. These are incredibly important admissions to NATO. They both have great militaries. They’re both independent of Russian energy. If anybody’s ready to be a part of NATO, these two countries are, so it was exciting to be there.

I think the trip helped convince Europeans that Republicans are the way we used to be on NATO.


Did you personally lobby individual senators to try to allay some of their concerns about the aid bill?

I certainly was talking about it for the last two weeks to my own colleagues. I said, No. 1, this is a pittance compared to the $2 trillion the Democrats dumped on the economy last year, producing 40-year-high inflation. If ever there were a reason where for an expenditure of this amount, this is it. And if the Russians succeeded, it would cost us a lot more. So yes, I was arguing for support for the package.

There are not many things we agree with this administration on. And that’s been pretty widely on display the last year and a half. I thought they were a little bit slow to get started, a little bit too intimidated by the thought of provoking the Russians, and we did criticize the slowness. However, I think they’ve stepped up their game. I think they are fully engaged. And I think the administration shares my view that the outcome of this ought to be victory.

What’s the definition of victory? I can tell you that [President Volodymyr] Zelensky [of Ukraine] believes victory is getting his country back. All of it.

The Ukrainians are trying to get on offense. And I believe this weapons package is crafted in such a way to give them what they need now, not only to win the ground war, but hopefully to have some impact on getting the Odessa port back open again, because the absence of Ukrainian food is going to resonate throughout the Middle East and Africa as well.

Our intelligence community says they believe that President [Vladimir V.] Putin [of Russia] is counting on American resolve flagging. As the conflict drags on, do you think it’s going to be harder to maintain support from Republicans for sending aid to Ukraine?

Well, we’ll see how much pain he can sustain. All indications are, they’re sustaining significantly more pain than we are. He’s counting on us kind of running out of interest and losing steam, not having a staying power — and I think he’s wrong about that. And I think he’s underestimating the amount of pain he’s getting.

You probably can’t fool the Russian people, like the mothers of the people who’ve been killed and maimed. They lost more people in the first two weeks of this war than we lost in Afghanistan plus Iraq in 20 years. We’ll see how long he can sustain it.

You’ve noted that isolationism among Republicans is nothing new. But does what we’re currently seeing in some corners of your party feel different or more dangerous to you than what we’ve seen in the past?

I don’t feel it’s dangerous. You know, I’ve been here a long time, and I’ve watched a lot of campaign rhetoric that seems to disappear once you’re sworn in, and you actually are responsible for governing and confronted with the facts and reality. So I have a tendency not to get overexcited about what A or B may be saying in some primary somewhere in America. I think this is one of those issues where, right and wrong — it’s pretty clear.

And of course, the best salesman against isolationism in America is President Zelensky. As you heard others say, Winston Churchill in a T-shirt. He’s an inspiration, not only to his own people, but to us as well.

For a lot of younger people in America, this is the first time they’ve ever seen a clear battle between right and wrong. To a lot of people, Afghanistan was murky. Iraq was murky. It just didn’t seem like a clear choice. I thought both those wars were necessary, by the way, but it was confusing to people. I don’t think anybody’s confused about this.

We’ve seen the bodies, we’ve seen the destroyed buildings. I don’t think anybody’s confused about who the bad guys are and who the good guys are, and whether or not America really ought to play that kind of role it has traditionally since World War II: being the leader of the free world in opposition to this kind of authoritarianism.

How important do you think the China factor was in all of this?

Huge. You’ve got both the prime minister of Japan and the defense minister of Japan saying if you want to push back against the Chinese, the single most important thing to do is beat Putin in Ukraine. That’s from the Japanese, whose biggest worry is not Putin but Xi [Jinping, China’s leader].

Senator Ted Cruz’s vote for the aid bill was interesting. He gave a very long speech explaining why, and one of the reasons was to counter China.

It was an excellent speech, I thought. And since he is among our most conservative members, I thought it was courageous and correct for him to say what he did, to people who follow him carefully. And in fact, I mentioned to him today, I thought it was really excellently crafted and an important message for someone like him to say. He’s clearly chosen a different path from another of our members who has presidential aspirations.

You said it was courageous — why?

Well, if you think of the brand of Republicans that you would typically think Senator Cruz would appeal to, this is not what they want to hear. That’s why I applied the word “courage” to it, because I think he was educating his supporters rather than mirroring them.

You seem confident that the Senate will ratify adding Sweden and Finland to NATO. Is there any concern about the level of risk that would entail for the United States and our allies, particularly given that Finland has 800 miles of shared border with Russia?

Did you read or hear about what the Finns did to the Russians in 1939? They had a hell of a war. The Soviets tried to take over Finland, and the Finns fought them to a draw.


I don’t think the Russians want to mess with the Finns. They’ve got a great military; they already spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. Sweden will be up to 2 percent shortly but already has a good military. So I’m not worried about it.

Their concern was, how long will it take for us to ratify? Chuck [Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader] feels the same way I do: We’re trying to expedite this process and get this treaty or treaties — however they decide to send it up to us — approved as quickly as possible.

[end interview]

McConnell exaggerated Finland's 1939-40 success somewhat. The Finns did brilliantly in the early stages of the campaign, inflicting enormous casualties, but in the spring the Russians broke through their main defense line and forced them to surrender about 1/3 of their territory, which they regained only temporarily after Hitler attacked the Soviets the next year and they joined in. That's my only quibble about the interview.

I am sure some readers are angry at me for giving McConnell any credibility at all.  As it happens, I always enjoy finding a point of agreement with some one who is almost always opposed to what I believe. Finding such issues may be the only way that we can get our politics out of the mess that they are in.  Five years older even than I, McConnell still remembers Cold War bipartisan foreign policy.  And some bipartisanship is better than none.



Friday, May 13, 2022

Harvard and Slavery

 This week's post appears here.  My thanks to editor Christina Xiao '24.  Other editors might not have been interested.

Saturday, May 07, 2022

A different perspective on Roe v. Wade

In an attempt to keep my head while many others are losing theirs in the aftermath of the leaked draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, I am going to begin by reposting a long article I wrote about eighteen months ago on the broader issue of the power of the Supreme Court.  It anticipated the moment at which we find ourselves, and suggested that over-reliance by both parties on Supreme Court decisions to secure their goals has done very grave harm to American democracy.  At the end of the post I will make some more comments about the current situation.


 On both sides of the political aisle, Americans see the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court as a potential turning point in our history.  A 6-3 majority for the well-organized conservative bloc may overturn the Affordable Care Act, reverse the decision in Roe v. Wade, and possibly (although I think this is less likely), undo federal protection of gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges.  Any of these steps would give an anti-democratic Republican Party huge victories in major national issues--but I do not think the situation can be blamed on the Republicans alone.  It reflects a long-standing desire of both sides to use the court system in general and the Supreme Court in particular to accomplish goals that the ordinary political process will not allow them to reach.  Rather than try to pack the court if the Democratic Party regains control of the government next month--a precedent that could make the whole situation worse, not better--it might be better to reconsider the proper limits of the court's role.

The Supreme Court's power to test both state and federal laws against the text of our Constitution, and to strike down laws it finds in conflict with that text, was, I think, inherent in the text of the Constitution itself.  For most of the pre-Civil War era, however, the court used that power very sparingly.  The great exception was the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which, as I tried to show in a much earlier post, used an ahistorical reading of precedent to try to stop all regulation of slavery in the territories, and implied that slavery was legal all over the United States.  The modern era of legislative jurisprudence, as one might call it, began after the Civil War, when conservative justices (and they were all conservative for much of the late 19th century) began using the 14th Amendment's guarantee of due process to outlaw state attempts to regulate their economy, including wages and hours legislation.  Such rulings continued through the first four years of the New Deal, when they took down major New Deal laws, and they led to FDR's court packing plan, which failed dismally in Congress but convinced some moderate justices, led by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, to help affirm the Wagner Act and the Social Security Act to forestall a greater constitutional crisis.

The broadening of the court's power entered a new phase, however, in Brown vs. Board of Education, when in 1954 the Warren Court ruled that school desegregation was an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.  While the definitive work on that case, Richard Kluger's Simple Justice, showed pretty clearly that the authors of that amendment had not intended to outlaw segregated schools, the decision certainly reflected the broader purpose of that amendment, namely, to secure truly equal status for former slaves, which it defined specifically as citizens.  In addition, Kluger showed that Chief Justice Warren, recognizing the gravity of the decision and the enormous impact that it would have, worked very hard, and successfully, to insure that the decision would be unanimous, even though the court at that time included several white southerners.  The subsequent history of school desegregation in this country, however, shows how hard it is to impose such a change by judicial fiat.  After decades of litigation, including 1970s decisions that approved school busing in some cases to promote integration, 69% of black children attend schools that are predominantly nonwhite.  In parts of the Deep South, integration led almost immediately to the creation of a separate system of private "Christian" schools for white students, leaving the public schools almost completely segregated, and often underfunded as a result.

During the next 15 years, the Warren Court issued a series of decisions that extended the reach of judicial power to try to transform various aspects of American life along more liberal lines.  Several were based on the relatively new idea that all state legislation might be tested against the Bill of Rights, and at least one critical decision, on reapportionment, relied on relatively abstract ideas of justice.  In the realm of criminal justice, Mapp vs. Ohio (1961) excluded evidence that had been seized without a warrant, Gideon vs. Wainwright guaranteed every defendant a lawyer, and Miranda vs. Arizona forced law enforcement agencies to inform defendants of their right to counsel and protection against self-incrimination.  Reynolds vs. Sims and Baker v. Carr ordered states to apportion all their legislative districts according to population, rather than to favor rural districts against urban ones.  Engel vs. Vitale (1962) outlawed organized prayer in public schools.  New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) made it almost impossible for public figures to win libel suits in state court.  While I certainly agree with the goals of all these decisions, every of them aroused considerable resentment against the courts because they bypassed or overruled the political process within states, and started the Republican assault upon the independence of the judiciary.  These precedents had another impact.  By continuing to test various specific state laws and practices against broad provisions of the U.S. Constitution, they encouraged a whole new style of litigation to which several generations of activist lawyers have devoted their lives.  Rather than organize politically or run for office to try to achieve worthy goals, they look for ways to secure them in the federal courts, and thereby weaken our democratic processes.

The expansion of judicial power took a new step forward in 1973, when the court handed down Roe v. Wade, making abortion legal all around the country.  I personally regard that decision as tragic, even though I agree with its goal, because, when it happened, the political process was already attacking this issue with some success. The nation's two most populous states, New York and California, had already legalized abortion.  That was beginning to trigger a nationwide political fight over the issue, but I think it's very likely that they would have maintained that right and that other states would have followed suit.  Instead, Roe v. Wade made abortion advocates complacent, energized at least three generations of opponents to an extraordinary extent, and turned abortion into a critical national political issue that has distorted our politics ever since. Furthermore, new state laws and new federal court decisions have narrowed the right it decreed to such an extent that in much of the country it is almost impossible to secure a legal abortion, and a market for back-alley abortions has been created once again.

By the time of Roe v. Wade, Richard Nixon, who in 1968 had campaigned explicitly against many of the Warren Court's decisions, had appointed four new members of the Supreme Court.  By 1976, a conservative majority was using the Bill of Rights to invalidate major liberal legislation.  In that year, Buckley v. Valeo held that the federal government could restrict a candidate's use of his own money in his election campaign, and two years later, in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, the court struck down a Massachusetts law designed to keep corporate money out of politics. These decisions laid the foundation for even more sweeping ones down the road.

In 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas, the court struck down laws against sexual relations between gay people, and twelve years later, in Obergefell v. Hodges, it established a right of gay marriage in every state.  The former decision strikes me as a straightforward application of the equal protection clause, allowing consenting adults to choose their sexual partners.  The latter, while just in my opinion, remains open to the same criticism as Roe v. Wade.  By the time it was handed down the political processes in many states had already legalized gay marriage and that would have continued.  As it is, gay marriage, as we shall see, is now under attack from another Constitutional angle.

The appointment of two members of a new generation of conservative justices, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, by George W. Bush--who was forced by his own party to abandon what would probably have been a more moderate appointment--allowed the court to move three critical areas of policy in a conservative direction, each time by a 5-4 vote.  In District of Columbia v. Heller, the court overruled more than two centuries of precedent and almost completely eliminated a state's right to regulate the possession of firearms.  Citizens United v. FEC (2010) essentially ended any restrictions on corporate spending on election campaigns, overturning a century of federal laws.  And in Shelby County v. Holder(2013), the same 5-4 majority invalidated the key preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act--perhaps the most obvious judicial usurpation of legislative power in the history of the Republic.  The 15th Amendment explicitly gave Congress the right to enforce itself by appropriate legislation, and the Voting Rights Act had repeatedly been renewed by large Congressional majorities.  The court majority threw out the provision simply because they, in contrast to Congress, did not regard as fair or necessary any longer.  Numerous states have passed legislation attempting to reduce voting in response.

No one, really, should be surprised that both political parties have tried to bend the enormous power of the Supreme Court as it has evolved since the Second World War to their own purposes.  Democrats are especially frustrated at this moment, first, because luck as well as electoral politics have given Republicans so many more court appointments than Democrats over the last 50 years, and secondly, because the Republican Senate majority shamelessly used its power four years ago to deny President Obama an appointment that rightfully belonged to him, and having made sure then that Justice Scalia would be replaced by another conservative, they are making sure now that Justice Ginsburg will be, as well.  The situation we are in, however--in which the appointment and confirmation of federal justices may well have become the single most important thing that the President and the Senate do--reflects a long deterioration of American democracy, which has taken so many decisions out of the voters' hands.  

Eleven years ago, the political scientist James MacGregor Burns--then 92 years old--published a remarkable history of the politics of the Supreme Court, Packing the Courtwhich I reviewed at the time.  Burns as a college student had lived through the battle between the Court and the New Deal, and that had left him with a firm belief that the Court should not be allowed to invalidate acts of Congress. That book railed against the enormous role of the Court in our political life, and looked forward to the day when a President might defy its attempt to invalidate a law. That, it seems to me, might be a more effective step for a new President Biden to take than a new attempt to add justices to the Court, if the Roberts Court, as seems fairly likely, does confirm the argument that Roberts himself made when the ACA first came before it, and tries to invalidate the ACA on the grounds that without the tax that went along with the individual mandate, it is now unconstitutional.  [end old post].

The history of abortion rights over the last 50 years, it seems to me, resembles the history of civil rights for black Americans in the South after reconstruction.  Just as the Republican Congress declared equal rights for former slaves during Reconstruction, the Supreme Court in 1973 declared abortion in the first trimester (and potentially in the second) legal throughout the United States.  In the first case, most of the white South simply refused to accept equal rights for black citizens, and began  undoing the Reconstruction acts as soon as they could.  Fifty years later--that is, around 1920--most black people in the southern states could not vote or enter into hotels, restaurants, schools and railroad cars reserved for whites.  In the half century since Roe v. Wade red states have severely cut back access to abortion in quite a few states, and abortion rates in some blue states are at least five times higher than in some red ones.  A Supreme Court majority can find a right in the Constitution--be it abortion or an individual right to bear arms--but it cannot compel a large majority of all Americans to agree.

A poll reported today shows that while only 9 percent of Americans think that abortion should be illegal in all cases, just 19 percent think that it should be legal in all cases.  Although one would not know it from a lot of the liberal rhetoric flying around this week, Alito's opinion will not ban abortion in the United States.  Based on maps that have been published I have found that it would leave abortion rights in place in states containing slightly more than 1/3 of our population, that it would lead to a ban or near-ban in states with a little less than 1/3, and that the status of abortion would be at least temporarily unclear in the rest.  I continue to believe, as  I wrote 18 months ago, that both abortion rights and American politics generally would be in much better shape today had the court not handed down Roe v. Wade in 1973 and left the issue to the political process within states. A number of them, including the two largest, had already legalized abortion then, and I think many more would have.  The issue would not have become such a big part of the glue that holds both our political parties together.  If the court hands down the Alito opinion or a similar one, we will face a new test of our democratic process in much of the country.  Meeting that test successfully could help get the country back on track.


Sunday, May 01, 2022

Psychology and Politics

 Yesterday I listened to this very interesting conversation between Glenn Loury (who has become a friend of mine) and Jordan Peterson.  Peterson, as many will know, is another centrist-iconoclast who has drawn a lot of criticism for unwoke positions on varoius topics.  Until now, I had never enjoyed listening to him as much as I had hoped to.  He was in top form in this interview, and Loury does very well too.  Peterson is a clinical psychologist who has become something of a social psychologist, and he tried to use some psychological insights to explain our growing inequality and its political consequences.

I cannot do justice to the full range of their discussion here, and will confine myself to a few of their most salient points.  Peterson talked about the G factor, a general measure of intelligence that was developed more than 100 years ago.  Tests have shown that it correlates very significantly with educational achievement, job performance, and income.  This means that since we no longer use high marginal tax rates to limit individual income, the rewards of high performance have become enormous.  He also talked about the low IQ population and its problems.  The US Army, he noted, decided long ago not to take anyone (including draftees) with an IQ of 80 or lower, because such people, they found, could not be trained to perform any military task effectively.  According to this chart,  that cohort includes 8 percent of the population, and a full 25 percent of the population have IQs of 90 or less. 8 percent of the US population includes about 26 million people--people who simply cannot perform effectively in today's economy.  Many of them, Loury speculated, are either homeless or prison inmates.  Most academics who study these questions, Peterson noted aptly, have never had any contact with such a person.  And such people will benefit neither from the left wing view that anyone can be trained and educated, or the right wing view that anyone willing to work hard will do just fine in our society.  And the additional 60 million people with IQs of 90 or less are surely having more and more trouble finding renumerative work as well.

Peterson is not afraid of data showing differences between men and women--to put it mildly--and he said a good deal about the consequences of poor economic prospects for young men. Most of them want to attract young women, and income and status remain critical variables for success in that enterprise.  Without them, some of them will become violent.  That could eventually have major political consequences, as it might well have had in France in 1792, Russia in 1917-18, Italy in the early 1920s, Germany in 1930-33, and China in the late 1940s.  I think it is having some consequences in US politics today.

Peterson and Loury did not talk about an important political development in the western world that I think is making this problem much worse: the collapse of the economic left.  During the mid-century crisis of the western world, the Labour Party in Britain, the Social Democrats in Germany, France, and elsewhere, and the Democratic Party in the US formed alliances with organized labor and became spokesmen for the working class.  The generation of young adults during the Depression and the Second World War produced a number of very effective leaders for those parties.  The postwar generations, however--American Boomers and their European counterparts--struck up new alliances with the economic elite.  Bill Clinton in the US and Tony Blair in Britain led the way, and the German Social Democrats weren't far behind.  Organized labor lost most of its power in the English-speaking nations although it still retains a great deal in Germany.  That left the working class without effective political representation, and large segments of it have turned against the political establishment altogether in the US, Britain, and  France.  Five years ago Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine LePen by 66 percent to 34 percent.  Last week his margin fell to 58-42.  LePen's party  has firmly established itself as one half of a modified-two party systems, and sooner or later such parties have a way of getting into power.   That already happened in the United States in 2016 and it may happen again in 2022 and 2024--and today's Republican Party is just as right wing as LePen's National Front is.

The failure of any western nation to experience a successful fourth turning is also playing a huge role in all this.  The mid-century crisis forced all the western nations to mobilize enormous resources on behalf of common national objectives, including war and economic reconstruction.  Those great enterprises required high taxes on the wealthy, and the less well-off collected some of the benefits of mobilization.  They also gave whole nations a common purpose and with it, a common identity.  Elites now rule us--elites whose economic status is so exalted that they have trouble realizing how badly many of us are dong.  Tribal loyalties have replaced national loyalty among many Americans.  Anything is possible now.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

The op-ed page and its discontents

 Thomas Friedman no longer enjoys the influence that he did twenty years or so ago, but he is still turning out two or three columns a week.  He has not mellowed at age 68.  For decades he has pontificated on foreign policy and the consequences of globalization.  His full-scale endorsement of the war in Iraq did nothing to reduce his eminence within the establishment, which is chronically forgiving of its own mistakes.  Theodore Draper pointed out around 1980 that no leading official had suffered for advocating the Vietnam War or benefited from having opposed it, and that pattern has repeated itself with respect to our Middle Eastern adventures.  Friedman interests me in particular, however, because he exemplifies the approach of the modern op-ed writer--a species that takes up about three times as much space in our newspapers as it did half a century ago.  In the age of James Reston, Roland Evans and Robert Novak, and Marquis Childs, op-ed writers essentially reflected in a more relaxed fashion on the news of the day, or provided scoops of their own about who thought what.  Now they see themselves as moral arbiters who instruct political leaders about what they should do, regardless of how well their advice turned out in the past.

Friedman's most recent column--"China and Russia are giving authoritarianism a bad name"--extends his judicial reach well beyond the United States.  While expressing concern over Putin's war in Ukraine--a theme of most of his recent columns--he is more interested in using that war to make a broader point about the course of history.  He is not worried that we have entered an era in which powerful states will use force to conquer their neighbors--rather he argues that Putin undertook this war because he runs an authoritarian regime, and authoritarian regimes are on the wrong side of history.  They do not understand, as Friedman does, that only the free flow of information leads to progress.  Putin got himself into this mess because his subordinates feared telling him the truth.  The underlying tone of the column--which has become very common in op-eds in general--is that if Putin were only as smart as Thomas Friedman, the world would be a better place.  The same thing, meanwhile, has happened to historians, most of whom now discuss the past merely to show how benighted earlier generations were, how much their values differed from those of a 21st century faculty lounge. I am increasingly convinced that good history and good journalism require a certain degree of humility.  Journalists and historians should try to chronicle the present and the past, not to try to determine what they should be.  An understanding of things as they are is the first step towards thinking about how they might be improved.

Regarding China, Friedman isn't concerned that the Ukraine war might encourage Beijing to invade Taiwan (a possibility that increased, in my opinion, when the sinking of the Moskva showed how vulnerable surface ships have become.)  He merely wants to point out that China, at this moment, is having a harder time with the pandemic than the West is, because its vaccines have been less effective against new variants.  That is true, but it's equally true that China did much better than we did against COVID earlier on, because it could impose much more significant restrictions on its populace.  

Friedman's real problem is his certainty that history is moving in the direction that he has marked out.  The Ukraine war has shocked a great many westerners because we thought we had outgrown the era in which such a war could take place--even though the US began a new era of military imperialism back in 2001 in response to 9/11.  We should have learned in the last 30 years that history is not linear, and that movements towards democracy or authoritarianism still depend on a host of circumstances.  Friedman concludes by arguing, in effect, that while democracy has problems, they are not nearly so great. "I am worried sick about our own democratic system," he says.. "But as long as we can still vote out incompetent leaders and maintain information ecosystems that will expose systemic lying and defy censorship, we can adapt in an age of rapid change — and that is the single most important competitive advantage a country can have today."  Given the failure of our own government to deal seriously with immigration, climate change, inequality, and a host of other issues, that strikes me as a most optimistic reading of our own situation.

More broadly, the growth of the op-ed page has been a catastrophe for journalism.  It usually takes me less than an hour to write these posts--it wouldn't take me a day to write three of them a week.  For a comparable amount of labor, Friedman and his ilk make at least $200,000 a year these days.  Some of them write from a much more ideological perspective than he does--especially those hired to provide a particular demographic viewpoint.  The decline of newspapers--like the decline of history and serious publishing--has a great deal to do with the product that it is putting out.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

The End of a Disastrous Fourth Turning

 In Generations (1991) and The Fourth Turning (1997), William Strauss (1947-2007) and Neil Howe laid out an 80-year cycle in American history, punctuated by great crises.  These included the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution (1774-1794), the Civil War (1861-65), and the Depression and the Second World War (1929-45).  Doing the math, they predicted another such crisis in the first 15 years of the 21st century.  In the closing section of The Fourth Turning they made a remarkable list of events that might trigger the crisis, including a terrorist attack and conflicts between state and federal authority.  To get us out of the crisis they counted on their own (and my) Boom generation, whom they expected to produce a leader comparable to  Lincoln in the Civil War crisis or FDR in the last one.  Such a person would define a new path for the nation and mobilize resources and young people to create it.  They counted on the Millennial generation (born 1982-1996, it now seems) to play the role of the GI or "Greatest" generation in the Second World War, both as the foot soldiers of the crises and the founders of a different United States after it was over.  They expected the experience of the crisis to unite the country and create a new set of values, just as the previous crises had done.

Two events--9/11 in 2001, and the financial crisis of 2008--did briefly galvanize the nation and offered our leadership the chance to put us on a new path and create a new consensus.  Unfortunately, both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations--which in many ways marked a single new period in US history--failed to grasp the opportunity to do so.  The three earlier crises in our national life, I now believe, renewed the bonds that held us together and revitalized our democracy.  Because the new crisis failed to solve any big problems in foreign affairs, domestic affairs, or within our political system, we are now sailing in uncharted waters with no idea what the next twenty years have in store.  I am now inclined to believe that the whole period of 1774-1964 may, like the Roman Empire, have marked a great exception in human history in which, for various reasons, civic virtue was unusually widespread and civic achievements unusually striking.  And because this crisis was a failure, we may have left that era behind, not to return for a very long time.

The book The Fourth Turning also gave birth to an internet forum for the discussion of its ideas--one of the most exciting intellectual arenas, in its early years, that I was ever part of.  It has now been archived. In this thread, Bill Strauss, two days after 9/11, suggested that the attack on the trade towers might well begin the Crisis, depending on the response to it.  In my opinion, George W. Bush, Karl Rove (who may well have read Strauss and Howe himself), and other figures in their administration wanted to use the aftermath of the crisis in this way.  In the eighteen months that followed they laid out sweeping new foreign policy goals, including the democratization of the Middle East and the destruction of hostile regimes that in their view were trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction.  Neoconservatives talked of "World War IV" (World War III, to them, was the struggle against Communism), a generational crusade to extend western values further.  And although we may forget it, the country, led by a bipartisan elite, rallied enthusiastically behind Bush in those months.  Nearly everyone supported the invasion of Afghanistan and every few Senators and Congressmen opposed the invasion of Iraq.  For two major reasons, however, 9/11 failed to become the new Fort Sumter or Pearl Harbor.

The first reason was strategic.  The war in Afghanistan as it evolved, and the war in Iraq from the beginning, sought to achieve the impossible: the creation of US client states that would use democratic procedures in those nations.  In Afghanistan, 20 years of war and $2.3 trillion led last year to the restoration of the Taliban, whom we had invaded to overthrow.  In Iraq our invasion triggered a brutal civil war between newly liberated Shi'ites and hitherto dominant Sunnis, culminating in the mid-2010s in the rise of ISIS.  The Obama administration did initially withdraw from Iraq but returned when the government faced a threatened collapse.  More importantly, at the time of the Arab Spring, it too adopted the Bush policy of spreading democracy, disastrously in Libya, where the overthrow of Qaddafi started another civil war, and with no success at all in Syria, where the Assad regime was too strong to overthrow.  Nor was this all.  The emphasis on the "war on terror"--really, a new era of imperialism in the Third World--led our leadership to discount any threat of great power war.   That threat has just re-emerged with a vengeance with Russia's invasion of Ukraine.  

The second, equally important reason for the Bush II administration's failure was its failure to mobilize human and material resources for civic goals.  The Boom and Silent generations that dominated that administration had enjoyed the benefits of the world their parents and grandparents created for the whole of their adult lives.  Their better-off members--who dominated that administration--had also benefited enormously from the Reagan tax cuts and economic deregulation.  They saw no need for sacrifice to meet their big new worldwide goals. Instead of raising taxes, they cut them twice.  They did not reinstate a draft.  While FDR had demanded of Americans that they save, Bush exhorted them to spend.  Bush in his second term even tried to dismantle one of the key civic legacies of the previous crisis, the Social Security system. That turned out to be a bridge too far, but he never built a new domestic consensus--winning re-election by a very narrow margin--and, as it turned out, presided over the growth of a most unstable economy.  Meanwhile, Karl Rove in 2004 relied on social issues like gay marriage and abortion to hold Republicans in line, preferring divisive issues to unifying ones.  By 2006 his dream of a Republican majority was clearly fading anyway, as the Democrats gained control of both houses of Congress.

The 2008 financial crisis hit all Americans in a way that 9/11 did not.  Six million people lost their homes and the stock market collapse cut net worth all across the country.  The irresponsibility of our new deregulated financial system became clear.  The crisis allowed Barack Obama to win a big victory in the elections and bring a larger majority in the House and a filibuster-proof one into the Senate with him.  The media in 2009 filled with comparisons between him and Franklin Roosevelt.  Yet the 47-year old Obama turned out to be a child of the system as it had evolved over the last 20 years.  His senior economic advisers taught him, in effect, that the crisis did not mean that the new economic order was fundamentally unsound--but only that it needed trillions of dollars of liquidity from the Fed.  In contrast to FDR, Obama neither did very much for the ordinary Americans most affected by the crisis--the ones that had lost their homes--nor mobilized the nation's anger against "the money changers in the temple," whom FDR had attacked in his first inaugural address.  His stimulus package was not big enough to reverse the economic trend in his first year in office, and he spent the rest of his political capital on a health care plan that would not come into practice for years. Meanwhile, the Tea Party managed to mobilize the nation's rage in the way that he had decided not to attempt.  In November 2010 the Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives, and any possibility of a second New Deal evaporated.  Prodded, like Bill Clinton, by a Republican Congress, Obama had to focus for most of his term on cutting the budget deficit.  In 2014 he lost the Senate as well as the House.

The nomination and election of Donald Trump, as I have written many times, documented the bankruptcy of our political system and our political elite.  Neither party could produce a candidate who could defeat him.  Although Trump failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, he did put through another huge round of tax cuts and the deficit ballooned again during an expanding economy.  Trump used the presidency for his personal gain in unprecedented ways, and tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election.  He failed.  

The pandemic that struck in early 2020 confirmed the collapse of our civic order.  Trump, not surprisingly, insisted on pretending that it was not happening.  The private sector rose nobly to the occasion, developing two vaccines within a  year, but the American people could not agree on the simplest precautions to prevent COVID's spread, costing us tens or hundreds of thousands of lives. The government's relief efforts kept the economy alive, but also--like the post-2008 bailouts--made gigantic gifts to corporate America again.  President Biden came into office with narrow Congressional majorities and passed on infrastructure bill, period.  That is not all.

The three great challenges to our international, economic and medical well-being--9/11, the 2008 collapse, and the pandemic--have left Americans frustrated and angry.  That happened in the earlier more successful crises as well.  The John Adams administration (1797-1801) introduced hyper-partisanship to young America, with Federalists and Republicans accusing one another of treacherous subservience to foreign powers.  The bitterness of reconstruction was at least as bad as the bitterness of the Civil War, and took thousands of additional lives.  1946-54 was an era of domestic reaction led by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy, practicing their own form of cancel culture. This time, however, we do not have a very widely respected figure such as Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, or Dwight D. Eisenhower to rally around, and no great national achievements or tasks to focus on and divert attention from partisan resentments.  It is a very long time since any politician really made a national name for himself by solving problems.  Two opposing ideologies have filled the vacuum--both dating from the 1960s when the challenge to  the postwar order began.

On the right, the Republicans oppose any effective government at the federal and state level.  (They do not control any major cities and thus have not been able to use them as laboratories for their free market paradise.)   The Federalist Society incubates, identifies and lobbies for conservative appointments to the federal judiciary, and now dominates the Supreme Court.  ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, provides hundreds of draft bills to Republican state legislatures to roll back regulations, promote fossil fuels, chip away at public education, and alter election rules to suit Republicans.  Donald Trump, who insists that our political system was rigged to deny him a second term, remains by far the most powerful person in the Republican Party and stands an excellent chance of being nominated again if he decides to run.  The Republicans argue, in effect, that American history was a terrible mistake from the Progressive Era through the age of Reagan, and they are still busy trying to correct it without regard for democratic norms.

The views of many Democratic activists are equally destructive for civic virtue and real civic action.  They originated in embryonic form on campuses in the late 1960s,  and had taken over most campuses by 2000.  Rather then attempting to draw upon the positive traditions in the US historical experience, they argue in effect that American society and government have been an instrument of oppression from the very beginning, founded on genocide, slavery, and patriarchy.    As a result, many young people now believe that no black Americans had any rights before 1964 and that relations between the sexes until the 1970s are fairly represented by The Handmaid's Tale.  US history, they feel, has always been dominated by a conspiracy of straight white males determined to oppress and exploit the rest of the population and the world.  "Diversity, Equity and Inclusion" are code words for accepting this view, while placing as many nonstraightwhite males in positions of power as possible, since only they can be trusted to pursue justice.  I do not believe any real civic virtue or civic action can be built on this foundation ever.  Instead, I think it has triggered a kind of nuclear chain reaction within our society, turning the powerful energy that held us together in earlier years against one another.

The era of 1870-1965 (roughly) might be a unique one in western history, marked by an unprecedented faith in reason and government which allowed governments to mobilize their nation's resources on an undreamed of scale.  That enabled different governments to achieve great benefits for their people, and also to perpetrate disasters like the holocaust and the area bombing of cities in the Second World War. Its net effects, in my opinion, were very beneficial. It was an era of consensus thinking in which many outside the consensus faced severe hardships, and opportunities were not equally distributed.  The revolt of the late 1960s, I see now, targeted the whole system of loyalties and constraints that had kept society and government growing.  It obviously drew on profound currents in human nature and its effects continue to grow.  At bottom, the individual rather than the family has become the basic unit of society, and the right of self-definition is becoming the most prized right on earth.  Probably an actual majority of Americans on both the left and the right would now oppose the degree of authority that a successful fourth turning requires. The real question before us is whether modern society can survive and prosper without the degree of consensus that has held us together in the past. I do not know.  Strauss and Howe understood what kind of crisis we needed to renew our national identity.  We didn't get it, and we aren't going to get it now.  


Saturday, April 09, 2022

Looking back twelve years

 Because of a severe reaction to my second COVID booster, I will not be writing a new post this week. (Don't worry--it just means my immune system is still working hard!)  I am however planning a long post on our fourth turning.  To prepare for it, I am posting the first of two similar posts, written respectively in 2010 and 2015.  It is here.  Rereading a little of it I was struck by something: the New York Times recently ran a good story showing that earmarks are back.  It didn't mention the loophole that the same paper had discovered in 2010.