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New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

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Sunday, January 09, 2022

Presidential communication

On January 6 in Statuary Hall in the Capitol, President Joe Biden gave the  most remarkable speech of his career, commemorating the insurrection of a year ago and condemning Donald Trump's continuing claims of a stolen election.   Like Lincoln's first inaugural and his Gettysburg Address, and like any number of FDR's speeches just before and during the Second World War, the speech dealt above all with a great threat to democracy and the need to preserve it.  Here was Lincoln on March 4, 1861:

"Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left."

Nearly three years later at Gettysburg, Lincoln restated the aim of the war: to ensure that "government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Throughout his first two terms Franklin Roosevelt boasted that the United States was proving that democracy could deal effectively with the Depression, and in his third inaugural in January 1941 he insisted that democracy was still the wave of the future worldwide:

"No, democracy is not dying.

"We know it because we have seen it revive—and grow.

"We know it cannot die—because it is built on the unhampered initiative of individual men and women joined together in a common enterprise—an enterprise undertaken and carried through by the free expression of a free majority.

"We know it because democracy alone, of all forms of government, enlists the full force of men's enlightened will.

"We know it because democracy alone has constructed an unlimited civilization capable of infinite progress in the improvement of human life.

"We know it because, if we look below the surface, we sense it still spreading on every continent—for it is the most humane, the most advanced, and in the end the most unconquerable of all forms of human society."

President Biden struck a similar note:

"Make no mistake about it: We’re living at an inflection point in history.

"Both at home and abroad, we’re engaged anew in a struggle between democracy and autocracy, between the aspirations of the many and the greed of the few, between the people’s right of self-determination and self- — the self-seeking autocrat. 

"From China to Russia and beyond, they’re betting that democracy’s days are numbered.  They’ve actually told me democracy is too slow, too bogged down by division to succeed in today’s rapidly changing, complicated world.

"And they’re betting — they’re betting America will become more like them and less like us.  They’re betting that America is a place for the autocrat, the dictator, the strongman.

"I do not believe that.  That is not who we are.  That is not who we have ever been.  And that is not who we should ever, ever be."

The rest of Biden's speech, which I urge you all to read in full, fully recognized the extent of the threat to democracy posed by the continuing popularity of Donald Trump--whose name he never mentioned--and the steps Republicans are taking to allow them to alter the results of fair and free elections.  And like the speeches of FDR and Lincoln, it seemed to proclaim a readiness to take whatever steps might be necessary during the next three years to meet that threat. 

Biden, however, labors under an enormous handicap compared to these two great predecessors.  For reasons having very little to do with his personality or ability, his speech did not have 1/10 the impact of theirs, because of changes in the media and the nature of public opinion in the nation that he is trying to hold together.

Virtually every newspaper in the nation in 1861 and most of them in 1863, it is safe to say, printed the full text of Lincoln's inaugural and of the Gettysburg address, and their readers read them because they had little else to do with their free time, and because they, too, were focused on the secession of the South and the war the nation was fighting to try to end it.  Roosevelt's 1941 inaugural was also printed in the nation's leading newspapers in full and broadcast on the radio as well.   In the administration of Harry Truman the president added television to his arsenal of communication weapons, and the televised evening address became the primary means of presidential communication under Nixon.  The extraordinary events of the twentieth century, both abroad and at home, gave the average citizen an sense of investment in the doings of the government, led by the chief executive, and George W. Bush took advantage of that legacy after 9/11--but he used it to set the United States on a disastrous course.  Now the tradition of a generally high level of interest in the president's thoughts and actions seems to be nearly dead.

I did not see President Biden deliver his address. Major networks carried it in full, but he delivered it during the day, when most of us--even writers like myself--were working.  The New York Times, to its great credit, carried it in full, and when I decided to post it on my one social media outlet I found the text on the White House web site, where I linked it above.  I feel confident that a much smaller portion of the population heard or read it than in past eras of crisis.  The White House has already removed the link from its main page, and our attention is now back on the COVID epidemic.  

President Trump, alas, did find a way to command the nation's attention effectively: by tweeting.  His outrageous tweets repeatedly became front page news and the focus of television news stories--just as social media in general have eclipsed newspapers, either in print or online, as the focus of the attention of so many millions of Americans.  Information has become a commodity in the 21st century, and some kinds of information draw more viewers or listeners than others.  We saw a preview of this half a century ago in the first era of television advertising, which featured sound bites and images chosen to arouse emotion, rather than encourage thought.  The tweet  has now replaced the speech or the monthly newsletter as the means by which Senators and Congressmen try to communicate with their constituents.  For the second year in a row, and the second time since 1934, there will be no State of the Union address in January during the week after Congress reconvenes for its second full session.  

Because so many millions of us spend more time with our favorite cable news network, podcasts, or social media platform than we do listening to or reading the words of any elected official, around 40% of the population really does not care what President Biden says--they are Republicans who have written him off.  Nor does he command the kind of loyalty that popular Republican or Democratic presidents have among their own troops--and he has not found a way to secure it.  Regular readers know that I trace the collapse of our politics to the failure of the government to unite us behind some successful foreign or domestic enterprise over the last two decades.  Yet I also wonder whether effective democracy depended on an educated population which, for whatever reason, took the workings of its institutions seriously and took the time necessary to understand what they were doing--as well as a press that took the time to let them know in some detail.  Those ingredients are also lacking, and democracy might not survive without them.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

A thorough critique of the 1619 project

 Exactly a month ago, I did a post critiquing the defense of the 1619 Project that Jake Silverstein of the Times published to commemorate its new book version.  An historian of slavery and the Civil War period named James Oakes has now published this extremely telling critique of the whole project on a fairly obscure, traditional leftist web site called Catalyst.  Oakes brings to bear a lifetime of study of the issues involved and a real command of the literature on the politics and economics of slavery that has been written over the last century.  I recommend to all interested readers that they read the long piece in detail, but I will summarize what he had to say quickly.

1. The centerpiece of the project--the idea that the it presents a new view of slavery that has only emerged since black scholars got their seat at the academic table in the last few decades--is ridiculous, and an insult to earlier generations of white and black scholars who in fact had investigated the same issues very thoroughly.  Some of the project's arguments have already been raised and rejected based upon evidence.

2.  The project is political, not historical or even journalistic, presenting a very slanted view of history designed explicitly and admittedly to bolster a case for reparations for black Americans.

3.   The project's assertions about the importance of slavery to the pre-1861 American economy are badly overblown, and the sources that the authors cite often do not bear them out.

In a similar but much less wide-ranging criticism of the 1619 Project, the historian Sean Wilentz recently detailed how difficult it had turned out to be for him and other skeptical historians to register their concerns in a mainstream historical journal.   This piece was published on a web site in the Czech Republic.  Oakes's piece should be coming out in the New York Times Magazine as a full-scale rejoinder, or in the New York Review of Books or the American Historical Review or the Journal of American History--but it isn't.  The critics, who include some of our most eminent and accomplished historians, are being marginalized, while the book version of the 1619 project has shot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.  That is another reason that I am linking this article and asking readers to circulate it further.  We need to make clear that this new imperial regime has no clothes.

Sunday, January 02, 2022

The Crisis over Ukraine

 The crisis over Ukraine, which threatens to escalate into a confrontation between the United States and Russia, and the even more perilous potential crisis over Taiwan, stem from conflicting goals and world views among the three leading powers in the world, the US, Russia, and China.  It is in fact somewhat similar to the crises that set off the 27-year Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in 431 B. C., as so ably recorded by Thucydides the Athenian, one of the founders of modern history.  That crisis grew out of a general war between the Greeks and the Persians, which left the Athenians in a dominant position over much of Greece and the surrounding islands.  This crisis goes back to the end of the Cold War, which left the United States in such an apparently dominant position that our foreign policy elite decided that we were now destined to rule the world. It was the George W. Bush administration that first put that policy into print in its national security strategy and attempted to implement it, with disastrous results, in the Middle East, but that view dominated the Obama administration as well and seems to rule the Biden team--which is really a third Obama administration--as well.  We  have never really had a national debate over this policy, although Donald Trump made very half-hearted attempts to start one, and very few Americans, I suspect, really understand our relationship to the rest of the world and where it might lead.

Some elements of the new policy have been written down--notably in the Bush II administration's national security strategy of 2002--but I don't think any official document or presidential speech has ever laid the whole thing out, the way Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman did on the occasions of the two world wars and the Cold War.  We all remember how we decided in 1989 that the fall of the Soviet Union meant the triumph of capitalist democracy and the final defeat of the alternative ideologies of the twentieth century, but despite Paul Wolfowitz's famous leaked memorandum of 1992, I believe, on the future supremacy of the United States, we do not fully understand what these events meant for our foreign policy elite.  The first Gulf War, authorized by a UN Security Council resolution and carried out with almost the unanimous support the world community, seemed to validate the original hope that the UN would keep the world's peace, but in 1999, when the Security Council would not support war against what was left of Yugoslavia, the United States turned NATO into an offensive alliance.  The question of NATO expansion illustrates what has happened.  NATO was originally an alliance against expansion by the USSR.  When the USSR collapsed and broke apart President George H. W. Bush and James Baker apparently promised not to expand it into the former Soviet empire, but Bill Clinton--a Democrat, of course--decided to do it anyway.  NATO now includes, I believe, the entire former Soviet bloc with the exceptions of Serbia and Kosovo, as well as the former Soviet states of Latvia,. Lithuania, and Estonia.  Defended on the basis of defending democracy, the expansion has been in fact a means of expanding the US sphere of influence to the borders of Belarus and Ukraine.  Meanwhile, several of its members, such as Turkey and Hungary, have cast what democratic traditions they had aside.  In another important development, the US beginning in 2001 has called on NATO members to support military initiatives in other parts of the world, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and they have done so, turning themselves into adjuncts of US policy.  

The Iraq and Afghanistan interventions were part of the  the Bush II administration's crusade to wipe out unfriendly regimes and spread democracy--the natural form of government everywhere, it claimed--in the Muslim world. These initiatives have been disastrous failures, capped by the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan last year.  The Obama administration nonetheless continued these polices in Libya, where it toppled Qaddafi's regime and created long-term chaos, and in Syria, where it decreed that Assad must go but could not secure that result despite a bloody civil war.   The United States has also continued to punish hostile nations with sanctions, a tradition that goes back to the days of the Cold War.  Saddam Hussein's Iraq suffered from US sanctions for 12 years before the US finally overthrew him.  Iran has faced sanctions for decades--and after the Obama administration promised to lift them as part of the nuclear agreement in 2015, Donald Trump backed out of the agreement and reimposed them. Obama also decided finally to lift sanctions against Cuba that had been in place for more than half a century, but Trump reversed policy there as well. North Korea is also under sanctions because of its nuclear program, and Venezuela also faces them because it has a leftist government.  Russia has also faced sanctions since it annexed Crimea in 2014. 

The Ukraine crisis grows out of the same American policies.  In 2008, in its waning months, the  Bush II administration offered NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet Republics on Russia's borders. Russia promptly started a brief war against Georgia, and neither government actually tried to join NATO.  The United States has continued to promote democracy and an independent regime in Ukraine, however, and it has provided weaponry to Ukraine to resist the war the Russians started in 2014.  Russia has now massed about 150,000 troops on the Ukraine border, and Putin has demanded that the US give up the idea of NATO expansion.  This we are refusing to do. President Biden has said that American troops will not fight for Ukrainian independence, but he has threatened far more severe sanctions on  Russia if war does break out.  This is quite similar to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, in which Corcyra (Ukraine) asked Athens (the US) for its help in a dispute with Corinth, a Spartan ally (Russia.)  Athens initially limited its help but then joined the battle, and Sparta decided to go to war with Athens at Corinth's side. The rest, as they say, is history.

Meanwhile in the western Pacific, Taiwan--then called Formosa--passed from Japanese occupation to the sovereignty of the Chinese Nationalist government in 1945.  Then in 1949 the Nationalist leadership fled to Taiwan after they lost the civil war to the Communists.  The United States continued to treat them as the legitimate government of all China until 1972, and in 1955 Congress passed a joint resolution pledging the United States to defend Taiwan against a Communist attack.  That, we now know, led us perilously close to war with China, fought by us with atomic weapons, in 1958.  In 1972 President Nixon in the Shanghai Communique affirmed that there was only one China, and in 1979 President Carter abandoned the US defense obligation to Taiwan in order to open diplomatic relations with Communist China.  The US has not recognized Taiwan as an independent state, and indeed the new elected Taiwanese government has not claimed to be so--but it continues to plan the defense of Taiwan against an attack from the mainland.  That in fact has been the main combat mission of the US Navy since the end of the Cold War in Europe.  Many naval officers doubt however that the US would be able to prevent an invasion if the Chinese mounted one. China, meanwhile, is becoming more and more assertive about its rights over Taiwan, and its takeover of Hong Kong over the last year or two represents a new level of aggressiveness.

The United States made its entrance on the world stage in 1917 and became the world's leading power in 1945 calling for an international institution that would defend against aggression and maintain peace.  When in the early stages of the Cold War the USSR prevented the UN from playing that role, the US essentially decided to assume it itself, with the help of any allies it could secure.  When Communism fell the US government assumed new pretentions--ones which neither Russia nor China has ever accepted.  Despite all the setbacks of the last 20 years, Washington has not accepted a world in which our values do not prevail everywhere, and in which powerful nations reject our pre-eminence.  Something, I think, has to give. 

Since 1789 the US has stood for democracy in the world.  For over a century it sought to lead by example, and in 1917 and 1941 it went to war in part of defend other democracies.  It helped spread democracy after that war and did protect it in key areas during the  Cold War.  Now, however, democracy is in retreat, and the US itself is not providing a very inspiring example of it.  Not for the first time, we face the need somehow to scale back our pretensions to fit our actual capabilities.  I see no evidence that any such re-evaluation is taking place right now.