Featured Post

Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

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.

Saturday, April 02, 2022

Waking Up from 1989--or not

 The collapse of Communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe in 1989 convinced most of the West that the world was now headed in the same direction, towards worldwide capitalism and democracy.  Things had looked roughly the same 80 years earlier, in 1909 or so, another optimistic moment in which at least one observer, Norman Angell, argued that great-power war had become obsolete.  Then the First World War broke out, first in Eastern Europe, and then all over the continent because of imperial Germany's great power ambitions.  After the collapse of the Ottoman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German empires at the end of that war, the victorious allies looked forward once again to a long peace, but the Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany doomed those hopes as well.  The League of Nations failed to prevent small and then large wars in the 1930s.

The US foreign policy establishment, we can now see, looked forward in the early 1990s to the complete hegemony of American values and interests, enforced when necessary by military power.  Paul Wolfowitz put this one paper late in the Bush I administration, and no subsequent administration has really abandoned these dreams.  George H. W. Bush had fought the first Gulf War with the united support of the UN, but Bill Clinton decided to fight Yugoslavia for Kosovo without it.  He also tried and failed to straighten out Somalia, and expanded NATO.  Wolfowitz and other neoconservatives returned to power under George W. Bush and wrote a national security strategy declaring, among other things, that the US would attack any nation that was trying to build weapons the US did not think they should have.  After 9/11 they implemented that policy in Iraq, with disastrous results, and decided to try to establish a new friendly government in Afghanistan.  Meanwhile, initial attempts in the 1990s to use billions of dollars to integrate Russia into the world economy ended very badly, and Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia in 1999.  Bush II continued expanding NATO, and at the end of his term tried to bring Georgia and Ukraine into it as well. 

Future historians, I think, will see that the collapse of Communism encouraged a new phase of American imperialism focused on the Middle East.  That trend continued under Barack Obama, who encouraged the Arab spring, took steps to overthrow Qadaffi in Libya, and committed the US to the overthrow of Assad in Syria.  Sick of its elites adventures, the American people in 2016 barely elected Donald Trump, who wanted to end the imperial era.  He had nearly pulled out of Afghanistan when he left office, and he apparently had thought seriously about leaving NATO.

The US government did recognize a potential Chinese threat all this time, largely, I suspect, because Taiwan remains the principal reason for the maintenance of  the US Navy.  The US has been trying to build a new anti-Chinese alliance in Asia, yet we also hoped--and may still hope--that China's increasingly important place in the global economy will dissuade it from dangerous military adventures.  The US refused, however, seriously to take account of who Vladimir Putin was and what his ascent to power meant.  Shortly after he took power in 1999, bombings of Moscow apartment buildings took several hundred Russian lives. Putin blamed Chechen terrorists--even though there was no ongoing war between Russia and Chechnya at that moment--and made the bombings his pretext to resume the war.  He won it by leveling the Chechen capital, Grozny.  I recently learned from this excellent episode of This American Life that evidence emerged almost at once that Russian intelligence had set off the fatal bombs in Moscow--and a longtime friend of mine, a Russian expert, confirmed that. Putin, in short, immediately revealed himself as a dictator who would murder his own people to create a pretext for territorial expansion--and it was no secret that he regarded the collapse of the USSR as a catastrophe.  He soon began murdering political opponents as well, both inside and outside Russia,. Yet the West, noticing Russia's increasing role as an energy supplier--especially to Western Europe--refused to take him seriously as a long-term threat, and both George W. Bush and Barack Obama treated him as some one we could get along with, at least until the annexation of Crimea and hte beginning of the war against Ukraine in 2014.  Donald Trump regarded him as an ally.

The shock within our media and foreign policy establishment at Putin's invasion of Ukraine is wondrous to behold.  Many simply cannot believe that Putin would dare do something that we did not believe he should do.  Many immediately began grasping at straws suggesting that he could not succeed, such as the hope that oligarchs might overthrow him.  This is a real parallel to the response to Hitler in the late 1930s, when many hoped that "moderates" in the German government would restrain him.  Putin, however, is obviously an outlaw determined to use terror to tighten his rule at home and force to expand it abroad  History tells us, too, that that is not necessarily a self-defeating strategy.  That is how the Russian empire was originally created and expanded, and then restored under the USSR.  Our vision of a world in which such things do not happen is simply not self-actualizing in the real world.

Two years ago, a longtime friend of mine, a political scientist and retired Air Force colonel named Thomas Ehrhard, summarized the impact of post-cold war thinking on our military in this excellent article.  Assuming--like the British government in the 1920s and early 1930s--that a great-power war was too unlikely to worry about, our military stopped preparing for one.  That may be one reason why the Pentagon does not seem to be showing any appetite for intervention in Ukraine, the course of action which I continue to believe we should seriously consider.  The battlefield news from Ukraine is still good, although the devastation of the major cities and the refugee crisis are horrifying.  Unless the war ends with Putin's fall, however--an outcome that does not seem in the least likely--NATO will have to contend with very real threats to seize the Baltic states--which are far less defensible than Ukraine.

Putin has been much more patient and more clever than Hitler was.  He spent years building up his economy and shoring up his domestic position.  He was not, like Hitler, impelled by economic problems to expand rapidly.  He did test the waters in 2014 and emerged relatively unscathed.  (It isn't clear that the sanctions the west imposed at that time did that much harm.)  The Chinese have also been patient.  Yet  Russia, and perhaps Chna as well, now feels entitled to use its military power to secure territorial ambitions.  It's true that the US set the precedent for unrestrained use of its military power in Kosovo, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere.  I opposed two of those interventions but I will not make the popular era of assuming that we have no right to complain about Russia's aggression because of our own behavior.   A Second World War solution to the problems of Russia and China--their conquest--is obviously impossible.  We must figure out what we can do, and what we are willing to do, militarily,  to stop their expansion if sanctions do not bring down Putin.