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Saturday, August 27, 2022

History sinks beneath the waves

    While I was away on a six-day trip, a controversy broke out over a monthly article by James Sweet, the current President of the American Historical Association.   For reasons that I explained more than two decades ago in a published article, I have not belonged to the AHA for a long time, but a friend sent me an article about the controversy.  Just today it made the op-ed page of the New York Times.  It's a sad and revealing story.

      James Sweet, a professor at the main campus of the University of Wisconsin, is an historian of the Atlantic slave trade.  That probably accounts for his election as the association president, but it turns out that some of his views contradict the new orthodoxy.   In his column, he criticized "presentism" in the historical profession--the increasing tendency to see the past through the lens of the present, and to mine the past, not always accurately, to score points in contemporary political debates.  "This trend toward presentism," he wrote, "is not confined to historians of the recent past; the entire discipline is lurching in this direction, including a shrinking minority working in premodern fields. If we don’t read the past through the prism of contemporary social justice issues—race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism—are we doing history that matters? This new history often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines. The allure of political relevance, facilitated by social and other media, encourages a predictable sameness of the present in the past."

Continuing, Sweet told his readers that he is working on a contribution to a forthcoming forum in the American Historical Review about the 1619 project, which has drawn scathing criticism from certain older historians such as Sean Wilentz and James Oakes. While he did not in his post echo their specific criticisms, he pointed out that most of the contributors to the project were not historians--led by its leader, Nikole Hannah-Jones--and that the project is an explicitly political document making a case for reparations for today's black population.  On a recent visit to Ghana, Sweet took a tour of Elmina Castle, a key stop in the slave pipeline, and was disturbed that the tour guide focused on the minority of the slaves who passed through it who went to North America. He also largely ignored the role of Ghana's tribes in the slave trade, and added that a forthcoming film about Dahomey, The Woman King, falsely portrays African leaders as fighting the European slave trade, while they actually participated in it. 

Continuing in a bipartisan vein, Sweet took Justices Thomas and Alito to task for misusing history in their majority opinions in cases that overturned a century-old New York gun law (NYSRPA v. Bruen) and overturned Roe v. Wade (Dobbs vs. Jackson.) He is absolutely right about this, particularly with respect to Thomas's opinion, which managed to erase centuries of legitimate regulation of the carrying of firearms both in the US and in medieval and early  modern England. "Doing history with integrity," he concluded, "requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors. Historical questions often emanate out of present concerns, but the past interrupts, challenges, and contradicts the present in unpredictable ways. History is not a heuristic tool for the articulation of an ideal imagined future. Rather, it is a way to study the messy, uneven process of change over time."

I'm sure I was not the only historian surprised and delighted by Sweet's timely post.  It immediately set off a firestorm of bitter criticism on twitter--one which I cannot quote or even read because the association has now blocked its twitter account.  The Wall Street Journal provided a summary of the reaction today, however, which I will excerpt.  

     “Gaslight. Gatekeep. Goatee,” said Laura Miller of Brandeis University, detecting patriarchal privilege written on Mr. Sweet’s chin. Benjamin Siegel of Boston University, who thinks his politically correct profession is “leveraged towards racist ideologies,” called the essay “malpractice.” Dan Royles of Florida International University accused Mr. Sweet of “logical incoherence,” which is academic-speak for “idiot.” Kathryn Wilson of Georgia State detected an even more heinous error, “misrepresentation of how contemporary social justice concerns inform theory and methodology.” Other users accused Mr. Sweet of using a rhetorical device called the “white we,” pitching for a guest slot on Tucker Carlson’s show, and writing “MAGA history.” Many called any questioning of the “1619 Project” racist. David Austin Walsh of the University of Virginia advised historians to support the project regardless of whether they thought it good history, because criticism would be “weaponized by the right.”

And then, after just a few days, Sweet wrote an abject apology, or should I say a letter of self-criticism.  " I had hoped to open a conversation on how we “do” history in our current politically charged environment," he wrote. "Instead, I foreclosed this conversation for many members, causing harm to colleagues, the discipline, and the Association. . . .I sincerely regret the way I have alienated some of my Black colleagues and friends. I am deeply sorry. In my clumsy efforts to draw attention to methodological flaws in teleological presentism, I left the impression that questions posed from absence, grief, memory, and resilience somehow matter less than those posed from positions of power. This absolutely is not true. It wasn’t my intention to leave that impression, but my provocation completely missed the mark."  Having begun by challenging the new orthodoxy, Sweet caved into it and left it more obviously supreme than ever.

The New York Times, which bears responsibility for the 1619 project and has explicitly refused to face much of the criticism that it aroused among professionals, weighed in on the controversy today in the person of Jay Caspian Kang, an opinion writer who does not seem to be a professional historian himself.  After summarizing what Sweet said (far more quickly than I did,), Kang gets to his main point.

"I agree with Sweet on the fundamentals of what he said, but I also understand why minority scholars felt like the integrity of their work was being questioned. An uncharitable reader might accuse him of singling out scholars who write about identity (read: mostly nonwhite scholars) and making unfounded insinuations about the motivations behind their work. This would be more forgivable if Sweet were not the president of the American Historical Association, a position that presumably gives him some influence over where the discipline is headed. There have been times in my own career when someone high up in an institution assumes that because I am not white, my work must be driven by identity politics. It’s an enraging experience."

This is an amazing kind of doublethink that always pops up when postmodern scholars defend themselves.  It is also inaccurate: the largest number of historians who write about identity are white women.  Moreover, for many decades now, many (though by no means all) female and minority scholars have argued specifically that their identity gives them insights which white males could never have,. and have explicitly argued for the necessity of having more of them in history departments on that basis.  Nor is that all.  Postmodern historians accept the idea that language, not events, are the true reality, and that all writing, historical and other, is a struggle between hegemonic elements--that is, white males--and marginalized ones.  Some also argue that hegemonic writing amounts to violence against the marginalized, which is why Sweet felt compelled to apologize for the emotional harm some minority scholars apparently accused him of inflicting upon them.  To them a disagreement between a white and a nonwhite scholar is not an intellectual dispute, it's a naked white attempt to reassert political power over the marginalized. Obviously--as Sweet's apology proved--no free intellectual inquiry can take place in such an atmosphere.  

Turning to Sweet's additional point that judges and journalists are continually using inaccurate history for political purposes, Kang leave no doubt where he stands.  “'The Case for Reparations' by Ta-Nehisi Coates," he writes, "which detailed the practice of redlining, certainly wasn’t the first piece of journalism that brought in historical techniques, but it was, without question and for good reason, the most influential of its era. History like this — cleareyed, thorough and written toward an explicit political end — showed a generation of young journalists how they might be able to leverage their skills in a new way. I was a young magazine writer when that article came out, in 2014. I recall feeling impressed by the prose and the research while realizing that Coates had raised the stakes for what a magazine story could do. He had, in effect, written a work that felt much more like an object, something that wouldn’t immediately decompose once the next news cycle rolled in.  I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Coates inspired thousands of imitators and ushered in a new type of journalism in which historical research could take precedence over reportage."

The problem is that Coates's "case for reparations" wasn't part of the solution--it was part of the problem.  He used anecdotal evidence from one city, Chicago, to argue that redlining--the designation from the 1930s into the 1960s of certain neighborhoods as unworthy of certain kinds of mortgage loans--had made it impossible for black Americans to acquire homes and wealth.  Having looked into this myself I can tell you that it is not true.  A detailed study of redlining found that initially, the redlined neighborhoods included far more white people than black people.  More importantly--and this is what Coates left out--black income, homeownership, and therefore, wealth, increased very rapidly from the late 1940s until the 1980s.  During that period, the percentage of white households owning their homes rose from about 43 percent to 75 percent.  At the same time, the corresponding black rate rose from 21 percent to 56 percent.   While many new housing developments were segregated, this did not prevent black Americans from making remarkable progress as property owners.  Since 1980 the white rate has remained constant while the black rate has fallen about 4 percent.  During the same period, black household income was rising from 50 percent of white household income, on the average, in 1946, to 68 percent in 1972.  During that time the income of the bottom 90 percent of the population tripled, and black gains were larger than white ones.  After 1980 the income of the lower half of the population stagnated, but black income still reached 75 percent of white income by 2014.  Black and white people in the lower half of the income distribution made gains in the postwar decades because of our expanding, largely industrial economy, strong unions, and the very rapid construction of new affordable homes.  When we abandoned those policies, those gains came to a stop--even as legal racism was abolished by federal law.

Kang is unfortunately correct: Coates has become a model for journalists and opinion writers who claim that black people have never been able to accumulate wealth, or that black veterans were completely excluded from the GI bill, or that Social Security was designed to exclude black people because it did not originally include farm laborers or domestics.  As I discussed at a recent conference, none of this is true.  Coates helped kick off a huge propaganda offensive based on false readings of history designed to make an overwhelming case for reparations for black Americans, one culminating in the 1619 Project, which our leading newspaper continues to promote.  Professor Sweet initially decided that it was time for historians and other Americans to hear more of the truth.  Then he caved in and agreed that the truth is too painful for various people to hear.  Fear and groupthink now rule university life and the editorial boards of our leading newspapers.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

What the General Might Have Said

 In November 2019 I described an exchange with General James Mattis, who had by then resigned as Secretary of Defense, after he gave a talk at the JFK School of Government at Harvard.  That was during the crisis that led to President Trump's first impeachment, and I was concerned that men like himself--including former Secretary of State Tillerson, former National Security Adviser General McMaster, and former chief of staff John Kelly, had not told the American people more about what working in the Trump White House was like.  I did not say that I had learned in my own long association with the military--six years as an army reservist, and 20 years as a civilian faculty member at the Naval War College--that a military officer serving under a dangerously incompetent superior had not only a right, but a duty, to bring the situation to the attention of higher authority--which in this case meant Congress and the American people.  General Mattis replied in a manner leaving no doubt that he had given much thought to this question and had reached an opposite conclusion.  To speak out, he said, would violate the non-political tradition of the American  military, trained since Washington to submit to civilian authority.  And to this date none of the men I mentioned has given a remotely full account of what working for Trump was like.

The New Yorker has just published a long article, "Inside the War Between Trump and his Generals," which goes into related issues involving General Mark Milley, who remains Chairman of the JCS.  His long and difficult relationship with Trump reached a low point early in June of 2020, when he allowed himself to march across Lafayette Square with Trump after law enforcement had cleared it of Black Lives Matter protesters.  Milley then drafted a letter of resignation which the article prints in full. I reproduce it for non-commercial use only.

"I regret to inform you that I intend to resign as your Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thank you for the honor of appointing me as senior ranking officer. The events of the last couple weeks have caused me to do deep soul-searching, and I can no longer faithfully support and execute your orders as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is my belief that you were doing great and irreparable harm to my country. I believe that you have made a concerted effort over time to politicize the United States military. I thought that I could change that. I’ve come to the realization that I cannot, and I need to step aside and let someone else try to do that.

"Second, you are using the military to create fear in the minds of the people—and we are trying to protect the American people. I cannot stand idly by and participate in that attack, verbally or otherwise, on the American people. The American people trust their military and they trust us to protect them against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and our military will do just that. We will not turn our back on the American people.

"Third, I swore an oath to the Constitution of the United States and embodied within that Constitution is the idea that says that all men and women are created equal. All men and women are created equal, no matter who you are, whether you are white or Black, Asian, Indian, no matter the color of your skin, no matter if you’re gay, straight or something in between. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jew, or choose not to believe. None of that matters. It doesn’t matter what country you came from, what your last name is—what matters is we’re Americans. We’re all Americans. That under these colors of red, white, and blue—the colors that my parents fought for in World War II—means something around the world. It’s obvious to me that you don’t think of those colors the same way I do. It’s obvious to me that you don’t hold those values dear and the cause that I serve.

"And lastly it is my deeply held belief that you’re ruining the international order, and causing significant damage to our country overseas, that was fought for so hard by the Greatest Generation that they instituted in 1945. Between 1914 and 1945, 150 million people were slaughtered in the conduct of war. They were slaughtered because of tyrannies and dictatorships. That generation, like every generation, has fought against that, has fought against fascism, has fought against Nazism, has fought against extremism. It’s now obvious to me that you don’t understand that world order. You don’t understand what the war was all about. In fact, you subscribe to many of the principles that we fought against. And I cannot be a party to that. It is with deep regret that I hereby submit my letter of resignation."

An election campaign was now in progress, and I still believe that Milley had an obligation both as a military officer and a citizen to make his opinions known to the whole electorate and to fill in some of the obvious blanks in his resignation letter. What had Trump said that made clear that he did not believe that all Americans were created equal?  How had he convinced Milley that he did not believe in the post-1945 international order?  And what exactly were the "many" principles to which Trump subscribed that the nation had fought against in the Second World War?  With another Trump campaign looming, these questions obviously remain critical today.

The article explains, however, that several other senior officers, former high civilian officials, and elected officials--led by former CIA director and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates--talked Milley out of submitting the resignation letter and convinced him to stay to try to keep Trump from doing anything utterly disastrous.  This he tried to do.  What this shows, I think, is that our senior national security establishment still sees itself as a law unto itself, with unique responsibilities that it has no real obligation to share with ordinary citizens.  Their power depends on maintaining some relationship with the president, even if the president does not share fundamental American values.  That is emerging again now, as that same establishment apparently prepares, if necessary, to fight China over Taiwan, without seeming to address the critical question of how the American people would feel about such a war. And Anthony Blinken, in particular, continually makes it clear that everything that the United States feels is right should happen in the world, whether we have the allies, the assets, or the military force to make it happen or not.  

Our democracy depends both on an informed citizenry and on a governing elite that trusts the people. I am not sure that we have either one.  The bond between Trump and the majority of the Republican Party that constitutes his base, on the other hand, remains extremely intense, and does not seem likely to be disturbed by anything, including the results of the Mar-a-Lago raid.  That situation, alas, has some parallels to the situation in Germany in 1932.

Saturday, August 06, 2022

One step forward, one step back

 This is, in theory, a very good week for Democrats and liberals, starting with the Kansas abortion referendum and ending with Kirsten Sinema's agreement to what is left of the Build Back Better package.  Yet two stories on the front page of today's New York Times show just how hard--and perhaps impossible--it is to reverse the economic and political trends of the last 40 years, beginning with Ronald Reagan's direct attack on the principles of the New Deal and continuing through three subsequent Democratic and three subsequent Republican administrations.

The first of these stories, by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Rebecca Robbins, deals with the measure allowing Medicare to negotiate the prices of prescription drugs.  It explains that Democrats have been pushing for this measure, without success, since the Clinton era.  Now this measure, it reports, does include one critical provision: it will limit what Medicare patients (presumably those under Medicare part D), have to pay out of pocket for drugs to just $2000 a year.  It does not make clear where the rest of the price of their drugs will come from.  Far down the story, however, I found some fine print about the negotiation provision which casts some very real doubt on how much it is going to mean.  First of all, no negotiated prices will take effect for four years from now, in 2026--by which time we might easily have a Republican Congress and a Republican president who aren't interested in implementing the change.  That's four years for the massive drug industry lobbying army (which, the story informs us, has cost about $250 million a year since 1998) to find ways around the measure.  Even then, in 2026, only a maximum of ten drugs can be selected for negotiation, with more to follow later.  And Medicare won't be able to negotiate the prices of new drugs--only those that have been on the market for a certain (unstated) period of time, but whose patents have not yet expired. The new law will do nothing about what I regard as the biggest problem with our drug industry:  the incentive to develop drugs that alleviate chronic conditions, rather than desperately needed new antibiotics, for instance, which don't offer much profit opportunity.  In short, this new provision will have no impact for four years, and, it looks to me, only a marginal impact--at best--after that.

The second story, by Jeanna Smialek and Jim Tankersley, is even more depressing to me.  Yesterday's remarkable jobs report--showing that unemployment is down to a 53-year low of 3.5 percent, with pay up 5.2 percent in a year--is, it explains, bad news from the standpoint of the Federal Reserve's fight against inflation.  It explains this very clearly in two paragraphs:

"Fed officials have been waiting for signs that the economy, and particularly the job market, is slowing. They hope that employers’ voracious need for workers will come into balance with the supply of available applicants, because that would take pressure off wages, in turn paving the way for businesses like restaurants, hotels and retailers to temper their price increases.

"The moderation has remained elusive, and that could keep central bankers raising interest rates rapidly in an effort to cool down the economy and restrain the fastest inflation in four decades. As the Fed adjusts policy aggressively, it could increase the risk that the economy tips into a recession, instead of slowing gently into the so-called soft landing that central bankers have been trying to engineer."

For 50 years the United States has had a big, increasing problem in inequality.  While the real wages of the lower half of the population have grown very little or not at all, the rich have gotten much richer.  The obvious solution, and the one that the nation tried with great success from the late 1930s until the 1980s, is to pay low-wage workers much more.  That means that those of us who already have money will indeed have to pay a little more for goods and services.  That's the simplest way for the nation to redistribute some income and undo some inequality.  Yet the story makes clear that the Fed will indeed plunge us into a recession--as it did under Reagan in 1981--if that turns out to be necessary to halt increases in wages and prices.  Our economic system, it appears, depends on cheap labor, which is another way of saying that it depends on maintaining, not lessening, inequality.  Nor is it even clear that higher wages are principally to blame for our very high inflation. While wages have risen 5%, inflation is at 9%, much of it fueled by much higher energy prices and housing costs which have nothing to do with the price of labor. 

On another front, I did not realize, and I am very surprised to learn, that the bill the Democrats have been working on would actually have closed the "carried interest" loophole that so sharply reduces the tax burden of those who work in hedge funds and private equity firms. Chuck Schumer, whose constituency includes Wall Street, has loyally defended it for decades. But have no fear--Kristen Sinema of Arizona insisted that that change be dropped to gain her support for the whole measure.  That guarantees more economic and political power for our financial interests.  [Update, August 8]:  And today the Times describes, in great detail, how Joe Manchin insisted not only on the immediate issuance of leases for more drilling for fossil fuel both offshore and on public lands, but secured fast-track approval for a new gas pipeline through West Virginia.  Pipeline interests have donated large sums both to Manchin's campaign and to Chuck Schumer's. How we are going to expand and reduce fossil fuel usage at the same time is not clear.

I am an historian who believes that the historian's task is to lay out what happened--not what should have happened, and not the best spin we can put on what happened from a particular point of view.  That should also be the job of journalists--and the four journalists who wrote these stories actually did a pretty good job for anyone who takes the trouble to read what they said to the end. When I began writing these pieces 18 years ago, I still believed things might fundamentally change.  That belief peaked in the late fall of 2008--but by mid-2010, as the archive shows, I realized that they would not.  I did not realize that six years later, the election of Donald Trump would signal the collapse of the US political system as I had known it--and Trump, I just discovered, is leading both Biden and Harris by several percentage points in almost every major poll.  Democratic administrations now take two whole sessions of Congress to put through reforms that sound good but have only marginal impact.  Meanwhile, the basic rhythm of American politics periodically returns the Republicans to power, and even marginal progress comes to a halt.  I think I will enjoy the rest of my life more if I can truly accept that, and all the grief that goes with it.