To my surprise and delight, this letter of mine and a reply appear in the current New York Review of Books.
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...
Monday, May 22, 2023
Saturday, May 20, 2023
Jonathan Eig, a prolific nonfiction writer on many topics, has written a huge new biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. This New York Times review indicates that it is a very well-researched and well-written book with plenty of new material, and I am looking forward to going through it--it will take some time for a library copy to reach me. (For reasons of space, I very rarely buy books nowadays.) My subject today, however, is one aspect of the book that the Times did not mention, but which Eig played up in an interview Gillian Brockell of the Washington Post. That attempts to revise our view of how King viewed Malcolm X, based upon what Eig found in the papers of Alex Haley, who did a long Playboy interview with King while he was in the midst of ghostwriting Malcolm's autobiography in late 1964. Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham picked up the ball and ran with it in a column last Sunday, and I wrote her an email about the controversy.
The controversial exchange from the interview went like this:
“Dr. King, would you care to comment upon the articulate former Black Muslim, Malcolm X?” [Malcolm's break with Elijah Muhammad had become public earlier in 1964.]
“I have met Malcolm X, but circumstances didn’t enable me to talk with him for more than a minute. I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views, as I understand them. He is very articulate, as you say. I don’t want to seem to sound as if I feel so self-righteous, or absolutist, that I think I have the only truth, the only way. Maybe he does have some of the answer. But I know that I have so often felt that I wished that he would talk less of violence, because I don’t think that violence can solve our problem. And in his litany of expressing the despair of the Negro, without offering a positive, creative approach, I think that he falls into a rut sometimes.”
“Fiery, demagogic oratory in the Black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief.”
In the original transcript in Haley's papers King responded as follows:
“I have met Malcolm X, but circumstances didn’t enable me to talk with him for more than a minute. I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views, as I understand them. He is very articulate, as you say.
“I don’t want to seem to sound as if I feel so self-righteous, or absolutist, that I think I have the only truth, the only way. Maybe he does have some of the answer. But I know that I have so often felt that I wished that he would talk less of violence, because I don’t think that violence can solve our problem. And in his litany of expressing the despair of the Negro, without offering a positive, creative approach, I think that he falls into a rut sometimes."
That, however, is not all. Earlier in the original transcript, Haley asked King, “Dr. King, what is your opinion of Negro extremists who advocate armed violence and sabotage?” King's lengthy response begins: “Fiery, demagogic oratory in the black ghettoes urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence can achieve nothing but negative results.” As we shall see, no one in 1964 could read those words without thinking of Malcolm X, whose "fiery, demagogic oratory" had been mainstream media news for several years. We don't know whether Haley cleared the final published version with King or if they had any further conversations, perhaps on the phone, that don't appear in the transcript. Yet to me, the difference between the published and unpublished versions is one of tone,. not of point of view. The only phrase that appeared in the published version alone is that rhetoric like Malcolm's "can reap nothing but grief."
Eig, and some other scholars he quotes, take a different view. "Eig has shared his discovery with a number of King scholars, and the changes 'jumped out' to them as 'a real fraud,' he said. 'They’re like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been teaching that to my students for years,’ and now they have to rethink it,'Eig said."
My readers may judge for themselves whether Haley's published version seriously distorted what King said in the unpublished version. I do not think that it did. One cannot, however, discuss the relationshp between King and Malcolm based merely on this one interview. Doing a few hours of research early this week, I found that they had been publicly sparring for years.
In July 1962, a chartered Air France plane full of prominent white Atlanteans crashed during its takeoff in Paris and killed everyone aboard. Speaking in Los Angeles, Malcolm X declared: "I would like to announce a very beautiful thing that happened. I got a wire from God which I--well, somebody came and told me that he had really answered our prayers over in France and dropped an airplane out of the sky with over 120 white people on it. . .We call on our God--He gets rid of 120 of them at one whop."" Asked to comment, Martin Luther King dissented from this view. He had known many of those white people, he said, and "Many of them believed in progress. . .if the Muslim leader said that , I would certainly disagree with him."
A year later, in June of 1963, Dr. Kenneth Clark interviewed both Malcolm and King for public television (you can find it on youtube.) " "King is the best weapon that the white man, who wants to brutalize Negroes, has ever gotten in this country," Malcolm said, "because he is setting up a situation where, when the white man wants to attack Negroes, they can't defend themselves because King has put this foolish philosophy--you're not supposed to fight or you're not supposed to defend yourself." Indeed, Malcolm attacked King's philosophy of non-violence whenever he was asked about him.
And on February 4, 1965 just a couple of weeks before he died, Malcolm X went to Selma in the midst of King's voting rights campaign there and spoke to SNCC volunteers at a church. It was a famous speech about "house Negroes" and "field Negroes." He said: "Just as the slavemaster of that day used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slavemaster today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, 20th century Uncle Toms, to keep you and me in check, keep us under control, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent. That’s Tom making you nonviolent." King, obviously, was a pastor the leader of the nonviolent movement at that point. The Birmingham campaign had already led to the introduction and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Selma campaign led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act--but Malcolm chose this moment to reiterate his attack on King as an uncle Tom. Later he said in the same speech: "There’s nothing in our book, the Quran, as you call it, Koran, that teaches us to suffer peacefully. Our religion teaches us to be intelligent. Be peaceful. Be courteous. Obey the law. Respect everyone. But if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery! That’s a good religion. In fact, that’s that old-time religion. That’s the one that ma and pa used to talk about. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and a head for a head and a life for a life. That’s a good religion. And doesn’t anybody, no one resist that kind of religion being taught but a wolf who intends to make you his meal. This is the way it is with the white man in America. He’s a wolf and you’re his sheep. Anytime a shepherd, a pastor, teach you and me not to run from the white man, and at the same time teach us don’t fight the white man, he’s a traitor, to you and me." [emphasis added.] He wasn't in Selma to support King.
King and Malcolm differed fundamentally on several points. King, to begin with, felt that black Americans could, and, really had no choice but to depend on the good will of white Americans and the strength of fundamental American values to secure justice and legal equality. Malcolm's Selma speech tells me that even on the eve of his death--after his pilgrimage to Mecca and break with Elijah Muhammad had changed his view of white people as devils--he did not yet trust white Americans and believed that black people had to arm themselves to fight against them. Secondly, King's Christian beliefs led him to reject violence completely--a view not shared by all Christians, evidently--while Malcolm saw no contradiction between Islam and preparing to fight for self-defense. In the Washington Post interview, Eig says, "[King and Malcolm] always had a lot in common. They always believed that you had to take radical steps to change America, to end racism, to create a country that lived up to the words of its promises.” That is an extraordinary statement. For most of his life Malcolm X totally rejected the words of America's promises and wanted to destroy the United States as it existed and create a separate black state within its borders. Even in the last year of his life it is not clear to me that he had settled on a new vision of an integrated United States. Renée Graham went even further, writing that the two men "had a manufactured feud" and "were not adversaries." The Selma speech clearly shows that they remained rivals, contending for the allegiance of black America based on very different principles, right up until the end of Malcolm's life. Ms. Graham by the way has not replied to my email--I and others have found that she never replies to critical emails, and she disabled comments on her columns some time ago.
Proquest historical newspapers also led me to a text of which I was unaware--and I will be very interested to see if Eig refers to it in his book. It turns out that on March 13, 1965, the Harlem paper New Amsterdam News published an obituary of Malcolm X under Dr. King's name. My dear friend the sociologist Jonathan Rieder, who has written two books on King's rhetoric, does not believe that King actually drafted this obit--it does not, he says, sound like him. I suspect it might have been written by Clarence Jones, an attorney who handled King's legal affairs in New York and who had been quoted just weeks earlier as hoping that King and Malcolm might indeed form some kind of alliance--but without suggesting that anything like that had taken place. In any case, King must have approved it, and I am going to reproduce it in full here.
New Amsterdam News, March 13, 1965, p. 10. The Nightmare Of Violence By DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING. JR. (President, Southern Christian Leadership Conference)
The present ghastly nightmare of violence and counter-violence is one of the most tragic blots to occur on the pages of the Negroes' history in this country. In many ways, however it is typical of the misplacement of aggressions which have occurred throughout the frustrated circumstances of our existence.
How often have the frustrations of second class citizenship and humiliating status led us into blind outrage against each other and the real cause and source of our dilemma ignored? It is sadly ironic that those who so clearly pointed to the white world as the seed of evil should now spend their energies in their own destruction.
Malcolm X came to the fore as a public figure partially as a result of a TV documentary entitled, “The Hate that Hate Produced". That title points to the nature of Malcolm's life and death.
Malcolm X was clearly a product of the hate and violence invested in the Negro's blighted existence in this nation.
He, like so many of our number, was a victim of the despair inevitably deriving from the conditions of oppression, poverty, and injustice which engulf the masses of our race. In his youth, there was no hope, no preaching, teaching or movements of non-violence. He was too young for the Garvey Movement, too poor to be a Communist- for the Communists geared their work to Negro intellectuals and labor without realizing that the masses of Negroes were unrelated to either--and yet he possessed a native intelligence and drive which demanded an outlet and means of expression.
He turned first to the underworld, but this did not fulfill the quest for meaning which grips young minds.
It is a testimony to Malcolm's personal depth and integrity that he could not become an underworld Czar, but turned again and again to religion for meaning and destiny. Malcolm was still turning and growing at the time of his brutal and meaningless assassination. Spoke to Mrs. King
In his recent visit to Selma, he spoke at length to my wife Coretta about his personal struggles and expressed an interest in working more closely with the nonviolent movement, but he was not yet able to renounce violence and overcome the bitterness which life had invested in him.
There were also indications of an interest in politics as a way of dealing with the problems of the Negro. All of these were signs of a man of passion and zeal seeking for a program through which he could channel his talents. But history would not have it so.
A man who lived under the torment of knowledge of the rape of his grandmother and murder of his father under the conditions of the present social order, does not readily accept that social order or seek to integrate into it.
And so Malcolm was forced to live and die as an outsider, a victim of the violence that spawned him, and with which he courted through his brief but promising life.
The American Negro cannot afford to destroy its leadership any more than the Congo can. Men of talent are too scarce to be destroyed by envy, greed and tribal rivalry before they reach their full maturity.
Like the murder of Lumumba, the murder of Malcolm X deprives the world of a potentially great leader. I could not agree with either of these men, but I could see in them a capacity for leadership which I could respect, and which was only beginning to mature in judgment and statesmanship.
Surely the young men of Harlem and Negro communities throughout the nation ought to be ready to seek another way. Let us learn from this tragic nightmare that violence and hate, only breed violence and hate ·and that Jesus' word still goes out to every potential Peter, "Put up thy sword".
Certainly we will continue to disagree, but we must disagree without becoming violently disagreeable.
We will still suffer the temptation to bitterness, but we must learn that hate is too great a burden for a people moving on toward their date with destiny.
The obituary looks sympathetically at Malcolm X's life and the origins of his views, but refuses to endorse them. It calls him a "potentially great leader," but that greatness remained unrealized when he was killed by black Muslims loyal to Elijah Muhammad. (We now know that two of the three Muslims convicted of the crime were innocent, but the real culprits--also Black Muslims--have also been identified.) And I am not at all sure that Malcolm would have moved closer to King had he lived longer. In the eighteen months after his death younger activists such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown emerged as new rivals to King who also insisted that black people had to depend completely on themselves and rejected the absolute value of nonviolence. Malcolm might just as easily have joined them, and the Black Panthers who followed in their wake. Their organizations all collapsed within a few years. Ms. Graham and others like her want to deny that a choice existed between the philosophies and tactics of King and Malcolm X, but it did--and that choice is still there today.
Sunday, May 14, 2023
Why US medical care can't be fixed
On February 15, 1993, new president Bill Clinton presented his agenda to Congress. He promised a sweeping reform of health care, which, he said, threatened to swallow up the US economy. The nation now spent 14 percent of its GDP on health care, he said, and if present trends continued that figure might reach 20 percent by 2020. It has in fact topped 18 percent now. A clue to this apparently inexorable increase comes from a review essay by a medical specialist named Jerome Groopman entitled "Saving Lives and Making a Killing" in the current New York Review of Books.
The article deals with the development of new drugs--specifically, anti-cancer drugs, and more specifically, breakthrough drugs to control chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL. One such drug (I will omit the long names, which would only confuse the issue) replaced toxic chemotherapy in 2014. Only 1 million people worldwide, have the disease, but that drug has been generating $5.4 billion in revenue every year--$5,400 for every single patient. We must keep in mind that that represents cost, as well as income. Now, someone else has developed a new and significantly safer drug of the same type which will almost surely replace the first one. Running trials to test and prove the effectiveness of drugs is very expensive, and large financial investors, Groopman explains, become involved with possible new treatments at a very early stage because of the enormous potential payoff. In the critical two paragraphs of the review, the author of the book under review, For Blood and Money--a financial journalist named Nathan Vardi---explains why these particular drugs looked like such a good investment.
"For financial investors, the beauty of the drug…was that even though the drug worked, it didn’t work too well. Ibrutinib was not a magic bullet cure. The cancer was never fully cleared from the blood and rarely went away completely…. Patients would need to take a pill once a day, every day, for a long time—years….
"The analysts [at banks and hedge funds] took the relatively large number of CLL patients and multiplied it by the sky-high price that similar cancer drugs commanded in the market. Then they tried to estimate how long those patients would continue taking the drug. The analysts figured the drug could generate billions of dollars."
As a child I read a number of books about the great medical discoveries of the late 19th and 20th centuries, including Pasteur's vaccinations for anthrax and rabies, the development of diphtheria antitoxins, other vaccines, sulfa drugs, and antibiotics. Many of those breakthroughs almost eliminated what had been significant causes of death. Most of them were developed by single researchers (such as Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin accidentally in a petri dish) or small teams. Now private US companies spend billions on drug research but only occasionally yield such spectacular results. Those two paragraphs explain why. Today's researchers are not primarily focused on saving lives. Their bosses--and thus, they themselves--focus on making money. To do that, they need to develop drugs that people will have to take for long periods of time--perhaps even for the rest of their lives. A drug that quickly and simply cures people, or a vaccine that will protect them for life with a single dose, will not be nearly so profitable.
That is why our huge pharmaceutical industry has failed to meet a critical challenge: the development of new antibiotics to deal with newer, resistant strains of common bacteria that can cause tuberculosis, staph infections, and many other infections. This is a serious and increasing problem because of the use of more and more invasive surgeries for joint replacements, which are producing increasing numbers of infections which can be very difficult to treat. Yet big pharma doesn't want to develop them because they would not yield so much profit.
The role of profit in US medicine has other impacts as well. More than 10 years ago I got a taste of French emergency medicine when a fell on a steep ski slope and slid a few hundred yards down the hill on my back. Coincidentally my roommate on the trip (run by a group) was an American urologist who helped me get back to the lodge and the infirmary. For the next 24 hours he obsessed about worst case scenaries, including a lung possibly punctured by a rib and a concussion leading to internal bleeding. The doctor at the clinic dismissed those concerns with a chest x-ray and a few simple tests. He was working for a single-payer system where the incentives favored sensible, cheaper care.
It seems obvious to me that the federal government should completely take over drug research--which it could put on a completely different footing. Scientists working without any profit motive could focus on our most urgent needs--such as new antibiotics--and actively try to find new treatments that would save the most money--something Big Pharma, evidently, will never do. I feel certain that there are thousands of very bright young men and women who would be delighted to spend their lives on that endeavor for the kind of money that senior federal bureaucrats make. The government, not venture capitalists or hedge funds,. would fund the necessary trials, and license production for very low profit margins--if it chose not to manufacture the drugs themselves. And a certain number of breakthrough discoveries targeting common diseases might allow us, for the first time ever, significantly to reduce the size of our medical establishment and its cost.
Having written that, I have to acknowledge how unlikely it is. Big pharma is enormously profitable and thus has the resources to work its will in Congress, as they have done again and again. That's why no Democratic president has ever dared push for single-payer insurance that might also save the citizenry the insurance industry's profits. Our political system sustains our largest corporations, and vice versa. Yet eventually our values could change--how and why I cannot say--and someone, somewhere, might try this experiment, and once again rid the world of some very serious diseases.
Sunday, May 07, 2023
The decline of the nation-state
The era of the modern nation-state began with the American and French Revolutions in the late 18th century. They enshrined the idea of equal citizenship and governments dedicated to the welfare of their peoples. The French Revolution also inaugurated the age of the modern mass army. Progress towards real democracy was slow in Europe during the first half of the 19th century, but it accelerated after the American civil war, which among other things marked a victory of democracy over aristocracy. The unification of Germany led to a new era of European great-power conflict in which the major powers maintained large conscript armies and growing navies, generally protected their national economies with tariffs (except for the United Kingdom), and developed national arms industries. After 1898 the United States became a player in the world conflict among nation-states as well and joined in the imperialism that went with it.
The era of the two world wars vastly increased both the power of nation-state governments and their impact upon the world. They raised armies of unprecedented size and unleashed new destructive power. Twice they significantly redrew the map of Europe. They required greater loyalty from their citizenry, which they enforced by various means, including wartime detention of aliens and persons thought to be suspicious. In the Second World War the communist Soviet Union emerged as a stronger power than any nation state except the United States, Even before that war, the USSR had starved millions of its citizens and imprisoned millions more, and the German state killed more than ten million people under the Nazis. The United States developed atomic weapons, and the USSR, Britain and France followed suit in the postwar era.
Equally importantly, the enormous sacrifices of the common people in the Second World War created new bonds between them and their government. The rights of organized labor peaked in the postwar period all over the western world, and governments took many steps to improve housing, health care, and education. Meanwhile, only a mixture of inflation and very high marginal tax rates could finance that war and its aftermath, and those bore more heavily on the rich than the average person and created much greater equality of income and even wealth. On the continent of Europe, however--where the growth of the power of the nation-state had had the most disastrous results--a countervailing political movement arose in the 1950s. The European Common Market, which eventually became the European Union, sought to create a unified European political authority that would relegate national rivalries to the past. West Germany, realizing how frightening any resurgence of German nationalism might be, took the lead in this process. France under Charles de Gaulle refused to abandon its national sovereignty and still believed in a unique national mission, but the EU eventually moved to a common currency well after is death.
A more serious revolt against the nation-state--and indeed, against authority of all kinds--began in the late 1960s in the US and western Europe. In the US it targeted the Vietnam War, and much of the Boom generation grew up distrusting the government on principle. In Europe the revolt may have targeted the protesters' parents' collaboration with National Socialism. The US revolt led to the end of the military draft in 1973--the abandonment of perhaps the most important single power of nation-states. Britain had abandoned its draft much earlier, and eventually all the western European nations followed suit.
The governments' loss of prestige helped, and was accelerated by, the rise of neoliberalism in Britain under Margaret Thatcher and in the US under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Both of them explicitly targeted the increased taxes and increased role of the government since the 1940s and argued that government was the problem, not the solution. I have found in my new book that every subsequent president until Joe Biden has echoed Reagan's rhetoric to some extent while they continued the deregulation of the economy. Meanwhile, international trade has increased enormously and all the richest countries depend on China and various third world nations to produce many necessary goods. The rights of labor have largely evaporated in the US and the UK, and although they remain stronger in Germany, France, and elsewhere in Europe, all these nations are trending towards greater economic inequality. The governments of Britain and the US abandoned their industrial working classes, leading to Brexit and Trump's election during the last decade.
During the Second World War, Roosevelt and Churchill bragged--deservedly--that their democratic nations could do at least as good a job of mobilizing their resources as totalitarian ones could. The war in Ukraine has revived the conflict between authoritarian powers--Russia, and perhaps China--and democratic ones. The American government has found that it barely has the industrial capacity to keep Ukraine supplied with necessary weapons and ammunition, much less to provide Taiwan with what it needs to prepare for a possible Chinese attack. The US military establishment concluded after the fall of the USSR that it didn't have to prepare for another major war. That assumption is now very questionable.
Meanwhile, the nation-state bequeathed by the Enlightenment has suffered even more--especially here in the US--by the collapse of intellectual authority. We have no generally shared commitment to our institutions, little remaining respect for the achievements of our past, and no shared body of facts. Social media allows anyone not only to believe anything, but to find a ready audience for their beliefs. The great repository of historical knowledge built up over the last few centuries is either ignored or replaced by distorted propaganda. It turns out that Jack Teixiera, the Air National Guardsmen under arrest for the biggest unauthorized release of documents since Wikileaks, believed, among many other things, that the federal government staged mass shootings to promote gun control. He is almost surely not unique among our volunteer military, the place where one would expect the most traditional patriotism. And the pro-gun movement in the United States has deprived our government of one of its most fundamental rights: the monopoly on the legitimate use of force.
Because I do not see how the United States could reverse these trends--from the influence of our biggest corporations on our government, to our intellectual elite's frightening self-confidence and our population's disaffection--I continue to believe that we are at an historical turning point, one which I also identified at the end of American Tragedy in 2000 and the concluding chapter of No End Save Victory in 2014. I find myself repeating the serenity prayer quite often.
Tuesday, May 02, 2023
Politics and "the base"
I learned about American politics listening to my father, whose career depended upon them, and reading some of the books that we had around our house. One of them was The Roosevelt I Knew, by FDR's Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. She described a conversation she had with New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, her first political mentor, in which he criticized her for refusing to join either political party while lobbying on social and economic issues. He explained that he could always count upon Democratic party loyalty in New York City, and that gave him the freedom to take different positions to appeal to voters upstate. One could, in short, deal confidentially with one's political base thanks to mutual trust, while seeking to broaden one's appeal.
The current Democratic party often seems to be working from opposite principles. Black politicians like to refer to black voters--and often, female black voters--as the base or heart or backbone of the Democratic party. The Democratic leadership seems to accept that--and also to accept an obligation to give its black constituents visible rewards. The two most important appointments Joe Biden has had to make--to the Vice Presidency and to the Supreme Court--have gone to black women. Even though Kamala Harris's own presidential campaign in 2020 never got off the ground and she has failed to forge any bond with the American people in office, it seems accepted that she cannot possibly be dropped from the ticket. Biden also insisted on making South Carolina the first Democratic primary state on the calendar, which will allow that state's black voters to anoint the party's front-runner.
I was moved to write this piece by a weekend article in the New York Times suggesting that Biden's appeal among black voters might nonetheless be dropping, threatening his re-election. Here are three key paragraphs:
"In his campaign announcement, Mr. Biden made no secret of the importance of Black voters to his re-election. The Biden allies with the most airtime in his three-minute video, aside from his wife, were Vice President Kamala Harris, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
"Mr. Biden’s allies maintain that his administration has delivered for Black voters but that he has failed to trumpet some of his progress. Since taking office, he has provided billions of dollars for historically Black colleges and universities, and he has appointed more Black judges, including Justice Jackson, to the federal bench than any other president. Black unemployment is at a record low. The economy, a top concern for Black voters, has recovered from its pandemic doldrums, though inflation, which spiked last summer, remains higher on a sustained basis than it has been for decades.
"The president and vice president have made issues Black Americans care most about a priority and are running to finish the job,' said Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for Mr. Biden’s campaign. 'The campaign will work hard to earn every vote and expand on its winning 2020 coalition.'"
Leaving aside the rather questionable description of a Supreme Court justice as a presidential ally, the first paragraph jumped out at me because I too had noticed the racial composition of the announcement video--but from another angle. The video is filled with shots of ordinary Americans, both with and without Biden or Jill Biden or Kamala Harris, and I had decided to document their racial balance myself. Leaving out a couple of crowd shots, and not counting the shots of Harris or Jackson, I counted 45 black women and girls, 22 black men and boys, 8 Hispanic women, 4 Hispanic men, 27 white men and 12 white women, and one Asian women--or totals of 67 black people, 39 whites, 12 Hispanics and one Asian. When I mentioned this to a friend involved in Democratic politics, he referred me to Biden's first campaign ad, whose dominant image is the American flag, and which has a Reaganesk "morning in America" feeling. There I counted 28 average white people--15 males and 13 females--16 black people (11 women and 5 men), one young Asian boy, and three males whose race I could not identify. (I have left out the white people in several shots of the January 6 rioters from both videos since the viewer is obviously not being encouraged to identify with them.)
Now let's compare the ethnic distribution within these videos to the distribution of Biden's vote in 2020. A recent report found that of Biden's voters, 61 percent were white, 20 percent were black, 12 percent were Hispanic, and 6 percent were Asian. That 61 percent, interestingly enough, almost exactly matches the percentage of identified ordinary Americans in Biden's first ad, although it's much higher, obviously, than the percentage in the announcement video. Blacks were overrepresented in both, clearly, and the omission of Hispanics from the first ad is rather striking. Among the total 2020 electorate, whites still made up 72 percent of voters, with blacks 12 percent and Hispanics 10 percent.
And how did Biden manage to increase his popular majority so dramatically over Hillary Clinton's in 2016 and thereby win a solid Electoral College victory? The Democratic share of the white vote, the same report shows, grew 3 percent, from 41 percent to 44 percent, in 2020 relative to 2016, while the Democratic share of the black vote fell from 93 percent to 90 percent and the share of the Hispanic (the new report uses "Latino") vote--the fastest-growing sector of the electorate--feel from 71 percent to 63 percent. The Democratic gains in the white vote came mostly from college-educated white people--who, by the way, remain a minority of white voters.
When Richard Nixon died, the columnist William Safire--a former Nixon staffer--described their last conversation. "Let's get a woman on the ticket!" Nixon had said. "It hurts the Democrats, but it would help us!" Nixon, as it happens, was exactly the same age as my father, and equally sensitive to the real rules of US politics. According to those rules the Democratic Party should if anything be favoring white male candidates, who would have broader appeal outside their party, while the Republicans look for female and nonwhite candidates to broaden theirs. (When the Republicans regained control of the Senate in 2002, as I recall, their female candidates significantly outperformed the Democrats'.) And despite the near-unanimous Democratic view of the recent midterm elections as a victory, the Democrats lost the national popular vote for House candidates by about 3 percent. White and Hispanic voters, inevitably, will hold the balance of power in the 2024 presidential election.
The greatest progress for civil rights in the United States took place from 1948, when Harry Truman took up the issue, through 1965, when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. That was also the era in which the black vote was genuinely up for grabs and both parties had to pay attention to it. And that, in my opinion, was not a coincidence.
Sunday, April 23, 2023
Can intellectual elites rule the world?
I am in an informal online discussion with other people my age--college classmates of mine, in fact. Thanks to our head alumnus, we began having weekly zooms during the pandemic, and this has led to some email exchanges. One person is a major climate activist, and in a recent exchange, several people suggested that the nation and the world simply had to adopt a new lifestyle involving the use of fewer resources--including much less meat--for us all to survive the threat of climate change. The tone of the discussion reminded me of discussions 50-60 years ago, and it set me thinking.
As I wrote at the end of American Tragedy, we entered college at a moment of supreme self-confidence among our national leadership and the faculty and (small) administration of our university. I think we shared that self-confidence. I also think that to some extent, we had all earned it. The New Deal and postwar America had created a remarkably wealthy and remarkably egalitarian society. That affected almost everyone. Despite segregation, data shows clearly that the lives of black as well as white Americans had improved a lot from the 1940s to the md-1960s--in fact black incomes and home ownership rates were rising more rapidly than white ones (albeit from a lower starting point.) The top marginal tax rates had just been cut from 91 percent to about 70 percent--still almost twice as much as what they are now, and with fewer loopholes. Segregation had just been officially outlawed and the Voting Rights Act passed at almost exactly the moment that we reached Cambridge. Medicare had just passed as well. The fear of nuclear war had greatly receded in the three years since the missile crisis. Women, of course, faced massive workplace discrimination, and society did not accept gay people--that was work that remained to be done.
Unfortunately, in the best Aristotelian manner, our parents' generation showed their tragic flaw at this moment of great triumph by undertaking the Vietnam War. Now some rebellion against the world they had created was inevitable, and had already begun at Berkeley a year earlier, before Vietnam had really gotten going. Their world was characterized by uniformity and regimentation in many ways--starting with dress and personal appearance--and we Boomers were already beginning to contest those aspects. I believe, though, that Vietnam opened the gates for something much bigger: permission to believe that everything our parents told us was false, and that their society was rotten at the core. I don't think that a majority of us believed that, but the most vocal members of our class certainly did, and they increasingly set the tone as the decade wore on. And that kind of root-and-branch criticism of our civilization and our intellectual traditions took root in academia, where it has blossomed now for five decades and become institutionalized.
Where did our extraordinary self-confidence come from? Here I would like to throw something else in the mix. The French psychologist Piaget in the 1970s said some interesting things about adolescent intellectual development. I quote from a work of his, Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence(1955).
"In contrast [to children], the adolescent is able to analyze his own thinking and construct theories. The fact that these theories are oversimplified, awkward, and usually contain very little originality is beside the point. From the functional standpoint, his systems are significant in that they furnish the cognitive and evaluative bases for the assumption of adult roles. . . .Consider a group of students between 14-15 years and the baccalaureat [the exam French lycee students take at 18.] Most of them have political or social theories and want to reform the world; they have their own ways of explaining all of the present day turmoil in collective life Others have literary or aesthetic theories and place their reading or their experiences of beauty on a scale of values which is projected onto a system. Some go through religious crises and reflect on the problem of faith, thus moving toward a universal system--a system valid for all. Philosophical speculation carries away a minority, and for any true intellectual, adolescence is the metaphysical age par excellence, an age whose dangerous seduction is forgotten only with difficulty at the adult level."
I'll stop there. For the record, the controversial Jordan Peterson made this point in an online panel discussion that I watched, and I was moved to track down what Piaget said myself. Peterson hadn't misrepresented it. I think, first, that that describes very well what so many of our contemporaries went through in the late 1960s. They decided that they understood what was wrong with society and what needed to be done to fix it better than anyone ever had. But in addition, I think that that spirit, for better or for worse--and some may feel it's for better--is still very much alive, and it is at least as popular on campuses today as it was in our time.
To be specific, some of us suggest that we can save ourselves and the planet only by radically changing our lifestyle, including what we eat, and of course, how we produce and use energy. Some people have felt this for a long time. One refers to one of her kids who is in fact doing this in real life, and there are contemporaries of mine in my extended family who made the same decision decades ago. So did my wife, in another life---she and her first husband were Arizona homesteaders for about 15 years, practicing maximum self-sufficiency. And they may be right about the consequences of continuing as we are. What disturbs me, however, is the feeling, which I get from some posts, that this is so obviously true that there is no real option except to accept it and act on it. That was also how we came to see ending the Vietnam War. But it didn't work, because, as Steve Kelman '70 pointed out in Push Comes to Shove, most of the country didn't agree with us. The older generation ended the war in its own way at its own pace. And the idea of cutting back fossil fuel use has still not become a consensus. Even the Inflation Reduction Act, while promoting clean energy, also promoted more fossil fuel production, not less. That was the price of getting it through our divided Congress. The Republicans are going to try to continue that trend in exchange for approving a debt ceiling increase.
Nor is this all. Climate change is a worldwide problem, and most of the people in the world--in what we used to call the third world--want more energy, and more meat, not less. John Kenneth Galbraith, one of my heroes from our parents' generation, often said that because he grew up on a farm, he knew that most people who grew up on farms wanted to escape from them. I'm not sure that that has changed much around the world. The western educated elite cannot expect the world to accept its political views as gospel--it has enough trouble getting them accepted at home.
It may be that climate change will destroy our civilization as we have known it. It also may be that in one way or another, we will adjust to it and learn to live with it in ways that preserve most of our civilization. As an historian, however, I doubt that we will peacefully make some massive changes in global lifestyles that will lower CO 2 levels from what they are now. That would require a degree of worldwide coercion that I don't think is even possible. A return to agricultural society in which we eat mostly plants could happen, I think, only after a catastrophic collapse of industrial society that left the relatively few survivors no choice.
Yes, our generation was smart--we went through a great educational system and we had a lot of time to think as kids. That did not, however, give us the power to decide what was right for everyone, much less to impose our views. One of us has spoken many times about the disconnect between our intellectual elite and ordinary people--a disconnect which many elections (starting with 1972!) have confirmed. I do wish that today's journalists and historians could spend more time on how things are, or were, and less on how they "obviously" ought to be. Today's college students are urged to "imagine" a better world than has ever existed on many fronts--gender, race, energy use, and more. Perhaps they need more respect for what has been and what is.
Thursday, April 20, 2023
The Problem of Authority
I had the great good fortune to grow up in an era of consensus. The vast majority of Americans--including those who lacked equal rights, or faced discrimination in the workplace--believed that on the whole the United States was moving in the right direction and that most citizens had similar concerns. Faced with a huge new generation (my own) the country was spending a lot of money investing in the future, vastly expanding the educational system. It was also investing in infrastructure (interstate highways) and national enterprises such as national defense and the space program. Entertainment was largely monochrome, literally and metaphorically. Crime was low and families were stable. My own life was somewhat chaotic because of frequent moves--I went to 7 different schools, K-12--but the wider world was headed in the right direction, and our political system was functioning very effectively. Both parties had genuine liberal and conservative wings and all the major legislative steps forward of that era drew on bipartisan majorities.
Developments in the late 1960s changed all that. First, the Vietnam war destroyed much of my generation's confidence in the federal government, and by extension, in authority of almost all kinds. Vietnam and Watergate gave the press a new mission: not simply to report what political authorities were saying and doing, but to assume that they were lying and doing evil, and that the press's main function was to expose them. The New Deal order had easily survived the Goldwater challenge in 1964, but it was helpless before Reagan 16 years later and has never recovered. The end of the military draft in 1973 severed a key link between the government and the citizenry.
By the 1990s, two different, parallel attacks on authority were underway. Led by Boomer Newt Gingrich, the Republican Party was waging all-out war on the powers of the federal government on behalf of corporations and wealthy taxpayers. Inside our universities, coalitions of feminists and nonwhite academics were attacking intellectual authority as simply a tool of white male dominance. Over the last thirty years that idea has spread to millions of educated Americans who share it without necessarily realizing where it came from. Male and female Americans, white and black Americans, often live in different mental universes. We cannot agree on basic sociological facts or even on critical scientific facts about the human body and human diseases.
I decided to write this post when I realized that, paradoxically, a relatively high degree of consensus seems to encourage genuine intellectual inquiry. This is especially true in history. When Americans genuinely agree that the present is going well, they are open to different interpretations of the past. When history has become a weapon in a battle to reshape the present, however, people lose interest in what actually happen. Again and again, to cite one example, we hear that in Tulsa in 1921, "as many as 300" black people were killed in a massacre. I looked into this in detail two years ago and found that there is definite evidence of only 39 deaths--13 of them white--and very inconclusive evidence that the total might be as many as twice that. Within the academy, the distrust against the liberal order of the mid-20th century--something that first burst forth in the late 1960s--has gone so far that I just heard a young historian argue that any hope of real progress died in 1914 when the German Social Democrats failed to stop the First World War. The same historian, Daniel Bessner, also argued that the US is supporting Ukraine mainly to benefit the military-industrial complex, and dismissed the idea that Putin would pose a further danger if Russia won. I would not mention him if I didn't think that he spoke for many of today's academics.
Over the last thirty years or so many academics have argued, in effect, that there's no harm in letting everyone think what they want to think. Postmodernist theory essentially argues that that is all anyone ever does, anyway. I am convinced that in a complex modern society, agreement on basic intellectual principles is a necessity, not a luxury, in order for society to agree on solutions to very real problems. It's a small step from that to suggest that it's the job of the educational system to teach those principles. Instead it is now teaching everyone to value themselves--especially the most unique parts of themselves, not the parts we all have in common.
Our educational establishment, our foreign policy establishment, our corporate establishment and our entertainment industry, it seems to me, now operate according to their own particular views and outlook, and draw society in very different directions. That also makes it impossible, really, for the United States to represent a clear set of values to the rest of the world, as it did for its first two centuries. I cannot rule out the possibility that we might be heading for a collapse of political authority comparable to the end of the Roman empire.
Tuesday, April 18, 2023
Travel made it impossible to get a post done last week. I hope to have one up in a day or two.
Saturday, April 08, 2023
Do facts matter?
Readers have probably figured out that I love historical facts. I have since I was about 8, and I often think of my brain as a vast, multi-dimensional spreadsheet of information. And when I read or hear something, my brain automatically searches the spreadsheet to see if it checks out, and if it doesn't, I usually say so. I'm going through this cycle more and more lately, particularly reading what used to be my favorite publications, such as The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. The younger contributors who have learned any history seem to have learned a highly ideological version, and they haven't been trained to check facts. They also have new ideas of what is important and what isn't.
The current issue of The New York Review features a review of a long new biography, Harry Bridges, Labor Radical, Labor Legend, by Robert W. Cherny. The author of the review is a New Yorker Staffer named E. Tammy Kim, who writes a lot about current labor issues. She immediately announces that the biography is too long for the general reader--which is a remark that I don't think any NYR reviewer would have made thirty years or so ago, when the journal had a higher opinion of its readership. Bridges was born in Australia in 1901 and came to the United States in 1922, where he became involved in union activity with the International Longshoreman's Association. After helping lead some critical strikes, he split from that group and formed his own International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which affiliated in the 1930s with John L. Lewis's new CIO. He was at the very least quite sympathetic to Communism, like many other CIO organizers and officials--although not, as we shall see, Lewis himself, or the anti-Communist Reuther brothers who founded the United Auto Workers. Because he never became a US citizen, the government tried but failed several times to deport him based partly on his political views. One such attempt occurred in the late spring of 1941, when Bridges, like other pro-Communist labor leaders, was opposing US attempts to aid Britain. Some of these leaders, as I detailed in No End Save Victory, were organizing strikes in key plants to stop production that would aid the British, because Stalin at that time had been effectively an ally of Hitler's since the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. I have now found (see below) that Bridges supported one of those strikes in California. At one point in the review Kim notes the accusation that Bridges was in fact a Communist. Here are the key paragraphs, reproduced for non-commercial use only.
"For decades Bridges’s alleged communism was a sensitive topic for the ILWU. If he was, indeed, a party member, hadn’t he put the union at risk and unfairly drawn on its financial and political capital for his repeated defense? Was it red-baiting even to ask the question? Cherny wants to provide a definitive answer. He reviews the evidence from Bridges’s trials, supplemented with new information from Russian archives. What he finds is inconclusive: Bridges probably wasn’t a party member, though he can’t be sure.
"It feels like much ado about (almost) nothing, in 2023, when younger unionists attach little stigma to the Communist label. Red-baiting still happens, of course, and radicals are often sidelined, or worse, in more traditional quarters of the labor movement. (Immigrants still must repudiate communism to stay in the US.) But Bernie Sanders–style socialism has helped to normalize various leftisms, and members of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Young Communists League have applied lessons from the 1930s to recent campaigns. After the Amazon Labor Union formed the first-ever union at an Amazon warehouse in the US, on Staten Island, organizer Justine Medina wrote in Labor Notes that the workers had studied Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry, an old how-to pamphlet by William Z. Foster, a general secretary of the Communist Party USA.
"What might Bridges’s association with Communists, and the Soviet cause, reveal about labor and politics? He was a committed leftist, but never thought that the ILWU should be above or detached from electioneering. He once said of the IWW, “There comes a time that you can go a little too far with direct action. The IWW philosophy was never to sign an agreement, for example; never to arbitrate; never to mediate; never to consolidate.” Bridges was a New Deal loyalist and a confidant of Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s formidable secretary of labor and the first woman to serve as a member of the cabinet. (Perkins faced enormous pressure to deport Bridges; according to Cherny, he told her “to do what was necessary to save herself politically.”) Members of the ILWU voted down the line for Democrats.
"The signing in 1939 of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a nonaggression agreement between the Soviet Union and Germany, led the Communist Party to oppose US involvement in the war—to the shock of many antifascists. Bridges adopted this position, causing splits within the ILWU and the rest of the Communist-heavy CIO. After Roosevelt died, Bridges and the ILWU executive board fell out with the Democratic Party. They opposed the Marshall Plan, which the Communist Party derided as “American capitalists’ effort to control the economies of Europe,” Cherny writes. When the ILWU backed Henry Wallace, an idealistic but hopeless third-party candidate, over Truman in the 1948 election, the CIO expelled the union."
Now non-Communist leftists of varying stripes did, of course, agree with Communists about a great many issues at times in the 1930s and 1940s, especially during the Popular Front period of 1936-39. But what distinguished the Communist Party was its status as an arm of the Soviet Communist Party, to which it deferred on all important questions. The question of whether Bridges actually belonged is important, but equally important, to me, is whether he followed Moscow's line on critical issues. And I had learned long ago and confirmed while writing No End Save Victory that there was a simple test from the 1939-41 period that could tell you whether a person was a Moscow adherent or a party member or not. It was not only the Communists, I found, who opposed aid to Britain in 1939-41 on ideological grounds. John L. Lewis, the head of the United Mine Workers and of the CIO, also opposed anything that would get the US into the war because he believed that wars never served the interests of the working class. The real litmus test came in June and July 1941, after Hitler betrayed Stalin and attacked the USSR on June 22. Some Communists, like Lee Pressman, the CIO's general counsel (who eventually admitted party membership before a congressional committee), immediately reversed themselves and began advocating for helping Hitler's enemies and speeding preparation for war. John L. Lewis, on the other hand, proved that he was not a Communist by continuing to oppose intervention. So I immediately wondered how Bridges had reacted to the German attack on the USSR. A quick proquest historical newspapers search told me all I needed to know.
The labor movement in recent decades has shrunk almost to invisibility in the United States, but my search results showed that Bridges was one of many labor leaders who had become national figures in the 1930s and 1940s, well known to any newspaper reader. As it turned out, his deportation hearing--at which numerous witnesses said that he was a Communist--had adjourned in mid-June 1941, with the report of the immigration inspector who had presided over the hearing expected in August. On June 25, just three days after the German attack on the Soviet Union, Bridges told newsmen that he, like the CIO leadership, still opposed "Participation in foreign wars, and no overt act that might entange us in participation overseas." But on July 10, speaking to a convention of the National Maritime Union, Bridges announced that he favored "full material aid to the foes of Hitler." "We are not with the ruling class and Tory class of England," he said. "We are with the masses of the people of England who are taking the brunt of the bombing; Ireland, France, Italy, Germany, the lands that border the Mediterranean and India. We hope they will attain a measure of freedom so they can join with the greatest anti-fascist power in Europe, the Soviet Union, to smash Hitlerism."
The immigration judge recommended Bridges's deportation, and on October 4 Bridges declared at a state CIO convention, "We will follow and support hte President in the all-out program of aid to defeat fascism." Twice the federal government ordered his deportation--the first time in 1942--but the Supreme Court in 1945, and then in 1955, overruled deportation orders. Meanwhile, Bridges' opposition to the Marshall Plan reflected the postwar Communist line, and Henry Wallace's Progressive Party was controlled by American Communists, as even Wallace himself eventually admitted.
Kim may not realize it, but her position grew directly out of late 1960s campus radicalism, which rejected every aspect of American liberalism from the New Deal through the Great Society, drew its inspiration from leftists from outside the mainstream, and refused to take the threat of Communism seriously. While certainly today's union organizers, to whom I wish every success, might learn something from communist organizing tactics, they will not advance their cause by pledging allegiance either overtly or covertly to a hostile foreign power. Even the CIO, by the late 1940s, was eliminating communists from its leadership because their presence did more harm than good. I regret that she did not simply argue that Bridges did plenty of good for his membership despite his ideological allegiance to a foreign totalitarian power--rather than insist either that he did not have that allegiance, or that it makes no difference in the grand scheme of things. It did, and at the time, nearly everyone knew it.
Saturday, April 01, 2023
The Climax of the Crisis?
I can see now that the history of the 19th and 20th centuries from about 1860 until 1973 or so was the history of powerful national states. Democracy--spread first by the union victory in the Civil War, a powerful example to the major European states, and then again by the outcome of the Civil War--became the dominant form of government. Industrialization, meanwhile, generated unprecedented wealth, which politics placed largely at the disposition of governments. Conscription allowed governments to make almost unlimited claims on their manpower and put huge armies into the field, while industrialization gave those armies unprecedented firepower. Meanwhile, relatively conservative social mores--reinforced by religious observance--held societies together. Even minorities usually managed to move forward within this framework, with the obvious exception, in the mid-twentieth century, of the Jews of Europe, all of whose progress was reversed, with fatal consequences.
In all the major western countries the post-Second World War generation was the most favored generation in the history of the world. We grew up in rapidly expanding economies, with access to relatively cheap higher education. While many of us in many countries remained subject to conscription, we never fought any wars remotely on the scale of the two global conflicts of 1914-45. And we were allowed to develop our own ideas in a time of relaxing social mores and declining religious observance. The great Atlantic youth revolt of the late 1960s had different causes in different places. In Europe the postwar generation was probably revolting against their parents' collaboration with totalitarianism, while in the United States we revolted against the tragic Vietnam War. In both cases, however, the revolt turned against some of the fundamental assumptions of the last 100 years, starting with the young male's obligation to go to war whenever his government called upon him. Then, within academia, the revolt turned against intellectual authority of all kinds, increasingly labeled as a means by which certain classes, genders and races oppressed each other. And on both sides of the Atlantic, educated, relatively wealthy elites rejected parts of traditional morality and increasingly assumed that they must know what was best for everyone. That idea took root not only in the academy but also in government bureaucracies at local, provincial, national and international levels.
Economies also changed. The era of the two world wars and their aftermath was very destructive and cost many millions of lives, but it also increased economic equality. Inflation and high taxes significantly reduced great fortunes, while organized labor made impressive gains. Many governments,. in different ways, began trying to plan their economies. Those trends reversed themselves in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the advent of the Thatcher and Reagan regimes in Britain and the United States and the earlier elimination of stable exchange rates among the great powers. Financial deregulation followed in the 1990s, and trade barriers--already substantially reduced among the advanced nations--also came down in trade with the rest of the world. Deindustrialization resulted, especially in the United States and Britain, and the economic progress of the working class came to a halt. While some governments still played lip service to the socialist and New Deal traditions of the middle of the century, policy no longer reflected them.
I turn now more specifically to the United States, were certain kind of issues have become especially important and divisive. One of those was race. From 1865 until 1965 black Americans had sought equal opportunity, and by 1965 they had largely achieved it. At that very same moment, however, a new generation began to argue that that goal was not enough. The problem of poverty in the US was increasingly seen as a racial issue, even though in reality it was not. Race became an increasingly good predictor of voting behavior. Meanwhile, feminism, by emphasizing women's need to support themselves and put their own heeds first, helped turn the individual, rather than the family, into the basic unit of society and politics. The LGBTQ movement has also become more and more radicalized. After beginning as a protest against legal oppression and discrimination that simply wanted gay people to be treated like anyone else, much of it has adopted the idea that gender is simply a social construct, that children must be educated about gay life at an early age, and that heterosexual relations are inherently oppressive. All of these ideas have become conventional wisdom among educated elites but are rejected by poorer and less educated people regardless of their race.
I am not, obviously, a nuclear physicist, but I am constantly reminded of that discipline as I look at my country today. In mid-century very strong forces held our atoms and molecules together and we shaped them into strong institutions at home and abroad. Now a series of chain reactions have broken down the links between men and women, blacks and whites, and traditional and contemporary mores--all the while, like a fission reaction, releasing enormous energy that continues to explode all around us. Those cleavages now divide the Democratic and Republican parties, which until the late 1960s hardly differed on cultural issues at all--and they divide sections of the country more deeply than at any time since Reconstruction.
And all the division may now reach the breaking point thanks to the New York indictment of Donald Trump by DA Alvin Bragg. I have mixed feelings about it. The indictment involves a very novel legal theory, which turns the hush money into an illegal campaign contribution under federal law. As such it's not impossible that it could be thrown out at once. Already nearly the entire Republican Party has sprung to Trump's defense, and Ron DeSantis even announced that Florida would refuse to extradite him, if asked. To the Republicans, apparently this and any other indictment of Trump--including one for interfering in the Georgia election or encouraging September 11--will be nothing but a politicized travesty of justice. And I am sad that the Democratic Party is relying so heavily on the criminal justice system--part of the Deep State, if you will--to deal with their most dangerous political opponent. I also regret that this will become the number one news story for months, far overshadowing the issue of the economic plight of the American people. We won't get out of this mess until we find some task that two-thirds of the country can agree on. This isn't it.
For most of our history the two major parties shared an interest in preserving the legitimacy of the government. So did most of the press. Now these institutions do not share that interest. The Republican Party has been trying to destroy the reputation of the federal government for 40 years. I think that only the elderly now even understand the idea of shared national respect for our government, because we are the only ones to have experienced it. The question is whether our system can survive without it, and I am not at all sure that it can. I also think that the disappearance of any feeling of participation in a great, shared enterprise is contributing enormously to a national mental health crisis, especially among the young.
Sunday, March 26, 2023
Chicago 1968, 54 years later
A couple of months ago I read a New Yorker review of several books about the press and the media in mid-century by the Harvard professor Louis Menand, whom I have never met. The review moved me to order two books from my library system, and one of them, When the News Broke: Chicago 1968 and the Polarizing of America by MIT professor Heather Hendershot (whom I haven't met either) I began reading it. It has left me with mixed feelings indeed. On the one hand, with respect to its actual focus--the network coverage of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the protests that accompanied it--it is a classically well-researched piece of history, and one that gives the journalistic values of that time their due. Hendershot evidently spent many hours watching and transcribing those telecasts--which I remember very well, not having missed a single minute, I am pretty sure, of the CBS ones. Yet she fell somewhat short, I think, of putting her points within an accurate perspective of the politics of that moment, which she did not learn as much about as she might have. And last but not least, she leaves out one very important part of the story. She rightly condemns and documents the calculated brutality of the Chicago police towards protesters, news people, and innocent bystanders caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, but she essentially ignores the protest leaders who came to Chicago, as they freely admitted, with the intentions of provoking violence and discrediting the Democratic Party.
I had forgotten some of the things that Mayor Daley, the head of the most effective urban machine in the US in 1968 and an establishment Democrat, had done to make life harder for protesters, the media, and delegates who supported Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern (on that, more later). A telephone workers' strike made it impossible for the networks and delegations to get enough working phones--and it was magically settled late in the convention. The anti-establishment delegations got the worst seats in convention hall, and faced a lot of hostility from the Chicago police. Daley shamelessly packed the galleries with his own supporters. I had remembered how badly the convention's permanent chairman, House speaker Carl Albert, and handled his responsibilities in order to maintain absolute authority. Late on Tuesday night--the second night of the convention--a long series of credentials challenges was finally over, and it was time to take up the platform, which meant a debate on a minority plank opposing administration policy in Vietnam. Donald Petersen, the chairman of the pro-McCarthy Wisconsin delegation, didn't want that debate to take place in the middle of the night, got Albert's recognition, and moved that the convention adjourn until 4 PM (I think it was) the next day. As Hendershot mentions, Albert immediately ruled the motion out of order. She does not mention that this violated one of the most fundamental of Roberts' rules of order: a motion to adjourn is always in order. A few minutes later, when fury in the hall had persuaded Daley that they had to adjourn, Albert announced that he had rejected the Wisconsin motion because it hadn't specified a time to convene--a lie, it most certainly had. A pro-Humphrey delegate then moved to adjourn until noon the next day, and the motion carried. The debate took place the next afternoon, when most Americans would not see it, and the amendment failed, even though it got more votes than the opposition candidates in the presidential balloting.
Yet in contrast to the enormous amount of work she did on the convention itself, Hendershot misunderstands a great deal about the broader campaign, some of which is highly relevant to the convention. The biggest empty chair at the convention, of course, belonged to Robert Kennedy, who had been assassinated on the night that he had won the California primary. Hendershot mentions that George McGovern was a candidate at the convention, but I do not believe that she ever explains that McGovern had joined the race in June for the purpose of giving Kennedy's delegates from California, Indiana, Nebraska, New York and elsewhere someone to cast their ballots for. She also remarks offhandedly at one point that had RFK not died, he might have been the nominee. There she should no better. Yes, RFK had won four primaries and McCarthy had won six--but there were only thirteen in the whole country, and nearly all the non-primary states were solidly for Humphrey, who emerged as LBJ's heir after LBJ withdrew on March 31 and didn't enter any primaries. I was a hard core Democratic political junkie in 1968, as were many of my friends and my entire family--and I did not know one person who thought that Robert Kennedy might be nominated before he was killed. That accounted for some of the bitterness among McCarthy and Kennedy/McGovern supporters--they had won almost every primary they could win.
Hendershot doesn't spend much time on the Republican convention, but what she does say is even more incomplete. She notes that it appeared to run smoothly in comparison to the Democratic one--it could hardly have been otherwise--but refers to it as a simple coronation of Richard Nixon. Nixon did win on the first ballot but only after a lot more drama and behind-the-scenes maneuvering than Humphrey had to go through. Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan were serious candidates, and Nixon made a series of promises to southern delegates that successfully prevented Reagan from winning enough of them away to take away his first-ballot victory.
Henderson does discuss the impact of the Democratic convention thoroughly and accurately. The letters that CBS and NBC received, and many other indicators as well, showed that the vast majority of the American people resented the protestors at the convention, sympathized with the police who beat them rather than the protestors themselves, and felt that the networks had given the protestors too much air time (she shows that they actually got relatively little) and had favored them too much. This was, she stresses, the beginning of middle America's loss of trust in the networks and the mainstream media in general--a development that Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew encouraged further after the election. I doubt very much, however, that this began with Chicago. Civil rights marches, antiwar protests, and college revolts had been staples of news coverage since the early 1960s and were taking up more time than ever in 1968. The average middle-aged American distrusted student protestors in particular, whom they regarded as spoiled brats who did not share their elders sense of duty. This was the beginning of a deep political split that has persisted and gotten even worse ever since.
There is another rather bizarre omission from Hendershot's book. Early in the book, laying out different political groups at the convention, she refers to "the street demonstrators. Objectives were mixed among this group, from the 'McCarthy kids,' who were pro-peace college students, to the Mobe [New Mobilization]. an umbrella organization of more radical antiwar groups, to hippies and Yippies there to stage a radical protest against the mainstream. Some of these people were specifically protesting Johnson or Humphrey or the DNC, while others saw the party as so unreformable that the only cure was revolution. Some were very concerned about the convention itself, and others, as they put it, didn't give a fuck who was nominated. These are the groups that have been written about the most in the years following the Chicago convention. We'll just call them the protestors."
Now in fact, the more anti-establishment protesters--the revolutionaries--included Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Rubin. Hendershot doesn't mention that a grand jury was impaneled immediately after the convention to investigate whether they and others had violated a recently enacted law against crossing state lines to incite a riot--and to investigate accusations of police brutality as well. In March 1969 the grand jury indicted those five men and three others, as well as eight police officers. After a long trial in late 1969 and early 1970 before federal judge Julius Hoffman [no relation to Abbie!], those five were convicted--but the convictions were eventually overturned. The prosecution was political and the law highly questionable, in my opinon--but years later, one of them, Jerry Rubin, boldly declared, "We wanted disruption We planned it. . .We were guilty as hell. Guilty as charged." There was an enormous between the average antiwar college student (of which I myself was one by then) and the hard core revolutionaries who thought the whole system was rotten and simply wanted a violent confrontation to expose the brutality of the system and recruit more revolutionaries. And they, I would argue, were among the original "wokesters," if you will, whose ideas have mutated and persisted until today faith in the essential principles of western civilization and of our political system is at an all-time low.
Hendershot pays numerous tributes to Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, and the whole ethic of mainstream news at that time. Yet all the while she carefully notes (and in some cases, I think, exaggerates) instances of racism and sexism to suggest, I think, that these were dark ages in drastic need of enlightenment. Similarly, it never occurs to her to ask why black disaffection, which she documents, was so much more bitter and shrill then, in 1968, after two decades of extraordinary legal, economic and political progress. (The answer, I think, is generational.) Perhaps this good book is as good as can be expected to emerge, today, from our academic bubble. I am glad she wrote it.
Saturday, March 18, 2023
The Two Nations
One of the many things I owe podcaster Coleman Hughes is an ad recommending the site ground.news. It's a news aggregator with a purpose--it divides 33 news outlets into various shades of left, right and center--you can see the list here--and its Blindspot page tells you what percentage of outlets reporting a given story fall into each. To give you the flavor, I am going to share most of today's results.
Yesterday, on St. Patrick's Day, Joe Biden joked that he's "really not Irish" because he is sober and doesn't have any relatives in jail. Only one of ten of their sources that reported that story was centrist and none were on the left, which evidently isn't eager to share embarrassing information about the President. Similarly, only two of fourteen sources that reported that Kamala Harris was booed at an NCAA tournament game were centrist, and the leftist outlets ignored the story. Nine of ten sources who reported that a Canadian pastor was arrested for protesting against a drag queen story time were on the right, no leftist outlet (and only two centrist ones) mentioned that Ron DeSantis is leading 18 states opposing the Biden Administration's encouragement of environmental, social and corporate governing investing, and nearly two-thirds of the outlets reporting that the Biden family received more than $1 million from an associate of Hunter Biden who was reportedly connected to Chinese interests were on the right.
On the other side of the fence, while 8 leftist and centrist outlets have reported this morning that Donald Trump will surrender to authorities if indicted, only one conservative organ has touched the story. A similarly low percentage of rightwing outlets are ignoring that one of Trump's lawyers has been ordered to testify regarding the classified documents found at Maralago, and no rightwing outlet has mentioned that the Capitol police have denied Tucker Carlson's claim that they had reviewed the January 6 footage that he aired on his show, or that Michael Cohen has expressed his willingness to testify against Trump. Ron DeSantis meanwhile is establishing himself as a highly controversial figure. While the Left ignored his anti-ESG initiative, 13 leftist outlets carried a tale of him eating chocolate pudding with his fingers on a plane. Simultaneously, rightwing outlets are ignoring a story about his new book, The Courage to Be Free, explaining that he advocates using the power of governments to undo cultural and ideological damage at the hands of unresponsive bureaucrats and elites,
The pattern here is rather obvious: both sides like to print embarrassing or inflammatory information about the other side, while ignoring parallel information about their own side. That is also why the New York Times seems to print far more stories about Donald Trump, even now, than about Joe Biden. It is also, perhaps, why the biggest focus of the Democratic House of Representatives in 2021-2 was the January 6 investigation, not any of the huge economic and social problems which the nation faces and which might have benefited from an extended set of hearings. Both parties are now arguing, in effect, that the electorate has no choice but to vote for them because the other side is so horrible. And yet, if the media are any guide, both sides also seem to understand that much of what their elected officials are doing is unpopular. It's the leftwing outlets that are reporting new Republican laws limiting transgender care and abortions, for example.
Two weeks ago I quoted George Washington on the importance of relying upon reason, not emotion. Our politicians and our media today have stood that warning on its head. The market is partly to blame: emotion sells, while calm reason has become a turnoff. We face a real world crisis--political, military, and economic. Democracies from Israel to France to the United States are riven in two by contentious issues. Russia may well still win the war of attrition in Ukraine. We do not know if our new financial system can survive high interest rates. We are ill-equipped to handle these huge problems.
Friday, March 10, 2023
The Problem of Modern Life
About three weeks ago, I read a remarkable piece in the current New Yorker about impostor syndrome by one Leslie Jamison. It explained that two female academic psychologists from the pathbreaking Silent generation named Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in the mid-1970s. Both of them had been very successful in school and in their careers all their lives, and both suffered chronically from doubts that they really deserved it and fears of being "found out" at any moment. When they first published their account of the impostor phenomenon (as they still prefer to call it), they found that many thousands of other women had the same feelings. As good 1970s psychologists, they traced the problem to family dynamics. On the one hand, some daughters grew up in the shadow of a sibling whose parents, they felt, had defined as perfect, and impossible to equal. (Curiously enough, I recently discovered that in some families, the "perfect" older sibling doesn't see herself that way at all.) On the other hand, others got the message from their parents that they could do no wrong, and were shocked to discover that the rest of the world did not always agree. In any case, those who suffered from the impostor phenomenon felt chronically anxious about their performance and had great difficulty believing that they deserved any success that they had.
It's rule of the 2020s that intersectionality divides the human race into different species with different problems. Clance and Imes identified the impostor phenomenon as female, and Jamison followed their lead. Here is her only mention of men: "Although men do report feeling like impostors, the experience is primarily associated with women, and the word “impostor” has been granted special feminized forms—“impostrix,” “impostress”—since the sixteen-hundreds." I would like to suggest that leaving out half the population leads her to miss some very important points.
We have lived now for more than two hundred years in a society where success is largely a function of educational success, and that has become more and more true over the last century. From the age of 5 onward (and sometimes earlier among the affluent today) we get the message that our performance in school will determine our whole life. That inevitably creates terror and rage among those who do not succeed in school, and massive insecurity among many of those who do. Men had to put up with this before women did, and they developed numerous coping strategies, some of them unhealthy. Men may traditionally have had more trouble expressing their feelings because they had to suppress many of them to keep functioning in the wider world. Women began entering the professions in large numbers in the 1970s and discovered these emotional problems as well, and Clance and Imes researched them and gave them a name. I have known many male academics who clearly had impostor syndrome, and it comes up repeatedly in an autobiography of a distinguished academic that I have now read in manuscript. And I have read several interviews with professional athletes, whose achievements are a matter of record, who could never feel that they really belonged among their fellow competitors. I would suggest that we are not dealing with a female problem here, but rather with a problem of modern life, which leaves our fates in our own hands.
The omission of men from the article, moreover, is only the first step towards deconstructing what I believe is a pretty universal experience of modernity. Jamison describes a dinner at which she described her own impostor syndrome, which was serious enough to induce her to lie about what she had actually read in classes. Then she quotes "the only woman of color at the table." Let me quote parts of several paragraphs from the article.
"She graciously explained that she didn’t particularly identify with the experience. She hadn’t often felt like an impostor, because she had more frequently found herself in situations where her competence or intelligence had been underestimated than in ones where it was taken for granted.
"In the years since then, I’ve heard many women of color—friends, colleagues, students, and people I’ve interviewed on the subject—articulate some version of this sentiment. Lisa Factora-Borchers, a Filipinx American author and activist, told me, 'Whenever I’d hear white friends talk about impostor syndrome, I’d wonder, How can you think you’re an impostor when every mold was made for you? When you see mirror reflections of yourself everywhere, and versions of what your success might look like?'
"Adaira Landry, an emergency-medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, told me about her first day at the U.C.L.A. med school. Landry, a first-generation college student from an African American family, met a fellow first-year student, a man, who was already wearing a white coat, although they hadn’t yet had their white-coat ceremony. His mother was in health care and his sister was in med school, and they’d informed him that if he wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon, which he did, it would be beneficial to start shadowing someone immediately. Landry went home that night feeling dispirited, as if she were already falling behind, and a classmate told her, 'Don’t worry, you just have impostor syndrome.'
"For Landry, this was only the first of many instances of what she calls 'the misdiagnosis of impostor syndrome.' Landry understands now that what her classmate characterized as a crisis of self-doubt was simply an observation of an external truth—the concrete impact of connections and privilege. Eventually, Landry looked up Clance and Imes’s 1978 paper; she didn’t identify with the people described in it. 'They interviewed a set of primarily white women lacking confidence, despite being surrounded by an educational system and workforce that seemed to recognize their excellence,' she told me. 'As a Black woman, I was unable to find myself in that paper.'"
In the same way that Jamison decided arbitrarily that men's feelings don't count, these nonwhite women are saying, in words of one syllable, that white women have no right to feel impostor syndrome because the system is rigged in their favor. Now I know that some nonwhites would resent me questioning the feelings of anyone who isn't white on the grounds of my own supposed privilege, but I will go to my grave believing that the emotional similarities among human beings far outweigh demographic differences. I also believe that different groups--including straight white men--must feel free to express their opinions about individuals from other groups if we are going to live together. The responses of the women above, it seems to me, offer them relief from the insecurity bred by modern life, insofar as they put all the responsibility for any disappointments that they may experience on a racist society, not upon themselves. I don't think this is a healthy response, especially for them.
The Parkland Conference that I participated in last May featured an interview with the black commentator and one-time English professor Shelby Steele. Steele argued, as he has for a long time, that the civil rights acts of the 1960s removed most of the barriers to black advancement in the United States, but that some black people prefer to regard themselves as victims rather than to risk competition in the wider world that opened up to them. I introduced myself to him afterwards and suggested that competition within the wider world was terrifying for anyone, and that many people of all races and genders would be happy to seize on a convenient excuse that would absolve them of the responsibility for any failure. He agreed. I can't help noting, either, that many highly successful black people--and women--continue to insist that society is rigged against them. Isabel Wilkerson and Nikole Hannah-Jones worked for the New York Times, and Ta Na-hisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendhi have written best sellers and won MacArthur fellowships. To assume that the system is and always will be rigged against you relieves you of the burden of wondering whether you really deserve what you have secured for yourself or not, by submerging your personal fate within the fate of your demographic group. It makes it impossible for you to understand the problems that other kinds of people actually do experience. It also lifts the burden of recognizing the family dynamics which do so much to shape all our self-images.
I will close with two general observations. Our modern world is only a couple of centuries old and we may not yet appreciate its psychic costs fully. Almost four years ago I discussed the sociologist Liah Greenfeld's book Mind, Modernity, Madness, which argues that bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and severe depression are diseases of the modern world that did not exist in pre-modern cultures. She could be right. Our professoriate and commentariat consist of people who have been relatively successful and do not understand how much more severe its burdens are for those who are not. That may be why millions of less successful Americans vote for candidates the successful regard as beyond the pale. This is essentially what I said to Shelby Steele: that modern life is so frightening that almost anyone would be glad to find an excuse for opting out, emotionally if not in their daily lives, of the competition it demands. I regret that some black readers may be offended by this post. I can only ask them to recognize its real point: that we are all in fact in the same boat. And it is also clear from some of the comments on the Shelby Steele interview on youtube, and from dozens of comments on the podcasts of Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, and Coleman Hughes, that many black people agree with Steele in many ways.
More importantly, it seems to me, we can only manage the psychic costs of our competitive society if we take political and economic steps to reduce the stakes of the competition. The twentieth century showed, I think, that the lower economic half of the population will tolerate the wealthy and accept their own lot under certain specific conditions. First, they must be assured of a decent life that is actually getting better as the years go on. Secondly, they must feel part of a greater national enterprise that they can believe in. And lastly, we need severe limits on how wealthy and influential the rich can be. That was the society we built in the United States from the 1930s into the 1970s, and the one that we have moved away from since then. The difference between success and failure is so great that we are moving away from any serious attempt to identify the smartest people among us with standardized tests or even grades. It is no wonder that our new society is, in so many different ways, driving us mad.