Featured Post

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

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

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Our New Aristocracy, continued

 Some weeks ago the podcaster Terrence McNally--a college classmate and longtime friend of mine--interviewed a freelancer, Alexander Zaitchik, about his book, Owning the Sun, about the power Big Pharma and where it came from.  I was moved to get the book from the library and I am glad that I did. In the podcast interview Zaitchik mentioned that he was once a history graduate student, and it shows. He quit academia, probably wisely, but this book is a serious, concise history of a fascinating topic--the history of intellectual property.  

After a quick journey through medieval English precedents--which, as every young American ought to learn, remain the foundation of our laws--Zaitchik quotes the Constitution, which gives the Congress the power "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."  With respect to inventions that provision raised some eyebrows at the time, and two noteworthy inventors, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, opposed it.  This was the era of the Enlightenment--the era that may now be dying--and they believed that knowledge was the key to progress and therefore must be disseminated as widely and cheaply as possible.  And the idea of patents for medicines was particularly controversial.  The imperial German pharmaceutical giant Bayer was among the first international corporations to try to patent their products, and the idea that medicine should be made generally available remained conventional wisdom in the US for a long time.  

The question of patents naturally became entwined in the first half of the twentieth century with the more general question of monopoly power.  Our antitrust laws date of course from 1890 and 1914, but it was the later New Deal era that unleashed the most sustained attack on monopoly power, including attempts to control the abuse of patents.  Ironically, other appointments of patents included laissez-fiare economists such as Friedrich Hayek, who saw them as infringements upon the free market.  By an astonishing coincidence, I have just been watching a 1959 interview of Ayn Rand by Mike Wallace, and she too opposes any monopoly on industrial processes.  And during the Second World War the question arose in its modern form, as federal money funded a great deal of research of all kinds, including medical.  Federal government scientists developed the processes that led to the mass production of penicillin, and licensed them freely to a variety of manufacturers--who, Zaitchik notes, used various strategies to profit from the new drug as much as they could.  Dr. Jonas Salk, notably, refused even to consider patenting his polio vaccine.  Soon, however, the major drug firms were developing and patenting new antibiotics of their own.  

Big pharma as we know it emerged during the 1950s, and I scratched my head to learn that it relied from the beginning on addictive substitutes such as barbiturates (sleeping pills), anti-anxiety pills like Milltown, Librium and Valium, and amphetamines, marketed (as  I learned in the late 1960s from a girlfriend) as diet pills. They had already been marketing drugs with huge markups justified by the cost of research, even though they were already spending much more on marketing than research.  The public was not going along with this new development wholeheartedly, and big pharma's prestige took another hit when the FDA physician Dr. Frances Kelsey--one of the great American heroes--singlehandedly saved tens of thousands of American children from deformity by refusing to approve the drug thalidomide, that was already wreaking havoc around Europe.  Another great and forgotten mid-century public servant, Senator Estes Kefauver--the chairman of the Senate's anti-monopoly subcommittee--was holding hearings and crafting legislation to rein in their power when he died suddenly of a ruptured aorta in the summer of 1963. 

A decade and half later, Big Pharma got what it wanted in the form of new legislation passed after the 1980 presidential election had delivered the Presidency and the Senate to the Republican Party.  The still-Democratic Senate passed the Bayh-Dole bill, named after an outgoing Democrat and the Senate Republican leader, which reversed a fundamental principle of patent law. Until then, patents for inventions developed with government funds--as most drugs were, and often still are--belonged, by default, to the government.  Now the government had to show a specific reason why they should not belong to the corporation that developed them.  The arguments in favor of this shift resemble neoliberal thinking in general:  that companies needed the profit incentive offered by a patent to develop new drugs, which in turn would create jobs.  One lonely holdout was the ancient Washington bureaucrat Admiral Hyman Rickover, a relic of another age who insisted that knowledge developed by the government must belong to the public. The recent election had proven that the country was heading in another direction.

Much of the rest is a long, complicated and depressing story of how big Pharma, with the full cooperation of the American government, has taken advantage of this change and written it into important international agreements. They have particularly tried to prevent manufacturers in other countries--especially global south (Third World) countries--from making new drugs cheaply.  This became an international scandal in the 1990s when the first effective anti-AIDS drugs were introduced and marketed at prices the global south could not afford, costing many thousands of lives. One reason for the creation of the World Trade Organization was to get international agreement on the US conception of corporate patent rights.  And the same story was replayed when COVID struck, and the American firms that developed vaccines refused to license them cheaply over the world. A key player in that process, it turns out, was Bill Gates, who made his gigantic fortune by patenting computer code--an innovation when he did it--and, Zaitchik shows, has used his position as a leading philanthropist to encourage a broad interpretation of corporate rights.  The whole globalization enterprise, including various international trade agreements, has served to enshrine corporate power and give it new safeguards against political power, including democratically elected political power.

To any impartial observer, the profit motive has obviously wreaked havoc in American and world health care.  Combined with near-universal health insurance, it encourages more treatment instead of less.  It encourages big Pharma to develop drugs for incurable conditions and addictive drugs, and it discourages them from working on new antibiotics which we now desperately need.  It is the reason why Americans spend so much more on health care than other countries.  Yet our health care system has proven marvelously self-sustaining against attacks.

Exactly why is indicated in another piece I read this week in The New Yorker, about the management of great wealth by Evan Osnos.  Based on interviews with a former fund manager for two of the heirs of the Getty family fortune who has now fallen out with her employers, it goes in great detail into how our superrich--the 1 percent and the .1 percent--have managed to shield more and more of their wealth and income from federal and state taxation.  The article disappointed me at times.  Osnos tries to explain some complex financial stratagems and sometimes fails to do so, and I couldn't help wondering why some editor didn't tell him,. "I can't understand this, Evan, and our readers won't be able to either." But the overall picture is clear.  The superrich have so much money that they can buy all the influence they need in politics, and the legal system is also increasingly sympathetic to their plight.  By changing tax laws they can increase their resources and buy more influence.  This is why, as studies have shown, majority opinion on key economic issues of the day has almost no impact on policy.  I put down the article disturbed by another aspect of the problem.  Our powerful institutions on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, and in the corporate world more generally can, and do, buy up an enormous percentage of our smartest young people after they go through elite institutions.  Those people then deploy their brain power on behalf of our existing economic system, which the universities in turn depend upon to manage and increase their endowments.  It's not surprising that universities, corporations, and some billionaires have become so woke lately--it's a great way to show that they are on the side of the angels while they drain all the rest of us regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.  Little did I know when I described 16th-century European aristocratic society more than thirty years ago in Politics and War that I would live to see the rebuilding of a similar system in the 21st.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Ideology, Identity, Careerism

 I have just been listening to a remarkable interview between Coleman Hughes, my favorite young public intellectual, and documentary filmmaker Meg Smaker about her documentary, Jihad Rehab, in which she interviews several Saudi men who were held at Guantanamo for years before being released into Saudi custody, where they underwent some re-education.  The film was originally accepted by the Sundance festival, but the festival apologized for screening it in response to  protests that a white woman had no right to make such a film, and Smaker found it impossible to get it shown anywhere for a long time after that.  I haven't seen the film yet, although I hope to, but late in the interview this leads Coleman into an interesting comment about his classes at Columbia five or ten years ago.  I shall explain in due course how that comment fits in with thoughts I've been having for a long time about the destruction of the humanities in universities and how exactly it came about.

I believe that the number of genuinely talented historians and literary critics is quite small, and much too small to staff the enormous university system that grew up in the United States in the postwar period.  Our genuine intellectuals, I have found, are scattered at random throughout the population, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.  Many of the smartest people, in addition, do not choose to become academics.  Many who do become academics lack individual self-confidence and very easily go with the flow, and some of them suffer from impostor syndrome.  That is why the majority of academics who write one book never write another one.  And in the last forty years the whole cultural tradition allied to university life has been dying, with fewer people taking the time to read serious books and publishers catering more and more to mass tastes.

Now in the 1960s and 1970s, more women and nonwhites began going to graduate school, getting their degrees, and going on the job market. By the 1970s, by the way, the job market was extremely tight for everyone, regardless of demography, since the majority of faculty hired in the great university expansion of the 1960s-70s were still relatively young.  In short, lots of us had trouble either finding a job or having the kind of impact we hoped to have.  We responded in various different ways.

My text this morning is the introduction to a collection of essays, Gender and the Politics of History, by the historian Joan Wallach Scott, who was born in 1941 and received her doctorate in history from the University of Wisconsin in 1969.  The introduction of this 1988 book explains that her intellectual focus had shifted when she participated in Pembroke Center seminars at Brown University, focusing on poststructuralist theory.  That theory--which the novelist David Lodge explored in several of his books--held that language is the only reality--a congenial thought for an academic--and that language always deploys, or contests, power relationships within society.  Those relationships in turn stem from differences in gender, race, class, and sexual behavior.  To make it clear how all this influenced Scott I shall use her own words.

"Gender, in these essays, means knowledge about sexual difference.  I use knowledge, following Michel Foucault, to mean the understanding produced by cultures and societies of human relationships, in this case of those between men and women. Such knowledge is not absolute or true, but always relative. It is produced in complex ways within large epistemic frames that themselves have an (at least quasi-autonomous history. Its uses and meanings become contested politically and are the means by which relationships of power-of domination and subordination-are constructed. Knowledge refers not only to ideas but to institutions and structures, everyday practices as well as specialized rituals, all of which constitute social relationships. Knowledge is a way of ordering the world; as such it is not prior to social organization, it is inseparable from social organization. . . ."

"History figures in this approach not exclusively as the record of changes in the social organization of the sexes but also crucially as a participant in the production of knowledge about sexual difference.  I assume that history's representations of the past help construct gender or the present. Analyzing how that happens requires attention to the assumptions, practices, and rhetoric of the discipline, to things either so taken for granted or so outside customary practice that they are not usually a focus for historians' attention. These include the notions that history can faithfully document lived reality, that archives are repositories of facts, and that categories like man and woman are transparent. They extend as well to examinations of the rhetorical practices of historians, the construction of historical texts, and the politics-that is, the power relationships-constituted by the discipline.  In these essays history is as much the object of analytic attention as it is a method of analysis. Taken in both ways together, it provides a means for understanding and contributing to the process by which gender knowledge is produced.

"If the themes of gender and history unite this book, so does a preoccupation with theory. Although historians are not trained (in the United States at least) to be reflective or rigorous about their theory, I found it imperative to pursue theoretical questions in order to do feminist history. This resulted, I think, from my sense of frustration at the relatively limited impact women's history was having on historical studies generally and my consequent need to understand why that was the case. My motive was and is one I share with other feminists and it is avowedly political: to point out and change inequalities between women and men. It is a motive, moreover, that feminists share with those concerned to change the representation of other groups left out of history because of race, ethnicity, and class as well as gender."

Now having spent more than four decades navigating this new intellectual world--as described in A Life in History--I have to hand it to Professor Scott for summarizing the ideology behind the postmodernist revolution so succinctly.  It makes perfect sense to me, too, that the author of these words had already reached the summit of the academy as a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Lay readers, however, may need a little help finding their way through these paragraphs.  Let me try to translate them into English, as we used to say in the Army.

Scott is saying that language cannot be understood as providing objective descriptions of reality, because there is no reality outside of power relationships based upon gender, race, or class.  (Had she written this introduction a few years later I'm sure she would have thrown in sexual orientation as well.)  Theory, I would suggest--and I'm not enough of an intellectual historian of the last half century to prove this, but I think someone could--is a shorthand for "critical theory," which goes back to Karl Marx and which got a big boost in the twentieth century from the Frankfurt School in general and Herbert Marcuse in particular.  And critical theory, I am now convinced, is really an intellectual game based on the assumption that every tenet of Enlightenment thought really means the opposite of what it says.  Suppose we assume that the ideology of the equality of all persons, as enshrined in the US Constitution, really just hides the supremacy of straight white males?  Suppose we  assume (as Marcuse did) that free speech merely reserves the public square for hegemonic bourgeois ideas?  Turning to critical race theory, suppose that we assume (as Derek Bell did) that the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 had nothing to do with attempts to better the lot of black Americans?  The same "critical" spirit leads Scott, above, to question " that history can faithfully document lived reality, that archives are repositories of facts, and that categories like man and woman are transparent." 

Now these ideas already dominated literature and history departments in universities by the time Scott wrote those words.  Now they also dominate university administrations (a point to which I shall return) and have been adopted by the arts mainstream media and a whole industry of diversity trainers.  Many people have been canceled for disputing them in public.  I would like to suggest three different reasons why they have spread so widely.

First of all--they are related to genuine facts.  Western society--and every other society that I know of--gave most political and economic power to men, racism and tribalism characterize every society that we know of, and western society defined homosexuality as evil for many centuries.  An impartial observer must also note, however, that the ideas that have allowed western society to put aside legal sexism and racism and adopt a tolerant attitude towards homosexuality all came from the West.  Slavery existed in every part of the world, but was first abolished in Europe (though not so quickly, of course, in European colonies), and then in the European-settled new nations of the Americas in the 19th century. The Europeans forced West Africa to give it up (although it persisted in Mauretania at least until the late 20th century.) The idea of citizenship as a category transcending race and gender is a western idea. Western-dominated institutions now advocate for women's and gay rights in the global south.  It has always seemed ironic to me, by the way, that many of the female academics whose ranks have grown so quickly over the last few decades--proof, one might think, that the academy no longer discriminates against them--have made their careers attacking sexism in their own societies.  In Scott's case, only five years ago she published a new book, Sex and Secularism, arguing that western secular ideologies had done more to deprive women of their rights than traditional belief systems such as Islam.   Reviewer Laura Kipnis, who has had her own brush with cancellation by feminists, was not persuaded. 

The second reason is emotional.  This framework had an irresistible appeal for many (though never all) young academics who were not straight white males.  Scott expresses this perfectly when she says that she turned to theory from "from my sense of frustration at the relatively limited impact women's history was having on historical studies generally and my consequent need to understand why that was the case. My motive was and is one I share with other feminists and it is avowedly political: to point out and change inequalities between women and men. It is a motive, moreover, that feminists share with those concerned to change the representation of other groups left out of history because of race, ethnicity, and class as well as gender."  Now there were all sorts of possible reasons why women's history wasn't having the impact she had hoped for--but how satisfying it was to believe that the culprit was the hegemony of straight white males, which left no room for the beliefs and feelings of those they oppressed.  For anyone other than straight white males, adopting this paradigm turned any racist, sexist or homophobic slight they had experienced either from other people or from the broader culture into another key to understanding the whole of western history.  This was indeed "centering" their experience--another common boast of those who do this kind of history.  My contemporary Camille Paglia tried to point out that one could not try to find evidence for this paradigm in classic texts without obviously distorting their meaning thirty years ago in her classic essay, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders"--but she remained an outsider in academia. And in the last decade universities have gone a step further, arguing that any perceived slight causes irreparable harm to oppressed persons and must therefore be punished, not infrequently with the loss of one's job. In fact, I would argue, the whole purpose of education is to take you outside yourself and expose you to people, ideas, and experiences that you have never had before.  That's certainly what happened to me in college and graduate school, and I was and remain a straight white male.

And the third reason was careerist.  Since "Contests about knowledge are now understood to be political, not only because they are contests, but because they are explicitly about the interests of groups (rather than the opinions of individuals) in the substance and form of knowledge"--as Scott wrote in another essay just a few years later--academia and society could move forward only by listening more to women, nonwhites and gays and less to straight white men--all of whom were speaking, whether they knew it or not, for their group.  For the university and society, every female, nonwhite or gay hire represented a step forward, while any straight white male was a relic of an obsolete, oppressive ideology.  And of course, within this climate, straight white males--vulnerable by definition--usually decided to profess the new ideology themselves, or at the very least, to keep their dissent to themselves.

The most disastrous result of the woke careerist impulse has been the cancerous growth of diversity bureaucracies throughout higher education.  Diversity bureaucrats either abandoned scholarship early in their careers, or were never scholars in the first place.  They are committed to the idea that universities have traditionally been racist, sexist and homophobic institutions, and that undoing all the harm they have done is their most important task.  These bureaucrats now question course content and classroom interactions.  Professors can no longer claim any intellectual authority based upon their training or scholarly achievements if just one student argues that they have been traumatized by something the professor said or by a text or piece of artwork that the professor showed them.  If a member of a "marginalized group" complains, the professor is guilty.

And that brings me to what Coleman Hughes said during the interview with Meg Smaker, whose film is trying to emerge from cancellation.  She pointed out that while some Muslims and some white ideologues had complained about her making it, many Muslims liked it very much.   Hughes said the whole story reminded him of his undergraduate experience at Columbia, from which he graduated only a few years ago.  Professors, he claimed, routinely assigned too much reading every week, and often began class by asking every student to talk briefly about it.  If you were a "person of color" (the term he used), he said, and had not done the reading, you didn't have to admit that; you could simply say (in  many cases at least)  that since the author was white, the ideas did not seem to speak to you and you found it impossible to engage with them.  That is, by the way, exactly what a young black music student says to a distinguished female conductor in the movie Tar when she tries to get  him into a discussion of J. S. Bach (and he threw in Bach's "misogyny" for good measure.) That, sadly, is where higher education is today.

Through all these decades, some scholars from every demographic have stuck to the older principles of objectivity and universalism that created the western tradition.  They have done so--like many of those who have resisted totalitarianism at much greater cost--because it was in their nature and it was literally all they could do.  Like Orwell, they instinctively understand that freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four.  Yet there have not been enough of them to define orthodoxy in our educational system.

Education cannot function if students are encouraged to deny teachers' intellectual authority.  In universities they have no obligation to agree with their teachers, but if they can't take what they have to say seriously at all, they are in the wrong place.  No one forced them to go to that particular college.  Tragically, within just two generations, our institutions of higher learning have lost all self-confidence--not least, now, because they feel they must pander to students to keep them coming and stay alive. This whole process has gone so far that I don't see how it can be fixed, and I don't want readers to think that I have the answer.  I hope merely that this essay will help them understand what is happening both in universities an in society at large today.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

The Investigative Weapon

 The coming onslaught of House investigations of the Biden administration is merely the next chapter in a long, sad decline of American politics.  Congress's power to investigate the Executive Branch remains in m opinion a cornerstone of our liberties, but it is also subject to grave abuses, especially in times of extreme partisanship.  Meanwhile, over the last fifty years or so, our criminal justice system has also become a political weapon thanks in part to the now-defunct independent counsel law.

The modern political use of the investigative power, I would argue, began in the late 1930s, when the House of Representatives created the Un-American Activities Committee.  Originally the suggestion of a leftwing Congressman Samuel Dickstein of New York, who wanted to investigate Fascist groups, the Committee immediately fell under conservative domination, with Martin Dies, a Texas Democrat, as chairman, and targeted various New Deal enterprises on the grounds that they harbored subversive left wingers.  After the Republicans took over the Congress in 1946 that committee--which included freshman Congressman Richard Nixon of California--raised allegations of Communist spying inside the government, including the former State Department official Alger Hiss, who was eventually convicted of perjury based on his testimony before the committee. In that case the committee was doing its constitutional job.  The executive branch knew of serious allegations against Hiss, Harry Dexter White,  and others, and had done nothing about them, and we now know from the Venona intercepts of Soviet cable traffic that Soviet spying within the government was a serious problem.  But the committee also targeted Communists and fellow-travelers in every walk of life, and cost a great many people their livelihoods simply for holding unpopular opinions.  

Beginning in February 1950 Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin built on the committee's work with a series of fantastic and utterly unsupported accusations of Communists in government.  McCarthy, generations of scholars have now concluded, never found a single such person himself: every one that he had attacked was either innocent or had already been identified by someone else.  Yet he contributed to the discrediting of the New Deal enterprise and the Truman administration that brought Eisenhower and a narrowly Republican Congress into power in 1953.  McCarthy had enough clout within his party to become the chairman of the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee of the Government Operations Committee, and he surprised everyone by going after the Eisenhower Administration as hard as he had the Truman administration.  That led to his fight with the Army, the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, and his 1954 downfall.  That episode, thankfully, largely discredited that kind of Congressional inquisition for a long time.

The abuses of the Nixon Administration in the 1972 campaign--including the break-in and bugging at the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building--led to a truly bipartisan Senate Committee investigation, led by Sam Ervin of North Carolina, that riveted the nation for several months and did a great deal to lead to Nixon's near-impeachment and forced resignation.  The role of special prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski in bringing the Nixon people to justice also led to the passage of an independent counsel law, which could be triggered by almost any accusation against a public official.  And because trial lawyers are trained to build cases--not to render reasonably impartial judgments in advance of an indictment--that law certainly did lead to a number of highly questionable criminal cases brought on relatively narrow grounds.  When in 1987 independent counsel Lawrence Walsh was appointed to investigate the Iran-Contra scandal, the Reagan and Bush I's political and legal strategies--culminating in Bush's lame-duck pardon of most of the men Walsh had convicted--managed to protect the guilty.  

Unfortunately, by the time the Clinton administration took power, Republicans regarded both Watergate and the Iran-Contra investigation as partisan efforts which they now wanted to emulate.  When the Whitewater investigation was going nowhere in 1994, Senators Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth met with one of the federal judges charged with appointing an independent counsel and evidently persuaded him to replace the incumbent, who was willing to drop the proceedings, with the zealous Ken Starr.  Starr, of course, turned the investigation into an inquiry into the President's personal life, leading to his impeachment for lying about a sexual encounter during his second term.  Some Republicans apparently regarded this as "payback for Watergate," but several Republican Senators joined the Democrats in acquitting Clinton.  The Bush II administration controlled both houses of Congress for most of its life, and the Democrats launched a very professional investigation of the torture of captives after 2007 which was not completed for quite a few years later.   The Republicans under Obama regained control of the House in 2010 and of the Senate in 2014, and Congress launched six different investigations of the deaths of several US diplomats in Benghazi in 2012--the last of them clearly aimed at the presidential candidacy of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  The Congressional Republicans did not launch full-scale investigations of her use of a private email server while in office, but the federal bureaucracy pursued them vigorously in an attempt to show impartiality, with FBI Director James Comey eventually clearing her on narrow grounds. 

Given Donald Trump's background and behavior in office, Democrats in Congress inevitably began several investigations of him when they regained control of the House in 2018.  These included not only two separate impeachment inquiries--both of which led to trials, but not to convictions, in the Senate--but also attempts to secure his tax returns, which were finally successful just a few weeks ago.  They continued after Trump left office with the January 6 House Committee, which built a well-documented case against Trump for participating in various illegal efforts to remain in office. The Justice Department is now investigating those now, as well as Trump's possession of classified material after he left office.  

One can believe, as I do, that Trump has been guilty of serious financial and political abuses and should certainly have been convicted in his impeachment trials, yet also regret that the Democratic Party is now relying on the legal process--or, as one might put it, on the deep state--to remove him as a political threat in the next election, rather than on a demonstrated ability to meet the needs of the American people.  And now, the new House Republican majority, led by its most extreme elements, is going to launch a series of investigations of its own--into the supposed political weaponization of the FBI and CIA, into the financial dealings and tax returns of the President and his son Hunter, into the handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, into the enforcement of border control, and much more.   As I write they are undoubtedly adding Joe Biden's possession of classified material while out of office to their list.   They also want to assert a Congressional power to withhold salaries from executive branch workers whom they do not like.  They do not know, perhaps, that Congressional Republicans tried that tactic during the Second World War, only to have the Supreme Court invalidate their legislative riders denying salaries to certain dealers in U.S. vs. Lovett on the grounds that they constituted an unconstitutional Bill of Attainder.

These investigations are the next phase of the Republican dau tranh campaign to discredit the whole enterprise of government, which I described at length here more than ten years ago and have had several occasions to refer to again since then.   The media has effectively collaborated with that campaign at least since the Clinton years, partly to show impartiality but mostly, I think, .because scandals sell clicks.  Yes, it is easy to argue that the Democratic and Justice Department investigations have dealt with real abuses while the Republicans are focused entirely on political points, but both parties' reliance on these tactics, I think, reflects the real tragedy of 21st century politics: the failure of both parties to build a lasting majority among our people by showing that they can really meet their needs and provide any alternative to the oligarchical rule of financial and corporate power.

Friday, January 06, 2023


 I was one of the many bicoastals who took a long time to try out Breaking Bad.  My son bugged me for two years to give it a try and finally gave me DVDs of the first two seasons, and I was hooked at once.  Something similar, apparently, has happened with the streamed series Yellowstone, starring Kevin Costner, and it was only during the last month that I gave it a try. For a week or two it replaced the World Cup as the primary focus of my day, and I am now in the middle of season 5, which just finished and will apparently be the last.  There are a number of things I want to say about it, and they will include some spoilers, although I'm not going to narrate any key events of the plot.  

Set mostly in the present with some flashbacks, Yellowstone might have been described in Hollywood pitch meetings as Bonanza meets The Godfather.  It is set on a large ranch in a Montana Valley, just miles away from Wyoming and the National Park of the same name.  John Dutton (Costner) is the family patriarch, lives strictly according to his own codes like Vito Corleone, and lives only to pass on his ranch and his way of life to his family.  His wife died many years ago, and if you take a guess as to how she died (as I did) you will probably turn out to be right.  Like Vito Corleone, he has three sons and a daughter.  The daughter, Beth, is the most striking character on the show.  She is calculatedly over the top and you are likely to love her or hate her; I generally found her entertaining.  She shares Connie Corleone's volatility, but that's about all  The sons, however, are a pretty good match for Sonny, Michael, and especially Fredo.  I won't provide a full scorecard, but Kacey {sic], the youngest son, is a decorated war veteran who originally wanted his own life but is drawn back into his father's orbit.  Like Michael Corleone, he is married to an outsider--in his case, an Indian--who happens also to be a teacher.  The Tom Hagen figure is Rip, the ranch foreman, whom the Dutton's appear to have adopted at a young age.

Like the Corleones, the family is fighting a war for the ranch on several fronts.  They feud with other leading families in the state.  The highly political local Indian chief dreams of using casino money to buy up the entire valley and restoring the Indians' ancient way of life.  Kacey's wife Monica also teaches a very woke version of US history at a local college.  All the Indian characters appear to be played by genuine Indians, and I do wonder what real contemporary plains Indians think of it.   But the most dangerous foes are a California businessman and a venture capital firm that want to turn the valley into a rich person's playground, complete with an airport, a luxury resort, and a new ski area.  Alliances among the various factions continually shift, conflict often becomes violent--factions sometimes enlist local private militias as trigger men--and the body count can get pretty high pretty fast.  All the factions also compete for the support of local law enforcement and the state government.  Meanwhile, in the background, rich people from both coasts are buying up land, forcing up property values and taxes, and threatening established ways of life.

If you love the west, as I do, the show is absolutely spectacular to watch.  The scenery is gorgeous, and nearly every episode features scenes of herds of animals that must have been extremely difficult to film.  The supporting cast includes the Dutton ranch's cowboys, whose culture the show explores in detail.  Here the casting was a little erratic.  Some of the cowboys seem very realistic (Rip certainly does), some are stereotypical, and some are obviously urban-born actors who do not have a clue.  The cowboys in at least one respect resemble a Mafia family, complete with a brutal initiation ceremony.  In one moving episode, one of them is sent to work for some months in Texas, and one character remarks that it is only in flat, relatively arid, desperately hot Texas that the cowboy way of life will survive, while the mountain states, like Colorado, become playgrounds of the rich.

Some people may find the show trite; others will find it, like The Godfather, truly Shakespearean. I was never very taken with Kevin Costner when he was Hollywood superstar 30 years ago, but age has given him a lot more gravitas and his character is well-written.  The series has also spawned two prequels set in the 1890s and 1920s, respectively, and one of them stars Helen Mirren and Harrison Ford.  The plot is becoming more powerful for me as it nears the end, because John Dutton has emerged as the symbol of all the millions of Americans, from factory workers to small farmers to serious scholars, whose way of life has been destroyed by the trends of the last 30 years. I just read a long New York Review of Books piece on American politics that continually bewailed the solidly Republican mountain states but never asked how they got that way--or why they evolved over the last half century from pretty evenly divided territory to solidly Republican.  We all know what has happened to Michigan and Wisconsin factory workers--although the Democrats still assume that those people owe them so loyalty--but much of our rural population, which was also a bastion of the New Deal, has disappeared without a trace and is now completely off their radar.  In that respect, Yellowstone is not merely absorbing drama with great scenery, but food for thought.