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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, February 26, 2023

What We Are Missing

 The current New York Review of Books includes an article by Timothy Garton Ash on the people of Ukraine--a story of remarkable heroism and unity.  He talks about soldier who when the war broke out was pursuing an academic career in cultural studies, no less, but is  now recovering from a second set of wounds and eagerly looking forward to his return to the front. He talks about civilians who are providing storage rooms and intelligence to the Ukrainian Army in combat zones. He talks about the ways in which average citizens are providing electricity to cope with the Russian attacks on their grid.  And then comes this remarkable paragraph.

"Amazingly, in polling conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) last September, 68 percent of Ukrainians answered yes to the question “Do you consider yourself a happy person?,” compared with just 53 percent in 2017. When I asked the sociologist Nataliya Zaitseva-Chipak to help me understand this phenomenon—how on earth could people be happier during a war of terror directed against the civilian population?—she replied, 'Yes, I’m happier!' It wasn’t just the overwhelming sense of common purpose, she explained. It was also appreciating everything you still have when your compatriots are suffering so much worse in the trenches or the pulverized city of Mariupol. One journalist even told me her friends say that 'it’s okay if the missiles are falling on us because it means they’re not killing our soldiers on the front line.'”

That, of course, is not the whole story, and Ash continues with several paragraphs detailing horrible suffering.  Yet the Ukrainian people endure it willingly, and if they can win their war they will inhabit in some ways the strongest state in Europe, because they will have gone through a successful great crisis such as the Europeans have not experienced for about 80 years.  They have banded together and devoted their resources and their lives to preserving their independence, something that the United States and Western Europe have not even had to remain ready to do since 1990, and have not fought to do since the Second World War.  That long era of peace, it turns out, is a blessing that has now become a curse.

I owe this insight, of course, to the late William Strauss and his still-active collaborator Neil Howe.  Their books Generations and The Fourth Turning identified an 80-year cycle in American national life, punctuated by great crises that required the nation to pull together, sacrifice, and focus on common goals.  These were the American Revolution and the constitutional period (1774-1794), the Civil War (about 1860-5), and the Depression and the Second World War (1933-45.)  These crises faced our political leadership with  unprecedented tasks, and they proved equal to them.  They involved the whole nation in common sacrifices and common triumphs.  And the young adult generations of those crises--such as the GI or "greatest" generation that coped with the Depression and the world war--remained committed to the values they had fought for and the political and social system that emerged from the crises for the rest of their lives.  And as they died off, the new postwar generations--those who included Lincoln and Roosevelt--redefined the national mission and set the goals for the next crisis.

The United States under the leadership of the Boom generation has now lived through three serious crises that might have led to a comparable national renewal: 9/11, the 2008 financial collapse, and the pandemic.  Yet none of them led to a national renewal because of poor leadership.  George W. Bush spoke the language of crisis after 9/11 and called upon us to embark upon a new crusade for democracy, but in practice he embarked upon two useless wars that could not succeed while reducing taxes on the wealthy and ignoring the speculative bubble he had helped unleash until disaster struck.  Facing the financial crisis, Barack Obama explicitly adopted the Boomer economic theory that "restoring liquidity"--that is, massive bailouts of financial institutions--could cure a depression better than a New Deal.  That very slow approach immediately cost him the House of Representatives and any chance of a transformative presidency--not that he seems to have wanted one very much.   And Donald Trump, who had passed yet another big tax cut for corporations and the wealthy, tried to pretend that the pandemic was not happening.  As a result, the alienation of the American people from the government has increased and extremist ideologies that reject much of our national legacy have gained ground in both parties.   We have not been able to address our two biggest problems: climate change and the continuing trend towards economic inequality.  Our politics now revolve around tribal and educational divisions professing competing ideologies. Every president since Bush II has called for greater unity; none have been able to achieve it.

In past periods the great crisis has also created social and intellectual consensus.  Nearly 60 years ago such a consensus provoked an enormous revolt in the younger generations--a revolt that became an attack on authority of all kinds.  Since then our right and left have essentially agreed on the principle of doing one's own thing, even though they defined it very differently.  And today's younger generations clearly cannot even imagine the kind of consensus world we had in the 1950s and early 1960s.  If they think about it all it is as some kind of nightmare, a mix of The Birth of a Nation and The Handmaid's Tale, from which society fortunately began to escape in the 1960s.  Nothing has been able to reverse that trend and we still don't know where it will lead.

The neoliberal paradise to whom our elites and the European elites committed themselves turns out to have been a mirage.  Peace and prosperity have bred plutocracy and populist discontent.  Perhaps human being needs challenge and hardship to focus society on common goals.  Ukraine is showing us what that can mean.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

How News Has Changed

 It has been some time since I compared today's front page to the same newspaper 80 years ago, and the contrast has never been more striking today.  The contrast is not quite perfect, because the site frontpages.com does not yet have today's Washington Post front page up yet, and I will have to use Saturday's instead; but since February 19, 1943 was a Friday, that might be a better comparison than one to a Sunday paper.  The contrast is especially striking because while the 1943 page has eight columns of stories--the norm in American newspapers, I believe, until 40 or 50 years ago, when they shrank to six columns--the Post has now shrunk to five columns.  Most readers, of course, are now reading the online edition, and I will try to do a second comparison using today's online Post.  

The Second World War was raging on February 19, 1942, of course, and battlefield developments dominate the four right-hand columns of page 1.  A German offensive against American forces in Tunisia was scoring big gains, and the AP reporter who wrote the lead story did not sugarcoat the American defeat. "One Tank Corps Almost Completely Wrecked," read one subhead, and the lead paragraph reported that the Germans had captured 4000 square miles in four days.  British reinforcements, it continued, were headed for the scene of battle.  The second lead story featured rapid Soviet advances against the Germans around Rostov and elsewhere on their front, where the Soviets had recently won their great victory at Stalingrad. And a third story datelined London detailed a remarkably frank, very frightened speech by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who had said that "the Red Armies motorized divisions had "broken loose with a power eclipsing all imagination. . . .we did not correctly estimate the war potential of the Soviet Union. . . .We must act quickly and thoroughly or it might be too late."  Further down the page a story datelined Chungking detailed seven separate Japanese attacks against Chinese troops, and next to it, another story recounted a speech to a joint session of Congress by Madme Chiang Kai-shek, the "magnetic wife of China's war leader," which had received a tumultuous reception.  Two small items reported that Mohandas K. Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement, was weakening after a 9-day fast in protest, and that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was ill with a cold and fever in London.  And at the bottom of columns 6-7, a London story reported a parliamentary debate on the Beveridge Report, a blueprint for postwar Great Britain that became the basis of the postwar British welfare state.

The domestic war effort dominated the center of the front page.  A story by post reporter Christine Sadler--one of the era's leading female journalists--discussed pending legislation to defer more farm laborers and more married men with children from teh draft.  Further down, the Rubber Director of the War Production Board announced that rubber inventories would fall to dangerously low levels by the end of the year, and the chairman of that Board, Donald Nelson (formerly of Sears Roebuck) had delegated authority over rubber production to his Vice Chairman Charles Wilson, of General Motors.  An amusing item told the story of an anonymous Post reporter who had gotten lost while doing a story in the new Pentagon building, and found himself detained by security personnel.  "Theseus in the Labyrinth," it headlined: "Reported Confined in Bastille After Losing Pentagon Escort."  I do wonder how many Post reporters or editors would recognize those allusions today. And in another related story, Prentiss M. Brown, the head of hte wartime Office of Price Administration, had bluntly attacked strike threats by the United Mine Workers and bills in Congress designed to raise agricultural prices.

Disasters dominated the two leftmost columns.  In Branchville, Maryland, a house fire had killed two of four children while their mother was on her way to the store.  In Seattle, a Boeing bomber had crashed into a packing plant, killing 11 on board the plane and an unknown number in the plant.  And the War Department announced the names of 17 missing after an Army transport plane had disappeared in the Pacific.  Inside the paper at the bottom of the jump of that story, brief items described three different military plane crashes within the US that had taken at least ten lives.  

Friday's Post print page 1 leads with a story related to a current war: "U.S. and allies seek to root out Russian spies."  A long feature to its left, "236 minutes of terror," deals with the contemporary equivalent of a battle: the shooting at Michigan State University.  I think it would be hard to find a wartime story that discussed any battle in such detail, unless, perhaps, it came from a reporter who had accompanied a bomber on a mission.  There are only three more stories on the page. "Fox aired false claims to avoid losing its audience" presents text message evidence released in response to a lawsuit that Fox news commentators echoed claims of a stolen election that they knew to be false. "Contenders balk at GOP push to back 24 nominee" deals with dissent within the Republican Party.  "The crisis in American girlhood" summarizes a CDC report on the fragile emotional health of young American women.  Lastly, "Bing chatbot elicits unease with volatile responses" has no parallel, obviously, in the news of 1943.

And now, to reflect how most people actually read the news today, let's look at today's Post home page.  The top story is war related: "Putin, czar with no empire, needs military victory for his own survival," it proclaims optimistically.  Datelined Moscow, this story surveys elite Russian opinion--something that obviously would have been impossible in Tokyo or Berlin 80 years ago.  Below, one story explains that President Biden's plans to "buy American" as the nation rebuilds infrastructure have come a cropper: much of what we need isn't made here any more.  A second story reports that a "far-right election denier" has been chosen over Donald Trump's pick to head the Michigan GOP.  A third story mentions that water levels in Lake Powell, our second-largest reservoir, have hit an all-time low. A fourth reports that at least four states are following Florida's lead and evaluating the proposed Advanced Placement course in African American Studies.  A fifth deals with a misdiagnosed young mother--one in a series, apparently, entitled "Medical Mysteries"--and a sixth headlines, "Biracial women say Meghan is proof racism and privilege co-exist."  And the rightmost column of the top of the page features six different opinion pieces, two of them apparent rehashes of front-page stories from the Saturday paper. 

1943 was part of one of the climactic crises of western and world history.  All over the world, governments were mobilizing resources and deploying forces, waging the greatest war of all time.  What they did both abroad and at  home was the backbone of the news, and their readers inevitably felt part of great enterprises that would determine the course of their lives.  Today, one very important ongoing war gets much less attention, and far ore of the news deals with unsolved domestic problems, domestic political conflicts, and the feelings of various kinds of Americans.  The one article on a major domestic program--infrastructure--argues that it cannot do what it promised.  Americans and citizens of most other nations no longer feel part of any great enterprise.  We are discovering whether modern society can endure without periodically renewing that feeling, as we have failed to do.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Woke Revolution

 On Friday Bret Stephens of the New York Times devoted his column to a new report from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication entitled "Beyond Objectivity: Producing trustworthy news in today's newsrooms."  The report was written by Leonard Downie, long-time editor of the Washington Post and one of the youngest members of the Silent Generation, and Boomer Andrew Heyward, formerly the president of CBS news.  (For the record, although I'm pretty sure I have never met Downie face to face, he was for many years the boss and close collaborator of my brother Robert.  I have purposely avoided discussing his co-authored report with my brother before writing this post for that reason.)  In this piece these two venerable pillars of the journalistic establishment endorse the intellectual and social revolution that has swept their profession (and mine) over the last few decades.  I call it the Woke Revolution and I am trying to explain, with their help, what it means.

I am going to begin by defining objectivity myself.  I think that it means doing the best job that one can of basing statements on verifiable facts while avoiding the natural tendency to search for facts that validate one's own preferences and ignore ones that do not.  I agree that no one, yours truly included, can do that perfectly, but some people can do it much better than others, and one will do a much better job of it if one makes an effort to do it.  In addition, I think that in reporting the news or writing history, the words of people in authority--whether political, economic, religious, or anything else--deserve to be reported as they said them.  They may not be true, and journalists also should introduce verifiable data to show that they are not, but they are news,  because of  the power of the people who uttered them.  They inevitably have a real significance that the words of ordinary citizens (a category in which I include myself) do not.  You cannot understand what is happening in the world now, or what happened in the past, if you do not pay attention to them. And we are not going to invent a world without authority.

Now let's turn to what objectivity means in today's newsrooms.  Downie and Heyward interviewed a lot of editors and reporters in newspapers, television, and on websites, and many of them had something to say about this.  In fact, most of them had the same things to say about this, and I'm going to quote them exactly--because what they had to say is news.

"The mainstream media 'has allowed what it considers objective truth to be decided almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses,” Wesley Lowery, an influential 32-year-old Black Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has written. 'And those selective truths have been calibrated to avoid offending the sensibilities of white readers.'

"'I’m not arguing for subjectivity,' Lowery said in an interview for this report. “I’m actually whole-heartedly endorsing objectivity as properly defined; the argument is that, in practice, that’s not what it is.'"

"Kathleen Carroll, former executive editor of the Associated Press, said she has not used the word objectivity since the early 1970s because she believes it reflects the world view of the male white establishment. 'It’s objective by whose standards? And that standard seems to be white, educated, fairly wealthy guys,' she explained. 'And when people don’t feel like they find themselves in news coverage, it’s because they don’t meet that definition.'"

"Andrew Mendelson, associate dean of CUNY’s Craig Newmark School of Journalism, agreed that the standard of objectivity has been used to reinforce the status quo in news coverage. 'You could then throw a word like objectivity around and say, ‘Well, that’s not objective.’'  he said. 'That’s a quick way of shutting down and sending a message that this is not suitable. That’s a very good power dynamic in the word objectivity. It’s the same as saying, ‘You’re being an advocate,’ and that quickly shuts down any dissent.'”

 "'The journalist’s job is truth, not objectivity,' said Neil Barsky, founder of The Marshall Project, an influential nonprofit news organization that investigates the criminal justice system. 'It is getting close to the reality, notwithstanding that we all have biases and passions.'"

“'Objectivity' is news coverage “through the lens of largely white, straight men,” said Emily Ramshaw, 40-year-old co-founder of The 19th national news website, the stated mission of which is 'to elevate voices of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community.' 'The 19th is light years away from my early career clinging to the myth of objectivity,' Ramshaw said in an interview.  'The voices in stories were overwhelmingly white and male,' she explained, 'as well as the leadership and decision-making in most newsrooms.'

"When asked whether a relatively recent increase in female top editors and executives of news media has produced any change from 'white male' dominance of newsrooms, Julia Wallace, a Cronkite School professor and former editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said, 'Not really. When women are in charge, there is not that much change. Women who made it to the top were operating by men’s rules.

"'Objectivity was wrong, a failed concept,' she said. “It was a mistake to head down the path of dishonest objectivity.'

"As an example, she cited a history of racist reporting about subjects like lynchings in the South. 'We pretended we were printing the truth when we were seeing the world through a certain lens.' Wallace added, 'Now, it has to be about changing the culture.'"

“'The consensus among younger journalists is that we got it all wrong,' Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, editor-in-chief of The San Francisco Chronicle, said in an interview. 'We are the problem. Objectivity has got to go.' The younger journalists in the Chronicle newsroom 'are a very diverse group,' Garcia-Ruiz explained. 'They are willing to share their lived experiences to call out bullshit, despite their status in the newsroom. There can sometimes be a chasm between them and the older veteran reporters.'"

And Sally Buzbee, Downie's successor as Executive Editor of the Washington Post, concludes a relatively balanced statement about balancing advocacy and journalism by stating that she no longer uses the word objectivity “because it has become a political football. If the term objectivity means the world view of middle-aged white men, it has become attacked as a word that is used to keep the status quo.”

The report also documents the increasing diversification of newsrooms, to which the rejection of objectivity as an older white male strategy is obviously closely related. Its photographs make the same point. Of 33 photos of newsroom personnel, only 8 appear to be white males. 

It is clear, I think, that these quotes represent the same view that lies behind postmodernist literary and historical writing and critical race theory.  Objective truth does not exist, because every demographic has its own truth, which it deploys in a contest for power.  As Joan Scott wrote back in the 1990s in a passage I quoted a few weeks ago, we now "understand" contests about knowledge to about the interests of groups, not the opinions of individuals.  Every particular group, defined intersectionally (if you'll forgive the expression) by race, gender, and sexual orientation, has its own truth, which is entitled to equal representation, regardless of the size of that group.  And the only way to undo straight white male dominance is to lessen the numbers and influence of straight white males in newsrooms and universities  and to let the remaining ones know that it is their turn to be marginalized.

Let me simply list a few things that I think are wrong about these views.

To begin with, the idea that straight white males have monolithically maintained their dominance over other groups--that that has been their main priority over the centuries--is historically ludicrous.  Yes, for longstanding cultural reasons that can be observed all over the world, men dominated most institutions for many centuries in the western world.  The change in that situation began and has gone by far the furthest within western civilization, and western civilization has done the most to spread it to other parts of the globe.  If oppression were the first thing on their minds, white males would never have passed and ratified the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th amendments.  Meanwhile, the bulk of political conflict in the west has been among different groups of white males  divided by religion, language, or, most commonly, by their ideas.  

The same point applies to previously disadvantaged groups as well.  The pressure on newsrooms and the earlier pressure on academic institutions comes from a minority of ideological activists among women, minorities, and those who are not heterosexual and who deny that gender is biological. Those activists often hold views quite at odds with the majority of their demographic group, as well as the majority of the US population.  Coleman Hughes has just pointed out, not for the first time, that at the height of the protests over George Floyd's murder, far greater numbers of black Americans wanted more police in their communities, not less. Polls show a very small gender gap between men and women on the abortion issue.  Some women, many of them lesbians, resent the claims of transgender women to female status.  

That leads me to a third point.  At the Dallas conference that I participated in last May I met the black conservative Shelby Steele, who insisted, not for the first time, that racism is no longer a serious problem in the United States and that the biggest problem in the black community is a refusal to compete with everyone else on equal terms.  "When people talk about race in this country," he said--again, not for the first time--"they are talking about power."  The same, I think, is true about gender. 

Last, but not least, I think that woke historians and journalists are missing the point, really, of what their professions are about.  They are opportunities to immerse one's self in something much bigger than one's self--which for me has always been a profoundly liberating experience.  They are also an opportunity to put the true interests of a university or a newspaper--which I would argue are advancing knowledge and providing information--above one's own personal interests.  Instead, today's activists--who now enjoy the support of plenty of straight white males who have decided to go with the flow--believe that their institutions must reflect their personal views and concerns at the expense of those of others.  The accusation that that is how straight white males have always done things is a false projection.  I would also point out that the era of the great progress for minorities and women in particular coincided with the greatest popularity of objectivity, the middle of the twentieth century.  That progress depended on a single objective fact: that treating whites and blacks or men and women unequally was simply wrong.  Most Americans came to accept that fact--but they will not accept reparations for slavery or the idea that gender is entirely a social construct.

In the end, two elderly straight white males--Downie and Heyward--endorse the new revolution.  After recommending some specific guidelines for newsrooms, they close as follows:

"What we hope ties these guidelines together is our own core belief that journalism must address the needs and aspirations of our increasingly diverse society more effectively than it has in the past.

"That means striving to reach not only an audience, but all audiences, and no longer with one-size-fits-all, traditionally white male 'objectivity,' a journalistic concept that has lost its relevance. It means avoiding replacing that with some new rigid orthodoxy, which could also impede accurate and fair reporting. It means building a newsroom that reflects the communities it serves and embraces diversity to provide strong, more accurate and responsible journalism.

"Producing trustworthy news for the communities of today requires a new kind of news leader, committed to the kind of newsroom we have described and confident enough to replace yesterday’s top-down model with an inclusive culture in which ideas can bubble up from anywhere – and the best of them can flourish."

Unfortunately one cannot dispense with objectivity without giving way to orthodoxy. Those are the only alternatives.  Objectivity, is is true, forced scholars and journalists not to yield to their own emotions, and often led to conclusions that they might prefer to reject.  The alternative, however, is to ignore the facts, and that is what happens, increasingly, in the treatment of highly politicized issues like criminal justice and police shootings.  About a dozen family members of black victims of those shootings attended the State of the Union address as guests of the President or legislators, but it did not occur to any major newspaper to ask why the much larger number of family members of white victims of such shootings were left out.  Poverty and economic inequality are enormous issues in this country, but one cannot understand or correct them by focusing on race or gender because they affect all races and genders.  These are facts which woke activism must ignore.  I do not think that the remaining Orwellians among us--in the true sense--can stop the woke revolution.  It has gone too far and it is particularly strong among the younger generations.  It is linked to other broader trends in modern history. Christopher Lasch defined the "Me Decade" in the 1970s, and we are now in the Me Century.  But I don't think it does any good to pretend that it is a good thing, or to deny that it has done a great deal of harm to western values and will do more.  Things will eventually change, but it may take a very long time.

Saturday, February 04, 2023

The State of US Politics

 I am delighted to report  that I have completed a draft of my new book, States of the Union:  A Concise History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.  I hope to have more news about it relatively soon.  Writing up the conclusion, I ran over the political history of the last 20 years or so, and I discovered a couple of remarkable patterns.  Journalistic memories have become so short, it seems to me, that I haven't seen anyone else mention them. So here they are.

The first is quite straightforward.  From 1961 through 1968, Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress.  From 1969 through 1976, Republicans took over the White House, but Democrats still controlled Congress.  The Democrats had full control again from 1977 through 1980, when the Republicans won back the White House and the Senate.  They lost the Senate in 1986, but did not lose the White House until the 1992 election.  

In 1994 the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1952.  Except for part of one session in the Senate, they controlled both the Senate and the House until 2006, and they regained the White House in 2000.  Then a new era began.

The Democrats won back both Houses of Congress in 2006.  They won back the White House in 2008.  In 2010, however, the Republicans regained control of the House.  Nothing changed in 2012.  In 2014 the Republicans won back the Senate. In 2016 they won back the White House.  In 2018 they lost back the House, while retaining the Senate. In 2020 the Democrats regained both the White House and the Senate while retaining the House.  But in 2022, the Republicans won back the House yet again.

In eight of the last nine elections, at least one house of Congress or the White House changed hands.  Having worked my way through the whole of US history over the last three years, I can assure you that this story has no previous precedent.  What has happened?

In my opinion, these continual changes of fortune reflect the frustration of a critical, swing portion of the electorate, whose hopes for a new regime are invariably disappointed.  George W. Bush had essentially held the country behind him and his party for six years (2001-6), but after that, the nation had had enough, and the Democrats won twice in a row.  Barack Obama's failure to help the American people in his first two years in office, however, turned the nation's anger against himself and the Democrats, and he lost his House majority and never regained it. (Obama's main legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, didn't even take effect until 2014.)  He managed to win re-election but the Republican House prevented him from accomplishing anything after 2013, and the Democrats lost the Senate in 2016.  Republican pluralities in critical states, reflecting dissatisfaction with the elites in both parties, elected Donald Trump in 2016, but his chaotic administration lost the House two years later in 2018 and led to Biden's comfortable victory in 2020.  Now the Democrats have tried to regard the 2022 elections as a victory, but the fact remains that they lost the national popular vote and their majority in the House.  The Democrats are now counting on their belief that Biden can beat Trump again in less than two years, but the momentum has swung against them.

That leads me to the second new pattern.  The president's party does usually lose seats in every midterm, but from 1900 onward only three sitting presidents--Hoover, Truman, and Eisenhower--have lost control of the House of Representatives after only two years in office. That fate, however, has now befallen three successive Democratic presidents--Clinton in 1994, Obama in 2010, and Biden in 2022.  In the first two cases--and also in 2018, when the Democrats won the House back--this has led immediately to a budget crisis and threats, sometimes carried out, of a government shutdown.  And we are in the middle of a replay now.  It seems that both the politicians and the country have given  up on the necessary minimum of consensus between the two parties, and the endless, investigation-fueled partisan war will continue.