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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, 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.